An Interview with Emma Plotkin

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Emma Plotkin discusses her new play PINA, which will be premiering as part of the 365 Women a Year Festival at Hubbard Hall’s Winter Carnival.

Interviewer: Natalie Osborne

Q: How did you hear about 365 Women a Year?

A: I first heard about 365 Women a Year when I saw the festival performed at Bennington College.

Q: Why did you choose Pina Bausch as your historical woman? What drew you to her?

A: Pina is one of the foremost choreographers in modern dance. Her work is raw and revolutionary. It contains a clear love of lines and creates pictures on stage but there is also a theatrical element that doesn’t seem overwrought or cliched. I love the way she speaks about dance, it is clear that this art is her innermost being.

Q; Can you walk me through the process of adapting a person’s life for the stage? What were some of the challenges? Which parts really clicked together?

A: I have seen a couple of documentaries about Pina before beginning the process of adapting her life, including “Pina” by Wim Wenders and “Dreams in Motion: In the Footsteps of Pina Bausch.” I also watched some of her most acclaimed work including “Cafe Muller” and “The Right of Spring.” After this I sorted through some interviews to get a better sense of how Pina speaks, not only the content but the speech pattern. It was difficult to find articles Pina had written but there is one speech she wrote for the Kyoto Prize in 2007 called “What Moves Me” that helped fuel this play. Some things are directly sourced from this speech, for example the phrase “What moves you?” and the story about Pina living in the restaurant with her father. I knew that the story could not possibly be a completely accurate portrait of Pina and her company, but all the dancers are based on real people.

There is very little documentation about Pina’s personal life save that her first husband had passed and that she remarried and had a son. The entire “personal life” section on her Wikipedia page took up two sentences! Pina is not a love object; that is not why I and other people should look up to her. Pina’s life was in her work. So I wanted to write a piece that provided commentary to her choreography and an emotional dialogue embedded in the practicalities of creating work. When Josephine says that “Cafe Muller” is revolutionary she means it. “Cafe Muller” comes out of Tanztheater Wuppertal, dance theatre, a form with music and other sounds, strong emotions and evocative set and costume. Pina says “It is almost unimportant whether a work finds an understanding audience. One has to do it because one believes that it is the right thing to do. We are not only here to please, we cannot help challenging the spectator.”

Q: Can you walk me through how you incorporated movement into the piece?

A: Pina is all about movement. If you watch her interviews and read her speeches there is a certain way they move too, everything blends together, which is the basis of Tanztheater Wuppertal.  So I would write with music from her show in the background and then watch and rewatch her dances. The dance I was most drawn to was “Cafe Muller.” I remember seeing this dance on Youtube when I was a child and not understanding in my mind but responding deeply to the movement that seemed so longing, desperate and lonely. After reading Pina’s story about her childhood in her father’s restaurant, I arrived at a possible conclusion for the choreography behind this piece. The movement motivates the dialogue, it recalls the past.

Q: Are there any playwrights that inspired you while you were working on the piece, or who inspire you in general?

Yes, I was reading well over a dozen plays (at the same time ahh!) before starting this piece and while the styles may be different, I have a lot of a playwrights who have influenced or inspired my writing. I owe a great debt to Lanford Wilson, not only as a playwright but as a teacher. When I was 17 I attended a program called New York Summer School for the Arts of (NYSSSA). This is where I learned how to work with an ensemble, to move between dance and theater and this is where I wrote one of my first plays. Lanford Wilson had fought and fundraised for NYSSSA and the program continues to benefit from his patronship. I assistant directed two short Tennessee Williams plays last year at the Hangar Theatre. Tennessee Williams is one of the foremost poet playwrights of our time. Poetry to movement is like sand to the sea, enriched by their joining. Sherry Kramer, a playwright responsible for such transformative work as “The Bay of Fundy” has been a huge inspiration. Not only is she a terrific playwright but she is an incredible teacher at my school. Sherry has taught me the ABC’s of playwriting, everything from breaking down a script to breathing life into my characters. I owe her a great debt and am forever grateful for her support and knowledge. Other playwrights that have had a profound influence on my work include Sarah Ruhl, Sarah Kane, Alice Birch, Caryl Churchill, Anton Chekhov, William Shakespeare and Sophocles.

Q: What has been your favorite aspect of working with 365 Women a Year?

I love that this festival feels like a community! I saw 365 Women a Year Bennington College. I met the inspirational powerhouse Shelly Lubin and I’ve been fortunate to study with Natalie Osborne! Part of my studies include female empowerment and examining female role models in media, so this was an amazing opportunity to put a woman on stage who is complicated, dynamic and focused on following her passions rather than focusing on a love interest or being flattened by passivity and circumstance. Pina is powerful. Pina is revolutionary. Pina is an inspirational woman!

Q: Do you have any advice for playwrights joining 365 Women a Year in 2016?

Take your time selecting a woman to write about. I spent a couple of weeks looking through autobiographies and watching movies before I chose Pina. Also ask yourself, “What about this woman inspires me?” Personally I would stay away from her love life unless it’s relevant to what makes her kick ass, because putting a woman on stage is not enough. As a playwright we have a responsibility to put up characters who are holistic (or satirically flat), who have passions and who inspire others to live empowered fulfilling lives which are not going to be derived solely out of the media myth of romantic love! Am I for love, hell ya! Do I love my work, hell ya! Do I love my family, hell ya! So let your character love, but love the world, let her be so big and complicated and powerful and fearful and loving that she becomes a hand pressing at the ceiling – confines that each of us has placed on ourselves. Write a woman who shatters the ceiling, that’s the play I want to see.

Emma Plotkin is a Playwright/Poet, Director/Devisor, Actor, Singer/Musician, Mover/Dancer (Theater Maker?) and Life Lover from Ithaca NY. At Bennington College she explores the interdisciplinary nature of performative work as well as themes of marginalization and empowerment including the history of colonialism, structural and microaggression, feminism, gender equality, global conflict resolution and the portrayal of figures in media. At the heart, her work has explored the humanness of characters colliding with rigid societies. Her most recent work includes devising/directing “One Man” which investigates assimilation and incarceration in a hierarchical world (sounds familiar) and directing/writing “Black Out” which explores the relationship of a dying Jewish woman and her former Nazi pupil during the beginning of WWII. Emma has most recently studied with and owes a great debt to, Robert Wilson and the Watermill Center, Sherry Kramer, Dina Janis, Jean Randich and the whole of Bennington College, Teya Sugareva, The Hangar Theatre, New York State Summer School of the Arts and Running to Places Theatre Company as well as her incredible friends and family. There is no way I would be here today without your mentorship, love and support.

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