Wednesday, April 05, 2017

I Interview Playwrights Part 923: Eleanor Burgess



Eleanor Burgess

Hometown: Brookline, Massachusetts

Current Town: Brooklyn, New York

Q:  Tell me about Chill.

A:  CHILL is a play about coming of age in an America no one saw coming. And it’s a play about friendships, and how they change as we get older. The first act takes place in March of 2001, and we meet four high school seniors who are hanging out in a basement drinking stolen beers and making bold assertions about what they’re going to do with their lives. Everyone has a crush on the wrong person and everyone’s trying to perform coolness and it’s a big hormonal mess. Act 2 takes places in November of 2011. The friends are 28, nothing about their lives or their country is the way they expected it to be, and the choices they’ve made and the ways they’ve changed put a strain on the evening, and on their friendships. It’s a coming of age story that’s very particular to the millennial generation – an experience we as a country need to start taking seriously and putting on stage. I’ve been lucky to get to develop and premiere the play with a phenomenal director (Megan Sandberg-Zakian) and a cast of powerhouse young actors. It’s running at Merrimack Repertory Theatre through April 16th.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I just got back from a workshop up at Portland Stage Company of a play that I call a “Chekhovian play about Cavemen.” And then I’m doing revisions on a play called THE NICETIES which will be part of the Contemporary American Theatre Festival this summer – that’s a very tough, intense two-hander about race, academia and how we teach American history. And then I’m in the research/daydreaming/poking around stage with a couple brand new projects – a Marxist Cinderella farce, where the fairy godmother is trying to hasten the workers' revolution by getting the prince married to a poor girl who will support social democratic reforms, and a play that begins the day Jesus died, and follows the apostles and the Marys as they try to figure out how to apply their newfound ideals in daily life. So, y’know, the small topics…

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  So, when I was in elementary school, like around the 4th grade, I was a huge dork, and got teased a lot. I also thought that the Emma Thompson Much Ado About Nothing movie was the greatest thing ever and watched it over and over. So one day when a kid told me to shut up, I decided that the best possible rejoinder would be “a bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.” Strangely, that did not persuade people to stop teasing me. But for a second I really thought it would.

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

A:  Free tickets for high school students and for low-income families. But I feel like everyone says something like that, so if I had to say something slightly more original, I’d say, greater political and intellectual diversity. We are finally starting to talk about the need for much greater diversity in terms of ethnicity, race, gender, and (to a lesser and inadequate degree) class – and that’s so fantastic. But we rarely foster a diversity of thought or opinions. We’re too comfortable agreeing with each other and ignoring or dismissing the way a lot of the rest of the country thinks.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  A lot of Brits – Stoppard. Caryl Churchill. Martin McDonagh. Mike Bartlett. And then a lot of Americans - Annie Baker. Anne Washburn. Quiara Alegria Hudes. Sondheim. Lanford Wilson. Kirsten Greenidge. Stephen Adly Guirgis. I get a lot of fuel from an intense love-hate relationship with David Mamet. But honestly, I think the people who inspire me the most are my peers – generous actors, fearless directors, other young or youngish playwrights who I can’t believe I get to hang out with and work with. There are so many emerging artists who are creating stunning work right now – and they’re only getting started.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Theater that tackles big ideas. Theater that has an eye on world-historical forces beyond the stage. Theater that doesn’t take an MFA to interpret. Theater about “ordinary” people, whatever that means to you. Funny theater. Theater that reflects the actual country we live in now. Theater that treats women as real people. Theater that talks about the stuff Film and TV won’t talk about. Theater as church.

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

A:  Read a lot – of plays, novels, history books, newspapers, science, philosophy, religion, poetry, self-help books, random crap on the internet. Have something important to say.

As they say at the Facebook headquarters, done is better than perfect.

And - there is a quiet but honest voice somewhere within you that knows what you want plays to be. It will take you a while to be able to make those kinds of plays. But while you’re getting there, don’t let trends or other people’s paths or the reception of your work distract you or confuse you about what you believe in. You can only ever be yourself.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  If you find yourself in Massachusetts before April 16th, go see CHILL! And after that, come check out THE NICETIES at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival this summer!

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