Conversations: An Interview With Author Rebecca Goldstein

By Cole Bubenik

The first issue of Feminine Inquiry comes out in mid-May. In preparation for our inaugural issue, we’ve invited a few of our soon-to-be published authors to talk a little bit more about their pieces in a new series we’re calling “Conversations.” First on the interviewing block is author Rebecca Goldstein, whose play “Please Get Off the Street,” graces the humble pages of our inaugural issue.

Full disclosure, I know Rebecca, in fact, I know a number of the people that submitted or got published to the journal. But truth be told, I didn’t know that Rebecca submitted this play. Submissions were blind, and all I had in front of me was Rebecca’s wonderful play.

Rebecca, or to be proper, I should say refer to her by her last name, Goldstein, and I met at U.T. in a shared Gay and Lesbian Lit and Culture class taught by Professor Ann Cvetkovich. I remember meeting Rebecca and I remember a number of conversations we had in class. I remember talking to her about plays and other literary theories, and I remember her inviting me to a play she had directed on campus, and me being too busy to go. It was one of those rare, regretful moments which you look back on years later and wish you had made a different decision. But now, after reading her play, I feel simultaneously at ease and conflicted: glad I got to read her work, but curious as to how it would unfold on stage.

After Rebecca accepted our publication request, I went right to work on crafting questions. I opened her play up and sat listening to music, scribbling down questions and points of interest in an intense fury. I emailed her my questions and waited eagerly for her response. Not to my surprise (when I briefly knew her, Rebecca always seemed like a particularly bubbly and friendly person), she eagerly and elaborately responded to each of the questions. What follows below is a transcript of those questions and answers. Enjoy.

Cole: You play a lot on the idea of characters, Audrey and John, talking but not necessarily communicating. There’s sort of a rich history of this in the play world isn’t there? I think of the few plays I’ve read, This is Our Youth, or Women of Manhattan, where characters seem to monologue or break into these long conversations where communication isn’t the chief function. Does this make sense or am I just rambling here? Are you influenced by this time of communication, or, rather, how do you see it working within Please, Get Off The Street.

Rebecca: So often in life, we talk but we don’t listen to each other, especially in times of conflict. We’re often talking but we not necessarily communicating. I think we see this in plays because it feels accurate to real dialogue and conversation. Further, a play where people communicate really clearly and effectively disallows conflict, which is often essential to the story.

In Please, Get off The Street, Audrey is very emotionally sensitive. In every experience, she notices the smell, taste, sound, looks and touch of an experience. This gives her brain a lot more data to work with in her life. Perhaps I placed the monologues where they are so the audience can get a sense of how important each of these memories truly are to Audrey. Each sense in each memory helps her form her identity.

Cole: Who are you inspired by in general? I mentioned some plays in the earlier question, but I’d like to know personally where you draw your literary spirit from.

Rebecca: First, I officially love the saying “literary spirit” after just reading it in your question. I think everyone should have some sort of “literary spirit.”

Without trying to sound too vain, I think my first literary spiritual guide is myself. I feel more comfortable telling stories that I can relate to or that I have seen or experienced. At the heart of every story I write, there is a small piece of myself. That doesn’t mean I’m Audrey and I wrote this play about my life. It just means that the ideas for a lot of my plays spring from a feeling I’ve had before in my life.

After me, there are a handful of people who I respect and admire, some are close friends and family, some are mentors and some are actually random people who I momentarily interact with. I’m a part-time writing and dance teacher and find kids to be wonderful literary spirits. Their words, creativity and perspective are all incredibly relevant, accurate and imaginative. I also had four memorable professors in college who really inspired me to feel comfortable with my own feelings and to use these feelings to live well and write well. And Virginia Woolf- she is my favorite author and a wonderful writer. I often think of her stories when I am writing.

At the heart of every story I write, there is a small piece of myself. That doesn’t mean I’m Audrey and I wrote this play about my life. It just means that the ideas for a lot of my plays spring from a feeling I’ve had before in my life.

Cole: What does it mean to write a play? Why a play and why not a short story or a piece of poetry? Where did this desire come from?

 Rebecca: To be honest, I have no clue what it means to write a play. For where I am right now in this moment, it means having dialogue, stage directions and a title in a piece of writing. I guess it also means imagining a production and development process for the work.

I love poetry and short stories and I avidly read and write both. There is something, however, about performance that is so wonderful to me. In fact, I prefer spoken-word poetry to reading poetry because I think it is so powerful and wonderful to see another living and breathing person engaging with a story outside of a page.

Seeing someone else access and emotional experience that perhaps I have once experienced- even if it’s only an actress/actor- can very much validate my own experience. Further, people often write plays or musicals about uncomfortable things that no one talks about in everyday life. So the desire to write plays comes from a want to validate others and to talk about subjects that no one else will talk about in everyday life.

