Jen Silverman is the award-winning New York based writer, whose formidable theatre work has been taking U.S. stages by storm. As independent theatre company antic|face bring to life the UK premiere of her outrageously funny, yet undeniably poignant new work Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties (showing at Southwark Playhouse until 17th February) we put our questions to of one of Oberon‘s most exciting new playwrights.
Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties showcases the lives of five Queer women who collide at the intersection of anger, sex and ‘theat-ah’. As they meet, fall in love, revel and rage, they realise that they’ve been stuck reading the same scripts for far too long. What are your thoughts on Queer representation in theatre? Have we been ‘reading from the same scripts for too long’?
We’re finally seeing more queer protagonists in theatre, as well as in TV and film, which is thrilling. But we’re not there yet, especially as it concerns queer women. A lot of amazing material by and about gay men has entered mainstream culture — this of course is a good thing, but it highlights for me the relative invisibility of queer women even within stories about the LGBTQ community. I think this is partially the reason why queer women’s identities are seen in straight culture as more ‘negotiable’ than those of gay men. The gay male identity has been visibly established via a multiplicity of complex and sympathetic protagonists; queer women, however, are much less visible, and therefore still seem ‘up for grabs’. Gay male narratives are and remain crucial, but I would argue that we can do better on the *queer female side of things.
(*queer is intended here as an umbrella term for lesbian/bisexual/gender queer/trans women, etc.).
In Collective Rage Betty 3 finds inspiration and purpose after going to the thea-tah. What inspired you to write for the stage?
I wasn’t raised going to the theatre – I stumbled into it by accident when I was 18 or 19 and was absolutely electrified. I thought I’d discovered something secret and magic, I thought that nobody else had ever felt the way I was feeling… and then I grew up and participated in the super-not-magical industry of making a living from theatre.
But I’m still inspired by that remembered feeling of theatre being a secret shared directly with me. When I’m making a play, that’s the feeling I write from: Let me tell you something that’s just for you. My work isn’t for everyone – it’s a little twisted, pretty queer, the comedy is dark and provocative – and I’m OK with the fact that some people love it and some people hate it. For me that’s the whole point of theatre: if you hear me, I’m talking to you. If you don’t hear me, there’s a bunch of other playwrights out there whom you might hear and love. We each need to find and witness the plays that were made for us, and that we were made for – the second you feel that down-the-spine thrill of ‘this is a secret made for me’, then you’re home.
After entering a rage that doesn’t make Betty 1 feel any better, she decides to throw a dinner party. Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? What would you discuss?
My theatre-family and I spend a lot of time cooking dinners together – we often make work together, sometimes out of town, and we usually end the rehearsal day with a small family dinner. So I feel like in some ways I keep having the dream dinner party… but, if I could invite those who have gone before, I’d really want a chance to sit down with Sarah Kane and Ted Hughes. I have so many questions for both of them – about the things they made, about how much of themselves they put into their work and how much they tried to bury or encode. Oh yeah, and Edna St-Vincent Millay. She was wild. She’d be an amazing dinner companion.
Betties 4 & 5 spend a lot of time working on their trucks and discussing love. What are your other passions/pursuits outside of writing?
I write in a number of different media – I have a collection of interlinked stories coming out 1st May with Random House called The Island Dwellers, and my day-job at the moment is writing for a TV show in LA. When one form of writing becomes the thing that pays my rent, the other forms start to feel like hobbies – in a deliciously free, exhilarating way that makes me want to spend my free time practising them. Social media feels daunting for me, but the way I’ve been able to participate is by creating an Instagram platform for a particularly depressed panda who goes on adventures (@this_panda_is_sad, if you’re curious).
After watching a documentary about lions, Betty 2 is compelled to share something profound with us. What was the last thing you saw (documentary, film, play, etc) that made you to feel something profound?
I absolutely loved Ruben Östlund’s The Square. It’s incredibly subversive – you think you’re being taken on one kind of journey and it’s actually a completely different and much bleaker one, but hilarious. I love work of any kind that can successfully pull the rug out from under me. Recently, I’m obsessed with the poet Kaveh Akbar. I’ve been reading Calling A Wolf A Wolf over and over again. Everything that his brain does is surprising and beautiful and raw. I just keep going around like a lunatic, giving different friends copies of his book, saying, ‘read this, read this!’. The last time I did that was Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts – her entire body of work is an obsession of mine.
Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties is out now at Oberon Books, and is also included in Jen’s first plays collection Jen Silverman: Three Plays.
To find out more about Jen Silverman, you can visit her website.