Catching Up with…Jeni Mahoney

Check out NYM Writer Jeni Mahoney in this Exclusive Madness interview:

What made you decide to create Seven Devils and do you feel like you are still doing it for the same reasons or have they changed over the years?

There are so many people who have participated in “creating” Seven Devils; I feel a little uncomfortable with the idea that I decide to create it – especially since I’m not sure I knew exactly what the “it” was when I started. But the original impulse was really a response to Lloyd Richards retiring from the National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill. I had been a playwright there in 1997, and was frankly amazed to have been selected at all. I didn’t have any connections or anything to really recommend me beyond the words on the page. It was so amazing to me that someone saw something in my work and decided to give me this tremendous gift of support.

When Lloyd retired a lot of things came together for me. It’s no secret that things changed at the O’Neill after Lloyd left – that’s what happens in these kinds of transitions. But there were things about my own experience that I valued very highly and I felt a responsibility to carrying those things forward, though at the time it was just a vague yearning or an itch or something.

The following year I was selected as a Finalist for the O’Neill. My husband and I were out in Idaho at a cabin that had come down to us through his family, and I sat on the porch stressing and getting nothing but nail biting done. It was horrible. When they finally officially rejected me – just days before the Conference – it was actually a relief. As I emerged by from the haze of anxiety I found myself looking over this gorgeous landscape – and thinking: Why am I trying so hard to get to Connecticut? What am I waiting for? Why don’t I just do it here? (kind of ironic since we didn’t work on one of my plays until 2010!)

Then, as new-agey as it sounds, I just started putting it out into the Universe and things started to happen: I connected with Sheila McDevitt of id Theater (who was also doing theater in New York City and Idaho) and Judy Anderson (who was teaching playwriting at the local high school and was on the Board of the Alpine Playhouse), and Paula Marchiel (who worked at the O’Neill under Lloyd and knew the nuts and bolts of how to make it all work). A number of O’Neillies stepped in generously in those years (and some still to this day) – each bringing what they loved about their O’Neill experience to the table: Mary f. McCabe, Amy Saltz, Gay Smith, Mara Lathrop, Elise Forier, Kevin Crowley, Bob Kerr, Sam McMurray, Christopher Curry (I know I’m forgetting someone) and I will be ever grateful to Lee Blessing who met me for coffee and after listening to my impassioned but naïve pitch agreed to be our first guest artist.

Of course this is all pre-kickstarter days so I just begged around and came up with money for airfare and beds for people to sleep in. There were just 13 of us that year, including the 4 playwrights. We all wore multiple hats: actor/carpenter, stage manager/lighting designer, director/actor/props and I was artistic director/assistant stage manager.

I don’t know if my reasons have shifted, but I have a stronger, clearer connection to my reasons now. That’s not really surprising – in the beginning I was just following my gut and learning what it all meant along the way. Just as in playwriting, moments of decision/action tend to reveal one’s true motivation – sometimes even to oneself. I think the Conference taught me why I had to do it (and why I bother with theater at all), and it continues to teach me.

In the beginning I had a sense that if we just focused on the plays and did the work the plays would get stronger, and ultimately they would get produced. For the most part, that turned to be true. But if that’s all it were, I probably would have stopped a few years ago – which is kind of ironic because we’ve had such a surge in Conference plays going on to high profile productions, awards, etc. And all those things are really nice, but last year when we rather dramatically lost our NEA funding just 6 months before the start of the Conference and thought we’d have to close shop, the thing that really motivated us all keep going was not some lofty idea about what we were doing or the importance of new plays; it was our connection to the community of McCall, and to the 400-some playwrights who’d sent us submissions.

