Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Jessica Nash
January 26th, 2017
Yes, the new play The Oregon Trail does mention having to ford oxen across a river. The play, which takes its name from both the pioneers crossing the country and the iconic ‘90s computer game, is now playing at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre. It juxtaposes two girls—one in the 1840s and one from the 1990s to the present—both dealing with depression, but not-quite-clinical-depression. The intertwining of all of this comes from the mind of playwright Bekah Brunstetter. Bekah’s previous plays include Be a Good Little Widow and Oohrah!, and she’s currently a staff writer on NBC’s This is Us. She’s also a member of The Kilroys, which produces an annual list of plays written by women. Currently living in Los Angeles, we spoke to Bekah while she was in New York about her process for writing Oregon Trail, exploring depression, and new play development.
For The Oregon Trail, what was your jumping-off point? Did you start with a visual image, a character?
For this play, it was the idea of juxtaposing a person who’s sad today with a person who was sad on the Oregon Trail in 1845. The fact that sadness is so different now than it was then. If you were feeling heartsick with your family on the Oregon Trail, you couldn’t say, “I can’t get out of bed in the morning.” You have to go because every day is a struggle to live, whereas now, the way that our lives are set up, it’s easier to dwell in our feelings. I thought comparing and contrasting those two young women in the two times was really interesting. It’s basically the juxtaposition of those two. Also, in terms of images, a girl on the Oregon Trail and a girl sitting on a couch and how vastly different those two things are.
Did you do a quick first draft or a slow first-draft?
I tend to write a first draft really quickly while it’s in my head, and then I spend years fixing it. I wrote this play six years ago. I’ve been workshopping it gradually over the years. Every time I have a workshop or meeting, the actors ask questions and bring their individual selves to the play, and then it changes as different people get their heads into it. The first draft happened pretty quickly.
For a play the way the juxtaposition of the two time periods actually works in three-dimensional space is important. What did you find was the most helpful part of the development process?
I workshopped the play three years ago at the O’Neill Theater Conference with some of the same actors and the same director [as this production]. It was a reading, but we were able to stage it a little bit and see how the two worlds could live together in one space. That’s something that’s hard to really tell until the actors are on their feet. When they’re just sitting there with scripts in hand it’s hard to really get a sense of that, but they were able to move around. There’s Oregon Trail stuff in the play. There’s fording the river and moving down the trail, and it was cool to start to experiment with what that would actually look like. When you’re just typing it, you don’t quite know yet how it’s actually going to go down. I’ll never forget, when I first read Sarah Ruhl’s play Melancholy Play, at one point a character turns into an almond. It’s this beautiful little moment and it’s like, “How the fuck do you do that?” I love that that is what she felt when she was writing the play and then it gets figured out later. So getting in a couple of workshops to start to play with what things actually look like, that feel really hard to stage, has been the most fun.
Did you ever worry about writing things that were hard to stage?
I try and always follow my impulse, if it feels right or necessary for the story. But the fact of the matter is—and it took me a while to learn this—a lot of times when your plays are being done, you’re not physically there for the rehearsal process. You might not get to see it at all, or you just show up and see it when it’s in the run. So you have to be really clear about what it is that you see and what it is that you want, or it can get lost in the script because everybody’s bringing their own point of view to the play. If you want something to come across, you have to make sure that it is clear. That’s what’s exciting about playwriting. That’s part of the thrill, it’s showing up and knowing that you wrote something, but you have no idea how it’s going to be interpreted. The lights go down and they come up and you’re like, “What did I make?” You don’t really know. I have not seen this production [of Oregon Trail] yet. I just got here this morning. I’m going to see it for the first time tonight. It’s horrifying and thrilling at the same time.
Not being part of the rehearsal process isn’t something that’s come up a lot before.
I’m in L.A. now because I do television writing. When I was New York-based and doing playwriting, I was here for the first productions of the plays. That’s more typical. Usually you are present, but when you’re not, you do what you can. You Skype in to run-throughs, you talk to the directors, you make sure you’re available to the actors if they have questions, and you do your best. Ideally, you’re there. Especially for the first production of a play. A play changes so much in its first production, if it’s never really been on stage before. The playwright learns so much, the director learns so much, and that’s when the play becomes the thing. Playwriting really has two parts. You’re writing alone, this thing that’s in your head, you’re getting it out. Then it exists, and you need other people. It’s not a poem, it’s not a book. You’re missing that other half, which is the actors and the director and the designers making it come to life. In that first production, you’re figuring out what it is. You don’t really know what it is when it’s just a Word document that you printed. You start to understand what it is when you do readings. That begins to reveal the play to you. But what the play is about and what it looks like and what it feels like doesn’t really reveal itself until it’s in rehearsal. Sometimes you don’t learn what the play is until it’s opening night and there it is, and you’re watching it and you’re like, “Oh, it’s not that. It’s this other thing.” It’s just the process. You have to constantly accept the fact that it’s trial and error. Sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t.
