The much-discussed Rebecca Gilman gives Dan Bacalzo her take on racism, white guilt, and Spinning Into Butter.
THEATERMANIA: In the last few years, you've gone from relative obscurity to become a much-talked-about playwright. How has that affected the way you approach your writing?
GILMAN: In terms of when I would sit down and write a play, I think I was much happier when nobody knew who I was. I feel like people expect everything that comes off the pen now to be of a certain quality. Everybody thinks The Glory of Living was the first play I ever wrote; nobody saw the 15 plays I wrote before that.
TM: Is Spinning Into Butter your first play produced in New York?
GILMAN: I had a couple of really small productions ages ago at a theater called Next Stage Company. One was called Little Eva Takes a Trip. The other was The Adventures of Bobby and Vaughan. They were plays I wrote in graduate school. But [Spinning] is definitely my first Equity production in New York.
TM: What are the differences between doing the show in Chicago and doing it in New York?
GILMAN: I don't see a particular difference. The people I worked with in both places are terrific. I do think there is a commensurate amount of pressure to having a show in New York. It's not that people don't pay attention in Chicago, but there's this feeling that if it doesn't do well in New York, then it sets the tone for how the play is going to do after that.
TM: There was a lot of hype prior to the play's New York opening. How do you think that affected its critical reception?
GILMAN: I don't know. To be honest, I don't read reviews. But I do always worry. The attention the play got in Chicago was so surprising to me. I was overwhelmed by it. I did caution people--even people writing preview articles--that I really hoped expectations wouldn't just be out of this world. It's a play! It's not anything more than that.
TM: Well, I found it fascinating, and I'm speaking as both a person of color and someone who's going into teaching.
GILMAN: Oh, really?
TM: It certainly mirrors experiences I've had at universities. What was your college life like?
GILMAN: It was really long; I went to four different universities or colleges altogether. I transferred from Middlebury College [in Vermont] to Birmingham Southern College, where I graduated. Then I went to graduate school in English at the University of Virginia because I thought I wanted to be a professor. That lasted about a year! [laughs] When I got there, I realized what I wanted to do was write. I should have been reading literary theory; instead, I was taking playwriting classes. So I got my masters there, and then I immediately started the playwriting program at the University of Iowa.
TM: Did you draw from your own personal experiences of academic life for Spinning Into Butter?
GILMAN: I did. I know and love lots of people who teach. Academics can be an easy target, and I feel badly about that. But at the same time, I'd be around some professor and I'd just go, "Oh, my God, nobody would believe that if I put it down on paper." [laughs] There are some really great people who teach, and there are people who let it consume them. So it was based a little bit on my experience as a student and on my experience teaching English and playwriting.
TM: What changes did you make to the play for the New York production?
GILMAN: I tried to clarify some of the characters' motivations. I worked hard on the Nuyorican student, because there was some confusion in Chicago as to whether he was just a reactionary angry young man or not, which is not what I intended. I wanted you to see that he was somebody who, by everyone else's insensitivity, got pushed into taking a stand about things. He wasn't the kind of person that you'd just poke in the wrong way and he turns around screaming. So I worked on that. Then there was a structural problem after Sarah's monologue. It seemed to feel like the climax, even though I didn't know that when I wrote it.
TM: But that's what everyone reacted to.
GILMAN: Yeah, and there was still quite a bit of play after that which had to be streamlined, so basically we wouldn't have a 20-minute denouement.
TM: After seeing the play, do people come up to you and start confessing their own racial prejudices?
GILMAN: People have, yeah. People have written me, too.
TM: How do you react to that?
GILMAN: I feel good. That's what I sort of hope will happen. I can't tell them what to do exactly, but I'm glad I've prompted them to think about things and that they feel comfortable talking about it.
TM: I understand that the Goodman started holding nightly post-performance discussions during its run of Spinning Into Butter. What did you think of them?
GILMAN: I was ambivalent about the decision to hold them in the first place, to be honest, because I don't think people want to admit to things in a crowd. The first one I went to, everybody just sat there. People seemed to want to hear other people talk, but nobody was willing to talk themselves. But then I went to a second one that blew me away; everybody was just opening up about everything. I thought that was great, and I was very pleasantly surprised by it. So I think sometimes it was a good thing, and sometimes it wasn't. It just depended on the mix of people there. Part of my saying that people wouldn't admit to anything in a crowd is based on experience; I had watched a couple of President Clinton's "Race Forums". [laughs] Not only are you in a crowd, but you have a camera turned on, and you know millions of people are watching you. Everybody talked about everybody else's racism; nobody talked about their own. I wouldn't say anything, either!
TM: That would be very hard.
GILMAN: I remember there was one guy who admitted that, sometimes, when he was walking on the street alone at night and he saw an African-American man coming towards him, he wanted to cross to the other side of the street. President Clinton said, "That's so brave of you to admit that." The man looked terrified that he had said it. And I thought, there's so much more than that to say, probably.
TM: In other interviews, you've defended the choice to not represent Simon, the African-American student, onstage by saying that the play is more about the racial attitudes of white people. Can you elaborate on this?
GILMAN: I felt that I was specifically writing about the black/white relationship in the United States, which I think has its own particular awful baggage because of the history of African-Americans in this country. It's a play about how white people objectify black people. To have Simon come on stage would make that point moot, almost. I wanted to force the audience to see where their imaginations went in terms of who and what Simon was. If he shows up on stage, they're not forced to imagine him anymore.
TM: How do you respond to people who say your plays are too didactic?
GILMAN: I feel like I'm probably walking a line there. But I always write for a reason. I don't see the point of doing a play unless I take a chance and express an opinion about what it is I'm writing about. I try not to be didactic. I know I'm trying to get a point across, but I'm trying to do it in an artful and entertaining way.
TM: The Glory of Living, Boy Gets Girl, and Spinning Into Butter all have a dark edge to them. You're currently working on The Great Baseball Strike of 1994 for the Goodman. Does that have a similar tone, or is it a change of pace?