Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Moench & Saleh: InterBlood Interviews

Second in our series of Youngblood playwrights interviewing one another, Anna Moench & Erica Saleh talk about crushed dreams of becoming Olympic sprinters, the lucrative upside of partaking in fake avalanches, and what would happen if the center of American Theatre relocated...

Anna interviewing Erica:
AM:In your great Blogging Bloodworks post you told us a bit about Dryden, NY, where you grew up. Did you start taking an interest in theater and/or playwriting in your hometown? Did 10 year old Erica know that she was destined to become a writer?
ES:I think I have always always processed things by turning them into stories, and as a really little kid wrote a lot of them down... but then I went away from the writing down for a long time. By the age of 10 I was more interested in being an Olympic sprinter, and then when it became clear that that wasn't in the cards I went through that long and cliched period of thinking I was going to be a human rights lawyer. Until college I was always thinking in terms of careers, I didn't really understand that there was a way to live life that wasn't structured around a five day nine to five work week. When I got to college I ended up taking a fiction writing workshop and ended up stumbling into the student run theater and realized that I was suddenly in a world even if temporarily where I could choose these things. And then I just continued to choose them. And I think I'm really just starting to understand that I can keep on structuring my life around making theater and that this seems to be what I am going to keep on choosing.
Erica--kicking the crap out of the 9-5 lifestyle
AM: You also mentioned the fluid nature of your style, that it is constantly changing as you explore it through your plays. Is there a central question, form, or concept that you find yourself returning to, even as your approach shifts?
ES: I sat here for a long time trying to think of a way to make my answer to this question more interesting... but I think that it really just comes down to the fact that I'm endlessly curious about people and the ways that we relate to each other and ourselves. The aesthetic, and the form, and the specifics of that curiosity change depending on what I'm doing, who's around me, where I'm sitting, what I'm reading... but the curiosity itself is constant, and I guess that's the central thing in everything I do and write.

AM: What prompted your play A FERTILE WINTER, a wonderfully creepy story about an expectant couple holed up for the winter in a cabin in the middle of nowhere? How does that piece compare with your other plays: LOVE, CANDY and SPLIT?
ES: What prompted it was actually a sort of traumatic set of miscommunication between my graduate thesis advisor, myself and the bureaucratic powers that be at the University of Texas. Long story short I found myself needing to write a new full length play in a very short amount of time. Which, as it turns out is kind of the thing that works best for me. Lots of writing in a little time. No time to second guess or overthink or plan. How the play that came out happened to be A FERTILE WINTER I really have no idea. There were a whole lot of false starts and then there was the thing that went. Which is how it goes.

AM: What was your first play about?
ES: Sex. Obviously and of course.

AM: If you had the power to move the center of the American theater community from New York to anywhere else in the country, where would you put it?
ES: I am unfortunately a little too hung up on logistics to really answer this question. I keep thinking of cities I like and then having to be like "Yeah but" ... and then think of all the ways that being the center of the American theater community would ruin most of the cities I love, or how a couple of the cities I love would ruin the American theater. I think theater exists in the way that it does in New York because this is the city that can sustain it. I love that cities like Minneapolis exist, which has made art and theater accessible and an important part of its infrastructure, and I love that there are pop up arts scenes in unlikely places all over the country, and that there are exciting amazing theater scenes in exciting amazing cities like Minneapolis and Portland and Chicago and Austin and and and .... but in the end I think the scene grows to fit the container. And it's not a mistake that the center is here. I also think that I am hopeless at hypothetical situations and I should go find an imagination.

AM: Any weird writing habits? Rituals? Human/animal sacrifice?
ES: I plead the 5th.

AM: If you could collaborate with any artist, theater or non-theater, living or dead, to create some kind of performance piece, who would it be and why?
ES: I mean, the smart thing would clearly be to hook up with a name that would make my name a name. But, honestly, I would prefer to collaborate with two or three select artist friends, who I will not name at the risk of hurting other artist friends feelings. I am really interested in working with people who are at a similar point in their careers and explorations as I am. I think collaborations should be about exploration and mutual learning and I don't want hero worship to come into that equation.

AM: What's in the pipeline? Any projects you're planning to tackle this summer, theater related or otherwise?
ES: I think it's going to be a lot of rewriting. I have a couple full lengths that have been sitting patiently waiting to be cleaned up. I'm also headed to Nebraska at the end of June to work as a dramaturg/mentor playwright at the Educational Theatre Association's National Thespian Conference, which means working with a high school playwright on revising their script and getting it ready for a staged reading. In non-theater projects there will be a lot of bike riding and sundress wearing, and lying in the park, and drinking wine on rooftops and generally remembering how awesome new york is when the sun is out.

Erica interviewing Anna:

ES: You revealed yourself at some point as having another life as a competitive skier. And I have a sneaking suspicion that you're one of those people who's infuriatingly good at everything she tries and that you will continue to reveal a secret set of skills as occasions arise... Am I right? Are you secretly a pastry chef triathlete card shark burlesque dancer?
AM: You're thinking of my time working for Mountain Safety at a Colorado ski resort, which was probably the greatest job I will ever have in my life, but wasn't competitive skiing...I'm definitely not that good. I've also led long distance bike trips, which was also great. It's incredible what people will pay you to do if you're willing to share a tent with high schoolers for months on end, or get buried in a fake avalanche to have rescue dogs dig you out half an hour later. I don't think I'm innately skilled at much, but I'm always up for an adventure and stubborn enough to keep trying when I'm not immediately great at stuff, and that's enough to get by until I actually develop skills. Especially when it comes to burlesque.

