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Jan 21, 2010

I Interview Playwrights Part 106: Claire Willett

Hometown: Portland, Oregon

Current Town: Portland, Oregon

Q:  You have a reading of your play How the Light Gets In coming up at Fertile Ground Festival. Can you tell me about the play and festival?

A:  Well, here's the synopsis:


“There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.”

After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Molly Fowler flees her past life for the only safe place she knows – Saint Gabriel Abbey, home of the Benedictine monks who once sheltered her mother. Reckless, self-destructive, with a knack for causing trouble, Molly is an unlikely monastery guest. She quickly makes an enemy of the ambitious Father John, who makes it a project to save her soul. Befriended by the monks who knew her mother, Molly learns some unsettling truths about her parents’ dark history . . . while finding herself drawn into a deep and unsettling intimacy with Brother Magnus, the monastery librarian. But when her past, and her mother’s, finally catch up with her, Molly’s struggle to discover who she is – and who she might become – are violently threatened. This is a story of redemption, and one lost girl’s winding and complex journey out of the darkness and into the light.


For me, a new idea for a play comes when a handful of the millions of random disconnected things bouncing around in my brain bump into each other and stick together. So, for this play, the threads that first got it started were:

--Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem”

--monastic celibacy

--the death of my mother in March 2008

--Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show

--a group of early Roman female saints collectively known as the Virgin Martyrs

--a line in a book I first read ten years ago

--a Benedictine priest named Father Paschal Cheline

--the clash within 21st-century American Catholicism between the political right and left

--working with teenage girls at my church

-- Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose

So that’s the play.

The Fertile Ground Festival – you can check out the whole lineup here, and read the festival blog here (featuring a recurring guest-blogger stint by yours truly) – is really, really exciting. It’s a ten-day festival of new work by Portland artists. It’s completely different from any other new-work festival we’ve had, because it’s completely uncurated and open to anyone. You pay your fee, you’re in the festival. Everyone does their own thing. What makes it really special, and VERY Portland, is that it both gives emerging artists a voice on the same scale as the big companies, and gives those big companies an added financial stake in programming world premieres. As a participating artist, the most exciting thing about it is that it puts me in front of an audience who have already bought into the notion that new work needs to be supported, but who I might not have the resources to reach on my own.

I wrote some grants for the festival way back when it was but a glimmer in the eye of Festival Chair Trisha Mead, but no one would give us any money because it was way too speculative. No one knew what it was. But the first year was a huge success, and we have high hopes for Year 2. We’ve got over 50 works in the festival, and we’re branching out of straight theatre into some cross-discipline pieces – there’s a lot of dance, there’s a performance/visual arts collaboration, and a really exciting ballet/spoken-word fusion piece. That’s all new from last year. We’re hoping to get to a place where next year we can build some donor support, write some grants, and get a base of contributed income to maybe start paying some part-time staff. It’s totally volunteer-driven right now.

Q:  You're working with Mead Hunter on this reading. What do you like most about working with him? How did you get hooked up with him?

A:  The whole saga of my love affair with Mead Hunter can be found here, on the Fertile Ground Festival blog; they asked me to do a regular guest-blog series documenting my process of working with Mead, who I always tell people is the Tim Gunn of the Portland theatre world. He is amazing. He can fix everything. He's helped me cut my play nearly in half, from a ponderous, wordy, over-two-and-a-half-hour tome to a zippy little 90-minute-no-intermission play that is fully 65 pages shorter now than in the first draft. (Which makes me die a little inside. God, can you imagine if I had actually let people SEE that? Shudder.)

I have known Mead, mostly by reputation, for a long time; he was the literary director at Portland Center Stage and widely reputed as The Guy for new work in town. The best in the business. When he went freelance after leaving PCS, I met with him once or twice along with festival chair Trisha Mead to talk about finding a more significant role for him within the festival, and we got to know each other through that. On a whim, I e-mailed him for advice about whether or not this online playwriting class I was looking into was worth paying $400 for, and he basically said, "There's nothing you'll get from those classes that you can't get from smart, informed feedback from artists here." Which got the wheels a-turnin'. So I e-mailed him and was like, "Okay, let's do it."

