Suzanne Bradbeer interview, with Kathleen Dennehy
First, you get to read my understanding/appreciation of your play, then we get around to the interview. Or you can skip reading this, if you hate when people try to understand and appreciate and compliment your writing! Firstly, I love your play because it’s so intently and completely female/feminist without being preachy or axe-to-grind-y or even about being feminist.
Thank you, yes – that was really important to me.
It’s a story about one woman and the women in her life, but in that simplicity encompasses a great deal about what it’s like to be a woman. And I love your play because it is simple and complex at the same time, which is a delicate achievement.
And the characters are real, relatable, completely human and dramatically fascinating. And the arc of Lucy is heartbreaking yet ultimately victorious, in a truly human way, by which I mean her steps to change herself are small yet at the same time huge.
I am so glad that you see her arc as heartbreaking yet ultimately victorious. That’s how I see it too, and it’s been a very delicate balance to find. I have a horror of being obvious which results sometimes, in my being too obscure.
So, there you go! Congratulations!
Onto my questions…
Can I first say that I have had a great time answering these questions, and I learned more about my play in the process – what a gift. I have also relished reading the other interviews. (I am still savoring Sarah Schulman’s line, “The rich are always panicking.”)
What inspired Naked Influence? A true story or pure imagination?
A little of the former and a lot of the latter. I was commissioned to write a piece for a curated evening of short works – and the theme of the evening was Sex and Power (or maybe it was Women and Power, hmmmm). Around that same time a friend had recommended a documentary she admired called Stripped. It was made by Jill Morley and is built partly around Morley’s own experience as a stripper. The documentary itself looks like it was made on a wing and a prayer: the sound quality is poor, the lighting often insufficient – and yet – the storytelling is riveting. Morley interviewed a wide range of women who had been/still were strippers: the tough girl, the hippie, the feminist, and the burlesque aficionado (to name a few). One of the women, Angela, was fiercely unapologetic and practical about dancing. She had recently quit and was preparing to go to graduate school but the biz was still pulling at her. She’s very frank in describing the ways she set out to ‘win’ in the power play between customer and dancer. At the end of the film there is an epilogue briefly telling us what each of these women were doing when the documentary was finished: one was still dancing, one had disappeared, one of them had opened a boutique and one of them – my favorite Angela – had gone back to stripping only to die on the operating table getting plastic surgery. At that last revelation I felt physically ill. I felt like I had been hit by a Mack truck – my whole body literally ached. I walked around for three days afterwards, heartbroken. So although their stories are completely different, the unapologetic toughness of Lucy is inspired by the woman Angela.
After Stripped I explored all kinds of material on the exotic dance industry. I’ve also been to a couple of clubs – one a very low end place in the Midwest, and the other a very high end place in NYC. At the latter I had a lap dance, which was only a little embarrassing. The dancer was completely in her zone, very businesslike. It was titillating but not very sensual. Then I had a long conversation with one of the other dancers. She seemed new and way too vulnerable. She was delightful to talk to (we talked at least 30 – 40 minutes) but her heart was so much on her sleeve and I wondered how long she could last at that job.
Regarding the Power part of the theme, I’d also been thinking about the entitlement of certain political men and that some politico is constantly in sex trouble – you’d think they’d learn! But a powerful man often loses his power while he’s on the stripper’s turf. Maybe that’s part of the appeal. At any rate, I wondered what might happen if two such powerful people clashed. Naked Influence started as a short one person play (called Dead Lucy) but I loved Lucy and her world so much that I decided to expand it.
Did you set out to explore what life might be actually like for a stripper or is the stripping a metaphor for something else?
I’ve always been interested in the complicated views that we have in this country regarding sexuality. Our puritanical background has led to a lot of ying-yang behavior. Stripping has become glamorized in many ways, yet the American culture seems to have a split personality: we want to emulate the look and at the same time sit in judgment of the life.
Would you consider the theme of the play to be about what it takes to change one’s perception of one’s self? Or is it the opposite, wherein a stripper strives to change how others perceive her, and in so doing, changes herself?
I was talking with an old friend the other night about one of our popular high school teachers. And I said to my friend, the main thing I remember about this teacher is him saying that people don’t ever really change, that by the time we reach high school who we are is pretty set. Our circumstances may change, but not our fundamental selves. It sounded so wrong to me at the time. But now, I don’t know. Do we ever really change in more than a superficial way? I certainly hope so. Thinking about your question, I realize that change and identity are themes that I explore again and again in my work.
Particularly heartbreaking (to me) is how others continually try to bend Lucy’s rules, which are her strict attempts at self-preservation. When others do convince her to bend her rules, he results are disastrous… especially when she hides or tries to obfuscate who she is, which seems to weaken her considerable power- Of course, that’s my interpretation, but does that seem accurate to you? If so, care to expound on your intentions with Lucy?
Lucy is such a complicated person, which is one of the reasons I like her so much. She seems aggressively proud of stripping – almost daring others to challenge her, especially her sister Sammie. And yet there’s the shame too, which makes her resentful. She’s very proud of earning her own way but there’s also a soul-killing aspect to stripping that nearly everyone I’ve come across acknowledges. So yes, Lucy is very conflicted about all of this. She’s full of rage and there’s a testing aspect to the way she treats Sammie and eventually her new fella Tommy: I want you to love me but I’m going to make it hard for you to love me – to see if you really do. She’s used to being a loner, and claims to like it – but she’s deeply lonely and I think the journey for her is to accept love and to let other people be as complicated as she herself is. In a way, it’s a kind of coming of age story.
