Ted Sod: Please give us some background information on yourself: Where were you born? Where were you educated? When did you decide to become a playwright and why?
Jenny Rachel Weiner: I was born in Boston, MA but was raised in South Florida. The part of Florida I grew up in was filled with Jewish grandparents (including my own) who migrated south from New York, and because of this I always felt like a New Yorker in my soul. When I moved to NYC to attend the Fordham University/Primary Stages MFA in Playwriting program in 2012, I felt like I was truly returning home. Before that, I lived in Chicago, where I spent my time devising documentary theatre, teaching, and writing; before that, I studied at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa focusing on mask work, clowning, and site-specific theatre; before that, I attended Boston University, where I received my BFA in Theatre Arts. My parents actually met at BU, so beginning my artistic path there must have been destined from the beginning. I also became a playwright at Boston University. I began there as an actor and, as an eighteen-year-old, was steadfast and determined to remain one. During my sophomore year in a class called Theatre Ensemble, led by the inimitable Lydia R. Diamond, I wrote and performed a monologue from the perspective of a window that had shattered my childhood home, a product of Hurricane Wilma that, in 2005, wreaked havoc on Florida. After that class, Lydia pulled me aside. She looked me straight in the eye, and she said, “I don’t know if you know this, Jenny, but you’re a writer. You may not be able to see it yet, you may not be able to acknowledge it now, but I want you to know that you are a writer.” Lydia saw something in me that day, and although it did take me a couple of years to allow that path to unfold, I think that was the day that the beast was unleashed.
TS: What inspired you to write Kingdom Come? What do you feel the play is about? Does the play have personal resonance for you, and if so, how?
JRW: I wrote the first draft of Kingdom Come in a three day bootcamp at Primary Stages led by the brilliant Cusi Cram. She came to the room with leading questions, exercises to get our creative juices flowing, and in-depth opportunities to allow the inmost recesses of our imaginations and curiosities to be lured to the surface, giving us access to laden ideas and questions we had about the world, ourselves, and the people we dream about. I walked into that boot camp convinced I had nothing to say and nothing to write about. Once Cusi started asking us questions about the world of our play, the people who live inside of it, and what their greatest wishes, longings, and fears were, I tapped into the stories of Samantha, Layne, Delores, Dom, and Suz. I saw Carson City, Nevada clearly in my mind, I saw Samantha trapped in her body, Layne trapped in her mind, and the two of them finding genuine connection in each other. In my work, I am always aiming at finding the two-sided coin of humor and pain that live in our deepest truths, and this story became a vehicle for me to explore modern day loneliness, the ways in which we hide in order to be seen, and how social media has created a platform for us to curate the image in which we wish to be received. At the time, I had been going on endless Internet dates, constantly disappointed, as a stranger could never realistically come close to the perfect person in my mind. I witnessed firsthand the power of our imagination, of our greatest longing, and of the complicated, nuanced, and detailed projections we place onto other people. My best friend was also “catfished” the week before, which was simultaneously hysterically funny, deeply embarrassing, and painfully sad. This is a combo platter for me in terms of what kinds of stories inspire me to write.
TS: What kind of research did you have to do in order to write it? What was the most challenging part of writing your play?
JRW: Once I did the first fast and dirty draft in the bootcamp, which has interestingly enough remained the spine of the play, I did actual research on the path, realities, and inevitabilities of life as a person who weighs 600 lbs, I went down the rabbit hole of others who had been “catfished,” and I spent some quality time on visitcarsoncity.com. I also listened to a lot of Billy Joel as I wrote the play, and one day just kept the TV on while I worked to get a sense of the daytime TV line-up. The most challenging part of writing this play has been trusting in my instincts that I know these characters intimately enough to let them fly. I think that’s the hardest part of writing any play for me: doing the research, laying the groundwork, setting myself up for success (enough sleep, water, light, and a great playlist) and then trusting in myself enough to be the vessel for the story to come through. That kind of trust comes with age and experience, and the more I write the more I feel myself tapping into the well of stories I desperately need to tell, allowing them to flow through me freely. The sneaky little roadblocks of fear and doubt like to rear their heads every once in a while, but I’ve learned to just let them hang out with me and show them that everything’s cool and thanks for their concern!
TS: Can you give us a sense of your process as a writer? How do you go about working on a play once you have an idea? Was there a formal development process for this play?
JRW: My process as a writer shifts and morphs all the time, but the constant for me is letting an idea, characters, and a world incubate for a while before I actually sit down to write. This seems to contradict how I wrote Kingdom Come, but I think that story was actually present in me all along, I just wasn’t cognizant of it until I was prompted. Usually, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, with characters, with a question that’s been scratching at my heart. I’ll have a basic idea of what the play might be, I write that down, and then I let it have its way with me. I’ll spend months dreaming of the people in this world, I’ll find myself engaging in conversations and activities that take me closer to these themes (usually this is subconscious and I only realize after the fact), and I’ll jot down notes that feel pertinent or relevant to the questions I’m asking. Sometimes I read books that are connected to the topic. Sometimes I’ll go down an Internet rabbit hole of personal forums and user generated discussions to see how those are manifesting. Sometimes I just go deeper in my own psyche to investigate why I am so fascinated by this story. Once I feel like I’ve incubated enough, I’ll usually set myself up in a bootcamp or intensive, since I’ve found I get my best work done in a pressure cooker. Once I get a first draft done in that setting, then I spend months rewriting, tinkering, and continuing to explore, but this time moving forward from the play itself.
