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An interview with Playwright Melissa James Gibson
Conducted by Tim Sanford, Playwrights Horizons Artistic Director

Melissa James Gibson

Tim: I always like to hear how playwrights become playwrights. The story’s always different and very telling.

Melissa: I think mine’s probably pretty common in that in high school I thought I wanted to be an actor. And I did actually come to New York to go to acting school. I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for three years.

At eighteen?

Right after high school.

You didn’t go to college?

Not then. I went to college after I realized I didn’t want to, or that I shouldn’t, act!

It took you three years to realize that? You must have been pretty good or else very, very stubborn.

I wasn’t terrible. I did continue to get invited back. No, it was just very clear to me that I felt a sense of relief after the show, and that seemed wrong. You have to be loving it while you’re doing it. And the world doesn’t need another not-terrible actor!

Where did you go to high school, by the way?

Vancouver, British Columbia.

When did you start writing?

I was in a theater company after acting school, and we did a couple of playwriting workshops, and I loved it. And I had a reading at the Actor’s Studio, of my first short play, and whoever was the usual moderator wasn’t there that day, so Norman Mailer was filling in! And I remember just sitting there, thinking, ‘Oh great, Norman Mailer. Norman Mailer!’ I didn’t really know his stuff; I only imagined that he would think my play was girly. It was about two women, and it took place on the border between Canada and the U.S., and I just thought he was going to hate it. But he was just amazingly wonderful and supportive and great. And it was upon his recommendation that I became a member of the writer-director lab there.

This is before you went to college?

Around the same time, I think.

Where did you go?

I went to Columbia. I think I was 22 when I started. You can’t apply as an undergrad at that age so I went to the School of General Studies. It was a great program in that it didn’t feel marginalized; you still have access to the whole university. And I took some good writing classes, but the best part was just the general education. My political science and psychology classes were among the things that were the most exciting to me. And yeah I learned how to write an essay for real, too, but I was also working at the same time so it was a different experience than a typical undergrad experience.

What kinds of jobs did you have?

I fell into this weird gig where I was the super of a building—not that I fixed anything, but I just made the calls.

Were you your own inspiration for [sic]?

(laughs) No!

Isn’t there a line in the prologue…

About landlords?

…that the thing the characters have in common is their mutual hate of their landlord? I guess that’s landlords, not supers.

Yeah no, he was a nice landlord. But then the other part of my job with him was I cleaned his house. But he was the neatest human being I’ve ever met, so it was very easy even though it was a whole brownstone. So yeah, that’s what I was doing. Then I guess a year or so later I went to graduate school.

You went to Yale during their transitional period after Milan Stitt left, right?

Yeah. Right after the Lloyd Richards years.

So Mark Bly took over the writing program, right?

And Stan Wojewodski took over as Artistic Director of the Rep and Dean of the Drama School. So it was the first year for those guys. We were their first class.

Was it valuable?

Yes. The two best things about it were that I had almost endless time to write. I wasn’t scrambling for money. And my classmates were amazing. But the exposure to the other programs was really key to me. In particular, I really thought about design for the first time in a way that I never had. I sat in on Ming Cho Lee’s design classes on Saturdays—and they were amazing. He’s such a generous human being. He lets people sit in, and he even lets them do the assignments. I mean, I did them terribly, but he would critique them. He would take them seriously. And it was so valuable to think about plays in that way. I actually even had a half decent idea once, and it was very thrilling!

Did you ever write in other forms besides plays?

Not so much, no.

I am shocked.

Really?

You’re really so good with language and so deft with sentence construction that I would have thought you wrote poetry or fiction too at some point. How did you acquire that wordsmithing specialty? Is that just because you were raised Canadian?

(laughs) Well my parents are both writers actually, but of very different sorts. My father was a politician when I was growing up, but he’s written extensively on constitutional reform, and aboriginal rights. He’s very much a policy wonk guy. And my mother had this monthly column in Vancouver Magazine that was a gossip column basically, written very wittily.

Who were your teachers in graduate school?

It was quite an eclectic mix. Mark Bly ran several of the workshops, and we had people guest lecture for semesters. Mac Wellman was one, and he was actually a very important teacher for me. We had Marlane Meyer one time, we had Elizabeth Egloff, we had Eric Overmyer, Dick Gilman—Irene Fornes came in to lead workshops. Paul Schmidt taught an amazing translation class. They were all quite different in terms of approach, which was great.