Are you visual? Do you have strong visual images when you’re writing?
Yeah, I do. That’s usually what helps me understand the tone of what I’m writing. I’m definitely not the kind of playwright who spells out really specifically in the stage directions, “There’s a door here and a window here.” You see that sometimes. I like to be a little more open-ended and a little more vague so that designers have a space to fill in their ideas, but I definitely see specific colors or the kind of space that it is. For me, all plays exist within a dream space, even if they’re real; they’re suspended in space because they’re plays and there’s no way when you go into a theatre and see the stage and see the set that you don’t know that you’re in a theatre. I like embracing that. We’re all here to watch something we staged. We’re not actually in somebody’s kitchen.
For Oregon Trail, did you know what you wanted the tone to be from the beginning?
Everything that I write is dramedy. I like to amuse myself while I write, but I also like to try and ask big questions, so it usually ends up being a combination of the two. This play has been a journey of making sure it’s not too silly. There’s so much fun to be had with the game because it’s so iconic. You could write for days about characters stuck in that game world, and it’s endlessly fun, but it has to be counterbalanced with the larger questions the play is asking, or it’s a sketch. I think about that a lot. To me, there is a huge difference between a sketch and a play. A play asks larger questions than a sketch. A sketch is a hilarious situation that gets elevated and elevated and elevated towards a punch line and then it’s over, whereas a play hopefully asks the big questions about something related to how to be alive.
What was your process like for working with a protagonist who has issues with depression and being passive in her life, but still making it work within the classic dramatic structure of having an active protagonist?
It’s tricky. In early drafts of the play, she was a bit more stagnant. But, just to clarify, in my head she’s not clinically depressed. I was trying to explore something slightly different that I feel like even more people feel, which is this sadness that you can’t shake, and that the protagonist finds out is related to something that happened to her ancestor. I think a lot of times when we feel that way, we try and not feel that way. I’m always doing something, and sometimes I’m doing things to mask sadness that I feel. So I’ve been trying to explore that with her. She feels the same, but she’s not necessarily always sitting around talking about it. She’s trying to avoid it, and that’s what makes her active—her constantly trying to not feel the way that she feels. Trying to find some things to occupy her mind, or trying to find something to be positive about, but that moment keeps pulling her down. That push and pull is what keeps it active.
Depression, but not clinical depression, is an interesting place.
What’s so interesting to me is back in the Oregon Trail days they used to call it melancholia. That was the first time they ever put a name to it, and it was melancholia. Before that time it was just, “Oh, women are sad sometimes.” It was histrionics. It was very much dismissed, and now it’s very culturally accepted to be depressed, to the point where there’s a lot of different kinds. I’m interested in those gray areas between clinical depression and having a bad day, because there’s so much in between there. I think a lot of us now are carrying sadness from things that don’t even affect our everyday lives; it’s just there. It’s interesting to me to think about how society views it now versus how they did [then].
You mentioned ancestral baggage before, and that’s something that’s been talked about and studied a lot more in recent years.
After I read the first draft of the play, one of the actors who was working on it with me sent me this article about epigenetics, which is the whole theory that our ancestors’ trauma is imprinted on our DNA. I thought that was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. Learning that, to me, validated how I have felt, how people close to me have felt. It’s a beautiful idea that we’re carrying those people with us, and everything that they went through has value and adds value to our lives now. I just love that.
I wanted to ask you about the different ages at which you portray Jane, the protagonist. The play ends right before she turns 30, but when it starts she’s 13.
I feel like everything that happens to you in middle school stays with you for the rest of your life. I still, to this day in my adult life, will notice little patterns in my own behavior—like when I get upset, when I feel rejected, when I feel like I need something—where I can relate it back to middle school. I think that you’re a kid, and then you start to go through puberty and you’re all of a sudden this open wound. Everything that happens to you is huge, and you’re so vulnerable and you don’t know who you are, and you want love but you don’t know what it is, and all that stuff. It’s also when I played the game [Oregon Trail]. So it seems like an interesting place to meet a young woman, and then to see her at her mid-twenties and see that the quote-unquote traumas that happened to her in middle school really did shape who she is as an adult. It’s almost meant to echo the question of the play: how trauma stays as a person gets older. When I wrote the play I was 27 or 28. Now I’m 34, and I do feel so much older. Now I look at that character that I wrote and I want to pat her on the head. The frustration’s very real. I was trying to support myself and also write plays and not get lost. A lot of people feel that way, especially in big cities because you can get lost so easily in everything. Success feels so elusive because there’s so much stuff everywhere.
You use a lot of music in the play, and a lot of ‘90s songs. What was your process like for using music as part of the play?
