Friday, June 21, 2013

Jessica Anthony on How She Earns the Weird

"When you've chased the weird and you know the weird, then you've earned the weird," says Jessica Anthony. 

Sometimes novelist Jessica Anthony says really vivid and amazing things. “Writing a novel is like going into a cave for four years. It’s dark, it’s cold, and there are scary dripping sounds, but at some point it becomes your home.”

But in case you start thinking she’s too brainy and brilliant to have a beer with you, just know that she played the French Horn for way longer than it was cool, and when you talk to her you can tell that her inner nerd is still quite present.

And she also says things like, “I can sign. I went to deaf lesbian episcopalian camp.”

But whatever.

I sat down with Jessica, who lives in Portland, (that’s Maine, not Oregon) on June 18th to talk about her latest collaborative project, the interactive novel and app, Chopsticks, and what she’s working on now.
Jessica Anthony, right, proving that she's totally willing to talk literature over a beer with fellow novelist Jason Ockert.

You published your freaky cool novel The Convalescent in 2010, and then you and Rodrigo Corral won App Magazine’s App of the Year Award in 2012 for your interactive novel, Chopsticks ($6.99 on iTunes). How did your writing process change between the two?

It wasn’t a matter of the process itself changing but rather instead what I was writing. It turned out to be directions for a narrative, which is really different from a narrative itself.

The project came to me through my agent, Jim Rutman. Jim, Ben Shrank, and Rodrigo Corrall were having lunch in New York and they knew they wanted to tell a story that could work as both a book and an app, but they didn’t have a writer, and my agent said I might be interested because it was different.

I’d never done anything in the Young Adult genre before, and we decided that we wanted to focus on New Adult, which is a fairly new genre that bridges the gap between  YA lit and adult literature. I said I’d be happy to do it so long as it wasn’t going to be a cheesy teen story. From the beginning, I wanted it to be about real characters, not stereotypes.

What was it like writing for a form that was- and still is- fairly unexplored territory?

I got to sit down and dream about what the project might look like, and I eventually came up with three proposals. The first was about two people next door to each other who become close through the song chopsticks.

I had just seen an iPad for the first time a few weeks earlier, and one of the apps was a little piano that you could play with anyone else in the world, and of course, what do all these people play? Chopsticks. So I wanted there to be some interactivity in the app where maybe people could experience in together.

When I write prose, I have to be alone in a really quiet place, but for Chopsticks I took my computer to a public library in Maine. I needed a different atmosphere, so I sat down in the library for about three weeks and wrote the first draft.

I treated it like it was a script to a movie, and it was very directorial. Spread one, we see leaves blowing across the page and a line of text at the top that encourages us to continue, and so on. In a sense, I was directing Rodrigo. I learned that Rodrigo and I shared a similar aesthetic, so we were usually very much on the same page. I was writing scenes for him to create, and then he’d send back images that would inform what I would write next.

Let’s talk about Rodrigo Corral, the graphic artist for Chopsticks. How was it working with him? And are writers control freaks?

Why, yes! Yes, we are! Rodrigo was amazing, just amazing, We were working so hard against cliches. We were trying to make choices that would create a different kind of narrative experience. When we encountered something that would feel much like typical YA fare, we would make a choice in the other direction. We agreed on that from a foundational level.

Writing prose is a really solitary practice, so this must have been different, yeah?

Absolutely. We’re co-creators here, although my part was more behind-the-scenes because the images are really what gets seen. Behind the pictures, though, the count was between four and six hundred pages of direction for the novel. Not all of it was used, and there was a lot of rewriting. And I was surprised at how often the images I would get from Rodrigo would change what I was writing! A quiet image of a lamp on a table would change how I felt about the character. It was a really interesting kind of writing experience, I’ll probably never have one like it again.

You spent time with five separate artist colonies. Millay, MacDowell, Ucross, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Anderson Center. Or is an artist colony like Fight Club, and the first rule is you don’t talk about it?

I can totally talk about it! I never thought I’d be the sort of writer who went to colonies, but you’re able to achieve so much more in four weeks at an artist colony than you can in months on your own. You’re at a place where your writing is the first priority, and you get a taste of community after months of writing on your own.

And you get a really amazing dinner every night. You go for the food, the food is delicious, and it doesn’t hurt that you meet a lot of really great writers at dinner.

And is there a collaboration among the writers there?

No, I don't think anybody collaborates at artist colonies, unless they go there for that purpose with another person. You make connections, whatever that means, and friendships, and you might give a reading. The cool thing is that you can wander through other people’s studios, and if you’re at a colony where there are paintings and sculptors and stuff then you can maybe draw inspiration from that.

