Hometown: Portland, Oregon
Current Town: Brooklyn, New York
Q: Tell me about R & J & Z.
A: R & J & Z is a new verse play that starts with Act V of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet…and keeps going. It’s inspired by Shakespeare and modern horror movies in equal measure—the idea came after seeing a production of the opera version in which the lovers both die, then get back up and keep singing. Because, opera. As we were walking back to the subway, I joked with my husband: “what are they supposed to be, undead?” I stopped in my tracks and said, “oh my god I have to write a play called Romeo and Juliet and Zombies.” The Stonington Opera House in Maine supported the writing through a series of residencies, and R & J & Z just had its world premiere there. It’s my first full-length play and I also played Juliet, so it was a huge deal for me. I couldn’t have asked for a more outstanding team—our director Joan Jubett, our incredible cast and designers, and the local talent involved were all a dream to work with. It was a good time. We made people jump out of their seats; they laughed a lot and cried a little and on at least one occasion there were high-fives in the audience, so I feel like we did our job.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I got back from Maine at the end of July and tried to enforce a small break on the work front. Now I’m working on next steps for R & J & Z—we really want to bring the play to NYC. I also have a couple of writing ideas in the hopper, including a two-person Twelfth Night and a long-form version of a favorite Scandinavian fairy tale, and some interesting acting gigs coming up in the fall.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: My Dad was a writer. I remember being very small and watching him, sitting at his old typewriter—he might sit there for ten minutes, motionless, and then he’d start firing off words. I love the sound of a typewriter. It’s good for the creative act to carry some percussion and force. Anyway I was around writers and writing all the time as a kid. Once after a road trip my Dad found a scrap of paper in the car—it was a bit of a poem that I’d written on the ride. I’ll quote it here only because my husband threatened to email it to you if I didn’t: “A glimmering pond in the sunset’s glow/ A white arm holds a jeweled sword/ ‘Tis myth, ‘tis true, but then again/ Could it not be so?” I was ten or eleven and I read a lot of myths and legends. I was somewhat mortified to be discovered; to this day it still makes me feel crazy when someone reads something I’ve written for the first time. My Dad loved it.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I teach a year-long Shakespeare collaboration with middle schoolers in Brooklyn. We spend a year immersed in one of the plays, and in the spring I direct them in a full production. On our first day I like to ask them, when was the last time you dealt with a doctor? How about a policeman? How about an actor? When we think about it, actors working in their professional capacity are a part of most of our lives on a daily, if not hourly basis. Turn on the television, the radio, go to a movie—actors are constantly feeding us. And yet we persist, as a society, in dismissing what they do as non-essential. Storytelling is essential to us as human beings. We have these huge brains, with an unparalleled capacity for coping with emotional extremity: they need exercise. They get that exercise through the storytelling that happens in plays, movies, books. We need to laugh, cry, get turned on, experience catharsis, feel. You can’t keep a big dog in a small city apartment. Big brains are the same; they need to run. So it bums me out any time someone talks about theatre as something extra, an accessory, a non-essential thing that’s just there to entertain us if we can afford it. It bums me out and it pisses me off! Engaging with stories, whatever the medium, is an essential part of their lives. The people who feed us those stories are serving a fundamental need. Let’s talk about it like that’s the case, and not shuffle around hoping someone will throw us a bone. What we do is essential. I’d like to change the attitude that says it isn’t.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: My heroes are people I love who have touched my life. My mom and dad, who told me my first stories and sang me my first songs. My teachers at Columbia, especially Kristin Linklater and Anne Bogart. Judith Jerome, the visionary Artistic Director of Opera House Arts at the Stonington Opera House, who has been a mentor and inspiration. J.Stephen Brantley, whom I adore as both writer and actor, and who offered me great advice about acting in my own work. My husband David Bennett, who is a genius and my favorite collaborator. I like omnivores—people who work across forms and can do more than one thing. Can an institution be a hero? Because in that case I’d say the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is one of mine. I saw a production of Taming of the Shrew there when I was about nine, and it changed my life. I think you can say OSF is responsible for my come to Shakespeare moment.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I’m a populist at heart, and I love art that is populist. I was raised on the Sesame Street aesthetic. That show was like, joyful to watch as a little kid—and if you go back and watch it today you realize that it’s full of these great, sly, smart references and jokes that were aimed at the parents. Shakespeare’s like that too—aimed at the gentry in the box seats and the groundlings at the same time. If your audience is with you, you can go to all kinds of places: extreme, dark, beautiful, rapturous, raw, funny, sexy, scary, dangerous, heart-breaking, powerful, sublime. You can really get into it. But I like to have permission. I like to give permission, and have it given to me. I guess you could say I like consensual theatre.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: I’m a baby playwright, so I don’t know if I have the right to give advice, but here goes anyway. Follow your bliss. Work fucking hard. Be kind. Be generous. Be fearless. Leave places better than you found them. Find people you love to work with, and work with them whenever you can. Listen to Papa Yeats: “Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear. Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.”
Q: Plugs, please:
A: As I said, our production team from the world premiere of R & J & Z is working on bringing the play to NYC. Keep your eye on https://www.facebook.com/RandJandZ for updates and info. If you’re in Maine in August, get down to the Stonington Opera House and check out The Last Ferryman directed by Judith Jerome. If you’re in Cleveland in December, go see my fabulous company-mates in Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant at the Cleveland Public Theater. And you can always keep up with my doings at www.melodybates.com
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