Playwrights' Center Associate Artistic Director Hayley Finn recently connected with Core Writer Crystal Skillman on her upcoming play Pulp Verite, the power of artist collectives, and how writing for different mediums informs her work.
Hayley Finn: I want to start by talking about the title. The title encapsulates the content; the tone. There’s a specific reference to it in the play. Could you talk about how you came to name the play Pulp Vérité, and when in the process you came to the title?
Crystal Skillman: Oh that’s really cool. I had the opportunity to explore a new play with the Clifford Odets Ensemble Play Commission at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute four or five years ago. I was writing for college students and this is where I came up with the idea of these documentarians. Trump had just come into power or very close within there. It was going in that direction. I was following what had been happening overseas in general, but very much with Syria. I was excited that—because I believed Hillary would be president and I was excited that as a country, as a nation— we were going to get involved again internationally in the way I thought we should be. Because I believe the Obama regime is an absolutely fantastic regime—regime is a terrible word to use—presidency [laughs] but he was not able to do everything he wanted to do due to the systemic racism and many, many other things, obviously, as we all know. This is a wonderful tale everyone; fable of America.
I really believed Hillary was gonna come into power and I really believed that we were gonna start to work. So when this didn’t happen I was really thinking about what we’re drawn to in American society. I thought so much of Quentin Tarantino, including his influence on me as a writer, and as a filmmaker, and an author. And I just thought so much of Pulp Fiction; the different narratives moving together. At the same time, I realized when Trump came into power—he who shall not be named [laughs] and now I’m freer with it because he’s “gone” for the moment—it became very clear to me that he was elected because of reality television.
I had written a play called Cut which was about three reality TV show writers. I began it in 2012 or something like that—that was the first time I worked with Megan Hill; great actor—and in writing that, it was just very clear to me the road we were going down, and just how we were really not aware of what was real or not anymore. And how we were really just kind of living this possible alternate reality that was being presented to us. And connecting all those dots, Cinéma Vérité is the origin of reality television. And I started just to really question how from an artful, beautiful, truthful process—which is really what it’s meant to be—is there truth to anything? Like how can we look at sides of everything? I started to re-investigate Cinéma Vérité and those stories and how it was going there. So that’s how the idea of the title came for me. I knew this was a pulpy story. I knew that it had action in it that would really captivate an American audience, but also force them to be a part of the narrative in a different way in that living room. It just kind of hits you over the face with it.
It is an interesting reference in that as we get older, as generations pass, the younger generation doesn’t quite have the connection to Tarantino that my generation did. So it’s a little interesting that these are 20 year olds and they [laughs] have this title. However, I do think it’s a female-heavy play as well, and if you think of the feminist point of view, looking at Tarantino, his work, and what he’s done for the masculine toxicity of the culture—not speaking about him personally, necessarily, but what some of those narratives have put forth—and also combatted with strong female protagonists as well. It’s a complicated thing, but I think our relationship with Tarantino and that world as entertainment is a part of the story.
Hayley Finn: You started to write this play at the beginning of Trump’s presidency. And you’ve been working on different iterations since then. How has it evolved concurrent with our own country’s reckoning with truth, and how we’re encountering information?
Crystal Skillman: I think if you write anything today, politics are somehow interweaved. So even though Cut was about reality TV shows, there was politics because those writers are choosing to force themselves to only think about housewives and their narrative, and in shutting out the outside world, it still creeps in. I don’t necessarily go into a play knowing I’m writing a political play, but I’m looking at how it speaks to the culture in the zeitgeist. And in doing so, one can’t help but be political.
