Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Playwright Laura Maria Censabella and Director Kel Haney talk about Interviewing Miss Davis: part of EST Marathon of Shorts

"I have dined out on this story for years, and I was sitting at a table of artists, and I told this story, and the next night, another table asked me to tell the story, and the next night, another table asked, and then somebody said you should write this down..."

What was the inspiration for the play?

Laura: I was just out of college and very, very broke - no furniture, a folding chair, folding table, mattress on the floor and I was working for someone who said I’d make a great assistant for Bette Davis. I was temping and the woman liked me, so I went to the interview but was very conflicted because I wanted to be a writer and at the same time I wanted instant validation, and I felt like if I became Bette Davis’s assistant, I would have that.

What was the conflict about being a writer and taking the job?

Laura: Not having the time to write. I went to the interview and I said to myself that as long as I have a little time to myself, I will do the job, if she likes me. Eliza’s situation is different because her home situation is horrible, so I think the stakes are much higher to get the job whereas for me, it would have been great, but it was easier to walk away.

So did you walk away?

Laura: I did and actually in real life – what Bette Davis was supremely good at - was honing in on someone’s weaknesses. She didn’t tell me my duties the entire time I sat there, and at first I was confused, and then I was flabbergasted, and then I started to get angry, like why would you think you don’t have to tell someone what they need to do for a job? And then I did ask, “what are my duties?” and she went into how long do you need for yourself each day, and became very contemptuous that I needed two hours a day. So that’s the core that is already in the play.

Did you know at the time that this would be a play that you would write?

Laura: No, actually it was not this January, but the January before, I was at a writers’ colony, and I have dined out on this story for years, and I was sitting at a table of artists, and I told this story, and the next night another table asked me to tell the story, and the next night, another table asked, and then somebody said you should write this down and I said, “but I don’t know what this story means.” And they said, “it was the day you chose to be a writer.” Then I wrote a personal essay in two hours, and then I came home, and five months later, I decided to make it into a one-act play.

Who’s the protagonist of the play?

Laura: That’s a great question. Originally, it was Eliza (Bette Davis’s potential future assistant), and then I started shifting it to Jackie (Betty Davis’s current assistant in the play) because she actually makes the final choice, but Eliza is so active in it. I mean Jackie becomes active in a few places, so you tell me.

Well, it’s interesting actually, because it’s not like I sat there during the play thinking “who is the protagonist?”. They all had their moments. It definitely felt like Jackie’s story because I’m wondering what she is going to do, but they are all strong characters with strong desires.

Laura: Kel was really insistent that we make it three points of an equal triangle.

Kel: What I think is interesting is that Bette Davis is Bette Davis, and there’s no getting around the fact that one of these points is Bette Davis, but that she is still just one point of this triangle. I’m really inspired by this idea that this young woman comes in - she’s a young girl escaping her mother, escaping her past, and she leaves as a young woman who is pursuing her life as an artist, so for me, I think that Eliza is the protagonist - if we’re going to speak in very conventional terms - and that Bette is this ultimate antagonist who gets what she wants, and Jackie is this really malleable foil between the two women that helps make that contrast. That is really great to watch, to think ‘ok, so who’s the one who’s left out? Who’s the monkey in the middle in this moment?’ If Bette Davis is talking to Eliza, is it really about Eliza or is it really about Jackie, and as we start to, as an audience, understand that relationship, understand the way this triangle works, it’s exciting for us to think ‘is she is really considering this girl, or is this all for her current assistant’s benefit - for her to stay?’ So I think that’s what’s so nice, is that even if it’s about two people in the moment, there is still this third person who is a presence.

Definitely, because I noticed that when I was watching, that if two people were engaging, I was also checking in on the third person to see what was going on over there.

