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A CurtainUp Interview
Lucy Thurber on the occasion of The Hill Town Plays Festival
By LucyAnn Dunlap
The Hill Town Plays are set in western Massachusetts where Thurber grew up. Each has a central girl as a character, who is and isn't Thurber herself. In the first play chronologically, Scarcity, playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre, we meet the family, the girl as a preteen; in Ashville also at the Cherry Lane, she is teenager exploring her self and her sexuality; in When We're Born playing at the Rattlestick Theatre, she is now a college student returning home for a break; in Killers and Other Family playing at Axis Theatre, she is a graduate student finishing her university degree when two people from her hometown show up to stir up her life with her lesbian lover; in Stay playing at The New Ohio Theatre, she is a successful writer who is teaching at a university. With Stay Thurber has mixed in a more fantastical style with her naturalistic world, and foreshadows work that she has done more recently.
Four of the plays have been produced before, some at The Rattlestick, but Ashville is a world premiere. Here's a link to Elyse Sommer's review which includes details about the current cast, directors and creative team for the current productions, as well as links to the original Curtainup review.
I talked with Thurber after seeing all but one of her plays and when she was still visiting each of them herself, making final adjustments to the scripts. We met at the Rattlestick Theatre, and to find a quiet place to talk, we climbed a spiraling metal staircase to the light booth. Even in this tiny aerie crowded with equipment, she made me feel comfortable with her warm youthful manner, generous smiles, and frequent laughter. Usually, a retrospective of plays by one playwright happens late in the writer's career. Thurber is 43.
LAD: How did it feel when you learned that you were going to have this five-play cycle done?
LT: Are you kidding? It was a beautiful and crazy surprise.
LAD: I overheard the artistic director (David Van Asselt) telling someone who was interviewing him that he had the idea for the Thurber series ten years ago.
LT: I had no concept of that. I had fantasized that these plays would get done at the same time at some point in my life. I had thought they might be done simultaneously in some way because they really are five pieces of the greater whole, even though each stands alone as an individual play. Maybe like when I was in my late 80s. During my 90s if I was lucky enough. That was thinking I'd have the perseverance to stay in the business that long, it could happen. So, it's been an interesting surprise.
LAD: Do you have other plays that would fit into the cycle?
LT: No, I have other plays, but they would not fit as part of the cycle. I have a play called Monstrosity which is a thirty-person play with a fascist army of teenagers who sing, dream twins who ride a double bicycle, all in a post apocalyptic America. And then I have a play with music called Dillingham City and another play called Bottom of the World with a bluegrass band in a tree.
LAD: They sound very different from The Hill Town Plays. Have you exhausted your early life source?
LT: Ideally, I think my perspective has gotten larger. In some way I think I'm always writing about the same things. I'm concerned with class in America. I'm concerned with the non-existence of the middle class. I concerned that there isn't a fair amount of representation— calling it the 99% versus the one percent. I actually think it is not that clear cut. There are all these pockets of invisibility in America, what I consider the culture of poverty.
As I've gotten older and been exposed to more I see as Western culture in general, I think that my work attempts to approach, not from the top, but from the bottom. For example, the story that's very popular and always gets done is the story of the teacher who goes into a bad neighborhood and often she goes into a neighborhood that is mostly black, but sometimes white, and she is usually white herself and if not, she's educated and returning to the ghetto. Not a stereotype, but the genre. And she goes in and finds out that poor people are people too. She can teach them something and they can teach her something.
LAD: That's the story you use in Scarcity.
LT: Yes. My perspective is switching the paradigm and viewing this from the people's point of view. I've reworked that character in Scarcity to reveal that the problems aren't just the poor people's problems. I hope that this character in this play is equally complicated and pathetic as the family and beautiful and ugly as the family. Ideally, by the end of the play, in some way or another, the audience feels part of that family and can feel things from that family's perspective and can see how desperately those children need to get out of there — and how intelligent those parents were at some point and how the context of their lives have trapped them and how they could have made different choices. However, if you're struggling for survival, the choices that you make are very immediate: so that you can keep food on the table. And I think that in isolated cultures where there are not a lot of options, a lot of money. Again I'm kind of generalizing what seems to be a culture of alcohol and drug addition. Those things are instantaneous comfort.
LAD: I can relate to the background of poverty, but I lived on a farm in South Carolina. We had food. But I can connect to your people. The escape for my family was religion. You've made the setting in western Massachusetts very real. Scarcity was the first play that I saw in this series. That last scene with the look on the face of the young girl haunts me.
LT: That's a wonderful performance. I'm very proud of this production— from the direction, to the performances, to the lighting.
LAD: It was very strong. You talked about doing rewrites. Did you do major rewrites on all of the plays?
LT: None of them got out untouched. Stay is basically a new play. "Ashville" has never been done before. I worked a lot on that and I'm very happy with them now. Stay and Ashville are just going into their second week of previews, so I think the cast and the director and I are pleased. We are working until the last — until you can't work any more — making changes during rehearsal. Stay had its last change three days ago. They got a brand new ending on that play last week. We made substantial changes in Ashville right through the second preview. And there have been a couple of little trims here and there. I'm not touching them any more at the moment.
Stay was done before here [at Rattlestick.] This is the second time David's produced it and it is a substantially different play. The characters are the same and there are parts of the script that you would recognize from the published play. But it has been vastly rewritten. In it I'm experimenting with language and structure. It breaks open and is very different structurally from the first four plays in the series.
