At heart you are practically perfect. You are entitled to the Lion’s share of fun. You are playing the game of life with higher stakes than you may realize. I am a strong-willed individual, an extremely good friend, a formidable enemy. I live in a world of black and white. I have little time for superficial people.
This relationship is volcanic.
I bring out the very best in you.
—from Mr. Universe
David Adjmi: You’re kind of having a banner month in October, Heidi. P73 and New Georges are co-producing your play Creature and at the same time you’ll be acting in Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation at Playwrights Horizons. How is this going to work?
Heidi Schreck: I’ll be rehearsing Creature while I’m previewing Annie’s play, which means I’ll be working at New Georges in the mornings and Playwrights Horizons in the afternoons and evenings. They’re just a few blocks from each other so it should be easy, though I do also have to make it back to Brooklyn every night. Luckily, P73 and New Georges helped me find an assistant, so she’ll go to production meetings and rehearsals that I can’t be at.
Adjmi: Are you nervous?
Schreck: I’m so nervous. Well, I’m not as nervous about Annie’s play because it’s terrific. I mean, I want to do right by it and so I feel a lot of pressure in that sense, but I have such faith in the play and the other actors.
Adjmi: And tell me a little about Creature.
Adjmi: What was the germ of the play?
Schreck: It’s loosely based on a 15th century autobiography called The Book of Margery Kempe, which is about a woman who desperately wants to become a saint even though she’s so unsuited to this; she is very vain and shows her piety by crying loudly in church and annoying everybody. My friend Rob Urbinati first recommended her book to me in college and actually said “you should write a play about her and be in it.” After that, I took a Medieval Women Writers class and when we studied her book, I just fell in love. She’s so deeply human, and trying so hard to be perfect, and to eradicate all the parts of her that are human…She actually lived to be like 90, and actually did persist and—just by sheer force of will—because she didn’t have any talent.
Adjmi: She’s kind of like—what’s her name—Nicole Richie! Right? [laughter] Like one of these people who are like, “You’re gonna know who I am! Period!”
Schreck: She had this other side too—which was interesting—she bit out her veins actually after she had a baby—she was really depressed. And then she had this vision—that Jesus came to her and I guess I believe that it was real for her, whatever that means. I’m interested in this idea that somebody can have an authentic experience and still not be able to live authentically.
Adjmi: I’m interested in that grey area too.
Schreck: And she did kind of a heroic thing: she wrote this book—which is the first autobiography ever; it’s kind of amazing.
Adjmi: O.K., so I have a question: How did you come about writing for theater? You’re not really known here as a playwright.
Schreck: I wrote my first plays when I was working as a reporter in Russia. I was 23 and trying to figure out what to do with my life, and writing plays and stories was something I did to entertain myself on the side while I worked on what I believed would be my real career: famous international journalist! When I realized that what I truly wanted was a life in the theater, I moved back to Seattle and joined an upstart theater company called Printer’s Devil.
Adjmi: I’m still amazed at what you and Kip [Fagan] and Paul [Willis] and everyone accomplished at that theater.
Schreck: I’ll probably never love the theater as fiercely as I did during those years. We were a small company of artists in their 20s who believed that most theater was deadly boring and we were going to revolutionize the form and bring it to throngs of grateful young people. We were like Konstantin. We were 12 Konstantins.
Adjmi: I know you acted quite a lot at Printer’s Devil—did the plays you wrote get done there as well?
Schreck: The company produced three of my plays: Backwards into China—which is a solo piece about living in Siberia—Stray, and Mr. Universe, which is a very sad play about the marriage of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver. I wrote that one while manning the phones at the Kidney Transplant Center at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle during the day and falling in love with [now husband, Kip Fagan] at night, so I’m very fond of it.
Adjmi: You know, I’m so curious about your process. How do you enter into a text or a new project?
Schreck: I do it differently every time. And every time I do a new role I feel like I don’t know how to act. Though I’m getting better at that. When I was young I worked more inside out—
Adjmi: What do you mean, like Stanislavski?
Schreck: Yeah, because that was my training. And then much later I studied Meyerhold and then I worked with Brooke O’Hara which was very outside in. And now I feel like all ways are available, it’s not one or the other.
Adjmi: Is your process as an actor different than your process as a writer?
Schreck: As an actor, I try in the beginning to use as few muscles as possible. I try when I first get a script to just read it, read it, read it—and try to not make any decisions and do that subconscious work. And I feel like that’s true for me as a writer too, and the older I get the smarter that seems. Because I feel like there’s time to muscle stuff later—if you muscle stuff or figure it out too soon you’ll just shut so many doors, I guess I have more faith in the artistic process.
Adjmi: Where do you get the faith? From experience?
Schreck: Yeah. And I guess I don’t think the other way works—to be very Left Brain about it and to make very cut-and-dry choices.
Adjmi: Is it faith in a spiritual entity or just a generalized faith?
Schreck: That’s a really good question.
Adjmi: Because when I start writing—it’s like a cliché—but when I start consciously contriving the character, I really do channel—I mean I don’t have my turban or crystal ball, but, I don’t know, I’m really interested in the varieties of religious experience in art.
Schreck: That interests me too—religious experience, as opposed to religion.
Adjmi: Can I ask which other writers or artists have been important to you?
