Playwright Jenny Schwartz has distinguished herself as one of the most original and exciting playwrights of her generation. Her plays include CAUSE FOR ALARM and GOD’S EAR, which was produced by The Vineyard and New Georges in 2008, and has gone on to be produced around the world. The Village Voice called Jenny “a playwright to reckon with”, and Time Out New York called GOD’S EAR, “tremendous,” adding, “What is revolutionary is Schwartz’ ability to make linguistic gamesmanship into something profoundly moving.”
SOMEWHERE FUN follows a large cast of characters, including Rosemary and Evelyn, old acquaintances who reunite one windy fall day on Madison Avenue. With their children, Benjamin and Beatrice, now grown and the world changing rapidly around them, each finds herself face-to-face with the terrors, joys, and surprises of life and time. As with GOD’S EAR, Jenny has created a universe that is at once truthful and surreally absurd, and the ingenuity and whimsy of her language is tied to a vast emotional landscape.
SOMEWHERE FUN reunites Jenny and OBIE award-winning director Anne Kauffman following their acclaimed collaboration on GOD’S EAR. Co-Artistic Director Sarah Stern spoke with Jenny about the process of writing SOMEWHERE FUN, discovering her characters as she writes, and the difficulty of keeping up in our changing technological world.
SS: Can you talk a bit about what inspired you to write SOMEWHERE FUN?
JS: I was working on a play called SOMEWHERE FUN that was about two women in their thirties named Alice and Joan. I worked on it for a while but could never really access their voices or stories. Then one day, I overheard a woman in her sixties telling a story about a girl who really wanted a dog; her parents ended up getting her a dog and it bit her face. I was fascinated by the story, not just the content, but the way it was told, and I wrote it into a monologue. The monologue contained the words ‘somewhere fun’, so I took that as a sign that I could scrap the other play SOMEWHERE FUN and replace it with this one. I began to create Rosemary, Cecelia, and Evelyn who are all around sixty. For some reason, it freed me up to write characters who weren’t my age.
SS: What kinds of questions did you set out to explore?
JS: I’m interested in how families change over time, as children grow into adults, and parents age. I’m now a mother of two little girls and I find myself in a constant state of nostalgia for the present moment. Of course, my girls will grow up and my husband and I will grow old and our relationships and roles will shift and change through time. In the prologue, Evelyn says that “nothing is permanent”. My own bewilderment about impermanence certainly fuels the play.
Another inspiration for the play was the internet, and how the structure of our lives is being shaped by this new technology. I’m interested in how it feels to exist in a world of rapid change, and I’m attempting to find an expression for the difficulty keeping up and staying relevant. Rosemary is a person who has been unable to keep up – for example, she has never heard of the internet or an iPhone, and she thinks you can smoke in restaurants. She has been left behind — not only by her son, Benjamin, who has estranged himself from her, but also by society.
In a related way, Anne and I were interested in exploring the idea that as women age in our society, we can feel invisible in a certain way – we wanted to find theatrical ways for Rosemary, Cecelia, and Evelyn to disappear.
SS: The idea of disappearing is echoed in the character of Beatrice, who does not have a face.
JS: I tend to write organically, for lack of a better word, and to let myself discover my characters and their stories as I write. I had overheard the story about the girl who had been bitten in the face by a dog. When I wrote the monologue, I took it to an absurdist level as my character Beatrice’s face is actually bitten off by the dog. Rosemary says, “the dog goes and bites off her face, the whole kit and kaboodle, in one fell swoop, I’m afraid so.” I hadn’t planned to write that, but after I wrote it, I realized I had a challenge on my hands, which was to create a faceless character. I didn’t know how I was going to do that, but I slowly figured out who she was and what to make of her.
SS: How did you and Anne approach that challenge theatrically?
JS: Theatrically, I always knew I wanted the audience to hear or see the stage direction “Beatrice does not have a face”, and for the actress to play the scene without some kind of mask or veil. I love looking at Brooke Bloom’s face and thinking about how the character Beatrice is missing a face; I like having to reconcile those two things as I watch the play. I also wanted the audience to know that her facelessness is metaphorical and they don’t have to engage with questions like, how does she eat or breathe? For me, her facelessness relates to the idea of parents losing their children as they grow into adults — how sometimes adult children will feel like strangers to their parents, just as parents can turn into different people as they age. Her face (or lack there of) also comes to stand for all that she has been through in her life. I like to think her facelessness may resonate with people in different ways.
SS: When did you start writing plays?
