The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2011

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MAR 2011 Issue
Theater In Conversation

MAKING KIN: Bathsheba Doran with Jenny Schwartz

JENNY: It’s supposed to be 1,800 words.

BASH: Wow.

JENNY: How long is that?

BASH: Five pages.

JENNY: Oh really?

BASH: I don’t know. I just made that up.

JENNY: Okay.

BASH: Five pages. Single-spaced.

JENNY: I don’t know.

BASH: Wonderful.

JENNY: No idea.

BASH: Definitely.

JENNY: So, wait, the run starts at 1?

BASH [looking at her iPhone]: Um. Let me… Save draft. Say that again? The run starts at 1. Yeah.

JENNY: But I’m not allowed to see it?


JENNY [forlorn]: Oh.

BASH: Sorry. Sam’s got a thing about protecting the actors.

JENNY: I guess that makes sense.

BASH: Yeah.

JENNY: I was thinking, I’m not very threatening, but-

BASH: They’re threatened by everything.

JENNY: Exactly.

BASH: If I move my pen, they stop acting. It’s a nightmare. I want to punch them in the face.

JENNY: So, here’s my first question.

BASH: Okay.

JENNY: Wait, first of all, ok, just as a—

BASH [into the tape recorder]: Hello.

JENNY: As a um, as a person who also writes, I wanted to know how much of the play you thought of before you started writing.

BASH: Nothing. I knew nothing. What’s weird is that I wrote one of the last scenes of the play first, thinking it was the first. It’s the scene where Helena’s in North Carolina. And I thought it was going to be the premise of the whole play. That Helena’s friend Anna had given her this ridiculous advice to go to North Carolina and become a massage therapist. So for a long time, I couldn’t progress forward because the scene was in fact meant to be at the end of the play. So, what happened was, I started to realize that Helena’s friend was really the protagonist. And then, the more that I, because I have this very slow process of writing, and I basically sketch around characters, and the more that I sketched—

JENNY: How do you sketch around characters?

BASH: I sort of… I’ve pretty much stuck with the Eduardo Machado school of playwriting which involves a lot of sitting, breathing, wait ’til you feel some kind of emotion coursing through your veins, and then as soon as you hear the first line of dialogue, start writing. And all sorts of stuff would come out. So suddenly Anna was interacting with all of these different people, and then eventually, I worked out the most important thing, which was that watching her and her boyfriend talk to each other was unbelievably boring. And I couldn’t find a way to elevate it. And yet at the same time, the story seemed to be the story of this couple getting together. So then I had basically the same idea as I had in Parents’ Evening, which was to take out the central figure. Well, in Parents’ Evening, I took out the child, and in this case, I stopped dramatizing the union and instead tried to tell the story of the union through all the different characters in their lives. So then it started to get complicated and structurally interesting and intricate and baffling and large, and I just… pushed on. When I’m writing a play, I just sit down with my pen… Well, actually, this is the first time I wrote in pencil, which I think really was good for me. The pressure of permanence was lifted. And I wrote every single day.

JENNY: Did you use the eraser?

BASH: No. I crossed out. But there’s something about a pen that’s too much.

JENNY: So, you wrote every single day.

BASH: Every day I could.

JENNY: Over how long a period of time?

BASH: I have no idea. Months?

JENNY: Do you write the names of the characters down each time they speak?

BASH: Not initially. I usually write A, B, A, B.

JENNY: Do you write A colon, B colon?

BASH: Yeah, and then eventually names kind of start to come.

JENNY: When do you type up the pages?

BASH: I type up each scene after I’ve written it.

JENNY: Do you make any changes?

BASH: I tidy it up a little bit.

JENNY: So you don’t have a rule against making changes?

BASH: Eduardo had a rule against making changes. I haven’t entirely abided by it.

JENNY: Were Anna and Helena always American?

BASH: They were. It’s been kind of a struggle. I’ve been here such a long time, and I used to feel, before this play, that to write an American, I was writing “An American.” And then I decided, and I think this was a conscious decision, just write. So, I sort of let it go and eventually the location just kind of announces itself.

JENNY: Once you figure out something, do you have to go back and plant it?

BASH: It’s nearly always all there. So, the language basically remains. Though there’s a tremendous amount of moving things around. And usually I wind up discarding a hundred pages. That might be an exaggeration, but it feels like a hundred pages.

JENNY: Do you generate all the material first, before you start to move things around?

BASH: By the time I start to move things around, I’m nearly there. But once the play had started to take shape, some things came very naturally. For example, I felt very strongly there should be a kind of a mystical scene, and one day, I sat down and said, “I’m ready for my mystical scene. Go.” And I wrote the scene with Helena and Gideon. Which, by the way, is definitely a version of an interaction I had on an Iowan roof.

JENNY: What happened on the roof?

BASH: I was in Iowa visiting with Katie’s family, this was before we got married, and her brother needed help putting his roof on. So, already I’m so far from home, I can’t even… How the hell? So I’m on this roof with some kind of staple gun and Katie’s brother’s best friend, who’s this strapping Iowan with six children, and we get to talking, and one of Katie’s nephews comes up and says, “Bash, when you and Aunt Katie get married, who’s gonna wear the dress?” And I was like, “Well, we’re both gonna wear a dress because we’re both girls.” So I say to the strapping Iowan, “Oh, you know, the kids are having trouble figuring out the gender thing.” And I could see from the look on his face that he was having trouble, too. And then a bit later, the kid comes back and says, “How long is this roof gonna last?” And I say, “I think it’s gonna last about twenty years, and then we’ll have to do it again.” And the kid says, “Are you gonna be here to do it again?” And I was like, “Yeah. Yes. I guess I am.” And then I saw this guy, this strapping Iowan with six children… I saw him get it. Get who I was. He realized that I was getting married too and that marriage is defined by saying you’ll be here in twenty years to fix the roof.

