|E. Hunter Spreen
Natasha Brown: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. First question, is your style distinct or does it change depending on the play?
Elizabeth Spreen: It depends on the play. The style and tone of Split the Stick is something I’m more comfortable with.
NB: Are there any interesting stories about how your play came into being?
ES: I was working on another play with the same characters and I was really frustrated with it. So I thought "Try something else!" and gave myself an exercise. Characters were put in a different situation for a month, and in that month we played. In that time something interesting started to occurs. As I’ve continued to work on it, I got to like it more and more and eventually it took off and was really fascinating.
NB: That’s really great advice for playwrights. I’m very interested in your play cycle, ‘The Dumb Puppy.' You have said that each play “traces a potential result of America’s projection of power across the planet”. In [Split the Stick], I feel that you show us the scars that are left on imperialists upon their return to their home country. Am I on the right page? Tell me more about this.
ES: Absolutely! I was interested in how I might bring that onto the stage without being didactic or like a documentary. We go to these wars in other countries without thinking about the larger impact on the rest of the world. One of the things I’ve been thinking about and playing around with since 9/11 is political theatre and what sort of strategies we can take to present stories that are political. I want people to look at this and not be turned off by it. I want a story that draws you in and afterwards makes you think “Oh, wait a minute.”
NB: I think your play definitely has the potential to do that. I really like the character of Gertrude Bell, particularly because of her historical symbolism and also how she interacts in the play. How did this character develop?
ES: I found her diaries; she was a fascinating woman for her time. She traveled the world alone and drew the map of modern day Iraq. So, I was intrigued by the Gertrude Bell character but I wasn’t sure how to handle her. I had to be careful in the material I was choosing. I was trying to look at the different facets of her character to use as a metaphor in the play. I was interested in looking at how Gertrude Bell’s life has had a lasting impact in a positive and negative way.
NB: Wow, that’s such a great insight and a part of history that is often forgotten. What do you want the audience to experience whilst watching your play?
ES: I would like them to make the larger political connection and also have an experience of what the consequences of the war have been. These consequences do not necessarily extend just to the soldiers or families of soldiers - they have global consequences. It will be interesting to hear what the audience thinks of it.
NB: It will be. Okay, last question, whose work would you recommend for emerging writers to study?
ES: Sarah Kane; she would be my first. Howard Barker. Shakespeare, Beckett, Sam Shepard. What Sarah Kane was doing was so good I wish we could have seen where she was going with it. There was something amazing happening with the way she used language and space that I don’t see other playwrights doing. Emerging writers should study whatever interests them. Read widely. Think about space and how to use a theatrical space. Read Certain Fragments by Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainment. I love how Forced Entertainment makes you feel very present; there is an urgency, a relevance. Read diverse plays. I was reading an article the other day about the possibility of multicultural casting and institutions. How can they be talking about this now? This isn’t a new idea. We’ve been talking about this for over 30 years. I think people want theatre that challenges them. That’s what we need to be making.
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.