Jan 2, 2013
I Interview Playwrights Part 543: Jaclyn Backhaus
Hometown: Phoenix, AZ
Current Town: Brooklyn, NY
Q: Tell me about SET IN THE LIVING ROOM OF A SMALL TOWN AMERICAN PLAY.
A: I am a member of Theater Reconstruction Ensemble, a company devoted to the revitalization and re-examination of classic theatrical works and styles. Last year (I can officially say that because it’s 2013 now, WHAT), I wrote my first play for TRE, a Chekhovian mash-up called THE THREE SEAGULLS, OR MASHAMASHAMASHA! In the midst of searching through the American Realism canon for our next play, John Kurzynowski (TRE’s Artistic Director) turned to me and said, “or, you could just write it.”
SET IN THE LIVING ROOM… pays homage to the stylistic tropes and character relationships found in American Realism of the 1930s-1950s. Before I sat down to work on it, I read a lot of Odets and Inge and Williams and Miller. It tells the story of the Lorimer family of Southern Illinois—what breaks them apart, what seals them together. There’s a lot of whiskey and a lot of familial swearing. Punches are thrown! Hams are roasted! The production at Walker Space in February will serve as a springboard for us to play with the performative ideas of the Golden Olden Days. Method Acting, The Group Theatre, object exercises. Cherry Pie. Americana! A bunch of actors from THREE SEAGULLS are returning for this show, and I am so excited to write for them again.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I am the busiest I’ve ever been, it seems! I am developing a musical with Andrew Neisler and Mike Brun called FOLK WANDERING, which performed at Ars Nova’s ANT Fest last summer. It follows three interwoven storylines that span from Tenement-Era Manhattan to Depression-Era Utah to rural 1950s Indiana.
I spent the latter part of 2012 developing a piece called HEARTPRINTS with Preston Martin as a part of Fresh Ground Pepper’s Play Ground Play Group. In it, we play two people who are writing a theatrical adaptation of a movie Preston watched on Netflix. We rattle off the names of a bunch of crushes we had in 2006, so if you guys are curious about that, you will have a great time.
I just finished a fever dream of a play about Coney Island and its history called SHOOT THE FREAK.
And I’ve been perpetually revising my first feature-length screenplay, PHILLIP AND FALLING ASLEEP, which is about Sedona, the Crystal Vortex, sibling rivalry, displaced IT Technicians, and loads of complicated dream theory. Tomorrow, it may be about something different.
Q: Tell me about Fresh Ground Pepper.
A: Fresh Ground Pepper is a development series devoted to showcasing emerging artists and new work. We do several free events every year, and they range from a curated circus for children to a musician/choreographer clash to gallery-style media showings. Last year we did an event devoted to the Future AND we curated someone’s actual wedding. We’ve performed on rooftops in Queens and in a few renovated churches and in theaters all across Manhattan and Brooklyn.
At the end of every year, we do a festival of new play readings called FGP PlayGround. This year, we formed the FGP PlayGround PlayGroup (FGPPGPG) and we were able to develop 7 playwrights’ pieces with each other over a lengthier period of time. The FGP PlayGround Festival this past December, held at the New Ohio, was incredibly exciting. Applications for this year’s PlayGround PlayGroup are available now (if anyone is interested, they should email firstname.lastname@example.org).
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: When I was in 4th grade, a letter was sent home with me to my parents that told them that I was “messy”—I would doodle and scribble and draw all over every square inch of every worksheet, every scrap of notebook paper. It was very nonsensical and it probably looked like the journals of the dude in SE7EN so I understand why my teacher was perturbed. Also it was all in no. 2 pencil, so my homework probably smudged onto everyone else’s. I tried to clean up my act and get wise with my doodles. But honestly, I still do it. I carry journals around with me so I can scribble-note every silly thing someone says, every weird phrase that pops into my head, every strange and singular word-shape or idea. I consciously use maybe 3% of it in my writing. But it’s a fun 3%.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: This whole notion of theater as “a dying art form.” Or people bemoaning the fates of the big production houses or the decaying future prospects of American Drama. Anyone who says that just has to try on a new perspective. Shift their eyes downtown a little bit. Of course, there will always be the money stuff, which is... something to change about a lot of things in this country and around the world. For now, I will say: to those that say we are dying, we are very much alive!
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: The Wooster Group and ERS, Adrienne Kennedy, Maria Irene Fornes, Edward Albee, Cliffy Odets, Martin McDonagh, Sarah Ruhl, Tennessee Williams. The work I see at Fresh Ground Pepper never ceases to inspire me.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Things that are funny that turn sad—I have big feelings and I ride every wave if it’s honest and true. I am a big fan of sincerity. I like when characters fall in love (especially when they a) sing about it or b) keep quiet about it in a way that breaks everyone’s heart).
I love zany things. Things where people eat and drink a lot. Collage pieces that only make sense once it’s all over. Plays in which objects are characters, work with a touch/heaping spoonful of magical realism. And I love communally-built ensemble pieces.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Find people you trust to collaborate with. Be open to sharing your work with others in order to better it with their input and insight. You never have to stop creating just because you don’t have production lined up. Go to readings of plays by your friends and strangers. See as many shows as you can. If you are inspired by someone’s work, let them know—maybe one day you will work together. And submit to programs you would like to be a part of.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: A busy winter!
FOLK WANDERING IN CONCERT is gonna hit Joe’s Pub on January 9th!
The first Fresh Ground Pepper event of the year, FGP Birthday, will be at the Culture Project on January 25th!
TRE is throwing a benefit gala honoring Tina Shepard at Dixon Place on January 27th!
SET IN THE LIVING ROOM OF A SMALL TOWN AMERICAN PLAY runs from Feb 21-Mar 9 at Walker Space!
And I am very jazzed about Pipeline Theatre's production of CLOWN BAR by Adam Szymkowicz!