[On Tuesday, August 7, I had the privilege of speaking with three female playwrights who have shows premiering at the New York International Fringe Festival. Michelle Ramoni is the writer of June and Nancy and also plays June in the show. Dani Vetere is the playwright of Hadrian’s Wall. Alice Winslow is a writer and actor of I <3 Revolution. This interview will be presented in three parts.]
When people go to see your shows, what do you hope they’ll think about when they leave? What kind of message or change in perspective do you hope they’ll take with them?
DANI: I really wanted to write both about age difference and sexuality in a way that made the issue seem very neutral. I would love for people to stop noticing that after a certain point and just watch the play and think, “Oh, these people fell in love.” I very quickly address the sexuality and try to get it out of the way to try and accomplish that goal, and obviously the actresses are different ages, and it’s just kind of mentioned and moved on. That would be the main thing, I think.
ALICE: First of all, I hope people laugh a lot. I think the show is offbeat and surprising. The relationship to the audience is constantly changing, and I think we’re trying a lot of different male models of power – trying them on, feeling them out, and working them out. So I guess I hope that it’s a place of reflection for people.
MICHELLE: I think theater and art enables us and forces us to look at ourselves, and sort of look at the situation that’s happening live on stage and then ask the question, “What would I do if I was in this situation?” I would love for people to think about what they’d do, what sacrifices would they make for somebody that they loved – would they be able to live in secrecy? Would they be able to be ruled by faith, or fear? What motivates us – is it internal struggles and desires, or is it the information and influence we get from the world around us? [to Dani] And I love what you said. My hope and my dream someday for this play, and all plays that talk about same-sex relationships, that the audience forgets that that’s what they’re watching and it becomes a story about two people that really love each other, so thank you for sharing that.
I like that idea as well, to stop seeing people as labels. How are these characters different from other characters that you’ve either played or written about before?
DANI: My characters are much smarter than I am.
ALICE: Are you jealous of them?
DANI: No, I honestly am – the things that do come up, my cast and crew will tease me. “Oh, you sound like your character,” and I’ll say, “I don’t have the genius grants, it’s only the embarrassing things that ring true.” I’ve had to do a lot of work to make them sound like people that know about things that I have no knowledge of. I’m writing about science and people who have genius grants and are PhDs – so, that’s different. I think that’s where a lot of the rewriting has come in. I keep sharpening it, and sharpening it and sharpening it, and made them talk faster. I think if the actors were here, they’d say the same thing. It’s like if they were doing E.R. or something; they have to say words, they have no idea what they’re saying, and they have to say it really fast.
Did you find it a bit of a struggle to make the characters sound smart while also making sure that the audience understand what they’re talking about?
DANI: That’s a good question – I watched and read a lot of Aaron Sorkin and I read Proof maybe twelve times when writing this play. I tried to immerse myself in people who had done something like that, and I had to remember that I want the science and archaeology to be accurate enough, but it’s not what people are listening to. Every now and then somebody says, “What does that mean?” and another character explains it, and the story moves forward. That’s what everyone’s listening to, and everything else is for style. I think – yes, it was difficult to balance – “When are the times they should be just talking about science and when do they have to relate it back to us?” and a lot of that’s in the acting. The actors have given it so much that I didn’t even see writing it. I remember when we were first reading through the scene where the characters talk about their work and the director asked the actresses, “What do you think this scene is about?” They’re both super smart women and they said, “Well, I think this is how they fall in love, and why they love each other as opposed to any other person,” and it’s because they can talk to each other on this level. And I thought, “Oh, I have to spend more time on this because it’s not just science. They’re right – this is the foreplay of my play. This is the love story.” So I spent a lot more time on that and that’s how they perform it. When they talk about science, it’s as if they’re flirting with each other.
ALICE: All of our characters are based on particular aspects of our personalities – the three of us – taken to extremes. We’re all named after ourselves – I’m Alice, Alexandra is Alexandra, Tara’s Tara – but taken to extremes, really big extremes. So my character has no sense of humor.
She has absolutely no sense of humor, which is pretty unlike myself, but it’s like the Type A in me taken off the charts. I’m the most concerned with how the audience sees us. I’m big on image control, how the audience is viewing us, what things might be really bad from a PR standpoint, how the revolution is branded, when we’re being too aggressive, when we’re not being aggressive enough. I’m sort of the most organized but also the least lovable of the three of us. Alexandra’s really bumbling and that’s endearing, so no matter what she says to threaten you, you don’t take it seriously, and Tara’s so extreme that you don’t take anything she says seriously, but I take myself so seriously that I think – that’s the danger of my character. My humanity is maybe a little more guarded than the others. I tend to play a lot of emotional ingénues, so this has been nice because there’s no softness – well, there is a softness, but it comes purely from self-preservation, not from genuine empathy – sort of like Angela on The Office.
She’s sort of the model.
I always feel like the Type A characters really grow on you after a while.
ALICE: I hope so! While I was writing it, I was totally fine with it, but in rehearsal, I’m terrified because it’s hard to be so unlovable and so unlikable, even!
DANI: Yeah, I had this question about whether one of my characters has been unfaithful or not – it’s a minor story point, but I just kept going back and forth with every draft. And then I finally slipped it in there that she HAS done it, and the actress playing her was so thrown, she was like, *deep breath,* “Okay.” I said, “no, we’re still going to love you!” and she said, “Okay, I just have to think about this – I’m sure she had a reason.” But it was really hard to go to a place where it’s something no one particularly respects.
MICHELLE: It’s so funny, because just in terms of logistics of the play, I wrote myself as the main character. I’ve never been an ingénue, I’ve never been the lead, I’ve always had the character role, or the really “strong and funny one,” and this is such a challenge for me in that June is so soft and lovable.
ALICE: You’re doing the opposite of me!
MICHELLE: Also, I’m onstage almost the entire time. I was having this journey last night in rehearsal. I was feeling so insecure, looking around at my other actors and characters and thinking, “They’re so much more interesting! June’s just whiny and scared!” But I know that’s not true, but that’s what I was feeling, and I think it’s just her vulnerability- I feel like I’m naked the whole time onstage, in a way that I’ve never experienced before, and it’s both so terrifying and so exciting at the same time. As a playwright, it’s been really interesting – I’m not writing about scientists, but Nancy is a lithographer, and even though my grandfather and aunt were both lithographers, I’m certainly not. I didn’t know much about it, I had to go into my grandfather’s dark room, but I didn’t really know anything, and there’s the fine line between just doing the research and writing a research paper into your play. I had an epiphany; there’s a scene between June and Nancy where they’re talking about art, and I experienced this excitement. I realized, “June and Marty can never have that conversation with one another.” For the first time, June and Nancy both are being seen and heard through this information that they’re giving one another. As for writing about the 50s – I remember in the workshop with Cheryl (King), I would write a scene and she’d say, “You know people in the 50s were people.” Because I had this idea that they’d speak a certain way, almost like Stepford-Wife robotic, and it was coming into my writing, and she said, “They’re people.” Sometimes I trip myself up as an actor, getting into the characteristics of this 1958 housewife and I have to remember, “She’s a person.” I always have a struggle – am I being too much of my modern self? Is that coming in too much? But if I don’t let myself in, then no one hears the play. So yeah, it’s been an interesting journey with that, to rewrite it and take it to a place where people see the style, people see that it’s taking place in 1958, but the characters and the story are coming through.