Schreck: Well [Kip and I] used to have a picture of Dostoevsky above our bed but we finally took it down because it was creepy. I love him because his vision was both compassionate and ruthless—he “cried truth from the blood,” as Nietzsche said. It’s like he’s giving a big bear hug embrace to the most terrifying contradictions of human nature. I’m also drawn to the element of the supernatural in his writing, even though I’m agnostic. I don’t know why. Maybe I’m not really agnostic.
The Russians are important to me—Chekhov, of course, Akhmatova, Mayakovsky, Gogol, Andrei Platonov, Bulgakov.
As a playwright, I think Fornes has probably influenced me the most. I feel like she has that quality of something mysterious going on—I don’t know. That there’s this surface and then something beneath the surface—
Adjmi: And it’s Gnostic and funny and sort of gawky and a little ungainly—
Adjmi: Because she’s writing in translation, so there’s a stress in the expression of an idea or a feeling, but there’s also this enormous confidence and a lyric quality.
Schreck: When I think of her plays, I imagine them as exquisite houses you can wander around inside of rather than as action or story. I actually have a recurring dream in which I’m in my apartment and then I discover that the apartment has a secret room. And when I open the door to the secret room I’m so happy because I realize it’s been here the whole time, I’ve always had this extra room! That’s what a Fornes play feels like to me, do you know what I mean?
Adjmi: So Fornes.
Schreck: Yeah. And I did Shakespeare every summer with my mom.
Adjmi: What do you mean with your mom?
Schreck: My mom directed me in Shakespeare plays [laughter]. No, no, no, she had a company for children!
Adjmi: Oh! Who’d you play?
Schreck: I played Hermia when I was six—
Adjmi: Oh I hate that play [laughter]. But—no—it’s a good part!
Schreck: And Viola, and I played Rosalind—
Adjmi: So all the good parts.
Schreck: Yeah, I played all the good parts between 6 and 13.
Adjmi: Because you were nepotistic!
Schreck: Well, then I got kicked out because I was too old!
Adjmi: Like in Annie—that’s what happens to those girls, they get cycled out! [laughter] It’s funny that you mention all the Russian writers because I always thought of you as kind of Russian in your temperament—in the sense that you’re sort of philosophical and you’re drawn to very extreme feelings and passions and tenors. Are you Russian? I know we’ve talked about this before but I forget.
Schreck: No. Well, maybe. One side of my family was Swedish, the other were Volga Germans. Some Swedes lived in Russia in the very beginning, and the Volga Germans obviously lived on the Volga.
Adjmi: What’s next for you after these two plays?
Schreck: I’m developing a new play with P73 as part of this fellowship I’m doing with them. That play is my Russian play—
Adjmi: See? I told you!
Schreck: It’s about a refugee, this Russian journalist who is seeking asylum in the United States; it has supernatural elements.
Adjmi: Do you have anything more you want to say?
Schreck: Well—I mean I was just thinking today, I really like being a playwright in the room. I love the actors, and I like just being on the other side. I think the relationship between playwright and actor is miraculous—that somebody reads your words and can understand—
Adjmi: Yes! And translate it to the audience!
Schreck: And translate it, yeah. It’s the most miraculous thing.
Excerpt from Creature, by Heidi Schreck
This window looks into the church. This window here is where I give my confessions. And do you see this third window? This is the window that looks out onto the world. This third window tortures me. It’s a constant daily effort to love this window as little as I can. Sometimes a creature will be mad enough to put its soft little hand out toward the window and you can’t imagine how difficult it is some days not to grab it and kiss it.
But you resist—
It’s easier for me than it is for you. These walls protect my heart. [looking at Margery as if for the first time] What happened to your head?
[ashamed] The church ceiling fell on me while I was praying.
Beat. JULIANA laughs and laughs.
Oh! I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You’re so serious.
Do you think it’s a sign.
Oh probably. Who brought you here?
All the way from Lynn?
They want to burn me.
Oh they want to burn everybody now. Right across the river over there, they’ve started burning. Sometimes I can smell the smoke at night. It seeps in through the cracks and I—. Nevermind.
I’m letting that thought go for now. You see, I say hello to the thought and then I let it go. Goodbye. Don’t worry. They won’t burn you now. Every one respects me. I have no idea why but—actually I’m being modest. My book. You know my book?
Oh yes. I have it right here.
Oh lovely. Here I’ll sign it and then you should probably be going.
She writes for quite some time. She returns the book to Margery.
It was wonderful to meet—
[a blurt] Would you hear my confession?
Oooooh. [Beat.] Forgive me, but I can’t.
It could inflame my passions. Too much excitement, you understand. Sometimes I think that Confession was invented just to give the poor priests a little taste of life.
Creature, by Heidi Schreck, directed by Leigh Silverman, runs October 27-November 21 at The Ohio Theater (66 Wooster Street, NYC). It is co-produced by New Georges and Page 73 Productions. For more information and tickets, visit www.p73.org or www.newgeorges.org or call 212-352-3101.
IN DIALOGUE is a column written by playwrights about playwrights, with a focus on showcasing new texts. If you are a playwright and would like to write a column, please contact Emily DeVoti at [email protected]
DAVID ADJMI's play Stunning premiered at Lincoln Center in June.