Saturday, July 08, 2017

I Interview Playwrights Part 963: Stephanie Swirsky





Stephanie Swirsky

Hometown: Lincroft, NJ

Current Town: NYC

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just got back from LA, where I was shooting my first short film, "Alcoholocaust", directed by Jessica Kantor. It’s a dark comedy about a group of teens, led by a Jewish girl, who play a game of Holocaust-themed beer pong.

I’m also in the midst of writing a lot of new material, all in different stages of development. The first play is “Polaka,” inspired by my mom’s experience coming to the US from Cuba in 1960 during the Cold War. She only spoke Spanish, but has pale skin and blue eyes, so all her classmates thought she was a Russian spy and bullied her. I’ve been thinking a lot about how being a part of two immigrant stories, in this case, Jewish and Cuban, can separate you from both communities.

“Work/Life” is a play that I’ve been working on for about a year, about Hayley, an overworked pharmaceutical copywriter who writes copy for an erectile dysfunction drug. The play looks at how dehumanizing and strange the workplace can be.

“Don’t Do This To Us!” is a very new play, a comedy about Jared Kushner and the modern Orthodox Jewish community. The plot is about a 36-year-old woman named Rachel, the same age as Jared, who goes back in time to 1999 so that she can hook up with 17-year-old Jared Kushner and break his penis (in her mind, stopping him from marrying Ivanka and destroying the world). But it really looks at her relationship with three Orthodox girls she meets in 1999, the diversity even in a homogenous environment, and how a conservative voice can somehow take center stage in a community of mostly liberal Jews.

Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A: When I was seven years old, my first grade teacher bullied me in front of our entire class, every day, all the time. She called me fat. She said if I didn’t exercise, I shouldn’t come to school. Every day, in front of the class, she asked me what exercises I did. I said things like, “I ran up my driveway.” Which wasn’t enough for her, so eventually, I stopped showing up for school.

My mom experienced terrible bullying in school too, so my experience wasn’t that different from hers. She wanted to report my teacher to the principal, but I was terrified of my teacher and begged her not to. When my mom finally met with the principal, he said that this teacher always chose one student to pick on each year, and this year it was me. He said I should see this as an opportunity to grow a thicker skin.

Years later, writing about this experience, I dug up pictures of myself from the first grade, and discovered that I wasn’t fat at all. I felt so angry. For years I remembered myself as an overweight child. My classmates would come up to me and ask me, a seven-year-old, if I was pregnant. It showed me how powerful perspective is, and how we can literally start to believe in things because someone with authority tells us it’s true. That experience also set me up to be the target of bullies, and those experiences have helped me become a more empathetic person, both in life and as a writer.

Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A: Director Rachel Dart founded Let Us Work, a project designed to combat and end sexual harassment in theater.

It may be surprising to some that sexual harassment is commonplace in the theater community. Theater is seen as advocating for humanity, a place where raising our voices is encouraged. But theater is a workplace like any other, sexual harassment happens frequently, and we need to work as a community to respond to it.

Learn more about Let Us Work: facebook.com/LetUsWorkProject

Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A: Paula Vogel, Christopher Durang, Velina Hasu-Houson, Paula Cizmar, Oliver Mayer, and Luis Alfaro.

Paula Vogel and Christopher Durang were the playwrights I read in high school, who showed me that you can write plays that experiment, break rules, and combine lots of humor and deeply feeling characters.

Velina, Paula, Oliver, and Luis were my professors at the University of Southern California, where I got my MFA. They welcomed me into their community, and encouraged me to write big, strange plays about grief, religion, and death. They showed me how to channel our experiences into my work, not only by supporting me, but by leading with example with their work.

Q: What kind of theater excites you?

A: I love emotional theater with complicated characters. I’m drawn into a story when the characters feel specific, when I feel like I know this person while I’m watching them, and can feel what they’re going through, even if I have never met someone like them in my everyday life. Especially when I have never met someone like them.

Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A: Keep writing, and be kind to others.

Q: Plugs, please:

A: I wrote a modern-day adaptation of “Taming of The Shrew,” called “Alpha." Readings, directed by Rachel Dart, are at The Tank on August 3rd and 4th: thetanknyc.org/series/lady_fest_2017

I’m also very excited to be going to Cuba this month with the CubaOne Foundation on their literary TuCuba trip – there’s a group of ten of us, led by U.S. inaugural poet Richard Blanco and MacArthur 'Genius Grant' winner Ruth Behar. CubaOne is an amazing organization that brings Cuban Americans to Cuba to experience the land, meet Cuban people, and explore our heritage. I encourage all Cuban Americans to apply: cubaone.org

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