All of those people seem like they could have influenced you.

Yeah, I was a fan of each and every one, for sure. But there were also really interesting people around, working at the Rep. Like Len Jenkin came up to direct a Chekhov adaptation he’d done, and that was really interesting. And a lot of Suzan-Lori Parks’s stuff was getting done. Liz Diamond directed a couple of them, and Richard Foreman directed Venus there. I was blown away by her work. So I felt very happy to be in that community at that time.

Tell me about finding your voice. Looking back, were you aware of how your stuff was developing, or was it more under the surface?

I knew I was interested in trying to explore—and this continues to be true—the cusp between hilarity and tragedy, that fine line where single moments can contain extreme emotions, coupled with the whole process of communication and how difficult it is to be received in the ways in which we intend.

What were your first professional opportunities after school?

I had a reading at the McCarter right after I finished of a play I’d written in graduate school. Then I received two commissions from the Steppenwolf Theater Lab.

How’d they know about you?

Anna Shapiro was a couple of years ahead of me in grad school, so we’d known each other a bit there. Adam Rapp also had a commission the inaugural year.

Bruce Norris was there too.

Yes. And there were also some other great Chicago writers. It was set up as a six month thing, and every two months you’d come back with your revisions, then it culminated in a reading. And [sic] actually started there, then I wrote another play through that program called Given Fish that was a about a filmmaker, so there’s a twenty minute film within the play.

Was [sic] different from your earlier work?

I think so. With [sic] I started to focus more on the urban landscape as a setting. That was a bit of a shift, and I’ve stayed in that mode pretty much since then, exploring apartment building living.

You sure have been. I guess being a super defined your career.

I lived in—I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say—almost twenty places from the time I arrived in New York in 1982 at 17 until I headed off to grad school. I lived in different boroughs, and I just found the whole experience of one’s relationship with neighbors so fascinating, how you have a relationship even if you don’t have a relationship. You know each other through your mail, and through your garbage, and through what comes through the walls, and the air shafts, and what you hear as you walk down the hall, and of course they’re doing the same with you. And I really love that. I find it really beautiful.

It seems to me that, in your work, this idea of the cusp between tragedy and hilarity and this parallel motif of apartment living seem related. There’s a fly-on-the-wall aspect of observing your neighbors, “those who resemble flies from a distance,” as the subtitle of Suitcase suggests. And in this urban voyeurism, things can seem hilarious from the outside. But from the inside, they can be quite painful. Maybe the most dramatic example of this is in [sic] with the Air Shaft Couple. They’re in the middle of breaking up, right?

Right.

So they don’t think it’s funny at all.

Right.

But we sure do.

Right, exactly. This major intensity next door, but you’re watching it from a distance. Did you read that article in the Times recently about this very subject, of people witnessing their neighbors? There’s an illustrator who’s interviewed a variety of people and sketched the views from their windows. And there were some pretty amazing stories. One person in the midst of a Thanksgiving celebration, I think, noticed a woman lying on the floor in the building across the way who, it turns out, was dead, and had been there for two days. And it was just an incredible juxtaposition. Stuff like that is going on all the time, and we move in and out of being on different ends of it.

And language both gives us the access and provides armature against all those underlying feelings. That’s very evident in [sic] and in Suitcase. Reading those plays, one is first struck by the dizzying use of language. And yet there’s also a great deal of emotion running under the surface. Maybe the youthfulness of the characters makes them so on-guard and insecure that you don’t show that much. Theo has a serious jones for Babbette…

And the feeling isn’t mutual, and it’s very painful for him.

But we’re hardly even aware of it because he’s so careful about how he…

Expresses it?

Yeah.

Another thing I’m drawn to about the architecture of apartment buildings (that figures in [sic] and Suitcase as well as Brooklyn Bridge, which I wrote for the Children’s Theater of Minneapolis), are all the sort of in-between places, the stairwells and the elevators and the fire escapes and the roof tops – the public meets private places. I have an obsession with doorways, and how they affect a conversation, because usually it means people are about to be separated.

