A Conversation with Ariel Stess, Alex Borinsky, and Heidi Schreck
It was a pleasure to sit down with Ariel Stess, Alex Borinsky, and Heidi Schreck, the playwrights of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks Series, to talk about plays, passion, and politics. In our current climate, I find myself most hopeful in conversations like these, with artists actively engaged in reflection, questioning and the desire to learn.
Corey Ruzicano: I’d love to begin by hearing about each of your pieces and talking about entry-points — what excites you about a story; what’s your way in?
Ariel Stess: I often start with an image as I’m starting, or a memory.
Heidi Schreck: Mine is different each time. This particular piece I’ve been working on for over a decade on and off, which is funny because it’s so unfinished, still. I grew up doing these Constitution Contests to store up scholarship money which is how I paid for college. I wanted to do a piece kind of inspired by this writer, W. David Hancock, called Race of the Ark Tattoo, which was a rummage sale and the audience could pick an item and the actor would tell a story about the objects and the stories would weave together and even though the story was different every night it formed the same sort of whole every night. For some reason when I saw that, I had this idea — which I’m not doing — to take out the amendments of the Constitution and talk about them and tell a personal story about each one. It’s actually evolved into something very different exploring the history of the women on my mom’s side.
Alex Borinsky: It’s different for me too, for each piece, but it tends to be a little swatch of texture or language. Or just a sense of the machine of the play or how it moves. For this one, I was really responding to the Clubbed Thumb biennial commission prompt so I was reading a lot of [María Irene] Fornés’ plays and her voice is very clear and she’s very suspicious of style, I think. There are all these people that speak very directly but in a very human way, so that texture was part of it. And then I wanted to use a shape where things kept getting split off from each other.
Corey: Those sound great — Ariel, I don’t know if you wanted to talk a little bit about your piece and maybe the memory or the image that sparked it?
Ariel: For this piece, I was reading a lot about the criminal justice system, reading a lot about who was getting stopped and frisked, so that’s the first image that I came to, the idea of white people being stopped and frisked and wondering what that would be like. We don’t see that, so I wanted to put that on stage and that’s where the play came from. I was trying to explore different systems that are not broken but engineered to oppress people,: incarceration, school, and criminal justice.
Corey: Absolutely, and I’m definitely interested in hearing about what everyone’s relationship is to creating in this political climate. Maybe it doesn’t feel different at all than it did a year ago, and I’d like to hear about that too.
Heidi: It’s funny because I’ve been working on this constitution piece for over a decade and someone said, I think you have to do it now, even though it’s not finished. And I agreed. Although I do think it’s interesting — I was working on a TV show when the election happened where suddenly the content changed dramatically and then I started working on this…it’s tricky for me to figure out how to tune your work in response to what’s going on because I’ve found for me that it’s easy to fall into a very crude, very heavy handed response and for the work to become polemical. I think the problems of responding to it as an artist are the same as responding to it as a person, which is, What is my duty now, what is my obligation? And also recognizing our complicity. That for many of us, being passive has contributed to this. The recognition that this is a symptom of things that have been here all along and complicity and being really passive about them before is maybe what’s led to this. I guess I’m finding all the confusion I have as a person confronting it is translating to my work.
Alex: Confusion sounds right. I feel like it’s just brought into focus some things that have been in the background for awhile. There’s a project that I’ve been obsessed with since I was a part of it and that was part of the inspiration for this play. A few years ago I met someone who said he was going to Vermont for a month to work on a musical in a field and asked if I wanted to come. I did and there were about 50 of us living in a field in tents, pooping in buckets, and rehearsing under a circus tent for a month. There are so many things I could say about this, but it was 50 people living in a field, many of whom were politically oriented or engaged and were taking a break from that work. We’re all cooking and living and working together on this project; we only have three copies of the score so we have to share those – you’d write down your lines, and there was an actor who had been an opera singer who would lead us in vocal warm-ups and teach us how to sing the parts. There was some conflict, some romances…it was a whole little society in and of itself. One person built a revolving stage on roller blade wheels and we took it on tour. I remember that before the show in Philly — we would do these shows and it would be swelteringly hot with like three-hundred people gathering to watch this very, very large show— the assistant director said, we’re performing this play– but we’re also performing ourselves, the relationships and the process of it. I just keep thinking about that, how with any play, the process is woven deeply into what the piece becomes. So that experience is part of what inspired this play for Clubbed Thumb, but especially since the election I’ve been thinking about process and theater-making — how important it is to be thoughtful about process. I don’t want to be too grand and say it’s a political act… but just awareness and attending to how we exist with one another. What we’re making is not just a product, it’s a set of relationships.
