Saturday, May 07, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 835: Emily Schmitt



Emily Schmitt

Hometown: Cincinnati, OH

Current Town: New York, specifically Bay Ridge, Brooklyn

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  Several things, but what I'm most excited about is a play called "Under Further Review," which is very loosely based on something that happened when I was in college. A young woman committed suicide after accusing a football player of sexual assault. This lead to an investigation into the university's sexual assault policy and a great deal of turmoil on campus. My play is about a former star athlete who must confront his alma mater after his daughter's rape on campus. In doing do, he faces some disturbing truths about himself and the institution he most loves. The play is currently being developed with the help of The CRY HAVOC Company.

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 fifth grade, I had a gym teacher I really detested. Looking back, I'm not sure if I detested him, or if it was just the humiliation of gym class that made me feel a great injustice was being done in my life. Either way, I decided that he needed to be fired. I had some legitimate reasons, such as the way he talked down to the girls in the class and one uncomfortable moment when he shouted into the dressing room. My best (only) friend, Katie, and I decided to write a petition to get him fired. We walked around at recess asking the girls in our class to sign it. All but one put their signature on that piece of paper, which Katie then slid under the door to the principle's office one fateful Wednesday evening.

The next day was probably the most traumatic of my educational experience. Everyone who signed the petition was rounded up into a classroom, where this gym teacher was openly weeping on a stool facing the students. The parish priest, an even higher position than the principal, informed us that we had committed the Cardinal Sin of slander and, if we did not ask for forgiveness, were going to Hell. (I cannot make this stuff up.) We were then asked, one my one, to apologize to this weeping adult man and explain to him what had possessed us to do such a thing to him. Naturally, most of the fifth grade girls were terrified and pointed their fingers at Katie and I. We, apparently, had threatened to beat them up if they didn't sign. We had lied to them and said the form was about Girl Scouts. We had even forged signatures. One by one, my classmates were dismissed as their false claims of my misdeeds were accepted. Finally, the only ones left in the room were myself, the priest, this gym teacher, and Katie. I still remember the moment I looked down and realized we were holding hands.

That pretty much sums up my feelings about justice, faith, and friendship.

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

A:  I find the theatrical community to be pretty philosophically homogeneous, which is dangerous if we really want to connect with our audiences. I once had a director tell me to stop writing about Catholicism because its not relevant in modern society. I think he spent too much time around theater folk.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Arthur Miller is my guiding light. Death of a Salesman may very well be a perfect play. I have yet to find a flaw in it.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I actually just stood up and spent about ten minutes pacing my apartment trying to think of something to say other than "Hamilton is the greatest!" I wish I had some cool, edgy, thing that no one's heard of. But that would be dishonest. Hamilton is by far the most exciting thing I've seen in the past year, and here is why: it's a true epic. Plays stopped wanting to be epic for a little while and just got really small. We wanted to write very small plays about middle-class couples having difficult break-up conversations in their living rooms. I'm not sure why that happened. Shakespeare wrote about kings. I'm not saying every play needs to be about powerful people or great historical events, but the emotions should be that big. And the stakes should be that high. (See why I love Arthur Miller....)

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

A:  If you're writing a play to make a statement or to teach your audience something, take a step back. You are not morally or intellectually superior to your audience. Start with with a question and try to scare yourself a little.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  My play "Whatchamacallit: A Play About Jesus" is running for one more weekend at the Secret Theater. People say it's pretty funny.
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