So what next, hot stuff?

I’m working on a book of novellas, four, novellas, and each one deals with the aftermath of an unexpected arrival. It’s like writing four short novels all at once. I’m enjoying the creative challenges, and it’s kind of hard to talk about because no much of it hasn’t been written yet, but I have these four central stories I want to tell.  It’s called Enter the Aardvark.

Wow. You have the title before the work is finished?

I always have the title. The title is the handle for your story. Sometimes it changes, but you always have a working title. The title is the heartbeat, it has voice, it has direction. I can’t write without a title. The Convalescent never changed. It was the first thing I wrote, and it was an experience of deciding who the convalescent is. The approach to Enter the Aardvark is similar. All of the novellas have titles and each of those titles carries a principle questions I’m trying to answer. I have drafts for two of them, but I’m still trying to answer some questions. It’ll be interesting to see where it takes me.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Romeo + Juliet, or Casey Kringlen's Relentless Relevance

The promotional postcard for Equal Love.

Sit in an apartment-turned-art-gallery in New Orleans somewhere on Lowerline, and watch a rehearsal of what is arguably the most famous love scene of all time. Ruby Lou Smith, heartbreakingly beautiful and talented, plays Juliet. She leans against a wall and tries to catch her breath, having just seen Romeo across the room at a party. Romeo, of course, lurks in the darkness and watches. Juliet tries to work through the magnitude of this forbidden love, this love her parents would disapprove of, this love that could completely alter the course of her life.

Because, you see, Juliet is in love with Romeo, and Romeo is a woman.

When Romeo steps into the light, you see quite clearly how Juliet could fall in love with this Montague. Romeo, played by Liz Nolan with her bright blue eyes and killer smile, is all passion and fire for Juliet. And when you watch Romeo and Juliet, the stakes of their love seem relatable for the very first time. This is the magic of Equal Love: Romeo + Juliet, directed and co-produced by Casey Kringlen.

Most of us can’t relate to the idea of feuding families keeping us apart from the one we love. Feuding has gone the way of dueling and enforced cloistering and other Shakespearian tropes. But as Smith said, “A centuries-long battle between two families is understandable intellectually, but putting it in gay terms makes it something that it very close to the every-day experience of today’s audience.”

Smith is right. With the campaign for marriage equality in headlines nearly every day, you’d be hard-pressed to find a person who hasn’t been affected, directly or indirectly, by the issues of love and equality dealt with in Kringlen’s Romeo + Juliet.

Kringlen, a Washington native currently residing in Los Angeles, talks about how the story lends itself to his unique interpretation. “In the scene between Romeo and the Friar, when Romeo confesses feelings of love for Juliet it becomes a coming-out scene, which raises the stakes enormously.” Instead of Romeo having to deal with the consequences of loving a Capulet, Romeo is coming to terms with his or her sexuality, which is a terrifying and elating in journey that the audience gets to experience along with the character.

“The text, oddly enough, suits it,” says Nolan. When Romeo and Juliet kiss and refer to it as their “sin,” the lines take on an entirely different meaning when said by two men or two women falling in love.

“I’ve always wanted to play Juliet,” says Smith, a working actress living in New Orleans. “She’s completely fearless in love. Once she’s identified that yes, she’s in love with Romeo, she stands for that love and dies for it, too.”

Nolan, a Los Angeles resident, faced a different set of challenges as a woman playing one of the most famous male roles in history. “I’m approaching the character of Romeo as more of an energy than a gender. In the script, he’s sort of brash, like “Fuck it, I’m attracted to you, that’s just how it is.” There’s something liberating and really sexy about playing it like that.” Nolan says, and Kringlen notes that the audience responded enthusiastically to Nolan’s interpretation.
Liz Nolan, right, and Ruby Lou Smith rehearse the balcony scene as director Casey Kringlen looks on.

In Kringlen’s production, audiences saw two versions of the bard’s most famous play. In one version, Nolan and Smith played the lovers as a lesbian couple. In the second version, Ben Carbo and Morgan Roberts played Romeo and Juliet, respectively, as a gay couple. Which one the audience saw first was decided by a coin toss, and the dichotomy of a male-male or female-female romance changes the performance in several ways.

“It sucks,” jokes Kringlen dryly, when asked how it works with four heterosexual actors playing gay couples. “No, not really. These actors just happened to be the best ones available for the roles. I’m glad in one way, because there’s no chance of a “showmance” developing between the couples. But the process is a lot more comfortable for the women than it is for the men. The way women engage with each other is very different from the way men engage, so my male actors had to negotiate the stigma of homosexuality between men, while Liz and Ruby had to get over the casualness they felt towards their physicality.”

