Short Stories, Plays, Process: An Interview With Playwright Penny Jackson

Penny and self have been friends for a long, long, long time. Since before either of us were even married.

Self remembers having Penny over to her little one-bedroom in Menlo Park. She met Thomas, Penny’s then-boyfriend, soon-to-be-husband.

We were in the Stanford Creative Writing Program together. Penny lived in the City. She hitched rides to the writing workshops with Jeffrey Eugenides and his dog. They split on the gas.

In recent years, Penny has been writing plays at a terrific rate. Her most recent production was during last fall’s Solo Festival in New York City.

Self wrangled an interview out of Penny. No mean feat, as Penny is terrifically busy. Here are some of her answers to self’s questions:

What attracts you to playwriting as a form as opposed to, say, writing a novel or a short story? What was the first genre you started writing?

I first began writing stories when I was in college (Barnard). I am very comfortable with writing in short forms, and I have adapted three of my plays from three stories, All Alices, Louise in Charlestown, and Before, which have worked very well onstage. Although I wrote a novel, Becoming the Butlers (published by Bantam when Penny was a 20-something), I find writing a novel to be more challenging. Keeping track of the plot and characters over a length of time is difficult. Perhaps I like playwriting now because each scene is like a short story to me, with a beginning, middle, and end. That’s not to say I won’t return to novel writing. I still love fiction writing, and unlike playwriting, you have a sense of control you have to somewhat relinquish when you hand your play over to your director and actors.

Are there conditions that need to be present before you feel you can write your best?

Absolute quiet and no distractions. I joined The Writers Room, which provides a haven for writers. I wish sometimes that the Internet did not exist. When I was at MacDowell, there was no Internet, and I could really focus.

What keeps you writing?

The world. I am inspired all the time by the news and what I see in the city and hear from my friends. I write to be able to understand the complexities, the unfairness, and also the joys of life. If I didn’t write, I think I would go a bit crazy. I hear the same sentiment from actors: if they don’t act, they can’t handle the world. Right now I’m sick about the gun violence in our country, and writing about the issue really helped me with my sadness and disgust at our politicians.

What is the biggest difference between playwriting now and playwriting when you were just starting out? Does it get easier? Why or why not?

Playwriting is becoming somewhat easier. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work with several brilliant directors, actors, and dramaturges. I understand the form better now. What is not easier is finding a theatre to produce your plays if you are a female writer who is not a recent Yale graduate. Ageism and sexism very much exist in theatres, when I began and still today.

Do you experiment with form and/or dialogue? Who or what inspires you?

Because I’m trained in fiction writing, which is character-based, I always begin with people. An old lady drinking in a decrepit Irish bar. Two teenage girls talking to a mysterious older man at Starbucks. A drag queen waiting for his show in Las Vegas and having to talk to his daughter about marriage.

I love dialogue. I write down snippets of dialogue I overhear in the streets of New York City all the time. And if you follow me on Facebook, you can frequently read about remarkable conversations with New York cab drivers.

In your opinion, what is the best play ever written?

I am a huge Eugene O’Neill fanatic, so I will say Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Family secrets and family guilt and pure poetic language. But of course, King Lear is top of the canon. King Lear howling about his dead daughter still takes my breath away.

Which playwright has taught you the most about your craft?

Rogelio Martinez is a wonderful playwright who has taught me so many important aspects about playwriting. I also love the Lark Development Center which gives you the space and time to try out new works in a safe environment.

Did you have a mentor? Do you think playwrights need one?

Yes, having a mentor is important. So many women directors have been my mentors: Joan Kane, Gloria Kadigan, and Shira-Lee Shalit are three tremendously talented women artists who inspire and instruct me. Writing is a very lonely business. You need a cheerleader!

What’s the worst thing about being a playwright?

That it’s just too damn expensive to produce a play in America. Unlike Europe, we don’t have government funding for theatre. The costs are astronomical. As a female playwright, I face other challenges. Walk down Broadway or The West End. Do you see any female playwrights on the marquee? My organization, The League of Professional Theatre Women, is working so hard for gender equality in theatre, but it’s a very long, frustrating, and seemingly endless battle.

