Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Tess Mayer
January 24th, 2017
Here are some things that I learned about playwright Madeleine George within the first ten minutes of being in her apartment: she likes puns, she is of the “why tell a joke once when you can tell it twice” school of thought, she knows a good Nazi reference and isn’t afraid to use it, she and partner Lisa Kron have to move because they have more books than wall space, she has a painting of an egg that she bought in Moscow, she has been to Moscow, and she has a highly neurotic dog (the mental state of the dog could not be independently confirmed as he was currently in Michigan). She is also a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her play The (curious case of) the Watson Intelligence, a founding member of the playwrights’ collective 13P, and the author of two young adult novels. Her new play, Hurricane Diane, where the god Dionysus is a lesbian permaculture gardener in New Jersey, is currently playing at Two River Theater. We sat down to discuss the play, her process, dramatic structure, and a lot more.
When you’re writing a play, do you usually start with a visual image, a question, a character? None of the above?
I think it’s different, at different times. Sometimes I think I work situationally. I have this play [called Precious Little] that’s about dying languages and amniocentesis and apes. That came about from hearing a story about great apes who had been in a language study and they had learned all of this rudimentary communication. Then the study was defunded and they were farmed out to other kinds of research laboratories where they were not able to communicate with human beings in that way. That image was so striking and the whole play emerged out of that. That’s a situation. I wrote a play [The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence] about a series of iconic Watsons throughout history. Watson from Sherlock Holmes, and Watson from the Alexander Graham Bell collaboration and the invention of the telephone, and the IBM super-computer Watson. Then, there’s a fourth Watson. That came from wanting to write a play about seconds, wanting to turn the focus onto sidekick figures or supporting figures, and then noticing that there were a couple of crucial ones that were named the same thing.
In terms of this play now, Hurricane Diane, I had been reading about permaculture culture. This guy Dave Jacke has this extraordinary book about building a permaculture garden, which is the kind of garden that mimics a natural ecosystem. It maximizes productivity out of the land. It has this romantic or utopian quality to it where it imagines that we could restore the health of the earth, which we’ve done so much to decimate, just by cultivating this kind of garden in our yards. I was so attracted to this idea. Then, simultaneously, I was reading Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, where he focuses on four or five different agricultural products through time. [One of them is] the history of the apple in the United States, and Johnny Appleseed stunned me because our vision of Johnny Appleseed is this rustic or kid-oriented kind of person, but Pollan poses him as like an early American Dionysus. Because the reason why Americans cultivated apples was not to eat them raw, but to turn them into hard cider, so they could become calories that could be easily consumed and kept for a long time. Johnny Appleseed went across the country planting what amounts to vineyards. I was like, “Oh that’s so amazing. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a story about a contemporary Dionysus?”
Do write a quick first draft or a slow first draft?
I’m super slow. Typically, I produce five or six times the volume of material as ends up in the play. I need tons of interaction with actors and directors and dramaturgs who are smart in order to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. I’m terrible at plot. I could do dialogue all day long, I never stop, but it rarely functions in a focused scene-oriented way. I need lots of collaborative help on making a story that moves. That means that I just have to take a lot of time to do it.
I was reading on Two River’s website an essay where you talked about how you feel theatre isn’t great at scale or abstractions, but is good at relationships. What was your process like for writing something that does have big ideas and needed to work on a metaphoric level, but had to do that through the relationships? Especially with a big issue like global warming.
I feel like, in a way, it’s like the perfect vehicle. Theatre is only functional and only vivid in a material one-on-one human sized way; that makes it the perfect vehicle for thinking through problems of scale. Like, what are we going to do about robots or what’s our responsibility to people who are at the margins of cognitive ability in our society (that’s the play about the gorilla)? Or how can we understand our relationship to the changing climate? The storytelling component or the relational component of a theatre piece is an entryway for human beings to get into those questions. I think that this is partly why I don’t write naturalistic plays. Although I really take a lot of joy in the kind of mundane vernacular of human speech, my plays always have some crazy coup de théâtre. There’s almost always some human being on stage playing something that is not a human being. In this case there’s a god, and that’s an instantiation of that same scale thing. You know the expression, “good to think with?” It’s a way that philosophers or theorists will talk about an image or an idea. Actors are good to think with. They’re an amazing tool for playwrights who want to ask big questions in an accessible way.