“There’s a lot more tolerance for female intimacy,” Nolan says. “I didn’t feel like I had to overcome my heterosexuality the way the guys did.”

Smith agrees, saying, “There’s an innate sensuality between two women, be they friends or lovers, and the challenge with a female love story on stage, especially in today’s society and the way it views any kind of girl-girl romance, is to refocus the storytelling so that it stays about the love, rather than just a sexual exploration.”

Nolan hopes that having lesbian and gay couples represented in a classic love story will allow audiences to see that these struggles are universal. “Having more representation [for homosexual couples] across the board will help too, just like the sports sector. It’s unfortunate that you have to be really established in your field to come out without risking losing your career, but hopefully, as more people do, it will become easier.”
Promotional art for the performance.

And increasing representation is exactly what Kringlen aims to do. “When I read Romeo and Juliet in high school, I was all about getting good grades, so I just saw the story as idiot children getting into trouble. But when I read it again as an adult, I remember wishing that I could see mainstream art and cinema that expressed the way I experience love without it being pornographic or overly-angsty.”

Kringlen elaborates, "I think it's an important story to tell this way. When I came to a better understanding of my own sexuality, I realized that I had taken my love and my relationships less seriously because society had told me that my love wasn't as valid."

You can see Kringlen's distinct directing style, defined by physicality and focus, at every turn, Nolan and Smith as Romeo and Juliet have a childlike enthusiasm that radiates in their speech as well as their connection with each other. They jump when their hands touch the first time, as if an electric shock has gone right through them.

Smith explains the chemistry between the characters, saying, “Our society is a little removed from teenage innocence. Sexuality is explored a little earlier in our generation, but we bring that back with Romeo and Juliet being gay or lesbian lovers. It adds suspense and anxiety over this new experience.”
“I wanted the cast to get into the voice and movement of the piece,” says Kringlen. “Shakespeare is so much about the language, but I wanted to do it as an exploration of the themes and the text, rather than the aggressive form of realism that so many people do these days with Shakespeare.”

Running in New Orleans May 13th through the 15th, the show came a long way from it’s workshop origins in Los Angeles. Both Kringlen and Nolan performed in the original production, with Kringlen himself playing the male Romeo. “It’s been fun and really interesting directing Liz in a role I’ve played myself,” says Kringlen. “When I work with her on a speech, she’ll make a choice that I think is actually better than the one I was trying to lead her to.”

Nolan, who is pulling double duty as Romeo and the show’s co-producer, says, “We’re based out of L.A., so Casey and I didn’t know what to expect in New Orleans in terms of talent, but we’ve been blown away. It’s been a rushed experience, but I was telling Ruby this morning that I feel like our characters’ connection has grown organically. Working with her has been great; her facility with the text is just really impressive.”

Aside from Nolan, the other actors in the show are local finds, rounding out the cast with Michael Sullivan as the Friar and Sherri Marina playing the Nurse. Kringlen cast his local actors with help from Chaney Tullos, who is the Education Coordinator and Production Stage Manager at the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival, and has nothing but positive things to say about the city itself.

“There’s something wonderful about New Orleans,” says Kringlen, “and the way it encourages experimentation. We’re encouraged to evolve here, and the support we’ve received has blown us away. Several people involved in Fringe offered support for us to come back and help us go further.”
The performance space in New Orleans.
As for what’s next for Equal Love, Kringlen is working on a fully-realized production in Los Angeles. The production, starting the first week in September 2013, will be the debut performance of inner circle theatre, led by Artistic Director Jeffrey Brooks.
“We’re looking at new elements to add to the show,” says Kringlen. These new elements could mean anything from a digital media component to aerialist performers, but Kringlen knows one thing for certain. “More violence. The only place these audience should feel safe is when the lovers are together. The world is getting more tolerant, but the world of the play is still a really hostile place for gay people, and that will come through more in the LA production.” When asked about being a part of ICT’s inaugural performance, Kringlen says he is, “very excited. There are a lot of elements to play with. We’ve set a date, but the venue is still undecided. We’ll have to wait and see.”
And wait and see we will, because Kringlen has found a way to raise the stakes and make Romeo and Juliet not only relevant but vital. As Smith says, “The story is both dangerous and tangible for today’s audience. And it’s universal love, that moment in your life that you realize a love that is so important that to live without it or not commit to it would be to betray yourself. And [in this production,] Romeo and Juliet are in unique circumstances that further heighten the importance of their sacrifice.”
Kringlen may have said it best. “The key component of authentic love is the same no matter who it’s between. Whether it’s a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, or my personal favorite, a man and a man, connection is the glue that binds us to those we love.”