It’s an extraordinary thing.
Usually when someone writes a cycle of plays, the plays eventually get performed sequentially or in repertory, by a single company, in a single theater, under a single director. But rarely is a cycle of plays produced simultaneously thanks to a theatrical vision that both embraces an entire neighborhood of theaters as a venue and opens itself to a host of artistic voices as collaborators. It’s a rare vision that can imagine such openness, and it’s a rare playwright whose work can actually and effortlessly embrace and accommodate it.
Lucy Thurber is that rare playwright and her Hill Town Plays cycle is that rare work. And it’s Rattlestick artistic director David Van Asselt’s vision that will bring this cycle of five plays (Where We’re Born, Ashville, Killers and Other Family, Scarcity, and Stay) to four theaters in the West Village (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Cherry Lane Theatre, Axis Theatre, and the New Ohio Theatre) in five different productions helmed by five directors (Gaye Taylor Upchurch, Jackson Gay, Caitriona McLaughlin, Karen Allen, and Daniel Talbott) with five different casts. “It’s exciting, delightful, and terrifying,” says Lucy. Yeah. Also? Extraordinary.
Recently, I had the chance to talk with Lucy about the project.
Mark Schultz (Rail): What is the cycle? What is it about? Where does it come from?
Lucy Thurber: The cycle is an examination of a girl. In each of the plays, I’m investigating a different aspect of the girl and the world. It’s an examination, from my perspective, of the culture of poverty in America. And it takes place in rural America—but I think that if you change the location to poverty-ridden neighborhoods in cities or suburbs, the issues are the same: lack of work; lack of education; very, very early on too much drugs and alcohol; complicated relationships; dangerous situations due to those circumstances. It’s very much from the girl’s perspective. There’s also a lot about being gay in it.
It’s a five-play cycle because the girl couldn’t get where she was going in one play. It’s a journey of this girl to a place where she can look at the things in herself—look at her past, look at her present, look at the trauma, the things she’s afraid of—while at the same time be able to look around her and recognize: no matter where we come from, we all come with these stories we’ve created, these narratives. At the end of this cycle she is able to say: I’m not afraid to be brave enough to let somebody actually touch the parts of me I kept to myself this whole time for fear that they would be ravaged and destroyed by the journey that I’ve taken. With that kind of act of bravery, you allow bravery in others. And ultimately, in some way, that’s the purpose of stories.
Rail: The plays are all haunted by a sense of space.
Rail: They’re all haunted by a place. And whether or not the character is in the place or outside of the place, the place always haunts them. And it can be a scary place.
Thurber: Yes. It’s a scary and beautiful place. So it’s a complicated relationship where fear and beauty and love are so intricately wound together. The tightness of that weave is impossible, or very difficult, to separate. If you’re experiencing love and beauty simultaneously with fear and danger, it’s a complicated wave to surf.
It’s funny, I still in a lot of ways make assumptions that people grew up the way I did. And a lot of people did, actually. But it was really only when Scarcity happened and Charles Isherwood called it “unconvincing” in his review in the New York Times that it occurred to me that my upbringing was not par for the course for a lot of the people that I live around now. Part of what happens in the plays is that the character has come to an understanding that there are people from other backgrounds—the world is much bigger. But her inability to truly communicate where she comes from—except to the people that she grew up with—is problematic. And it prevents her from understanding that everybody comes with a story. And it may not be the same, but everybody’s story is valuable and important.
Rail: So often it seems that the question of the plays is how do we become who we are? And the things that catalyze that question are located in relationships. I mean violence happens because of—
Thurber: Lack. Often a lack of language.
Thurber: I think violence happens because the characters in the play are in a place where they’re not given the tools that are based around how to have a conversation where I’m emotionally available. There’s a lack of language. There’s a lack of, often, food. There’s a lack. I think these people are fiercely clannish? And there’s this idea of when nothing belongs to you, what do you do? Well, you belong to me, and I belong to you.
Rail: That goes to, how do we become who we are? Because it’s not just about us. It’s about people—it’s about family. How do we be family? How do we construct a family together?
Thurber: I think that a lot of the plays in a lot of ways are about people, regardless of their age, who have not been parented (I guess maybe that’s wrong, that’s putting more of an outside judgment on it)—who have not been afforded the opportunities of a life where they feel that they’re visible or seen or cared for. So that all of the characters, regardless of age, are all trying to find some way to either parent or be parented when no one is equipped for that.
I think there’s a lot in these plays about being invisible: locations that are sort of abandoned by a greater America and invisible to the greater America; and people in those locations who feel abandoned by and invisible to the greater America, to themselves and to each other. And then being raised in those environments as a child or a young adult, you are essentially triply invisible—because the people who are raising you are struggling so hard to actually maintain the feeling that they exist. So they can’t recognize that they might not be helping their children feel like they exist.
I mean it’s funny you said that thing about family—the plays are all in some way or another great love songs, passionate love songs, to the idea, to the belief, in family. However you construct that. So much of my initial impetus in writing these plays was that I so profoundly miss the people that I grew up around and I so profoundly miss having those people around me. It’s like the unsolvable conflict, you know? How do you go and stay at the same time? How do you be more than one thing? How do you be from the country and a very conservative background and also be gay? How can you be from a very complicated and violent place where you are also loved deeply? You’re stuck forever in the middle—you lack the language.
Rail: The honesty of the plays is one of the things that I appreciate about the work. You don’t pull any punches. It’s not idealized. We often think that we love something that’s real, but we’re not being honest about it. The way to actually love the real thing is to be honest about what it is. And I think that’s what makes these real love stories and love poems and love letters.
Thurber: And I think ultimately that’s the thing, right? I mean—I don’t remember what I was going to say. [Laughter.]
What I did want to say though, is, you know, the crazy beautiful madness of David Van Asselt at Rattlestick Theater? This is the kickoff of something he’s going to do every year. It’s not all going to be one writer, but he’s going to do this five-plays-running-simultaneously festival in the West Village. But that being said, when this is said and done, he will have produced Killers and Other Family three times. He will have produced Where We’re Born twice. He will have produced Stay twice. He will have premiered Ashville, and then he will also have done Scarcity, which has been done in the last three or four years in a production in New York City.
Rail: Yeah. That’s extraordinary.
Rail: That’s really extraordinary.
Thurber: It’s extraordinary when we’re talking about new work in America.
I would say I have benefitted deeply from his commitment and vision of what theater is. And I feel very lucky that I am getting to take part in that vision of his. I think that sort of bravery—producing bravery—should be noted.
Rail: That goes back to what we were talking about learning the language in order to be able to tell the story—if you don’t have the people around you, if you don’t have the family around you saying, yes, this could be you; yes, you can be this, then, you know—it’s great that he’s doing it.
Thurber: Yeah, it’s crazytown.
Thurber: It’s absolute insanity. But it sure is beautiful.
MARK SCHULTZ is a playwright. He's the coordinator of MCC Theater's Playwrights' Coalition and a member of Rising Phoenix Rep and New Dramatists.