Playwright Ming Peiffer was born in Manhattan, but grew up mostly in Columbus, Ohio. She attended Colgate University and Graduate School at Columbia University. Peiffer spoke with Education Dramaturg Ted Sod about her work on Usual Girls.
Ted Sod: What inspired you to write Usual Girls? What do you feel the play is about? Does the play have personal resonance for you and, if so, how?
Ming Peiffer: The genesis of this play was unlike any of the others that I’ve written. Originally, it was a play about Dov Charney, the disgraced former CEO of American Apparel, because I knew I wanted to write about the female experience, about misogyny, and the systems in place in our culture that contribute to the denigration of women in society. But as I was writing the first couple of scenes, I began realizing that by elevating a Dov Charney-like character to be the main character of the play, I was centering my story on a known abuser and misogynist, and while I wasn’t portraying him in a positive light, I suddenly realized with a vehement force that by choosing to write about him I was putting him, yet again, in a position of power as the (anti-)hero of the story and propagating the nefariousness of the male gaze.
Once I realized what I had done by centering this story around this abusive man, I started to seriously investigate why my initial impulse was to center the story around him when I knew I wanted to write about the female experience. What programming had I been subjected to while growing up to assume that the interesting story here was the one that revolved around the man? I was disturbed by my impulse to give this person I despised the power over my own story. And thus began a long period of reflection about how we are programmed as women to view gender, power structures, sex and how early perceived gender and gender stereotypes start to condition how we behave in the world. I then went to an extremely personal place and asked myself what experiences as a woman, and as a woman of color, shaped my life and ultimately who I became in adulthood.
After scrapping almost all of the original play (except for scenes where there is direct commentary from a female voice about themes in the play), I ended up with an extremely personal play about my own experience growing up as a woman of color in middle America. The play is very specific to my own reality, but I think due to its specificity, it resonates on a universal level. At its core, the play is a bildungsroman with an emphasis on sexual politics and the very binary gendered experience that many of us grow up with, and suffer from, no matter how we identify.
TS: Will you give us a sense of the kind of research you had to do in order to write this play and how you went about doing it?
MP: The play is culled directly from my own life experiences. So, no research in terms of looking to outside sources. Instead, the process was a lot of excruciating self-examination and excavation of dark emotional places that I tried to forget about in my struggle for survival growing up in a predominantly white, predominantly Christian, predominantly Republican town in Ohio. However, it was also about finding the lightness and joy in growing up female despite oppressive conditions.
TS: Will you talk about the development process for this play? Will you continue to rewrite throughout the upcoming RTC rehearsal and preview process? If so, what type of events usually motivate your revisions during rehearsals or previews?
MP: Roundabout has been an indelible factor in the development of this play. The play had its first professional reading as part of the Roundabout Underground Reading Series back in the Winter of 2017, and since then we’ve been given two workshops to further develop the play. During those workshops, we’ve lost entire characters, scenes, and what has emerged is a much more streamlined play that truly underlines how one’s childhood and adolescence affects who you become as an adult.
So much has happened in the world since I first finished a draft of this play back in spring of 2016 while in Columbia University’s MFA Program. With the #MeToo movement sparking so many national and international conversations about women’s role in society, and the marginalization and violence often inherent to growing up female, it is imperative that I make sure this play stays abreast of the morphing conversation surrounding sexual politics and womanhood. My job is to make sure that my play continues to further the conversation instead of reiterating what we know to be true.
TS: Your play deals with how young women go through specific rites of passage from grade school through college and how painful some of these milestones can be. Why were you interested in writing about these subjects?