TS: Many of our Roundabout Underground audience members are millennials and have grown up with the digital age. What is it about this generation that intrigues you?
JRW: My interest is two-fold: I have always been interested in liminal spaces, in the moments between the moments, and that’s where the connection between Layne and Samantha lives—in the spaces between the reality of their lives, where they get to be their best selves, their most excited, brave, emotional, inspired, and loving selves, without fear of rejection or consequence. I am also interested in the millennial generation (of which I am a part) and our relationship to perceived connection vs. actual connection. So much of our connection is falsely presented and superficially touched on because so much of our time is behind the privacy of a screen. I think the back half of our generation had the opportunity to lay the foundation for genuine connection because we didn’t have cell phones or email as kids, so during our formative years we were forced to interact in real life. I do, however, think that in the digital world we live in now, we are just as subjected to the beauty and benefits of a hyper-connected online world as well as the disconnection it can create. It’s in our makeup as human beings to want to connect to other people, and though we get the initial benefits online, that kind of interaction is lacking a fundamental depth. Currently in my work, and specifically in this play, I am exploring the relationship between our desire for connection and our fear of vulnerability.
TS: Do you sense there will be any major revisions during the rehearsal process? What precipitates revisions when you rewrite?
JRW: I am always startled by significant revisions in a rehearsal process because while they are inevitable, they usually take me by surprise. Going into rehearsal I feel confident about where the play is, but there is always more to learn, to tighten, to make clear, to unpack, especially once you get actors, designers, and a director in the room. Once I begin rehearsals, “the play is the thing,” as a wise man once said, and everything I do is in service of the thing we are making. Therefore, I cannot know what the rewrites will look like until I am faced with this ever-growing, ever-learning, ever-loving piece we are all making together. In my opinion, it’s the most beautiful part of the process: to trust in the play and in my collaborators, and to believe that the right changes will be made if I just listen and pay attention to what the play needs.
TS: Can you describe what you look for in a director? In casting actors for this particular play?
JRW: I have been incredibly lucky so far in my career to have worked with generous, loving, resourceful directors, who put the needs of the play above anything else. The most important thing I look for is a person who implicitly understands and accepts the play, a person who seems to inherently recognize the truths I am looking to unpack, the questions I am striving to ask, and is perhaps also asking those questions of themselves and their own work. I am also always looking for a director who has a facility with language, tempo, and humor since my plays tow the line between what’s funny about being a person and what’s heartbreaking about it. Similarly that’s what I look for in an actor: an ability to seamlessly move between lightness and buoyancy and the deep emotional stakes of being human.
TS: Who are your favorite playwrights? How are you inspired as an artist?
JRW: My favorite playwrights range from Wendy Wasserstein to Sheila Callaghan, from Tennessee Williams to Tony Kushner, from Sarah Ruhl to Chuck Mee. I am drawn to writers who ask questions of us we never tire of asking, who make me belly laugh with their perceptive portraits of families, communities, isolation, matters of the heart. I am drawn to theatricality and moments of poetry amidst very real and very grounded circumstances, because I think life is full of those, and if we blink we might miss them. I am drawn to the people I see on the street and the lives I imagine they lead. I am drawn to personal life or death stakes that take us to exciting and dangerous places (and how there is a huge amount of humor in those moments). I am drawn to stories of complicated women, of Jewish families, of the millennial pace jutting up against our pre-programmed need to slow down and experience human connection. Since accepting my fate as a writer, I have become porous to the vast moments of inspiration that happen around me every day, and I have started writing down the things I see.
TS: What advice would you give to a young person who wants to write for the theatre?
JRW: Stay open, curious, and excited about getting it wrong. Lydia R. Diamond, my first playwriting teacher, told me once that we are writing the same play over and over again until we’re not. When she first told me that, I didn’t understand what she meant because my plays were so different from each other! How could a play about a lonely woman in St. Augustine searching for her daughter in her dreams and a cave full of people who are lost and looking for a way out possibly be the same? And how can the first two plays I ever wrote, worlds away from where I am now, be cosmically linked to Kingdom Come? Your plays are extensions of you, and they live and breathe and pulse to the unique rhythm of your soul. Nobody else in the entire world has the same perspective, questions, viewpoint, and voice as you do. So, go have fun! I’m giving you permission. Don’t worry about writing the “right” play. Don’t worry about your plays being bad. As long as you stay tapped into your personal vantage point and continue to be curious about all of the questions tugging at your hem, you will succeed. You will succeed in being you.
TS: What else are you working on now?
JRW: Almost all of the things I am working on are in the incubation period, so they would kill me if I talked too much about them. There are about four plays having their way with me as we speak, and I can tell you they range from beauty pageants to Nazi Germany to the politics of theatre sleep-a-way camp. I have just begun my first year at the Lila Acheson American Playwrights Program at The Juilliard School, and will be working on three new full length plays this year. This kind of opportunity provides me not only with hard deadlines, but with an advanced level workshop setting under the brilliant mentorship of Marsha Norman and David Lindsay-Abaire . For more info, you can check out my goings-on at www.jennyrachelweiner.com.
Kingdom Come 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, Kingdom Come, Roundabout Underground, Upstage