Do you find when you’re writing that content dictates form or do you find form is helpful in dictating the content?
I think that I lean heavily towards the second. I’m drawn to solutions that are formal. Right at this moment in our process [for Hurricane Diane] we’re at this place where there’s a sort of reveal at the very end of the play. It became clear to me that I couldn’t explain why it needed to function in a certain way, but it’s a Greek choral moment. The formal constraints of what a chorus can do are dictating how that part of this production can go, even though it has all these other swirly more naturalistic components inside it. For someone who’s not a natural-born storyteller using formal patterns or constraints or received genre, is a really helpful way to make a play.
Hurricane Diane is based on The Bacchae.
It’s based on The Bacchae by Euripides. Well, it’s like a sequel to The Bacchae. It’s not an adaptation of The Bacchae, it’s not the same story told again. It’s what happens when Dionysus, who leaves triumphant at the end of The Bacchae three and a half thousand years ago, comes back to New Jersey. That’s what this play is. It’s a comedy.
The cast is all female and trans, right?
That’s true. The characters are all female and in our production one of the actors is trans.
I’m always interested in how playwrights decide how to gender their characters. Could you talk a little about writing all-female characters as an intentional choice?
Well, I just thought, if I want to talk about climate change and if I want to talk about gardening and I’m using The Bacchae, the delight of the story is, the cheeseball lesbian rides into town and slays all the housewives trick. That host of jokes is the thing that has kept me deeply entertained while I’m working on the themes of the play. Then it just made sense to have it be all the women that live on this cul-de-sac where the play takes place. Plus, Dionysus is now in the form of a butch lesbian landscape architect played by Becca Blackwell.
Do you feel extra pressure when writing female characters because so much can be projected onto them?
Not really. I feel like it’s always felt very natural and normal to me to write female characters who are deeply flawed, a total pain in the ass, charmingly verbose, violent, ethical, unethical. It never seemed to me to be an issue, but I don’t know. I feel like it has taken me a long time to get my career going, and every so often I’m like, “I wonder if I would [write more about men]…” The last time I wrote a play I made a conscious decision because I was like, “I’m so tired of my plays making it so close and then not getting on stage.” So I was like, “The next play that I write, I’m going to change the ratio. Instead of having it all girls with one boy I’m going to switch it up and have two to one men to women.” Sure enough, that is the play that got produced. I don’t necessarily think that’s the reason why, but it’s possible. I think for decision makers it’s often they don’t know why they don’t understand a play if it’s all women. They can’t tell, they just have a sense that there’s something off or that there’s not enough there or that there’s a vagueness at the center. After I did that last more cynical thing the last time around, I was like, “Oh that’s it, I can’t do it anymore.” Also, because I went to another city where they were doing a production of this play that I was referring to that has a gorilla in it, and that’s an all-female cast too. They were like, “Oh you’re working on a new play. Does it have all women in it too?” I was working on this other one where I had cynically made this decision and I was like, “No.” I felt like, what a traitor. That’s why I switched back.
How do you think the new play development process could be more helpful for writers, especially if you like using actors?
I was one of the founders of a playwrights’ collective called 13 Playwrights, and we came together intentionally to try to alter the landscape of development. We produced one play by each of our members over the course of about ten years. It was a great experience in lots of different ways. Most of all, for me, it made me feel like, “Well, I just need to do whatever I need to do to get the play developed. I don’t have to be sheepish about that and I don’t have to defer to other people’s timelines.” I stopped applying for development opportunities. I’m not in the application mode anymore. If and when I need a reading to understand a play, I try to make it [happen]. I think playwrights taking that attitude as early as possible in their careers is excellent.
Do you think that’s difficult with the way so many theatres are set up and institutionalized?
