“when opening night comes … it’s like the play’s going out the door to go to college, and I’m giving it one more apple and one more kiss.”
When I finally reached DC playwright Karen Zacarías, this mother of three was in the final stages of tweaking The Book Club Play, which was on the verge of opening at Arena Stage. Previews had begun on October 7th, but the press opening — on October 13th – still loomed.
Zacarías, who is currently in her three year term with the Arena Playwright Residencies Program, was in the middle of editing and re-editing, pulling out lines, and trying to cut to the chase. On Tuesday, she had a few minutes to talk over the phone.
It’s a moment that all playwrights have to face and probably fear: the final previews of a play which, once it gets reviewed by the media, is going to be on its own. In our conversation, Zacarías sounded like a mother sending her son off to college.
The Book Club Play had its initial world premiere in 2008 at Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, MD. It deals with a small, close club of thirty somethings who have just received a new, mysterious member into their book club.
Zacarías, who won the Helen Hayes Award for her 2000 play The Sins of Sor Juana, had premiered five plays in 2008 – including Legacy of Light at Arena Stage. But after the Round House production, she wasn’t ready to let The Book Club Play go. Now it’s back at Arena, with significant changes.
Speaking as an inveterate tweaker myself, I had one question for her: When do you let a play go?
Zacarías began writing the play when she was pregnant with her third child.
“I started writing it in 2005. I had been in a book club for fourteen years. And when you talk to other people at book clubs, they share these amazing stories. It’s about people getting together to talk about how literature affects them. But really, it’s an excuse to share your life and connect with other people. So book clubs can become a really wonderful social gathering place, but also can become a petri dish for feelings and things going wrong as well.”
She wrote a first draft in a workshop, got her reading at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, and another in Minneapolis at the Playwright Center. She developed further it at the O’Neil Theatre Center. And in February 2008, it premiered at the Round House Theatre.
I asked her what made her decide to rework the play.
“I actually had the production at the Berkshire Festival, also in 2008. I had loved both productions, we had a great time, but lots of people came up to me afterwards and said, this is why I would never join a book club. I was like, woah, I’m in a book club. I decided that it wasn’t complex enough. It didn’t do enough to explain why book clubs are so wonderful, so I felt I had to go in more deeply.”
So she restructured and rewrote, changing a few of the play’s fake characters. The premise of the story is the same. But the structure has changed. She says it’s part of writing a comedy, which was a relatively new experience to her.
“It was fun to run with the jokes, so I kind of let the jokes run with me. You never know until you see a play up on its feet. You don’t know until the audience is in front of the play. Everything is hypothetical. And that’s really where the playwright learns so much. That’s why it takes two to three productions for a play really to say what it wants to say.”
She says she’s grateful to two DC theatre companies for helping her make this play “what it is.” “I think that means we’re really becoming a theatre town.”
The process, even on Tuesday, was still far from over.
“On Saturday, we cut 250 lines, or eight pages of the play.” Now, they’re working on “timing and pacing.” “Drama is hard,” she said, “But comedy in so many ways is harder. People cry at the same things, but they don’t laugh at the same things.”
As she described the play in its final minutes of rewrite, she channeled “Sophie’s Choice”: a mother, faced with the prospect of leaving one kid behind, or letting both of them perish together.
“You have to be willing to kill two lesser jokes for the third one to land.”
Press night is two days away; followed by Donor Night. But Zacarías – a founding artistic director of DC’s Young Playwrights’ Theatre — is a long-time teacher of playwrights in DC. When would she tell another writer to stop working on a play?
“You never really stop. You just abandon them. You may tweak for the next production. I really enjoy playwrighting, and I really enjoy each experience, taking that play to another place.”
It sounds like a weaning experience.
“Yes, when opening night comes, it’s their play, the actors’ play, and the audience’s play. It’s like the play’s going out the door to go to college, and I’m giving it one more apple and one more kiss.”
And then she hopes the play never comes back to stay in her basement.
But we can follow the metaphor. If The Book Club Play is a child, it looks like Zacarías might be on the way to becoming a grandmother. Her next play will be an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel Age of Innocence – a book which actually gets discussed in The Book Club Play. It will premiere in May, at the South Coast Rep.
After our brief on-the-phone chat, Zacarías was back to work.
DCTS review of The Book Club Play