We conclude our 16th Writer/Director Lab with Jerry Lieblich’s new play D DEB DEBBIE DEBORAH, directed by Kareem Fahmy. This interview with Jerry is the last in a series of interviews with the participants of this year’s Lab. Come and join us for the fourth and final reading at our theater on 46 Walker St, May 15 at 3PM!
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1. Briefly tell us about your play.
A little while ago I started getting interested in the philosophy of personal identity, questions like “what ties me seven years ago and me today into one in the same person?
I think most people, myself included, are likely to say the answer is something along the lines of “well, there’s just some intrinsic me-ness in me, such that no matter what else changes (if my arms get cut off, if I start voting Republican, if I get old), I’ll still be myself.”
But that common-sense notion falls apart pretty quick – what is that intrinsic me-ness? Is it your body? (Unlikely, given our cells are always dying and recycling). Is it your memories? (But what about stuff we don’t remember, or false memories?) Is it your soul? (Let’s not touch that with a ten foot pole.
So the answer, a lot of philosophers would argue, is that it’s none of that stuff. In fact, there is no essential me-ness to “me.”
And that’s kind of terrifying.
So that’s what this play is about. This play is my exploration of what it might be like to live in a world where there is no intrinsic self. And the thing that’s surprised me about it, is that it’s actually a play about others – if nobody has a core identifying selfhood, how can you ever know who somebody is? How can you empathize with them? Understand them? Be with them?
2. Who are your greatest influences in your writing?
I find myself most drawn to writers with an inward focus, who can examine and dilate the particular textures of consciousness. I’m thinking of people like Lydia Davis, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Dorthe Nors, whom I’ve been totally jamming on of late. Reading any of them (and granted, they’re all fiction writers, not playwrights) gives you the sense of borrowing their subconscious, of slipping their mindstream into yours, so you can feel what it’s like to think like them for a little while. Each has such an incredible attention to conscious states – Lydia Davis can write an entire story about a momentary anxiety – that I just find astounding. I strive to be that inwardly aware.
3. What part of the Writer/Director Lab process was the most instructive and entertaining?
Back in January we did a kind of “midterm” presentation of the plays, the director’s projects, where the directors got to get their hands dirty and stage about 20 minutes of the still early-in-development work. There’s a lot in my play that really depends on actually having bodies in space, so it was ridiculously helpful to get to see it on its feet, and work on it with some freakin great actors (not to mention Kareem, who’s a big ol’ smarty himself). I think just about all the work that I’ve done since then has come directly out of that little workshop presentation.
Also, all the director’s projects were freakin’ amazing to watch. These motherfuckers (can I say motherfuckers?) are magic makers. Louisa made it snow in the Soho Rep offices! I mean, seriously, you guys! Snow!
4. How have your dramaturgical skills developed over the curse of the past nine months?
It’s funny, but I think the biggest thing I’ve learned in the lab is how not to listen to advice.
Let me explain that. It’s incredible to be in a room of brilliant, talented people whose opinions you respect to high heavens. But it’s also really difficult. Everybody is so smart, and so talented, that it’s hard not to just listen to everybody’s advice and suggestions – I mean, these are people I admire so greatly, that it’s hard not to assume they’re just right.
And the thing is, they usually are right. If they’re confused, or if they don’t think something is working, then it’s probably not working.
The good student in me usually wants to please the people I respect. But, what I’ve learned this year is that I need to listen to the notes under the note. I need to listen to how they’re reacting and why they’re reacting, and from that data decide myself how to continue work on the play. It’s all been a great, if at times difficult, lesson in trusting my gut and listening for my instincts, and I think it’s a testament to how astute and generous the group is that I’ve been able to learn so much about myself through their eyes.
5. Sixteen years on the Lab has produced some pretty great plays. Looking over them, do any stand out to you?
Oh man, there are just so many goodies, but I’ll keep it to two. Suitcase by Melissa James Gibson and The Internationalist by Anne Washburn are two plays that exploded my mind in a profound sense. I read Suitcase just out of college, and remember thinking something along the lines of “holy shit, a play can look like that?” It gave me a feeling of kinship, of license to write from concerns of language, form, or spacial architecture, rather than, say, plots about families getting drunk on a couch. I think D Deb Debbie Deborah has a lot of people talking on intercoms as a kind of subconscious homage to that play, now that I think about it…
And The Internationalist, god, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that it’s been one of the most influential plays on me as a writer. The play ties you to a particular character’s perspective, and the form of the play is essentially an explosion of his subjective perspective (he doesn’t speak the native language, so neither do we). I’ve lovingly stolen that idea for so much of my work (D Deb Debbie Deborah in particular), this idea that theatricality or form can somehow give us insight into the subjective perceptual experience of a person, that we the audience can actually experience what this character experiences, rather than simply watch them experience it.
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Jerry Lieblich‘s plays include Eudaemonia (not just 3 New Plays), Ghost Stories (HERE Arts Center), 1927 (Ars Nova, ANT Fest), Subway Play (Tiny Rhino) and Cruelty to Animals (Manhattan Repertory Theater). Finalist: Heideman Award (Actors Theatre of Louisville), T.S. Eliot US/UK Exchange (Old Vic Theatre), Global Age Project (Aurora Theater), New Works Festival (Kitchen Dog Theater). Semifinalist: Page 73 Playwriting Fellowship. Jerry is a member of Smith + Tinker (HERE Arts Center), and is the writerly half of the devising team Tiny Little Band with Stefanie Abel Horowitz. 2011/2012 Literary Resident at Playwrights Horizons. He also used to work at a zoo. BA: Yale.