Ted Sod: Please give us some background information on yourself: Where were you born and educated? When did you decide to become a playwright?
Martín Zimmerman: I was born in Maryland outside of Washington, D.C. and grew up in a bilingual household. My mother is an immigrant from Argentina and my father is from Baltimore, so I grew up speaking both Spanish and English. Also, the D.C. area is an incredibly diverse area with residents from all over the globe,whether they are refugees or people who work for foreign governments or global nonprofits, so I had friends from literally all over the globe. This is something I suppose I took for granted at the time, but now I understand was a tremendous gift and has informed a lot of my thinking and artistry. I became interested in acting and theatre very late in high school, but when I became interested, I became very interested. I went to undergrad at Duke University, where I studied both economics and theatre. I dabbled in writing a little bit very early in undergrad and then I acted in a new play festival at Duke my freshman year, and I think that that turned me on to the idea of writing plays. So I very aggressively embraced playwriting as an undergrad and wrote a ton and was very fortunate to get several of my plays staged during that time. I went straight from Duke to graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin — so I also have an MFA in playwriting.
TS: Since you studied theatre and economics, it sounds like you have both sides of your brain working.
MZ: Yes, and I also think that the economics degree helps inform my understanding of how people are shaped by circumstances. I think economics – and all the social sciences — can illuminate how social forces shape people. That informs my thinking as a writer politically as well; how social forces interact with an individual’s psychology to shape the way they behave. Obviously, my mom being an immigrant has also informed the politics of my writing. By that I mean I also try to think globally, cross-culturally in much of my writing.
TS: Will you tell us what inspired you to write On the Exhale? Can you talk about your process writing it?
MZ: The initial spark for the play came in the aftermath of the Newtown Sandy Hook shooting and seeing how even something as horrific as that wasn’t going to move our national government to take meaningful action on gun control. My frustration and deep anger about that was the seed for the play. Once I have the spark of an idea, I’m always immediately thinking about how the form of that play can be tightly bound to the content of the story I’m telling. I’ve long been fascinated with the act of firing a weapon and how it is a very aggressive act, but how, to do it well, you need to be incredibly calm, centered, focused. It can be a meditative experience if you do it very well — I’ve long been fascinated by that paradox. I think that those two things — my anger about gun violence and my fascination with the psychological experience of firing a weapon — converged in my mind. I knew that because the act of firing a weapon is so solitary I wanted the play to be one woman alone onstage in order to replicate that experience. I knew that pretty early on. And, because I knew it would be a one-woman play, the act of writing this piece was very much about being still and trying to live in this woman’s experience moment to moment. Then, as I was actually writing the play, the play became as much about that initial impulse as about how grief can isolate you — especially when you feel unable to grieve with a community. The writing process became about how that tunnel vision of grief can warp the psyche.
TS: Why did you choose not to name the woman who the play is about?
MZ: In a lot of my writing I try to embrace a theatrical world that allows many different people to identify with what’s happening onstage. I want to give just the right amount of specificity to make the world of the play and the characters vivid, but at the same time, I don’t want to give extraneous detail that could shut people out of the world of the play. I feel like too much detail could put a barrier between the character and the audience. I’ve had a number of readings of the play, and at each one people think that the play takes place in many different geographical locations within the United States. Often, audiences see the town that they live in. I tried to make the play open-ended enough so that the play can contain multiple interpretations and can speak to people in different places.
TS: What kind of research did you have to do?
MZ: I certainly did some research for this play in particular, but a lot of specific research that I did for other plays also informed the writing of this play. I worked on a play for a while that was about soldiers in combat in the Iraq War, and a vital part of that play was about the emotional impact of firing weapons. For another commissioned play I’m currently working on, I have done a lot of research about trauma and how it impacts the body and the mind — that research was especially helpful in writing this.
TS: How did you deal with writing about the grief of this character? Is that something that you had to explore for yourself?