Ming Cho Lee’s influence on you?

In part, yeah. The set design deeply informs our experience of a play. And it’s so delicate. Design carries such a huge responsibility with the first production, because it’s having a dialogue with the piece, and it has an effect on how it’s experienced and even how it gets revised and developed.

You’ve had virtually the same design team with all your plays with Daniel Aukin [director]. And one really gets a sense of that dialogue, especially in Louisa Thompson’s sets, with the plays. When you read the manuscripts for the plays you realize what creative leaps she took with them. Especially for Suitcase. Suitcase is a deeply geeky play about two graduate students working on their dissertations and their boyfriends. And she placed the two girls on floating platforms and the guys are down below, always a bit peripheral.

Yeah, it’s like they’re in tree house apartments with their research, and the men are basically trying to get in. They’re in the foyer much of the time, talking on the intercom. I love how hard intercoms are to navigate. But yeah, I thought that was a spectacular design. Working with the same designers has been great, because we’ve developed a vocabulary and a shorthand, and they’re so in tune with the dramaturgy of what’s going on with the plays. And I thought that design was particularly successful, I agree. They’re both sort of in a position of power and yet they’re unattainable and trapped, all at the same time.

Right. When did you start teaching at St. Ann’s?

I came to St. Ann’s in 1995, right after graduate school. I needed a job, and I’ve been there, except for two fellowship years, ever since. And I have done some teaching, I’ve taught theater and I’ve taught playwriting, but for most of the time I’ve been a college counselor. But I love teaching. I love teaching playwriting in particular.

Did teaching at St. Ann’s inform Brooklyn Bridge?

Yes. I am friends with a lot of teachers, several of whom teach fifth grade (the play’s main character is a fifth grader).

It’s really a wonderful play about a young student procrastinating doing her homework by wandering through her apartment building. It’s so well-observed and funny and moving, with the Brooklyn Bridge as its backdrop, but I knew it really should be done in a theater with plenty of families and children in the audience. And that’s not us. But it’s also kind of huge.

It is. I loved that production, it was beautiful, and it worked so well in that 700 seat theater, which is gi-normous, especially for me. What I love about The Children’s Theater’s programming and their mission is they’re not interested in work that talks down to kids.

You can tell by the kinds of writers they try to get to work with them.

Absolutely. So literally in the same audience you have a two year old and you have an eighty year old. And the trick is to try to keep them both engaged. And that was a very helpful challenge for me; I loved it.

Your last play, Current Nobody, was a gender reversed spin on The Odyssey. And I’ve noticed a fair number of other classical references in your work. “Sic” is a Latin word. And This has a reference to Achilles and Patroklos, as well as a paraphrase of Socrates. What impact have the classics had on you?

‘Paraphrase of Socrates,’ being the operative observation above. Much to my regret, I never studied Greek or Latin. In college I encountered the ancient philosophers and poets, and while this was very much in the 101 sense, what I read had a strong impact—how could it not? Studying theater I read a lot of the Greek and Roman drama—also amazing stuff, of course. Working on Current Nobody I read and reread The Odyssey, which I revere. But really, to go back to the college exposure, I think about a Political Theory survey class I took taught by a brilliant professor named Dennis Dalton. And, if I’m recalling correctly, he pretty much started the survey with an examination of that great Socratic question, that comes to us through Plato’s writings, about the need for each of us to figure out how best to conduct our lives. It’s the simplest thing—a cliché, I suppose—but I remember being so struck by how Professor Dalton animated the question and it’s stayed with me all these years. Really, I think about it all the time—‘which course of life is best’—which I think makes my characters think about it all time. Clearly they find it as daunting as we actual humans do.

That seems like a natural segue to talk about This. What was the inspiration for This?

The first impulse was to explore the aftereffects of adultery. I wasn’t interested in exploring it like a bad TV show where it’s treated really simplistically. I was thinking about stages of life we all go through. Marriage is a complicated endeavor. I’ve seen the effect adultery can have—it can go every which way in terms of fallout. It can actually be—I won’t say a good thing—but something that allows things to move to a different, healthier place, or it can be the thing that makes the couple realize the relationship’s no longer feasible. But having said that, ultimately it became clear to me that what I was actually exploring was mortality. How do we make sense of the deaths that start happening around this age—of parents and loved ones, people who are dying too young? This notion very quickly shifted into the main thing I was grappling with, and the adultery became an inciting incident.