 

 

Memory and Nostalgia: “Sutil” in The Threepenny Review

The Threepenny Review, Fall 1995

The Threepenny Review, Fall 1995

Still one of self’s favorite pieces.  It begins:

I was last home for my father’s funeral.  I say “home” even though I am an American citizen now, sworn in with a twenty-piece Navy band in the grand ballroom of the Marriott Hotel on Fourth and Mission in San Francisco.  Yet, “home” for me was always that other place, that city James Hamilton-Patterson describes as “a parody of the grimmer parts of Milwaukee.”

I’ve never been to Milwaukee, so I can’t tell whether this is true or not, whether Manila really is like a parody of a city in the far north of this country (or at least what I imagine to be the far north, in a general region of the country I associate with heavy snow and Laverne and Shirley).  But that it is different from here, of course.  It is the differences I loved.

When I was last home, which was for my father’s funeral, I slept with my mother in the big wooden four-poster in my parents’ bedroom.  This bed, handed down from my grandfather, was familiar and reassuring.  It was of heavy wood, a wood that doesn’t exist today in any Philippine forest, having been cut to extinction.  It may have been called “molave.”  I am not sure of this, as I am not sure of so many things about my culture, which I think I received very young, too young really to understand context or value.

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Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Third Friday of May (2011): Sunny, Finally; Penny’s Play; Still Checking Submishmash

It is a spectacular day, dear blog readers.  Self spent some time watering, hauling around the old green bucket.  All (or nearly all) of her roses are profusely blooming.  Finally!  Last year, she was ready to give up.  She single-handedly dug holes for each of her almost 20 roses —  the Betty Boop, the Chihuly, the climbing New Dawn, the climbing Don Juan, the Fourth of July, the Sheila’s Perfume, the Sunflare, the Winsome, and so forth and so on  —   nursed them through their early stages with lavish applications of water and fertilizer, and still, her garden refused to reward her efforts.  This year, she decided that she would not worry about her garden any longer.  And as soon as she made that decision, everything bloomed, all at once.

Tonight is the start of the second (and closing) weekend of Penny’s play, “Booze in the Boroughs.”  Did self impart to dear blog readers how, as she sat in the audience exactly a week ago (the space was SRO), she relished every minute, and wished she’d succeeded in getting her nephew to come along?  (But, Friday night in New York, of course young men have plans!)  The action of the play begins in Central Park, winds through the Bronx, the Staten Island Ferry, Brooklyn, and Queens.  Various characters meet, share, ignite.  Here are the play particulars:  It is showing on Joria Mainstage, at 260 West 36th Street, on the 3rd Floor.  It is showing tonight, Saturday and Sunday.  Penny mentioned it might be taken to other places, one of these others being Seattle.

Self was sorry that, during her last trip, she did not get to see:

  • Drew
  • the Metropolitan Museum  (She only got as far as the front steps, where she sat and listened to a band sing “Under the Boardwalk.”  But the day was simply too beautiful, self thought, to spend inside a museum.  She remained outside, and indulged in a peanut butter and fudge cupcake from a vendor called “Cakes and Shakes” —  to die for.  That was her lunch)
  • Minette
  • the Whitney (She usually makes it a point to visit this museum, every time she is in New York.  She actually likes it better than the Metropolitan.  It feels less overwhelming.  They had a fantastic Cy Twombly retrospective, a couple of years ago)

She made an effort to contact Paolo Javier, who she read with years ago, at the Asian American Writers Workshop.  She e-mailed his publisher.  The man was so nice, he answered right away, and said he personally hadn’t seen Paolo in many years.  How do people lose each other?  Time is really a river …

But, here she is, and tomorrow she and hubby are meeting up with son in Monterey, at a pet cemetery where we will finally lay poor Gracie to rest.

Self decides she will e-mail that literary journal, the one that supposedly accepted her piece without a formal notification (She only found out when she logged into Submishmash and saw —  Green!  Her first green in a year!)

She sent out a novella this morning (Deep breath)

Zack is in New Orleans.  She promised him a lengua burrito from the place at the corner of Jefferson and El Camino, next time he is in her neck of the woods.  In the meantime, here’s something about his book from The Wily Filipino.  (Zack’s going to be in Europe and Morocco in June.  Self is of course dying of jealousy)

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Explorers of the North

Self has always been fascinated by explorers, which is why she’s writing her novel about 18th century missionaries. She also has a very long story (32 pages currently, and nowhere near done) about an alien invasion in the Bering Sea. That story is all about Ice, but every day she reads various scientific reports about the disappearing glaciers so she feels mild concern that if she takes too long to finish this story, the context of the physical setting will cease to make any sense.

