On March 15, Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey will feature a reading of Salvation Road as part of its ‘Forum Soundings’ series, focused on youth-centered theatre. This is the latest step in an ongoing development process for the play, which originated as a one-act at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in 2009, was workshopped at New York University and the Utah University Youth Theatre, produced at NYU in October and at Walden Theatre in November and is due for another production at Seton Hill University in April.
I sat down with Jennifer DeWitt of PTNJ for a brief interview. The interview and more details about the series can be found at PTNJ’s blog.
1. What inspired you to write “Salvation Road?”
Originally a friend of mine who was active in what was then known as the Cult Awareness Network commissioned a play about the cult experience. I agreed to write the play, which I had intended as an “issue” play for theatres that tour to schools. But I didn’t really like the results; it was didactic and a bit predictable. So I tossed it in a drawer and did other things. Then in 2008 the successor organization to CAN–now called the International Cultic Studies Association–was holding a conference in Philadelphia and my friend wanted to present the play there. I went into a panic because I just did not like the script, but by then I had decided to take a different attack on the subject matter–which was to write about the people who are left behind, trying to make sense of what is going on. I had some experience with that–my sister was involved briefly in the Unification Church a number of years ago–and so I drew on a few details that I remembered from that time. So for me the play is really about the brother who is confused by his sister’s rejection of the family and trying to make sense of her need for an organization like the Disciples.
2. You write in a variety of styles and genres. Do you let the subject matter dictate this or do you wake-up and say “today I plan to write a historical drama therefore I must find a subject?”
Plays for me are about wrestling with a question or an observation. The inspiration comes from all sorts of places–something I read in a newspaper or online, a book I’m reading, a photograph or an anecdote–even a painting or sketch I see in a gallery. I come across something that triggers a question. With Radium Girls, the immediate trigger was a chapter in a book on mass media that I came across online. I read the story of the New Jersey case and thought “How could this happen? Why does it keep on happening?” And I developed an obsession with the story. I knew starting out that the play was going to deal with the uses of denial in some way. But then I set out to do my research and in the process realized that I also wanted to tell the story from two points of view—the women in the factory and the men who owned the company. It was a long struggle to come to a structure that worked, because it was an early play and I was not really confident in myself to do the story justice. But really I borrowed from Brecht, working in presentational scenes with more naturalistic scenes—and advancing the action in an almost cinematic way. So Radium Girls is really Epic Theatre.
Most of the other plays I’ve written are historical in nature–period pieces–though I am starting to write contemporary stories. And while in many cases the exchanges between characters are naturalistic—the structure usually isn’t; there is usually some element to the construction of the play that departs from 20th Century Realism. One artistic director described me as an “impressionist.” And I think that is largely true–certainly was true of The Good Daughter. There, the idea was to approach the scenes like photographs in a family album–that as you flip through the pages and through the years–a story emerges–and there are great leaps in time between the photographs, but you ultimately get a sense of an arc and a resolution.
I am drawn to period pieces because, like Shakespeare, I think audiences needs to look backward in order to look at themselves. You put some distance between the experience of contemporary audiences and the story you are telling them—and they can receive it better, especially if you are delivering a fairly harsh critique wrapped in the form of entertainment.
But I’m also interested in finding a shape or an approach that suits the material—and how this comes about is a bit of mystery. I sit with the idea or the characters for a while sometimes before the answer comes. Salvation Road is essentially a buddy movie on stage–two guys hit the road looking for a girl. And the structure is cinematic because the audience I am aiming at is used to receiving information in short bits; they are used to film and video and online entertainment and gaming–and that informs the way the play is put together. The newest piece I am working on now is a mash-up between a social satire and a murder mystery–with no solution to the mystery, which I am sure will really infuriate the audience. So it starts out as a comedy and gets darker as it goes. More and more I guess I am interested in bending forms—taking very familiar forms and working in that framework to force the audience to adopt a point of view it might not otherwise adopt. So I think the work is subtle in that respect—and I like to think it’s subversive. That’s what I tell myself.
3. Why did you decide to be a founding member of Playwrights Gymnasium, a process oriented workshop based in metro Washington, DC?
I started the workshop out of a sense of frustration with other writer’s groups I have been involved in. Writing is so isolating that it is important to have community. For playwrights especially. Very often you just do not have the opportunity to hear your work—or to get a sense of how it is being received. So a group can give you that. But a lot of groups tend to be prescriptive–one in particular just drove me crazy, because the people who ran it were adamant about what your process should be. It’s one thing to offer instruction to beginners–they certainly need some framework for a process. But when you have people around the table who have written ten or twelve plays, it’s incredibly arrogant to insist that there is only one way to work. For me, the process changes with every play. With some plays I’ve worked out the whole story in advance–for others, I start with a character or a situation or a scenario–and I have no idea how it is going to end. So I wanted a workshop that honored the proposition that writing is process and that there is no one right answer for what that process should be. In the end, though, you do have to get to a structure that works. So the hazard of this kind of workshop is that some writers think the exploratory exercise itself is the play. No it isn’t. It’s an exploration to help you get a better understanding of what to do with your script. Now set it aside and write the play.
So regardless of the structure of the workshop, the fundamental I have come away with is that there is just no substitute for hard work; whatever your approach is–there are always blind spots and pitfalls and you just need to be willing to go back to the script again and again and keep working it until you get it to the place where it really sings. And that takes time.
4. When you attend a theatre production, what do you prefer to see (dramas, comedies, drama/comedies, musicals)?
I want to see something I have not seen before. I don’t care what the genre, style, or subject matter. I have no interest in the 4579th revival of The Sound of Music, unless you decide to reinvent it as a punk rock opera, maybe then. And I want to see something that wrestles with serious questions—whether it’s a farce or a tragedy–I want to come out of that theatre with a new idea in my head. I want an emotional experience and an intellectual experience at the same time—make me feel something, but confront me as well. Adopt a point of view and defend it.
5. According to your website, it has been reported that you were raised in a cave by Romanian werewolves. Did they make you do all the sweeping since you have opposable thumbs?
Werewolves are horrifically sloppy creatures. They didn’t own a broom.