The Playwright’s Playground: Playwright Rachel Bonds on the Athleticism of Writing and Her World Premiere Production ‘The Wolfe Twins’ at Studio Theatre

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Rachel Bonds’ play The Wolfe Twins is the first commissioned play to be produced by Studio Theatre. The funny and heartbreaking glimpse into life centers on two siblings who have drifted apart since becoming adults, and discover how to allow themselves to change out of the roles they used to have with one another.

Rachel Bonds. Courtesy of The Arden Theatre.

Rachel Bonds. Courtesy of The Arden Theatre.

Born in Sewanee, Tennessee, a little college town in the mountains, Bonds is a graduate of Brown University and the recipient of the 2014 Heideman Award from Actors Theatre of Louisville and the 2013 L. Arnold Weissberger Award for Playwriting from Williamstown Theatre Festival. In addition to working on Commissions from the Studio Theatre, Rachel Bonds currently also has Commissions with South Coast Rep, Manhattan Theatre Club/Ars Nova’s Writer’s Room and the Atlantic Theater Company.

Sydney-Chanele: This past year and half appears to have been a whirlwind for you. Congratulations on your marriage last October. In terms of work, 2013 started with zero Commissions. A year later you have a Studio Theatre commission and production.

Rachel: Yes. Thank you. It’s been a lot of work and there’s been traveling. So it’s been great. In the late Spring of 2013, I got this commission with Studio Theater, and then I actually was writing a play for the Arden Theatre in Philly. It was a Residency that was also sort of a commission as well. It included me being there so it wasn’t your typical commission. This was my first, “We’re going to pay you and your going to go away and write a play and then you’re going to turn it in.” The Arden was more like I was in Residence.

For a typical commission they give you an advance, you write the play and you turn in a draft and then you get paid the rest of your commission.

As a part of your Residency what all did you do? You said that was a type of commission.

It was a kind of a commission because they did pay me to write a play but part of the whole deal was that I would live in Philly part of that time. It was a four-month Residency; they’ve only done it twice.The year before me, Wendy MacLeod did it. She wrote House of Yes. She actually stayed the whole four months in Philly. I think she was on sabbatical from Kenyon to do that. I couldn’t afford to do that, and I was getting married. So I didn’t want to just move to Philly for four months. So what they worked out was that I was there for three weeks. I wrote a draft in three weeks. Then I went home for a couple months and we ended up casting . . . Part of the Residency was that we would do a workshop production of the play. Whatever I wrote we would just do – which is pretty unheard of. It’s a great opportunity.

Similar to what this process has been. So soon after writing it and still feel excited about it, you get to actually do it, which doesn’t happen very much.

Your play The Wolfe Twins is Studio’s first commissioned play? How did Studio Theatre discover you? Did they give you a theme or subject matter to write about?

No, nothing. Adrien-Alice Hansel who is the Literary Manager here had read a few of my plays that my agent had sent her. So she became a fan that way. Then I think when they were deciding to do this first class of commissions and she thought of me as a potential person, and they ended up offering it to me. It was me, Stew (Mark “Stew” Stewart) who wrote Passing Strange, and a third female playwright who is British I believe (Vivienne Franzmann.)  So we were the inaugural class.

Isn’t it interesting how the timing of things work, and progress begins to happen with everything falling into place? Before 2013 you didn’t have any commissions.  How many commissions are you juggling now and what are they?

Four. Yes, it’s been such a forward movement over the pass year and a half.   South Coast Rep, The Atlantic in New York, and Manhattan Theatre Club and Ars Nova have a joint commissioning program, and then Studio Theatre.

How did you – How do you, do that? Are the scripts due at different times?   

Yes, with the contracts I tried to work out the timing so I’m not turning in four plays at the same time. South Coast has been really flexible with me so that’s probably going to be the last one I do. I have to turn in a draft for The Manhattan Theatre Club/Ars Nova in December. Then the Atlantic, I don’t remember the due date but it’s going to be after the one for The Manhattan Theatre Club sometime later in the Winter/early Spring. That’s the goal anyway.

Let’s talk about how your agent works for you.  How did your land your first agent and the relationship you have with your agent?

I’m with Kate Navin and The Gersh Agency, and she has been such a champion for me. I didn’t have an agent. But I was part of the writing group at Ars Nova and a lot of the other writers in the group had agents, and, I was feeling a little behind. But it’s hard to reach out personally to these people. They’ll ignore your emails or it just goes to the bottom of a pile, so I felt that I needed someone to advocate for me who wasn’t me. So I asked Emily Schultz who runs the writer’s group at Ars Nova if she would help me – if she would send out some scripts for me to various agents. I met with a few, and then Kate was really excited about me. So I went for it and I’ve been with her since 2011. It takes a little while to get things going, but I’m really feeling such nice forward trajectory.

How instrumental was Kate in getting you this commission work? How do you track your agent’s efforts?

