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.