Bright Half Life begins with a timeless concept: soul mates, “an idea that may or may not exist,” according to the exuberant deliberations of Erica, as she stands in a hallway, proposing marriage outside the apartment of her ex-girlfriend Vicky.
From that controvertibly romantic opening, the play uses the possibilities of time and marriage—and the shifting lives of Erica and Vicky—to argue both yes and no.
But really: “soul mates,” do they exist?
“I can’t really answer that question,” hedges playwright Tanya Barfield. And no, not because she’s being coy or on the spoiler-alert, but because “for each person watching, I think the answer will be different,” she explains, understanding perfectly the prismatic workings of her singular new play, and the individual theatrical experience it promises.
Bright Half Life begins performances February 17, directed by longtime collaborator Leigh Silverman, at the Women’s Project Theater (now known as the more hip “WP,” under the artistic direction of Lisa McNulty).
With just two characters, and “little to no set,” the play dramatizes a series of short (often less than a page), non-chronological flashes that together create before us a relationship that spans 45 years. Barfield describes the constant shifts forward-and-back in time as “seamless, momentarily disorienting, and without pause.”
Yep, the audience is in for quite a ride: at the tippy-top of a Ferris wheel one moment, in a tense elevator at the doctor’s office the next.
By the end, through the halting language of their overlapping dialogue, we’ve shared in the most intimate details of these two women’s life together. And we’ve also explored something larger: leaps taken, hearts broken, and that “Ritual of Commitment … or perhaps a Ritual of Delusion” that Erica deliberates in her opening proposal.
The Rail caught up with Barfield as she was heading into the rehearsal process.
Kathryn Walat (Rail): With this play you’ve created such an interesting moment-to-moment structure. How did you come to that?
Tanya Barfield: So, in my life: Event A leads to Event B that leads to Event C.
Rail: Totally linear—
Barfield: But in my mind, all three events happen at the same time—or even out of sequence. Dream logic governs, and I find that pivotal events are punctuated by these quotidian moments. I remember the red rotary telephone in my childhood kitchen more clearly than I remember my college graduation.
Rail: Was that your starting place for the piece, thinking about life, and time, and memory?
Barfield: When I first sit down to write a play—any play—I have no plans, I just free-write for about 20 to 30 pages to explore ideas. With Bright Half Life I kept writing a lot of short scenes and thinking: “These scenes are too short, it’s like they’ve been written on Twitter! I’ve got to start writing the play.”
My previous play The Call begins with a 20-page dinner scene, and follows a classic linear structure, and I wanted to write another play like that. (I always think I should be writing something very different than what I’m actually writing.) So it took awhile for me to realize that I already was writing the play.
From Bright Half Life:
(pissed off) Why. Are. You. Here.
My father’s dying
Oh oh oh no/
Will you marry me.
What? No You—this is grief
I am, I’m grieving and
You’re not, you’re proposing
I’m so happy to be here
You’re experiencing loss. This is, this is [delusion], I don’t know what this is
We’ve been together for a long time…
I broke up with you
Barfield: In some ways Bright Half Life is a return to an earlier aesthetic. My first major play, Blue Door, was also a two-hander that warps time. But this play is also a creative leap forward for me. It’s the most intimate play I’ve written to date, and I find that really exciting.
Rail: Have the time shifts and moment-to-moment structure of the play offered more challenges, or freedoms?
Barfield: The biggest challenge actually became a creative opportunity. I thought: How do I structure a satisfying dramatic arc with a nonlinear narrative? And how do I calibrate momentum through a series of short scenes—there are over 75, some only one sentence long—as opposed to a more traditional play, with five or ten scenes total?
Even with this structure, it was important for me to create a play that had both dramatic tension and rising action.
Rail: Audiences need that.
Barfield: Right, so even though the play unfolds out of sequence, it still follows, I believe, a traditional structure in terms of a beginning, middle, and end.
The penultimate moment is chronologically the inciting incident (reflecting the start of the play), but it’s also the climax, as with traditional structure. We see what sparked the entire crisis of the play, just before the story ends.
From Bright Half Life:
My heart really this is serious
When he first gave us the menu, I thought don’t order a cream sauce
Ow, this might be a heart attack
That’s for old people
You didn’t really chew your food
Do you want some Tums?
(Without pause, we are back in the hallway).
The thing is: [soulmates]
Your dad’s dying, okay okay okay / I’ll go
No don’t go
I just said I’d go
People die, it’s part of life, dying
You don’t have to go
Rail: You create such an active experience for your audience, because we’re constantly making the realization that a shift in time/place/conversation has occurred, while also piecing together bits of story with previous bits we’ve gotten.
As a reader, I loved that. How has that worked for audience members as you’ve developed the play?
Barfield: When the play was read this summer at the O’Neill [National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center], it was interesting to discover at what point audience members clicked into the experience and both understood and embraced the structure.
The “ah ha!” moment came for each person at a different time, so that moment of audience recognition is impossible to predict entirely. I have tried to place “markers” throughout the play, like signposts, so that audience members are able to orient themselves within the disorientation.
Rail: The timeframe of your play is interesting too, that it stretches over so many years. How has that influenced the play in terms of the evolving identity of gay women in our country? Or the changing role of marriage?
Barfield: The “politics of being gay” grace notes the play, I think. When I began writing, I wasn’t thinking politically. But, like it or not, historically there’s always been something inherently political about being gay.
Midway through writing the first draft, I mapped the play’s timeline and realized a surprising juxtaposition between the marriage proposal and national uproar over gay marriage. And the romance between Erica and Vicky goes through turbulence just when there’s greater public acceptance of gay relationships.
Rail: That’s an interesting connection—or disconnection?
Barfield: And that dichotomy seems to reflect the play’s fractured story structure—the way memory, perception, and reality all work against one another.
Rail: The production later this month at WP will be the world premiere of the play?
Barfield: Right, and Rebecca Henderson and Rachel Holmes are our two amazingly talented actresses.
Rail: And you’ll be working again with Leigh Silverman (who directed Blue Door and The Call, both at Playwright’s Horizons). What are some conversations that you’ve been having with Leigh about Bright Half Life, as you head into rehearsals?
Barfield: It’s hard to say exactly what we talk about—but I will say that I find working with Leigh to be a magical experience. Like I walk around saying: “I can’t believe this is my life.” When Leigh and I first met in the mid ‘90s, she was an assistant director and I’d barely written half a play. Today, when it comes to talking about plays, we’ve developed a shorthand.
I feel like Leigh literally lives inside my creative brain—except as a smarter version of me. She can be really tough sometimes, which I like. In the end, the experience is both thrilling and rigorous.
Rail: You specify that the play has “little to no set.” How has design contributed to the process?
Barfield: When I saw the model for Rachel Hauck’s set, I was blown away. Rachel (who also designed The Call) and Leigh have come up with a design concept that fits the play perfectly—yet, I never would have thought of it myself. That’s my favorite kind of collaboration.
Rail: Sounds to me something like artistic soul mates at work. I can’t wait to see the result.
Bright Half Life, by Tanya Barfield, directed by Leigh Silverman, runs February 17 – March 22 at Women’s Project Theater (New York City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th Street, Manhattan). For tickets and further info, visit: www.wptheater.org.
KATHRYN WALAT is a playwright whose latest work is Small Town Values, inspired by Wilder's Our Town.