A Long Path to “Somewhere Fun”

Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab co-Chair, Jenny Schwartz, in interviewed about her new play at The Vineyard Theatre.

By Eric Grode
The New York Times
May 30, 2013

Jenny Schwartz (NY TImes/Nicole Bengiveno)
Jenny Schwartz (NY TImes/Nicole Bengiveno)

Jenny Schwartz is a playwright who loves workshops.

For anyone familiar with the protracted way most plays are developed today, that is a jarring position, akin to a Nascar driver who loves pit stops or a corpse who loves purgatory.

Like those other way stations, closed-door workshops are where progress that allows for bigger and better things is made. But for Ms. Schwartz, whose play SOMEWHERE FUN opens Tuesday at the Vineyard Theatre, getting there appears to be at least half the fun.

“I get to a point pretty quickly where I find myself stuck until I hear it in a workshop,” Ms. Schwartz said at the Midtown offices of New Dramatists, one of several arts organizations that has offered her support — including workshop space — to create “Somewhere Fun” and an earlier play, GOD’S EAR (2007), which had a development process of roughly two years.

In GOD’S EAR, a couple deflected their grief over the death of their son with a stream of verbal clichés and other imaginative ploys. That frisky wordplay is still in evidence in SOMEWHERE FUN, but the looming sense of mortality is even more palpable. Ostensibly about two Manhattan women (played by Kate Mulgrew and Kathleen Chalfant) whose dwindling years are imprinted with their shared experiences as young mothers, SOMEWHERE FUN quickly veers in odd directions.

“Her plays have their own set of rules,” said Anne Kauffman, who directed both GOD’S EAR and SOMEWHERE FUN, “You can’t figure it out intellectually. We will try something, and the play will reject it.”

On one level, Ms. Schwartz’s scripts leave a huge amount to the imagination. Whether it’s G. I. Joe supplying therapeutic advice in GOD’S EAR or a character melting into a puddle in SOMEWHERE FUN, surreal actions take place with virtually no visual stage directions.

But while Ms. Schwartz stays as vague as possible in terms of what the audience sees, she is meticulous about what it hears. Specific syllables are italicized to indicate an emphasis, and when a character’s dialogue is meant to be interrupted, she indicates more than once, “Do not add words.” This is in keeping with Ms. Kauffman’s description of Ms. Schwartz as “the most precise word-for-word playwright I’ve ever worked with.”

Ms. Schwartz, who in person has a courteous, even-keeled demeanor, said, “I’m very specific about the way things should sound, which I know can be quirky and fascistic.”

“I’m not as particular about the emotional life in these lines,” she said. “I like to be part of that conversation, but I don’t claim to have the answers.”

A scene from The Vineyard Theatre's SOMEWHERE FUN by Jenny Schwartz (The NY Times/Ruby Washington)
A scene from The Vineyard Theatre’s SOMEWHERE FUN by Jenny Schwartz (The NY Times/Ruby Washington)

This blend of linguistic precision and what appears to be narrative chaos has earned Ms. Schwartz a number of fervent fans, most notably Edward Albee, another playwright who enjoys poking around in the detritus of the English language. “That was an extraordinary play,” Mr. Albee said of GOD’S EAR during an interview. “I thought there were a lot of difficulties in it that made it worth her, and our, attention.” (He wrote an introduction to the play for a 2012 anthology of new works.)

Ms. Schwartz, who grew up primarily in Westchester County but spent a handful of formative years in the starchy Upper East Side environs of  SOMEWHERE FUN, does not subscribe to the “write what you know” philosophy. Her two young daughters weren’t yet born when she wrote GOD’S EAR, and the regrets and recriminations of the two main SOMEWHERE FUN characters are largely the province of people a good bit older than Ms. Schwartz, who gives her age as “in my 30s.”

“I actually wrote an earlier play called SOMEWHERE FUN before GOD’S EAR about people who were more like me, and I was troubled with it,” she said. “I need to have space between myself and my characters.”

This desire was also evident during Ms. Schwartz’s early years as an aspiring director. She received her M.F.A. in directing from Columbia, but says she derived more pleasure from the Greek playlets (including a five-minute BACCHAE and a one-second MEDEA) that she wrote as directing tasks. “I was happiest when I could hide behind some large story,” she said.

Her first full-fledged play, CAUSE FOR ALARM, was presented at the 2002 New York International Fringe Festival and received some good notices. (One of her Columbia pieces, “Intervals,” was presented at an earlier festival.) She was accepted not long after into the playwriting program at Juilliard, where she began to hone the wry, aphoristic, probing voice so apparent in GOD’S EAR and SOMEWHERE FUN.

“I find that through writing, I discover what I’m interested in,” Ms. Schwartz said, a notion that she describes more poetically in SOMEWHERE FUN. As a younger character states in a school report, “Stories are how humans become people.”

But some stories take longer than others to tell. Sarah Stern, the co-artistic director at the Vineyard, said it took some ingenuity to supply Ms. Schwartz with such a long development period for GOD’S EAR.

“We kind of created a process around what she needs, which is a lot of time with actors,” Ms. Stern said. “That process began when she was still in the early stages of writing it, maybe 20 or 40 pages into it.”

Ms. Schwartz’s explorations during these workshops can even involve the placement of actors relative to one another. “I basically let Jenny arrange people at workshops and tell them where to sit,” Ms. Kauffman said. “Her rhythms are very spatially charged.”

Not every playwright relishes the idea of telling their stories with so many artists looking over their shoulders, but few deny that the process does a lot of plays a lot of good. So it is fitting that Ms. Schwartz and her frequent collaborator Ken Rus Schmoll lead the Writer/Director Lab at Soho Rep, which has helped develop plays like Amy Herzog’s 4,000 MILES, THE THUGS by Adam Bock and that earlier version of SOMEWHERE FUN.

One disadvantage of this extracurricular work and her extended process is a relatively slim body of work: just two plays over the last decade. “They take a long time,” Ms. Schwartz said. “I wish they didn’t, but they do. The only thing I can do is schedule a lot of workshops.”

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