Today, she reads about the Penny and Barnes ice caps on Baffin Island, and about the Laurentide ice sheet that once covered much of North America. She learns that Baffin Island was known to the 11th century Norse of Greenland and Iceland, and that Baffin Island is postulated to be the Helluland of Viking sagas.

She also reads up on Sir John Franklin. The two ships that were lost during his fourth and final Arctic expedition were named the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus. The HMS Erebus was a 372-ton Heclaclass bomb vessel, built in Wales in 1826. The wreck has been located, in Queen Maud Gulf. The wreck of the HMS Terror lies under the water of Terror Bay. (Who names ships Erebus and Terror? Isn’t that like asking for trouble?)

She reads that Georgian Bay has 30,000 islands. Fresh in her mind is the fate of Kat, in the novel she just finished reading, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods. Who sets off alone in a small boat and becomes lost and lost and more lost.

She learns about the Jesuit mission of Saint-Marie, founded on Lake Huron in the 17th century.

She reads about Lewis and Clark and about rivers like the Columbia and the Hood, which she has seen, long ago, on a driving trip north that started out in San Francisco and hugged the coast of Oregon and Washington.

And she also reads about Celtic and Norse mythology, in a book she found in son’s room.

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So many books, so little time!

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

#amreading: Tana French, THE TRESPASSER, p. 425

SPOILER ALERT

Detective Breslin to Detective Conway: I spent twenty minutes sitting in the Top House before the penny dropped. Fair play to you, Conway: you make a very convincing South Dublin airhead.

Temporary: The Daily Post Photo Challenge, 8 November 2017

This week’s Daily Post Photo Challenge is TEMPORARY.

What could be more “temporary” than the weather?

Last night, Dublin was cold and rainy.

Today, just look at the difference!

Self took the Luas from Blackhorse (name of a saloon on the corner; sadly, appears to be closed) to Jervis. One of the stops on the way was Fatima. Only in Dublin!

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Dublin, Thursday, 9 November 2017: By the Ha’penny Bridge

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

 

Signs You’re In New York City

It’s midnight, and the airport terminal is as crowded as Grand Central.

The line at the taxi rank is 200 people long, at least. It makes self’s stomach twist in all sorts of nasty ways.

A woman keeps trying to cut ahead of her, for some reason. All self’s fighting instincts come to the fore and she blocks the woman, refusing to give up an inch.

A man wearing a bright yellow vest marked AIRPORT MONITOR keeps yelling at people. Strangely, he does not strike self as angry. In San Francisco, when people yell, they are really really angry.

There were 10 cabs lined up at the taxi rank. Until self got to the front of the line, and then there were NO taxis. NO taxis for another 20 minutes. And the airport monitor kept yelling, to no one in particular: “There are a hundred taxis coming, people. A HUNDRED taxis!”

The green-and-white Medallion cab looks very nondescript, and the leather seats are worn. No GPS, just the driver saying he knows where to go (and he does). Sometimes New York strikes self as being on the verge of breakdown. But it never quite gets there. Which shows you just how tough its people are.

She catches just a glimpse of skyline before the cab enters Manhattan. Next thing you know, it’s stopped in front of a very nondescript sign on a very dark, narrow street that seems to be one big construction zone. Welcome! You’re in New York City now!

People self knows in New York City: one niece and two nephews and of course their parents; Melissa; Penny and Thomas; Luis and Midori; Sam; Marie; Drew; Bruce. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but whenever self is in New York, she is always busy seeing people. She used to know a literary agent who, as far as self knows, probably still has her office in a building on 57th Street.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

The Reading List: Kate Walbert

Self is doing some adjustment to her reading list.

She was reading Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, which is a big, fat book, and, what with one thing and another, it got to be hard to focus. She’s been reading nonfiction for the last two months and wanted a little change. So she decided to reserve Jesse James for a less hectic time and began reading Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women, a novel.

The novel isn’t written in chronological order, but thankfully the dates of the period covered in each chapter are right there in the Table of Contents.

She noticed that most of the reviews of the book cited the lack of chronology as a problem, so she decided two things: (1) to read the chapters in chronological order, and (2) to read each chapter as if it were a stand-alone story.

Pursuing this plan of attack has been most helpful. Self has gotten through the chapters that take place in 1898, 1899, and 1914.

SPOILER ALERT!!!

