Hometown: New York, New York
It is that time of year again—time for Young Playwrights Inc. to introduce you to this year’s National Playwriting Competition winners. Each week, I will be interviewing a different playwright, in anticipation of our Young Playwrights Conference, January 9-17, 2013. I hope you enjoy getting to know these writers as much as I have. I start off the series with a conversation with Anna Alison Brenner, who won for her play Tiger, Tiger that centers on teenage obsessive relationships.
Hi, Anna. Where am I reaching you right now?
I am actually in Ithaca right now, at Cornell University.
I wanted to start off with full disclosure, because Anna, we know each other already, don’t we?
Yes, we definitely do.
So I was trying to think, did I meet you for the first time at Young Playwrights Inc.’s summer playwriting “boot camp”, the Urban Retreat?
I think so, at the time I had already submitted another play of mine, Crimson, to the National Playwriting Competition, so that was the 2011 one, and it was a finalist, didn’t win, but it was a finalist. So you knew some of my writing before we formally met at the Urban Retreat.
So what drew you to playwriting to start with?
I had been writing things since around second grade, I’d say: novels, short stories, what have you. And I never thought about writing plays until I read The Glass Menagerie in ninth grade. And I loved it. It really appealed to me, just the idea of the family and how messed up it can be sometimes. And when I was in eighth grade, my great aunt, whom I called my aunt, got very sick and lived in my house until the basically the end of her life. That was a difficult experience for me and I wanted to come to terms with it through writing, but I wasn’t sure how. I had considered writing a book or a short story, but I couldn’t quite capture all of the voices of my relatives in my head and put it down on paper correctly. So after I read The Glass Menagerie, something just clicked in my mind and I knew that if I was going to tell that story, it had to be told as a play…All of my stage directions look and still usually do look oddly like Tennessee Williams’, so that was one kind of funny thing that came about…I submitted it [to Young Playwrights Inc.], got some great feedback from you guys, and then found out I was a finalist… And I decided to do the Urban Retreat and after that playwriting just sort of clicked with me. I have always written with a lot of dialogue, so it just seemed like a good fit.
Maybe we can talk a little bit about this winning play, Tiger, Tiger. And since you have done such a good job telling the story of your first play, how was this play a continuation of who you are as a writer and in what ways did you make changes or what are you experimenting with? Where are the differences?
Well, Tiger, Tiger was a little different. The idea for Tiger, Tiger, essentially obsessive teenage relationships, that was something I had wanted to write about for a while. Being a high school student I definitely experienced some obsessive relationships and watched others experience the same thing. Again, I didn’t quite know what form it would take, and I wasn’t going to write it for a while because I figured I am still in high school, I’m not quite far removed enough from the whole idea of this. But then … in my 12th grade English class we were talking a lot about identity, and one of the books we read was a novella by Nella Larsen called Passing. It was about this woman who was African-American who was acquainted with another woman who was also African-American, but she was passing as white because her skin was light enough to do that. The main character was very jealous of her and had this strange obsession with her…Ultimately she gets so thoroughly disturbed with this woman’s presence, even though she is so attracted to her and drawn to her because she is a magnetic person, that she ends up pushing her out the window. After reading this our assignment was to write about someone or a scenario that made you so uncomfortable that made you feel like you could push someone else out a window. So then I thought, gee, I have to write about something that makes me feel uncomfortable, the first thing I thought of was obsessive teenage relationships. And the first draft of Tiger, Tiger happened that way.
Can you tell us more about the premise of the play?
Jessica and Julian are two high school juniors and they are friends. Julian is basically in love with Jessica but Jessica doesn’t really want to think about that. And they both have this obsession with this girl Portia, who is a year older than them. And so, it’s basically about…Jessica and Julian’s relationship and their obsession with Portia, and how that plays out and puts strain on their relationship, and strain on their mental health by the end. After writing this first draft with three characters, I decided I wanted add a fourth character of Patrick, who is also obsessed with Portia because I wanted to show another side of Portia’s character. I wanted to show that she wasn’t just this god-like being that Jessica and Julian were obsessed with. That perhaps she was a normal person, so I introduced Patrick as also someone who was also in love with Portia, but then later gets so disillusioned with her that he decides he’s not going to deal with it anymore.
