Friday, October 10, 2014

I Interview Playwrights Part 698: Carol Carpenter



Carol Carpenter

Hometown:  Artesia, New Mexico

Current Town:  I live between Madrid, New Mexico & NYC

Q:  Tell me about Sweet Sweet Spirit.

A:  Sweet, Sweet Spirit is the name of a popular church hymn in the Southern evangelical tradition. The play is about a conservative family in West Texas that have to ask some really hard questions of themselves and each other after the father beats his gay son to near death. He's facing trial, has disgraced his respectable family, and has left them with the overwhelming task of figuring out who should raise the kid in his final teen years. It's about the complexities of faith, culture, family and community in a rapidly changing world.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  My newest play The Guadalupe was part of the New Play Workshop at Chautauqua this summer under the direction of Ethan McSweeny, and we are continuing to work together on it now. It’s about a farming family on the border who get involved in the cartel wars. It’s a thriller, very plot-oriented and suspenseful. Ethan calls it a “blockbuster movie play,” which is a good way of describing it.

I’m also in the conceptual stages on a new play that will be set in my hometown of Artesia, New Mexico. Artesia is the one town in New Mexico that is housing Central American refugees. As you might imagine, it has sparked the same kind of populist outcry that is happening in other refugee towns across the country. This is in sharp contrast to how I remember my hometown thinking about Guatemalan children in the 1980s. Growing up, my parents and their church friends often spent their vacation and working-class dollars volunteering at an orphanage in the southern jungles of Guatemala. My Dad’s job was to build bunkhouses for children of the disappeared, while my mother served as a dental assistant by filling cavities and pulling teeth. When they would return from Guatemala, our house would fill up with all of the people who had gone on the trip, and with their children, who were coming to see the big slide show of their journey. This was very exciting for us kids. My Dad would click through all the slides, and the adults would tell stories about each of the children in the photos – how their parents died, what pictures they had drawn, what their dreams were, what candies they loved. The women would emote endlessly about which children they had fallen in love with and dreamed of adopting. At the end of the slide show, they’d begin planning how they could all find the money and time to return to Guatemala. When I put these memories against the reality of the public reactions in my town to the refugees, the relief is quite stark. Are the people who volunteered in Guatemala the same people now shouting for the refugees to be sent home? Are they a different segment of people? If they are the same people, what has changed in our culture to produce this dramatic shift? Or is it somehow different to care about war refugees in their own lands as opposed to on your own soil? If my father were still alive, I wouldn’t be surprised if we would have had a foster child in our home right now. And this is what the play will be about: a father who wants to foster one of these children against the backdrop of the family and community wrestling with the issues that play out daily in today’s political environment.

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 a kid, I would often stay with my cousins on the various ranches that my Aunt Savannah and my Uncle Vernon managed. They always lived in the employees’ quarters, which were usually very simple houses that were a hundred or so miles from towns of any real size (real size meaning a few thousand people). And there was nothing more exciting for us kids than having Uncle Vernon choose you to throw on the back of his horse and ride out to take care of ranch business. So one day I was the lucky one he chose. We rode out to look for a herd of wild horses. When we found them, my Uncle Vernon said, “If these were our horses and you could have any one of them that you wanted, which horse would it be?" And so I pointed to this beautiful chestnut horse. He told me it was a Palamino.  As we rode back to the ranch house, he started trying to convince me to sell him my new horse. He offered me a few bucks. Then twenty. Then fifty. The more he offered, the more certainly I refused his offer. When we got home, all my cousins were waiting on the porch and came running out to hear about our ride. Uncle Vernon told them them that I’d picked the most beautiful horse in the pack and that he was going to buy it off of me. He continued to up his offer: A hundred? Two hundred? My cousins eyes got bigger as I kept refusing. He said he had one final offer to make and he walked into the house. We all followed him through the living room and down the hallway until he stopped in front of a little linen closet. He opened it up up and reached onto the highest shelf and pulled out a towel that had been rolled up tight. He sat the towel down in the hallway and began to unroll it. A sock was inside. He opened the sock and pulled out a wad of hundred dollar bills. He laid them out one at a time on the floor until seven hundred dollars sat before us. I realize now that it was probably his life’s savings. He said, “I’ll give you $700 for that horse.” I said “No.” Then he picked me up and kissed me and said “That’s my girl.”

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  That it appealed to people outside of our major urban centers.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

Q:  Horton Foote for his dedication to place and his belief in the goodness and potential of all people. Sam Shepard for his dedication to place and his belief in the opposite. Anna Deavere Smith for her ability to embrace it all. Lately, I really like the work of Samuel Hunter and Mando Alvarado. I love Rattlestick and LAByrinth and Intar. Beyond the theater, the storytellers who inspire me to write are Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, Charles Bowden, country and western singers, right wing nut jobs, left wing nut jobs, preachers, and populist maniacs.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I like classically structured stories about people and families for whom the stakes are very high. Stories where life and death are at play. Where culture is so strong that taboos still exist and give characters conflicts to really wrestle with.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Your foundation is your history, your ancestors, your place. Stand on this foundation, but listen to everyone. Crave criticism. A man on the street has as much to tell you about your play as the Columbia grad. Structure matters. Master it before you break it.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Sweet, Sweet Spirit
Running October 10-25, 2014
14th Street Y Theater
Produced by Manhattan Theater Works & Goode Productions
Tickets & Info here

Playbill article calling Sweet, Sweet Spirit one of the top-10 must see shows of the fall season by female playwrights.


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