Our series of playwright interviews continues as dramaturg Marissa Skudlarek interviews Megan Cohen about “Three Little Dumplings Go Bananas,” television, and more.
This is Megan Cohen’s third year consecutive year as a BOA playwright. Her play “The Great Double Check” appeared in BOA 2010, and “A Three Little Dumplings Adventure” was an audience favorite in BOA 2011. She’s back this year with a sequel featuring everybody’s favorite rambunctious, irrepressible sacks of deep-fried dough.
Marissa: So how did the idea for a sequel to “A Three Little Dumplings Adventure” come about?
Megan: I have no idea how the discussion got started; if anything, I was the last to know! On the closing day of the 2011 festival, the Dumplings had their final Adventure, and the feeling was just like, “Oh, we don’t want to stop doing this, we want to keep doing this.” Jessica Holt (the director) grabbed me in the doorway of Boxcar Theater after that last matinee, I was heading out, and said, “The whole cast wants to do another one, everyone’s already on board — can you write us a Return to Dumplings?” Of course since Jessica is the Artistic Director of the festival, she can ask for anything she wants, and it was totally thrilling to be commissioned, and to know that she wanted my work!
“Bananas” takes place in the same universe, but from that first conversation we knew it would be a new free-standing and complete play, not just a Part Two for “Adventure.” Anyone who wants to read the plays together can download the eBook from my website at megancohen.com
Marissa: Did you know right away what you wanted to have happen to the Dumplings in the sequel, or did it take some trial and error?
Megan: We had a couple evolutions as to what the story would be, but those were mostly about shifts in human resources! My first idea, which we had a few meetings about last summer, was to have Mommy circumnavigate the globe by herself, and the other actors would be like this mad corps de ballet playing all the different people and trees and stoplights she met on her journey. Then, in the final scene, she’d arrive back on the doorstep of the home that she’d left, having gone all the way around the world in a full 360-degree journey, and after this incredible odyssey of change and discovery, she’d decide whether to step through the doorway of the house, and go back home. The play would rock kind of like an Amelia-Earhart-Meets-Dante’s-Divine-Comedy-and-The-Wizard-of-Oz sort of vibe.
Then the BOA dates got set, and the actor we wanted for Mommy wasn’t available. So, it was like “Okay, what do we do with this returning character? Re-cast with another actor? Turn her into a werewolf? Put her in a coma?” It was a very television-style problem — which is perfect for the Dumpling universe. It also sent me back to the drawing board; without her presence to work with, I decided to use her absence as an organizing principle.
Also, at the last minute, we turned out to get this fabulous Assistant Director, Maggie Mason, hanging around, and Jessica was like, “Well, let’s give her something to do,” so I added the “posh announcer” voice-over role for her, and it turned out she could comment on the action and make some pretty good jokes. Maggie played Iago for me when I directed Othello in college, and she’s kind of a star around town, so it was like “We can’t just have this pile of gold in the room and not spend it.”
Marissa: What was the rehearsal period for “Bananas” like? Did the script change at all during the rehearsal process?
Megan: Can you imagine cutting a play by 25% in the week before you start rehearsal? ‘Cause that’s what I did! We read a draft aloud for the BOA community at the all-festival reading, then I took a hatchet to it. It was already probably my 4th full draft of the piece; we’d had table readings and discussions already.
I love being in the rehearsal room, but only when there’s something for me to do; I left as soon as we were sure the cuts felt right. They called me in for a visit later in the process, and I showed up — the script didn’t change, but I ended up whipping out a needle and thread to mend a pair of costume pants that had ripped down the butt. With a new play, you can’t always predict what’ll need fixing.
Marissa: Your nascent media empire is called Better Than Television, and you tweet as @WayBetterThanTV. Television is also a leitmotif in the “Dumplings” plays – Daddy is always watching TV, the characters talk about the life lessons inherent in such classic sitcoms as Full House, and “Bananas” features a magical TV Guide. Clearly, you have a very complicated relationship with the boob tube. How has television influenced your writing and your worldview – for better or for worse?