Ariel: I would agree. What I’ve been thinking about mostly is: how does the model for creating relate to the product you make? It felt like previously it was okay not to think too much about power structures or dynamics or resource distribution and then have a product that is political or stirs up a political question, but now I’m reflecting more on the steps and all of the collaborations that go into making something and making something political and how to be sensitive to that. The steps and the way we make things are the thing we make, but for some reason, ever since the election, I’ve been even more focused on that.
Heidi: That’s true for me too. I worked on a show called I Love Dick and we began to examine the way that structure works. We had many writers of color on staff, for example, but they’d hired upper-level writers who were all white. We took an anti-racism workshop and an anti-oppression workshop to see how the way we were making the show was still enacting an oppressive power structure.
Michelle Tse: Heidi, I know you a little bit, so I just have to ask: I know you were a journalist in Russia. I would love to hear about that.
Heidi: You want to know my take on the situation?
Michelle: It’s fascinating that you were there. For me, being an immigrant, yes, this is all overwhelming, but not shocking. So I wonder if for you, as an American who lived there, not necessarily covering politics but working as a journalist —
Heidi: I don’t have any secret information.
Michelle: I wonder what your reaction was when things started happening here — did you have any perspective on what you thought might happen?
Heidi: Maybe it feels less surprising to me than to some people. Because I was in Russia when the groundwork was being laid for Putin, I saw how easily it can happen. And I never assumed it couldn’t happen here.
Corey: I’ve also been asking most of the people I speak with what change you’re looking to see in the field — you can be as specific and granular or as expansive as you want with that, but I’m interested in how people articulate that vision. If you were going to make a change in the field or within your reach, what might that look like?
Heidi: For me, one granular thing that is connected to an expansive idea, is understanding that I am not some kind of “neutral” voice because I am white. And if I don’t examine how whiteness affects my process, my working relationships, the way I think about story, I’m likely perpetuating oppression. I’ve been the only woman in a writers room before, so I’ve seen how well-intentioned men have blind spots when it comes to their own complicity in misogyny. I have to confront that in terms of racism.
Alex: One thing I’ve been thinking about is that it’s very easy to start thinking — and I’m talking about playwriting specifically but you could say this about art-making in general — about what makes it possible to do your work is in relationship to institutions. The ways that they do and do not provide resources to support your work. I think in a weird way that becomes sort of a focus for what makes it possible to live in New York and make art – what this or that institution supports. But I feel like for most people, what makes it possible to live in New York or any place is stuff like, is housing affordable, is food affordable, do you have access to healthcare and education and childcare. It’s very easy for artists to start thinking of ourselves as living in a different city than everyone else, in that artists are fighting for resources in the context of arts institutions—as opposed to fighting for affordable housing or childcare, which are other ways of making art-making possible. How do we avoid getting siloed within the arts-ecosystems that make our artist-lives possible, instead of living in the same city as the rest of the people who live here, and see that we need to fight for the same things as everyone else to make this place livable, and to make art-making possible?
Ariel: Yeah, the only thing I can think of right now is, and it’s really small, but I’ve been thinking about lack of information and how withholding information can be a form of power. I’m thinking about ways that the process of making and supporting art can be more transparent — all of the people in the making of art being in on the goals, like appealing to a certain audience, or being aware of the things you have to do, as part of an institution, to appeal to that certain audience. I’d like to see more basic information-sharing, I’ve just been feeling recently that there’s a lot of information withheld depending on your role in the process of making a play and it’s just expected that some people get this kind of information and [other] people get that kind of information and that feels like a sort of oppression as well. That’s the way we know how to work in a collaborative art like theater, and I’m not sure what that shift would look like because we keep information from each other to protect egos and protect the creative process.
Corey: Because it’s so complicatedly personal. I wonder, in that vein, what ingredients make a successful collaborator? What makes you excited to work with someone?
Heidi: It really varies. I think for me, it’s a sense of openness and a willingness to be okay with not knowing or deciding too quickly. I’ve been working with Oliver Butler on this piece and what has been very exciting for me that we’re both willing to sit in the place of we don’t know yet, we don’t have to decide yet. That’s very exciting for me and allows me to push the kind of work that I normally feel able to do because I’m just getting a little more comfortable in the mystery of it all.
