Hometown: Eugene, Oregon
Each week, we have been getting to know a different winning playwright from the 2011 Young Playwrights Inc. National Playwriting Competition in anticipation of meeting him or her in person for the Young Playwrights Conference, January 4-12, 2012. In this fifth installment of our series of eight, I had a conversation with Annika Bennett about her play, The Conversation Piece.
Hi, Annika! I understand that we have a limited amount of time for this interview because you have rehearsal in a little while. What are you working on?
I am in a production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone. I am really excited—I love Sarah Ruhl. I’m [playing the part of] Hermia.
That is great! Congratulations. Is this a production for the school you are attending?
Yes, I’m at Princeton University. It’s big—it’s a big change from Oregon – and a very abrupt departure, but it’s really cool being so close to everything. Having the opportunity to go up to New York on a weekend is so foreign and exotic to me –it’s just fun.
Have you told a lot of people that you won the competition?
A couple. I am in a playwriting class here right now, which is really cool. It’s the first time that I’ve gotten to do a creative writing class at all, and so some of them know about it.
When they find out that you’ve won, do they then ask you about your play?
I’m not good at talking about it, generally. I don’t know… it’s not a play with a lot of plot…I’ve heard that from my dramaturg and my director and it’s true, so at least I can say that.
Okay, so what was the first piece that fell into place for you as you were writing?
It was this idea of this guy, [Haggie], just lying on a couch and what would happen if I just sort of left him there. And everybody else just sort of fell into place around him. It didn’t start out being about Mona… it started with Haggie and Mona just came in and started talking to him.
So now you identify that it’s grown into a story that is really Mona’s? She seems to be the center of these surprising connections between the characters. I am struck by the way that the two women in the play come to have this complex bond, when if you just heard about their circumstances—namely that Loretta is carrying the unborn child of Mona’s long-time lover, Andrew—you would think they would hate each other.
They come to an understanding of each other, and I think that’s possible because of the way that Mona is—the reality Mona is in through especially the first half of the play is just instinctive and she doesn’t know how to say “no” – and as the play progresses—I guess it’s funny because Loretta doesn’t know how to say “no” either but in a very different way. Mona doesn’t know how to stop things from happening and Loretta doesn’t know how not to be a catalyst.
That’s a great parallel. You mentioned earlier that you have not taken any creative writing classes before now. Have you always been interested in playwriting? Have you written plays before The Conversation Piece?
I had one that I did my junior year, and it was sort of of a mess, so this is a second attempt that I worked through a lot for a long time. It is interesting now being in an environment where I am asked to churn things out so quickly—I have never had to do it before, but I think it is so good for you as a writer.
When you say you “did” the play your junior year, does that mean you wrote it, or it was produced then?
I wrote it and directed it at my high school sort of independently [from] anything going on otherwise. I came from this big public school with a huge theater department, and I felt like I didn’t have an outlet to do everything I wanted to do, and figured I better try and create one if I wanted one.
That’s awesome! So you did that with both of the plays you have written?
Yeah, mostly practicing in my living room. The guy who played Haggie would sometimes come to rehearsals and be wandering in and out of my kitchen grabbing snacks or falling asleep. It was not the optimum environment but it was cool.
I love seeing people use my language and seeing that it makes sense to other people. So I am really excited to have someone else direct my work because I always feel like I am wearing too many hats and its stressful in the wrong ways.
I think it’s great that you had this need and you made your own opportunity. I am assuming that the large theater program produced large-scale musicals—
Oh yeah, yeah
–but maybe didn’t have anyone who was encouraging original work.
No, actually I think Young Playwrights [Inc.] is the first group over the age of 18 that ever read anything I wrote.
Wow, I am flattered. Are you pursuing theater at Princeton?
I’m doing English and theater both. There isn’t really a theater major here but I am doing the best I can because I am pretty sure that in some realm I want to work in theater. I’m exploring a lot of stuff here—I work in the costume shop here and I am directing now and acting and just trying to see what everything is. I love having the opportunity to pick and choose now.
Do you have any role models in theater? Anyone you admire from the world of theater or playwriting specifically?
I have the biggest crush on Edward Albee. I think he is incredible and I could never write like that—that’s why it amazes me every time I open one of his scripts… He can get at the humanity in a situation so fast, and it always hits me. I read A Delicate Balance after I finished The Conversation Piece and he said so many things that I was trying to say but he said them better. It was humbling and amazing. I love that! He knows how to write sadness and the way that things can be so lackluster, and make you feel horrible, and make you feel for these people. It’s fantastic…
I love writers who are playing with language and doing interesting things with language, like Sarah Ruhl and Charles Mee. I am learning so many new playwrights here [at Princeton] because I am getting to read stuff I never would have read back in Oregon. It’s just amazing!
Do you have any advice for other young writers?
I would just like to encourage anybody, like, anybody, to give this a shot and try writing a show. It gives you such insight as an actor and as director. Do everything that you can as a high school student and try everything because it all makes you better at everything else!
Stay tuned next week for our interview with winner Elise Kibler!
Annika Bennett will be joining seven other playwrights at the 2012 Young Playwrights Conference in New York City, January 4-12. 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 18 and under to submit a play to our 2012 competition is January 2nd.
Until next week!
Elizabeth Bojsza, Literary Manager