Megan: Television is the dominant mode of fantasy in our lives, the externalized imagination that glows in our homes. We all live in the constant presence of a machine that feeds us dreams; I don’t know how any writer can not be obsessed with it! Statistically, the average American has their TV playing for between 4 and 5 hours a day. That’s a lot. TV may be shrinking in importance, though, as more interactive narrative mediums emerge — I write game stories by day, and that industry is exploding — so, as a culture we are on the cusp of something “better than television.” We are starving for that evolution, for a new leap forward in how we experience our daily stories.
If TV is on the way out, then I am really part of the Television Generation: the generation that’s watched more TV for more hours every day, for more of our lives, than any other group of people ever have, or ever will have, watched. That’s our place in human history, and if I didn’t grapple with it in my work somehow, I’d feel dishonest.
Marissa: What do you hope the audience will get out of “Three Little Dumplings Go Bananas”?
Megan: I hope they’ll be nice to each other afterwards. Especially on the way out of the theater — no shoving, that’s so rude!
Marissa: What about “Three Little Dumplings Go Bananas,” in your opinion, makes it feel like a “Megan Cohen play?”
Megan: It’s breathless, shameless, and packed with ideas that can’t afford to wait their turn; I write, basically, like I’m screaming one last message out before being hit by a truck.
Marissa: You’re a prolific writer of short plays, but you’ve also written longer pieces. What do you like about the short-play, one-act form?
Megan: It gets me produced. Short plays take less money to do, and audiences who come see a festival like this can say “It’s all new work, and at least the bad ones will be over quickly,” so it’s less of a risk for them. It’s like casual dating before the world is ready to commit to a relationship with you as a writer. After you’re professionally established, a short play seems to be a kind of fling, a quick roll in the hay with some cute little idea while your spouse is out of town. Again, the appeal is that it is not too important.
There’s sometimes a desire to deify or celebrate the form, to say “this is great for writers, because we can have riskier ideas in the short format,” but all of a good writer’s ideas are risky. I think no playwright in the world will say, if given one chance for a production, “I would rather do a short play than a long one — I would rather an audience spent less time with me.”
Marissa: You’re the most frequently produced female playwright in the Bay Area – what’s up next for you, theatrically speaking?
Next up, I’m shopping some work around, after a period of writing and hibernation. Since August, I’ve drafted two new full length plays, a gritty neo-noir cop drama called Joe Ryan, and a bat-out-of-hell, deeply political surrealist comedy called Eat The Rich. I haven’t really looked for a home for either of them yet — Joe Ryan had a reading at the SF Olympians festival, and was a semi-finalist for the Playwrights Foundation festival this year, but I haven’t really hit the pavement with it. Eat the Rich is newer, weirder; I’m not sure where it belongs.
I’ve also this year written my first TV spec script, had my first commercial game released (for the iPad), and I’m wrapping up my first screenplay right now. I’m working on a collaboration with director Amy Clare Tasker, it’s probably going to end up being some kind of transmedia project, with a mixture of live and online components. Basically, there’s no way to make a living in theater, so I’m trying every storytelling medium on the planet to see if I can make a living as a writer in some way or another.
As soon as I have time, I know the next full length play I want to write. It’s about a group of young people living on the edge of the ghetto, who stage a fake crime spree in order to halt gentrification and keep their rent low. There’s a very 1980s John Hughes love story in amongst all the hijinks, too. Anyway, that’s my unwritten play, it’s called Bad Neighborhood, and if anyone wants to give me five grand, I’ll drop everything else in my life and send them a finished script in two months.
Marissa: That sounds amazing — I hope someone takes you up on it! Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with me about “Dumplings” and your other projects!
In the meantime, people have 2 more weeks to catch Program 1 of BOA and see the Three Little Dumplings in their latest breathless, shameless, and totally bananas adventure. This Thursday’s performance (May 3) will feature a talk-back with Megan Cohen, director Jessica Holt, and members of the cast!