Sheri Wilner’s new musical Cake Off debuts at Signature Theatre September 29, 2015. Her plays include Father Joy, Hunger, Bake Off, Labor Day, Relative Strangers, Moving Shortly, Little Death of a Salesman, The Unknown Part of the Ocean, Hell and Back, The Bushesteia, Equilibrium, The First Night of Chanukah, The End and Joan of Arkansas. Her work has been performed at major regional and national theatres including the Guthrie Theater, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Summer Play Festival, Naked Angels, Philadelphia Theatre Company, Contemporary American Theater Festival, The Women’s Project, New Georges, Rattlestick Theater, Ensemble Studio Theatre, O’Neill Playwrights’ Conference, Primary Stages, City Theatre, Illusion Theater, Emigrant Theatre and the History Theatre.
Why are you a playwright?
I have been writing ever since I was a small child. I’m introverted yet have a ton of things to say, so writing has always been the best and most pleasurable way for me to express myself. I write plays instead of fiction because as a writer, I’m actually only interested in dialogue; the few times I tried writing short stories, I found myself failing because everything but the dialogue felt really boring and tedious to write. I love writing funny, fraught and tense exchanges between characters. Though what I’m most interested in is what people don’t say to each other and the challenge of conveying what they actually need, want and feel within dialogue and physical action. I don’t know if there’s anything I can’t say in another medium, but what I think plays do best is let an audience spend time with characters and observe a highly charged situation without being jolted out of it and into another scene. Plays allow an author and her audience to submerge deeply into a story, which is what I’m most interested in doing.
What type of theatre most excites you?
Emotionally authentic, brave, raw, bold work; written by people unafraid of taking huge risks, exposing something about themselves, and delving as truthfully and deeply into the human condition as possible. I go to the theatre to watch, from a safe distance, a character go through an experience that terrifies me. It’s like having an emotional and behavioral training manual!
What starts a play moving in your imagination?
I get a lot of my ideas from newspaper articles. Cake Off came from a small item in The New York Times. Usually the way it happens is that I read a story that grabs my attention in a magazine, the newspaper or online and I save it to my hard drive. Then, when some urgent emotional need I have intersects in some way with the content of the article, I know I have a play. In other words, I use the newspaper story as a vessel to tell my own story, or to explore a particular fear or source of anger I’m current feeling and don’t yet understand. I write the play to answer or explore some urgent question I have in own life.
Do you have a favorite writing place?
My favorite writing place is a small cabin my parents own in Maine. Every year they are very generous and allow me to stay there by myself for a couple of weeks. I get more done there in that short amount of time than I sometimes do for months in New York! I write for several hours a day (sometimes outside, which I’ve discovered I love) and then go for an extremely long and replenishing walk on the beach in the evening. I wake up invigorated and energized and ready to write for several hours.
WOMEN’S VOICES THEATER FESTIVAL
September 29 – November 22, 2015
4200 Campbell Avenue
Arlington, VA 22206
Details and Tickets
How did you choose this play to debut at the Festival?
This festival chose us! Joe Calarco at the Signature Theatre called my collaborator Julia Jordan to see if she had any small-cast musicals. She and I had been talking for the past few years about trying to adapt my original ten-minute play Bake Off into a full-length musical. Prior to Joe’s call we had a couple of false starts. That really got us cooking – or baking – pardon the puns!
What female playwrights have influenced your writing and how?
Caryl Churchill – because she makes some astonishing new discovery of what theatre can do and be every single time she writes a play. She invents new and amazing forms and structures that literally did not exist until she created them. So she inspires me to expand my thoughts far, far out from where they normally reside.
Tina Howe – if it weren’t for her there would be no Bake Off! I was in a playwriting workshop with her at Columbia University and she assigned an exercise to write a short play in which character was completely revealed through action. In other words, no one could explain who they were and what they were after, it all had to become evident through their physical action and behavior. I had recently read that New York Times article about how the first ever million-dollar prize for the Pillsbury Bake Off was given to the first ever male winner and it enraged me (it had been fifty-thousand dollars prior to the increase). So, when given Tina’s assignment, I decided to see if I could convey character through baking, and the play flowed out of me in one fabulous, breathless writing session. I’ve become a playwriting teacher myself since then and always assign that exercise. There’s magic in it. She’s also a major influence on me because her plays are zany, emotionally raw, highly theatrical and uniquely hers. Seeing and reading her plays encourage me to be a bolder, braver, more creative and less restrained writer than I am.
What’s missing from theatre today?
Gender and racial parity. Because of a lack of excitement, passion and authentic interest on the part of Artistic Directors and producers to present stories told by diverse voices. The economics of theatre has caused decision-makers to be terrified of taking risks, but I truly believe their assumptions about how to “play it safe,” and how to cater to an audience’s supposed tastes are not only wrong, but also self-sabotaging (and theatre-sabotaging). What audiences want and crave are unique, complex, fascinating stories told by a multitude of storytellers. What are missing are not those storytellers themselves – they’re out there in huge numbers. What’s missing is a ferocious zeal and indefatigable commitment to present work by writers who will share unfamiliar and mostly untold stories.
What are you working on now?
A new play. Stay tuned!
If you weren’t a playwright what would you be?
An oceanographer. I definitely made the wrong choice.
Anything you would like to add?
I love the idea of this festival and I’m truly honored to be a part of it. But true equality in the theatre means that women’s plays are presented year-round and not just during special festivals. For all the female theatregoers out there, look at your local theatres’ seasons and see how many women and playwrights of color they are producing each year. If you see a dearth of women and diversity, e-mail, call or write a letter to the artistic director letting him or her know you won’t stand for such blatant exclusion of women any more than you would tolerate it somewhere else! Look at the author’s names as much as you look at the play blurbs, and cast lists. You’ll be shocked at how few women are produced. It’s a lot less than you’d think. We can catalyze change through our ticket and subscription-purchasing decisions.