JS: I started out as a director and went to grad school at Columbia to study directing. My first semester there, I took a class on Euripides with Robert Woodruff. Our first assignment was to direct a scene from THE BACCHAE, and our second assignment was to either direct another scene from THE BACCHAE or to deconstruct or write something inspired by it. So I wrote a five minute version of THE BACCHAE. It was a monologue, and it was the first thing I had ever written to be spoken. (I had written short stories and poems before.) That little five-minute BACCHAE was a big turning point for me; I realized that I really loved playwriting and wanted to pursue it. And because I was studying at Columbia with experimental artists Robert and Anne Bogart, they were very supportive. They encouraged me to write adaptations of whatever plays we were working on and to direct them myself. So I went on to write lots of short versions of classic plays, mostly Greek ones.
When I finished Columbia, I wrote my first play that wasn’t an adaptation called CAUSE FOR ALARM. Ken Rus Schmoll, my former classmate at Columbia, directed it in the Fringe Festival. That was the first time I didn’t direct my own work, and I realized I loved collaborating with a director.
SS: SOMEWHERE FUN reunites you with director Anne Kauffman, who also directed GOD’S EAR. What makes your collaboration special?
JS: I don’t specify much in my scripts about the physical worlds of the plays, and I am always excited for a director to bring his or her vision to my work. I want to make something together that is different and bigger than anything I could have imagined in my own head. Anne and I admire and respect each other’s work a great deal and give each other a lot of freedom to experiment. I’ll often come up with new material in rehearsal and write changes into the actors’ scripts on the spot. Anne sets up a room in which everyone is open and receptive to incorporating new material like this. We also appreciate each other’s precision – Anne is as exacting about the play’s physical life as I am about the sounds of the words. She is open to letting the play lead us, while remaining firmly at the helm.
SS: Your characters often speak in cliché, idioms, repetition, bits of received and everyday language. Is that something you set out consciously to do when you started writing?
JS – I find that I learn about myself and my interests through my work, and I have to say that I didn’t really know I was interested in clichés until I wrote CAUSE FOR ALARM and my characters started to speak in barrages of clichés. I can’t really explain what appeals to me about it. I do think I have always been interested in putting conversational language in different contexts and examining how the meaning changes. An example of this would be the following cell phone exchange in GOD’S EAR:
MEL: Are you there?
TED: I’m here.
MEL: I thought I lost you.
This is a simple, common exchange that people say all the time on the phone, but it can take on a different, larger meaning in a different context – in this case, the characters are not on the phone, but rather in bed. I’m always amazed how something banal can become moving when the context is shifted. I think something similar happens in SOMEWHERE FUN, when T says, “Anyone have a charger? I’ll live.”
I think I use repetition for a variety of reasons. Rhythm is important to me and sometimes repetition simply sounds good. Sometimes a sentence can take on a different meaning when repeated. Sometimes I use repetition to help me keep a theme going throughout a play. Sometimes I want the audience to remember something so I have the characters say it a bunch of times. My plays have a sort of musicality to them so the repetition makes sense to me in the way that lyrics and melodies are repeated in songs.
SS: GOD’S EAR been produced all over the world, from Sydney to Boise to Lisbon. Can you talk about the response to the play?
JS – I’m incredibly happy and grateful for the response to GOD’S EAR. The play gets done a lot at colleges and universities and it makes me particularly happy that students connect with it. It’s an emotional play and I poured my own feelings into it, so I’m moved that people enjoy working on it and feel that they are making something beautiful out of it.
SS – On the page, your dialogue looks like verse. Do you think about your work as poetry?
JS – I think my process is probably similar to a poet’s. I stare at the text the way a poet does, and spend a lot of time arranging the words. But my work really is meant to be spoken. I assume that poets think about how people will look at the words on the page and read the words inside their heads, and for me, it’s more about hearing the words out loud. Certainly rhythm is very important to me, and I’m very precise about it. One reason I depend so much on workshops is so I can hear actors speaking the text aloud.
SS: How has SOMEWHERE FUN evolved over the course of the development and rehearsal process?
JS: I’ve written this play over a long period of time in which I’ve gone through many different things, including periods where I’ve felt more pessimistic about where we’re all headed. But I finished the play in rehearsal, and now it has, to me, a hopeful ending. I don’t mean that the characters will live happily ever after or that the world will stop melting. But Beatrice and Benjamin do find unexpected joy and connection in the present moment. I think the ending came about because I was experiencing such a glorious, magical collaboration — with Anne, with the actors, with the designers, and with the Vineyard. Everyone involved is approaching the work with such bravery and generosity and joy and passion. I think my happiness and gratitude for this experience is reflected in the last scene of the play.