The in-between spaces with Melissa James Gibson
When Melissa James Gibson's play [sic]— whose title, like its meaning, is indeed "exactly as written"— premiered at Soho Rep in 2001, I was really excited by the formal coherence of the production. Recently, I had a chance to read some of her plays on the page, and I realized that she had included all of the intricate choreography, sound design and architecture of the world in her original stage directions. Her new play Suitcase or, those that resemble flies from a distance opens at Soho Rep this week, so I wanted to hear her thoughts about bringing her writing to the stage and the nature of collaboration in her work.
Anne Marie Healy (Rail): How did you begin writing plays?
Melissa James Gibson: I moved to New York at seventeen, right after high school, to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Despite the fact that I graduated from AADA and stayed on for a third production year (I think it was called), my acting career, such as it wasn’t, came to an end when it dawned on me that in any given show I felt tremendous relief upon exiting the stage. It’s actually hard for me to imagine at this point how I ever thought acting was a good idea for me, but I don’t regret studying the craft— as a playwright it definitely helps to have some sense of what actors go through. Anyway, I was a member of a small theater company right after acting school, and started writing plays then.
Rail: Do you have strong recollections of artistic influences from that time?
Gibson: It’s a big question, so maybe I’ll limit my answer to playwriting influences. While I was at acting school, and though I haven’t looked at his work in years, I remember I fell in love with the verse plays of Christopher Fry. I remember them being sort of strange and funny and beautiful. Before grad school I’d read mostly canon highlights from the Greeks through, say, Shepard, much of which I found very inspiring in various ways, but at Yale I finally encountered a lot of experimental (are we still supposed to use that word?) writing: the plays of Mac Wellman, Richard Foreman, Adrienne Kennedy, Suzan-Lori Parks, David Greenspan, Harry Kondoleon, Len Jenkin, Maria Irene Fornes, Jeff Jones, Eric Overmeyer, etc. I was so excited by this work’s language and big ideas and small ideas and messy, intricate brilliance— its humor and respect for an audience’s brain.
Rail: Can you talk a little about your on-going artistic relationship with Soho Rep? How has the rehearsal process for your new show Suitcase or, those that resemble flies from a distance been different from your earlier collaboration on [sic]?
Gibson: [sic] received a workshop production at Soho Rep, directed by Melissa Kievman, in the summer of ’99. After [sic] was fully produced at the theater in 2001, and while I was working on a new play as part of Soho Rep’s Writer/Director Lab, I received an NEA/TCG playwright-in-residence grant to develop a new play at the theater. Suitcase or, those that resemble flies from a distance, has evolved over several mini-workshops and readings. Working on [sic] was a very satisfying experience, and I would say the process has been even richer with this play. We— director Daniel Aukin and I— are working with the same set and lighting designers from [sic], Louisa Thompson and Matt Frey, and I’ve worked with all of our amazing actors before (Christina Kirk, Colleen Werthmann, Thomas Jay Ryan and Jeremy Shamos). The rest of the creative team is also very talented— Maiko Matsushima, costumes; Shane Rettig, sound; Elaine McCarthy, projections; Michael Friedman, composer. There’s been a great fluidity to everyone’s role, in the best possible sense, in that people feel free to offer opinions outside their "proper" domains. I often think how great it must be to share years and years of collaborative history— like The Wooster Group or The Talking Band.
Rail: I was struck by how complete your plays feel on the page. There is a musical composition and visual choreography in the stage directions. Do you begin each play with a set idea of what you want to see and hear onstage or is the final "play on the page" the result of a fluid process that changes inside the collaboration?
Gibson: I do begin with strong ideas about what I want to see and hear, but they inevitably evolve over the play’s development. I really enjoy, on the page, taking a greater visual responsibility for the architectural world of the play than playwrights are typically led to believe they should. And what’s really interesting, in the cases of [sic] and Suitcase…, at least, is that even when the production set design veers far away from what I initially imagined, it winds up being bold. Of course, this has a great deal to do with the interpretive powers of talented designers and directors, but I do find that making it clear that I’ve thought beyond the words bears results. The relationship between the characters and the space in which they reside is of intense interest to me.
Rail: [sic] has received a number of productions around the country. Were you involved in any of these productions? Did it feel odd to have strangers working on the piece? (Or, perhaps, liberating?)
Gibson: I haven’t seen any of the regional productions of [sic]. It is a little odd to think of my play out in the world on its own. Maybe all playwrights feel this way, but I do see my work as being delicate, vulnerable to choices that are too broad on the one hand and too fixed on the other. I did see a reading of [sic] in Germany, though, in translation, and that was a strangely liberating experience, as I understood not a word. That’s not true— I understood the translation of "chocolate bar," which was "milky way" (pronounced "vay").
Rail: The idiosyncratic punctuation that you use for the character lines seems to offer an alternative to the more clichéd aspects of psychology in theater. Instead of rendering articulations of "emotion," your characters seem to follow a musical score; one that expresses more ephemeral aspects of inner thought through pattern and rhythm. How did you begin to use these stylistic conventions?
