By Steven Jay Griffel
Queens, NY, USA
Most creative writers I know find their inspiration in a memorable character, a transformative emotion, an indelible image, or an altering event. But there are some I know who find inspiration in an idea: Is the individual more important than the collective? Are the sins of parents visited upon their children?
Sometimes writers construct a story around such ideas, the idea serving as the litmus or battleground of the drama. In the heavy hands of a dialectic philosopher the result can be a literary bludgeoning: an axe to grind, a bias to spin, souls to save. But in the nimble hands of a savvy storyteller, the deft exploration of an idea can add a powerful dimension to a literary work. In such cases, success usually depends on the delicate balance between idea and story. Too much emphasis on the idea will make the work pedantic; too little dramatic interplay among the characters will render the story lifeless.
Playwright Alana Ruben Free seems to have found this delicate balance. Through a combination of intuition and conscious crafting, her plays are imbued with a strong sense of idea beyond the literal meaning of her dialogue. Her success is due to the successful dramatization of embodied ideas and not the impressive buzz of talking heads. I met with her in New York City to discuss these and related issues.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: How do ideas influence the stories you wish to tell?
ALANA RUBEN FREE: It all started with the word "virgin." Really. That word sort of kick-started my penchant for creating plays based on ideas. Let me set the stage: While I was married, a man made a serious pass at me during a dance workshop. After that encounter I remember feeling that I had lost my virginity, which struck me as strange because I was already a mother. With that experience I began to understand the inherent power of virginity as an idea. I came to recognize that sexual empowerment is every woman's birthright and that becoming empowered is a process tied to a woman seeing her virginity as not only something that can be lost, but also regained. These thoughts were reinforced by why I had learned from my Jungian teachers: a Virgin is a woman with a deep relationship to her own soul, with the ability to live her own truth. Out of these contemplations my first monologue was born: "Virgin Mom, Still Waiting." In my third play I have God as a character. As you can see, I have a philosophical and mystical bent.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: How heavily do your plays draw on autobiographical sources?
ALANA RUBEN FREE: I write primarily for my own catharsis. After my son was born, I suffered from a potentially fatal case of anorexia. Some writers believe that the best way to deal with a serious problem is to write about it. I was determined to recover from my illness, so I pursued a writing cure. Beginner at Life is about a lot of things: the mind-body split, virginity, marriage, divorce, and yes, anorexia.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: How does this relate to your trilogy of plays?
ALANA RUBEN FREE: Eden, the main character of my trilogy, is always questioning her beliefs, seeking her own truths. In Beginner at Life (part one), after being told by her yoga teacher that she's "disconnected from her body," Eden searches to understand her own needs and in the process redefines her relationship to food, sex, and family. In Fear & Desire (part two), Eden is a married woman, overwhelmed by her baby who doesn't sleep and by the incessant calls from her mother. Can she save her marriage, home, and sanity from her self-destructive voices? In White Fire/Black Fire (part three), Eden, now a single mother, plays with romantic and creative fire, which leads her to a spiritual crisis. The healing energy that Eden discovers in each crisis is what I seek to bring to audiences.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You have done extensive studies of Freud and Jung. How have these two giants influenced your life as a dramatist?
ALANA RUBEN FREE: Jung much more than Freud influenced the form and content of The Eden Trilogy. Jung, along with the Jungian-feminist thinkers who followed, opened up for me the deeper nature of what it truly means to be feminine. The trilogy deals with the themes of motherhood, the body, nurturance, the earth, and other classically Feminine topics.
Though both Freud and Jung were interested in ideas of Jewish mysticism, their thoughts on this subject did not influence me directly. Even so, Jewish mystical writings—especially in terms of their healing influence—have also influenced my work.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Why does being a playwright suit you better than being a novelist?
ALANA RUBEN FREE: In New York, I ended up on the stage accidentally before I really knew much about performance poetry and monologues. As a person who fluctuates between extreme introversion and extroversion, I enjoy the way theatre rewards my isolated periods of study and creativity with opportunities to work with others collaboratively and intimately.
I discovered while writing poetry and monologues that I had an interest in dialogue. I find dialogue very poetic. When a character speaks, there is automatic layering of multiple, even contradictory, truths.
I also love being in a theatre and feeling all that is not said. I like what happens in the space and time when actors are not touching or speaking. Characters can be changed by what is not spoken. I am drawn to the way a story is communicated through visual mediums, in the realms beyond written language.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You say that many theatergoers want to be changed by what they see in a play. How is this different from the attitude and expectation of filmgoers and readers of novels?
ALANA RUBEN FREE: It's probably not different. If you walk out of my plays and you are not thinking more deeply about your own relationships—primarily the one with yourself—then I have failed. I am not creating escapist entertainment. Certain romance novels and blockbuster films are designed to distract audiences from the very questions that I'm probing.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: The work of a novelist is generally solitary, but a playwright's work usually involves the cooperation of other people. What are your thoughts on this?
