Sarah Shaefer: A Noir Encounter
When she walked into the dim, old bar on the Bowery that rainy night (when it seemed that every cloud over New York was weeping for the loss of our collective innocence), it was as if all the clocks from Cincinnati to Singapore suddenly stopped ticking.
Only the drip of water slanting off her black raincoat and onto the over-used floor, a floor that had seen too many footsteps, yes, and received and held too many teardrops and too much vomit—only that quiet, insistent drip—only that—seemed to denote the passage of time.
She sat down. My heart leaped in my chest like the latest winner of a New York Lottery. She ordered a ginger ale. I was on my fifth scotch. I didn’t care. I was here to interview a superstar and I needed some medication—a cool, soft blanket to smother the unkempt fire crackling the rim of my nerves.
“What do you want to talk about?” she asked me, cool customer, more water dripping, ginger ale on her soft curving lips, thunder crushing Staten Island.
“You,” I answered. The only word I could think of. The word that held an entire world, with all its aching continents and dark islands, dark civilizations.
She lit a cig. I didn’t have the heart to tell her you could no longer smoke in a New York City bar. But it wouldn’t matter. She wasn’t from this time. She was from a time before laws defined our easy passions and our souls. I coughed a little.
“I write in the mornings,” she told me as I watched blue smoke curl around her head like the halo of a pre-Renaissance painting. Something by Giotto. Or Cimabue.
I like writing. Gets me out of my head. Is it cold in here? When is this rain ever going to end? Why is everything in black and white? Why is the bartender giving me that look? HEY BUDDY I CAN SMOKE IF I WANT. Anyway, yeah, I started early. I was cast as a pigeon. They wanted us to wear nude stockings. I was really excited about that. No—a dove, a dove of peace! It was kindergarten. I wonder where some of those losers are today. Probably jail. My mother thought the nude stockings were too provocative for a five year old. HI MA, I’M STILL WEARING THE NUDE STOCKINGS AND YOU CAN’T STOP ME. That’s where it started for me. My love for this theater thing. In theater you can become these people you’re not necessarily allowed to be. Like this provocative pigeon. Even the traffic lights outside are black and white. This ginger ale is gonna make me burp. Yeah, when I write—it’s not really transcending myself—I’m more like escaping myself by actually really dealing with my life, like looking at it under a microscope, so whatever I might be experiencing in my life, I can experience it in a safe environment, which is on the page. But the thing is, I don’t really feel in control of my life as I’m writing it, I feel a little out of control. But by writing it, I can feel a little removed from the actual experiences of my life, which have been traumatic experiences. Though nothing is as traumatic as being told you’re not allowed to wear nude stockings, let me tell you. Writing about the trauma is like re-living the trauma, like, what’s that therapy term that describes when you do something that terrifies you and you do it over and over? Anyway, it helps me to recover from it by looking at it—sharing it with audiences has been really helpful because they laugh at things and it’s great to hear other people laugh at things, ’cause laughter is a really good cure. As writers we bear witness to things. Regardless of what I may feel about an experience, personally, I feel like I have a responsibility to share that experience to hopefully help somebody else be of service to other people. Hey, be a dear and order me another ginger ale. Thanks, baby. Say, what are you doing after this interview? Damn, this rain! That thunder! Like cannons going off! Reminds me of a time when I was behind enemy lines during the war, carrying secret messages to the Allies—but that’s another story. The Gin Baby is the first play I’ve ever written. It was a struggle to write, I wanted to set that play on fire many times! After The Gin Baby comes Sunk Like a Ship on Fire but I’ve never had a public reading of that. Then I started writing a play called Not Any. Then I was commissioned to write this play about porn, which I would like to say, is not autobiographical. I said, ‘Mom I got this commission to write a play about pornography,’ and she thought I was starting to write for porn and she’s like, ‘Sarah, okay, I support you in whatever choices you make, but are you like a porn screenwriter now? Was it because I wouldn’t let you wear the nude stockings when you were five?’ Mothers are weird. When I go to the theater I always hope to feel transcended, I like to be carried away, taken into the folds of the play, I like to have a spiritual experience when I go to see theater. ’Cause that’s how theater started. They used it to call up to the Gods. I want to get goosebumps and be on the edge of my seat and cry and laugh—doesn’t happen often—when I don’t like a play, I ask myself what it is I didn’t like and usually it turns out that the play dealt with something I didn’t like in myself. Gee, you’re swell to listen to all this meandering—writing is a solitary art form, at least at first, you start with yourself and the page and your fingers typing, so then starting to share the story with other people is a good thing—I like solitude, I’m an ‘isolater,’ so sharing with other people is a challenge, but in a good way. Daniel Talbott encouraged me to go a hundred times further in The Gin Baby, which he’s directing. After watching Shame and The Piano Teacher —which Daniel made me watch to show me what’s possible —I completely rewrote the play—he said, ‘You need to take the top 10 most humiliating things that ever happened to you and put them on the page.’ I did that, and it really helped the play. I’m very extreme in my thinking and so is Daniel and the play has improved exponentially because of our collaboration. I told him I want people to feel inspired by my plays and he was like, ‘Then you gotta go 10 times further.’ That’s when I did all the rewrites of the play. In my writing, I deal with things that bring me shame because then I can shed a little light on it for myself and maybe shed a little light for somebody else, so that me and that other person can start a dialogue about mental health, or rape, or the stigmas attached to these things. That bartender looks like an ex of mine. What else can I tell you? I have no formal training in playwriting, so I don’t usually think in themes—but if I had to describe a theme to The Gin Baby it might be ‘success through failure.’ Nobody gets sober because they wanted to get sober, they have to be forced into it, and I felt at one point that I failed at life, that my greatest failure was in not being able to drink like a normal person—and this realization has completely transformed my life—but then, because I did get sober, it has become ultimately my greatest success. The character’s failure in The Gin Baby is in having to commit herself to a psych ward, but this ends up being the greatest success in her life—your greatest failures could end up being your greatest successes, that’s how I feel about life and that’s become a theme in The Gin Baby—but I don’t know how public I want to be about this—so if you mention any of this in the interview, I may have to have you killed and I know people. Just pulling your leg, baby. You’re the nervous type, aren’t you? Relax, I don’t bite, at least not right away. This rain, this rain is never going to stop, is it? I write for an hour or two in the morning—I work for 10 hours a day, every day, producing theater, I write as I listen to music—I read Lord of the Rings 18 times—don’t know why I just said that. But I said it and I won’t take it back. Eighteen times! And I loved every second! Oh, baby doll, gotta run!
And just like that she stomped out her cigarette, downed the last of the ginger ale, threw on her black raincoat, and without a backward glance, without so much as a final “adios amigo” to me or the over-muscled bartender who looked like her ex, she was gone.
Gone. The air in the bar was suddenly devoid of her vibrating energy and the wild, high laughter. All gone into the dreadful New York night and all its lonely caverns.
I just looked at my notebook, full of her insights and humble musings. I closed my notebook. And thought about our brief encounter. The air was cool on my skin. Somewhere, in some nearby tenement, an old saxophone wailed, telling a story of lost love, probably, ships passing in the night.
And, well, as for me—despite all the laws of the land, despite the rule-making lords governing our brief and intangible lives, I lit a cigarette, and loved it as the rain kept falling.
The Gin Baby by Sarah Shaefer will be presented by Mermaid Sand Productions and Kid Brooklyn Productions as part of IRT Theater’s 3B Development Series. January 14 – February 3, 2014 at 154 Christopher St. NYC #3B (3rd Floor). For tickets and more info visit: irttheater.org.
Jose Rivera is the Academy Award nominated writer of The Motorcycle Diaries as well as a two-time Obie Award winner for Marisol and References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot.