Hometown: Birmingham, Alabama
Well, it’s that time of year again: the holiday music is echoing down 5th Avenue – and into the Young Playwrights Inc. headquarters! The ringing bells provided a backdrop for the second installment of this year’s interview series with our National Competition Winners. This week, we’re introducing you to Emily Sheera Cutler. Her play The Road Trip is a portrait of a complex friendship as two teenagers sneak out and hit the highway – leaving behind deeply troubling circumstances.
I was hoping to start with getting to know how you got involved with Young playwrights Inc.
I found out about it when I was at a playwriting conference… The Sewanee Writers conference. I think our teacher told us that there was this contest and we should submit. I submitted and got Finalist for two years and this year I won. And then last year I also went to the Urban Retreat.
How was Urban Retreat for you?
I really liked it, it was a great experience. I still keep in touch with some of the friends I made there. It was just really cool to be around all playwrights for a week. A lot of times at writing conferences you’re with a lot of writers but not necessarily playwrights.
Cool! So, The Road Trip, was this the first year you submitted to us?
No, I actually submitted it last year. And then I got an evaluation that suggested a lot of different things about the characters and the plot so I made those revisions and sent it back.
It was really a pleasure to watch the play develop. What inspired The Road Trip?
A lot of things, I think. My own personal experience in high school definitely inspired it. It kind of made me think about what it means to be that age in the world today. Just the idea of breaking the rules: I really wanted to write a play about that concept. And about what rules do to limit us and what they do to help us. And what it means to have to live by certain rules or when to break certain rules.
The play has received a lot of negative criticism because of the subject matter of a teacher-student relationship. I’ve written other plays and other essays about teacher-student relationships, because I think it’s a very interesting issue and it’s something morally ambiguous – which is something I’m always interested in as a playwright.
So what’s your feeling about writing on things that upset people in that way? What’s your feeling about writing on politically controversial or morally ambiguous situations?
I think being a playwright sometimes means sacrificing being politically correct or diplomatic and polite about not talking about controversial topics… and sacrificing that in order to be an honest playwright and portray relationships truthfully and also communicate a message effectively. That’s something that’s really important to me as a playwright: I don’t want to be afraid to say anything. I don’t ever want to hold back, because maybe what I’m holding back is what somebody else can really relate to or connect to on a universal level.
Do you see different things in the play now that you’re a little bit older than when you wrote it?
Yeah, definitely. Talking to my dramaturg (Alice Pencavel) about it was a really interesting experience. I feel like I saw more than I had seen before. A lot about the association of pain and love. Also, we did a small, informal staged reading at Penn. And that made me see that it was about fear and anger – that those were kind of polar opposites running through it.
You mentioned University of Pennsylvania. How are things going for you there?
Really good. I love my major.
What are you studying?
Is there a particular focus within that?
I’m thinking maybe civic or public service – I’m not sure yet though. And then my minor is creative writing.
Gotcha. Have things you’ve been learning in your communications major been influencing your theater-making?
I think so, yeah. I’m actually doing a project right now on theater and social change. It’s just interesting to learn about the broader context of it. I was actually going to be a Theater major but I think Communications asks more of the question of Why while Theater asks more of the question of How. It’s really cool to have that perspective: (A major in Theater asks) how to make quality theater and how the process works, while Communications is more of the broader question of Why we do it in the first place. Like what messages we send.
A lot of times people think of (theater) as just entertainment or just going up on stage and having fun – which is great, too. But I think really we do it because we want to talk about what it means to be human. And that’s a little bit scary to talk about in real life. But for some reason in theater, it’s safe to talk about.
In terms of communication, one thing I’ve really enjoyed about your writing is how subtextual the communication is between people and how much of an appreciation you have of the unspoken between characters. Is that something you’re conscious of while you’re writing?
I think it developed as I grew as a writer. I think listening to people’s conversations was something that really helped, and just figuring out what people do say and what people don’t say. There’s definitely a difference on stage than in real life too: on stage, people tend to say more than they do in real life. So it’s finding that balance.
Are there certain writers who have been really inspiring to you?
My favorite playwright is Larry Kramer. I think his conflicts and conversations are really great. And Sarah Ruhl, Paula Vogel… I think the subtext there is really prominent.
So what’s up next for you at UPenn?
My play is being produced in the Spring. When they heard that it would be workshopped in New York, they said they would produce it here. It will performed on April 4th and 5th.
That’s really exciting! We’ll have to get the word out about it!
Emily Sheera Cutler will be joining six other playwrights at the 2014 Young Playwrights Conference in New York City, January 8-16. 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 2014 competition is January 2nd.