Planes, Twains, and Safety-belt Spiels: An Interview with Eliza Bent

Photo by Shun Takino

Bonnie’s Last Flight is at Next Door at New York Theater Workshop, February 8 – March 2nd, 2019.

I recently had the chance to pick at Eliza Bent’s prodigious brain and hear a bit about her newest show, Bonnie’s Last Flight (Next Door at NYTW, through March 2nd).  This ain’t my first flight with Ms. Bent.  Having chemtrailed her and her work for the last few years, I can tell you what you may already know – Eliza is a sharp wit in a bed of sweetness; a peculiarly captivating performer; in my words, “a master of disguise”; in hers, “a complete freak box.”

So I was happy to hear about Eliza’s new show, which, like her, is witty, wordy, and sometimes wearing a fake moustache. I’m doubly happy that the captain on this “Spruce Goose” is the inimitable Annie Tippe (one of my favorite directors whose star is clear for takeoff).  I wish I had more airplane jokes for you all. Trust there are plenty in the show.

Below is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation, which ranged from the performative semiotics of airplanes to the tribulations of Kickstarter.

Jerry Lieblich: Tell me a bit about the play.  Where did it come from?

Eliza Bent: So the play centers around this character Jan, who is very loosely based and inspired by a family friend who worked at Delta for many years.  She always had these wild tales to tell about what happened on her recent flights, how people misbehave, and what it’s like to deal with the public on an airplane.  

I put a version of that character into Toilet Fire. But after Toilet Fire was done I felt like she still had more stories to tell. So Bonnie’s Last Flight became a kind of spin-off.  

Initially I thought it would be a solo piece about this flight attendant, but more and more it seemed fun to have a whole flight deck involved.  And once I had a flight deck I started thinking, what if it’s structured like an actual flight? We have the time waiting on the tarmac, the part when you’re up in the sky, and then the descent.  And that’s how the play came to be organized.

JL: Tell me more about the impulse to go from a solo show to, for lack of a better word, a “play” play.

EB: I did all of these very initial writings where I had this character sort of orate on a bunch of different topics. What does she think about fidelity?  What’s her opinion of iced tea? What was her first kiss? All of these very unconnected monologues that I wrote in her voice. And they were fun – she’s a real raconteur, I think because her job involves so much performance.

I’m really drawn to people like her where you don’t know what they’re thinking all the time. She has such strong boundaries, so exploring her emotional life became interesting to me.  

And though there was a ton of interesting and exciting writing to me in those monologues, it didn’t feel particularly dramatic.  So when I began to work with Annie Tippe – and Jess Barbagallo was reading that early material too – they both were just like “what if it’s her on the plane?”

And when I heard that I immediately thought of Greig Sargeant, who I just adore as a human and a performer, and I thought oh my God, Greig has to be her friend and co-worker.

So as soon as the idea of putting it on the actual plane took shape it felt more vital to have a whole flight deck who could support the story of her life, but also provide some other tendrils of dramatic action.

JL: That approach you took, asking for her opinion on fidelity and iced tea, is that an approach you take to writing character normally?  And is that an approach to take as an actor? Or was that just a way of generating material?

EB: As an actor I don’t need any backstory.  Give me the the lines, and I’ll learn ‘em, and do a really good job.

Laughs.

EB: I think it’s really interesting how some actors really crave answers.  It’s fascinating to me because that’s very much not my approach as an actor.  I think it’s always more exciting when there’s a lot of mystery, and it makes an exciting challenge to figure out what those answers might be or accept what those mysteries are.

But to speak to your question about ‘is this an approach I’ve taken to writing characters’, it really wasn’t an approach.  When Toilet Fire finished I remember feeling kind of stuck, and so I came up with a huge list of different topics that this character might have thoughts or feelings or opinions about, because I just wanted to explore her voice more.  It wasn’t anything I had tried before, but I’d use it again in the future. I feel like it really rounded out a lot of my thoughts about her.

JL: To what extent does it feel different writing for yourself versus for other people?

EB: When I have to memorize texts that I have written, I often have an impulse to be really loose with it.  And as I’m attempting to memorize, if other bits emerge through tiny improvisations, often what seem like better things come out.  And that’s very easy to do in a solo show. That looseness helps with the rewriting process.

So I tend worry a bit less about how something is written when I know that I’m performing it, because I trust myself as a performer to fix things.  Whereas if I’m writing for somebody else, I try to make sure they’re getting something that’s more completed.

