Hometown: Westfield NJ
We’re just about a month away from our National Conference! It’s hard to believe that this time last year, we were beginning to read through the work of hundreds of playwrights – eight of whom will be joining us on January 7.
Alexa Derman is one of those wonderful writers. Her play About Art centers around the relationship between brothers Aaron and Brad, exploring creativity, loyalty, and complex family dynamics.
I know that you were involved with Young Playwrights Inc. before the Competition…
Totally! My sophomore year of high school, I was in APW (the Advanced Playwriting Workshop). It was the year that we were homeless because the office caught on fire. I had applied because I had not gotten into my school play, and I wanted some way to fill the time. I think I applied with fiction; I had never written a play before. I just saw Sondheim’s name and I was like, “Yay! This is cool!” It was it my first time travelling into the city by myself — I’m from New Jersey — and I would hang out with these cool city kids. It was a transformative experience. It was really my first experience at all with playwriting and obviously it was incredible. Because we were homeless we went to all sorts of fantastic locations all over New York every week, which was really exciting. The kids were phenomenal. I wrote a play – it was this really horrible, 50-page monstrosity that I haven’t really touched since – but I wrote it. And the staged readings – I just remember walking into the room and one of the actors was my character and just freaked out. I loved the entire thing but the readings in particular, I was like, “This. More of this. This needs to keep happening.” And I remember that year, going onto the website and reading these interviews and being like “Wow! Those people! Wow!” So that’s making this exciting… it was just a wonderful experience.
Well that’s great! I didn’t realize you hadn’t written plays before APW. So, you submitted more than just About Art. What led you to that period of productivity?
Two of them that I submitted were on commission. I was writing them for people I knew. WithAbout Art, my friends were doing a one-act themed night, and my friends asked me to write something for them. It was not allowed in the festival because it was deemed not family-friendly. They were like, “It’s too dark.” And I was like, “You don’t even know!” Because at the same time I was working on that play about crack addiction. The reason I was so productive was because I was working on deadlines for specific people, which was actually a really great experience because it just forced me to get out there. It was the beginning of senior year and it was a way to relieve stress from the college application process. So even though I had less time than ever, I felt like I was writing the things I needed to.
Something I’ve noticed about your writing is it seems like you’re trying to empathize with a wide range of people. You’re trying to explore very different lives in your different plays. So I was curious about where the inspiration for this particular play came from.
The context in which I wrote this play was I had promised my friends I would send it to them and I was on an airplane and I had thirty minutes left before the flight landed – I had to email it! A lot of my plays start out as ideological arguments, so I think this one was similar. I wanted to unpack the tortured artist trope. Then they became people instead of an argument I was having with myself. I don’t write a lot of men in my plays so this was a particularly interesting experience that I really enjoyed. The thoughts about art that had been in the back of my head and then the need to finish this play in the next thirty minutes made it happen.
You mentioned you don’t write a lot of men and you wanted to stretch your writing. I think it’s a really mature thing to do as an artist: recognize your habits and then challenge them. When I read the play, I thought ‘My buddy Sam has to be a dramaturg on this,’ because I knew he would respond to the brother relationship. Could you tell me a little bit about working with Sam?
He’s absolutely incredible. He’s really interested in focusing on places in the play where he thinks there could be more resistance – where someone gives in too quickly to an argument, and identifying those spots where it could explode out. And I think that’s really what I need with this one. It was a 6-page submission – which is fine – but I would like to get it to at least 10 minutes and I have just by looking at all of those moments where there could be so much more tension. He’s really, really helpful with those big-picture, character-driven moments. Also he sends me emails with the subject line ‘About About Art,’ which is just hilarious.
That is really funny. So, has your perspective on the play been changing?
I think when I submitted it, the characters were a little bit type-y. The reason the characters’ names are Aaron and Brad is because I write all my characters in the form of A and B and I have to add the names last minute. I think Brad was very much like ‘perfect family, blah blah blah…’ Like I think I said he worked on Wall Street. It was very typical. I think since I’ve been working on it, I’ve really delved into their personal histories, so they still kind of represent these different ideologies, but I think they’re definitely more specific, developed people with a real, specific, developed, background. The kind of revision I like is adding, so this has been really fun.
Have you been working on other pieces of writing at the same time?
I’m kind of in this weird place right now. Because you know how there’s always such a gap between first you write it, then you hear back about it, then you’re doing it. There’s a lot of big time spots. So I’m working on a lot of new stuff now at school. My thing was always really fast arguments so I’ve been writing a lot of monologues recently. Zoe’s theatre company is doing one of my plays in the spring. It’s a one woman show. She’s directing it. I‘m excited to see it. They had readings like a month and a half ago so I’m still in revisions. I’m working on new stuff, in revisions for old stuff, and in revisions for this play, too. I’m kind of jumping all over the place.
You were telling me a bit about the course load you had right now, which sounded fascinating.
So I’m planning on double-majoring in English and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. I’m really interested in feminist literary theory. I’m filling requirements, which is fine – I’m taking a lot of intro classes, which is fine. I think what’s emancipating the classes from like ‘meh’ material occasionally is that the people here are really phenomenal. Right now I’m desperately trying to claw my way into a 400 level class that Sarah Ruhl is teaching next semester despite the fact that I’m a freshman. The theater community is really big here so I’m spending a lot of time there. I mean, nine or ten student-written shows are going up next semester so that’s cool.
Is there anything else you want to say about your play or about your writing process?
I had an epiphany last night: I realized that so much of my plays are about people picking apart each other’s language and just about the vocabulary that people use. I think a lot of people think that if you’re interested in English, you’re either an academic or a writer and there’s no overlap. I thought that myself for a while too: that those were two different hemispheres in my life. But I think I’m starting to realize that interest in analysis manifests itself in my plays, and the way my characters go through things and argue manifests itself in my essays. There’s this ideology that art and creative writing and things like that exist in a vacuum of like, “Okay, here, go to your elective.” I really think that… there’s not such a strong divide between art and academics and they can bleed into each other in a really cool way.
Are there playwrights who inspire you, who blend those two worlds?
First of all, I love is when I get my Young Playwrights Inc. evaluations and they recommend plays by people that I really like, plays that I really like. I think a perfect example is Mary Zimmerman’sMetamorphoses, which is one of my favorite plays. I was talking about Sarah Ruhl – Eurydice. They’re like emancipating classics and bringing them into art. Suzan-Lori Parks is one of my favorite playwrights ever. She pays so much attention to language. She’s a role model.
We’re looking forward to having you at conference and working on this play.
Thanks! I’m really excited. I used to think, “Oh, I wrote one good play.” Now I realize that’s not true. I need to work on this strange little play. It makes me want to take every single random idea I have on my computer and comb back through all that work.
Alexa Derman will be joining seven other playwrights at the 2015 Young Playwrights Conference in New York City, January 7-15. We will be inviting members of the Young Playwrights family (like you!) to the readings of these talented young writers.
The deadline for writers in the United States aged 18 and under to submit a play to our 2015 competition is January 2nd.