June 09, 2024Features

Very Theatre, Very Camp: An Interview with Jen Silverman

This week one of the most produced playwrights in America, Jen Silverman, will be making their Aotearoa debut with Wink at Basement Theatre, 11-15 June. 

Wink Producer Esaú Allemora and Jen Silverman caught up to chat about the bizarre and delightful events that led to this production.  

Very Theatre, Very Camp: 
An Interview with Jen Silverman
by Esaú Mora

Broke and in my early 20s, I moved to New York to pursue my acting career, like so many before me. Still feverish from the move I spent the little money I had to go see a play in an effort to make myself feel better. As I stood in front of a small off-broadway theatre on W. 42nd Street someone shouted my name–correct pronunciation and all–from across the street. I whipped around and saw Jen Silverman – this small body jumping up and down, that huge smile, and those cowboy boots! Before I knew it, I had run across the street and hugged them. 

Jen and I had become friends earlier that year while working together on a new play for a fancy theatre festival (Humana) in Kentucky. 

Esaú: Can you believe it’s been ten years since we met? Now, I live in New Zealand and you’re making your Broadway debut in August, with my best friend (in my head) Patti LuPone. What is your life like right now?

Jen: Honestly, it’s a bit hectic right now. I start rehearsals for The Roommate in late July, but even before that, I go into a three-week workshop for a musical. I’m currently prepping the book for the musical workshop, having preliminary Roommate conversations with director Jack O’Brien, Mia Farrow and Patti LuPone, and finishing up publicity for my novel There’s Going To Be Trouble that just came out in April. Lest any of this sound fancy, you should know that recent life has also involved locating and disposing of a series of particularly – even maximally – dead mice. (Every household has a mouse person and a hornet person; in my household, I am the mouse person. But if it flies and stings, you’re on your own).

We workshopped Wondrous Strange, directed by Marti Lyons, on and off for a deliriously dreamy seven months. We got to know one another in very concentrated bouts of time, within the boiling crucible of new play development. In so many words, Jen got my ass with the irreverent and poignant stories they brought into the room for us to work on. As a fledgling actor, I felt as if I’d found a kindred living playwright and friend.

E: In the midst of this momentous career step, you’ve also granted the performance rights for Wink at Basement Theatre – a shiny debut and scrappy debut all at once – why is that?

J: I know you, and I’ve always had real admiration for your artistry and creative ethic. When you asked about mounting a production of Wink, I didn’t hesitate. Additionally, as someone who comes from downtown New York theatre, I have a particular love for scrappiness and self-sufficiency, and the inventiveness that’s required of the theatrically scrappy.

Jen and their work came into my life at a pivotal time in both my creative and late-blooming queer journey. Their plays spoke to me on a level that is still difficult to put into words. Yes, the unapologetic queer themes. Yes, the subversion of heteronormative tropes. But it was the purposeful moral ambiguity of their characters that really challenged and moved me.

E: You write plays, screenplays, novels, poetry, essays, et al. Who do you write for? Who do you hope to reach with your work? 

J: I write first and foremost because there are questions that I’m exploring that I need to dig into, in order to untangle something or move forward in my life. Putting those questions on a stage, in a book, or on a screen is an act that opens them up for me, and lets me think with more depth and clarity. I’m a queer artist, so that’s one of several lenses I bring to my writing, and sometimes I hear from queer people who found my work and resonated with it. When that’s happened, it’s been really meaningful to me, personally. But I think of my work as an open invitation to people who are asking the same questions, regardless of who they are or how much we do or don’t share in our identities.

There was a time when I could count on at least one Jen Silverman play being produced near me. When I moved to Aotearoa that phantom yearning persisted and got stronger. As an artist, I need that heightened surreality, that purposefully casual poesy, and that ruthless tenderness that cuts to the bone. I got it in my head that I wanted to work on Jen’s work here. 

During the second lockdown, I messaged Jen and let them know I wanted to pitch one of their plays. I got their blessing and a recommendation to consider Wink

E: Wink will be the first time that your work is performed here. When you think of New Zealand, what comes to mind?

J: I actually lived in New Zealand briefly as a kid – my father is a physicist, and he was collaborating with some scientists there, so we relocated to Christchurch for a short time. I was young, but I remember NZ as being visually stunning, and strangers as being surprisingly kind. I’ve always wanted to go back.

E: Please come visit! Meanwhile, for audiences here who aren’t familiar with your work, how would you describe your writing style (aesthetics, themes, vibes, etc.)?

J: Often my work interrogates who we are as individuals and as collectives: the social contracts we inherit, when and how we break them, who we become inside them, and how we function in their absence. How our imaginations are shaped by our roles in community and the daring that is required to re-imagine ourselves and our worlds. I was born in the US but raised in a series of countries – most frequently France and Japan, among many others – and I imagine that has inexorably formed my interest in how individuals navigate societies, and what happens when societal rules shift. In my plays, these explorations often take on a darkly comedic approach. I’m particularly interested in the area where emotional naturalism meets theatrical absurdism – meaning: the characters are always acting from a grounded place of genuine feeling and emotional logic, but the rules of the play world might shift and break.

During that second lockdown, my husband Andrew (who plays Dr. Frans) and I sat down and read the play aloud. Between gasps, cackles, and sighs full of consternation – we knew we had to do it, but we didn’t know if local audiences would respond. In need of another voice of (t)reason I met with Beatriz (who plays Sofie) who said, “It’s mental, we have to do it.” 

We were lucky that Isla Macleod decided to come on as our director. She predominantly works in film and within more naturalistic stories, but the text drew her in. Our team dove head first into the rapids of this emotionally naturalistic and absurdist performance hybrid. All of us come from various backgrounds and diverging artistic aesthetics. The moments of creative tensions, logistical oppositions, and textual provocations have been revelatory. In navigating these cultural and theatrical differences, what’s bonded us is the deep human truth at the core of this play, that is driven home by the humour.   

E: How would you describe your sense of humour? 

J: An Australian radio host once called me “twisted,” which I take as a particular compliment when coming from an Australian.

E: Finish this sentence, ‘You’re gonna love Wink if you enjoy…?’

J: Dark irreverent comedy that seeks to interrogate the roles we play, and what happens when we upend those roles – for better or worse.

It’s that interrogation of the self, of our complicity in society by way of our everyday choices, that made me want to bring this work to Aotearoa. Our crew, as artists – as citizens – I don’t want theatre that pacifies or panders to us. We want theatre that challenges and excites us. 

E: What kind of theatre excites you?

J: Theatre that can’t be anything other than theatre. Theatre that requires the particular electricity of live performance. I love TV and film, and I work in both those media, but that has only fueled my love for plays that play with and push and trouble their theatrical container in a way that’s unique to the form.