MZ: I’ve certainly experienced grief in my life. Most people have. But seeing how people around me respond to deep grief had a greater impact on how I wrote this play than did my own personal experiences of grief. It’s important when you’re writing a character who is grieving to remember the dramatic fundamentals. I think those fundamentals serve you very well. They force you to constantly remember what the character is trying to accomplish. She is intentional. When a lot of people try to portray grief they will depict a character who is stuck in emotion and not moving with any kind of intention or motivation. This character is intentional and motivated, but grief keeps her from thinking strategically, from thinking in the long term. She’s merely following whatever impulse happens to seize her in that moment. That’s how her grief shapes her. When trying to write a character who is grieving, it’s vital to remember that no one can live forever with such massive emotion weighing down on them. Their body would shut down after a while. One of the shocking things about the body is how people are able to assimilate things into their experience and genuinely function after a while. They may function differently, but they do function. Grief can surge up unexpectedly at any moment, but that doesn’t mean someone who is grieving is always consciously aware of their grief. It more subtly tweaks the way that person navigates the world.
TS: Did you always know On the Exhale was going to be a play with one actor or did that idea present itself during the writing process? What are the challenges of doing that? What excites you about it?
MZ: I knew from the beginning it would be a one-woman because of the solitary nature of firing a weapon and also because of how being a victim of violence can make you feel isolated, alone. It’s hard to write a one-woman play in the sense that I really had to be inside this woman’s head. As for the challenges of writing a play with one character, once you’ve done that heavy lifting, the act of putting words on the page will flow more easily. You’re just inside her experience. You don’t have to constantly change your way of thinking while writing. Whereas when you’re dealing with different characters, you’re thinking, okay, well this is how this person sees the world, this is how they would behave, and you’re having to leap from one character’s experience to the next. We haven’t entered rehearsals yet, but one of the things I find exciting about doing a solo play is that it is a much more intimate process. I think everyone is in greater communication because everyone is so vital to the process. It allows every collaborator to be really attentive to everyone else in the room, and that is really exciting to me.
TS: Will you talk us through the development process for On the Exhale? How much rewriting did you do?
MZ: The initial spark happened in January or February of 2014. Then I got my first job in TV that March. I knew I wanted to focus on that job while I was in the writers’ room, so I just let the idea percolate in my subconscious. Once I was on hiatus from that job, I knew I wanted to write a new play right away. It was very important to me to maintain my practice as a playwright. So I wrote the first draft in the Fall of 2014. Then I had an in-house workshop at Goodman Theatre during the spring of 2015, and then I had a public reading there in November of 2015. I had a reading at Roundabout Underground in February 2016 and a reading at the Ojai Playwrights Conference this past August. I had another reading at the Alley Theatre in September. Readings are a shorter process in terms of working on things, and there isn’t a ton of rewriting — it’s about gauging the audience reaction and assessing what you’ve learned about the play afterwards. I made the most substantial revisions during those first two workshops at the Goodman, and the workshop at the Ojai Playwrights Conference was more about trying to determine how the play will function theatrically. But I’m always open to rewriting.
TS: What do you look for when you collaborate with a director?
MZ: I look for people who are humane collaborators, who are very attentive to everyone in the process. Directors who can work with different aesthetics. As a writer, I try not to live in the same aesthetic world, I try to do very different things from play to play, so working with directors who can do the same is very important to me. I also look for directors who understand what makes theatre unique as an art form and know how to exploit the unique advantages of liveness.
TS: What qualities does the actress need to play this role?
MZ: Tremendous confidence. The character is very self-assured, and she has a great strength — she does so much by herself. She’s very independent. You need to have an actor whose instinct is not to lean into the emotion — that’s a great temptation when portraying grief. Part of the strength of this character is the self-assuredness to say, “No, there are parts of my emotional life that you don’t get. They’re just mine.” I think that’s a very important quality. From a technical standpoint, an actor playing this role needs the ability to really shape text — shape it classically — as you would have to do in playing Shakespeare.
TS: What advice do you have for a young person who wants to write for the theatre?
MZ: Writers often get told to start from a place of writing what they know. That’s something I haven’t actually done. To me the writing process has been about finding stories I can viscerally identify with that are also in some way outside of my personal experience. This approach then forces me to research rigorously, which helps keep my writing specific. I think it is important to try and tell stories that are alien to your experience. It’s a scary thing to do — I won’t deny it — but I think it’s good to be scared. I think you should embrace that terror, use it to motivate yourself to be incredibly specific in your research, to be humane and gentle in how you represent characters. Writing plays in order to step outside yourself and learn is a way to sustain a lifelong practice.
On the Exhale is now playing at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, On the Exhale, Roundabout Underground, Upstage