It’s surprising to hear the adultery came first. The mortality issue seems so clearly central. It’s the story of someone who’s at sea and lost and disoriented, and that’s how Jane falls into the adultery. She’s unmoored and vulnerable and susceptible for an evening.

Right. But, you know, I’m often the last to know what I’m writing about—it’s pretty typical that, while I’m in it, I don’t know what it is, but in retrospect I see, ‘Oh I thought it was this, but it’s actually this.’ And maybe if I’d actually thought it was that in the first place, it would have been less interesting.

I want to get back to your use of language and how it may be evolving. Your use of language in [sic] and Suitcase feels almost virtuosic in some ways, especially when you read them. The use of language in This feels a bit toned down, yet every bit as central. These are all very verbal characters: a poet, a songwriter, a bilingual Frenchman, and a mnemonist, and the one character who works with his hands has one of the longest monologues in the play. I’m curious how consciously you shape your language. You say the content of your work emerges unconsciously. Does the form as well?

I’m very interested in how expression proceeds and the rhythm of language. I find the natural poetry in colloquial speech to be really beautiful. And so hopefully, without making it precious, I attempt to capture how I experience that, how thought and the attempt to express it – manifests itself in dialogue.

How did the characters in This come to you?

I think Jane was first, and her widowhood seemed valuable and interesting. Then I liked the thought that the adultery would happen with the spouse of a best friend, because of course that’s just so complicated. He’s not a stranger; it would be a very different thing if he were, and if Jane didn’t know and love his wife. I mean this is sort of the worst possible, most painful set up in a way. So it started with those three. But I thought it shouldn’t just be limited to those three, that it was about people who had known each other from college, who have really helped each other through two decades, so that brought Alan into the picture. And then it just seemed fun and important to have an outside world perspective, to offer another view and puncture all of their’s in a sense.

There’s a Doctor Without Borders in Suitcase, too, I think.

There’s a mention of that line of work. It’s definitely a theme for me. Not just Doctors Without Borders, but what am I contributing to this world? It’s just very easy to forget how hard life is for the vast majority of this planet. So yeah that self-involved graduate student says at one point, ‘I should have been a Doctor Without Borders.’ But I’m also just fascinated by Doctors Without Borders. It seems like quite an amazing path.

Why is he French?

Well, a lot of them are! And it also seemed useful to have someone in the mix for whom English was a second language. Even though he’s very fluent.

Would you talk about the title?

I guess, for me, everyone has a This. It’s changing at all times, but the This is the elephant in the room; it’s the scary thing that demands attention but doesn’t necessarily receive it. And each character in the play has a This, but Jane’s is the most foregrounded. I also think what you said [in your subscriber bulletin letter] about the use of that word for a poet and in writing is interesting

Yes, because the characters are very verbal and articulate, but each of them comes smack up against the limits of language at some point or another. And when you experience the play, you’ve pretty gracefully given us several really telling moments where we’re conscious of that word, particularly in Alan’s scene with Jane. For all the joking about his status as a ‘Dear Friend,’ he’s obviously integral to the play.

Right, I think he ends up being the glue really, one could argue.

It’s interesting that he is a mnemonist. When we first meet him, he presents himself as a kind of third wheel, the gay uncle/godfather. But his memory eventually plays a pivotal role in the action. How did this idea come to you?

I think about memory a lot, because I feel like I forget things all the time. I mean, we all do, big and little things. But there have been so many times where I wish I could recall exactly how a particularly charged discussion went, because I know that I’m filtering and remembering it the way I need to remember it. And I would so love to have the conversation of record at hand. So it was fun to explore that. But I think it’s also the thing that makes him tortured. It would be a really hard way to live.

It’s interesting, that his narrative function eventually is to help anatomize the seeds of dissolution of this marriage between Tom and Marrell. They have their own version of what happened, and he’s there with the tape recorder of what they actually said. Someone at a talkback the other day compared him to a Greek Chorus in this respect. But in a way, he’s more like Teiresias. He’s the truth-teller. But the other interesting thing is that the argument they had was started with a comparison of their marriage to Jane’s marriage to her dead husband Roy. They’ve created a fantasy of what that relationship is as a comparison. But what’s interesting is that when you do the math, you realize he had to have died very shortly after they had this argument, probably within a month. So there’s a supercharged, dark irony to it.