Anna --keeping those kids safe in the mountains

ES: I guess the obvious next question is: is there anything you're just lousy at?
AM: I cannot compose music. At all. My mind cannot fathom how to invent even a basic tune like "Hot Cross Buns". My brother and two of my cousins are composers, and I am resigned to the fact that they enjoy an entire world of artistic and intellectual fulfillment that will forever be closed to me. I am also terrible at things that require upper body strength, though I recently purchased an Iron Gym in an attempt to change that. Oh, and I suck at remembering birthdays; on my own birthday every friend who wishes me a happy birthday fills me with guilt because of all their past birthdays I've forgotten, and dread at the prospect of forgetting their future birthdays, which, in all honesty, is inevitable. And I take forever to get my crap together and leave the house. And I can't crochet. I'm no good at responding to text messages or facebook messages. The more I think about this question the more I realize how incompetent I am. Thanks, Erica.

ES: You work in and with a lot of forms in your theater making-- i have a lot of questions about this that I'm trying to roll into one, but i think i'd really like to just invite you to talk (er, write) about your work in puppeteering and object theater and any other forms you play with that I don't know about... and also about your collaborations with choreographer, Meredith Steinberg.
AM: I became interested in puppetry and object theater in college, and I wrote my thesis on the status of object theater as an emerging American performance form. Although I have a strong interest in puppetry and object theater, my artistic work in those forms is actually only a subset of my entire body of work. I don't think of myself as an object theater artist or a puppet artist. Yet what I believe I share with puppet and object theater artists is a keen sense of the visual whole of a performance and a highly theatrical approach to storytelling. Meredith Steinberg and I founded anna&meredith, a performance company (not really dance-theater as it has come to be known, but not fully dance, not fully theater). We each do solo work as an independent choreographer and playwright, but our collaborative work has a distinctive style and aesthetic. We decided to form a company dedicated to presenting the work we make as a team that fits that style.

ES: Do the different forms you work in tend to find their way into all of your pieces? Or, do they tend to result in distinct single genre (puppet or object or movement) pieces?
AM: I blend a lot of disciplines in my plays--music, dance, puppetry, theater--but not all at once, and not consistently. Some plays incorporate puppets or objects, many don't. Some are site-specific and require intricate art installations, many aren't. I write some plays that anybody can direct, that are more "traditional" in that respect, and then I write plays like BRAINS or FROGMAN, that are exclusively for anna&meredith. Then yeah, I'll write straight up puppet plays sometimes, because I do love puppets. GORMANZEE, for instance, is probably only performable by puppets, as it requires a chef to ritualistically kill a gorilla, human, and chimpanzee, debone and eviscerate them, and then stuff them into each others' body cavities. I dream of writing two companion pieces, RAT KING and one about another weird animal thing, and producing them in a triptych in an abandoned insane asylum in Detroit.

ES: Your play BRAINS has had a pretty awesome developmental life in the past few months and is going up at The Looking Glass Theatre at the end of May. Where did the play come from? And how did it get to where it is now?
AM: BRAINS, an anna&meredith play, has technically been in development since the fall of 2008. When I was writing THE PILLOW BOOK, I was fortunate to have a space grant that enabled me to workshop the script with a group of actors for 6 hours each week for two months. I generated a lot of stuff that I ended up cutting, that just didn't belong to that play. A two page scene about how the human body has two brains was one of those cast offs. When anna&meredith entered Spoke The Hub's Winter Follies competition, I expanded that scene into a 5 minute play about the glorification of science. We made it as precise, polished, and specific as possible in its staging and movement to complement its heightened language, which made the piece distinctive. It went over well, and we won! Then we were offered a few opportunities to revisit BRAINS (thanks to Oracle Theatre Inc., Indah Boyle, and Dixon Place!), and I expanded it to 10 minutes. Last month we got The Looking Glass Theatre's Performance Space Grant to do a full evening length version in May. As a writer, it has been a really interesting challenge to expand a tiny fragment by fitting things into an existing aesthetic framework, rather than having the freedom to let the play grow in whatever direction it wants. I'm so lucky to work with Meredith though, she gives me great feedback along the way and whenever I'm stuck I can just write some stage direction like "Here they do a dance that explains how things came to be the way they are" and she'll totally make it happen. Take that, expository prose!

ES: If you could have written one play that someone else wrote in the history of all plays ever, which would it be?
AM: I'm tempted to choose OUR TOWN or something else that gets produced all the time so I could make actual money off the royalties and not work a dayjob. But Shakespeare was the playwright who made me love theater as an 11 year old. So although it's a little trite to choose the bard, I'd probably say JULIUS CAESAR. "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings." Hell yes. I wish I had written that.

ES: What are you doing this weekend?
AM: Rehearsing BRAINS, writing GREAT EASTERN, and biking through the Palisades. I should also clean my room, but that is unlikely.

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