BWW Interview: ICEBERGS' Alena Smith - More Than Comfortable Writing in Different Mediums
The world premiere of playwright Alena Smith's latest comedy ICEBERGS begins November 8, 2016 at the Geffen Playhouse. Alena's writing resume encompasses a number of entertainment disciplines; including: Showtime's The Affair, HBO's The Newsroom, her play turned into film The Bad Guys, and her 2014 novel Tween Hobo: Off The Rails. Alena made time amidst ICEBERGS' rehearsals to chat with BroadwayWorld and myself.
Thanks for taking the time for this interview, Alena!
What spurred you onto writing ICEBERGS?
I wanted to write a play set in Los Angeles. I wanted to somehow grapple with the issue of climate change, and the question of how to remain positive and optimistic in one's own life while the world is facing a problem of such magnitude.
Did locale become an important element of your play?
Yes. The play uses imagery of the North Pole, icebergs, the Arctic Circle in order to contrast with the sunny landscape of urban Los Angeles. One of the takeaways here might be to see, how in fact, we are all connected. What happens in the Arctic will end up (or perhaps is already) impacting life in Silver Lake.
What would be your one-line pitch of ICEBERGS be?
Welcome to Silver Lake on a warm November night, where a new generation of thirtysomethings navigate filmmaking and family planning, trying to put down roots before everything melts away.
2009 -2010 was a pretty good period for you with four of your plays produced. In 2009: THE PIVEN MONOLOGUES and THE SACRIFICES. In 2010: PLUCKER and IT OR HER. Did you feel like a non-musical Andrew Lloyd Webber?
Yes, that's exactly how I felt. I just wish I'd made more people dress up like cats.
As a novice playwright then, how much say did you have in choosing the elements of your production (director, actors, designers)?
I had lots of control since I was essentially gathering up groups of my friends and convincing them to do my plays.
Was THE LACY PROJECT the first play you wrote?
No, it was the third or fourth, but it was the first one I felt was really solid.
Did you base any of your characters on people you knew?
My characters are usually Frankenstein combinations of parts of myself and impressions I've gotten of others.
How about the characters in ICEBERGS? Any similarities to friends, family, acquaintances?
The vibes of the characters are meant to resemble the vibes of people I've met and/or gotten closer to since I moved to Los Angeles in 2012. My husband is in there somewhere, and so is my agent.
Tell our BroadwayWorld readers how your 2012 play THE BAD GUYS became a 2015 movie?
My play THE BAD GUYS was adapted into a film by director Carlos Rincones. Carlos is an up-and-coming Mexican-American filmmaker who was looking to make his first English-language feature (he had already made a feature in Mexico). Carlos and I bonded quickly and had a similar excitement about taking these characters and putting them on screen. We rounded up an amazing cast (including Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, who is now playing Nicky in ICEBERGS), shot the movie in the Hudson Valley, New York (which is where I'm from, and where the play was set), and it debuted at the 2015 Austin Film Festival.
How do you compare playwriting with writing on a TV series like The Newsroom or The Affair? Solitary vs. teamwork back-and-forth?
Playwriting and TV writing are pretty different ballgames, but the skills and muscles you develop in one can certainly improve your abilities in the other. I'm very lucky to have worked on two shows created by playwrights (Sarah Treem and Aaron Sorkin), who have an instinctive respect for and deep understanding of the way language, character, and especially ideas function as part of traditional dramatic writing. On The Affair, my fellow writers include Sarah, as well as David Henry Hwang and Sharr White -- so we're pretty much just a group of playwrights making a TV show. It's fun.
Your book Tween Hobo: Off The Rails was published in 2014. Any plans to develop it in other forms?
No, I think after five long years I'm finally done with the grand Tween Hobo experiment. I did find out the other day that you can no longer scroll far enough back on the Twitter timeline to access all the old tweets, so I'm very happy that they now exist in book form and can be passed down to the next generation of tweens and/or hobos.
So, you've written for theatre, television, film and books. Where do you want to emphasize your attention in the immediate future?
I'm developing an original series for television with Anonymous Content (producers of The Knick, Mr. Robot, and True Detective). I'm very excited about this vision I have for TV and really hope I can make it happen.
What was your reaction to being named in Variety's '10 TV Writers to Watch'?
That was very nice!
What do you want The Geffen audience to leave with after ICEBERGS' curtain call?
I want people to feel closer to each other, to the actors on stage (and their characters), to their city, and to see that in the end, all we have to hold onto is each other.
Thank you, Alena!
To experience Alena's latest theatrical piece ICEBERGS (through December 18, 2016), log onto www.geffenplayhouse.org for schedule and ticket availability.