I’ve actually done it in a number of plays. I’m sure a lot of people feel this way, but songs rip my heart open and help me access what’s deep in my heart. Certain songs get you there super quickly. They make me cry. I don’t cry when I read, I don’t cry when I watch TV or film; it’s just music. Early on when I was writing my first full-length plays, I would always be listening to certain songs while I was writing, because they would help me lock into what I was writing about. At a certain point, I started transcribing the songs into the plays and creating these song moments where, basically, a character would start singing a song that I felt belonged in the world. Then at some point, the song moment became a thing that really felt like it belonged in the play that I was writing. For this play, the idea of these two girls singing together who could never actually sing together, and the idea that their souls are harmonizing, made me really happy—and just the thought of a girl on the Oregon Trail singing a Bush song was hilarious to me, so it just felt like it belonged. They’re tricky moments because they’re not supposed to be performative. They’re not musical theatre numbers, they’re small and weird. I love those moments the most, but they’re also the moments that I feel the most terrified of because they’re strange.
What’s something that you think can be done to improve the new play development process?
I feel a tiny bit disconnected from it now since I’ve been away from it in L.A. for a while. Theatres and festivals do a lot of readings and then the play gets heard. Actors read the script, the play gets heard, and then maybe some fancy people come to the reading. A lot of times, I would feel that there’s no next step and the playwright is alone with a lot of questions and new ideas. Of course, the playwright can then go and do a new draft, but there are so many lost plays that get brought to this point and then nothing happens after that. I love it the most when I’m working on a play, and I’ve either been commissioned by a theatre or I’m in the writers’ group of a theatre, and I know that we have a relationship and that they might produce the play. They’re going to do a reading of it, then they’re going to do another reading of it, then they’re going to do a workshop of it, and then they’re going to produce it. That level of commitment is really special and really makes for a greater play because it helps the playwright really focus on the next draft as opposed to, “Well, now who’s going to read my play?” Then, this has already been happening, but more plays by more diverse writers. I’m a founding member of The Kilroys. That’s all that we do, and we’ve seen it get better in the last four years, but still thinking about it, still caring about it and wanting it to just be, “Oh, we have a woman and we have a Black person, great, we’re good.” Really seeing parity in reading series and workshop series and season planning and all of that.
I want to come back to that, but related to the new play development, you were saying before about how difficult and weird it can be when you’re first starting out. Is there anything you think that can be done in the community to make life easier for young writers?
I believe really strongly that nobody owes you a living wage for writing plays. Nobody owes you a living wage for being an actor, necessarily. You’ve chosen your creative path and there’s a good chance that you will end up supporting yourself doing it, but nobody owes you that. I believe really strongly that artists should have day jobs until they don’t need them. For me, I don’t think it’s like, “They need more money.” I think that what they need is more emotional support and actual space in which to do their work. There are four or five really, really good writers’ groups for emerging playwrights in the city, and if you can get into one, agents pay attention to you and go to fancy readings of your work and people commission you and you start to get into the system. But it seems like there aren’t enough spots. We could benefit from a few more of those groups, because when you’re in a group like that, it gives people confidence in this community. You’re meeting once a month, so you have a reason to write ten more pages of your play. You have feedback from the other writers and the people running the program, and you have a physical space to make it. That’s what keeps you writing. I think that if you’re a writer, you’ll always be writing, so it’s not necessarily the act of doing the writing, but feeling good about what you’re doing and feeling like you’re contributing something. Sometimes you feel like, “Why am I doing this?”
As you mentioned, you’re a member of the Kilroys.
I love them. We went on a retreat this last weekend and we sang karaoke for a full 10 hours, it was amazing. Half of it was Alanis Morissette.
What’s something else that can be done to improve equality for women in theatre, especially because it’s 2017—which, admittedly, might be the final year of America, but trying to be optimistic—and we’re still having these conversations?
We’re planning some stuff for the next couple of years, and I wish I could tell you what, but I can’t right now. I think that we are planning a couple of things that are going to answer this very question. I think it’s about staying focused on what we’re looking for, which is parity. It’s not that difficult. If you run six plays, there should be three women. Period. Really trying to hold theatres responsible by rewarding the theatres that are doing it and keeping the conversation going so that artistic directors are aware of the fact that it’s a problem and they start to want it too. We’re seeing that happen, which is cool. We wanted to do the lists since that’s a useful tool. Every list is, “Bam! Bam! Bam! Here are all these plays that you can program,” and people are really influenced by their peers. We want artistic directors to be like, “Everybody else is doing it, so we want to too.” It’s as simple as that. Also, it’s tricky because I’ve never felt like, “Please program this play just because a woman wrote it.” You still want it to be about the best plays. My hope is that there are enough good plays by women, and it’s still the best work. It’s not like “the diversity slots.” That’s another point of the list: “There’s a lot [of plays] and here are some of the best. There’s a great many, and a lot of them are very good, so take your pick.”