I think working with Mead was the first "I'm a grownup playwright" thing that I did differently with this play than the last one. One of the things we still feel like Fertile Ground is missing is a way for writers to receive informed critical feedback. Because it's not curated or adjudicated, there are no mechanisms for us as writers to figure out what to fix or what to do differently next time unless we find them ourselves. So I decided I needed to man up and get a professional, with both an editor's and a literary director's brain, to go to town on my script so I'd know where I was.

The best thing about working with Mead is that he's incredibly perceptive. Never once did I feel like he was trying to push me in a certain direction with the script; on the contrary, I felt like he saw exactly where I was going, and all the advice, revisions, cuts, analysis and discussion in our process was specifically geared to help me get there. If the point you want to make is made but the scene continues for a page and a half afterwards, do we lose the point? Does this character detract from the main themes of the story more than he/she adds to it? It was like adjusting the focus on an old-school camera . . . every revision of the script made the picture click into focus a little more clearly.

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

A:  All my life I’ve been insanely terrified of snakes. We had the complete World Book Encyclopedia set when I was a kid, and if you looked up the entry for Snakes, it had like this huge, page-sized, horror-tastic photo of a cobra about to strike, and it scared the shit out of me. Big wide mouth, giant gleaming fangs, creepy-ass cobra hood all flared out . . . it could have been captioned, "The Last Thing You Will See Before You Die." But, for some demented reason, I was OBSESSED with it. I would sneak down to the basement and sit there and look at the snake pictures to scare myself on purpose. If Death Cobra wasn’t doing it for me, I would occasionally mix it up with either A) a lurid full-color illustration from my favorite dinosaur book depicting an archaeopteryx swooping down from the sky to grab a tiny, terrified prehistoric mammal in its talons; or B) the gruesome picture in my Children’s Book of Saints of Saint Sebastian on the rack. All three were a quick and efficient means of guaranteeing traumatic nightmares, but I could not stop. It was like crack for six-year-olds. I was addicted to the fear rush. So, so weird.

Q:  How would you describe the Portland theater scene?

A:  Portland is Portland . . . half Major U.S. Metropolitan Center and half Weird Little Town. I’m a native, so I’ve seen companies and artistic directors come and go over the years and have watched the theatre scene here change as the city has changed.

The two big guys in town are Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre. I’ve worked at both and know them pretty well. They’re very different artistically, although they both do high-quality productions of whatever’s, like, the new hotness – the stuff coming out of Steppenwolf or MTC or South Coast Rep. Obviously, that’s vital to a healthy theatre ecology – you can’t not do Tracy Letts, you can’t not do Itamar Moses, and still call yourself a town that’s in touch with the pulse of the American theatre. But two healthy companies do not a theatre town make, and it’s important that we remember not to put all our eggs in their baskets.

That’s why the ever-growing number of small- and mid-sized companies is so exciting. Like, I’m smitten with Third Rail Rep; they’re SO Portland. A bunch of Portland’s top actors – they’re either all, or mostly all, Equity, I believe – got together and started their own theatre company, and from the moment they arrived on the scene they’ve forced every other company in town to up their game, even the big guys. Because it’s all actor-driven – no bells and whistles, no splashy production values, just cool smart interesting plays and phenomenal artists doing their thing. Every once in awhile I’ll read about a show another company is doing, and they’ll cast some of those actors and pick a really edgy show, and it’s like, “Oh, you wish you were Third Rail.” This year with Fertile Ground, something similar is happening with a group of Portland’s top playwrights, who got together and started their own company called Playwrights West. We’re all really excited to see what they do at the festival, since, like, every one of them are effing brilliant.

