By John Del Signore
[This interview was conducted just after the Off-Broadway opening of “This” and is re-printed here with permission from its New York-based author]
In the tradition of Harold Pinter and Edward Albee, Melissa James Gibson's plays incisively isolate the idiosyncrasies of colloquial speech, reveling in their often overlooked weirdness, and marveling at what these words reveal about the speaker. Her play “Suitcase—Or, Those That Resemble Flies From A Distance,” staged at Soho Rep in 2004, concerns two female grad students agonizing over their thesis in cluttered rooms high above the stage, while their neglected boyfriends plead desperately through the ground floor intercom. For a play in which "nothing much happens" in the conventional sense, it was a mesmerizing journey into the minds of four unstable urbanites.
Gibson's funny and affecting new play, “This,” is more naturalistic than her previous plays, but her distinctive style is unmistakable. Set in a gorgeous, hyper-realistic converted loft in what must be Williamsburg or Red Hook, “This” centers on five friends in their mid-thirties and their desperate attempt to stay sane in the face of death, parenthood, adultery, and incessant craving.
How did you get into writing plays?
It was kind of accidental. I was one of those people who came to NY when I was 17 thinking I could act, and I did go to acting school for three years until I was 19, and then I was in a theater company shortly after attending acting school, a start-up theater company, so we did everything, and part of what we did was, "We're all gonna write." And that was my first experience of playwriting, and I loved it. Then I went to college and graduate school and studied it more formally, among many things, just getting an education period that way. But I fell into it through the door of acting.
“This” seemed more naturalistic and narrative-based than some of your previous work. Do you agree with that assessment and was that something you had in mind when you were writing it?
No, it really wasn't intentional at all, and I don't really think in those terms, per se. I respect people's view of it being that way, but honestly, I was just, as always, I was just focusing on what I was focusing on and it unfolded the way it did. But I think you're right; people tend to experience it that way. But I didn't set out for it to be more normal or anything. [Laughs]
One critic wrote that he felt the story was about "how we process love, hurt and loss by concocting tidy stories to recall our experience, or reshape it." Do you agree with that?
I think that's one perspective on it. Really, the whole thing to me—which is another way of saying what he just said, I guess—is about grappling with mortality from the different characters' vantage points. And just that, grappling with that big old subject, that we grapple with every day, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly.
Were you thinking about death more when you were writing this, more than usual?
I think maybe I was, yeah. I know I was. I lost some friends in a very short period of time, I lost a number of people who are dear to me. So although I started writing before that was the case, I think inevitably it informed the way in which it got explored.
Do you think writing “This” was in any way therapeutic?
I wouldn't use that word, but sure, in the sense that clearly I am in a very real way grappling with that subject, it was hopeful to think about it through the prisms of these five people. Yeah, so the act of writing is the act of trying to make sense, so yes. It was helpful.
How much time did you spend writing it?
It's hard question to answer, to identify starting points for anything. But, having said that, for me it was a relatively short amount of time, I mean, sometimes things can go on for many years. I think maybe this one was just in a gestation phase before writing occurred on the page. So I would say, sort of the end of last summer through December was very intensive, getting that first real draft out, and then lots of revisions. A shorter period of time than is sometimes the case with me. I can be slow.
Do you write every day?
I do. I mean, well, I shouldn't say that, not every single day of my life. But it's definitely what feels good, and what I aim to do.
Do you have a set, habitual way of going about it?
Yeah, a routine!
It depends. This past year I've been on leave; I had a fellowship, so I was able to be much more—in a great way—business-like about it, and being able to work during school hours while my children are at school. But normally I have a day job as well, so that means it's sort of pre-school hours. It's sort of like a 6-9 kind of thing and then sorta stealing time after they're in bed. Usually it's weird opposite ends of the day. And I find it can be useful times in different ways, in terms of where the brain is naturally at after a full day, or starting from scratch. But no, I've much preferred having uninterrupted hours in a row, as I said, this past year.
I think playwrights like Pinter and Albee have written about how they don't have a real narrative plan or storyline in mind when they start writing. Is your process similar to that?
It is, actually. Yeah, I don't think anyone celebrates my plots! [Laughs] I don't come at it from that perspective. Actually, it'd be really fun one day to challenge myself to write a heavily, beautifully-plotted play. But I'm much more interested in where the characters lead me through their dialogue, and through the spaces in which they find themselves. With language, that's the natural way forward for me.
There's a lot of apologizing and saying "I'm sorry" in “This.” Where does that come from for you?
Yeah. Well, that too sort of happened. There's a lot that the characters in this play feel sorry for, but I'm just sort of interested in that expression too because they're default words we all have. And sometimes they mean something and sometimes they're hollow. I was interested in exploring the gradations.
Melissa James Gibson being interviewed at The 2011 Steinberg Playwright "Mimi" Awards presented by The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust at Lincoln Center Theater in NYC. Photo by Jason Kempin.
Your titles tend to be usually... different. Have you ever thought about why the titles of your plays are so different from and open-ended. Does that make sense?
I think so. I don't know, it's very much a gut thing. I try things on in my head or on the draft, and then just settle on what feels right. This is what felt right for this, because it's so unspecific and yet weirdly specific at the same time, which felt right for this piece. It's very much a gut thing each time.
Yeah, I overheard somebody as they were leaving the theater, saying they thought it was a perfectly-titled piece, to them it really evoked describing a relationship, like, "ugh, all this."
Yes, that's hard to name. That's what I'm always drawn to. I think that's what all artists are drawn to, trying to name the unnameable.
The play struck me as very New York, and I can't actually recall if there are any geographically specific aspects to it, but did you have that in mind, did you feel like you were writing a play about people living in New York?
Yes, that's what I was imagining for sure. I love this place, this urban environment is where most of my plays have been set so far, in one way or another.
And now..."This" in San Diego
If you want to see “This” live on stage, you can catch the San Diego Premiere at North Coast Repertory Theatre this month. With previews April 4-6 and a four-week run from April 7-29, you can experience Gibson’s tart, new American comedy for yourself. Filled with scintillating verbal humor and a keen compassion that upends conventions, “This” dives head-first into the choppy waters of middle age and offers up some rueful meditations on love, adultery, and adulthood.
North Coast Repertory’s powerhouse production is directed by Kirsten Brandt and features a fearless five-member cast (in alphabetical order): Andrew Abelson, Richard Baird, Courtney Corey, Judith Scott, and Matt Thompson. Tickets for “This” are available only at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach at 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Suite D. Box office hours are Noon to 4pm daily and Noon to curtain on the day of performances. For more information, visit www.northcoastrep.org.