Yeah. It’s super difficult, but I think more and more, many young writers are quite bold about marshaling their own resources, [like] not losing track of the relationships that are most important to them from the time that they’re coming out of undergraduate, or if they didn’t go to college, the closest alliances they forged early on. I see lots of young people self-producing basically, or doing other versions of getting their own act together. If you sit around and wait for those big theatres to approve your process, you’re going to have to have a super long wait.
But, going along with that, do you ever find that the theatre industry functions on a very insular approval system? Everybody wants somebody else to take a chance on something and say it’s good before they say it’s good?
Yes, of course. Absolutely. Then with the ultimate arbiter of the Gray Lady [The New York Times] sort of hanging over everyone’s head. Like the final arbitration is if you have a play Off-Broadway and then it gets a good Times review and then you’re allowed to also have other productions of the play. I’m not sure what to say about that. It’s a bad combo of a relationship based industry—which is not anybody’s fault, and not a bad thing to make theatre based on the relationships that you have with other artists—and then a total economy of scarcity where everybody is panicked every second that they’re not going to have enough money.
Hurricane Diane is a commission for Two River Theater and I read on the website that you purposefully set the play in the same neighborhood as the theatre. I was wondering if you could talk a little about that?
I’ve been writing plays since I was a teenager. Having not come at playwriting from a performance end, coming at it really as a writer, it’s taken me a long time to pay close enough attention to the audience. For me, it started out so much about me, me, me and just talk, talk, talk. I’ve really been trying to learn more about audiences over the past five to ten years of my writing career. How do audiences function as an organism? What are different kinds of audiences that might be interested to come see plays? Mine in particular. What kinds of conversations could I have with them that enwreathe the actual conversation that is the play itself? Because I’m in residency at Two River and they have extended a commission to me, I felt like this was the perfect opportunity to really double down on that investigation. I decided I would set this Bacchae extension in the town where the theatre is. It’s not the real town, obviously, but it’s a version of the town. It’s a kind of archetypal or heightened version of Red Bank, New Jersey. We’ve only had two previews so far, but the sounds that come out of the audience when they hear these things that are local and particular to them being reflected back to them in this larger than life story are immensely gratifying to me. It’s precisely the thing I hoped I could do. You go and you see a play and so often it’s a one-way street. You feel like you’re sitting in the dark and your gaze is going out in an arrow towards the thing, and either it pleases or displeases you. If the play is intimate and local and specific to you and speaking back to you, then it’s like it’s really going both directions. It’s made me super happy to hear the audience responding vocally and basically speaking back to the play. I don’t want to kill the future of the play by saying it’s so local that it can’t be transplanted. I don’t think that’s true, but it’s built to run on specificity.
It seems like recently there have been a few conversations about whether universality even exists, or if does exist, it stems from specificity.
Sure. I think that’s right. We certainly don’t demand it. We don’t demand of the Greeks that they be local to us, right? Or Shakespeare or anything like that. Or even freaking [Arthur] Miller. That doesn’t pertain to me one bit.
Did you do research on New Jersey?
I hung out there. I had a play at this theatre in 2011 so I spent a bunch of time there in 2011. Got to know the Wawa, got to know the amazing hobby stores in town. Red Bank has all of these amazing pun stores like Frame to Please and A Time to Kiln and Hansel and Gretel. I deeply indulged my wish to make more puns. I tried to soak up what was most interesting to me about the place. Audience members talked to me a lot after shows in 2011. The audience there feel a really positive sense of ownership over that theatre, I think, which is a good thing. You might think it was opposite, that you would go someplace [outside of NYC or a major city] and that people would come in there and be like, “What? This isn’t The Christmas Carol.” It’s not the case at all, at least in this theatre. The level of jaded, seen it all before, apathy in a New York audience is depressing a lot of the time, and it’s not present at all in New Jersey.
Something that I talk about with directors a fair amount is the audience experience of seeing theatre in NYC—that they’re coming in off of Times Square and are miserable before the play even starts because it’s like, “Who the hell wants to go to Midtown voluntarily?”—and how the psycho-geography plays a part in the experience.