LAD: You've written about your family.
LT: And the people I've grown up with.
LAD: Tell me about your family. What was your father like? What did he do?
LT: I don't know my father.
LAD: I don't either. He dumped us down on the farm when I was one year old.
LT: So you know how that goes.
LAD: I could tell you stories, but this interview is about you. (We both laugh.)
LT: We'll have to get together another time over coffee. I know my father's name and about five or six years ago found out what he looked like. It was an amazing thing. So I'm the product of a single mother. Her family, the Thurbers, is fallen American aristocracy who lost their money. I was raised on welfare. My mother and her brothers sorta had the last of an elite education. This was lucky for me ultimately because my mother went to college so I was raised with the idea of higher education which was the primary difference between me and the people I grew up around.
LAD: Tell me more about your mother.
LT: She had an adventurous soul. So we were all over the country until I was nine. Always rural places and we would bounce back to Connecticut where my grandparents were. But we ended up in Western Mass when I was nine. My growing up from then was there. My mom remained in Western Massachusetts well into my adulthood. She's in Texas now near family there.
LAD: What work did your mother do to make ends meet other than the welfare checks?
LT: She worked a lot of different jobs, everything from cleaning to teaching English as a second language.
LAD: How did she react when she saw Scarcity and your other plays where there is a mother?
LT: Weirdly we haven't really ever discussed the mothers in my plays.
LAD: Do you have brothers and sisters?
LT: No I'm an only child.
LAD: Well, who is the model for the brother in the plays?
LT: He's a collection of many things. The boys are the boys I grew up with, different faces of the boys I grew up with. Among the boys, there was one boy that I considered my big brother. The nicer aspects of the boys are based on him. The brother and sister in the first play (Scarcity) are the grown up same brother and sister as adults in the last play (Stay). In the other plays it's the same girl, but different aspects of her so they have different names. And the same boys in a way, different aspects of them. I wanted to look at the different aspects and pressures on both girls and boys and look at it from different angles.
LAD: What got you out of there? The catalyst? Your mother for one.
LT: Ah, that's a hard question. I was lucky in a sense because my mother had been educated and I had books in the house. James Baldwin had a big effect on me. Tennessee Williams had a big effect on me. Libraries were very helpful. I had a really great 4th grade teacher. We had moved around so much that I really didn't learn to read until the 4th grade. This was in western Massachusetts. By the end of the year, I had gotten up to grade level. My blood grandmother died when I was just a child. When I was 13, my grandfather remarried a very cultured lady who suggested that I might like an education. I jumped at it. I was a scholarship kid First I went to Williston Northampton School (in Easthampton, Massachusetts) where I discovered that rich kids have better drugs than poor kids. (She laughs.) There was a lot of drug and alcohol use in my house and I was certainly a party to that in many ways. In an attempt to be somewhere different, get a chance to be something different, I went to Hyde Academy up in Bath, Maine. Then I was lucky enough to get financial aid to go to Sarah Lawrence College. From there I moved into the city where the lights were bright and I had heard that theatre abounded.
LAD: I can relate to that. (We laugh.) Have you done any television or film writing?
LT: I have done some film writing which I've enjoyed. And I've done a lot of film pitching, TV pitching and development. And a little TV writing.
LAD: It seems to me that once a playwright seems "promising," he or she is grabbed up by television and we don't see any more plays from them.
LT: Well, I haven't made that choice. You can do it all, but it's very difficult for a playwright to make a living. So I can't blame anybody for not wanting to live with that level of instability for so long. With theater as a career, you have to supplement it whether with some TV work or teaching. I happen to love teaching passionately. And I enjoy writing for film. And I enjoy other writers. So in that way, TV is a good time for me. I teach playwriting and I've taught some screenwriting too. I've taught at NYU for the last couple of years. I've also taught screenwriting at Columbia in their graduate program. I taught at Sarah Lawrence for a while which is my alma mater. That was quite sweet. (laughing)
LAD: What are you working on now?
LT: I'm working on my play The Insurgents which I'm very, very proud of. It's again about a family from rural Western Massachusetts, but it also is about Harriet Tubman and Timothy McVeigh and has some songs. It's a real commercial winner (laughs)
LAD Are they going to produce it here?
LT: Maybe. I also have great relationships with the Atlantic Theatre Company and I'm a member of Labyrinth Theatre Company. And Playwrights Horizons has been very good to me. Yale Rep has just commissioned me for the second time. I feel lucky in that I have a good support system in my options and collaborators.
LA When did you decide theater was going to be your life?
LT: When I was seven (she laughs), playwriting a little later. I wrote my first play when I was in the fifth grade. It was a musical called 500 Dollar Bills. One of the times when we bounced back to Connecticut, my mom got involved with a community theater. I don't remember what it was called, but they did Shakespeare plays in an amphitheatre in the summer. They did As You Like It and The Tempest and I got little parts in both of them. It was then that I decided this is it for me for the rest of my life.
Postscript: Thurber has lived in a number of communities in New York City, but for the past ten years has lived in the Inwood neighborhood where she plans to stay. "It has huge parks, great coffee and a dirt jump park for my biking needs." She says that she has settled down and reminds me that only recently has it become legal for her as a gay woman to marry. I asked if she had found someone. To which she replied with a glorious smile: "Yes, I did find someone who I love very much." I like happy endings.