Recently, Company One Theatre dramaturg Ramona Ostrowski spoke with playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury about the native challenges of creating and developing a piece with charged subject matter, and the translations it requires across history, time and space.
This weekend, immediately following the 2PM performance of We Are Proud to Present… on Sunday, January 19th, we are proud to present Jackie Sibblies Drury for a conversation to take place in the Bright Family Screening Room on the 4th Floor of the Emerson/Paramount Center. You can find out more information here.
Ramona Ostrowski: Where did the inspiration for We Are Proud to Present a Presentation… come from? Was it the subject matter or the unusual form that first interested you?
Jackie Sibblies Drury: It was definitely the sub ject matter, which I came across randomly. I was trying to research a different play, and I googled “black people” and “Germany.” I found out that there was a genocide, and I had never heard of it before. So I did a bunch more research, and in trying to write a play sort of more directly about that, I think that I didn’t write a very good play—I sort of failed at writing a play—it was an impossible task. But that failure, and the struggle to articulate it, became the inspiration for the form of the piece as it exists now.
RO: What’s notable about its development and production history?
JSD: I started researching when I was living in Chicago, right before I started graduate school, and I wrote the first draft as my graduate thesis at Brown. We had a workshop production that I was really proud of. I submitted it to the Ignition Festival at Victory Gardens in Chicago, which is for emerging playwrights of color under 40. At that time, the festival would accept six plays and do a weekend of readings. It was fun and festive. They would then choose two of those six plays for further workshops, and one would then proceed to the main stage, which is really rare. There aren’t a lot of open submission processes these days where you might actually get a production out of it. Out of the six festival plays, We Are Proud to Present a Presentation… was chosen for production, and that was also where I met director Eric Ting, who is now a friend and a close collaborator. Shortly after that, I was part of the SOHO Rep writers group, and they became interested in the play as well. Eric and I were able to do a very, very different production of it there. And now it gets to go to Boston for another entirely different production, which I’m excited about!
RO: After you were so intimately involved in the first several productions, the play is now having its own life out in the world. What’s that like for you as a playwright, especially for a work that in some ways is quite personal?
JSD: To be totally honest it’s super weird, and exciting. I’m thrilled that people are going to see it, and there’s always something a little bit dis- concerting in it for playwrights, isn’t there? I mean, to put on a play is a beautiful thing, but it’s also a time-intensive, emotionally-intensive, labor-intensive thing to do. And so thinking about all these people working on something…that I’m not there in the room to support them at all is strange, but it’s also remarkable to see different theater artists’ interpretation—different direction, design and also a different interpretation by performers. And to know that two organizations like Company One and ArtsEmerson have come together for the first time to collaborate on this project—it’s really the highest compliment you can get as a playwright, to have people create a successful production out of something that you have worked on so intensively.
RO: The play’s structure is experimental and places performers and audience in an unusual relationship. What did you learn about the piece as it met its audiences for the first time? Were there surprises in there for you?
JSD: I was surprised by how nervous I was. At the first few previews in Chicago—about a year and a half ago—the responses were pretty polarized, but that wasn’t so surprising to me. I learned a lot. Sometimes people didn’t know what to do with the script’s inherent openness; they didn’t know how it aligned with more traditional dramatic works. These points of discomfort are really fruitful for the storytelling. I found it interesting and exciting to think about getting the chance to expose people to a different way of constructing narrative, a different way of inter- acting with the idea of “theatre.”
RO: In the script, the end of the play marks a dramatic tonal shift that you’ve provided guideposts for, but which is largely entrusted to the director and cast to figure out through rehearsal, as well as night-to-night with an audience. Can you talk to me a little bit about the end of the play? What’s the inspiration for placing so much in the hands of your script’s collaborators?
JSD: There’s so much about live performance that I respond to that’s not necessarily about the words that are being spoken. It’s about the stage picture or the mood in the room. As a playwright, it’s pretty frustrating because all I get are the words. I think that when I see something that I find particularly moving or powerful, it’s often not something I associate with a particular line, but rather an image, or feeling, or series of movements. I wanted to find a way, I hope, that a production or a group of people creating together—if they’re excited enough about the play and intrigued and challenged by that open- ness of an ending—will issue an invitation to the audience. That we might sort of see this person on stage, and empathize together in a room. If that happens, even for a few people, I think that’s pretty amazing. The subject matter is so dark, and the treatment of it is so ironic …and then unironic. I was wary of trying to have a button at the end, like “and that’s why genocide is bad.” The fact is: there’s nothing really to say in the face of the most awful thing that we can imagine human beings doing to other human beings. Every neat, clean “ending” just feels like moralizing, and it’s my hope that instead, We Are Proud to Present a Presentation… will feel as open and complicated as thinking about the big idea can be.
We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia Formerly Known as Southwest Africa from the German Sudwestafrika Between the Years 1884-1915 will play at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box at the Paramount Center from January 10-February 1, 2014. For more information and tickets, visit our website here.