BWW Interviews: Gruesome Playground Injuries' Jennifer Carpenter

This past week actress Jennifer Carpenter sat down with Broadwayworld to discuss her role in the Off-Broadway show, Gruesome Playground Injuries.

Carpenter is best known for her TV portrayal of "Debra Morgan" on Dexter, and has also graced the big screen as "Emily Rose" in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and as "Angela Vidal" in Quarantine.

While these roles are to thank for establishing her career in Hollywood, they have also boxed her into the horror genre. It may be becuase of this that she is lesser known for her numerous turns on the stage, including Broadway's The Crucible, and work for LCT, Actors Theatre Of Louisville, and The O'Neill Playwrights Conference. But after eight years away from theater, she has returned to play the role of "Kayleen" in Second Stage Theater's Gruesome Playground Injuries, a choice that allows audiences to see her in a new light. 

The show charts two lives, using scars, injuries and calamities as the mile markers. The play explores why people hurt themselves to gain another's love, and the cumulative effect of such damage, of such demands.

The role of Kayleen is a modern and agressive one, and certainly an interesting choice for a return to theater. BWW chatted with Carpenter about this decision as well as her feelings on New York, and her hopes for the future. 

BWW: What motivated you to get involved with Gruesome Playground Injuries?

Well, I had been sort of craving a play. I hadn't done one in eight years so I think that I was kind of a little afraid to go back to the stage since I had been away for so long. I had done a revival last time I was here so I was interested in doing a new play and my agent introduced me to Rajiv Joseph's writing and said that there was going to be a reading at Second Stage Theater. So I flew myself in to read with Pablo [Schreiber] and it was just like... music. It just sounded good, all of it, so I dove in. And was immediately terrified.

Kayleen and Doug are quite extreme in some aspects. Do you feel that they are still identifiable characters?

I do, I think that their issues are hightened, more than most people, and certainly about certain things, but I believe that that is what is so great about the play. It is so poetic; it is funny because I thought that there would be more conversations with me about what the play was but the conversation that always seems to come up is that people see themselves in it. The relationship with a father or the relationship with an ex-boyfriend, people just see a part of themselves in it.

What do you think is the moral or main message of Gruesome Playground Injuries?

I don't know that I want to reduce it to that, but I think it is about timing. Timing with ones-self, finding when you are ready and open to let other people in. It is unfortunate, I mean I don't think that most people have to spend their entire life with their soul mate; they meet them at the stage in their life when they are ready to see them. But unfortunately these two [Kayleen and Doug] meet at age eight. So they have to go through all of these growing pains together.

You portray Kayleen through several different ages in her life. Which one is your favorite?

The play is exhausting; it feels like getting punched in the gut every time. In a really good way mind you, but still. I think it is a relief that we get to start at eight. Because you get to go on and play first. I really enjoy eight, but once we begin I do enjoy the rest as much as eight. But it is nice to start the show with a sense of play.

Second Stage Theater is a really modern space. Was it difficult learning how to set up your own scenes?

The transitions are really helpful for me, they are this quiet moment where you can really take your scene partner in. I don't know how Pablo uses his time, but I sort of jump the gap; a lot of the work of this play has been writing your character's history and that's what I do in those moments, I write my character's history. Whatever I imagine happened during those five-year gaps I play them out in my mind while I look at my scene partner and it helps me sort of prepare for the next scene.

Have you ever thought about doing a comedy?

That's the thing; I thought that this play had a little comedy in it. A little bit of all of it. I feel really comfortable with comedy but it is a tough door to break down, especially once people have seen me in a certain way. But I feel like that is sort of the reason why I loved the play, I think that comedy is based in something real and this play has real pain, real delight, and sometimes you can make fun of it, so I thought it was a perfect mixture. Also the people orbiting this play and this theater, Second Stage and the talent they attract- not just the stage talent but the the writers and the people in the offices, and even their subscription audience, which spans a variety of ages... it is just a really lovely place to be and a really lovely atmosphere to work in. It made me fall in love again, which is exactly what I was hoping to do.

Do you feel a big difference between performing on and off-Broadway?

Well, like I said, last time I was doing a revival of The Crucible, which is a play that a lot of people and a lot of our audience was familiar with. And it was Liam Neeson and Laura Linney and the list goes on and on, but this show is intimate. And I am aware that sometimes people may not get it, it may not be their cup of tea, but that is part of the fun. Sometimes I feel like Pablo and I are mechanics up there showing everyone the pieces of the play and hoping that they can race around a track a couple of times when they get out and that the play will keep opening up to them, I don't know if that makes sense or not, but it is fun. It was really liberating when I stopped worrying about the audience... I had one moment on stage one night when the lights were up just enough for me to take in all of the faces and my heart broke a little because I thought "oh my god, everybody has been through heartache, everyone has not been not been able to have the one they are supposed to be with," and I don't know what people will take away from it but it is really worth experiencing.

You are physically very close to the audience, they are behind you as well as in front of you. Do you feel the pressure of it being just the two of you on stage?

No. Because I feel like we are really supported by a great play. It is easy. And I trust Pablo as I hope he trusts me. We had a lot of discussions and questions and rehearsals and I think that by just being able to be honest about what we think each moment is, we built a lot of trust there. It is easy to show up and just listen and see what happens.

What made you want to come back to the stage after eight years away from it?

Well, I had been in Los Angeles for quite a while, and after some time it feels like you are living Groundhog's Day. You are doing the same thing every day in the same weather going to the same job every day, and I am always working with a coach doing movement and breath and voice work so I feel like I am staying connected to the craft, but I needed to surprise myself a little bit. I think I was also craving the harmony of New York. Messy though it may be, it sort of pulls you in in a way that Los AngeLes Wants to but can't. And I was afraid. I feel like actors say that all the time, "I was afraid so I had to do it," but I identify with that and I thought coming back would make me better and stronger, I thought it would help the next season of Dexter and wake it up for me too. So we'll see.

Is it what you had hoped it would be?

It is better than I hoped. There is this harmony to New York. You are on the street and suddenly you are invited to a great dinner and you've made a whole New Group of friends and none of them are in the business and you have amazing conversations that unfold over great food, and one thing just leads to the next... it is what life is all about. And it is fashion week! Who knew I'd be going to fashion week! It was so much fun, it is like theater.

When do you go back?

At the end of May, but I am going to Kentucky on Monday to meet my new niece, she's beautiful. And she's smart, you can tell just by looking at her.

Congrats! That's very exciting. So do you think that you are destined to return to the stage after all of this?

Absolutely. I would have to be invited, but yeah I would love to come back! I'd do anything, Off-Broadway, a revival, just no exorcisms!


Tickets are $75 and may be purchased by phoning 212-246-4422 or 800-766-6048 or online at

Photo Credit: Walter McBride/WM Photos

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