I’ll Never Be My Same Old Self Again
Last Friday marked the beginning of 2014’s edition of Clubbed Thumb’s much-loved Summerworks series. With idiosyncratic aesthetics and from varied vantages, the three plays featured this year—41-derful by Jenny Schwartz, I’m Pretty Fucked Up by Ariel Stess, and 16 Words or Less by Peggy Stafford—all wrestle with the bewilderment and struggle of navigating lived life. I spoke with the writers about their new plays, running now through July 5 at the Wild Project.
“Why is everything so difficult?!”
–Jean in Jenny Schwartz’s 41-derful
“I started at the beginning,” says Jenny Schwartz of 41-derful, a wry but warm jewel box of a play that juxtaposes a series of conversations between two quietly drifting co-workers—Jean and Daniel, both 41—with interviews with a double-talking politician beset with scandal.
“What first took shape in my imagination was a dialogue between these two people, working together,” Jenny explained. “And for a while, that’s all I knew.” Setting out to explore what struck her as a particularly distracted quality of much 21st century conversation—the half-attention we offer acquaintances when we’re more engaged with our digital devices than we are with the analog world—Schwartz gradually discovered an unlikely kinship between two fundamentally different, but equally paralyzed, characters. “I started with Jean and Daniel at their laptops, talking, and the whole play sort of unfolded from there, bit by bit.”
“Jean and Daniel are the same age, but at different places in their lives,” she adds. “And neither of them has really paid attention to the other until now. But over the course of the play, they grow to really appreciate the other person. They both push each other to do small things.”
Intercut with the pair’s developing friendship is a series of interviews with an unnamed New York governor, thrust into the spotlight to defend himself against hilariously vague (but delightfully familiar) accusations of misconduct. Schwartz confesses to an abiding fascination with how politicians speak, as well as interest in how scandal can unite the public. “People bond over this sort of thing; there’s something about it that people find incredibly compelling, and as it becomes fodder for conversation, it brings people together.”
Schwartz, who typically collaborates with other directors when staging her work, directed 41-derful herself. The playwright earned her MFA in directing at Columbia, but says she emerged from that program identifying as a writer and never really looked back. Sitting with her in the Wild Project’s rooftop garden last Friday afternoon just after the final tech run, I ask what it’s been like to helm her own work. “It feels familiar,” she reflects, seeming genuinely calm. “Kind of like riding a bike. But I would say I probably haven’t been rewriting as late in the game as I normally do,” she adds with a laugh.
Does Schwartz see herself anywhere in the landscape of 41-derful? “I don’t really identify with Jean,” the playwright demurs. “But I do like the optimism in the play. It’s like a gift I’m giving myself, the idea that things can change for the better.”
“Do you know what I’m afraid, you guys? Getting older and just like giving up. And not that much later from now, not like old old, like young and hot still but like fucking boring as fuck. Like getting home, and just like looking forward to watching TV, and like showering, and like eating health food. And, just being like kind of content but not that content and not that upset and not that reflective and not that attractive and just like in a nice like place…”
–Isabel in Ariel Stess’s I’m Pretty Fucked Up
What was high school like for playwright Ariel Stess? “A lot of falling in love (not only with people but with activities, and conversations, and locations) alongside of a lot of going on drives and blasting music,” muses the playwright. “Maybe I am only remembering the best parts… I recall feeling a lot of angst and a lot of clarity, too. The world was really small then and I felt that I understood every part of it.”
High school, in all its exhilarating contradiction, provides the canvas for her disarmingly irreverent I’m Pretty Fucked Up. Chronicling a single day in the lives of a group of New Mexico teenagers, their well-meaning but only-kind-of-holding-it-together teachers, and one crusading security guard, the play cycles between the exploits of a crew of affably disaffected stoners (they ditch for Taco Bell, then take to the highway for impromptu, cannabis-enhanced adventure) and their campus-bound classmates, who end up caught in a lockdown.
