AndreaCiannavei with Kathleen Dennehy
First of all your play is one of those visual reads that I will be seeing in my mind’s eye until my memory stops working. Deep Trees starts with a poem of forgiveness and redemption for the burden of being human, and then slices into the reader with splashes of black humor and a lot of towel-biting dramatic tension and fear for the two lead characters. The mysteries of childhood coupled with the disastrous danger of being born to people who were criminally bad parents, as well as the innocuous-seeming predators who take advantage of precariously cared for children makes this play a sort of Hansel & Gretel of modern times. It’s heartbreaking yet completely compelling- a one-sit-read, as I call them. Who these first act children characters become as grown ups is painfully authentic as a result what happens to them as children. It’s a theatrical, fantasy-based cautionary tale of childhood neglect and abuse yet gives me some sort of weird hope that children can survive and find redemption and strength through imagination, resilience and their own cobbled together moral code that somehow keeps them human and capable of love.
On to the questions!!
I’m almost afraid to ask what inspired this play? As a parent I find any situation- even imaginary ones, where a child is willfully neglected- deeply harrowing but I’m driven to ask if there is even touches of autobiography in this play. If you care to expound, do. If it’s none of my beeswax, I get it.
There are autobiographical elements in the play. Sure. I think we all put parts of ourselves in everything we do as artists. That’s why we do what we do. We’re compelled to explore our human condition and in this specific way and by doing so and letting others participate in it we find some kind of awareness and when your audience recognizes themselves in your experience you get some kind of anonymous companionship with people. So yeah. I’m in that play.
You drop your audience/reader squarely in the center of the world you have created- and it’s a very specific, unsparing world where the concept of time in the first act is very important to the characters- where children are truly helpless to do anything but amuse themselves while waiting for their parents to rescue them. Is this manipulation of time your nod to the seemingly endless hours of childhood or something a lot more sinister?
I think I wanted it to be both. I wanted to capture those times as a kid when I felt absolutely trapped by time. I hated the way time seemed to go on endlessly. I remember pretty vividly wanting so much to be 16 and I would count the years, then the months and then I’d pull out my mother’s calculator and try to figure out how many days were in ten years, how many hours, how many minutes, and I remember feeling pretty horrified that the expectation was that I had to exist through all that time. It felt pretty cruel. And I remember thinking: No one asked me if I was okay with this? I was an exceptionally impatient child, I think.
I enjoy your direction of having adults play the roles of children but not AS children. Have you done readings of this play with adult actors and how did you feel it impacted the power of the play?
Yeah me and my director Scott Illingworth did a few closed table readings with adults through LAByrinth Theater Company and The Lark lent us some support too. We presented it publicly at LAByrinth’s Barn Series in December 2011 with Lili Taylor and Bobby Cannavale, which – I mean – you can’t ask for better actors. And really the focus was kept on playing the intentions behind the lines and the dynamic between them which evokes childhood, or the erasing of childhood. And for me in any case it was pretty effective to watch them and meanwhile you’re brain hops over this boundary of “they’re kids, no they’re adults” and back and forth like that. It fucks with your head. They way being a kid fucks with your head. We pretend we’re old enough to handle things and then when we finally feel the full weight of life in our hands all of a sudden we’re five years old again. And I think that ambiguity follows us for the rest of our lives and ambushes us when we experience big losses. The kinds of loss that wait for all of us. An example I can share, and this is the first time I came face to face with this, is when I was 30 and my grandmother was dying from lymphoma. I was in Massachusetts helping to take care of her in those last two months and I remember her one night close to the end, she was not really here anymore and at 3 in the morning yelling out for her mother, she sounded like a little girl. An 86 year old woman calling for her mother like she was 6 or 7. That tore me apart to see that but it also made me love her more fiercely and I felt a kind of compassion that I’m not sure I knew before then. I think it comes down to this intense vulnerability that we all have and we all try to hide it, fight it, deny it, dismiss it.
It’s funny to admit how much I love how tough, crude and violent these children are. Based on my own memories of childhood, where kids were left alone for unsupervised hours on end, and the longer left to our own devices, the crueler we became, in your play it also feels completely authentic. Is that your dramatic vision- to strip away any sentiment regarding the sanctity of children and childhood?
Absolutely. My life is more civilized now, and more structured, more innocent than at any time when I was a kid or a teenager. I grew up in a neighborhood as the only girl. So things got rough and dark, fast and often.
I think we try to create sanctity around children and childhood because children are so innocent and ignorant of complexity. They also have no power in most situations. But it’s a construct that is made by adults for adults to help them navigate the stress and fear of being responsible for children. And it also allows us to romanticize our youth and the past because it’s easier than developing a relationship with our mortality and learning how to die. Maybe that’s as it should be? I have no idea. But as long as children are children they are forever submerged in a morass, right? They are discovering and exploring parts of themselves with no ability to comprehend the experience. They don’t have the words. So they are experiencing their bodies, the bodies of other children, weird sexual urges, rageful urges, the freedom that comes with having no shame and then when shame starts to form in them they explore hiding, lying, love, despair, all of that for the first time. And whatever guidance they get is hard to grasp on to at first because they are learning how to listen and apply what they hear independently. How fucking stressful is that? How messy and horrific is that? As kids, we’re wild beasts totally incapable of resisting every impulse we have. Especially the ones we don’t understand. And that is something that kind of never goes away. We experience that again as adults in times when we don’t understand our behavior. Why did I say that? Why did I say it the way I said it? Why did I do that then? What does it say about what I really want? For me I am constantly amazed at all the levels of denial I have to break through forever. As soon as I think I have the gold ring then I trip over the next obstacle and fall on my face. I will never “arrive”.
