Natasha Brown: Thank you for letting me interview you. First question, is your style distinct or does it change depending on the play?
Elizabeth Hersh: I hope my style changes depending on the play. This play is very sparse; the characters don’t talk a lot. This style is very specific to this play, not necessarily my writing. However, I do write stuff that’s dark, gruesome and, hopefully, funny. I guess I do have some consistent styles, but the way the characters interact, the way the scenes progress and the structure come from the specific story I’m trying to tell.
NB: Are there any interesting stories about how your play came into being?
EH: There is a character in the play who appeared because I ran into them at my girlfriend’s parents’ house in Northern California. They had a cleaner who brought her adult daughter along to help out. She wore this crucifixion t-shirt and made my girlfriend’s mom hide all of her Buddha ornaments because they made her feel uncomfortable. She would yell at her daughter whilst we were all eating at the table and it was just this incredibly awkward and tense situation. It made me think about the tension between the service industry and the employer; “I am paying you to clean up after me.” It’s such a weird interaction. She inspired the Cleaning Lady in my play.
NB: That is both hilarious and absurd. I’m curious about the face blindness concept in the play. Did your play start with the concept or did it come in as you were working on it? How much do you want the audience to be conscious of this?
EH: I didn’t even know it was in the play until my girlfriend, who works as a director, dramaturg and new play developer, was talking to me about it. Sometimes, people come up and talk to me and I don’t know if I know them. I recognize people I’m close to very well, but if I meet someone a couple of times and then see them out of context, for example seeing someone from work outside of work, then I find it difficult to place them. This leads to a lot of people thinking I’m rude or that I don’t care about them. It’s not so much of a big deal now that I can explain it to people.
My director is legally blind and we share the same experience of the unease that comes from thinking you know someone but not really being sure. That’s a feeling I want to create in the play - this unease at who these people really are.
NB: After reading your play, I wasn’t surprised to find out that you are a sound designer. Sound is such a presence throughout the play, from the vacuum interrupting the conversation very early on to the blackouts being filled with sound. How does sound link to the privacy issues in the play?
EH: When I was writing the play, I felt that sound was a threat to the family. It’s part of the invasion of their space. It’s something that they can’t control, it’s all around them, and it’s dangerous. I try to write really openly for directors and not pre-design the show. As a designer, I like when directors allow designers to play and collaborate. I try not to get too attached to the ideas I have for the sound as a writer.
NB: Yeah, I can imagine that may be quite difficult sometimes. What do you want the audience to experience whilst watching your play?
EH: Fundamentally, I want it to be entertaining. This show in particular is created to grab the audience by their stomach and pull them through the whole thing. I want them to be laughing until horrified and then laughing some more. I want for the audience to come out and think “What the hell just happened?” I think essentially this play is looking at intimacy - what we think we know about people, why we isolate ourselves and what it means to really know someone. I’ve only ever had a couple of informal readings for this play so I’m really excited to see how a live audience reacts to it.
NB: I’m excited too! Last question, whose work would you recommend for emerging writers to study?
EH: Phillip Ridley – he’s brutal. Caryl Churchill. All of the wonderful female playwrights I’ve ever read. I’m sick of all the cis hetero monogamous dead white men playwrights. Emerging writers should also read a lot of fiction and go and see dance and burlesque. See performance art; see things that are pushing boundaries, new things. We don’t need to see old plays season after season anymore. Theatre’s job is to push the aesthetic of our culture farther from the centre. As women playwrights, we should seek out support and read as many plays written by other women as possible. Also, read things that stretch outside of racial lines. Suzan-Lori Parks! I taught Topdog/Underdog at San Quentin Prison. It was super intense. The prisoners were racially and educationally diverse. One of them had a PhD, and some earned their college degrees whilst in prison. It broke my preconceived notions about how our society functions. As young playwrights, we need to be the people putting art out there that allows us to see our privileges.
NB: Thanks, Elizabeth!
The Bay Area Playwrights Festival gives voice to emerging and established playwrights who are pushing boundaries and have the potential to shape the future of American theater and culture. The festival runs from July 18-27. Click here for the calendar and special event details for the whole festival. Shelter in Place is showing on July 18th, 8pm and July 27th, 12pm. Get your tickets here!