Sunday, April 10, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 825: Francis Weiss Rabkin



Francis Weiss Rabkin 

Hometown: Chicago, IL

Current Town: Brooklyn, NY

Q:  Tell me about Won't Be a Ghost.

A:  I've been working on Won't Be a Ghost for over two years. When I started out, Chelsea Manning (then Bradley) was on trial for leaking diplomatic cables and classified military documents to Wikileaks. I wanted to write about Chelsea Manning after reading her IM chats with the hacker who turned her in to the FBI, Adrian Lamo. Wired Magazine published the chats, and the intimate conversation gave such a powerful portrait of her motivation, her gender exploration, and her moral character. None of this nuance had made it into the mainstream media's picture of her. When she was sentenced to 35 years in an all-male prison, I wanted to make sure that her voice didn't get lost. In the play we use her own language from the chats. In Berlin last spring, an additional story line emerged. At the Berlin Jewish museum, I came across the history of Magnus Hirschfeld, a Weimar-era gay Jewish sexologist and founder of the Institute for Sexual Science. The Institute was a haven for LGBT people, and in the early 1920s the first gender-affirming surgeries were performed there for transgender people. But in 1933, the Nazis raided the institute and the archive was publicly burned in the first of the Nazi Book Burnings. I hadn't even vaguely heard of this, and as a Jewish transgender person I was so moved to learn this history.

We have this sense that there is continual progress and acceptance, but I don't think progress is at all linear. There was a doctor writing about the acceptance of LGBT people and giving extremely nuanced care to transgender people at the turn of the 20th century. In New York in 2016, I have experienced some incredibly messed up things with doctors who have no idea what to do with a trans patient. And look at what is happening with all of these bathroom bills and religious exemption laws in North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, and more to come. I mean in Mississippi, transgender people can be denied mental health treatment because of religious exemption. When the suicide attempt rate in the transgender population is 10x the rate of the general population, and a state will deny mental health coverage, I don't think we can labor under the delusion that we have progressed very far.

This makes Won't Be a Ghost sound pretty intense, and it is, but there is so much beauty in it as well. We have an incredible cast and gorgeous choral music by Leslie Allison. I think in the face of so much horrific history, it's really powerful to get a group of queer and trans people together to make some beauty out of it all.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I am beginning research for a play inspired by radical feminist Marxist scholar, Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch. She posits that capitalism wouldn't have been possible without the European Witch Hunt, a reign of terror that decimated women's labor power and connection to their own bodies. I am particularly interested in a part of her book where she draws attention to the cultural importance of late-Feudal/early-Renaissance theater in establishing the witch archetype. I'll be a New York Theater Workshop 2050 Fellow this year, and I'm looking forward to developing this anti-capitalist witch play.

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 was always writing scripts for plays and videos with my sister and our friends as a young kid. I remember lugging around one of those 90s video cameras that recorded straight to VHS tape. But I think what most shaped my sense of self as a writer were the plays I put on as a teenager in my parents backyard in Chicago. When school ended, I got nervous that I wouldn't get to spend as much time with friends, so I wrote a play essentially to force everyone to hang out all the time. It worked out so well that we did it three summers in a row--one summer we had 25 kids working on the play--hanging lights off the garage roof, playing music, building sets and puppets. I think I still make art to get to hang out with people--collaborating is my favorite way to be intimate others. I met my partner, Leslie Allison, through collaborating and now we've started a company together, Tight Braid Group (www.tightbraidgroup.org).

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

A:  I feel like theater doesn't reflect enough of our culture. How are we still interested in hetero-family living room dramas? I think theater is way behind compared to what is happening in dance, visual art, even television.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Tennessee Williams, Suzan-Lori Parks, Mary Zimmerman, Redmoon Theater, Brecht.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Ambitious theater. Even if it's sloppy; I like seeing the labor. Interdisciplinary theater, because I think the biggest problem in theater is insularity. When theater makers are only making work for other people in "the theater" then what's the point?

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

A:  Work on your friendships. Powerful theater is intimacy.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Won't Be a Ghost premieres at The Brick Theater April 14-23rd. Tickets and more info here: http://bricktheater.com?type=show&id=1234

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