A clue to Lucy’s character is her strict adherence to her tequila of choice- it can show her as stubborn or stuck. I found it hilariously compelling, and yet so accurate as a struggle between sisters. Where Lucy’s sister is trying to change her, expand her horizons, it only makes Lucy dig her heels in more. She fiercely likes what she likes, demands others to see her for who she is and refuses to try something else. Is this me reading too much into the relationship (I have 3 sisters!) or is it a commentary on family?
I love that you noticed that. I am really happy with the tequila exchange! Part of it is that humor is a vital part of telling a story, at least for me. But I also think you are spot on regarding Lucy and Sammie’s relationship. They love each other, but they’re so fragile with each other and Lucy especially, is very brittle with Sammie, although she’s trying not to be. But as in the earlier question, it is so hard to change. Lucy is trying for the first time in her adult life to have a real relationship with her sister, a real give and take – but wanting and having are very, very different. I have a lot of hope for them though.
Do you think Lucy gets punished for trying to get away from herself as a sex object? The further she wanders from her occupation, going back to school and striving to be seen as someone else, the worse things seem to get for her- and she falls back into her old ways. Is that your intention?
I prefer to think of it this way: that it’s really, really hard to start over, to re-think your identity. And for Lucy, it’s also hard to be truly intimate. But I see her as resilient; that in spite of some devastating consequences, she’s going to keep trying, keep in the game. And as you observed at the top, she is ultimately victorious. Small steps.
I also enjoy how proud Lucy is of how good she is at her job and what she’s managed to accomplish as in paying off her mortgage and being able to buy her family nice things- so she’s proud and ashamed? Sort of like being an artist, huh?
Exactly. She’s both proud and ashamed and that is the source of her internal tension.
Tell me about your writing process. Do you outline your plays or discover a character, in a place then let the story unfold from there?
I’ve found that it depends on the project. With this play, Lucy’s character dominated from the beginning and my struggle in writing was more in the structuring of the piece. Sometimes I felt like I was banging my head bloody in trying to figure out how to tell this story of the conflicted, proud, and ashamed woman who is trying to start her life over. Generally I like having a sense of where the story is going – although I don’t usually write an outline per say.
I’m curious about how you became a writer. Some people are born desperate to write and some fall into it. Where are you on that spectrum?
When I was a little girl I was convinced that if reincarnation existed, I was Louisa May Alcott; and I thought there could be nothing better than being a writer. Somehow that sense of purpose got lost in adolescence and for a long time after. But I always remained interested in story and I studied language and literature and history in college. Then I discovered theater my senior year. I got cast in all the plays and that changed the directory of my life. I came to New York knowing no one, and set about learning as much as I could through acting classes and going to see as much theater as possible. I didn’t start writing until my 30’s – but once I did, it felt like I had found the missing piece of my personal puzzle. I hope to write always.
Who are some of the writers who inspired you to write? Who inspires you now?
I’d have to say first, Louisa May Alcott. It took me about eight tries to get past Beth’s death in Little Women. Years later Toni Morrison’s story of the two brothers in Song of Solomon upset me terribly. I read it almost all the way through, but I couldn’t bear to read the very end. It took me years to finish that book, and when I finally did, it just devastated me. Which is to say – I love that book! (Hmmm, there seems to be a sibling theme that I respond to deeply.)
This past week I read Jon Krakower’s phenomenal Into the Wild. It made me see the world a little differently, with a little more compassion. I also recently read a collection of short stories by Kathryn Chetkovich called Friendly Fire, which made me laugh and made me ache and made me want to read them all over again as soon as I finished them.
What plays do you just love? New plays? Old plays?
The Glass Menagerie is my favorite play. A close second would be The Seagull. I also really love Macbeth, although I have yet to see a production of that one that wasn’t a little bit (or a lot) disappointing.
As for new plays; off the top of my head, in no particular order, and with the caveat that I’ll be leaving out all kinds of plays that I have loved, some of my favorite theater experiences have been: Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns (with music by Michael Friedman). Wow. So very, very thought provoking. Harrowing, yet weirdly hopeful; and just a great ride…. Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy I saw three times – funny and magical and so big-hearted….Chisa Hutchinson wrote a beautiful play called She Like Girls. I saw it in a Barebones at the Lark Play Development Center and decided I would follow Chisa anywhere her writing goes…. Florencia Lozano’s underneathmybed was haunting, theatrical, and deeply moving…While I thought Ruined was very powerful, it was Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel that brought me to my knees…. EM Lewis’ Song of Extinction was one of the best reads I have had in a long time – I can’t wait to see that beautiful play produced…And speaking of reads, I re-read Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero on a regular basis as I do Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy....And finally (for today!) I am always excited to see whatever Jackie Reingold and Lynn Rosen are serving up.
Tell me about your education… Yale School of Drama or School of Hard Knocks? Or perhaps somewhere in between?
I got my BA in French from Augustana College. Bizarrely, I have no real affinity for language. Well, I have an affinity; I just don’t have an ear. I love words; I love a good speech or a good sermon or a good lecture but I am embarrassed (horrified, really) that I can have spent so many years studying a language and be barely coherent. My husband thinks I speak French very nicely – but how would he know, he doesn’t speak it!
After college (and working at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello for almost a year) I started studying acting. And eventually I took some writing workshops and/or classes with John Augustine, Chris Ceraso, and Maria Irene Fornes. I’m still learning. Once I started writing I went to theater about five nights a week for a solid two years. Uptown, downtown, from readings to Broadway. I still go to theater all the time. I try very hard to support friends and I’ve got some very, very talented friends.
Thanks so much!!
In order to preserve the artistic arrangement of the writing, this piece has been created with Print2Flash Flashpaper.