A Conversation with Sigrid Gilmer
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Even from 3000 miles away, Sigrid Gilmer’s exuberance, artistic insight, and hilarious writing brightened our days. In this conversation, we discuss why she reimagined Harriet Tubman as an action star in Harry and the Thief, the myth of niche writing, a pesky little thing called the fourth wall, and everything in between.
Esther Cohen: Give me the quick biography of Sigrid Gilmer.
Sigrid Gilmer: I was in born in San Francisco and raised out in the ‘burbs in Pittsburg, California–
EC: It’s called ‘Pittsburg’?
SG: Yeah [laughs]. It doesn’t have an ‘H’ on the end! The town had a steel plant early in its history so they changed the name to ‘Pittsburg.’ So yes, it’s not very original. But that’s where I grew up.
I went to college at Cal State LA and studied theater, but not playwriting – I did acting and directing and was just a total theater nerd overall. And towards the end of my college career, right before I was about to graduate, I fell out of love with acting. I realized I didn’t have any control, it was high stress, and I wasn’t having fun anymore. You don’t have any agency when it comes to being able to do your art. You’re always dependent on somebody else.
EC: How did you make the transition from actor to playwright?
SG: I had a playwriting class and an English class to take right before I graduated. And the playwriting class just made sense to me. I found this new way to put myself in another person’s shoes. I could still pretend to be somebody else, something I loved about acting, but in a way that seemed to fit better.
EC: So tell me, what is the difference between New York and LA for playwriting? It seems unusual to be a playwright based in LA.
SG: So, the caveat here is that I don’t really leave my house that much [laughs]. So the scene that I’m in is a very small community. Most of the theater in LA is very small and company- and actor-driven. Personally, I feel much freer out here than I did in New York. It’s not exactly that nobody is paying attention, but the stakes aren’t as high.
EC: Tell me about the spark for this play. It’s a pretty traditional story presented in a really uniquely funny and fast-paced way. How did the base idea and the unusual structure of the play come together?
SG: A couple different threads merged to make this play. I joined two writing groups in LA, Center Theatre Group and Skylight Theatre, that involved writing a play over the span of one year. And I was talking to a friend of mine, a playwright who writes a lot of TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) plays, and he was talking about how a bunch of TYA plays that deal with African Americans experiences – he made this big joke – that all of them were about Harriet Tubman. And I remember saying, “Well, I’m gonna write a Harriet Tubman play!”
EC: And it’s gonna be different!
SG: Exactly! I’m gonna write my own version of ‘The Harriet Tubman Play’! I had The Thief and The Mad Scientist characters from a previous short play. I started thinking, oh, I have these characters that I really love over here, and I have Harriet Tubman over here. And I just started playing around thinking, how can I mesh these characters together?
I went into the writing process knowing the basics of Harriet Tubman, but I was poking around on the internet and read that she apparently carried a gun with her. When the people traveling North would get freaked out, she would pull out her gun and she would tell them, “You’re gonna be free or you’re gonna be dead.” I read that and instantly thought it was the coolest, most action-movie badassery I had ever heard in my life. Like, why hasn’t Michael Bay done a big flashy Harriet Tubman action movie? [laughs] And as I was writing, a writer at Skylight said, “You should have a trailer for the play.” He was just being snarky, but I thought, “y’know, I should have a trailer. That feels appropriate for this play.” So the action movie concept kept informing the play’s style.
EC: Even outside of the guiding theme of “action movie,” the play has a structure I’ve never seen before. Did you dictate in the script the dance breaks and chase scenes and repeated montages? How much of that did you imagine when you first wrote the play, and how much was developed with the director and actors?
SG: The short answer is yes, all of the action sequences and songs are written into the play. Of course the specifics get developed in the room with me and the actors and the director. So the tone is everywhere in the script, but how it looks has been different in each production.
EC: What do you hope to achieve by very specifically dictating action in a script? Some playwrights love stage directions; others hate them. What’s your stance?
SG:: Theater is a visual medium. As much as it is auditory and linguistic, in the end, it must be visual. Movement informs action – it carries the story. I think you can get a lot of storytelling and emotional punch with gesture and movement as much as you can, and sometimes even more so, than with just language. So I do see the action in my head because it is part of the story I’m telling. What the actors are physically doing, how their bodies carry the story, is important to me. That, to me, is an essential aspect of writing a play.
EC: The play also breaks the fourth wall a ton. Tell me about that.
SG: I enjoy the idea that my plays are really just me and the audience, in my backyard, playing. “Let’s pretend this is a spaceship; let’s pretend this is a horse; let’s pretend the floor is lava!” I like that proverbial play found in all theater. And I like the idea of the form acknowledging that and making the audience complicit in it. Saying, no, we’re not actually going back to the 1800s, no we’re not in somebody’s living room – none of this is real. Because you can see people breathe and spit.
EC: And that’s the point!
SG: Yes, exactly. That’s the point, and that’s the joy and the fun of it: that we’re all gonna sit here together and say, “Let’s play!” To me, that is one of the great things about theater that other storytelling mediums don’t get to do.
EC: And breaking the fourth wall is really just another form of audience engagement.
SG: Yeah, it’s “Hey, welcome!” I love that engagement and deciding that on this night, in this space, we’re all together and we’re gonna make some shit happen. For me, that always feels right and juicy and delicious.
Especially with this play, because I’m playing around with subject matter that gets told in a certain way all the time, I felt like I needed to reach out to the audience and acknowledge, no, this isn’t the way we normally tell this.
EC: You had to acknowledge the unusual circumstances.
