Interview with Haleh Roshan, Playwright of Corkscrew Festival’s COLLECTIVE NOUN

Photo credit: Brandon Smithey

No title may be juicier than Haleh Roshan’s urgent, theatrical, and feminist half-play, half-cri de cœur: A Play Titled After the Collective Noun for Female-Identifying 20-Somethings Living in NYC in the 2010s. These titular figures are not a gaggle, not a cohort, and certainly not girls; instead, Haleh spotlights uprisers long entrenched in humanitarian and social justice battles that privileged and even liberal Americans have long ignored and sidelined. Through their daily lives and epic struggles, Haleh crafts a testimony to how we engage with politics and pens a vociferous ode to the souls on the frontline of fights for change.

I’d like to start with the title — it’s so fun and incisive and lengthy. How did it come to mind?

(Laughs) Thank you! Starting around 2012 we suddenly had a deluge of media with the word “girls” in the title: the HBO show, obviously, but also “Two Broke Girls,” “Good Girls Revolt,” and “Gilmore Girls” — which I hated growing up — was coming back, the book Girls by Emma Kline (that started a $2 million bidding war).

The word “girl” for young women of course isn’t new, but what struck me about the particular use of it in these new narratives was how the content was purporting to be more overtly feminist — or, since I’m not convinced narratives that don’t call for radical liberation are feminist, at least more directly positioned female characters against patriarchy. And yet we’re still using this incredibly condescending, demeaning word that implies an absence of maturity. But then, if we reject “girls” as a collective noun for fully formed humans who identify as female, what do we have instead? “Young women” is okay but it’s linguistically heavy, it doesn’t make a good title. “Little women” is taken, and “little” brings its own demeaning connotations. “Women” alone is boring and unspecific. There are a lot of older nouns that I wish we’d re-appropriate, like “broads” (which “Broad City” very smartly tried to do) and “gals”…but essentially I, a poststructuralist rhetoric nerd, thought, I’m trying to write a play about the failures of all those other “girls” stories to reflect the real “girls” I know, and that word is so fucking insufficient, but I don’t have another word for these women. And maybe the problem is in fact the grouping of hugely diverse humans into one (regressive) collective noun in the first place! So I decided to name the thing by naming the problem.

I’m always interested to learn how writers come to choose playwriting as their medium (or in your case, what I think to be one of your many writerly mediums). This play feels very urgent, which works on stage given its immediacy, but when did you decide to be a playwright and why?

Growing up I planned to be a fiction writer. Really from as far back as I remember, it was fiction. I’m from Miami but have a lot of NYC family/connections, so we would come up often and see Broadway shows while we were here, but I never studied theater or participated in making it in any way, or ever once thought that it was a form for a professional writer. But in high school I became deeply involved in my local South Florida punk/hardscore/emo scene, fascinated by and somewhat addicted to that unity of spirit that passes over the audience at fucking good shows. When I moved to New York for college, I immediately got an internship at a record label, that turned into a life in the music industry for the next three-ish years. I was studying creative writing & American literature at NYU Gallatin during the day and living in music venues at night. The music industry, though, is a hellish place for a young woman (I will never not be flat-out awed by the women I met in the industry who are still in it and hold their own). And it’s kind of impossible to be out drinking till 3 AM with bands and then show up to class at 9 AM, so I was actually failing a class and got put on academic probation. Around that time some really bad shit went down with a band I was kind of living with, where I felt in danger for myself in a new way. I realized I was profoundly unhappy, almost suicidal, and neglecting the only thing I ever really wanted to do — write — so I dropped out of the music industry literally overnight and focused exclusively on writing for my last year of undergrad. My focus in studying fiction was examining the competing ideologies found in the American literary canon, Horatio Alger & Ayn Rand bootstraps capitalist individualism vs the Dos Passos and Dreiser and Upton Sinclair socialism (obviously my preferred books!), and my last semester I took a class about writing the concept of “home.” David Cromer’s Our Town was playing at Barrow Street, attending a performance of which was an assignment, and Death of a Salesman was required reading. I had not seen a play for the entirety of my college experience; I think the last play I’d encountered was reading The Crucible in AP English, taught as a calcified document “about” the McCarthy era, which I remembered digging as a budding communist but had not thought about since. So I went to Our Town and had this fucking insane beautiful journey with 198 other human beings, and I was like, this is exactly what I loved about shows but based in words, in literature. And then I read Salesman and realized what critical politics, not to mention linguistic beauty and moral clarity and fascinating literary structure I’d been missing by ignoring the American theater, and then I read Angels in America because someone recommended it as a companion to my Dreiser passion, and by the end of part one I was like, “This is the thing I want to write. This is the form that brings the body politic into language.”

