In the tradition of Harold Pinter and Edward Albee, Melissa James Gibson's plays incisively isolate the idiosyncrasies of colloquial speech, reveling in their often overlooked weirdness, and marveling at what these words reveal about the speaker. Her play Suitcase—Or, Those That Resemble Flies From A Distance, staged at Soho Rep in 2004, concerns two female grad students agonizing over their thesis in cluttered rooms high above the stage, while their neglected boyfriends plead desperately through the ground floor intercom. For a play in which "nothing much happens" in the conventional sense, it was a mesmerizing journey into the minds of four unstable urbanites.
Gibson's funny and affecting new play, This, is more naturalistic than her previous plays, but her distinctive style is unmistakable. Set in a gorgeous, hyper-realistic converted loft in what must be Williamsburg or Red Hook, This centers on five friends in their mid-thirties and their desperate attempt to stay sane in the face of death, parenthood, adultery, and incessant craving. The "un-romantic comedy" features a uniformly stellar cast, including Passing Strange star Eisa Davis as the sophisticated, jazz-singing mom who insists the proper pronunciation of Britta is "Breeta." This has been extended once, but the run at Playwrights Horizons must end January 3rd.
This seemed more naturalistic and narrative-based than some of your previous work. Do you agree with that assessment and was that something you had in mind when you were writing it? No, it really wasn't intentional at all, and I don't really think in those terms, per se. I respect people's view of it being that way, but honestly, I was just, as always, I was just focusing on what I was focusing on and it unfolded the way it did. But I think you're right; people tend to experience it that way. But I didn't set out for it to be more normal or anything. [Laughs]
One critic wrote that he felt the story was about "how we process love, hurt and loss by concocting tidy stories to recall our experience, or reshape it." Do you agree with that? I think that's one perspective on it. Really, the whole thing to me—which is another way of saying what he just said, I guess—is about grappling with mortality from the different characters' vantage points. And just that, grappling with that big old subject, that we grapple with every day, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly.
Were you thinking about death more when you were writing this, more than usual? I think maybe I was, yeah. I know I was. I lost some friends in a very short period of time, I lost a number of people who are dear to me. So although I started writing before that was the case, I think inevitably it informed the way in which it got explored.
A scene from This. (Joan Marcus)
Do you think writing it was in any way therapeutic? I wouldn't use that word, but sure, in the sense that clearly I am in a very real way grappling with that subject, it was hopeful to think about it through the prisms of these five people. Yeah, so the act of writing is the act of trying to make sense, so yes. It was helpful.
How much time did you spend writing it? It's hard question to answer, to identify starting points for anything. But, having said that, for me it was a relatively short amount of time, I mean, sometimes things can go on for many years. I think maybe this one was just in a gestation phase before writing occurred on the page. So I would say, sort of the end of last summer through December was very intensive, getting that first real draft out, and then lots of revisions. A shorter period of time than is sometimes the case with me. I can be slow.
Do you write every day? I do. I mean, well, I shouldn't say that, not every single day of my life. But it's definitely what feels good, and what I aim to do.
Do you have a set, habitual way of going about it? A routine?
Yeah, a routine! It depends. This past year I've been on leave; I had a fellowship, so I was able to be much more—in a great way—business-like about it, and being able to work during school hours while my children are at school. But normally I have a day job as well, so that means it's sort of pre-school hours. It's sort of like a 6-9 kind of thing and then sorta stealing time after they're in bed. Usually it's weird opposite ends of the day. And I find it can be useful times in different ways, in terms of where the brain is naturally at after a full day, or starting from scratch. But no, I've much preferred having uninterrupted hours in a row, as I said, this past year.
I think playwrights like Pinter and Albee have written about how they don't have a real narrative plan or storyline in mind when they start writing. Is your process similar to that? It is, actually. Yeah, I don't think anyone celebrates my plots! [Laughs] I don't come at it from that perspective. Actually, it'd be really fun one day to challenge myself to write a heavily, beautifully-plotted play. But I'm much more interested in where the characters lead me through their dialogue, and through the spaces in which they find themselves. With language, that's the natural way forward for me.
There's a lot of apologizing and saying "I'm sorry" in This. Where does that come from for you? Yeah. Well, that too sort of happened. There's a lot that the characters in this play feel sorry for, but I'm just sort of interested in that expression too because they're default words we all have. And sometimes they mean something and sometimes they're hollow. I was interested in exploring the gradations.