SG: And also question “Why do we always tell it the other way?” Why are all stories about people of color always tragic, tragic stories? There’s a set frame around suffering. The play actively butts up against that and says, “We can still tell this story and these people can be happy and have agency and joy.” And at the same time, it still acknowledges – not even the challenges –
EC: The bullshit.
SG: Right! The insurmountable, horrible, messed-up shit that happens. But that stuff isn’t framed in a way that makes the people tragic. Being born into a situation that is fucked up and tragic is different from being fucked up and tragic because of a situation.
EC: This play, along with many of your other works, is chock full of both obvious and not-so-obvious historical and popular culture references. How do those references find their way into your writing? What do you hope to achieve with them?
SG: When I write, I’m writing for and from what’s in my head. This sounds so narcissistic and selfish, but my first audience is always myself. Like, naming the band of slaves after the Jolie-Pitt kids literally happened because I was obsessed with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie when I was writing it. And all the cultural references from civil war and antebellum-style movies were just what came to mind when I thought about the content of the play.
Music also helps me a lot in my writing process, so the soundtracks I make when I write will make it into the play. When I was looking for songs and trying to figure out characters through those songs, Rebel Yell started playing in iTunes. And it just dawned on me: oh, Rebel Yell has roots in the Civil War, and it sends a kind of fucked-up message. So in my mind, that song fit Harry perfectly. Because this show messes with time, it felt super normal to insert, like, a Dawson’s Creek reference. Because why not? Nothing else in this play plays by the rules. Also, I was watching Dawson’s Creek while writing it [laughs]. My writing is just me working through my own feelings and assumptions about the play and the content. I was working through what I’d read about Harriet Tubman and the Civil War in order to write the play. That ends up getting filtered through my own idiosyncratic interests and whatever I connect with.
EC: Tell me about the rehearsal process for this play.
SG: In this rehearsal process, and in other the rehearsal rooms of other productions, what I’ve found is that the table work, the first week of being with the play, is important for unpacking the themes, the hard stuff, the messed up stuff. So especially in this production, that first week was really remarkable because we just sat and talked about race, and slavery, and what it’s like to be a woman of color, and how we frame history, and how images about people of color and women get disseminated and framed, and how we negotiate those frames. The first week was laying all that stuff out.
The rest of the rehearsal process felt really playful. Katie Lindsay, the director, ran such a warm, open, creative, collaborative room. And this cast – I’m shaking my head now because I can’t even find the words. They are talented and facile and just badass. Everyday in that room was a fucking joy. And for me – outside of making an amazing, great, successful show – the process needs to be wonderful and joyful and encouraging so that I’ll actually want to make another play.
EC: And as a member of the creative team, your time is really the process.
SG: I think the process matters for everybody. Because how miserable and horrible would it be to be in a room and a process where people aren’t giving and generous and kind to one another? That energy filters down into the final product of the play and the audience feels it. I think, and hope, that our joy comes across onstage and informs the play.
EC: This play reclaims a story that is usually told in distorted or sanitized ways about people like you. Have you always had an attraction to writing about people of color, about women, about your personal experience, and rewriting those narratives?
SG: I mean, it might be super egocentric, but yes, a lot of the time, I’m writing about me.
EC: I’ll also go back on my own question and say that it’s not really egocentric. When women or people of color write about themselves, they get told they’re writing for a niche. But when white men write stories about white men they’re never told that.
SG: Exactly. There’s an idea that white maleness is somehow universal and everyone else is super specific. It’s just not true. Everyone’s writing is super specific. Tennessee William’s writing was super specific, but because he fit into the dominant power structure, he gets to be universal.
EC: Plays about rich white people are not universal.
SG: They’re specifically about rich white people. Which is fine! I love a good Noel Coward play, but let’s be real and say that that is a specific cultural viewpoint. And that’s great, and there really is enough room for everyone’s story. There are a ton of people in the world, so why do all the stories we see have to be about one specific, narrow group?
EC: And why do stories that are not about that group have to be ‘niche’?
SG: Exactly. Because it’s all niche. It’s all one person sitting down and saying, “I’m gonna think about and explore x, y, and z from my point of view, and my point of view is predicated on my race, my gender, my sexuality, where I grew up, how old I am, and all of that goes into it.”
So really, to answer your question, I honestly don’t even think about it. I get interested in a topic and it filters through me and what creatively inspires me and what I’m working through in my own life. I just think “I want to see people that look like me.” Because if I can’t be an actor, at least I can make characters that look like me and live through them.
EC: As you said at the very beginning of our conversation, acting is not the only part of theater that involves pretending to be someone else, and I think people forget that. Every single part of theater is about projecting yourself onstage.
SG: Hopefully we’re bringing ourselves as artists to the work. And if not, why do it? All of who you are informs your writing. So I don’t think of my writing as niche any more than any other writer’s writing is niche. It’s me specifically. Another black woman would write a totally different play. And you’d think I’m stating the obvious there, but unfortunately, that’s not obvious to a lot of people.
EC: Have people approached you and said, “you’re a black female writer, write me a play like a black female writer?” Do you feel lumped in with a demographic?
SG: I don’t actually. I’ve been very fortunate to not have an experience in which someone says “write blacker,” or you know, “write more ladylike” [laughs].
EC: That’s nice.
SG: It is nice. And if that does happen, I will cross, and then burn down, that horrible bridge when I come to it.
Sigrid Gilmer makes black comedies that are historically bent, totally perverse, joyfully irreverent and are concerned with issues of identity, pop culture and contemporary American society. Her work has been performed at the Skylight Theatre, Pavement Group, Know Theatre of Cincinnati, Cornerstone Theater Company and Highways Performance Space. She is a winner of the Map Fund Creative Exploration Grant, the James Irving Foundation Fellowship and is an United States Artist Ford Fellow in Theatre.