Liza Birkenmeier on Dr. Sally Ride, the Scientific Method, and Sexual Power Dynamics

Photo by Danny Bristoll

Liza Birkenmeier has been one of my favorite playwrights since the first time I met her, on some dreary fall day on the campus of Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh nine years ago. Her personal presence in a room is immediate, and when you’re in grad school hoping for an exciting crop of writers to be surrounded by, that spark is all the more evident. With each new play (she was, and is, a prolific writer), she upped both her game and ours. I remember one of the other grad students shaking his head after we read through a particularly electric handful of her pages. “Damn it, Liza,” he muttered. He looked like he might cry, or quit playwriting. You knew when she was in the room, and you knew, instantly, which pages were hers. It was just a matter of time.

And now, that time has come. I met up with Liza recently to catch up, continue our on-going discussion about playwriting at large, and learn all about her new play, Dr. Ride’s American Beach House, which marks her New York off-Broadway playwriting debut at Ars Nova (October 21st – November 23rd, tickets available here.)

I know the play is set in the summer of 1983, but that’s about it. What drew you to it? 

I originally wanted to write a play that disproves the scientific method. Because I became obsessed Sir Francis Bacon, who invented/discovered/wrote down the scientific method — which is largely based on using observations that have already been made, and he is a person who is this imperialist white supremacist who wrote an unfinished novel called “Utopia” which is this sort of horrifying dream of a moralist imperialist white supremicist.

What year would this be?

17th century. But I really became fixated on the fact that what we think of as scientific information and objective fact is really based upon a thought process by an incredibly particular group of people, and that is how we still teach and understand science. I like science and I’m not saying that science is wrong, but I became fascinated and upset that we have an idea of what a fact is, that we have an idea of what being objective is at all.

For me, it really helped to understand and have clarity around a lack of objectivity and all human perception and ideas. So I got excited about that, wanted to write a play that would disprove the scientific method, and that play wasn’t great… well, it was probably exciting in some ways. It was all over the place, took place over many many years, I thought it needed to take place on an island, like a site-specific piece on an island? So I gave that up. But the scene I liked best in that piece took place on June 17, 1983 and so when I was re-writing I started there and kept writing that scene and that became the whole play. I went in with this insane piece, this musical phantasmagoria island site-specific thing — and came out with my most, sort of, small quiet piece I’ve ever made that really relies upon, for the most part, humans behaving based on characteristics that we can perceive. They behave as we would expect them to.

And I randomly had said that the scene happened on June 17, 1983 and when I was looking into it as I continued writing it, I learned it was the night before Dr. Sally Ride’s first mission into space.

So that was totally circumstantial?

Totally chance.

Does Sally Ride’s mission have anything to do with the disproving of the scientific method?

I hadn’t really thought of Sally Ride as an obstacle to or a tool for the scientific method, but her involvement in the general presence of scientific development is an idea that’s stayed with the piece. And it especially worked because Sally Ride, when she died a few years ago, fairly young of pancreatic cancer, she came out posthumously. So that really connected her to the people on-stage, who also, if they were real people and not just figures, would probably also be coming out posthumously, if ever at all.

What is the scientific method again? I feel like I know it, but I don’t know it, know it. We learn it in like fourth grade, right?

You take previous observations… you make a hypothesis. You design an experiment. I’m sure there are lots of parts within there. You test it…

Peer review is involved in this?

Probably! A previous draft of a script was structured based on the five parts of it, so I have it in there somewhere.

But now it’s continuous?

It is continuous. It is the only play I’ve ever written that is continuous.

How does that feel?

Oh, so horrible and amazing! I’m actually so happy about that part of it. I used to — I don’t think this is true for other writers necessarily — but for me, I really used scenes as a theatrical trick. That if I could juxtapose two images, ideas, environments, and then connect them, I would have drama. Not to say that that’s not true or I wasn’t doing that, but that was a real way I had to make sure I was going to have a pretty great chemical reaction at some point, between these seemingly disparate things.

We were talking earlier about whether a play is an experiment in which we’re trying to figure out if something is possible, versus, you’re following a formula that already has been tested and just trying to execute it well. And people seem to, possibly, more readily respond positively to good execution within a contained, already tested environment, versus how we’re drawn to experiments, even if they’re failed experiments?

So would you say that (the continuous action) is your main experiment, or are there multiple experiments happening?

Whooaa. Yeah, there are definitely multiple experiments happening. But on a truly “just about me” kind of way, my personal experiment – yeah, probably that, writing a continuous-action drama. But the play is really about, in the way that it’s experimental, it’s about a lack of productivity or being virtuosic, it really allows these people to take up a lot of time with ideas that are not present in the visual space. 

How about it being set in 1983? I was one. You were not born yet. How did you write about 1983? How does that work for you, going back in time?

To be fair, or, perhaps just honest, this 1983 has a lot to do with my imagination of 1983, although I did, of course, did a much research as I could.