ALANA RUBEN FREE: Many people wonder how much of a play is improvised or developed by the actors. It does happen in certain theatre companies: "devised theatre" is the term for this kind of theatre process. However, traditionally, the playwright writes a script, delivers it to the director, who then hands it to the cast. The job of the actor is to embody and communicate the truth of the character, not to improvise the text. When I directed Fear & Desire, I made a few edits and refined certain moments with the actors based on what I was seeing on the stage. But I wrote the play by myself. I had sole responsibility for the words spoken on stage. I don't bring forward a script for a reading until I have pretty much hit a wall and ready to absorb feedback.
The process of writing a play can be just as solitary as the writing process of a novelist. My friends who write books work closely with an editor in much the same way I may consult a dramaturge. My personal experience with a variety of dramaturges is that they use a much lighter pen in their edits than a book editor does.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You have recently moved from New York City to Israel. What effect has this had on your life as a playwright?
ALANA RUBEN FREE: New York will always be an important creative home for me, and I make frequent trips back. My creative roots and networks are there. I first conceived of coming to Israel as a writing retreat; I had some research to do in Jerusalem on my new project. But in the months leading up to the move, I literally felt carried to Israel, like a surfer riding a tidal wave, and once I landed on the beach I knew that this was going to be an entirely different experience than I had planned. I felt that as long as I did not resist the creative energy, I would find myself in a wholly new life. Within a month of being in Israel, I realized that I had come as an immigrant, and not a researcher. A larger dream eclipsed my smaller desires. I am now in discussions on setting the world premiere of The Eden Trilogy here in Israel, which is really ironic since these plays are stories of exile: a woman raised in the Diaspora and in exile from herself.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You have had some interesting experiences with the translation of your plays. I know English is spoken widely in Israel. Why then was your play translated and produced in Hebrew? How did this affect your view of the play?
ALANA RUBEN FREE: Translating any work is more than translating language; it's translating a whole culture. Eden, the central character in my trilogy, is a Canadian who comes to live in New York City. When we placed Eden in Australia, we only needed to change one word of the script: "subway" became "train." When we placed Eden in Northern Italy, an Italian Judaic scholar told me that the script in Italian had more Christian overtones than it did in English. Prior to the Italian production, the director, main actress, and I discussed the possibility of Eden being a Catholic woman. But we decided against it.
The Hebrew translation for the Tel Aviv production was the most complicated because Tel Aviv 2010 was a different place from the Tel Aviv that I am experiencing now in 2014. When Yagil Eliraz, the Israeli director, turned Eden into an Israeli for Hebrew audiences, specifically Tel Aviv audiences, he turned Eden's search into something that was more intellectual than spiritual. This reflected Tel Aviv's secular perspective on the Jewish experience. There are secular Israelis who find it very uncomfortable to be identified with the Jewish religion or even spirituality. Another significant difference is that their Jewish identity is not one of cultural alienation and displacement like the original Eden. Yagil successfully took themes from all three of the plays and enfolded them in one longer play. Both plays worked and brought healing to the audience, but in different ways.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You seem to be particularly adept at writing monologues and have had several anthologized. What draws you to the monologue?
ALANA RUBEN FREE: I was first inspired by the iconic solo performer Laurie Anderson. One night, when I was a teenager, I saw Laurie Anderson play her electric violin on The Late Show, and I thought she was the most creative, original person I had ever encountered. I had no idea who she was, but it opened my imagination to what it meant to be a creative, self-expressed artist. I wrote and delivered a lot of speeches as a kid, so I guess it was good training for being a monologist. Like a good speech, the best monologues come from the heart and seek to move people.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You seem interested—and savvy—about the "business" end of playwriting. Please elaborate.
ALANA RUBEN FREE: Like most everything else, theatre is shaped by economics. If you can get a great dramatic story told in 90 minutes, without an intermission and with four or fewer actors, you have a greater chance of getting it produced than if it's a three-act play with 12 actors. Audience tastes also play a big part in which plays get produced. For example, American audiences are partial to contemporary dramas over historical plays, and we all know that musicals have the potential to run on Broadway for years, unlike dramas. Producing a play with a well-known film actor will draw audiences easier than a play with the most-talented unknown actor.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: What can a playwright do to help get a play produced?
ALANA RUBEN FREE: Great writing and a well-crafted story are essential—but a successful playwright often must work hard to find producers and money to bring the play before a large audience. I am a big advocate of self-producing if you can. I got my start self-producing in New York with the assistance of the Mamapalooza festival. Set a time and a date, book a venue, invite your friends, and request generous cash gifts, $18 and up. Believe it or not, I see producing a lot like making a party. After Fear & Desire, we served wine and cheese. It was a lot of fun. I recommend that writers join the Dramatist Guild, if they can. It's a wonderful organization for playwrights at any stage of their career.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Tell me about your new play.
ALANA RUBEN FREE: It's a historical drama that takes place in Europe, 1935. The main characters are two powerful, scholarly, creative women in their mid-seventies, nearing the end of very productive, inspired lives. One appears to have an antipathy to the development of a Jewish State, while the other embraces it wholeheartedly. Their radically different outlooks will have life and death consequences for thousands of children in Europe.
Given the status of the world right now, I suspect that not only do I need to hear these women's sage and powerful voices, but so do many others.