Though I now have a plethora of interests in the play world, the first play/musical I really connected to was Wicked. I was around 13-14 when I saw it and I felt so connected to the main character, Elphaba. She and I were both outsiders who just wanted to be loved and accepted AND seek love and acceptance for others. I thought I was the only one who felt this way but after seeing Wicked, I was empowered and validated that feeling like an outsider was normal and that other young girls my age felt this way too.

Seeing someone else access and emotional experience that perhaps I have once experienced- even if it’s only an actress/actor- can very much validate my own experience.

I just want other woman and girls to know that it’s normal for your first time at the gynecologist to feel incredibly awkward, you know? They didn’t quite cover that one in Wicked. Also, I want them to know other things too- but if there is any take away from this play- it’s that.

Cole: What about your artistic process? How do you create the plays you create/how do you get into the artistic spirit?

Rebecca: I actually often start with a poem or short story or memory written on the corner of a napkin. I think poems and short stories get to the point a lot quicker than plays. I like turning them into plays because I’m already covered in the depth department. I get to add fun things- like back-stories for my characters and weird props flying from the ceiling. One of the best things about playwriting that some others may not know is that it is really important to know a lot about your characters and the world they live in whether or not it is written down. When you really think about a person, a whole person, everyone has an interesting story.

This play sprung from an essay I wrote in a college class (that we were in together) about a memory I had of my brothers and I playing field hockey when we were younger. I then wrote it into a 10-minute play because there are about 700 ten-minute play contests in the world today. I decided to add more scenes, however, and so on. It is actually still pretty short for a play. I will likely try to add more if it ever goes into production or maybe just for fun. As far as getting into the artistic spirit, I try to listen as best I can to the world around me and find the moments, words, feelings, and actions that are interesting to me and that I think could be interesting to others. I also like to hand-write really good ideas before ever typing them. Seriously, it’s a high to hand-write what you think is a really good idea. It probably isn’t a good idea, but the hand and the heart still feel fulfilled.

Cole: Loneliness is also a central theme in your piece. It’s something that I personally love about your play: two people together but simultaneously lonely—if I’m not being too presumptuous here. It’s something I write about a lot too, and, from our interactions in the past, I know that you’ve also had a bit of interest in the idea of loneliness before. Is this accurate? Do you see this theme of loneliness coming up in your piece? If so, why loneliness? 

Rebecca: I think growing up and finding the puzzles pieces of your identify can be really lonely. The stakes are harder for Audrey because her Mom dies at a young age. However, growing up for anyone comes with it’s own set of struggles. When we’re young, people try to protect us from harm but as we get older, you just can’t. Moreover, as we get older the emotional and physical trauma is only more likely to increase. I see this play as several moments in Audrey’s memory in which she learns how to identify as a woman. I’m no expert because I’m still growing up: I’m 25, and I’m not sure there is necessarily an age when you stop growing but maybe there is an age where it is less important. However, in my experience growing up involves learning that the people we love cannot always protect us- so much so that sometimes they end up being the ones who do hurt us. In order to continue relationships and maintain valuable human connections, we have to always try to be here for ourselves. Learning to rely on ourselves so that we can safely make connections to others is complicated and lonely. Believing and loving yourself is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and will continue to do.

I’m 25, and I’m not sure there is necessarily an age when you stop growing but maybe there is an age where it is less important.

Further, society doesn’t always help. Today more than other times, we recognize that if you are not a white Christian male, than you have less privilege than others. Further, society often stigmatizes those who seem different than white Christian male (that is a lot of people). No matter how strong your community or sense of self, it never feels good to feel less than or stigmatized. I think we can also often feel alone in our trauma because when it happens, it happens to us. We can’t always stop bad things from happening but we can find ways to cope more effectively with trauma. Creating safer spaces for people who are different or people who experience trauma might make our world a little safer.

I write plays to tell other people they don’t have to be alone in their sadness and trauma. That’s what plays do, I think, they connect little dots in each audience member to a dot in the play. I always say that if one moment of my play can elicit some sort of feeling in an audience member or reader, than I feel like I’ve done my job. Even if it is a negative feeling- we are a little bit connected to each other now and perhaps a little less lonely.

Cole: Your play relies heavily on the use of small sets and limited objects to tell the stories. Is this a conscious choice?

 Rebecca: Yes. Quite often I get too wrapped up in scenery. I feel like this play takes place in Audrey’s memory rather than one specific place. Audrey’s emotional experience of moments in her life set an emotional landscape for each scene that I don’t feel need a lot of props or scenery. I’m really invested in movement and imagery in general, and I love the image of Audrey wearing all catcher’s gear over a really feminine and beautiful pink tutu. I think it is a great symbol for the time and space of the play. I think people sometimes start in a sort of set “outfit” when they enter the world, like a tutu and catcher’s gear, and it’s all about the choices we make to get out of it or to tighten certain parts or to move around in it. It’s also one of the reasons I like to write “maybe” in my stage directions because I don’t know what it looks like exactly. I have an idea of what it feels like or what it sounds like, but I don’t always know what this could look like. I would love to see this play performed with a director who also sees this picture in his/her head and wants to figure it out. It’s so much more fun to have questions than answers.

