The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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SEPT 2023 Issue
Theater In Conversation

Josiah Davis with Emma Horwitz

Emma Horwitz and Josiah Davis. Photo: Yonatan Gebeyehu.
Emma Horwitz and Josiah Davis. Photo: Yonatan Gebeyehu.

In the early autumn of 2018, I wrote the play Mary Gets Hers in response to an unrelenting series of losses in my life. Basically, I needed to laugh. During that winter’s Writing is Live festival at Brown University, I was paired to work alongside the director Josiah Davis. What lucky, lucky fate. As close friends already, we quickly careened into rigorous and easy collaboration. We have continued to work on this play together with that foundation—first, during my Writing Fellowship at The Playwrights Realm, and now through the Realm’s production of Mary Gets Hers this fall. The play—inspired by a tenth century comedy by Hrotsvitha—opens on a girl who loses everyone she’s ever known in a plague. As we have moved through the extreme communal and personal losses of the last few years, Josiah and I have worked toward creating pockets of joy and laughter, while excavating the mystery of coming to know oneself. What follows is an excerpted conversation between the two of us.

On becoming and coming-of-age:

Emma Horwitz (Rail): When I think of the work that you’ve been making in the last four or five years, I see this thread of interest from you in becoming.

Josiah Davis: That’s beautiful! I’ve never thought about it like that. I've been trying to figure out, like, what the thing is, what the throughline is, the why. It feels like the most important things that I’ve done so far have come to me. That experience of I actually wasn't looking for this, but it found me and it feels so right, for right now. That has always held more true for me versus like, I need to make something to prove X, or I need to make something like this right now because that’s what my peers are doing. I think too, the pieces I end up creating allow all of the contradictions that I believe about the world to exist at the same time. I think that might even be my reason for doing theater. There’s just a lot between the way I grew up and where I’m at now in life that don’t or aren't supposed to make sense together and this is how I process it all.

Rail: Like an incongruity or a contradictory throughline that has to be tended to. Not trying to create a sense of the contradiction, but trying to hold both at the same time.

Davis: Exactly. And I have trouble putting some of these arguments or articulations into words. So physicalizing it, or creating images about it, or finding collaborators like yourself who hold the same contradictions and are able to articulate it, I am able to join you in that, which feels really important in how I’ve been becoming myself. The plays we’ve worked on together have been largely coming-of-age stories. And I think there’s something inherently present to a central figure or main character who is trying to figure out something new in themselves, in real time. 

Rail: Totally. 

Davis: They’re going on this journey of figuring out who they are—whether that’s big or small, internal or external—and there’s no way to not be immediate in that experience. There’s so much nuance in how different people become themselves. There is no finish line. Always evolving. That just feels endlessly interesting to me.

Rail: I love the phrase coming-of-age. I’d like to think at every age, we are coming of age. 

On impulse & expectation:

Rail: I was thinking about how our collaboration has changed in knowing each other more deeply over time. In the past few years, especially around this play, I’ve noticed your advocacy for certain moments or characters. If I’m super quick to say, let’s cut that, you’re willing to counter with a let me try it again. To open up toward the original impulse. In that way, what we’re doing together is taking those first impulses—and the language that shaped them—and figuring out what needs to be teased out in space and movement to honor that. 

Davis: One hundred percent, but I have to say, it’s because trust has been built on your side as well. I know how much thought you’ve put into this, I know what the rhythm of it is, and what it’s supposed to be doing on the page. And I really deeply trust that. And because I trust these words so deeply, I can do more experiments to get to the right emotion. And if we fail on both sides, then we know we have to do something different. 

Rail: We often talk about being ahead of people’s expectations. That we know how something should feel when it hits the right speed and tempo. And so much of our collaboration, whether with a group of rowdy girls at a disintegrating summer camp in kemps, or determined monks in a medieval monastery in Mary Gets Hers, that we have a sense that in order for these stories about an endless arrival to the mystery of yourself to unfold, what we need is a theatrical speed that doesn’t let us sit in anything for too long until we really have to. In developing the bravery to get to the silence. 

Davis: We can often be speeding ahead, keeping things going plot-wise. But emotionally, I think we’re both looking to be right on time. How do we not let the experience get too intellectual? So we can allow the body to feel.

On Soup

Davis: What’s your favorite soup? 

Rail: I have to qualify this: I come from a family that makes chicken stock regularly. Every so often, growing up, the apartment would smell a little like sweet urine in the middle of the night, while everything was simmering. So, in addition to soup, it’s really stock I have an obsession with. 

Davis: What about a bisque? 

Rail: I would never say no to a bisque! A soup is contradiction and complexity. It’s all balance. And presence! You have to eat it before it gets too cold. What’s your soup? 

Davis: My soup is ramen. Well, that’s deeply about the stock, especially for tonkotsu. It’s just so rich. It fills in all the gaps that your body needs. 

Rail: It does feel like giving yourself soup as a meal is something that you hold as much as it holds you. Also, soup is an incredibly communal food. 

Davis: I love that. It’s communal and present. Eat it while it’s hot. 

Rail: That’s how we like to serve our plays to people. Here is a steaming, piping bowl of hot soup, and we want you to eat it with us. It is hearty and warm and filled with deep emotions that are also balanced by unexpected garnishes. 

Davis: And you don’t know what’s in it, exactly. You can’t see the bottom. 

Rail: It’s a little murky. There’s something a little confusing, a little dangerous. We both really delight in the sense that you don’t know what’s about to happen.


Emma Horwitz

Emma Horwitz is a writer from New York City who was born on the coldest day of the year in January 1992.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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