One of the great and unique aspects of the Bay Area Playwrights Festival is that we have a track record of discovering exceptional new and unknown writers and nurturing their early careers. Many of these, such as Nilo Cruz, Prince Gomolvilas, Brighde MullinsBrian Thorstenson and most recently Sam Hunter among many others have gone on to grace the American stage with their work. Jen Silverman is the 2008 festival emerging playwright. Her play, Crane Story is a genre breaking play, experimental in style and form, yet grounded in the tradition of myth and story.
We asked her a number of provocative questions about her work and her struggle to be a playwright:
PF: You graduated two years ago from Brown, and will be going on to begin your MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the fall. What opportunities or challenges did you find after graduating from school, and what made you decide to go to graduate school?
JS: Right after graduating from Brown I did the NYC International Fringe with my play Lizardskin and then left to return to Japan, where I'd lived as a child. I was told when I left that if I want to seriously pursue a career as a playwright, a geographically unstable, international life is going to make it very difficult for me, and I really had to struggle with that in the summer of 2006. I'd sit in rehearsals for Lizardskin playing the "what if" game with myself. ˜What if I don't go, what if by going I'm throwing away my chance at being a produced playwright, etc etc.” But what it came down to was the crystal clear certainty that no matter what I was potentially sacrificing, I felt like I absolutely had to go back. So I did.
Living in Japan as a young adult, deep in the rural central-south and far away from the Tokyo area where I'd lived before, that's a whole epic of opportunities and challenges in itself. I'd remembered so much of my childhood as this vague sort of dream, (did it happen or not?), and then there I was back in the middle of Japan seeing where many of my early memories came from. I would recognize stories, songs, toys that I'd always thought of as specific to my childhood, and stop and go, "Ohhh THAT's where that came from!" As a playwright and as a person, that experience was incredibly rich, incredibly exhilarating, and sometimes quite difficult.
But the real struggle came when I decided, 13 months later, to return to the US and try my hardest as a playwright. I'd been writing on my own the whole time, but I craved an artistic community, and it was the urge to work with theatre artists again, see my plays developed, and grow and be challenged as an artist that made me decide to return to the US and go to grad school. I've spent most of the past nine or so months writing new plays and sending them out, and it amazes me all the time how hard it is for an emerging playwright to get heard, get developed, let alone produced. But I know that this is what I want; I've had a long time to think about it. I just came from seeing two of my short plays produced by the Fusion Theatre Company in Albuquerque NM, and that experience alone, talking with theatre people and audience members who had been moved by these stories that I also care deeply about, that was like a drink of cold water after a long time in the desert. That was one of those moments where you take a deep breath and you think, "Oh yes, absolutely this."
PF: I recently had the opportunity to sit in on a Master class with Paula Vogel. She was so insightful and inspiring that it was immediately clear to me why she has been able to usher through a generation of remarkable playwrights. Was studying with her a big influence on your work? In what ways?
JS: I was really fortunate to be able to study with Paula as a senior at Brown, and I wish I'd had more time with her. She created a rich, encouraging, supportive atmosphere in her classes; my last semester of Brown, I was in a class in which she brought together actors, playwrights (mostly grad, a few undergrad), and directors, and encouraged us to try a multiplicity of different approaches to the script and the stage. She was famous for her "bake-off" assignments in which you'd get assigned a few different elements (a scream, a splash, fire, etc) and have 24 hours in which to write a full play using those elements. I've always felt that if I'm not working quickly
I'm stagnating, so most of my first drafts tend to get written in a matter of days, and those kinds of assignments were just delightful to me. Working with Paula made me push myself as a writer, if you can write a play in 24 hours, collaborate with art school students and designers to write a play inspired by their work, and write a play that is "impossible to stage," you can pretty much write anything. And she's very generous, she never tells you to do something her way, she'll discuss your script on your terms. I was also really fortunate to study with Brighde Mullins, and she too has an openness, an eloquence, and a genuine interest in her students, that made a huge impression on me. If I ever end up teaching, I would hope to treat students the same way, with the same generosity.
PF: Your play Crane Story, explores the idea of being stuck between two worlds on a number of different levels - one is the idea of being stuck between two races and two nationalities. The idea of who has the "right" to write about race is very interesting to me. Not being bi-racial yourself, did you have any trepidation about creating a work where this such a dominant theme?
JS: This question has always been an interesting and rather complicated one for me, and one that gets thrown my way often, since many of my plays involve characters from different cultures or different countries and to the eye I'm a white American girl. The truth of it is, I was born in a small New England town and by fifteen months old, I was living in Tokyo. I grew up moving around Asia, Western Europe, and Scandinavia, returning to the US periodically, before returning for good to attend American high school. I'm not bi-racial, but I think I do have a keen understanding of what it is like to find yourself torn (or at least drawn taut) between different worlds, different cultures, different languages, and to have a complicated, patchwork sense of identity.
In Crane Story, the character Junpei puts his finger on it, I think, when he challenges his sister and Ishida, saying: "You'll never get it out of you. Everywhere you go will be colored by where you've been. Where's your home?" That's a question I wonder if I'll ever be able to answer, and maybe I keep playing with those questions (and potential answers, or the potential inherent in the lack of answers) through the medium of theatre. Jose Rivera wrote an essay in which he urges playwrights to "React against your work. Do in the next work what you aimed for but failed to do in the last one" and I never want to write the same play twice. But I do find myself repeatedly drawn to characters in whom these kinds of conflicted questions of identity are churning around, whether it's race, nationality, gender, or sexual preference.
PF: Who are the contemporary playwrights whose work most excites you at the moment?
JS: Absolutely Sarah Ruhl. I think she's brilliant and incredibly creative and her work has a lot of integrity. I also really respect Naomi Iizuka. I think her writing is so rich and layered and intelligent, all these global mythic influences. And, while she isn't quite a contemporary, I'll always love Sarah Kane. She was fearless and wild and she wrote with a lot of humanity, I think her writing is a deeply humane, outraged response to the violence she saw playing out on a global and domestic stage. And then, (although he isn't a playwright) I've been excited by Haruki Murakami's writing for years and years. His prose is inherently theatrical, and he combines the joyful and the menacing in a way that leaves me breathless.