Hometown: Jackson Heights, New York
It’s the second installment of our annual interview series with the winners of our National Playwriting Competition, who will be joining us in January for the Young Playwrights Conference.
This week, we’re introducing you to May Treuhaft-Ali – or, re-introducing you to her, as this is her second time as a National Competition winner! Her play Naked Fat Man is the imaginative, poignant story of The Man, a sculpture who dreams of being a true piece of art, who struggles with identity, gender, love, and fantasy. (Please note that May uses the gender neutral pronouns “zhe” and “hir” when describing The Man).
You’re a second time winner of the Young Playwrights Inc. National Playwriting Competition. No small feat! I was wondering what you took away from last year’s Conference?
First of all: Working with the other writers. So, so, so important to everything for me. There were so many moments where I was like “Oh, these are my people. Oh, they get it.” I’d never really been able to talk about certain things in my writing process and all of a sudden people were just saying things and I was like “Wait! I feel that way too!” And just sitting up ‘til 4am writing together, playing the What-If game. We would all send each other work. Every single person took playwriting really seriously… to have a group of people for whom playwriting was like a matter of life or death – that was really exciting.
Something happened to me in March. I was at the New Dramatists’ reading room, which I discovered during the Conference last year. And it’s one of my favorite places in the entire world. Every single time I am back in the city from college, I go there. So, I was there and I was reading plays. I was reading a Lucas Hnath play, and then Lucas Hnath walked in! He had given a master class at Young Playwrights Inc. So I went up to him and I was like “Oh, I’m reading your play!” And he remembered me and it was really cool. Then a little later, one of the interns came in and she had been at the Industry Meet-and-Greet, and she started talking to me and she was really nice. And then Piper Rasmussen, who was a participant in the Conference last year, walked in and I hadn’t seen her in a while and we talked a little bit. And then Christina Anderson – who was involved in Young Playwrights and was a playwriting professor at Wesleyan last semester – she walked in! And I was just like “There are so many people I know through Young Playwrights Inc.” So feeling really immersed in this little world of New York playwrights is something I have really valued. It makes the playwriting world a lot smaller, which then makes me think that I might not be crazy if I want to be part of that world in a few years.
I think you already part of the world! I was wondering how you’ve grown or changed as a writer since you were at the Conference.
I was actually just thinking about this. You said something to me which is possibly the nicest thing anyone has said when you called me about Naked Fat Man back in June and you said I wrote about what I was afraid of. I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between my writing and my fears. I think I am lot more willing to embrace my fears in my writing. I don’t think that’s a conscious choice because I just start writing about something and then all of a sudden it turns into my deepest, darkest fears. Or one of my friends reads it or my sister reads it and they’re like “oh my gosh, you just wrote about all these things that you’re terrified about.” And I’m like “Oh I did? I just thought it was like a funny little scene.” These things just find their way onto the page in a way that feels like I almost have no control over it. In the playwriting class that I’m taking right now, a lot of times I think “why I am writing these things? Why am I letting my classmates who know me in real life read this stuff? Why am I saying these really personal, really vulnerable things?” It’s not something I’m choosing to do. It just comes out. Playwriting is where that part of me can come out. And when it can come out, it just overflows.
I think a lot of really good art comes from a play between the unconscious and the conscious. You have to listen to your unconscious but then you have to consciously craft it. In embracing vulnerability and embracing your fears, what led you to writing Naked Fat Man?
Something I’ve realized about each play that I write is that it’s really, really representative of the time at which I wrote it. Even if it’s not about real events that happened in that time, it’s representative of everything I had been thinking about. So, I wrote this play over the course of my freshman year at college. And I was thinking a lot about how I was in this new place with new people, and this idea of: you can never really know what’s going on in someone else’s head. You can never really know where someone else is coming from. You can be really close with them. You can spend a ton of time with them. Maybe you know a lot of their deep, dark secrets. But there is some other part of them that you had no idea existed. I would have a relationship with someone and someone else would say, “oh, that person is very cold and distant,” and I would say, “oh, that’s not my experience.” Or I’d have a very funny relationship with someone and someone else would say, “oh, that person is so serious and always has deep heart-to-hearts with me.” And I would be like, “oh, that’s different.” There are all these hidden sides and hidden stories.
You know, when you’re riding on a subway train with people. Can you intuit those stories and those feelings? When you do that, are you just making it up and putting your own life and your own thoughts into someone else? The scary thing about empathizing with people, for me, is that I never know if I’m really understanding what’s going on with them or if I’m putting my own feelings into an experience that’s not my own.
I think that’s the scary thing about playwriting, too. When I’m writing a scene about something that I haven’t personally experience and I try to relate to it, am I really understand this other experience or am I just twisting it to make it more familiar to myself?