JENNY: Do you see similarities between Kin and your other plays? And was there anything that felt different or new or a departure?

BASH: In Living Room in Africa and Nest, I also wrote about expatriation and distance, which are obviously big things for me. And everything I’ve ever written is about friendship, on some level. How deep and complicated those relationships can be. As far as differences… before I started Kin, I thought abstractly that I wanted the next thing I wrote to be what I kept conceptualizing as a theatrical event more than a play. So I knew that going in. But then, it turns out that because I’m a playwright and not a creator of theatrical events, I, of course, ended up writing a play. But for the first time, I was consciously leaving choices for someone else to make. With Living Room, I think I had quite an authoritative voice that was specific, and this time, I was specific about areas I wanted to leave open.

JENNY: Now, Living Room also skips ahead in time—

BASH: Yeah, but not over such a great period of time. When I finally accepted that Kin was going to take place over seven years, which is quite scary, and I’m glad I didn’t know too much in advance because it would have really messed up the rhythm, because seven years sounds slow and plodding, which I don’t think the play is intended to be.

JENNY: You didn’t write the date at the beginning of each scene, which I thought was interesting.  

BASH: Because I don’t want the feeling to be of time passing. I want it all to feel very immediate. In a weird way, it’s not a memory play, but there is this sense of retrospection because time is moving fast. The way it does when we think about five years ago, we don’t feel plodding; it feels like yesterday. 

JENNY: Anna’s progress with her book gives us clues about where we are in time.

BASH: Right. But the book was so weird because at the beginning I thought, “Is this a play about an academic who’s frustrated because nobody wants to publish her book?” Which felt really small to me. And then suddenly, I started to realize, “Oh my God. Shit. It’s a love story. It’s a marriage play,” and the book came to serve a rather different purpose, which is, yes, one day you’ll be worried no one will publish your book and the next day someone will have published your book. Who cares in a certain way. It’s not really the most important… It feels important at the time, but—

JENNY: I also liked that Sean told Anna to come up with a new title, even though he didn’t read the book.

BASH: Right. He had a very sensible thought.

JENNY: Whereas poor Helena—

BASH: She read it three times.

JENNY: She probably liked the original title.

BASH: She probably felt that Anna sold out just a little bit.

JENNY: How’s Boardwalk Empire?

BASH: I really like it. I find it incredibly interesting, incredibly stimulating, and in some sense, I feel like Kin is the sum total of my life thus far, which is pretty scary and to get more sums into my life, I need to have new experiences, and writing for TV is a completely new experience.

JENNY: Do you always feel like your plays are sum totals of your life?

BASH: Never like I have with this one. All my plays, I find a way to personalize, of course, but this play is definitely… it goes very deep with me. There’s not a line in it that I can’t trace back to specific moments and feelings and instances and-

JENNY: Wait, don’t you have to go? 

BASH: I have a couple minutes. This was lovely. It turns out I love to talk about me and my plays [reaches for the check].

JENNY: No no no, I’m paying.

BASH: You shouldn’t pay. I should pay.

JENNY: No no no.

BASH: Actually, would you mind paying? Because I can’t seem to dig out my wallet.

JENNY: Yeah yeah sure.

BASH: But I’m taking you out. That’s right. You. Out. You know, the biggest difference in this play is… all my other plays I think had a pretty bleak view of humanity and basically posit that change never happens and as hard as you try to become different, you won’t and the world is a very destructive environment. And the huge departure in this play is about change both for the characters in it, and also you get this impression how gender relations have changed. There’s just a hope to it and to be perfectly honest, it’s the first play I’ve written in America under Obama’s presidency. I know that sounds ridiculous, and I don’t think I’m a political playwright, but I’m affected by the world around me, and I felt very hopeless. But also, in my own life, I’ve had a good couple of years. So I’ve felt… I’ve had a lot of pain in my life, and I feel like I’ve healed in a certain way, and I feel that it’s my relationship with my wife that did a lot of that. And I’ve seen friends of mine, and this is very much in the play, go through tremendous bouts of insanity that I think come partly from being fragile but also partly from trying to live in this city in this moment in time when we’re so isolated and the world is so confusing. And I’ve seen them survive. So the very new thing is hope. 

KIN by Bathsheba Doran, directed by Sam Gold, runs February 25 – April 3 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, Manhattan. For tickets and further info:


Bathsheba Doran

BATHSHEBA DORAN's other plays include Parents' Evening, Ben and the Magic Paintbrush, Living Room in Africa, Nest and adaptations of Dickens's Great Expectations, Maeterlinck's The Blind and Ibsen's Peer Gynt. She is currently adapting The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency as a feature for HBO Films; and is writing on Season Two of the acclaimed Martin Scorsese/HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Ms. Doran moved to the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship in 2000, after working as a TV sketch comedy writer in England. She received her B.A. from Cambridge University, her M.F.A. from Columbia University, and went on to become a playwriting fellow at Juilliard. She is a recipient of a Helen Merrill Award, and under commission from Atlantic Theater and Playwrights Horizons. Her work is available from Samuel French and Playscripts Inc. She lives in New York City.

Jenny Schwartz

JENNY SCHWARTZ's plays include God's Ear and Cause For Alarm. She is determined to finish her play-in-progress Somewhere Fun in 2011. Jenny and Bash were classmates at Juilliard.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2011

All Issues