Oh, so much.  She’s very educated and intelligent about the places where my writing would fit. She’s really, really smart about that. And again, I don’t have to do it myself. I have someone advocating for me. She gets paid 10% of anything I make. That’s the typical agent situation. If I get a commission, she gets 10%.

You don’t really. We’re really good friends so we talk all the time, and we have this professional relationship where I feel personally involved. It’s just clear to me.

This is helpful information. So many Playwrights talk about how difficult it is to get an agent. How many plays did you have produced before you got an agent?

It took me a long time. I was seeing a lot of my peers having them and getting them. I was like, “I don’t know what to do, and I know I need one.”

There was one that I Co-Produced with my husband and a couple of friends. Then another short play that Ensemble Studio produced in their marathon. That was it at the time. There were some little short plays here and there but no big productions.

How long did it take you write The Wolfe Twins?

The first draft – two months – and then I’ve been rewriting since January.

Are you still working on rewrites?

Oh, yeah. It will change in little ways. It changes once the audience is there. I have a feeling once we’ve completed the run here I will learn some things about the play and probably change a couple of things. I would hope that if The Wolfe Twins gets a second production – which I hope it does – I will feel really confident with the script at that moment. At some point you just have to let it go.

What has your experience been working with The Wolfe Twins Director, Mike Donahue?

I love him. We met in the Spring because I wanted him to direct this. I had seen his work before and we have a lot of mutual friends. He’s lovely. I asked for him but that doesn’t mean anything – the theater has to approve and it has to work with his schedule. Luckily, the theatre was delighted to have him and we worked together very well. You kind of have to be a little bit married and sort of know how to make room for each other. Also, when you’re responsible for something and when the other person is, and have that kind of close relationship.

How hands on are you as a Playwright?

Pretty hands on. I make changes in the room a lot. Because Mike and I have this relationship, I feel very open to just talk whenever I want to. But I do have a sense of when is it appropriate and when will it panic people. It’s about being smart about how to be in the room, and I feel like that’s really important. I also feel like I am always heard and everyone’s very respectful with that. With a new play I feel very strongly that the Playwright should be a part of the process. At that point, they probably know more who the character is and who the character might become.

The Wolfe Twins. Why did you choose this as your title?

The play takes place in Rome and part of it is a play on the Romulus and Remus story. That’s part of it and kind of where it starts. The setting of Rome was partly inspired by my honeymoon . . .  This play is so much about siblings and the intimacy between the people who grow up together. Louis and Dana are the brother and sister. She’s 39.  He’s 40. They’re “Irish Twins” and are born eleven months apart.

I don’t want to give too much away but Louis and Dana take this trip to Italy in this effort to reconnect. They were very close as children and as teenagers and they’ve drifted apart in various since becoming adults. So it’s about how to rekindle that sense of closeness after they’ve grown up into different people. It’s about how to allow others to change and how to allow yourself to change out of the role you use to have with that person.

Do you have any siblings? How personal is this story?

I have two sisters, no brothers – but brothers-in-law. My older sister is three-and-half years older than me. And then there is my stepsister whom I count as my sister, and we are two weeks apart. So we literally grew up together. We did everything together and kind of experienced everything at the exact same time. We were in the same class. It’s special. That doesn’t happen very much unless you have a twin, but it was sort of similar to that. It kind of makes it easier that we are not related. Less pressure. I’m fascinated by twins.

What about the ‘Wolfe’ part of the title? Is there any significance there?

Uh . . . It does. That might be giving too much away.

Really quick. Name three adjectives that would use to describe The Wolfe Twins.

Intimate. Awkward. Precise. The awkwardness is so much about the weird human moments.

One of the things that I appreciate about your work is that they are intimate plays. They feel very knowing. Is there a theme or through line that connects your work?

Yes, there are a few. I write about siblings . . . I guess because they can be such fraught relationships but also some of your most valuable and intimate ones. And then I write a lot about grief; that tends to be a theme. I can’t get away from it no matter how hard I try.

Why is that?

My father died in 2003; it’s been over ten years now. But he died when I was in college and it happened at a moment when I was really coming into my own as a writer. I was nineteen, I was doing a lot of creative writing (I went to Brown University where you can make your own curriculum basically, and was taking a lot of writing classes.) And at that time I was becoming an adult and coming of age as a writer. I was like, “Oh, I want to do this,” and that really impacted me.

Also, I was just grappling with what happened. I had a place to put all of that stuff. I was learning about the craft and the athleticism of it – having the discipline. All of that stuff was happening. So now it definitely weaves it way through in every play in some way. Earlier on it was much more pronounced the theme of the play and now it’s a more narrow thread, but it’s always there.

I like that you describe the learning as “athleticism.” I’ve read that you see your writing as “an athletic event.” You are an athlete. What is your approach to writing?