Your titles tend to be usually... different. Have you ever thought about why the titles of your plays are so different from and open-ended. Does that make sense? I think so. I don't know, it's very much a gut thing. I try things on in my head or on the draft, and then just settle on what feels right. This is what felt right for this, because it's so unspecific and yet weirdly specific at the same time, which felt right for this piece. It's very much a gut thing each time.
Yeah, I overheard somebody as they were leaving the theater, saying they thought it was a perfectly-titled piece, to them it really evoked describing a relationship, like, "ugh, all this." Yes, that's hard to name. That's what I'm always drawn to. I think that's what all artists are drawn to, trying to name the unnameable.
Have I been pronouncing "Britta" wrong all these years? [Laughs] You know, I don't know the answer to that. You need to consult the swedes. I have to say, I'm on the Britta side to, but I love the sound of Breeta.
The play struck me as very New York, and I can't actually recall if there are any geographically specific aspects to it, but did you have that in mind, did you feel like you were writing a play about people living in New York? Yes, that's what I was imagining for sure. I love this place, this urban environment is where most of my plays have been set so far, in one way or another.
The set, by Louisa Thompson, is amazing, I really felt like, "Wow, I know this place." That's great, I agree. I think it's really rich, and the Director Daniel Aukin and I have tended to work with the same group of designers over several productions and I just feel like the lights, sound, costumes, set, it's all very unified, and I just love how all the elements combine in really evocative ways.
I loved the design for Suitcase too. So it's the same team? Yeah, virtually.
For this one, did you participate in any of the rehearsals? Yeah, I'm in rehearsals for all my plays. It's very important to me because I'm still revising. You hear things one way in your head, but once they're inhabited by really talented actors, you find out so much more. So I did a lot of revising throughout the process. And that's the reward frankly. You're by yourself for so long, that it's like, "Oh yay, we get to collaborate, get to be in the room with other human beings."
Such a good cast. Yes, I feel very blessed that way. I just think they're uniformly talented, and also just work so beautifully as an ensemble. I feel like you buy their history, and I feel very blessed with this cast.
They're really really really really good. Can you articulate what it is about your collaboration with Daniel that has been so fruitful? Well, I think that we really trust each other, and I think really challenge each other in ways that's supportive but not threatening. The challenges are so positive, it make things feel possible somehow. We have very fluid conversations. At this point, we don't have to spend time worrying about "I hope you're gonna take this the right way" kind of thing, we can cut right to the chase. I think that's really helpful. He has a terrific sense of humor, too. I find that with the design team and actors too, your best collaborations are with people it's fun to be in the room with. I always feel that with him.
How did you get into writing plays? It was kind of accidental. I was one of those people who came to NY when I was 17 thinking I could act, and I did go to acting school for three years until I was 19, and then I was in a theater company shortly after attending acting school, a start-up theater company, so we did everything, and part of what we did was, "We're all gonna write." And that was my first experience of playwriting, and I loved it. Then I went to college and graduate school and studied it more formally, among many things, just getting an education period that way. But I fell into it through the door of acting.
My last question is if you've seen any theater recently that you really liked? Oh gosh, so much actually, and I'm going to forget half of it. I do have kids too, so I don't get to see as much as I want. I loved the play Circle Mirror Transformation upstairs at Playwrights Horizons; Annie Baker is a really exciting writer. I loved seeing Sarah Ruhl's play, I love everything David Greenspan's ever written. There are so many people that I just think are amazing, inspiring writers. I didn't get to see The Starry Messenger, but Kenneth Lonergan is an amazing writer. I saw Suzan Lori-Parks's in-progress thing at the Public last spring, and I was so impressed by that. David Adjmi's play Stunning at LTC, Chris Durang's play at the Public was amazing. Yeah I still think there's so much great stuff going on, and there are a lot of really exciting writers and theater people out there making work right now, I think it's great.
Those are all good things, but I thought you were going to name-check more "experimental" downtown productions. You know, I haven't seen enough downtown lately. I'm actually very excited to see my friend Lisa D'Amour's play at P.S. 122.
I saw that, I loved it. Yeah, speaking of long collaborations, those two are amazing and I'm hoping I can get there this weekend. But yeah, I love their work, it's amazing. And I'm really sorry I missed Taylor Mac's show which also sounded amazing.