The characters of Maddie and Ugo are extremely volatile with each other- deeply connected yet almost constantly physically attacking each other. It’s so shocking until I recall how vicious my sisters and I were with each other when young. In production or workshops of this play what was the effect of having the actors go at each other so completely? Terrifying, hilarious or both?
Both. I watched the audience’s reaction during those moments and for the most part people vacillated between a wincing, like an uncomfortable recognition followed by laughing. That was what I was aiming for.
The parents are potent unseen totems and retain their dramatic impact by remaining offstage. Did you ever tinker with the notion of the parents becoming characters or was that a non-issue for you?
I maybe entertained the idea for a minute but it felt really right to have the world totally absent of parents. With exception of hearing them walking up the stairs and then leaving. They are close but they never show up. I really wanted to stay with that feeling of total abandonment, where there is nothing standing between the kids and the world.
The character of Lonergan is the most difficult to read/visualize only because you made him so terrifying in how simple and plain he appears to be… how did you create such an uncomplicated yet complicated character?
My dear friend Sal Inzerillo played this character, and he naturally brings with him this kind of warm gentleness and he’s plugged in to some darkness too. I’m in love with his acting. And I’d actually love to develop it more with him because the way he works helps me discover things as a writer. All this to say that I think that character needs more exploration. I don’t really know how to answer the question. I think that he is very a much a child in his own right, wrestling with something that we never learn about specifically through the course of the play. I also think we look at people like him and try to throw everything at him in order to explain the unexplainable. The unjustifiable. I know I wanted to explore this idea of transactions. Trade. Exchanging power, maybe? That’s a big level this guy operates on. He may not know why he wants what he wants but he knows he can get what he wants if he’s willing to play ball. I’ll give you this, if you give me that. It kind of eliminates the need to pay attention to consequences, or examine what it is you want and what that says about you. Fair trade is an unassailable idea on the surface. I’m not really sure. This is a good question.
When we next see Maddie and Ugo they are grown- yet still retaining much of what happened to them as children. In particular the transition where Ugo transforms into a ‘dog of war’ before our eyes is just inherently theatrical and beautiful writing. Have you been able to see an actor embody this? If so, what was it like?
I haven’t really yet. The workshop we did was a staged reading, so we haven’t had the chance yet to find out what that means.
Redemption and revenge appear to be the themes of the second act. Maddie and Ugo find each other as wounded adults and the crimes of the first act have left deep marks on both of them. But they both feel compelled to complete harsh promises they made to each other as children. Can you explain this construct to me?
For me the biggest promise you can break is the promise you make when you bring a life into the world. As a parent you are making the biggest commitment a human being can make to another. I will love you, I will care for you, I will keep you alive and when you can stand on your own I will set you free. That’s God, really. And so I think Maddie and Ugo know instinctually that they were profoundly betrayed by their parents and so the most important thing to them is to stand by your word. To never forget promises and declarations and oaths, even if they were made in the tyranny of childhood. And I think that because they were so betrayed, this idea of redemption and forgiveness and re-examining oaths they made in the past and whether they still stand up in the present is lost to them. The past is the present. Its as if it literally just happened. That’s one of the effects of growing up like that. If you don’t face your stuff, you are condemned to a life where what happened to you when you’re six happened last night and every night.
Tell me about other plays you have written. Are there overarching themes you are compelled to explore or do your interests veer all over the place?
Kind of all over the place. I wrote a play called Pretty Chin Up that was produced by LAByrinth Theater Company in 2007 at the Public Theater under the artistic direction of John Ortiz and Phil Hoffman. It was directed by Michele Chivu. That play explored different facets of addiction to food, body image, men. This striving to find some kind of freedom. And being trapped in fantasy and jealousy and self-destruction. Another play I wrote called 7 Captiva Road, also developed with Michele directing explored some similar ideas that Deep Trees has, but it was a larger family kind of play. Last year I wrote a rough first draft of a play called The Wintons about a small cluster of women who plan to blow up the Wall Street Bull. And lately I’ve been writing a lot of TV. I worked on Borgia (a family/papal drama in early Renaissance Italy) and Copper (Irish cop in Five Points NY era) for Tom Fontana, wrote a pilot about the HSBC money laundering scandal, working on another one loosely based on Ray Kurzweil and now I’m working as a staff writer on Odyssey for NBC which is a military conspiracy, government/corporate corruption story. I’m also co-writing a few projects. A feature length comedy with Michele called We’re Here to Help which has a global scale to it (we also developed Pretty Chin Up into a pilot). So my interests really veer all over the road in a lot of ways.
Tell me how you came to playwriting?
I always wrote and acted and just intuitively used to write stories with dialogue when I was a kid. They were always racy romance soapy things in elementary school. Fancied myself a poet in high school and in true dramatic fashion I burned all of my poems some time in there. In college though I wanted to go to school for acting and my mother was virulently against that but my friend Demosthenes who is older than me and whom my mother loves negotiated her into letting me go to school for dramatic writing, reason being whatever I did it had to be creative otherwise I would flunk out of school (which was true). So she relented.
Who and where did you find your writing education?
I went to NYU for Dramatic Writing and graduated there in 1997 and then in 2008 I was fortunate enough to get accepted into the Juilliard Playwriting program. I applied only because it was free and I had no real hope of getting in.
Who are writers and playwrights that inspire you?
So many but here are the ones off the top. Tom Fontana. Stephen Adly Guirgis. Lucy Thurber. David Foster Wallace. Karen Finley. Tracy Letts. Sarah Kane. Paddy Chayevsky. David Chase. Vince Gilligan. Louis CK. Norman Lear. Mike White. Matthew Weiner. Meghan O’Rourke. Salman Rushdie. Philip Roth.
Any questions you wish I had asked?
No! These were great questions! Thanks so much for asking me to do this!
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