Katie Brook (the director) and I took a research trip to St Louis, where the play takes place and where I am from, and talked to people who were these character’s age in this year, got a sense of what their neighborhoods, worlds, thoughts, and diction were like. But you know, I really set myself in this bizarre trap, or what I consider a bizarre trap, because it’s really fun but it’s so imagined… there are so many moments were I’m just unsure if those things present verisimilitude for that year, and luckily everyone in the room is really invested in doing stuff that they believe and feel like doing, and that feels right for the world that they know and are establishing in the rehearsal room, so everyone’s pretty on board to be like, I think this is a contemporary moment that accidentally exists.

The play, I think… actually, tell me if I’m wrong, but the play could not have been set in 2016?

No. Because it’s so largely about repression. And the sexual power dynamics, which I think still do exist, but in terms of exploring sexuality in such a quiet and repressed way, and also a desperate and anxious way, it has so much to do with only lightly perceivable power dynamics, and I think that will be really familiar to queer people in the audience even today, but it’s such a space, a time and place, to explore how repression was…an even bigger deal. And part of life.

I was thinking, on the way over here, how would I write about what I think your work is… what you do well, what makes me jealous about your work?

I love that, I want everyone to be jealous of me.

So — you know when a person does a thing that you see that is kind of embarrassing or endearing or infuriating and you know they didn’t mean to do that thing? The thing behind their performance, that which makes you love or hate a person, that thing. What’s behind the performance is something deeply emotional, authentic, and hard to know in yourself, yet — I feel like your characters always have that.

Or do I just get lucky with amazing actors?

Maybe, but I feel it’s been pretty consistent, even when it was playwrights and not actors reading your work back in grad school workshop…

I’m so happy you think that. Most of my plays probably have something to do with really intense and quiet power dynamics, especially between queer people. In those situations, it’s really easy to become embarrassed, or to accidentally embarrass or shame someone else, and that’s always going to feel emotional. If we believe that the conversation or the power of the people before us are important.

I am thinking this is probably a great play for that. It will play directly to that strength, because it’s built entirely from that.

Hopefully! It is an emotional underbelly. I guess. It’s an emotional… there are a lot of unexpressed feelings (onstage).

How do you dream up a person (or character)? Do you have a process, or do they already somehow exist?

It’s totally different depending on the project. These voices in this play are incredibly familiar to me. They talk like I kind of talk. People I’ve been obsessed with and wanted to perform myself like, or wanted to sound like… it sounds like me and people I’ve been in love with, all of them. That feels so different than anything else that I’ve done. Also, because in this piece — the main action of the piece is them talking to each other, which is a new thing for me. My characters are often relatively garrulous, sometimes even ridiculously verbose, but these people, these people really outdo them all. In that department.

Everybody’s got a lot to say. I think these are people who are really cut off from the expressions that would bring them joy. Because they don’t have a socially normative channel for their devotion, interests, passions, ideas, relationships… that when they have privacy and safety, there’s so much to say. And to perform loudly. And to take up space with, when there’s no container on how they must be. These people’s inner life is rife with unruly stuff.
So I put it onna roof!

Put it on a roof! Where nobody can see it. Except for the audience.

I’m going to return to the scientific method now. Do you think carrying that knowledge, of what it is, how it functions, is useful for an audience member as a way to, I don’t know, better contextually understand this play —

The scientific method being the sort of original structure of the piece, but I think there’s a “letting go” of the structure but retaining the ideas around how the play really is trying to prove on some level that openly subjective interpretations of reality are more important than what we call “objective” ones. The idea that if we could study the evolution of – you know – we could probably better understand fascism by studying what people painted… our tools to understand the cultural experience and our human history, we would be better off studying evolution in art than in trying to contain what we consider history in stuff we call objective forms. Our separation of subjects, the way we’re educated, that we’re taught math as a discrete topic, its own entity separate from music, for example, and that we’re taught that language is separate from history? All of these things are really false notions based on an agenda to actually – our school model is still a puritan one.

It’s like… objective subjects. Not, subjective objects.

Yeah!! Whatever that really means, but so – the way we’re taking in information, since we’re being taught it, still in this puritanical system, is connected to the scientific method, is ultimately ruining our curiosity and making us believe that the human brain hasn’t the capacity for objectivity at all. I’m so much more interested in talking about how our subjective experiences are not less valuable. The superiority of what we’re calling objective is actually the superiority of ideas of a particular class of people throughout history. The play actually — what might not be super perceivable in it but what I feel are the foundational ideas of it — questions who is the object, who is the subject, and when is that a spectrum? What’s true and what’s not true are maybe not the most important questions.

We know, in terms of psychological science, that we’re not moved by facts. We’ll hold onto information that appeals to our beliefs. We’re gonna feel much more at home in our closest and dearest beliefs that are held closest and dearest to our family and friends. No fact is going to interrupt that. So one one hand, I want to be like, there are no facts in general, almost. And on the other hand, even if there were, obviously they’re not that important. If we can’t use them to decide how to actually live our lives, raise our children, educate ourselves and other people, create a system that supports its most vulnerable members… when we cannot do that using facts, I just want to throw facts away.

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