Audrey editor Elissa Blake grabbed some phone time with American playwright Jen Silverman. A short chat about her play The Moors turned into a wide-ranging conversation about queerness, her influences, and her “obsessive pursuit of something”. Read on …
Elissa: Where you are right now and what’s happening this week?
Jen: I’m in Los Angeles right now. I usually live in New York, but I moved here for half of last year to work on a TV show, and have been back and forth since. This week, and the past six weeks since we finished shooting, I’ve been working on a novel for Random House. It’s a little overdue, and now that the TV shoot is over, I promised that I would double down on it. Oh, and later this week I’m headed to Sydney to see The Moors.
Elissa: Can you give me a taste of the kind of theatre that excites you right now?
Jen: Muscular, aggressive, provocative. Often with a dark sense of humour. It’s important to me that theatre reckons with the fact that it is happening in a real space for a live audience. That it is an invitation to that audience.
I love work that pays attention to its structure. I tend to find that plays that are aware of how they exist in space and time, are also aware of how their structure and content speak to each other.
Elissa: Which sounds very like the plays you write …
Jen: People often describe my work as queer or feminist or non-naturalistic. I think for the most part, that’s fair. But more than anything else, I would describe my plays as character-driven, and sharing a set of questions: are we capable of change? Are we destined to repeat our pasts, or reenact our legacies? Can we ever actually start over? And often, but not always, the characters are queer or female.
Elissa: Where do your ideas come from? Do you do lots of reading or see a lot of films or do your have other touchstones where you find ideas?
Jen: I have certain things I’m obsessed with. I moved around a lot as a child, raised in a lot of countries, and that might be how I developed an interest in how people transform and adapt. And I read a lot – fiction, essays, poetry. I try to keep my head in work other people are making especially when it isn’t the medium I’m working in at the moment.
But also, just paying attention to what’s happening around me becomes a process of constant questioning – asking about what is happening, and then trying to look underneath that to why it’s happening, what pre-existing, embedded structures are perpetuating it. And theatre is such an amazing medium for asking hard questions.
Elissa: When you were first developing and finding your voice were there other playwrights that inspired or influenced you?
Jen: Yeah, absolutely. Both of my parents are scientists, so I didn’t grow up going to the theatre. But they have a lot of books in the house. They’re avid readers, so I’d assumed I would become a novelist.
Then as an undergraduate I wandered into playwriting – sort of by accident. I had an amazing first teacher, Emily O’Dell, who gave me an introduction to theatre that was full of powerhouse female playwrights: Sarah Kane, Caryl Churchill, Naomi Iizuka, Naomi Wallace, Paula Vogel (who was her teacher, and later briefly mine) … these powerful, daring, political female playwrights.
Sarah Kane was my first and biggest influence both in terms of how personal the political can be, and how wildly provocative theatrical experiences can be built on structurally classical bones. One of my favourite quotes is – and I’m going to paraphrase badly – when Sarah Kane says that everybody seems to find her plays depressing, but for her, the plays are about hope. Reckoning with hope in the midst of all the darkness. That’s how they always felt for me as well, and that’s been a theatrical touchstone along the way – to be unafraid to let darkness and joy live side by side onstage as they do in life.
Elissa: You have two plays coming to Sydney this year, The Moors and later in the year, Wink. Should we start with The Moors? Can you tell me a little bit about the story without giving too much away?
Jen: The Moors has a very dark streak of comedy. It’s in conversation with the Bronte canon, to some degree. It uses a set of Gothic tropes, and a kind of freewheeling absurdism, to ask questions about loneliness and visibility. How difficult it is to be perceived correctly, how we crave the intimacy of being seen by another creature. Can we ever actually attain that intimacy without destroying ourselves and each other?
Elissa: What was your starting point for The Moors?
Jen: I remember I wrote the very first draft very quickly. I was doing a residency at Williamstown Theatre Festival here in the States and I think I had a week or ten days in which I finally had a quiet space to write. I’d been going through a very difficult personal patch and, completely unrelated, I had also stumbled across a bunch of letters Charlotte Bronte had written. They were shockingly upbeat letters about her completely isolated life, about loneliness and lack of visibility. How much a part of her life the landscape was – the moors were like a whole other family member, and she would describe them in detail.
When I sat down and started writing, I had no intention of being in conversation either with the life stuff I was going through, or the letters that I’d been reading, and yet somehow The Moors contain both.
Elissa: Were the novels of the Bronte sisters on the shelves of your parents? Did you come across them when you were younger?
Jen: Oh yeah, I read a number of them. But without any sense that I wanted to make anything out of them. I just devoured them.
Elissa: The Moors is on during Mardi Gras so it’s very much under the queer umbrella. How does it fit into that context?
Jen: Here’s the thing: I am queer. So all of my plays are written, I’m sure, with that lens. I can’t really extricate what I make from what my lens is. But some are more overtly political than others – I had a play in New York this past fall called Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties which is a very deliberately political piece.
Something like The Moors is not at all about queer politics. In an obvious way, there is a relationship between two of the women. But moreso, there’s a loneliness, a fluidity, a shape-shifting quality … an openness to change. Not just change from one thing to another, but openness to being more than one thing at the same time. These are things I associate with my own experience of being queer.