MP: I chose to write about these subjects because in my adulthood I realized that I knew more about male anatomy, milestones, and experiences than I did about my own experience that I lived through. And finally, I was able to identify how much of a problem that is in our society and how it contributes to the dehumanization of women. For example, I knew what a wet dream was before I knew what discharge was. I had seen locker room scenes where boys hilariously talk about boners, but I was ashamed and frightened by my own menstruation. I was aware of the idea of “balls dropping” but had no idea what was happening when suddenly my own breasts began to develop. My relationship to my own body was that of a stranger. Partially because sexual education where I grew up was poor, but perhaps more problematic was that I never saw those things represented in media or celebrated in life. There continues to be a pervasive stigma attached to the realities of the female body. Why is there an embarrassment there? Why is male sexuality (albeit a very specific, heteronormative sexuality) celebrated and normalized whereas female sexuality continues to make people deeply uncomfortable? I really wanted to write something that showed the complexity of growing up female-bodied and female-identifying that showed the darker sides, but also the beauty, fun, and wonder of growing up female. And more importantly, the normalcy of these things.
As far as depicting the darker sides of female friendships, there is the pervasive “mean girl” motif that paints these girls as vapid, stupid, inherently mean, and inherently materialistic and only interested in beauty and popularity. I wanted to show that much of this behavior is learned behavior that comes from our toxically masculine society. So much of women turning on each other, or not supporting each other, or friendships disintegrating, stems from the fact that we women are all trying to survive in a world that calls for our destruction. For example, a prime relationship in the play breaks up because these girls are so afraid of being ostracized as a “slut” that they’d rather point their fingers to another girl than allow the finger be pointed at themselves—when instead we should be examining the culture that tells us that women who are sexually open are sluts whereas men who act in such a way are just men.
Moreover, I think Kyeoung’s race factors into how she is eventually shunned from her friend group for being other. The other girls acted out sexually as well, but for some reason (I would venture to say it is her racial otherness) Kyeoung is the one who suffers the most from being a sexual being (though I think they all suffer greatly in different ways due to being sexual females.) Our society encourages women to turn on each other because of a deep fear of what would happen if we banded together. I think much of the recent legislation that polices female bodies is coming in direct response to that very fear.
TS: Another idea in the play is the tenuous relationship between children and their parents. How some parents act like children and force children to act like parents. How did you find that dynamic in the play, and why was it important to you?
MP: My father was an abusive alcoholic and drug addict, and I was put in a parental role at a very young age. Having to explain away my father’s drunkenness in public arenas, or helping him feed himself because he was too smashed to hold a spoonful of Cheerios, put me in a caretaker’s position while I was still a child. This was important to me because it was true to my experience but also because the entire play revolves around this question about how your formative years play out into who you become. And obviously, parental influence is an enormous factor in that. Similarly, I wanted to examine how our ingrained societal constructs affect who we become, and parents are a huge representative of that. For example, Rory’s character says some incredibly racist things to Kyeoung, but we learn that he parrots those ideas from his father who harbors those sentiments. I also believe children are extremely smart (and eventually will become the adults who rule our world), so showing the ways in which parents are sometimes children again, and how children start modelling themselves to be parents, became extremely important in illuminating how everything we say and do influences the children around us—particularly the ones who look up to us--and hopefully forces us to ask ourselves what we want to do differently for this next generation.
TS: What other projects are you working on? What are you most excited about writing next?
MP: In theatre, I am currently working on a new play that deals with illegal organ trafficking, the sex trade, and toxic masculinity. I don’t want to write too much more because I don’t want to give it away! In television and film, I’m adapting the gorgeous novel Chemistry by Weike Wang into a film for Amazon, developing an original comedy pilot centered around a bi-racial Asian American woman trying to escape her dysfunctional family and hometown for F/X, adapting the comic book The Divine by Tomer and Asaf Hanuka into a pilot/series for AMC, and working on a new Netflix show that I hope will get picked up soon!
I’m excited about all of these projects because they all feature diverse leads dealing with a multitude of conflicts that explore larger themes of the human experience and not just in terms of their racial identities, but all the factors that make up a beautiful, complex human.
2018-2019 Season, Usual Girls