This play employs some wonderful theatrical devices, including the laugh track that continually interrupts Shirin. I imagine that there could be a few interpretations of its significance, maybe? First I thought — well, in a very base way, this is a play about two young women living together in New York. This premise has been the basis of sitcoms for years, so of course there’s a laugh track, wink wink. But then I thought, are the women, and their liberal agendas and political activism, being laughed at, in a country that often fights to repress brilliant, forward-thinking women? Or maybe it’s none of those things and you don’t even want to share what the track is, which is cool! I just wanted to ask about it.

I think you’re right on with those interpretations! The dramaturgy of the laugh track is something my lovely director, Lauren Zeftel, and favorite new collaborator Drew Weinstein (sound design) have talked about a lot. I wrote this play as something of a formal experiment following a deep dive into Brecht’s The Development of an Aesthetic and his relationship to the Frankfurt School, so I was originally employing it as an alienating device that situated the play’s “apartment story” world in an uncanny valley of American popular media. And I think it holds as such. But over the course of deepening the characters’ relationships, and mining my own General Anxiety Disorder — of which social anxiety has been the hardest part for me to overcome in therapy — in relation to my (and Shirin’s) politics that are entirely about building social relations, a laugh track felt like a force both that the world imposes upon me and that my brain creates from within. Navigating which is which is a challenge most days. I’m often questioning when is the anxiety “useful” in the sense that it’s my mind sensing some real “danger” or fears that then propel me into continuing my political work despite exhaustion or a sense of futility (that I think all good leftists experience), and when is the anxiety a truly debilitating response to a society that relentlessly tries to tell me who I am and how I should be. We want to leave some mystery and openness for audience members to bring their own interpretations, but these are the dramaturgies we’ve been working with in the shaping of play.

Around the play’s epitaph you say this play is a product of your decade from 2006-2016. In some ways, especially for Elizabeth, this is a coming-of-age play. How did that decade in New York inform this piece?

I love that you note the coming-of-age of Elizabeth in relation to my epigraph, because while Shirin is the obvious stand-in for me, there’s so much about Elizabeth’s journey that is close to my own: the experience of knowing exactly what you’re good at, but not knowing how to corral that into a life of revolutionary service, until you’re confronted with a range of historical and contemporary examples, and so can recognize how you fit uniquely into the greater network of struggle. The person to whom the play is dedicated, CJF, and I went on this journey together — we met in 2006 as first-years at Sarah Lawrence. We came together under our mutual loathing for George W. Bush and residual rage over Iraq and Afghanistan invasions and anti-Iran rhetoric that Bill Clinton had weirdly revived, plus our ongoing sexuality and gender-identity fluctuations. I was miserable in my assigned dorm, so CFJ and I became dormmates in a totally unsanctioned living situation (a terrible aside: the Sarah Lawrence sex cult story New York Magazine broke a month or so ago shocked me not at all; no administrators knew where I was really living for a whole year). It was a brutal year for both of us that culminated in me transferring to NYU, and going on that journey towards playwriting, as CJF was going on their own journey from planning to attend Harvard Divinity School to sexual and domestic abuse law to indigent criminal defense.

When we graduated in 2010, I was living in Bushwick in this enormous (but crumbling) two-bedroom, and CJF got an internship in the city while applying to law schools, so we returned to our illicit dorm days past by installing CJF in the living room and assuring my real roommate and the landlady it was for a couple months only, which ended up becoming… three years. During which time I had found the theater and Occupy Wall Street, and CJF had been studying for the LSATs and watching YouTube videos of a senator from Vermont filibustering Bush tax cuts who a few years later would decide to primary the person every “liberal” New Yorker assumed would be anointed president.

We would have what I call summits, wherein at the end of our day we would make dinner in our shitty Bushwick galley kitchen and update each other on our political doings, OWS updates and national labor organizing campaigns and my frustrations with all the “apolitical” theater I was consuming; the updates to mandatory minimum sentencings and the evolution of the legal definitions of rape under sexual assault guidelines that were being revised by CJF’s boss; debating the usefulness of religion in left organizing (Harvard Divinity School never really out of the psyche as novels will never be out of mine), and how the Bible once provided a common language for organizers to use in service of progressive messaging (think Mother Jones, Reverend King), and the efficacy of Islam to organize people confined in state and federal cages.