If I’m honest about it, it would have truly been a relief to walk away from so many things that disgust me about the current theater culture in this country. But I couldn’t walk away from McCall: here was a situation that most theater companies dream of, where a community and group of artists had found a way to serve each other’s needs, and feel a stake and in each other’s success. For a decade they’d shown up for us, now I had to show for them. I went to the Convening of the National New Play Institute at Arena Stage with a fire in my belly – to stand up for McCall, and for communities like McCall. I figured, if we’re going down, we’re not going to go down quietly – I was like the freakin’ Lorax down there! Luckily, of course, we didn’t sink – thanks in great part to our dual communities: McCall and playwrights. And that’s saying something, because McCall has been sitting on 16-17% unemployment for a while now, and we all know how much extra dough playwrights have lying around.

2.  We’re inundated with Theatre here in New York, so what’s the best thing about bringing Seven Devils to the community in Idaho and how did you make that leap? 

Good one! The question of making the leap to an Idaho audience is an important one to address. The truth is – because we started out more interested in play development than community relations (we really didn’t expect the community to come out in huge numbers) we just selected plays that we loved and that fit our mission. In the early years we had some entertaining and dramatic walk-outs. In our second year three couples left just moments into a play because an inter-racial couple was making out on a table. But over time audiences realized that if they stayed to the end we’d have a talkback and they could tell us what bothered them. One thing I need to say here is that at our talkbacks, the audience talks and we listen – so we don’t try to talk people out of their responses, or “educate” them, or explain to them. We just hear them. So when someone would come back the next day and complain about the material we’d say “oh, I wish you’d stayed and said that at the talkback, that would have been really useful to hear.” Eventually people realized we meant it.

Then, in 2007 when we worked on Sam Hunter’s “I Am Montana,” which includes a scene of man-on-man total hot make-out, much to our surprise everyone stayed. Everyone. In the talkback a few folks did say that they didn’t like the “gay” stuff, but they were glad that they didn’t walk out because the play was about something much more important than that.

So long story short, we’ve never shifted what we do to cater to the sensibilities of what so many people assume an Idaho audience would be able “handle” (there are a lot of limited, often insulting, ideas out there about what rural audiences can “handle.”) We’ve kept a open dialogue with the community and they’ve come to understand what we’re doing and why their point of view plays an important role in our process. As a result, folks in McCall really know how to talk about new work. And – here is the best part – they don’t have an agenda, or a need to be smart or fix or any of that other clutter. They get to see great new plays for free, and in exchange they stay after and tell us what they saw and it how if affected them.

In a rather infamous talkback, I told a rude audience member who refused to follow our protocol that he had to leave. After he stormed out with a flourish a handful of first time audience members got up to leave, but rest of the audience enjoined them to stay. I literally sat on stage and watched the audience members explain the purpose of the Conference to each other! What more can you ask?!

Now, there are plays I would not do in Idaho. When we first started out folks in town would pull me aside and plead: “don’t bring us any of those New York-y plays.” I totally got what they meant – plays that don’t speak to things that are of interest to them (as I used to define it: Manhattan dinner party with a rich writer and/or tenured professor, his high powered wife, his surly estranged child and his lover who is either a student or dude). Luckily, I am not interested in those plays, and they generally don’t really fit our mission (yes, there are exceptions to this and to everything).

I think a lot of folks would be surprised to learn a play that did really well with us was “Veils” by Tom Coash, a two-hander featuring an African-American Muslim woman at American University in Cairo, and her Egyptian roommate, making a video about Veils. While the audience was really engaged in learning more about veils and how women related to them the play worked for us was because it was about trying to hold together a friendship in the face of differing cultures, politics and religion – people identified with the challenge of being a Baptist with a Mormon friend, or example. Or “The Garden of Monsters” by Mara Lathrop – which a follows a American Jewish family from the death camps of World War II into an unknown future. It spoke our decidedly non-Jewish audience because it challenged all of us to hold tightly to hope, and who doesn’t need that?

3.  What plans do you have for the future of id Theater and Seven Devils? 

Survival. And I don’t know what that looks like at this point.

The dirty little secret is that for much of the year id Theater is me, Sheila and Paula and we spend much of year working for free while also juggling other jobs and family life. My own “real” life includes my beautiful daughter, now seven, who is blind, non-verbal and physically disabled and of course, along the way I’m a playwright myself and more and more that really has just fallen by the wayside. People think we’re sitting in an office somewhere all day reading plays, but mostly we’re dancing as fast as can – and if one of us falls down the others just have to dance harder and faster and hope no one notices.

One thing I’d really love to do (with all my free time) is find ways to share our process more widely. I’d love to see more places like Seven Devils. Sure, it would be great if we had more money and got paid more. And we could try to get bigger and look and function more like a “traditional” theater – because funders tend to think we’re not “big” enough and our model feels sort of backwards to them (we don’t charge admission to anything we do)… but I think it would be even greater if could get greater momentum around the benefit of staying small, of being an organization that a communities can embrace and connect with in a meaningful way. It’s a much more cost effective way to develop plays and to develop audiences that have an interest in and appetite for new work. The freedom we gain in staying small allows us to make big choices that we really couldn’t otherwise make. It allows us to focus on creating art, not creating and administering programs and grants and paperwork and flashy media.

4.  I know there are countless, but pick a few favorite “impossible plays” that came out of Seven Devils and where have they gone since?

“The Garden of Monsters” which I wrote of above fits that category – I LOVE this play! You can purchase it at http://www.indietheaternow.com/ which has a collection of Seven Devils plays. It went on to production at Key City Public Theater – an adventurous theater that I adore in Port Townsend, Washington.

A lot of folks would have called Jennifer Haley’s “Neighborhood #3: Requisition of Doom” impossible at the time, but now that seems kind of silly and limited. It went on to the HumanaFestival and number of other productions. I’d say the same of “American Midget” by Jonathan Yukich – it’s not impossible technically, but I think it makes people nervous because they aren’t really sure why how or why it works. It had an extended and sold-out run at The Met Theater in L.A. It’s also available at www.indietheaternow.com, and watch for it this summer at the NY Fringe!

“Up At the Lab” by Gary Leon Hill, based on interviews with folks living around Los Alamos – such a powerful piece of theater and it so resonated with our audience. I think people read it and think it’s impossible or too wordy or doesn’t have the kind of narrative drive they’re looking for. But it’s a play where the need comes from someplace sort of unexpected: from a shared need the characters have – and the audience has – to be seen and heard. It was a remarkable and very moving experience. It’s a shame that it hasn’t had a full production yet.

“Four Beers” by David Van Vleck, which is basically some guys sitting around at a table in a bar talking to each other when they are unable to watch the football game on television. It turned out to be a great and very moving piece and actually attracted some macho smoke-jumpers who had never been to live theater before – some of whom have now become regulars. It went onto a number of productions including one in New York at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. It’s also available at www.indietheaternow.com.

“The Tragedy of the Brothers Lafferty” by Ben Verschoor a McCall, Idaho native who first joined us as a playwright while still in high school. When he was in college he wrote this fascinating and tremendously ambitious American tragedy in five acts….totally in IAMBIC PENTAMETER! And it works! We matched Ben with Robert Schenkkan (“The Kentucky Cycle”) as a mentor and he had a cast that included everyone from the high school football coach to Julliard grads with tons of classical experience. While the play itself is still awaiting production (sigh), it did help Ben earn a scholarship so he could transfer to a four-year college, and he made The Dramatists Magazine list of 50-to-Watch. Sometimes the impact isn’t a production – sometimes the impact is about life, as in the case of the special needs student who never spoke but who wrote the most moving and marvelous play about a boy talking to his dog as they were on the way to the vet to have him put down. The audience was stunned to discover what was going on in this young man’s head, and his mother came to us tearfully afterward and said she had no idea her son could write because all they ever told her was that he couldn’t spell. There is something of overcoming the impossible in that.

I also want to mention “Milo At The Movies” book by Tom Diggs, music and lyrics by Mark Gaylord because it’s an original American musical – everyone know how impossible it is to get one of those produced – and sure, taking on a full-length musical in four days sounds totally bonkers. Someone seriously stood up in the talkback and gave me a hard time for only giving it one showing (which is what everyone gets!) It’s so timely and smart and the music is gang-busters. It truly makes me wonder what is wrong with the world when I see a play like that still waiting.

Gosh there are so many more I could list and I really hate leaving anyone out! But I’ll say this: people say a lot of things are impossible. We never believe them.

5.  NYMadness owes you a lot!  Your Theme Madness for us was Order/Chaos and the work you contributed really set the bar for our entire company’s future.  With all that was happening in your life at that time it would have been easy for you to pull out, but you didn’t.  What kept you writing? 

Oh well, thanks, shucks. Full disclosure: I was diagnosed with breast cancer just around that time, and you know how doctors are – suddenly everyone is rushing around to poke needles in you and get you into surgery. It probably would have been easy enough for a normal or sane person to pull out at that point, but it was only with encouragement – intense encouragement bordering on bossiness – that was able to even accept the fact that I wouldn’t make it to the actual performance just due to medical scheduling.

But I was so honored that you asked me, and as a playwright who also produces I really didn’t want to bail just as you were launching this great project. Not only does it suck to have someone bail, it can be dispiriting. I had some vague idea of something I could write – which didn’t work at all – and then I got this idea of having Helene Gresser play me and it all just started to come together. Seriously, she is like me but younger, taller, thinner and she’s a comedian. And at the time, the idea of being able to take this sort of train wreck that was my physical being, and pour it all into Helene just really spoke to me.

I also had Jared and Becca at my disposal as actors… and why wouldn’t I want to be either one of them, rather than myself in that moment? In some ways I think it was some of the most personal and honest writing I’ve done in that it was very directly and literally addressing my own demons and that was very liberating and sort of joyful in a weird way. Throughout the piece the character of Jeni keeps trying to remember something her acting teacher said to her (Henson Keys, who was my acting teacher at O.U.) – and that part is true, he told me I had to learn to embrace my chaos and in that moment that’s what I had to do. So I guess I just threw all these true things into a bag and that’s what came out.

In the end I’m glad I did it, and bummed I wasn’t there for it – but I’m so grateful to everyone who pulled it all together and made it work!

6.  Final question, I promise!  You’re the Head of the Playwriting Program for Playwrights Horizons Theatre School at NYU Tisch and clearly everyone thinks highly of you as a teacher and a playwright.  What is something that you discovered about your own writing by teaching others? 

Wow, this is a tough question. I learn so much from teaching, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said something and thought to myself “shoot, I think I need to know that – I should write that down!” Teaching has certainly made me more rigorous in my own work – but rigorous in a productive way. I spend a lot of time with students trying to get them into the practice staying curious and rigorous without standing in judgment (of themselves or others), something I think I don’t think I ever really thought about concretely until I started teaching. I also think I’ve come to look at plays more holistically; all my students know that there are two words that will drive me bonkers: tweak and fix. Yuck!

Those aren’t really things that I’ve discovered about my own writing – they’re more about the craft and practice of playwriting, something I could go on and on about, but I feel like I’ve gone on quite a bit already.

For More information about Jeni  and her works visit:

http://www.jenimahoney.com/

 

 

Photo Credits –

All photos by Sara Jessup

American Midget by Jonathan Yukich: Brooke Herzog, Peter O’Connor, Ed Baker and Mary Portser

Garden of Monsters by Mara Lathrop: Sara Nina Hayon and Keith Edie

I Am Montana by Samuel D. Hunger: Doug Paulson, Haynes Thigpen and Denis Butkus

Milo at the Movies, book by Tom Diggs, music & lyrics by Mark Gaylord

Up At The Lab by Gary Leon Hill: Mando Alvarado  and Christopher Curry

Veils by Thomas Coash: Dawn-Lyen Gardner and Sarah Nina Hayon