Dec 6, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 536: Liza Birkenmeier
Hometown: St. Louis, MO
Current Town: Brooklyn, NY
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working with collaborator-director-friend Katherine Brook on a piece that uses archival audio from interviews I recorded at a coffee house in Missouri. We are in the process of chopping up recordings of young transgender and queer people in the Midwest and gluing them to the structure of Arthur Miller’s ALL MY SONS. It follows a piece that we collaborated on called AMERICAN REALISM that used congressional archive recordings from the Dust Bowl. (We recently traveled with it to the San Diego Museum of art and LACE in Los Angeles). Also…I’m drafting some commissioned pieces—one is musical collaboration with Christopher Limber and Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, another is collaboration with Washington University and a large PR2 robot, and the third is a site-specific play that will premiere at a Laundromat next summer.
I'm also writing a play called INFIRMARY SHAKES about the Kentucky Narcotics Farm and the invention of gunpowder.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: I had an extremely blue time shortly before I turned twelve. I became spontaneously terrified of everything. In this painful, pre-pubescent era, I found incredible comfort in fantasizing that I was personally chosen as this planet’s primary liaison. Alien families were sent to me to learn about earth when they arrived. I would imagine taking them to my house, explaining the purpose of carpet, cooking them meals (they may never have seen food), telling them about how grass grew, showing them why humans had knees, and witnessing their first experience of hearing a song or drinking an orange soda. It made the world (even my small suburban-chain-link-fence- Wonderbread one) an incomprehensibly beautiful living museum, crammed with oddities and wonder.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Everyone, EVERYONE, everyone, all people from all places in all income brackets with all interests, would get really excited to see it. More excited than for scratch-off lotto tickets, Christmas, the Oscars, a PBR bucket special, low gas prices, or seeing a celebrity at the airport.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Some people who have changed/influenced my brain chemistry in the past couple of years: Rob Handel, Madeleine George, and the rest of 13P, Sid Vicious, Carter W. Lewis, Marisa Wegrzyn, RN Healey, Stefanie Zadravec, Will Eno, Lisa D’Amour, Gregory S Moss, Andy Warhol, Tennessee Williams, Katherine Brook, Daniel Fish, Karen O, Len Jenkin, Mac Wellman, Son House.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Many kinds. Quiet plays, epic plays, short plays, violent plays, operas, musicals, the circus, rodeos, elementary school holiday pageants, confrontational bathroom graffiti, rock concerts, intimate and public cell phone conversations, drunk arguments on the L train, debutante balls, family gatherings, laboratory experiments, sidewalk preaching, glass blowing…excite me very much.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: I either AM or at least FEEL like a playwright just starting out…I will share this one thing I'm in the process of learning: The perfect, healthy day with no obligation or worry, with no “other work” or family need, with no sleepiness or social plans, with only the ideal, sunny room or quiet dark—isn’t really on its way. The plan to have spontaneous and concurrent freedom and genius is a myth. Write the entire play now, in the hour you have in the hotel lobby, in the two-hour plane ride, in your bed when you wake. Write it on the living room floor and finish it. Don’t let anyone read it until you are finished. Their criticisms/questions will be confusing or even insulting when they are guiding what the rest of the play will be. They will only make the “end” farther from you. Don’t rewrite th first act forty times before you start the second. Finish it. The ache that says tomorrow/next week/next month will be a better time is the fear that the end won’t be as “good” as your initial spark. It won’t be! It’s the inertia of work. It isn’t always going to be hayrides, petunias, and muses. Parts will suck. PARTS OF YOUR PLAY WILL SUCK, MAYBE TERRIBLY. Just write them down, regardless. Usually, after a first draft, I’m pretty sure my ENTIRE PLAY SUCKS TERRIBLY. This doesn’t have to be scary. Writing forward and deleting things can be acts that are not precious or spiritual. Truth/beauty/brilliance aren’t waiting in some corner/time you haven’t yet discovered. Allow your play to suck today instead of waiting for it to be perfect next winter. Most of the work will be repairing it, anyway. SO. Finish it now. Shaping it into the glory-genius-potential you once imagined won’t actually begin until it is written. Trusted voices can comment on the whole journey. Take notes, start again, do what you will to fill the gaps and sculpt the world/words. Today…finish the play.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Look out for Katherine Brook’s LADY HAN in February at Incubator Arts. Stefanie Zadravec’s THE ELECTRIC BABY will be in Chicago and New Jersey in 2013. I’m excited to see I HATE FUCKING MEXICANS, now extended at The Flea.