And then CJF finished NYU Law and got a clerkship in New Haven, and had public defender jobs set up in Nashville, Denver, and now lives in San Jose. In fact the last time we hung out in real life was when they drove down from Connecticut to my apartment in the Bronx to watch the February 2016 Dem Primary debate in which Sanders said we need to drastically defund the military, which, harkening back to our shared Bush and Iraq invasion loathing, was a moment of magic for us, to have someone contending as a real possibility for president calling out the horrors of the American military.

So we knew the decade was closing and knew we had radicalized each other, and had needed each other to find ourselves, and politically the decade had grown up with us. That decade in so many ways, and my journey with this non-romantic soulmate, I can confidently say shaped me into exactly who I am and gifted me this play.

How did you and Lauren meet, and what has that collaboration been like thus far as playwright and director? With new plays, directors often take on some dramaturgical duties. Has the play continued to shape as you lead up to performances?

We met in August/September of last year through a mutual director friend, Lila Rachel Becker! I had a 28-hour reading of the play with a theater company that I was desperately in need of a director for, so I reached out to Lila, who at the time was doing an MFA in Iowa, asking if she knew anyone who would “get” this insane play that had been a challenge for actors and directors in every previous reading. She recommended Lauren, so I sent her the play and a plea, and I think within the week Lauren was on board.

This play is such a product of my personal experiences and brain, and I’d had several readings of it with a couple different drafts, so the play was really set. But what Lauren brought into the room for the 28-hour reading was not just a deep understanding of my goals for the play and the structure behind it, but the ability to take my hyper-intellectualism and ground it beautifully in real people with real emotional cores, and shape directorially their flounderings and failings and searches for connection — all the things they can’t reach or overcome purely with theory or history. The deftness that Lauren brings that is so integral to the play, and why it was so clear from that reading that she’s the right director for this, is the delicacy and intimacy behind the huge forces of alienation, of language, of surrealism with which I’m barraging the audience.

I like how this play is set on the cusp of the 2016 election. Knowing what we know now, the social issues your characters grapple with are even more urgent today. What has it meant to write this play to speak to our time?

I was really nervous telling people about this play when I finished the first draft in February/March 2017. As I mentioned earlier, the play was something I’d been feeling out and working through and shaping in my head for a while, a play about these two radical leftist women, but I thought it was going to be the story of their frustration with the Obama years, and therefore a warning for the continued complacency if the Democratic candidate did win. I mean, some seriously bad shit happened from 2009-2016, an active relinquishing of progressive power at every single opportunity. But I also kind of knew, as many on the left did, that there was a real possibility she would lose. I didn’t even watch the election results on November 5 — I checked them around 7 PM, when Hillary was still leading, and immediately went to bed sick to my stomach because I knew what I would wake up to. And so it went. That was a fucking hard day, right, November 6. We all cried a lot, and cried together, in that beloved way New York is the smallest community and strangers on the subway share their most intimate selves. But I also experienced a really strong, almost weirdly clear sense that I had a vocabulary for the moment that none of my theater friends, or the general liberals, did have, because of my years fighting the bad things when almost no one was fighting anything at all. And then I knew what the play was.

Over the last two years, we’ve seen such an incredible shift into I think many many people realizing that politics is a daily activity, not a two or four-year button pushing, and now people are looking for ways to sustain this in their own lives. And I figured out the play I had been trying to write, which is the one grounded in the one thing I really believe: presidents and elected officials are not your friends or your savior; there is no savior; there is only coalitions, communities of people, pushing together in all our blessed individualities and similarities, for new social relations liberated from the all-consuming waste of capitalism.

So that’s my hope for producing the play in this moment, that it will offer a model for how to exist every day inside a political and economic structure that doesn’t want you to be, in fact is designed to ensure you cannot be — you are a producer of further capital or you are nothing. Because no matter what happens in 2020, I think, I hope, a critical mass of people, especially young people, have realized what happens when we stop paying attention, and that we are out of time to figure out how to live always as full human beings on this earth.

Collective Noun will run July 18 through August 3 at the Corkscrew Festival at 64 East 4th Street. For tickets, click here.

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