Laura: Someone said to me, and I’m still making a study of it, that any play beyond two people, is all about triangles. Even if you have a five character play, it’s still about triangles, because it’s still going to be two points of view, and then that third or fourth will be on one side. I don’t know if it’s entirely true, but it’s really exciting to explore triangles in this. I mean, there’s a very emotional reason why I wrote this piece, but, at the same time, in a formal way, it’s nice to explore geometry.

I feel you see the power shifts in the room. Some people seem to have power, and then it goes away, and then it blooms over in the corner over there, and then it’s moving over here. It’s very palpable.

Laura: I love status transactions between people and watching them.

So you’ve been writing for a long time. What are some common themes in your work?

Laura: I’m very interested in the question of how much do we sacrifice for other people when we love them? I’m extremely interested in that. Very, very interested in strong, manipulative women who are heroic, but the price they paid for that heroism, and what they dole out to other people around them. I’m also very interested in giving voice to people who have no voice. Certainly, Bette has enough of a voice but the young girl, Eliza - and there’s been other very working class people that I have written about and inarticulate people – I love inarticulate people – I mean she (Eliza) is on her way to being very articulate.

It’s interesting because even though Bette Davis has a voice, she is an older woman and they tend to disappear, and I notice that the audience this afternoon was filled with older people. You just don’t see that many older people on stage. It’s interesting to see this woman that we all think we know on some level, be vulnerable.

Laura: That’s been another thing that Kel has had to negotiate, that balance between Bette’s vulnerability, her strength, her savagery…

Kel: There’s so many layers. What Laura’s written so well is there are so many tools in that toolbox for Bette. There’s so much psychologically going on for her. She’s facing her own mortality. She’s facing being alone. She’s facing all of the decisions she’s made in her life, so there’s a lot of ghosts.

Laura: and the betrayal.

Kel: Yes, so I think there’s a lot of ghosts and memory in what’s going on. She sees a lot of herself in this girl, so she’s facing the results of her actions and having to look at that. And in addition to that, because she has so many tools and is so mercurial in how she acts towards these women, there’s a lot going on. What shade are we seeing in the moment, because there are so many shades in that palette? What is affecting her in the moment, and what shade is she choosing to paint, in reaction to how she feels?

Laura: We also had to work out, and ultimately it’s Delphi’s choice (the actress playing Bette Davis), but when is she truly just manipulating the situation, and when is she genuinely feeling something?

So Eliza, the young woman in the play, says she needs two hours a day to write. What is your writing schedule like?

Laura: Well, now it’s different. When I was her age that’s what I would do. I would get up and write two hours before temping. I used to work four days temping, and then I would have three days on the weekend. I lived in this god-forsaken neighborhood that wasn’t gentrified. There was no grocery store so I’d have to do errands, and you don’t have that much time on the weekends. You have life things to do so those two hours are really precious. And actually, in real life, I wrote two plays that went to the O’Neill, just on those two hours in the mornings. I mean, in the play, she’s writing short stories, but when I went on the interview, I was already working on a play, and that play did go to the O’Neill, and I think that if I had gotten the job with Bette, I don’t know that I would have had the time to finish that play.

What advice would you give new writers?

Laura: Discipline. Keep writing. Finish something. That’s standard advice. Finish something, because then people step in to help you, but if you only do it part way, the universe isn’t going to help you very much. And endure the loneliness. I didn’t have any money so its not like I could really enjoy myself. I would be up at five-thirty, have the temp job, and have to be in bed by ten-thirty so I could get up to write, so maybe I could go out one night a week, and I didn’t have any money, so I would go to the movies or see friends. I couldn’t afford to go to dinner, so it was a very Spartan life, but again while I was doing that, things help you. I got a really nice boyfriend around that time, and he was so accepting of my getting up at five-thirty, so things do come to help you.

The Ensemble Studio Theatre’s 32nd annual Marathon of One-Act Plays run in two Series from May 21 – June 26. Interviewing Miss Davis is part of Series B and you can see dates and times as well as purchase tickets here. EST is located at 549 W 52nd St., Second Floor, NYC, (212) 247-4982

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