Elissa: There’s some discussion in our theatre industry about whether queer writers or directors should focus more on making overtly queer work because, well, who else is going to do it? Then there’s the argument that artists should be able to take on any subject matter at all and make what they want to make. Do you have any thoughts?
Jen: It feels like we’re having the same debate in the U.S. at the moment. Right now, the conversation is falling on the “stay-in-your-lane” side of things – meaning, if an artist makes work about someone who does not immediately and overtly resemble them, then there’s an interrogation into the authenticity of that. A feeling that perhaps they should have stuck with writing about a character who has their same class, race, sexuality, gender.
I think it’s valid and important to interrogate why we make what we make, especially in the case where something is made badly, and recycles stereotypes. I have seen queer female characters written by people who were not queer women, and in some cases, there were stereotypes that set my teeth on edge. But I don’t believe that, for example, a straight man should never write a queer female character. And I believe that there are theatrical questions that I want to interrogate, where it will not serve the play for all its characters to share the most obvious facets of my lived experience: queer, female, white, internationally-raised, short, etc.
I think about Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, or Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play Appropriate, and both of those pieces pose stunning, complex theatrical questions via characters who do not overtly resemble the playwrights.
What I’m trying to say, is that I’m interested in a cultural conversation that is about creating more space, instead of less. Do I want to see queer people making queer plays? Yes I do. But I also want to see, for example, a queer person turn their lens on an Arthur Miller play or a Shakespearean play or an ancient Greek play. Work that has been considered “universal,” work that has in the past been relegated to straight white men.
There’s been this idea embedded in programmatic decision-making, that straight white men deal with universal themes. Whereas women are supposed to write about the “female experience,” or queer people should provide a lens on “queer things.” I’ve heard some of my friends talk about their experience as playwrights of colour – that there is a specific narrative that theatres want to see them write, often a narrative about immigration, or being “other”. And it’s harder to get a play produced when these aren’t the artistic or intellectual experiments they want to undertake.
So, I want there to be space in which artists do not have to constantly create narratives that explain their identity to gate-keepers. In which there is room for all of us to tackle work that does not have to be immediately, visually coded as being “about” our identities. If we want to write about our identities, then great! That’s important! But I wish we were operating in an artistic landscape where a queer artist, or a female artist, or an artist of color – or an artist who is all three of those things – is also seen as “universal.”
My thoughts about all of this are still coming together, because there’s a lot of nuance when you’re talking about – for example – representing a lived experience that isn’t your own. There’s a lot of damage that can be done if you are irresponsible or lazy. This is something I think about often, but my thoughts keep evolving…
Elissa: Totally. There’s a lot of debate about lived experience in the industry. For example, should only queer actors play queer roles, or trans actors play trans roles? Can you only call yourself a queer production when you’re made by an entirely queer creative team?
Jen: One thing that makes me crazy is seeing queer actors not be cast as straight characters – but then sit around not working because straight actors are being cast as queer characters. It’s not that straight people shouldn’t play those characters but rather that so many queer actors don’t have access to straight roles and then don’t get cast in queer roles either. So, that’s the baseline of what should not be happening.
That being said, I’ve worked with straight actors in queer roles, and I’ve also done the reverse. Sometimes an actor is right for the essence of a character, even if other places of convergence are not shared. Admittedly, the question might be a little different for me, because most of my work is non-naturalistic. If you’re going to play a (male) dog who falls in love with a (female) bird, there’s a lot of space for the actor to contain any number of identities, because they are being asked to bring a lived experience of loneliness and hunger, moreso than a lived experience of straightness.
Elissa: Let’s talk about Wink because that’s coming midway through the year. Can you give us a little taste of what it’s about?
Jen: It’s a dark comedy. It’s absurdist. It has four characters – a husband a wife, their psychologist and the family cat – and the play begins right after the husband has skinned the cat.
Wink questions the thinness of those lines between what we perform and who we are; it is about interrogating what our natures are made of, what is actually inside us. And it’s also about looking at our capacity to change, to transform in ways that surprise both us and those who know us.
Elissa: You have animal characters in The Moors, too.
Jen: Yeah, it’s funny because of my plays, these are the two in which animals talk, and they’re happening back to back in Sydney.
But, look, this may be my obsession with David Attenborough documentaries, but I do think of humans as just another set of highly-developed animals. Orcas have complex emotions and an ability to communicate those emotions to each other; octopi and monkeys both have the pragmatism and capacity for planning that lets them use tools. We humans are special animals, but participants in the animal kingdom nonetheless.
When I think about loneliness, isolation, how desperately we want to be loved or feel like we belong to a pack – these feelings transcend “human” because they seem to be something that most creatures are programmed for. I hope that both plays offer audiences different ways into the question of what it is to be human – and also, I hope people have a good time.
Elissa: So giving people a good night out is important to you?
Jen: Yeah, that’s the thing I most love about dark comedy. If you want to ask an audience to sit with you and examine tricky, painful questions about what it means to be alive on this planet, humour is the thing that says, hey, it’s okay, we’ll have fun. There’s something so absurd about being alive at all, maybe we can tackle it head-on and still find a way to laugh together.