Although the action of the play is propelled, in part, by a looming (if overblown) threat of violence, Stess is quick to point out that I’m Pretty Fucked Up is not a “school shooting play.” The playwright, who was in eighth grade when the shooting at Columbine High School transpired in Littleton, Colorado, wonders how well prevailing cultural discourse around the subject has actually served the public. As her play tracks the misadventures of its youthful heroes with sly humor and compassion, it also aims to complicate some potentially problematic narratives. “The phrases and images that sprout up in the play do so because they are a part of my psyche,” she explains. “At this point, general images and ideas and sometimes myths (trench coats, outcasts, bullies) dominate when we try to process and make sense of these tragic events. As a culture, what are we overlooking when we cling onto these generalizations?”
Clubbed Thumb’s Producing Artistic Director Maria Striar points out that the teenagers in I’m Pretty Fucked Up, for all their insight and hunger for life, haven’t yet been shaken from a youthful sense of immortality. “Ariel’s play is largely from the fearless eyes of teenagers,” says Striar, “but there are a couple of adults among them, who struggle mightily with the fact that that the fearlessness has ebbed.”
Stess speaks to the same tension as she considers the play’s development. “As I wrote,” she says, “I discovered that I was slowly zooming in on rituals surrounding being an adolescent and forging independence, a rapidly expanding independence. These rituals are incredibly empowering and terrifying. One of the big rituals undertaken by adolescents, of course, especially in more sprawling places, is being handed the keys to a vehicle (a ritual that seems both completely reasonable and utterly insane). The play places powerful tools, like vehicles, in the hands of kids and follows their trajectory.”
“Well I’m swimming a little here
I guess you could say
Without a limit
–Crystal in Peggy Stafford’s 16 Words or Less
In Peggy Stafford’s buoyantly absurdist psychic odyssey, 16 Words or Less, time careens forward breathlessly at the improbable speed of lived life. Set in a one-room flower shop in Brooklyn, the play centers on the triumphs and travails of its proprietor, Crystal, as she attempts to guide her customers through milestones both joy-filled and mournful. Although it refers initially to the word cap on the personalized notecards accompanying Crystal’s flower arrangements, the play’s title also gestures more broadly toward its characters’ relationship to limits: their comforting appeal, as a means to structure a life and fend off the chaos—and also their ultimate inadequacy.
“People struggle with words (I’m doing it right now),” reflects Stafford. “To say what they really mean. Normal people, most people. We speak in half-thoughts using ‘I mean’ and ‘like’ and ‘uhm’ and ‘you know.’ There’s yearning there, underneath our conversations – to say the thing we want to say. Crystal, with her note card word limit, acts almost as a minister or transubstantiator or I-don’t-know-what of words in this play – helping coax out what the characters want to say, what they mean to say. And while on the one hand her 16-word limit seems insufficient, I found that when the focused constraint was lifted, there was a flood of words for these characters to express what they mean and feel. Constraints became a process-theme in writing the play itself.”
As the play follows its heroine through a tumbling series of losses, discoveries and transformations, it balances loopy humor with dark insight, unfolding into a poignant parable about impermanence. For Crystal, moving forward may ultimately prove not only a hopeful act, but also a brave one—perhaps even a stubborn act of will—in the face of knowledge.
When I asked her about the play’s genesis, Stafford shared a personal story: “I wanted to send flowers to my ten-year old niece whose mom — my sister — had recently died. The flowers were meant to congratulate her for being part of a dance recital in a gym. She lives in Juneau, Alaska, and there’s a four-hour time difference between us. So I made the call to a local florist there and said, “I’d like to have some flowers delivered. Do you do that?” A pause. And then on the other end, a woman’s voice — very simple and kind. She asked about the occasion. What kind of flowers? My budget. What did I want to say on the note card? I didn’t know what to say. There was something about the constraint (putting everything I wanted to say on a small note card) and the occasion and her voice — and my grief — I started writing the play from there.”
Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks continues on the following schedule:
- 41-derful, written and directed by Jenny Schwartz continues through June 8
- I’m Pretty Fucked Up, written by Ariel Stess and directed by Kip Fagan runs June 13 – June 22
- 16 Words or Less, written by Peggy Stafford and directed by Portia Krieger runs June 26 – July 5
at The Wild Project located at 195 East 3rd Street, NYC.
For more information, show times and tickets visit ClubbedThumb.org.