Interesting. For tourists who come to Times Square and who are just looking up and dazzled and then going to see Wicked, I feel like they get to parlay that excitement into the show. I see that as a positive thing. It’s this weird middle of the road, too expensive for art-hungry young people to go to, too bourgeois for avant-garde people to bother with, medium-center new American playwriting, that is just tough to figure out. People use the phrase community theatre in a derogatory way all the time in professional theatre circles. Yet I feel like community theatre is a model of how to make plays matter to the people who come to see them. It seems so obvious. There’s all this vague, anxious talk in non-profit theatre about audiences, but community theatres don’t have trouble with that. Why is that? Partly it’s because they put delight and pleasure at the forefront of their set of priorities. Partly it’s because they’re creating and sustaining a conversation among people who know each other and care about each other. My partner, Lisa Kron, was in the WOW Café theatre collective in the 80s. That was a community theatre. Lesbians in New York City didn’t have any place where they could go to do and see theatre that was about and relevant to them, so they made one. Nobody else came to it. It was for them and by them and it was a hotbed of innovation, magic, beauty, hysteria, wildness and the whole gambit. I’m super interested in what that dynamic is all about. I wouldn’t call this play a piece of community theatre because the professionals that are making this production are at the top of their game. Yet I am really interested in what community dynamics can be parlayed into high-level theatre.
That’s interesting in relation to a lot of conversations that are going on now in terms of America’s oncoming disaster and people asking, “What should theatre do now?” And community theatre is the part of American theatre that’s fairly ubiquitous, more so than what’s happening at a New York City non-profit.
First of all, people are always saying that the theatre is dying. I can’t remember the exact statistic, but I read at one point that last year 1.2 million Americans saw a professional theatre production and 8.9 million saw a community theatre production. Something like that. It’s a vast untapped resource. Why don’t community theatres do new plays or plays that are two or three years old? Why couldn’t they? There’s no reason.
Since you have a linguistics background and have written novels, what do you feel is something that contemporary playwrights can learn from the form of the novel?
I don’t know that necessarily I’m looking to the novel and that kind of dilatory use of time or that kind of interior use of character necessarily. I do think that there is something about a causal narrative; a plot that is like a chain link plot, where the thing that happens at point A sets up the conditions for the thing to happen at point B and then again and again and again. That is only one way to tell the truth about time and the world. I think that there’s a lot about our lived experience that is reflected and refracted interestingly in that kind of causal narrative. Probably the most important parts of our lives. Certainly the things that take place at fissures in our safety and in our sense of continuity like births, deaths, illnesses, massive political transformations, et cetera. Those things don’t have that linearity to them. For me, it’s been a very long, slow, arduous process to try to figure out, “What’s my relationship to that kind of plot?” Thinking about maybe poetry, particularly. I think poetry is closer to theatre than fiction. Also thinking about like, “Well what could argument structure teach us about how to set up a play? Or what could just simple patterning teach us?” I feel like when we see a play that functions in a non-linear or a non-causal way, but functions well, we often feel disarmed and moved by it because it speaks to the parts of our lives that don’t make much sense. Or the moments in our lives when all of our best laid plans were foiled. Since I came from writing and waves of feeling that didn’t really go any place in particular, I’ve been really trying to learn how to write a story. Then, hopefully, once I can get good at it, then I can inflect it back with those other kinds of parts. In fiction, it always seems so laborious to me working in 360 degrees having to be responsible for every single part of it. As opposed to in the theatre, where you have this beautiful tensile structure. You hand it to a bunch of excellent minds and then they make it into reality. It’s much better.
It seems like, with most plays, most people always see them as basically being in the third person.
Well, there is this really important feature of drama, which Thornton Wilder and others have talked about really intelligently. The play is bigger than the perspective of any one character. That’s the way that a play has ethics. That’s how it can show us a moral vision of the world: we can see people having their own partial view of what exists, having their own self-interested view, and doing whatever they do and then having to fall out of that.
