Katori Hall once said that playwrights are the most gregarious of writers, and Suzanne Bachner may be one of the most gregarious of playwrights. She has an open style of conversation, a friendly blend of charming anecdotes and humorous self-reflection. A lover of actors (she married one) and a lifelong fan of all things art, her experience in the world of theater has always been tied to her love of collaboration with others. WKND spoke to Bachner on Tuesday night, and not even the dramatic events of the election could distract her from the interview.
Bachner’s character is so friendly and forthcoming that it is easy to forget how seriously accomplished she is as an artist. Bachner studied with renowned playwrights Romulus Linney and Adrienne Kennedy, and she has written a litany of successful plays — including CIRCLE, an off-Broadway cult classic which was lauded by the New York Times for its vibrant characters. Bachner is currently busy with her theater project The Good Adoptee, which comes to New Haven on Nov. 18.
Q: How did your childhood play a role in your development as a playwright?
A: I had very supportive parents who created a very arts-positive environment for me. My mom was an art historian, and then she became a visual artist herself. My dad’s a lawyer and a writer of novels. I was hauled to every possible museum. I actually charged a huge Jackson Pollock when I was three years old, much to the dismay of the guards at the MoMA, because I wanted to be a part of the art. So I think that theatricality was a natural element for me when it came to creating theater and plays.
Q: You are both an active director and playwright; do those two roles ever enter into dialogue with one another?
A: When I’m directing my own work, and I know I am from the outset, yes it does enter into it because those things melt into each other a little more. I know that I don’t have to worry about having everything spelled out on paper, necessarily, because I’m going to be interpreting it. I also work very collaboratively with the actors. I just adore actors tremendously — and designers as well. That’s one of the reasons I love theater: You get to be a writer who goes into your own private space of thought and memory to create work independently, but then you also get to realize work with a team of people who see things and bring things that you never would have thought of consciously.
Q: How is it different when you direct work that is not your own?
A: When I’m not directing my own work the directing role is different. If I’m doing a solo show, I’m working with an artist who is the performer and writer and creator of the show. I work with other people who are doing autobiographical solo shows, so they’re creating from their own experience as well. When you’re the director of that situation, you’re trying to help that artist tell the truth, fully realize that work in terms of the expression of it, how it’s playing on stage, all that stuff.
Q: How has writing and directing “The Good Adoptee” compared with your past experiences as a writer and director?
A: I do a lot of ensemble-based plays. I’m a very dialogue, character-driven playwright, so actually writing a solo show like “The Good Adoptee” was a unique experience for me —though I found that there were a lot of characters in that play, even if there was only one actor.
Q: What is it like to focus on ensemble plays so much?
A: I do have a process that I created for doing ensemble work with actors, where instead of coming up with a theme or an idea of a play, I work with an ensemble, create characters for each of them, do ensemble work with them, and the characters sort of meet after the ensemble begins playing themselves. [The actors] play characters which I’m ceding to them, the characters interact, and then I go off and write a play.
Q: Is that process ever particularly stressful?
A: When you have an eight to 14 person ensemble, it can get a bit out of hand. A number of storylines can emerge organically but the goal is to create a play that is going to be enjoyable, challenging, interesting or provocative to an audience — but not torture! It can’t be so indulgent that we create characters in an ensemble such that nobody else can come to the party: The audience always has to be included from the beginning.
Q: How have personal experiences and identity colored your work?
A: I was writing about adoption reunions originally before I had reunited with my birth family. I think that when I started writing about adoption in drama school the birth mom character was a figment, a ghost figure — not a real life person because reunion was such a scary idea to me. I didn’t feel like I could search, I didn’t feel like I had a voice to say “Oh, I need to have information I don’t have.” It was really something that I could only explore in my play, and [writing the play] told me a lot and helped me. It was years before I could actually, in real life, go and explore that. My play “We Call Her Benny” has a reunion between a birth mom and daughter — that was based on a real-life woman and me. When I was writing “The Good Adoptee,” it was while I was actually doing my search … I had to live it first before I could write it.
Q: In your career as a playwright and director, have you looked up to a particular artist?
A: I love Adrienne Kennedy. I was introduced to her work in college and I also got to work on the production end of a couple of her plays, so I have enjoyed a reading relationship with her work — and not all playwrights’ work is great to read. Signature Theatre just did her work last year in three acts as a 25th anniversary celebration that was just unbelievable. You just don’t get to see work that is that challenging to stage just nailed; I was shaking after the show.
Q: Do you ever worry that the vision of your work is oversimplified?
A: I’ve had my share of production situations, working with a director even, where I didn’t think that they understood my work, and where it was interpreted in an oversimplified way. That’s difficult, a bit painful and enormously frustrating. You think: “Well, hopefully I have put onto the page everything the viewer needs to know,” but [the simplification] usually happens when someone is scared or nervous. When it’s easier to oversimplify it or reduce it because then you don’t have to be vulnerable or look at something or look at yourself in a certain way. The thing is, if you’re working with a group of artists and the leadership gets scared, that’s a gazelle factor: The scared leadership spooks the entire herd. People who are usually brave, fearless, complex and interesting just shut down. I have experienced that, and it is very unfortunate. When you don’t have control over these things, you have to take the good with the bad.
Q: As an adoptee yourself, how do you envision “The Good Adoptee” engaging with other adoptees?
A: I really want it to be something that is validating. I don’t pretend that I speak for all adoptees, but there is some experience that a lot of adoptees have and can relate to in the play, and so I really want that to be validating and expressed in a certain way that can help another adoptee seeing this play to say “Yes!” To be able to look at his or her own experience and say “Oh yeah, but in my situation it happened like this.” Personally, hearing the voices of other adoptees makes me more able to express my own experience. I want to give other adoptees the opportunity to hear similar stories as well.
Q: Any standout experiences with adoptees seeing the play?
A: A dear friend saw the show when we came to London, Ontario. I never knew that he was adopted until we brought him the piece. I think it has sparked some interest in him to possibly search [for his biological family].
Q: Do those moments happen a lot?
A: This has happened since the time we debuted the play — people have responded really strongly. When you have an adoptee-heavy crowd, it’s so powerful because the response in the moment is not something you could replicate in a lay crowd. I always want to have that connection with the audience, but when you’re around the work like I’ve been with “The Good Adoptee,” people really directly come up to you and share their experiences.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: I would just say that the show is an effort for Access Connecticut — all of the proceeds go to Access Connecticut because of the amazing work they’re doing in terms of opening access to original birth certificates. There’s a huge portion of the play that has to do with this. I didn’t write it as a political manifesto, but it is a personal narrative that completely supports this sort of work.