Monday, November 8, 2010

Playwrights in Person, part 1: Brooke Berman

Over the last couple of weeks I've seen a few playwrights in person--I mean you-may-have-heard-of-these-people playwrights, East Coast-based, award-winning, establishment playwrights--so I'm going to do a little series of blog posts about these encounters.

First up: Brooke Berman. Over the summer, Terry Teachout raved about Brooke's new memoir No Place Like Home, and even though I was not familiar with any of Brooke's plays, I vowed to check it out--because there aren't a lot of firsthand accounts of what it's like to be a young, female playwright, struggling to make great art at the same time you're struggling to just figure out LIFE. So, when Brooke Berman did a promotional reading at the downtown San Francisco Borders last month, I made sure to attend and buy a copy of the memoir.

The reading was sparsely attended, which enabled me to introduce myself to Brooke and chat with her for a bit. (Also, because Brooke was 7.5 months pregnant, that gave me the opportunity to tell her that I had just had a short play produced about a pregnant woman who craves a beer!) She read the opening pages of the memoir, as well as a brief passage about a summer when she drove cross-country with her boyfriend and ended up, broke, in San Francisco--then signed copies of her book.

I began reading No Place Like Home on my East Coast trip--which was perfect, because it is a New York book. Most of the "39 apartments" described in the book's subtitle are in New York City, and Brooke writes with an evocative sense of place, reserving particular affection for downtown, bohemian Manhattan. The memoir grew out of a New York Times article about Brooke's peripatetic life; the different living situations provide the backdrop to a coming-of-age story.

It's a hard-won coming of age, brought about by much struggle--partly because being a young New York artist often means scraping by on very little money in tiny apartments, and partly because Brooke had at least two instances of really bad luck. (When she was 24, someone broke into her apartment and raped her; later, a roommate got leukemia and made her move out of a beautiful loft apartment.) I was put in the weird position of thinking that, compared to Brooke's, my life as a young female artist has been pretty stable... and wondering if I too am "cruising for a bruising." Or, alternatively, wondering if I should live my life with a little more risk and daring, even if that would mean giving up this stability.

No Place Like Home is meant for a "general" audience, for people who can relate to Brooke's story of being a young woman and finding her way. Therefore, it doesn't contain as much information as a geek like me would desire about the specifics of playwriting, or Brooke's opinions about the theater. For instance, Brooke pretty much glosses over her two years of schooling at Juilliard. Or, according to the New York Times article, Brooke once worked as playwright Maria Irene Fornes' assistant--but Fornes is never mentioned in the memoir. Indeed, because Brooke has to cover so many years and so many apartments in 250 pages, it sometimes feels like a lot of stuff has been left out. The entire book is written at a dogged "and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened" pace, so that sometimes it is hard to keep track of just which of these years, and these apartments, are most important to Brooke's story.

Still, there are some good insights into the playwright's or artist's life. I loved Brooke's comment "My job is to create a world that other people can live inside of--without me. It feels like my housing: entering a space, making it my own, and then leaving it to someone else's care. Leaving an imprint, then moving on." Or, when she says of a friend, "He understands how my plays are put together and why, which is like understanding how I'm put together and why," I just thought yes, exactly.

One other thing that No Place Like Home made me realize is how my life has been lacking in a spiritual dimension lately. Throughout the memoir, Brooke talks about how she has been helped by yoga, meditation, New Age philosophy, and other spiritual practices. I realized that I spend a lot of time alone, and yet, I don't spend enough time taking care of myself, being good to myself. I am privileged to have a peaceful and stable home, and yet my room is always a mess! Wouldn't I be happier if I lived in a tidy room, if I finally hung pictures on my walls, if I tried to cultivate my spiritual side and not just my intellectual/artistic side? It is something to think about... and San Francisco will clearly welcome me with open arms if I want to look further into spirituality.


Anushka said...

when and where your "bruising" will come from is not something you can predict or plan for by "living more dangerously" or not. you also have a very long time to get bruised up - some people frontload, others don't, and people of all types can make pretty great theater. i'm sure brooke would agree =).

Marissa said...

Thanks Anushka. I know it's kind of juvenile to think that because I am an ARTIST I should live an EXCITING and RISKY life... but I am aware that I've been blessed with good fortune, and I am secretly afraid that that will make me arrogant or complacent, and that's when I'll get hurt. So, why not put an effort into NOT getting complacent? That's how my mind works, anyway.

BuddyL said...

You were there, too?! I was in the back listening to reading. I love the story about her mother and the back-and-forth travels in and out of California. I would have shook her hand, but life seemed insignificant by comparison.

Had I known you were there, I would have said "Hi". Instead, I buried head in a copy of Vanity Fair with an intriguing article about Marilyn Monroe's soon-to-be-published journals. Where are my priorities?

This is Charles. ;)

Marissa said...

Hiya Charles :-) Funny that I didn't see you there!

Malachy Walsh said...

Glad you went and thanks for the report. That quote from Brooke about the house she builds for other people to live in is great.

As to danger, as Anushka suggests, it will find you no matter what you do. So just live the best you can and trust your curiosity.

Marissa said...

Thanks again, Malachy, for letting me know of this event in the first place!

Yes, that quote about building a house for others to live in is really a wonderful way to think about playwriting.