The story begins with a young woman in Cambridge, who has a deep dark secret involving a childhood best friend and what happened to the friend. It almost got too depressing for self, since she likes to keep her spirits up. Also, the woman goes on a hunger strike to call attention to the need to give women the vote. And in the family tree at the front of the book, this woman’s life goes from 1880 to 1914. So it was pretty overwhelming to read, especially since:

The book opens with the woman very near death, in a hospital. We are told she has two young children.

We learn she had an affair with a young man at Cambridge, a man who stopped seeing her when he got roughed up while creeping through Cambridge late one night to see her. Perhaps the two events are unrelated, but it’s pretty hard to read them as anything but. To make matters worse, the two bump into each other again when he is already a successful man of politics, and they rekindle the affair even though he is married and she’s a single mother. Then he leaves her again. Then she decides to go on the hunger strike. Which is so — AAAARGH!

Here is a section from the recently deceased woman’s daughter’s point of view:

I ducked into the kitchen to keep Nurse and Penny company. And what of them? Nurse will marry the milkman, Michael, and settle with him in Wales to live a perfectly miserable life. Children and children. Chores. Michael will drink in the way men do and one thing will lead to the other. Penny will take her cardboard box and take a train east. She’ll disappear like our father did, long before we can even remember him. He fancied himself Lord Byron, Mum said, though he was only a sir and that sir a result of money changing hands.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

New York: Highline and Chelsea

Still looking for landscapes.

Here are pictures self took during a memorable walk on New York City’s Highline, December 2015:

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Near the Start of the Highline, on a cold December Day

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Still Near the Start of the Highline

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Near the Start of the Highline, on a cold December Day

And here are things she loved about New York during her Fall 2015 sojourn:

  • The Asian American Writers Workshop
  • The Whitney
  • The Highline
  • Therese Raquin with Keira Knightley
  • Seeing Penny
  • Seeing Luis and Midori
  • Seeing the Picasso exhibit in the MOMA
  • Catching a concert of Trio Solisti at Carnegie Hall
  • Watching Mamie Gummer’s scorching performan in Ugly to the Bone
  • Seeing nephew Chris Blackett and watching movies with him and reading his novel-in-progress
  • Eating Cuban in Hoboken, New Jersey
  • Walking around Central Park
  • Mockingjay 2 in the Lincoln Center Cinema
  • Losing self’s wallet twice and having it returned to her twice — nothing missing.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

The Guardian: 75 Films to Watch in 2016

Self enjoys reading The Guardian. In particular, their film blog.

Yesterday, she stumbled across a piece called: 75 movies to look forward to in 2016.

75??? Only The Guardian would have the temerity to post such a mind-boggling list of 2016 movies.

Well, self will attempt to take a gander.

Here are her conclusions, after one read-through:

  • Keanu Reeves is back! He’s in at least three 2016 movies.
  • Michael Fassbender is in everything. Michael Shannon is in everything. Ryan Gosling is in at least two upcoming.
  • Matt Damon is back as Bourne (triple somersault YAY!) and Paul Greengrass is directing (Wowowowowowow!!!)
  • Charlie Hunnam Is. In. A. Movie (Oh God. It’s been too long)
  • Casey Affleck is in a movie. Self likes Casey Affleck. More than she likes his brother.
  • They’re making a film of Shusako Endo’s Silence! They’re making a film of Shusako Endo’s Silence! And it’s starring Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield, and Adam Driver. Oh God.
  • Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool (And this one actually seems like it might work)
  • Jennifer Lawrence is mentioned as getting $20 million for the space movie she’s in with Chris Pratt. BTW, people? She’s worth every penny.
  • They’re making a movie (Neon Demon) about “beauty-obsessed women in L.A.” and self loves the cast: Keanu Reeves, Elle Fanning, and Christina Hendricks.
  • Star Wars spin-off Rogue One: Another Brit (Felicity Jones) stars.
  • Anthropoid, about the assassination of one of World War II’s most brutal concentration camp commanders: Reinhard Heydrich. This one stars Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy. These are two gorgeous men, dear blog readers. If self weren’t already cheering about the plot, she’d be cheering at the prospect of seeing these men’s gorgeous cheekbones in close-up on the big screen.

BTW, saw Joy and enjoyed it. It seemed rather muted for a David O. Russell film, especially one starring his muse Jennifer Lawrence. Self thinks Amy Adams could have handled that part. But Jennifer is truly a force. Self refuses to complain too much about a film that has her in it.

Stay tuned.

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