And now that I’m in a play with other people, I expect them to learn their lines as they’re written, word for word.  And I’m realizing that I’m a big hypocrite, because in my own writing I don’t feel so pressured to do that, because I can just change it.  So I’m trying to be pretty loose about letting the actors change a tiny phrase if they feel like there’s a strangeness around it. If you’d rather say “superfluous” instead of “extraneous,” sure!  I’m interested in people feeling like they have ownership over the material.

JL: Let’s talk about Mark Twain, then, because you’re playing him, right? How did he end up on the plane?

EB: Something about Twain and this flight attendant character always felt very linked to me, because they’re both very smart and satirical people with a very cynical lens on the world, and both are very sharp observers of human behavior.  So when I did all these initial writings, I kept going onto the internet and snatching quotes from Mark Twain, and thinking “this quote feels related to that story,” or “this quote feels related to what this character would say,” or I’d riff on this other quote.    

As it became clear that it wasn’t going to be a solo show, I just thought: we’ll have Twain on the plane, and that’ll be fun. So I wrote this little thing that I did out in Omaha called Twain on a Plane, and it was super fun. I got to be Twain, so many boxes were checked off.

However, over the years, people would be like (whiny voice) “why is there Mark Twaiiiin???”  So to address those people very tethered to reality, now Twain is a figure that haunts Jan, and the flight ultimately is a way of her letting go of this gold standard that she holds herself to.  He’s her idol in some sense. But since she’s retiring and fully committing to her own artist’s life, she has to let him out of her brain, and leave him, in a sense.

JL: Where did that first impulse to start looking at Mark Twain quotes come from?  Were you reading him at the time?

EB: I wasn’t reading him.  I think this flight attendant is a really sharp observer of human interaction and human foibles.  And I think because she’s in her 60’s, she’s on the other side of her career, and I think when you’ve lived that kind of fulsome life – you know, been there, seen it all, she’s been around the globe more times than she can count – I think her astuteness and awareness of how humans interact with each other, and her commentary and ideas about social satire just felt really linked.  

There were also these two older men who I played in Toilet Fire, and Twain felt like a weird marriage of these two.  A man who could be larger than life and drop into a Southern twang, but also have a bit of Larry King about him and be very surly, but also very devilish and winking.  All of that felt very exciting to me.

I’m not a huge Twain buff, so this is definitely more of a fun version of Twain than a super devoted, literary, faithful Twain.  Obviously I’m a woman being Twain, I’m too young to be Twain, it’s fanciful.

JL: Let’s talk about airplanes, then. Because I think airplanes are very strange and interesting places.

EB: I feel like planes are the most philosophical mode of transit.  Trains are the more romantic, sure. But being on a plane you’re just constantly being confronted with your own mortality.  Or at least I am. You get on the plane, it takes off, and you really have to let go of any sense of control.

And there’s so much performance that happens on a plane.  There’s the performance of being a passenger, this a performance of “I’m totally cool with everything that’s happening.”  People also get really stressed on planes in ways that they don’t on trains. For me, I always want to be a really good passenger.  I don’t want to ask for the wrong beverage. I just want to be really nice because I feel like people treat flight attendants so poorly.  

And there’s such a show around it all, there’s so many rituals built into flying. I always pray on a plane.  Privately, but I do find myself drawn to prayer. And I love getting the snack, I love getting the beverage.

JL: I’m thinking about what you said is interesting about an airline attendant, that they’re this person who has to wear a mask and therefore their inner life is inaccessible. What else draws you to airline attendants? And how do you write for a person like that?

EB:  Being a flight attendant is both the most glamorous job and completely the most jankety job I can imagine.  You’re going around the world all the time, but where are you actually going in your life? You’re surrounded by people all the time, but it’s also incredibly lonely.  And those contradictions were super fascinating for me to explore in the play.

Like I said this character Jan is super super loosely based on a family friend. But I also remember a few years ago seeing a flight attendant who really looked like she belonged in a cafe in Brooklyn. She looked like this complete hipster. She was klutzy, and you could tell she was having a really bad day.  And I really felt for her. But I also was like “how did you end up on this plane? You look like you should be getting your Masters in Feminism Studies.”

In terms of how do you write for a character who’s pretty emotionally closed-off, it’s super exciting. I think for somebody who works with the public you really have to build up an armor and a certain way of dealing with different kinds of people. “I’m encountering the cranky old customer, here are the jokes that work on that customer.” “These are the young parents who are stressed out about their baby crying, this is how we deal with them.” And if you have a character who presents with that level of artifice, when you do get a tiny peek into their inner emotional life it feels to me much more rich than when you see somebody who’s more commonly openly available. It feels more juicy and a little bit more earned.

JL: That mix of glamor and janketiness, outer and inner worlds – all of this sounds very related to acting and actors.