I was curious about that!
I’ve done a lot of things in the editing process now working with my dramaturg. I have added daydream sequences, I have changed the order of the flashbacks…In memory, things do get mixed up.
It sounds like for both of these plays that you have really invested in revision, that that is really part of your process as a writer. Earlier you mentioned the author of this novella, Nella Larsen, as being very influential to Tiger, Tiger, and you mentioned Tennessee Williams’ exploration of dysfunction in family and also his stage directions as well. Can you talk a little bit more about the writers you admire and how they might have influenced you?
I had been involved in theater my whole life but The Glass Menagerie was the only play that I had read when I decided to write my own play. So I figured there must be some kind of standard for stage directions, and that Tennessee Williams had it all figured out…so I very literally just mimicked [his formatting] and placement. In terms of his descriptiveness, I didn’t know that that was atypical for a playwright, because again, it was the only play I had ever read, and I definitely like more descriptive stage directions. I think another reason I write such descriptive stage directions is because my background is in short stories and novels. I think that I am really only now starting to embrace the format of the play, and learning that I can put in such things as non-linear time and flashbacks. So, that’s how he influenced me I suppose, and also writing about interpersonal relationships, that has always been what’s fascinated me. My favorite book is Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, because her characters are so vivid and their relationships are so well explained and illustrated and they really read well off the page. They seem like real people, not necessarily people you would want to have coffee with, but real, live breathing people. And that is something I’ve always loved about reading. I remember putting down a Lloyd Alexander book when I was in third or fourth grade and thinking, wow, it’s over, that’s so sad, I am really going to miss those characters I don’t want to have to leave them now. That’s always been what’s drawn me. I love characters, I love making things up, imagining things. I love taking things that have happened to me and re-imagining them, seeing them differently, playing things out in my mind… I sort of think in dialogue, so plays just really seem to make sense for me.
Are you working on anything new?
I am working on some shorter stuff, this past year has basically all been Tiger, Tiger… A lot of drafts going on here. But I have written, and do write shorter comedies, not everything is a drama…When I write my longer stuff it’s this really dramatic, interpersonal stuff, but when I am writing for fun I write these ridiculous comedies where…weird stuff happens. Another writer who is very influential to me and my interest of writing plays would be Christopher Durang. His parody ofThe Glass Menagerie, For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls, is really fantastic, and I was fortunate to be in a production of that at my school last year: I got to play Amanda, which was amazing. He’s just hilarious.
So, this play keeps following you around.
Yeah, The Glass Menagerie is just everywhere! [My English teacher] taught me The Glass Menagerie and she really improved my writing tremendously, so she has been a major figure in my life.
Do you want to give her a shout out in this interview?
Her name is Cindy Munez. So I had her in ninth grade and I had her in twelfth grade and she is the reason that I wrote this play, Tiger, Tiger now rather than five or ten years down the road. So I really owe her one for this, even though she will probably read this interview and say “But Anna, you wrote it all yourself I didn’t give you any help” but she did, because she gave me the idea to write it.
I do also want to say that the person who got me writing in the first place was my Aunt Helen, whom I wrote my first play about. She was a first grade teacher for over 40 years, so she taught me how to read and write. And something she would always tell me is, always, didn’t matter what we were doing we would be eating dinner, watching a TV show, going to the movies, whatever, she would just look at me and say, “You know, Anna, you can do anything you want to do, be anything you want to be, if you try.” And that was something she would always tell me and she’d have me repeat it back to her. And that is the motto I have been trying to live my life by. I feel like if you want to do something, just go out and do it, if you want to write a play just go out and do it, and you can do it if you try. You can always rewrite, you can always get better, but you’ve got to put yourself out there and see what happens.
Great advice for us all.
Anna Alison Brenner will be joining seven other playwrights at the 2013 Young Playwrights Conference in New York City, January 9-17. This year we will be inviting members of the Young Playwrights Family (like you!) to the readings of these talented young writers. If you are interested in attending the readings contact us at reservations[at]youngplaywrights.org.
The deadline for writers in the United States aged 18 and under to submit a play to our 2012 competition is January 2nd.
Until next week!
Elizabeth Bojsza, Literary Manager