It’s different than the device of the first person, unreliable narrator.
That’s right, because everybody is unreliable in a play in the sense that everybody is equal in a play. You can’t hierarchize the perspective. The play has the perspective, and then the individuals in it cannot own the perspective of the play. Otherwise it’s not a play. I mean you can have a lecture where the individual who is standing up in front of you is telling you their perspective and there’s no distance between the speaker and the perspective. You could turn a lecture into a play by troubling that and putting distance in between those two things. Now it’s play, now it’s theatre. To me that is super valuable. The second Young Adult novel that I wrote, it had these three characters and three different forms of narration. The character who was the antagonist, I wrote her sections in the first person and everybody who interviewed me about that book they were all like, “Why do you want us to feel so much closer to that person? She’s so awful, basically.” It stunned me. I was like, “Oh, as a playwright my assumption is always that if someone is speaking in the first person and talking about what they think is true, then they’re the least reliable person in the whole universe.” That’s a strength of playwriting. I love that about playwriting.
When you’re writing do you think of your plays as plays?
Absolutely. I’m interested in the physical space, the physical reality of how something would go. More than that, it’s this constructiveness quality that I think I feel all the time. I’m always imagining any given word or any given line in relationship to a larger macro whole pinging off against that vague meaning that you’re making in the course of play.
Do you think of plays as being in a continuum of other plays and that they’re always in dialogue with?
I think that it’s really different for different writers, right? Some writers are genuine originals. They just make a thing that hasn’t been made before. I’m not like that. I gave up long ago aspiring to that. All of my plays are in close conversation with one or more other texts that exist out there. I don’t necessarily always name check them, although sometimes I do. My play Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England is built on the form of a Shakespearean comedy. It comes off of Northrop Frye’s A Natural Perspective. This piece of lit crit where he, with such levity and grace, describes what Shakespeare is doing in a comedy. I was like, “I’ve got to learn this. I’m going to build it right off this map. Here’s the map of how to do it. I’m going to take explicit instructions from this.” I have this feeling that the tighter the constraint, the more liberated the art, in a way. I always like to be bouncing off of something that exists, like an astronaut on the moon a little bit. Not bound to the thing, bouncing off the thing. It makes me feel like there’s something beneath my feet. I often set up secret gimmicks for myself, secret tricks like a vocabulary or a web of words that I’m looking at all the time and pulling from all the time. It couldn’t be more explicit than it is in this play that I’m working on now where I just read every translation of The Bacchae that exists, and scads of history and criticism. Then I tried to assimilate it and then bounce off of it and make my own thing. Also, I find all the time little bubbles of dialogue from my favorite writers just popping up into my work, like Hurricane Diane has call-outs to John Patrick Shanley and to The Tempest and all this stuff—oh, and Sex and the City. I was like, “What is this stuff doing in here?” I didn’t notice it until after it was laid down. It’s just there.
There’s also that idea that basically how we devise meaning from everything is basically built on how writers and people have done that in the past. That our reactions to things are in part organic, but also because we’ve seen things dramatized a certain way. They’re played out a certain way, so we think like, “Oh, that’s how a person should be.”
It’s interesting. I suppose that I feel ambivalent about it. On the one hand, we want art to make roads in the world. Not just to stand there like a billboard reflecting us back to ourselves or telling us how we should imagine our souls and our future. I sort of have given yourself permission to be very past-oriented. Very sort of remix-oriented, because I feel like it also is active generosity towards an audience to offer them something that they have a way into right away. Then you can use it as a way to go someplace rather more uncomfortable for them.
What other areas of culture do you think affects your work?
