The Los Angeles New Court Theatre chats with:
Director and Los Angeles New Court Board Member, Kyle Hester, chats with Little Man playwright Bekah Brunstetter about her upcoming play, her own class reunion, and writing for television. Little Man will be having its world premiere October 17-26th at the McCadden Theatre Center in Hollywood, CA. It is produced by Eddie Vona and is presented by the Los Angeles New Court Theatre.
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Director Kyle Hester: Can you talk a little bit about how the idea of the play came to you?
Playwright Bekah Brunstetter: When I got the invitation to my high school reunion, I immediately decided I was going to write a play about it. I really like giving myself assignments and living my life while ALSO calling it research. It felt like a good way to turn a potentially hilarious and awkward experience into a MASTERPIECE! Or at least a play. I started working on it before the actual reunion, then finished it after. I was fascinated by my own strong desire to definitely fly back home and definitely miss work and definitely attend this reunion. I realized that I felt like I was a much better version of myself now than I was in high school (I was quite overweight and wore 97% old men’s clothes from Goodwill and was pretty self-conscious and not confident, but I guess, weren’t we all?) and so I wanted to go to the reunion and show that. Prove that. So I was thinking a lot about that when writing the play. Mostly I was thinking about people who peak in high school vs. people who don’t, and how the things that happen to us in those four years leave incredibly deep scars that we spend our adult lives trying to surgically remove.
KH: Exactly, and a lot of your plays deal with characters who find themselves on the borderline between adulthood and youth, and concern their decisions to either hang back or move forward. Is this a theme that you’ve been consciously exploring?
BB: Absolutely. As you get older, you keep waiting for that moment when you feel like a grown up — but it never comes. Sure, you start to notice that maybe like, you’re buying yourself nicer sheets, are taking adult gummy vitamins, are caring less about what people think of you, but I mean you never quite feel the intelligence or emotional maturity that you associate with your perception of adulthood. And honestly — I don’t know if we ever will. I have such clarity now on what was going on in my head in middle and high school, so I find myself writing and thinking a lot about those times. Maybe when I’m 50 I will understand myself now. I hope!
KH: One of my favorite parts of the show is Ken Strong’s portrait, which is in the background of pretty much every scene. I love the two weird levels it operates on: both as an awkward centerpiece to the play, making an already kind of cheap event tackier somehow, but also profoundly deepening the reunion with a kind of memento mori, as though he had somehow peaked so hard in high school he literally couldn’t live in the real world. Where did he come from?
BB: I love that character/set piece, too. And can I just say: the portrait you made is beyond perfect and my new favorite prop and also thing in the whole world. Ken is an odd blend of fiction and reality: at my high school, there was a really lovely guy, Kent: very popular, very smart, and from what I recall, also very kind. He was liked by everyone and was kind and fair to everyone. He had tons of promise, but he was tragically killed in a car accident shortly after college graduation. At my reunion his absence was looming. His absence was felt, and sort of — ripped us all to a place where we were questioning our own lives. He was dead, we were alive. What were we doing with our lives? We deserved our lives? As I started crafting Little Man, I thought it would be interesting/terrible if this same guy was the guy who made Howie’s life miserable. That felt complicated to me in the best way.
KH: I was struck by the role that money and career success plays in these characters’ lives and their perceptions of how happy they are. Jed, Wendy and Andy are barely scraping by, Melissa’s parents just stopped paying her rent, and Howie lives in a weirdly uncomfortable luxury born out of his entrepreneurism. The Millennial generation has in some ways been defined by its relationship to wealth and class, its struggle to find employment in the wake of the Great Recession and its choice to reject or embrace the more traditional lifestyle of the generation that came before. Can you talk about that a bit in relationship to your work?
BB: I think the money thing relates to the thing I was rambling about regarding how we never feel like grown ups, not ever. Money provides security, but what I’ve found (after being broke for so long, and then finally starting to make some dough from TV work) is that mo’ money, mo’ problems, if you will. With money comes greater anxieties, and also a fear that your priorities and values are going to shift. A fear of becoming more material or shallow. I think about that a lot. I don’t want to ever become complacent. Howie’s got more money than he knows what to do with — but he still feels empty. As for the rest of the characters, there’s something so frustrating and sickening about growing older, like years are passing, but you don’t have the money to buy the things that match the age you are supposed to feel, or provide for the family that you made.
KH: You’ve been writing for television for several years now. How has your background in the theatre informed your writing on TV, and vice versa, anything you’ve learned on TV that has influenced your writing for the stage?
BB: I’ve found TV writing to be incredibly challenging, because as a playwright, I’m not very structure-oriented, I’m much more focused on language, characters, stage images and explosive moments. I’ve definitely had to re-train my brain to think story, how to twist one in a surprising way. I’d that say theater has taught me first and foremost how to communicate with actors and directors, and in terms of the actual writing, how to avoid cliche/really think about the specifics of moments and the people inside of them that make magic. With TV, time is certainly money — you write, but then you’re trimming and trimming and trimming to get the script down to a certain page count. Every scene must be moving the story forward. That’s been something that’s been hard to shake as I work on plays, but honestly, I think it’s been a good lesson for me to learn — now when I’m working on a play, I’m a bit more economical, and I think my storytelling instincts have gotten better, which is to say, I actually have them now.
KH: You’ve talked before about your preference for ambiguity and theatricality, for worlds with weird rules or undefined settings, as long as they’re grounded in some kind of reality. What about that appeals to you?
BB: For me, a play should be grounded in the real world, because that’s how I can access it emotionally, and so that it can be accessible by a broader audience — it’s very important to me for my plays to be relatable, for people to be able to see themselves in the plays happenings and characters. But also, plays should NEED to be plays. They should not be quick TV scenes, cinematic. They should hopefully explode in a surprising way and go deeper emotionally. There should be awkwardness and time travel and in the genius stage directions of Sarah Ruhl, characters suddenly turning into almonds. Just because. Because Plays.
KH: One last question! Everyone watching at home is dying to know: who did you wear to your reunion?
BB: Right after grad school I went straight into temping, all sorts of weird and oddly rewarding jobs — one week, I was assigned to organize clothes for an Eileen Fisher sample sale (for those who aren’t familiar with the brand, it’s a collection of very expensive and very sort of large and floppy and wonderfully soft clothes for middle-aged women) and at the end of the week, we were allowed to TAKE WHATEVER WE WANTED. I scored this black shirt dress thing that maybe is supposed to be a top for a middle-aged woman, but I wear like a straight up child’s dress. And this, my friends, is what I wore to my reunion. Also I should note that the day before my reunion, I hurt my back just by WALKING UPHILL in my parent’s neighborhood, so beneath said dress, I wore a back brace and spent the first few hours leaning against a wall. As the chardonnay went in, away went the pain.
For more information about Bekah Brunstetter check out her website by clicking here. We hope to see you all at Little Man this coming October!