Who do you think the character is in Naked Fat Man who most closely experiences what you’re describing?
The Man does this thing. Zhe will create stories in hir head about other people and about what’s going on in their lives. One of my favorite moments is when a woman gives a dollar to a violinist playing in the station and The Man says “they’re in love.” And zhe gives this whole monologue about the R Train. The Man says “I know it. I can tell by the way her forehead wrinkles.” And that’s totally something I do, and I don’t know if that’s me taking an interest in other people or if that’s me just being completely self-absorbed.
Also, May (a character in the play)… there’s this violinist in her life and she connects with him in this really beautiful way and they talk about all these great things like music and Joyce and great stuff. And then she never sees him again and she doesn’t know why. Meanwhile there are some basic things about The Man and about Mommy that she just doesn’t understand and she spends a ton of time with them. She lives with them. She just can’t sense what they’re feeling.
It’s interesting that so much of your thought process around this is about other people’s feelings when there is a character that is somewhat a representation of yourself. Can you talk a bit about what the process has been like having a character named May Treuhaft-Ali in the play, then changing that to Lucy, then changing it back to May?
In terms of how sometimes I just do scary things in plays and I don’t know why I do them but I just do, that’s definitely what the character May Treuhaft-Ali was. I just did it and I didn’t know why I was doing it but that’s how I originally wrote the play and she just couldn’t have any other name.
I think in a lot of ways, I’m so, so jealous of the May Treuhaft-Ali character. And I’m so, so terrified of her. She has the life that I want in a lot of ways. She is a successful playwright in New York City. That would be the dream for me. But the part where it felt truest that her name was May Treuhaft-Ali is when she moves and she leaves The Man and Mommy. Something I’m always really scared of is that because I’m pursuing my own creative endeavors, I am not there for my loved ones when they need me. I know that I have a tendency when I get really involved in a theatre project or writing something, I just say that takes priority and everything else in my life has to wait. And sometimes, people can’t wait. Like that’s not actually a good way to live because I do theater to bring me closer to other people and I don’t want it to be something that isolates me from the people I love most and keeps me from being a really good friend and family member to them.
Putting your art before everything else is something I’ve romanticized so much but it’s also something I’m really terrified of.
If you’re able to articulate that dilemma, you’re on a good road to being able to confront it as you get more and more into the professional world. Speaking of the professional world! I wanted to ask how the process is going with your dramaturg, Michael Walkup?
One thing that’s really cool about Michael’s suggestions is that he had me play with the graffiti artists, which has been really fun. He said to me “What if the graffiti artists do have some artistic intent? What if they’re not just bad people?” I don’t think graffiti artists are bad people and I don’t think graffiti isn’t art! I like that subversive, playful art. So, realizing that I’m kind of demonizing graffiti artists and that’s not actually congruent with my idea of art and public art – that’s been fun to play with.
We’ve been working on the character of The Man and going through one monologue to the next, tracking The Man’s growing consciousness from a piece of clay to a fully grown adult. Which is exciting because, in the jump back and forth in this play, I sort of dabble in this childlike language for The Man sometimes, and then The Man gradually learns more about hir own identity and beliefs and taste in literature and stuff like that. Playing with that has been fun.
The Man is a fascinating character and such a great stage presence. So, are you working on anything before you join us for Conference?
I’m taking a class called Contemporary Plays: Reading and Writing with Quiara Alegría Hudes and it’s like the best thing ever and I leave class every day with my mind exploding. I’m reading a ton of plays this semester which is really great. Like I’m reading all of the plays that I secretly, without my knowing it, have been trying to write.
I had read Angels in America before but I reread it for this class and I was like “Oh, every single play I write couldn’t have happened without Angels in America. Oh.”
I recently wrote a short play about a woman who pays actors to dramatize and stage all of her deepest pathological fears, which was really fun to write and also really terrifying. This thing happened where I wasn’t really using my own pathological fears, I ended up writing about my fears anyway.
It sounds like your creative well is unlimited! You have such a range of styles and content. Before we wrap up, is there anything you want to say about the play?
The one thing that is really groundbreaking about this play for me about this play is that I always write plays about artists; I’m always obsessed with the question of what an artist’s role is in society and what art does. And I think this is the first time my artists have been really shitty people. And they do things like do commissions for money and sell out and have writer’s block and abandon their loved ones for the sake of personal advancement. And it was just very interesting for me to realize that this was the first time I hadn’t idealized and romanticized the artists, and wondering what had changed in me. I think that this play is one of my most art-affirming plays – somehow that happened because of or despite the artists being horrible people with problems.
I feel like you’re being hard on them! They don’t come across to me as horrible people. I think you’re reaching a level of complexity and nuance and contradiction within the characters – which all feels honest. Anyway, it was really good to talk to you again, May!
May Treuhaft-Ali 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.