Ariel: Probably a willingness to make decisions and then switch them, to be able to say, I was wrong. I’m working with Kip Fagan and being able to go back and change things has been really important for us and being able to talk about a lot of things that may be uncomfortable or even if you’re talking about it badly, you talk and then find out how to do it better through talking.
Alex: The only thing to add to that is trust. I’m working with [director]Jeremy [Bloom]. I trust him, and that’s so important.
Corey: We are talking a little bit about language, but I’d love to hear about the development of each of your voices as a writer and what influences have stuck with you throughout that developmental process. Was there a new language you had to learn to be able to write this piece?
Ariel: I think when I was working on this piece, I was thinking about words that seem neutral but have a violence to them or have an oppression within them, so I guess that’s what I’ve been working on. I wrote the play knowing I would highlight certain words or phrases that sound neutral but aren’t, but then when we were working on the piece, there was text that I wrote and when I wrote it I thought it was neutral, which turned out to have a violence to it or cruelty as well. I was italicizing words and phrases in the script that I deemed questionable initially — words we use all the time — and then as we went through the script with the actors I found more and more words that I had written but hadn’t realized their violence, so it’s been a process of examining language and how it’s oppressive and violent and at times unexpectedly discovering that oppression and violence in words I’m still using. Once you start to scrutinize language, you see a lot of cruelty in commonplace expressions.
Heidi: I’m dealing with the language of the Constitution and it’s very strange. I’ve been meeting with a lot of constitutional scholars about it and one of the most fascinating things has been how different words’ meanings can be in legal language [versus] in human language. The word ‘person’, for example, as a legal term means something very different than what we think it does — the idea of corporate personhood is problematic in so many ways, but it actually doesn’t mean ‘person’ in the way that we think of it. It’s fascinating and I’d like to explain more but I’m not sure that I have fully grasped it myself. And that’s been so interesting to see how the language of this document that’s shaped so many things about our lives has its own very confusing rules and is its own foreign language in a sense. I find it quite overwhelming.
Alex: For me, it feels like Fornés and her suspicion of style, so it’s been a lot of trying not to do too much. It’s also just trying to give myself permission to be a little stupid. Which is not necessarily Fornes, but. I’ve been trying to give all of my stupid, cheesy impulses some space.
Heidi: I started writing because of Fornés. I found her in high school and that was the first time I thought I might want to be a playwright; she’s been very influential for me.
Alex: Which did you read?
Heidi: I read Springtime and then Fefu.
Ariel: I know, I remember thinking, You can do that with a play?
Heidi: I got to be in Springtime when I was 20. I still feel this, for most of my 20s, a lot of my early plays are just complete rip-offs, but I had to write those plays.
Corey: I keep thinking about what you said about thinking about yourself as a white writer more than you ever have and I wanted to see if that resonates with anyone else or what that shift in consciousness has looked like for you either in action or impression.
Heidi: I honestly don’t know yet. I feel much more aware that I can’t position myself as some neutral default person and I don’t yet know exactly what that will mean but it seems like something I understood intellectually, that I understand viscerally now. I think it’s a good thing.
Alex: Yeah. It needs examining.
Heidi: I will say it has come up in my piece a little bit because I’m telling stories that I learned at 15 that now many, many years later, I have to reframe. Here’s a very simple example: I grew up learning that where I come from, Washington state, the male to female ratio when my grandmother came over from Germany, who was a mail order bride, was nine to one – nine men to every woman – and that’s why they were shipping all these women in. But, of course, now I know that that’s a totally false statistic. It leaves out the Native American women — the women of the Salish Tribes. As I go back and reframe the stories I was taught and see how inaccurate it was, I feel like it just sort of speaks to how seldom we’re looking at the whole story.
Ariel: I agree. I think understanding yourself as a white person and a white woman, understanding myself as those things and how that should affect your work and your writing…I think there’s a lot more work to be done. We’re all moving in certain circles and I want them all to expand and I’m not sure how. That’s what I’m working on, trying to expand those bubbles of social groups because that’s where you’re stalled if you’re only in touch with one type of person.
Corey: Absolutely. To close I would just like to hear something you’re excited about — whether that’s in this piece or something you’re working on next or what you’re going to have for lunch.
Ariel: Well, my play is running right now, so I’m excited to see it tonight. The actors are incredible and the designers are amazing and the direction…I’m excited to watch them again.
Heidi: I’m going to see Indecent and I haven’t seen it yet and I cannot wait.
Alex: I’m excited to spend some time outside this summer.
Corey: Where outside?
Alex: I think the beach a little. Maybe in Vermont.
Corey: Back to the field!
Alex: Back to the field.