People’s lives can change on a dime. We idealize each other all the time, like ‘oh if only I had the advantage that X has.’ But we don’t know; we’re not inside of it. Then things change in an instant. And I think that’s another reason Alan is the one who’s inching toward having a foot in the outside world. He’s the person in this play who’s really bothered by the question, “What am I contributing to the world?” And that’s important to me, and I think to the play.

Talk a little about the songs in This?

I liked the idea of there being a musical presence in the play, and early on it occurred to me that they should be jazz songs. When I decided that Marrell was a jazz singer, I didn’t know exactly how her songs would figure into things. At first they played a sort of interstitial role, but as we moved through the rehearsal process it became clear that without the songs being rooted in a context they became too much like Greek choral commentary, instead of what it was feeling like they should be: a small window on an artist practicing (sometimes quite literally) her craft. It took a little while, but I think we landed on a presence for the songs that feels right—and along the way Peter Eldridge composed some beautiful music for them.

I think they do add a certain perspective to the play. We talked about this at the talkback the other day. Jean Pierre provides a kind of global perspective. And Alan adds the perspective of history, in a way. He remembers the past. The songs add a kind of aesthetic perspective to the play, especially as we recognize the relevance of Marrell’s lyrics to her own life and her friends. Do you think the racial motif of this play is coincidental, or thematically relevant to something that you’re trying to write about?

Well, I made some very specific choices, so yes. I was interested in this particular dynamic. Did I want the play to be focusing on that in a really direct way, no, I wasn’t interested in doing that. Do I think that those realities have an effect on the relationships in the play and on how everything proceeds? Yes, I do.

I think it’s true what Daniel said once, that it’s really just the given circumstances of the play. In a way, it’s like we’re in a post-racial world. Yet the reality of it, the consciousness of otherness, keeps butting its way into the play. It’s just another thing in the play, like Jean Pierre’s French accent, and Alan’s restlessness, that hints at a larger perspective beyond the insular, “dinky” issues of these people.

Marrell has a line that goes: ‘It sounds like it’s hard to be white,’ which also hints at a larger perspective.

The adultery that Jane falls into—we talked about this the first time I read it… What do we think of her? The fact that she does it with her best friend’s husband is very problematic yet understandable in a way, too, because it’s someone she knows and is comfortable with. But it’s also like the ultimate betrayal. What do you feel about this event in terms of your own point of view of morality?

I think, and this is something Daniel and I have talked about, in the context of the play, that yes, it’s a horrible thing that has happened and nothing can ever change that it’s happened. But, here’s this person who has been sinking. She is not functioning in her life; she is not functioning as a parent. She’s doing the day to day, but she’s not present like she needs to be. And in some complicated, but, to me, very human sense, her taking this action, her committing this very painful-to-all-involved act, is important. It’s a way through to arrive in a different place. Inevitably something has shifted. So now she has to deal with what she’s done, in a way that she hasn’t been dealing with her husband’s death for the past year. And somehow taking—albeit wrongheaded—action allows her to do that, and step up in the way that she needs to for her daughter.

You were talking before about how important doors are to you. And I think it’s telling that the two scenes between Jane and Tom, and then later Jane’s final monologue to her daughter, all take place in doorways. Maybe what it’s also really telling of is Louisa Thompson’s uncanny dramaturgical understanding of your underlying logic.

Absolutely! All the designers, in fact,—lighting, sound and costume, too—are very astute dramaturgically.

The final monologue has gone through quite a bit of revision. It used to be much longer, more reflective, almost like she was rediscovering her poetic voice. What have you discovered in working on it? And how did you finally arrive at how to land it?

It became clear, at a certain point, that what the final monologue needed to be was Jane addressing her daughter in what becomes both a plea for forgiveness and to the future. It signals her return as the present, devoted, fallible, fingers-crossed parent she once was.

Written in conjunction with the premiere of This in December 2009 at Playwrights Horizons (New York City).