EB: It is. It’s really remarkable to me, the more I continue to act in other people’s plays and also the more I continue to act in my own plays with other actors, that it’s a really hard life. I sometimes think that being an actor is just a series of demoralizing events. Especially if you’re an actor who auditions for things, which is not really me, I haven’t really followed that route, but more traditional actors – I don’t know how they do it! You get put in the workshop but you don’t get to do the final showing. You go to these auditions where you’re just constantly at the mercy of these other people’s whims and decisions. There’s just so little agency in all that. I guess in some ways flight attendants also are like these cogs in the larger airline industry. It could also be pretty demoralizing to serve rude, unappreciative customers.

JL: This connection between airplanes and theaters feels so rich. They’re both these places where you’re stuck in a room with strangers for a while; where people are standing in front of you and smiling and doing something rehearsed; where we all maybe think about our own mortality for a while…

EB: And there’s this collective will to ignore reality. Either ignoring the reality that we’re performing an artificial play, or ignoring the reality that we’re in a metal tube 30,000 feet in the air hurtling through space.

JL: All of these connections lead me to loop back to something you mentioned before we started recording, that this is your last self-production. I’m interested in the last-flight-ness of Last Flight. Is the show a farewell for you?

EB: It is. When I wrote the play I had just finished Toilet Fire, and I done this workshop production of this other play of mine On a Clear Day I Can See to Elba, I was no longer working at American Theater Magazine, and I just thought I want to do a Real Play. I want to have somebody else say “We believe in you, we’re going to produce this thing.”   

I really try to be somebody who doesn’t need a lot of external validation. But I think a lot of the impulse in terms of writing this was to write something that somebody else would do. So I left the idea of the solo piece behind, I set it on an airplane to necessitate design, and I put all of these decisions into writing this play so that somebody else could do it.

And throughout the two-and-a-half years of working on it there were different readings where I would invite people who in my mind I guess are gatekeepers or industry people, and the reaction was always “It’s hilarious! Good luck.” Just nothing, nothing from any of these places.

And so in a moment of, perhaps, weakness, I was getting tired of the show, and I wanted to avoid that classic playwright conundrum where you write the show and then five years later somebody wants to do it and you’re like “I’m not even that artist anymore, I don’t feel like this person anymore, the subject matter now feels old to me.” And so I thought screw this, I’ll do it, and I’ll do it while I’m still interested in making it happen.

So I thought fine, I’ll apply to New York Theatre Workshop, hopefully they’ll tell me no, and then I won’t have to self-produce it. And then when they said yes I thought ok, let’s really do this and do it right, and try to raise enough money to pay people a proper fee.

So it’s actually quite thematic that it’s my last self-produced show because it’s about this retirement flight. But I’m also really petrified.

I was talking to my mom and told her this is the last one. And she was like (mom voice): “Excuse me?? What does that mean, last one???” And it’s just too heartbreaking to explain to her how it works, that if nobody’s producing your play then that just means you’re not going to have any plays happen.

And of course I’ll self-produce small things, solo shows. But it feels important to either stop self-producing entirely or go the other direction and found a company and get a whole 501(c)3 status. Because I think that would feel different then just doing these Kickstarter campaigns and begging people for money.

JL: In the play this character is retiring from being a flight attendant to pursue her writing. I wonder in your own life what you’re making room for by leaving self-producing behind.

EB:  I feel like I’m leaving room to just be a better artist. I hope.

I had this experience in the fall of a workshop production that Clubbed Thumb did, and I was like “Oh my god. I get to be the playwright.” I wasn’t acting, I wasn’t doing anything else. And I was so proud of that piece.  And I think part of that pride came from the fact that I wasn’t calling anybody to be sure that they had the keys to let us into a space. I wasn’t wrangling with the TD. I wasn’t begging people for money on Kickstarter. I actually had the mental space to watch the play every day and be like “Oh, we don’t need that scene anymore. Huh, this really would benefit from a rewrite.” And part of that was also working with Knud Adams and feeling really confident and emboldened by that collaboration.

But I really had this moment realizing that when you only do one thing, you get to do that one thing better. Which I’ve resisted for so long.

But it’s not like I’m going to stop performing. That would be so sad. I just don’t love the producing. I like the schemes around it but I look at these last nine months where the whole time I’ve just been trying to raise enough money to make a play happen, and maybe if I’d spent the last nine months making it the best play it could be it might be a different play. And maybe that’s a very wistful, woeful way to look at it, but I do think when you taste the sweet nectar of not producing your own play it’s hard to keep swallowing those bitter pills of Kickstarter.

I don’t mean to be such a moany groany! Oy!

Laughs.

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