A conversation between The Roommate playwright Jen Silverman and Director Johanna Gruenhut.
Johann Gruenhut: What music are you listening to now? In your other plays and in The Roommate music features prominently—it helps transform a person, a relationship, a mood.
Does music inspire you? Do you listen to or hear specific pieces of music while you write?
Jen Silverman: I have pretty eclectic tastes, and I'm one of those annoying people who will listen to the same song on loop for weeks at a time. Right now recent songs that have been in circulation are Man Man's "Steak Knives," Childish Gambino's "IV. Sweatpants", a song by Daniel Kluger that ends my play Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Boops, and a song by Max Vernon for a play we're working on together (the play is called My Father: The Speeding Bullet (Nincest), the song is called "Letter from Mr. Nin.") I love working with composers, and when I work on things with Dan and Max, I listen to their music nonstop.
Music is huge for me. I feel like often a moment of music can accomplish something tonally or emotionally that it would take an entire scene of text to do.
So yeah, music is huge for me. I feel like often a moment of music can accomplish something tonally or emotionally that it would take an entire scene of text to do. But also, I love it when a play makes you earn the music—when it isn't just easily handed to you, when you have to scale the cliff to get to the top where the music can hold you.
What kinds of rituals do you have, when you're preparing to direct something? What kinds of rituals do you have in general?
JG: I read the play A LOT. I read other plays written by the same playwright. I read books that will in some way inform or help me understand the emotional or visual world of the play. And I listen to a lot of music. Usually what happens is I clue into a song or a moment in a song that just FEELS like a moment in the play. Once we're in rehearsals I begin each day by walking around the space. Putting my body in the set helps me focus and prepare for the day.
I think each event has its own ritual. Like there's the waking up in the morning ritual. Putting kids to sleep ritual.
What kinds of rituals do you have in general? Do you ever insert your own rituals into your plays, into your characters? How personal do you get when you write?
JS: My life—I think the lives of most freelancers?—is often so irregular that rituals can feel like a luxury. I've been out of town a lot recently, for shows at Yale Rep, Actor's Theatre of Louisville, Woolly Mammoth, and a teaching stint in Latvia & Lithuania—so there's been a lot of change, when it comes to what time things get done, and how, and of course where. But I love the idea of rituals, and I tend to develop them pretty quickly around whatever new space I'm in. And I fall into rituals with people—I often work with a number of repeat collaborators—so then it's interesting to see how our rituals adjust or just simply continue when the context is a different city, a different season, a different moment in our lives.
I think you have to get personal when you write, or else it's an academic exercise. I also think it's reductive and ill-advised for audiences to hunt for autobiography to the exclusion of other things. The most personal stuff is usually going to be in places you wouldn't think to look. And privileging autobiographical information above the experience the work is trying to give you, devalues the synthesis of curiosity, playfulness, pure invention, and lived experience that make a play what it is.
How do you deal with the personal-professional boundary, as a director?
JG: I think it depends on the project. With The Roommate, I feel like I know women who have bits of Sharon and Robyn in them. I bet Beth and Deborah do too. I'm looking forward to hearing those points of connection. There's always an entry point into a play for me that comes from a point of personal connection. I don't always share what that specific moment is. I don't usually have to look for those, they sort of jump out at me.
Have you ever been to Iowa?
JS: I lived in Iowa for 3 years, actually, when I was getting my MFA at the Iowa Playwrights Workshop. I loved it. I was initially pretty wary when I moved there—I think denizens of both coasts have a hugely prejudiced view of the middle of the country—but Iowa was a place that felt like an embrace. It was exactly where I needed to be, and I've missed it since.
Are you a daydreamer? If so, what are your main repeated categories of daydreaming?
JG: Daydreaming can be: work, life, fantasy. When I think about daydreaming I imagine clouds, fog…It's not actually like that. I do my best dreaming on the green chair in my daughter's room.
Do you write every day? Is there a system in place? Do you give yourself rewards if you write x number of pages or sit for a set time period? Is it always writing for a specific purpose or is it more valuable to just get thoughts down on a page?
Yesterday stage management was taping out the floor. I wondered—is it weird to know there's a process about to begin where you're not involved day to day?
"My system is—just do it, don't whine about it, but don't do it when you know you're not ready."
JS: I don't write every day—or, I don't write plays every day. (Emails shouldn't count, and yet …) Things work best when I manage to wrangle several consecutive days in a row, and then I do nothing but write. Otherwise, I write in chunks—an hour before something, an hour after, in the airport, whatever. My system is—just do it, don't whine about it, but don't do it when you know you're not ready. I love hearing about people's writing processes.
I love it when processes begin that I'm not involved in! I love that at a certain point, plays go make their own way in the world.
How do you feel about working with a playwright in the room vs working without one?
JG: I wish you were with us! Today was our first day!
I love having a playwright in the room. A one-word answer from a playwright has the ability to unlock a difficult line that then ricochets throughout the entire script. When the writer isn't around it's lonelier.
Is writing for two women in their 50's different than writing another kind of character? What / did you learn anything writing in their voices?
JS: Writing for any character is different than writing for another character, but the things that remain the same are respecting their points of view, letting them have depth. I don't want to write characters who don't have capacity for change, capacity for great humor or great damage. But the ways in which my characters access those things are different depending on whether they're women in their 50s, or 20s, or they're mastiffs, or queer Boops, or whatever.
JG: What are the qualities you look for in a collaborator?
JS: Qualities—a sense of humor. If we don't laugh at similar things—if we can't make each other laugh—it is never gonna work. Rigor. Facility with text and tone. The desire to make the thing well, as opposed to the desire to be right. (I hold myself to this standard as well.) My best collaborators—whether directors, designers, actors, dramaturgs—are people who challenge me, but do it with a purity of intention. They have a real respect for the thing being made, because they understand it, and so we have the same agenda even (especially) as we bring different lenses to the thing.
What about you? What have made your best collaborations so good?
I think it's so limiting to tell generations of women, "you can be interesting people with complex minds and sexual charisma... until you have a kid, but you know, that's ok, let go of that now, you had your 20s." How destructive! I don’t accept it. Women who have lived long enough to accumulate life experience are fascinating and complex—I don’t see any reason why the experience of having a child should make you any less so.
JG: Patience. Empathy. Respect. Trust. Willingness to try and fail. A never ending appetite for discovery and revelation. The shared desire to make art and create for the joy of it without thinking about 'what it could do for my future...' I, like you, tend to work with people over and over again. I appreciate the shorthand speech. I like the sibling or lover quality a working relationship can take on—the challenging tone in the pursuit of finding the magic. We push each other to ignite the spark. I like hearing different opinions in a room. And I've learned too that conflict can be good. But too much can be toxic.
I read somewhere. Or heard from someone that, women of a certain age, or specifically mothers, are the last 'group' that we (Americans) as a culture are allowed to make fun of. There are no shortage of mom jokes—think SNL mom jeans, etc.
Did we talk about this? Do you have a sense about it?
I think about this a lot. And in terms of the play, Sharon and Robyn are determined to be good parents. But it can be a struggle to be the constant giver and not lose your sense of self in the effort. I suppose you could say the same about any give/take relationship.
JS: I want to see more mother—onstage or onscreen—doing things that help us expand our idea of what mothers are capable of. I think it's so limiting to tell generations of women, "you can be interesting people with complex minds and sexual charisma... until you have a kid, but you know, that's ok, let go of that now, you had your 20s." How destructive! I don’t accept it. Women who have lived long enough to accumulate life experience are fascinating and complex—I don’t see any reason why the experience of having a child should make you any less so.