I think Portland is full of people who are locavores with our art just like we are with our organic veggies. We like the grown-right-here version of everything, we want to know where it comes from and who made it. We like knowing where our tomatoes were grown, we like independent bookstores and microbrews and small local coffee roasters (I hear there’s a Stumptown in New York now. YOU’RE WELCOME). I’ll tell you, every Portland theatre person I know watches that TNT show Leverage with Timothy Hutton, because they’re filming it here, and every episode I recognize someone and get a little rush of hometown-girl pride. I think one of the real joys of stuff like Fertile Ground is that it holds our theatre scene to the same standards Portlanders use for everything else. We like to celebrate stuff that connects us to a sense of place here, because we’re so head-over-heels crazy in love with this city.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I'm a sucker for anything that feels larger-than-life –I’m a Euripides girl at heart. I love plays about science and math (I have a little grantwriter-crush on the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation), like Arcadia and Proof. I love Moises Kaufman. I love smart plays about faith for smart people, like Doubt, A Man For All Seasons, and W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being. I’m crazy for Frank McGuiness (Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me is AMAZING), and Tracy Letts (marry me, August: Osage County). I love Angels In America, Pentecost, Metamorphoses, The Crucible, Take Me Out, Assassins, and Frost/Nixon.

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

A:  I AM a playwright just starting out. I mean, I've been writing forever, but only producing in Portland for a couple years, and that's just been staged readings. So I can't tell anyone how to become a working professional playwright. (And actually, if someone could tell ME, that would be great.) But I’m happy to share some of the things I’ve learned that have made me a better writer.

#1) The more you write, the better you write. I'm a grantwriter by profession, and I swear to God it's made me a better playwright. This play, How the Light Gets In, took me three months to write - well, to finish a first draft, anyway. The one before that took me five years. I’m a stronger writer all around now – I write clearer, I edit better, I make my points more strongly, I know my own habits as a writer (first draft is always way too long, must fight tendency to do everything at 2 a.m., can’t have it totally quiet, think way faster lying on my stomach than sitting at a desk, need to revise by working tiny little chunks at a time, basically useless before noon).

#2) Say something. I tried way too hard to be trendy when I was first starting out writing plays, and they were uniformly terrible. I had this preconceived notion of, like, what all the cool kids were doing, and I too wanted to write ludicrously over-complicated surrealist magical realism dramas, or biting commentaries on sexual politics among witty 30-something urbanites. So of course what I wrote was terrible. I still have those old scripts on my hard drive and refer back to them when I need an exercise in humility. They sucked because I was trying to create a story that fit within the framework I had already decided I was going to slavishly imitate, but I wasn’t saying anything. It turns out I don’t give a shit about sexual politics among witty 30-something urbanites. But I do care about lots of things that are worth writing about. And I write better when I really care.

#3) Use an editor. Mead Hunter has changed my life. Like OMG. I can’t even tell you.

#4) Find a director you like and stick with her. Workshopping a new play sometimes feels a little bit like inviting strangers into your home to make fun of your children. I always feel a little twitchy and vulnerable, and need someone to walk that fine line between pushing me and holding my hand. I work with the same director on everything, and she manages me like a pro. After so many years, we have a shorthand with each other, and can read each other’s minds in the audition room. She gets how I write so she catches all the little stuff (“You said X here but I think you really meant Y"), and she’s right every time.

#5) Find smart actors. The first play I ever workshopped was in college, for my senior thesis, and I basically cast my smartest actor friends and gave them permission to say anything they wanted. It was a little like being flayed alive, and I went home and cried after a lot of rehearsals, but the play was a hundred times better by the end of it. That’s still how I like to work – get a bunch of really smart people in my living room, with lots of coffee and wine, and let them talk.

Q:  Plugs please:

A:  If you're in or near Portland between Jan. 22 and Feb. 2, come see Fertile Ground! Here are some links to a couple shows I'm really, really excited about.

I belong to PG2, a playwright's group in Portland, and a couple of my colleagues have shows in the festival. The list for all of them is HERE.
I'm also really excited about Incorporamento, a dance/spoken-word collaboration featuring one of my colleagues from Oregon Ballet Theatre, principal dancer Gavin Larsen; and Playwrights West, who I mentioned above. They rock.


Ellen said...

Claire, could you be any more delightful?

Hope to see your piece in Fertile Ground!

Grammy said...

Oh oh, I have that "I knew her when" feeling. Claire, you are amazing. I can't wait to see the play and, by-the-way, Aunt Pat loves you!

EM Lewis said...

Cool! I'm a displaced Oregonian -- this interview makes me want to go back to my home state and check out the scene!