BWW Interview: Liza Birkenmeier Talks Observation, Expression and New Play DR. RIDE'S AMERICAN BEACH HOUSE
On June 18, 1983 Dr. Sally Ride, an accomplished astronaut and physicist, became the first American woman in space as a crew member on Space Shuttle Challenger for STS-7. The act was unprecedented and became known as not only one but two history making moments as Dr. Ride also became the first woman to ever operate the shuttle's robotic arm during her time aboard it.
Now, playwright Liza Birkenmeier uses this unforgettable time in history as the backdrop for her latest production, fittingly titled Dr. Ride's American Beach House. Birkenmeier, who has numerous productions under her belt and is not only an alum of Ars Nova's Play Group but also the 2019-2020 Tow Foundation Playwright-In-Residence, is once more working with Ars Nova to present the world premiere of this new play.
Set in 1983, the play follows three women on the night of Dr. Sally Ride's historic space flight as they sit atop a St. Louis rooftop. Hundreds of miles from the flight and grappling with their own desires that rally against the American norms of sex and power, these three characters help create an intimate picture of queer, anti-heroines.
Together with director KATIE BROOK, with whom Birkenmeier has collaborated with on various productions before, Dr. Ride's American Beach House premieres at Ars Nova at Greenwich House from October 21-November 23.
Birkenmeier took the time to chat with BroadwayWorld about the upcoming production.
What initially was the inspiration for this production?
I was fixated on Sir Francis Bacon, who developed the scientific method in the seventeenth century. Through reading his work, especially his unfinished novel, I got "excited" to discuss the foundational flaws of what we think of as observation and fact. We talk a lot about facts when we justify our beliefs, even though most of us don't rely upon facts when forming opinions or making decisions. The play is not about Sir Francis Bacon at all, though; it is about people hanging out on a rooftop in St. Louis in the summer of 1983.
Could you tell me a little bit about what your writing process is like when creating a show?
My process feels different with everything I write except that usually it's impossible to tell that the first draft of a piece is related to later drafts. The first version of Dr. Ride's American Beach House had a different title, story, characters, and aesthetic. A lot of this particular process felt novel to me; we're working in behavioral naturalism, which is, of course, not a new idea for the theater, but unusual for my writing. The effort felt collaborative, and relied upon the actual dynamics of performers in the room. The script felt like an instrument to examine or magnify present energies and voices. As we revised and re-imagined the script through workshops and rehearsal, I felt a sort of surgical smallness about the use of text.
Dr. Ride's American Beach House opens soon, so what has the creative journey been like to get it stage-ready?
This has been a fantastically supported process. I have never had the luxury of a single organization using this much time or this many resources to explore a play from inception to full production. I was able to work with the director, Katie, several performers, and the staff of Ars Nova on an ever-emerging series of ideas and pages. The play had two years of on-the-page and in-workshop development before we were working with designers, who brought so much wisdom and perspective to the piece. The experience has been full.
This piece is Ars Nova's next Off-Broadway production, and you're not only an alum of Ars Nova's Play Group but also now the 2019-2020 Tow Foundation Playwright-In-Residence. How did you first become involved with Ars Nova and what's it been like working with them?
I first got involved with Ars Nova in 2014 when I got to be a member their Play Group. I interviewed with Emily Shooltz and Jason Eagan, and sensed-hoped-immediately that I would be invited into their artistic space. I loved how they talked about and programmed work, and since my pieces slide between methods and genres, their approach felt inspiring and welcoming. To work with them in this capacity-my time with them through creating this show, and my time as their Tow Playwright-In-Residence is profoundly enriching. To experience this amount of trust from a theater, to get to be this creatively familiar with them over this amount of years, is the biggest gift I can imagine.
What's it been like working with KATIE BROOK for this production?
I've been working with Katie since we were in school together. She is a close friend, and we've developed pieces together that drastically vary in how they're conceptualized, devised, and produced. I can't imagine having this "first" without her. We're working in a genre and scale that is new for both of us. It's exciting and meaningful. Katie has a rare sensibility; she's brave and odd and so driven by conceptual curiosity. I admire her imagination; she keeps me in awe of work.
Describe Dr. Ride's American Beach House in three words?
Queer sky fiction.
Why should audiences come see this show?
This play literally elevates what has historically been underground. The people in this piece lead uniformed lives with trapped desire and expression. They usually don't have words for their wants or platforms for the most truthful or joyful performances of themselves. The rooftop (of this play) is a place where they can be their most expressive, unproductive, undefended selves. I hope it's a little antidote to all kinds of repression.
What do you hope audiences take away from seeing it?
I hope that people look at reality with a brand-new unease. But if not, I'd be happy for people to walk away with a refreshed sense of their power of observation and their power in being observed.
Production Photo Credit: Danny Bristoll