Erin Courtney, the 12th playwright to assume artistic leadership of 13P, the collective of playwrights devoted to producing their own work, talks with Madeleine George about her upcoming production, A Map of Virtue.
Madeleine George (Rail): How many virtues are there total in the world? Is there a standard list of virtues?
Erin Courtney: I think in religious terms, like in Catholicism, there might be a certain amount, like seven. Ken Schmoll, my director, did research on virtues and found that Ben Franklin had a list of 13 virtues and he had a checklist and every morning he would review his virtue list and he would try to do good during the day, and at night he would tally how he had done. For each one he had a little slogan or a little affirmation, but next to chastity—which he included on his list—he just kind of had a dot dot dot. It’s like he knew his own weakness and he was like, I can’t even convince myself of this one.
Rail: Interesting that he included it. I mean, maybe that’s part of what a virtue is—it has to be something that’s just a little bit out of your reach.
Courtney: That’s what we’ve been talking about in the rehearsal room a lot—it has to be something you’re striving towards.
Rail: Can you talk about the way that virtues function in this play?
Courtney: Well there are seven virtues that are named in the play, and before each scene the bird statue names a virtue. So there are seven, and then something mysterious and terrible happens, and then the seven virtues are counted backwards. I grew up Catholic but I don’t practice any religion currently, I’m not a very religious person, but I think that I’m trying to, like everybody, create a morality or a code of ethics to live by. I think about that a lot, and I think actually theater thinks about it a lot, even though we don’t necessarily call it that. But I thought I would make a frame for the play where these virtues are named. In each scene, though, the characters are striving towards the virtue with degrees of failure and success.
Rail: You said theater thinks about morality a lot. Why? What makes theater a moral art?
Courtney: A lot of theater is about conflict. Every time there’s a conflict, a character has to decide how to proceed. I think every time one makes a decision in life or in the theater, in a play, in a narrative, you’re choosing a path, and the path has moral implications. Now whether or not playwrights are stressing the moral implications, whether or not we as an audience are cognizant of the moral implications, I just think it’s inherent in the structure of the art form.
Rail: I wanted to ask you about symmetry. This play has a symmetrical structure, and there’s an act of terrible moral collapse in the center—a crux, a moral abyss. What’s suggestive about creating such perfect order around a moment of profound abyss?
Courtney: Symmetry is an incredibly complex system that many natural organisms have. Humans are symmetrical—our bodies are symmetrical. It’s incredibly complex and it’s organic. So there’s symmetry on one side of who we are—how we’re born with everything we’re born with, all of our DNA, all of our predispositions. Then culture and religion have crafted categories and labels for virtues, and for a moral/ethical way of living. It’s a construct with words, the virtues. So the play to me is an organic structure in which the seven virtues—curiosity, loyalty, empathy, honesty, integrity, love, and intuition (these virtues I picked out of my own palate of what I think is important to live by)—are like steps in a pyramid leading up to the middle of the play wherein there is this collapse or emptiness of virtue. And in fact there is a character who completely lacks any understanding of right and wrong, and lacks empathy entirely. She is operating completely outside the moral structure that mainstream society has constructed. When the emptiness happens, in the middle of the night, it is outside of the labels. Luckily the characters get to leave this place, and when they leave they enter back into the world, which has names for things about right and wrong. Also, I just love to write symmetrical plays!
Courtney: I think everybody has an organic storytelling instinct. I think some people are really linear storytellers and some people are circular storytellers and some people are episodic storytellers. And then there’s millions more—Kate E. Ryan writes tree-branching plays. So I think my organic structure has always been symmetrical, and I love plays where the main event happens in the middle, like Edward Bond’s Saved. I actually really love plays where the significant event happens in the middle, and where the changes are not necessarily traditionally dramaturgically dramatic, because in real life all this shit is happening all the time, right? It’s not like the big event happens and we have a little tiny denouement and then boom, our life is over. Our life exists in cyclical waves of existence, and we are always learning from the things we do or we’re not learning from the things we do, but a circle or a wave pattern just makes a lot more sense to me than an arrow.
Rail: In your play the central bird is a bird statue. Is there something significant about that?
Courtney: This has been a very interesting question: Why have I chosen an inanimate object, a thing that the natural symbol of it is a soaring flying thing, and I’ve turned it into a statue, tiny, in a person’s pocket? It’s a perspective shift. Plus I think it’s interesting for an inanimate object to be presenting a play in which virtues are the structure, a play which is markedly asking us to reflect upon virtue, a human construct, and it’s not human—it’s not even alive.
Rail: As an audience member or reader, I feel like one thing that’s extraordinary about this play is that it may be symmetrical, but it takes turns that cannot be predicted at the beginning. The play is very assured in that way, very abrupt and stunning. I think it’s unusual for a play to be so highly structured and to at the same time take audience members so by surprise.
Courtney: That’s why one should explore unique structures—they’re very liberating. I think having a set of complicated boundaries that you have to bounce off of allows your brain to make more interesting choices.
Rail: Is it different to be the playwright when you’re the artistic director, as you are in this production with 13P, than it is to be the playwright when you’re just the playwright?
Courtney: One thing that was remarkably different is that I had to read the script as an artistic director and not just as a playwright. I tend to underwrite, and as a playwright I feel very happy to underwrite things on purpose—I want there to be a lot of room for investigation and for the audience to make the leaps themselves. But as artistic director I looked at the script and I was like, “This is just too underwritten! Who is this playwright? She needs to go back and put a little more in. We need a little more help!”
Rail: This is the first time I’ve ever heard one of the Ps say, “I forced myself to cede artistic control by becoming the artistic director. I gave myself some brutal notes, and I forced myself to take them.” That’s so funny—you do love a constraint!
Courtney: I did do that to myself, but then I got to do whatever I wanted in constructing the team, and picking this team has been sheer joy.
Rail: Did you always think you would do this play for your 13P play?
Courtney: Rob Handel called me one day and he said, “We gotta apply for this grant and we’d like to apply with whatever play you want to do, but if you’re not ready to decide you don’t have to decide.” But I had actually been thinking that this play, A Map of Virtue, which I had just finished the first draft of, was the play. And the reason I knew instantly, as soon as he asked me, was one, because he asked me and the constraint was there, and two, because it’s a particular play. It’s particular in its form, it requires a lot of patience, it requires a lot of insight and trust, and I thought, “This would be a good one.” This one is a little bit risky, I feel a little bit frightened of this play. It feels risky to me.
A Map of Virtue runs from February 6 – 25, 2012 at the Fourth Street Theater. For more information and tickets, visit www.13p.org.
MADELEINE GEORGE is the 10th of the 13 playwrights who make up 13P (Thirteen Playwrights, Inc.).Erin Courtney
ERIN COURTNEY’s plays include I Will Be Gone, A Map Of Virtue, and Demon Baby. She is a Guggenheim Fellow, a 13P, a member of New Dramatists and she teaches in the MFA playwriting program at Brooklyn College.