I’m a great enthusiastic student of the romantic comedy and I someday hope to write one. Although, almost all my plays end in some state of melancholy to abject sadness… I would have to really work hard to make sure that my romantic comedy wasn’t dark at the end. I like them all. I like them all going way back to the early days of cinematic romantic comedy. All the way up through the 60s into the great romantic comedies of 1980s, before the international movie market killed them as a genre. One of the greatest movies I’ve seen recently is Obvious Child. It was exactly the genre thing where I was like, “Oh I see she took this hoary genre…” She just took this super worn out genre and managed to make it vivid and alive by putting people in it who are unusual fits for that thing. That always is just like a jolt of pleasure through my system. If you were like, “What is your favorite movie hands down?” it’s Moonstruck. I love everything about that movie except for the one sequence where she gets her hair done, which is so boring. The whole rest of the movie, every second of it is so glorious to me. I have definitely seen that movie over a 100 times. It’s deeply, deeply in my DNA. When I read, I read nonfiction. I read essays, I read philosophy, I read criticism. My sister’s a poet and most of my closest friends are poets, and so if they recommend poetry to me I can read it. I’m bad with fiction. I get very claustrophobic inside a novel. I get antsy and annoyed and I start looking for the exit or the escape hatch. I think it’s exactly this thing that we were talking about before about perspective, who owns perspective. I get very skeptical. I start poking at the narration. Everybody is always telling me about amazing books that I know that if I could calm myself down enough I would be a better person for having read, but I never get to read them because I start reading them and then I bail.
Going way back to something at the beginning, when we were talking about female characters, do you think that work by women is talked about differently than work by men?
Yeah, I do. I was so thrilled when you wrote that thing in response to the Hilton Als’ Sweet Charity review, and teasing the study. I tend to feel like it’s less that reviewers pat women artists on the head or that they dismiss them or that they take any of these other sort of more traditional sexist stances, but more that they just ratchet the grade up on the incline. It’s just a little bit harder for those plays to get up to the top of the hill for critics and/or they have just a vague sense that they can’t put their finger on that there’s something not quite functioning or a little bit missing. Particularly if it’s a play that has female experience at its center. This is not by any means true of all critics. That said, the critical establishment in New York City is starved for diversity. We desperately need a variety of other perspectives. Certainly at the paper of record, but also throughout. I love Alexis Soloski’s writing, I love Helen Shaw’s writing. These are people who care about the theatre a lot who are not burdened by those presumptions in my opinion, but that’s not enough.
Do you think it also carries out beyond the reviews to just how women are talked about in interviews or press or other industry things?
I think that women are asked to answer questions about women. That will end at some point, I think—people taking women’s accomplishment as an anomaly every goddamn time. That will end at some point. I’m all for parity by the numbers.
How do you think that would best be improved?
Mechanically through a bar that they just have to clear. I think that the theatre conversation around parity has already moved that needle in measurable ways. I think it could continue to do so particularly if people keep the pressure up. Once you’ve done it and you see how very, very unharmed your season was, you’re much more motivated to do it again. It should be that kind of thing where people are like, “Oh my God, what do you mean you don’t have plays by women?”
Is there anything beyond the numbers that you think could also be improved to help women feel like they have more equality in the industry?
I suppose that there’s crucial issues around childcare and around scheduling and accommodation for women who are involved in raising a family. I’m not doing that right now. There are people who are way better versed in this particular political area who could talk about it better than I, but I’m for it. People who work in the theatre aren’t paid enough, they’re not paid consistently enough. People who work in the theatre need health insurance and don’t have it. These things are linked through a vascular system to the political problems of the whole country.
It seems like such an entrenched economic system that people feel it’s not necessarily possible for one person to change something.
I feel like this is capitalism’s, and certainly neoliberal capitalism’s, great accomplishment, is in extinguishing the imagination of well-meaning people. So instead of being like, “It is so important to me not to be unjust that I’m going to have to think my way around this rent problem,” the fact that the people will stop at the place where they’re like, “Well, the financial reality is just blah,” that is very dispiriting to me. Not that I don’t know that financial realities are realities, but we know from history that if people are committed to justice they can freaking make it happen. You don’t have to say, “Capitalism is the reason why I can’t behave according to my deepest values.” That’s an option. You can say that or you can choose not to take that as your explanation for why you’ve done something. I think that’s worth saying.