BWW Interview: Playwright Bekah Brunstetter On MISS LILLY & Her Other Writing Loves
The much in-demand playwright Bekah Brunstetter will west coast premiere her latest MISS LILLY GETS BONED in a Rogue Machine production opening September 21, 2019 at the Electric Lodge. Robin Larsen directs Brunstetter's story involving a captive elephant and its unexpected effects on a virginal Sunday school teacher. Bekah managed to find a few moments of what little spare time she has (between making last minute notes for MISS LILLY's opening, and penning the much anticipated musical adaptation of Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook) to answer a few of my queries.
Thank you for taking time for this interview, Bekah!
Can I say before we start talking MISS LILLY that I saw THE CAKE twice, first at the Atwater Village Theatre, and then at the Geffen. I loved that you showed that bigotry is not a simple black or white. How could you completely fault such a sweet little lady like Debra Jo Rupp???
Thank you so much! DJR is one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Soooo, what would your three-line pitch for MISS LILLY be?
I am so bad at these. This is why I love and need PR people. How about something like ELEPHANTS! SEX! SUNDAY SCHOOL!
Do you remember what particular incident sparked you to write MISS LILLY?
Yes! It was twelve years ago. A director buddy who I had a little theater company with back in the day sent me this New York Times Magazine article (An Elephant Crackup? by Charles Siebert), and said, 'You should write a play about this.' I love stories of animals being human, and so it gripped me instantly.
If you were composing an online profile for Miss Lilly on a dating site (played in this production by Larisa Oleynik), what qualities of her would you list?
Faithful, delicate, curious, good, weird.
What characteristics of Miss Lilly would you leave out?
Do you maintain hands-on for the various premieres (off-Broadway, west coast, etc.) of your plays?
I always, always, always try and be there for first productions as much as humanly possible. That's when you're really still learning so much about the play. Readings and workshops only partially get you there. Usually the first run ends and you're like, 'Oh, NOW I understand my play!' And then, if you're lucky, you get opportunities to keep revisiting it.
When does your script become set in stone? After workshops? After previews? Just before its first opening night?
Technical answer: just before opening. I try not to mess with the actors' lines and just let the play be what it is, for that particular production. But really, to me, a play is never done, because I am never done, or fixed, as a person. My brain is always absorbing, my heart is always shifting, and so do my plays.
When you're working a television day job, do you set time slots for yourself during your day for the sole purpose of writing your plays?
I think to work on a play fully, you have to be in a quiet, internal place in your heart and mind. It's hard to access that, say, on your lunch break or after a day of talking about other characters. So when I'm on a show, I tend to be able to get quick rewrites and a little bit of research done during the work week, but actual writing time is reserved for big weekend chunks. I tend to try and protect big chunks of time for myself whenever I can.
Compared to the brisk writing schedule of a weekly TV drama, do you take advantage of the more leisurely, less pressured time constraints to write your plays?
Since moving to L.A. and doing TV, I find it hard to start a new play in the grind of my regular life. So what I usually do, when starting a new play, is get out of town. I'll go to Solvang or Ojai or Idyllwild and hole up in a weird little hotel and spend a few days in silence, not talking to anyone, and write from that place. Being in an unfamiliar place, staring at strangers and mountains, eavesdropping; these things turn my brain on and make me feel like a magician or something, instead of just a person who drives to work every day. And I need to write from that magic place, especially when writing a first draft.
Do you ever work on more than one play at a time, switching back and forth?
I'll do rewrites on multiple things, but as for first drafts, definitely only one at a time. The characters are delicate and forming, and I can't jeopardize them by having too many new characters in my head at once.
Do your friends and family ever see themselves as characters in your plays?
Oh, for sure. Though it's a really common thing, among playwrights -- we're often surprised, when we write something that's REALLY about a person in our lives -- then that person sees it, and has no idea. I think it's because how we are perceived is vastly different from how we see ourselves.
You grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and now live in Los Angeles. If you could combine the best of both cities, how would you describe LAWS ?
This is a fascinating question that I don't even know how to answer! They are such different places. Maybe it's like: eating a really good breakfast biscuit on the beach?
How would you compare the times you found out that 1) you won a Playwright Realm Fellowship in 2011, and 2) you were nominated for a Outstanding Drama Emmy in 2017 for This Is Us?
To me, theater accomplishments are much more personal as they're just about my work. With the Playwrights Realm Fellowship, I was still pretty fresh out of grad school, and was so grateful for any support I got; it really kept me going both emotionally and financially. The Emmy nomination was equally amazing, but it's more of a shared feeling, the nomination is really not about You, it's about the show's creator and the team of writers behind him. So the joy is strong, but it's shared. Mostly I just felt really, really lucky to get to write for the show -- even more so than usual.
If financial compensation were not a factor, which medium of entertainment (television, film, theatre) would you prefer to write for?
THEATER FOREVER! Though honestly, TV is just getting so good, I'm loving it more and more. It's becoming more and more theatrical. I think it's because of all of the playwrights who are creating it these days.
Since you're in both of the creative Los Angeles communities of television and theatre, do you find that your fellow TV people support L.A. theatre? Or is L.A. theatre even on their entertainment radar?
Oh, totally! A lot of TV people are aware of what's happening in L.A. theater. I think TV people love a good story just as much as theater people do. And out here, there's such a large cross section of both industries. We're all storytellers, just in different ways.
How is THE NOTEBOOK musical you're writing coming along? Any dates set or tentative yet?
I have a very large crush on it. It has my heart. Working with Ingrid (Michaelson) has been amazing. We had our first official workshop this Summer at New York Stage and Film, which was really exciting and illuminating. We're now taking what learned and working on a new draft. No dates set quite yet!
What thoughts or emotions would you love the Rogue Machine audiences to leave with after MISS LILLY's curtain call?
It's interesting because Bekah in her 30s writes things that tend to be ultimately hopeful, life-affirming. I think it's because the world has become quite awful and dark, and I want to combat that with my plays. But Bekah in her 20s was INTO THAT DARKNESS, into tough questions about human nature. So I guess all I can hope is that an audience leaves thinking about their own nature, their own faith or lack thereof, and most importantly -- the truth that animals are infinitely more human than we ever allow them to be.
Thank you again, Bekah! I look forward to meeting your MISS LILLY.
For ticket availability and show schedule through October 28, 2019; log onto www.roguemachinetheatre.com