I also like to run and I find them so similar. There are days when I wake and I just don’t want to do it, and I make myself do it any way. It’s like exercise you have to push through your dread or doubt or whatever it is. There are days where it feels so slow and awful, and everything is terrible. But you have to do those days to get to the next day, when you’re able to get into some really good writing. You have to be patient with yourself. You have to know, “O.K. maybe this is not a great day. But I’m going push myself to do ten pages anyway, no matter what they are.” Then, the next day I find that something got broken open.

Birgit Huppuch (Dana), Jolly Abraham (Raina) and Tom Story (Lewis) in The Wolfe Twins. Photo by Igor Dmitry.

Birgit Huppuch (Dana), Jolly Abraham (Raina) and Tom Story (Lewis) in The Wolfe Twins. Photo by Igor Dmitry.

Where do you get that self-discipline? What is the reward that is a motivator?

I definitely get a little high from writing. I do. It’s just in me. I don’t know. It feels rewarding no matter what because it’s what I want to be doing.

When did you first know you want to be a writer?

I fought it so hard. My mom from day one wanted me to be a writer. She is a voracious reader (as was my dad), and she loves books. She really instilled that in me and we went to the library a lot. She and I still share books all of the time. She made me think writers were cool, even though I fought her on it for so long because I wanted to be an actor. I thought there was nothing glamorous about being a writer. (I thought of some drunk in a bathrobe who never showers, and I was like, “I don’t want to be that.”) I wanted to be on T.V. or on the stage.

Somewhere in the middle of college when I was discovering how much I loved writing that shifted. I still continued to act through college and little bit afterwards. In college my major was Theater and I was predominately an actor, and I did it for a few years in New York. I was always writing and slowly those two things merged. Really early on when I was dating my husband he said to me, “You know I think writing is going to be expansive to you and acting is going to be limiting.” I really heard that. That was so true. Around then, I completely shifted my focus to writing.

Coming from that actor background must provide great insight for your writing.

Yeah, it’s true. It definitely helps inform the writing for sure. It was not wasted time.

You were born and raised in Sewanee, Tennessee. How does being a Southern girl inform your writing and what you write?

I have not written a Southern play I think because I’ve been a little afraid because it feels so close to me. I’m working on this commission for Manhattan Theatre Club and it takes place in the South, in Tennessee. It the first one that I’ve done and it’s scary. Why? Because I think it’s so personal and I’m finally able to go there.

What is your most personal work up until this point?

They really all are. But the short play I first ever had produced (EST) was called Anniversary. Studio Theatre actually did a workshop here, I believe, that Holly Twyford directed. That definitely comes from a very personal place. It’s funny sometimes you look back at your writing and say, “Oh, I was so young, silly, and awful.” But that piece I still feel connected to it. I don’t hate it. I think because it came from a really honest place; it doesn’t make me cringe too much.

Do you consider yourself a professional Playwright?

Yes, I’ve considered that 2009, but it doesn’t mean I didn’t have another job. You gotta. You gotta. This year writing is the majority of my income and will be for most of next year. I have a freelance job also. So I can’t let go of that, probably ever. That’s the reality. But the nice thing about having those other gigs is that you get to keep a foot in the rest of the world and deal with other human beings that aren’t in the theater, and I think that’s useful.

Why do you write? Why are you a Playwright?

I think because I don’t know how to do any thing else. I guess because it just feeds me. It’s what I must do. I have to do it. I think I would curl into a ball and be a sad person if I didn’t. That drive is just in me.

What have you learned about yourself with this Studio Theatre experience?

My first impulse is always to fix something in the script. I have learned to wait. A lot of times it’s actually about the acting – and just not being there yet. I’m learning to be patient, and instead of fixing everything at one time, to hold off and let it breathe. That’s hard for me because I feel really responsible for everyone and everything. I feel like, “Let me fix it right now.” I’m learning the script will end up getting watered down if I don’t wait.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Like everyone does, I’m sure, I want everything to be perfect. I’m trying to figure out how to allow myself to breathe and listen, and not worry about is everyone hating this. Is everyone loving this? I’m trying not to let my anxiety get the better of me in those moments.

Do you consider yourself a perfectionist?

Yes. Yes. Which is why I have such solid discipline but it can also be detrimental. It’s just in there I can’t get rid of it, but I can try to relax more.

What do you want the audience to take away after experiencing The Wolfe Twins?

The play is so much about intimacy and allowing each other to change. At the very least I hope people leave thinking about that.

The Wolfe Twins plays through November 2, 2014 at The Studio Theatre’s Milton Theatre-1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, D.C. Tickets are available online.

The Playwright’s Playground is a monthly in-depth conversation with local female playwrights and artists in the D.C. theatre community. Female theatre artists make up more than 50 percent of those involved in the theatre, yet the number of female playwrights being produced is dramatically lower. In this continuing Column, I will also interview and introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights and artistic teams in the DMV area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and their motivations and struggles to write and produce their art. Sydney-Chanele Dawkins

LINKS:
Rachel Bonds website.

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