Marissa Skudlarek, Festival dramaturg for BOA 2012, is interviewing each of the BOA playwrights about their work. First up: Bennett Fisher, author of “The Bird Trap.”
Bennett Fisher has been represented in BOA with the plays “Exchange,” from 2009, “Query,” from 2010, and “Pure Baltic Avenue,” from 2011. He returns for BOA 2012 with a drama about two sisters in a cabin in the Northern California wilderness.
Marissa: What inspired the characters of Betty and Frances, the estranged sisters at the heart of “The Bird Trap”?
Bennett: Well, I have two younger sisters, Allegra and Ariane (yes, like my director). A lot of the dynamic of Betty and Frances’ relationship is inspired by things I’ve noticed about the way my sisters interact, although it would be a stretch to say the characters are based on them. You start from what you know, then it gathers its own momentum.
Marissa: According to the script, the setting of the play – a cabin in the “census-designated place” of Klamath, California – should function as the play’s third character. What led you to choose this setting?
Bennett: I really wanted to write a play informed by design. I had one of those great late-night conversations with these two awesome designers I’ve worked with a lot at Campo Santo – Alejandro Acosta and Tanya Orellana – and we got to talking about how cool it would be for a design element to be really central to a play’s meaning. So often design feels like something layered in at tech, but I really wanted it to actively inform the tone of what was being said. Klamath has a kind of oppressive nothingness about it which intrigued me.
Marissa: What’s the rehearsal process/working with director Ariane Owens been like? Has the script changed at all during the rehearsal period?
Bennett: Originally, this play was a part of a piece I wrote with Megan Cohen – we intertwined two plays, borrowing one another’s dialogue as each progressed. I have had to disentangle it from that earlier play, but some of the lines (most of the funniest ones) are Megan’s. [Editor's note: Megan Cohen is also a BOA 2012 playwright! She's the author of "Three Little Dumplings Go Bananas."] And the script changed early on, between when I submitted it and our first table read. Ariane has been terrific – I am so lucky to have her on this piece. As someone who is such a fine actor herself, she’s great at digging into the fundamentals of the characters’ relationship and the detail in the language. It’s rare and wonderful to have someone who is both willing to trust the play, but also makes me work to ensure that everything in the piece is pulling its weight.
Marissa: What do you hope the audience will get out of “The Bird Trap”?
Bennett: Mostly, I want to keep them engaged in the moment – I know that sounds glib, but that’s really what goes into a lot of my evaluative process when revising. I think you want a play to keep you guessing, and you want to think about the “ideas” of the play about an hour or so after it’s over. I feel the play touches on issues of family loyalty, the opposing needs to disconnect and stay connected, and the effect of isolation and the passage of time on close relationships. In many ways, a successful play is like a Rorschach test – it has to resonate differently with different audience members, and you, the writer, need to ensure that is malleable enough to allow that.
Marissa: What about “The Bird Trap,” in your opinion, makes it feel like a “Bennett Fisher play”?
Bennett: [BOA Artistic Director] Jessica Holt coined the term “comedy of Benace,” which is a kind of riff on Pinter’s “comedy of menace,” which I think would characterize a lot of my writing. It’s comic (I hope), but there’s also a sense of dread or unease. What else? Infantile behavior. Clipped dialogue. Oozing sarcasm. No finance or technology in this one, but I think like many of my other plays, it’s about the limits of empathy.
Marissa: You are an actor and director in addition to being a playwright – has this affected the way that you write plays or approach theater?
Bennett: Absolutely. I think it allows you to trust in the form a little more, to know that actors and directors will convey so much more than what is explicit in the language. It helps you appreciate that everything in a play needs to be rhetorical – to make it about action, about getting something you want from someone else. I also think it makes you eager for the collaborative process, which kind of gets back to the whole design conversation from the earlier question. I want the other artists to define the piece collectively with me.
Marissa: This is your fourth consecutive year with a short play in BOA – what do you like best about the short-play form?
Bennett: I think that short plays force you to be economic, if nothing else. It’s surprising how large a return you can get on something so brief. Beyond that, BOA has really allowed me an opportunity to experiment and explore – there are things that work well in ten minutes that would be unwatchable if expanded to two hours, and it’s cool to take those risks.
Marissa: You always seem to be one of the busiest people in the San Francisco theater scene. What’s up next for you?
Bennett: I have a play, Don’t Be Evil, that’s being workshopped as part of the Dragon Theater’s New Play Development Factory this month and am directing a reading of my favorite play of all time, Vaclav Havel’s Temptation, for Theater Pub in May. Beyond that, a lot of other writing projects in various stages for various organizations, and then a busy summer working on Cutting Ball’s Risk is THIS festival (I’m the Cutting Ball literary manager) and acting in Curse of the Starving Class at Stanford Summer Theater.
Marissa: You certainly are busy — thanks for taking the time out of your schedule to discuss “The Bird Trap”! I’m looking forward to seeing the latest comedy of Benace.