Gibson: I was just finding, more and more, that proper sentences and punctuation weren’t adequately expressing what was in my head, in terms of dialogue. Punctuation has its place, of course, but it can lessen the degree to which subtlety and contradiction and ambivalence reside in verbal communication. And since a play is a blueprint for an oral form, it just makes more sense to me, for my work, to keep the language open to the switching of tracks it must constantly accommodate. I’ve come to rely on carefully chosen capitalization, line breaks and what I half-jokingly call "actor intention tips," which basically alert the actor to the fact that the intention behind the line may be at odds with what actually is said. In terms of the rhythms of the words, I do sort of think of the line breaks as thought breaks. For me, these are just another signal to the actor about the patterns inside a character’s head. Obviously, I’m borrowing some of the tools of poetry and music, though I am, much to my sadness, neither a poet nor a musician. So maybe it’s like I’m operating a power saw without wearing safety goggles.
Rail: There is also a strong thread of narrative fragmentation running through your pieces. Your characters are often collecting found objects, listening to voices in the stairwell, seeing snippets of home video through windows. The stories are never really beginning or ending.
Gibson: Well, lives don’t behave. We are porous and susceptible beings and even when our intentions are definite we ineluctably veer. The veering is what interests me— that and the secret conversation that underlies every out loud one. I just feel such great affection for the evidence of our tragic, silly, smart and stupid selves.
Rail: The Children’s Theater in Minneapolis commissioned your play Brooklyn Bridge and it will be produced in this season. What was it like writing a play for a younger audience?
Gibson: I had a great time. It was a commission through a joint program of CTC and New Dramatists, called Playground, in which playwrights who had not written for younger audiences got the chance to do so. CTC’s artistic director Peter Brosius is a visionary in the field, and he speaks passionately about the need for theater for younger audiences that doesn’t condescend, that tells the truth and that doesn’t insult the scope of kids’ imaginations. With Brooklyn Bridge (which includes wonderful music by Barbara Brousal) I completed a quartet of NYC apartment building plays. Within it I continued to explore my formal concerns in terms of language and architecture— for instance, the play takes place entirely in transitional spaces: stairwell, rooftop, stoop, fire escape, doorways. What is different about this play, I think, is it’s more of a forgiving work, in that I’ve allowed the characters just a little more peace at the end.
Rail: You also work as a teacher at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn. Do you feel like your role as a teacher informed some of your writing in Brooklyn Bridge?
Gibson: In the sense that I know firsthand how incredibly perceptive and intuitive kids are, how they are utterly able to discern the inauthentic.
Rail: Do you have other writing projects coming up?
Gibson: I’ve just finished a second draft of a commission for the La Jolla Playhouse. It’s a loose adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey called Current Nobody. And I’m about to begin a commission for The Adirondack Theatre Festival, a great summer theater near Lake George.
Suitcase or, those that resemble flies from a distance written by Melissa James Gibson, directed by Daniel Aukin, starts January 22nd, all performances 7:30 p.m., tickets $15 For exact date and ticket info: 212-868-4444 or www.SmartTix.com
For theater info: www.sohorep.org
Suitcase or, those that resemble flies from a distance
by Melissa James Gibson
(Ring ring. Jen turns down the volume on the tape player and answers the phone.)
Bleaker or more bleak I can
never remember that rule Bleaker
doesn’t even sound like a word
when you say it in
isolation Try saying it Bleaker Bleaker Bleaker
Ew there’s a guy outside clipping his
toenails into the sewer Jen
are you there
I’m here I thought
you might be my advisor
Did you hear from your advisor
She’s trying to
(Sallie’s gaze has landed on an apartment in the building across the way, where the film is showing again. Sallie picks up a pair of binoculars and looks through them as she continues to converse. We see what she sees, a section of home movies from circa 1940:
A little girl, her father and her mother are sledding. The father wears a suit and overcoat, while the mother wears heels and a fur. They all take a turn on the sled.)
How do you know
And yesterday I received a
Are you there
Sorry I got distracted
Someone across the way is watching some old
footage What did you receive
A letter Old
Home movies or
sort of letter
She wanted to know where things
What did you tell her
It was a letter Sallie
(focused on the film)
Isn’t it beautiful Jen I mean is
there anything more beautiful Jen than
people who dress in blatant disregard of their
Oh I don’t know blatancy is problematic if you ask me Blatancy makes me
said she was going through a messy divorce
My advisor In her letter
That’s too bad
So she’s trying to straighten out her affairs so
So she can focus her energy on her messy
I guess She said attachment is a
That’s a quote from her letter Attachment
Is A Nasty Business
(focused on film)
See I like blatant disregard It’s got
what people used to call spunk
The rumor is her husband ran off with a grad student
Have you ever noticed how people who run off don’t get any farther than
right in front of your face
I should call her
Do you know her
Oh I thought you meant the grad student
Maybe a letter would be better Or a tape
A tape A
tape would be weird
Okay a letter
A tape would be weird
(focusing on the film as the dad is sledding)
ContributorAnne Marie Healy
ANN MARIE HEALY writes plays and fiction.