When I started Pulp Vérité—in particular, there’s one line you can track, I mean there’s so many you can track that have changed throughout the years—but it started with… I’m remembering, the first draft he was running for president. So the joke in the beginning with the protagonist Joy, who has returned home after being held captive when she sees someone she’s had a relationship with; another leader of this documentary group. She says, “Say something funny.” Because he doesn’t know what to say and it’s extremely awkward, he goes, “Trump wants to be president.” And that started as a joke and then it transformed. It transformed to, “Trump is president.” And it’s actually going to be now—when the play is done in the next couple years, ”Trump was president.” The play has followed all of those incarnations, so that’s just a kind of interesting little timepiece of it.
The things that changed and didn’t change are going to make people cry in reading this. It makes me cry every time I go into a draft. I always teach my students when I do a new draft, I think about it like putting on a coat and I’m altering the coat. It’s still—hopefully if I’ve gotten the nugget of the story right that I’m telling—it always stays essentially the same coat but it is tailored; it changes. I’ve always said that when the play has its first production, I’ll freeze the script. But until then, it’s a living, breathing document of what we’re going through in a lot of ways.
So, things here have changed for the worse, and we’re trying to get out of it. Things in Syria have gotten even worse, especially with the pandemic. Syria has stayed more or less the same in the sense that they’re isolated. They aren’t receiving international help or support, and they are going through this war on their own, and the effects of all that, and a pandemic. And I don’t see the extent of international aid the way there needs to be. So, we’re still watching an inhumane, international crisis happening. There’s a lot of heartbreak between those two things, and I think Pulp Vérité is a lot about the helplessness of Americans trying so desperately to help, and what that means.
Hayley Finn: It’s interesting because you have that pull of what’s happening in Syria and Joy coming back from Syria. But then, at the heart of the play, are the relationships and the friendship amongst these characters; the artistic relationship of how they’re collaborating or not collaborating and how they’re siding with various factions of the collective. I’m curious to know if you’ve been thinking about that in terms of any collaboration that you had, or if you’re interested in the parallel between these smaller societies that are formed and how large societies are formed. How for you are you thinking about this complicated web of friendships at the center of your play?
Crystal Skillman: Well it’s all in there. You know, I’ve always been praised for my character development. I think it comes from being an outsider. I went to two art schools—Hartford Art School then Parsons School of Design. I was always surrounded by other artists. I was always working with other artists. I kind of came from that world. I was raised by two hippies that indulged my creative desires [laughs]. One was a race car driver. Their connection to the outside world was creative and interesting [laughs]. I always have had those relationships and friendships. Even in high school, my best friends were photographers. And we were hanging out in the dark room or in the theater club. So, I think just being around other artists in those relationships have always impacted how I’ve seen the world and how it works.
I wrote a play called The Vigil or the Guided Cradle that I won the New York Innovative Theater award for. It compared sleep deprivation torture in medieval times and the creation of it to what was happening at Abu Ghraib. And I was asked a lot, “Gosh! How did you get this whole—” because it was basically a collective of torturers working out their instruments. And I hated to tell them. I was like, “Well, my ‘as-if’ is auditioning my play for an artistic director.” [laughs] It’s torture. It’s like, we’re here. There’s five of you. We love all these plays. Let’s put some heat. Let’s see what happens, you know? Who are we gonna greenlight, you know? That’s kind of the world I’ve been living in, even in art school, for a very long time.
I guess I had a bit of an outside view, particularly how theater works, because I ended up doing workshops with Mac Wellman. I’ve studied with Francine Volpe. I teach as well. I’m teaching playwriting at Pace University. I was in Youngblood at EST. That was really my formative years. Often, I come back to Youngblood at EST and a lot of my pieces have to do with friendship and those things. I think it’s because that was my first theater group as a playwright. I was beginning to become a playwright and I was obsessed with my fellow playwrights. We just had this bond. Christopher Shinn was in that group. Francine Volpe was a little bit before me; Amy Fox; John Belluso, who became my mentor, who’s no longer with us but an incredible writer. I always come back to that time because I felt incredibly insecure, and yet, I was marvelously happy. And I didn’t know what anything was.
