Mar 26, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 331: Jenny Lyn Bader
Jenny Lyn Bader
Hometown: New York City
Current Town: New York City
Q: Tell me about You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase.
A: It’s a collaboratively written play inspired by tales from different cultures. We started by collecting tales from memories and street interviews. In Jackson Heights, we asked members of the diverse community about fairy tales and folk tales they remembered from childhood. They told us stories from around the world — Burma, Iran, Ireland, Germany, Latin America, Mexico, Pakistan. Then we transformed and reimagined those tales into a contemporary story. It’s not seven one-acts but one play written by seven playwrights, melding our different styles into one voice while also trying to honor the sounds of different voices in the neighborhood.
Q: You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase is the first premiere by a new ensemble, Theatre 167. You’re one of the founders of this company. Can you tell me how it got started?
A: A few of us worked on a show called 167 Tongues, which was premiered by Jackson Rep when our director, Ari Laura Kreith, was Artistic Director there. That show was inspired by a news story she read that said there are 167 languages spoken at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, so the hospital’s own staff had to do some translating — they’d page the janitor or the night nurse, say, if someone came in speaking a particular dialect of Slovenian or Swahili. Ari had initiated multiply authored plays before but this one was special in its scope and depth. The writers collaborated early and often. There was a word or line in a foreign language in every scene. The director and dramaturg found translators for us for anything...Tibetan, Cantonese, Urdu. We had 11 playwrights, 29 actors, 37 characters. It seemed like a madcap, impossible project.
And suddenly it came together… the show sold out, and we had people in the audience who’d never seen a play before, and international audience members— from Guatemala and Bangladesh, from all over — saying they had never seen someone like themselves in a performance before, thanking us for putting people like them in the stage.
So a few of us decided to start Theatre 167, an ensemble entirely dedicated to creating new and deeply collaborative work, investigating cultural collisions, and making theatre that brings community together. We presented 167 Tongues again at Queens Theatre in the Park, and then we created You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase for our first world premiere because we wanted to do a play that would include the whole community, all ages as well as all cultures.
Q: Isn't that a challenge, to co-author a play with so many people?
A: It's certainly not for everyone! But some of us love it. You have to shelve your ego and sometimes one or two of your initial impulses, but in exchange you get a gigantic puzzle to solve, a huge tapestry to embroider. It feels like you are making an oversized piece of art that requires more than one person.
Q: A new play of yours just opened this weekend in Boston: Mona Lisa Speaks. Can you tell me about it?
A: Mona Lisa Speaks was commissioned by a group called Core Ensemble. They’re pioneers of chamber music theatre, doing pieces that interweave theatre performance with music, and they’ve got an intriguing process. First they decide what music they want to perform, then research the era when it was written to find a subject of interest, and then find a writer. In this case they decided they wanted to perform composers such as Stravinsky, Poulenc, and Satie. Then they looked at what was happening in Paris around 1910, and found the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre Museum in 1911, and among other improbable events Picasso was questioned by police and the avant-garde poet Apollinaire was arrested and interrogated. The painting lived in a Paris garrett for two years.
I thought it should be told entirely from the painting’s point of view when she’s been stolen — after all, the woman’s smiled quietly for over 400 years, it’s time for her to talk already. So I wrote it as a one-woman show, imagining all the complaints and insights the Mona Lisa would have. I explored the mysteries that have built up around the painting over time and then tried to solve as many as I could in the play. The Core Ensemble production premiered last week in South Carolina at a women’s and gender studies conference and at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Q: How did they find you?
A: They read a script excerpt on my web site where I made a joke about Apollinaire. Not necessarily what you expect would land you a job.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: Another play I’m writing is set in that same historical era: Petticoat Government begins in 1912, and is about Edith Wilson, Woodrow’s wife who famously ran the White House during his illness. When I began researching it, I had a received idea of her as a feminist heroine. So I was disappointed to learn she not only made some devastatingly bad policy decisions, she was also an opponent of women’s rights. I started thinking of her as a villain. But the more research I did, the more I realized she was neither a hero nor a villain. I think she was a woman of her time who lived vicariously through the men she was with — and then turned into them. And that’s what the play’s about.
I’m also writing book and lyrics for a new musical, an adaptation... and I'm writing the book for an original musical with four characters called Suburban Revolutionaries. It’s a coming of age story about growing up during the peace movement and making peace with your family.
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've always had a tendency to get lost in other worlds. When I was ten, a teacher saw me sitting on a fire hydrant that protruded from the school building with my coat covering it and thought I was levitating… Later that year, my friend Clarissa and I would walk home together every day. We started playing a game where she would invent a title and I would have to make up a story to go with the title. I would tell the whole thing by the time we got to my building, three blocks from school, and then she would walk a few more blocks home. Sometimes we would stand outside for an extra minute while I wrapped up. But one day, the story kept going. It was getting cold so we went into my lobby. I thought the story would end soon so we didn’t go upstairs, just sat on a bench by the elevator… but the story took on a life of its own. Two hours later I was still in the lobby telling the story, while both of our mothers were calling the school and reporting us missing. No one had thought to check the lobby. They were about to call the police. Since then I have tried to get out of the way of a story that wants to be told, while also trying to keep my loved ones informed of my whereabouts.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I would make it more central to the life of all people, as it was in ancient Athens. That means everyone goes to theatre, it’s part of what you do. I’m not just talking about federal funding. It’s more than that. It means public awareness of all that live performance can do, that audiences know to stop texting for a couple of hours and engage in an invented world, that folks from all walks of life show up to see a play. I know it can happen. It happens in Ireland, where anyone you talk to goes to see plays. It’s what we’re trying to do with Theatre 167.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Molière showing that comedy can change the way people think and even alarm the authorities, Richard Wilbur for making it possible for a small child who only speaks English to understand Molière, Peter Brook for changing what is possible onstage, Anna Deavere Smith for changing what is possible for one person onstage.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: A play with a unique voice. I don’t make false distinctions between types of theatre — the most traditional or the most experimental artist might have that voice that makes you want to gather and listen.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Don’t isolate yourself, meet other playwrights. Share theatre tickets and dramaturgical insights. So many playwrights help and mentor each other. They can also offer one another particular tips, as opposed to blanket advice for all playwrights starting out. They may know you are for instance writing an epic play involving silverware, and have just heard about a theatre with a call for large-cast scripts about forks. Fellow playwrights can also give you a sense of community. Have compassion for your characters. And have compassion for your audience. Think of the audience as another character that you need to care about. I know some writers and even some theatres have contempt for their audience, and I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s better to understand the audience. Notice them. See when they’re fidgeting because they shouldn’t be. They shouldn’t even want to feel like texting!
Q: Plugs, please:
A: For updates & whimsy see my web site. You can read a review of You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase, now extended through April 3rd, on NY Theatre and you can buy tickets at Brown Paper Tickets. To get involved with Theatre 167, visit our company's site. If you want to see a musical in development, there will be a reading of Suburban Revolutionaries at the JCC in NYC on May 23. In Florida? Core Ensemble will perform Mona Lisa Speaks at the Kravis Center in Palm Beach on April 21. Need a 2-hander for young actors? Read my play None of the Above about a girl and her S.A.T. tutor. Also available online at Amazon or in life at the wonderful Drama Bookshop. If you’re a female playwright you should know about New Georges, 50/50 in 2020, and the ICWP. If you’re a playwright of any gender or sensibility looking for great places to develop your work, check out the O’Neill Center and the Lark Play Development Center. They care.