Cole: I had a question about the voices, or the break up between scenes, which is read as a mesh of a number of different voices. You say this can be pre-recorded or performed live. How do you see this working out, how should it sound exactly and why break up these scenes with a disembodied—potentially pre-recorded voice from the past?

Rebecca: The recorded aspect comes from practicality. There are very few characters in this play and I think it would be difficult for them all to yell and scream in between scenes. I also like the idea of us not knowing all the voices that are speaking. So much happens between these memories and the voices that cut them off. Who knows who else may have had a voice in Audrey’s journey? Further, I wanted to play with the tone and length and style of the voices. You can do this most easily with a great sound engineer!

I write plays to tell other people they don’t have to be alone in their sadness and trauma. That’s what plays do, I think, they connect little dots in each audience member to a dot in the play.

Cole: One of the things I liked about your play were some of the scene directions. There’s one line in particular in which you say “Before Scene 1, we are alone with Audrey on stage. Audrey is alone, maybe we—the audience—should feel that.”

This use of “maybe” within the context of scene directions really spoke to me. I think there’s this idea that the director should know exactly how each scene should be played out, and the use of maybe seems to undermine the writer’s/director’s overall control of the universe. However, in this case, you’re almost sympathizing with the audience and with Audrey, saying that maybe we should feel her sense of loneliness, but then again, maybe we shouldn’t. As if you don’t want to be too direct, you don’t want to demand we feel anything, but, at the very least you want to tease us to feel something akin to loneliness—if we deem it appropriate.

Is this all a conscious choice on your part? How do you navigate the landscape between author and director, general writer and playwriter? Is there such a thing as too much information, and if so, how much is too much?

Rebecca: I never want to tell my audience how to feel and I never want to tell them that there is one solution to a problem. Every audience member or reader will experience a play or reading in his or her own brains and bodies. I never want to take that away from anyone. For me, writing plays is about making small connections with other people and offering ideas and suggestions for how we might go about making our world better. This extends to the collaborative team working on the play.

I wrote the play but in order to produce it, it takes collaborators who have their own opinions and feelings about the work. It really truly takes a village to produce an on stage play and there are some questions I’m still asking that I think these villagers will have intriguing answers to. I also want to constantly ask my audience questions rather than give them answers. I think unclear or curious stage directions will tell a director/reader the importance that this moment be accessible to a lot of different minds. The way teams work on new plays is quite different than the way a team might work on a more well-known and older play. Therefore, in a new play, the people who create the first production all have a huge hand in the story.

My junior year at U.T. I got to hear Steven Dietz, playwright and playwriting/directing professor at U.T., speak at St. Edwards University. One person asked him, “How do you cast your plays?”

He responded, “I like to cast people who can tell me something about the character that I didn’t already know.”

I’ll never forget this. I basically take it as, I like to collaborate with people who have interesting insights and passions about whatever story I’m trying to tell that I have not thought about. So the “maybes” and the “?” in the stage directions are little invitations to those people to challenge the story, add onto it, and well, care for it as much as I do.

I also want to constantly ask my audience questions rather than give them answers. I think unclear or curious stage directions will tell a director/reader the importance that this moment be accessible to a lot of different minds.

Cole: Tell us a little about you, if you wouldn’t mind. Or, if you would mind, answer a question that I didn’t ask you but that you’ve always wanted to answer. Is there anything I left out, anything you’re still itching to talk about?

Rebecca: I guess I’m itching to say this: I don’t want 11 year old girls growing up being afraid that they will be raped. I want people to feel more comfortable talking about sex and love and consent and trauma and sadness and feelings. I want that because it is what works for me and it makes me feel safer. If it doesn’t work for you, than I’d rather you do what does work for you.

Unlike Audrey’s mother, my mother is very much alive. She, in fact, is a breast cancer survivor. There is only a small sentiment of this in the play- but I also want young girls to know that watching your mother suffer from something like breast cancer is one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced. It happens far too often and as their daughters, sisters, etc. –it’s okay to have your own story in the mix. It’s also something I constantly fear for myself and talk openly about with my mom. My mother is the strongest woman I’ve ever known. Without her in my life, I wouldn’t ever feel safe writing about these topics.

Creating safe spaces where your loved ones can be independent and with you is a precious gift.

[ssba]

The author

Cole Bubenik is the Co-managing editor of The Feminine Inquiry, a short story writer, and a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. English. He writes things which are domestic, apocalyptic, fantastic, romantic, and at all times queer.

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