You got to make something, and just like—cause before you’ve had your first production, it’s horrifying but it’s also kind of amazing cause you don’t really know what it’ll be like to get a review yet, and you don’t know what—like you want those things, but also you haven’t been damaged by them or uplifted by them. There’s always a good and bad to every moment. And I just find that fascinating because you were creating from a place of something so genuine before you understood how the outside world might receive it and have had years encountering those interactions.
I love collectives because they keep each other in check. And it’s still the same for me with anyone from Youngblood. If I run into someone, they’re like, “I see you.” [laughs] I can’t hide from Lucy Thurber. Lucy knows who I am. She sees me on the street, she’s like, “That’s Crystal.” It’s just we see each other in a way that. It’s just very deep.
Hayley Finn: Yeah, lovely. I feel like I’ve known you for many years now, over my time being here.
Crystal Skillman: Yes!
Hayley Finn: I’m curious to know how you moved from being a visual designer into theatre. And how you feel like your work has changed over time and how you’ve evolved.
Crystal Skillman: What great questions! Hayley, these are such great questions. You know, I am grateful for my eye, my framing ability, and the experimentation I did as a photographer. The more I began to experiment—at Parsons, I was taking all these experimental classes. I was printing photographs on Christmas ornaments, and creating installations where you would walk in and go to your past at Christmas; all sorts of weird things that were very interactive. My experimental teachers were great. And it was great because I was next to the documentarians and I took journalistic photos as well. I just did the gambit. They were all observing. I was in an internship at Circle Rep before it closed. I was there the year it closed. And in EST, which is how I ended up in Youngblood. And everyone was noticing everything was interactive. Everybody was noticing there was a strong story in the narrative. And it was the time—I don’t think Cremaster had come out yet by Matthew Barney and that kind of stuff—but there were definitely worlds. Of course, there were visual artists—Lucas Samaras’ Boxes, as well as Joseph Cornell, and a few other artists. There’s definitely a story, of course, when you engage with visual art. And perhaps even in an installation, like the way Yoko Ono is kind of amazing with performance art. There’s just so much going on. But it was getting to the point where they felt scripted. They felt like little worlds.
And I don’t know. I’ve had a really interesting relationship with critics because very early on, one of the critics of the New Yorker saw something. She was like, “You’re a writer! You’re a playwright.” And I was like, “Wow, really? I can’t spell. I don’t know. Is that possible?” [laughs]
That was my first reaction because I’d always written, but I didn’t journal every day and I really am a bad speller. It’s still something that comes up a lot in the rehearsal room [laughs] if I haven’t spell checked or proofed it a thousand times with someone. I’m kind of this creative person who’s an entrepreneur, who has vision, who makes these worlds, and then I say, “Can I apply that to writing?” And the more I did it, the more I realized the photography was in the writing. Where I had to learn and deepen my craft was—not going to your four-year theater school—was the art of dramatic action and what that means.
It actually was through television writing and screenwriting that it really began to click. So, to answer the second part of your question, where I begin to really change is when I began to write for other mediums that actually used my visual eye. And then the cause-and-effect of my plays, being grounded in a real-world and going to a fantasy place; all the scenes seem to click more. And another way that helped me deepen my craft was that I had really tremendous people believe in me that were playwrights.
And this is also why—Hayley, you know. It’s the Playwrights’ Center. We love playwrights. I think there should be more playwright artistic directors because they really see potential. It’s hard to see potential sometimes because you get a little nervous maybe as a director or in a different function as a producer. Like, “I want to encourage young art, but I also want the thing. What’s the thing?” And playwrights understand a thing is a thing before it’s a thing, and they see that.
Qui Nguyen produced my play Geek. Josh Conkel did my play Cut with his play The Management. Literally, you can track the people that had their companies put money into me were playwrights. So what I was doing there was—even with Clifford Odets fellowship—I was working with actors as I was writing. I was getting training into given circumstances, and then coupling that with the TV and screenwriting. It was very helpful.
I also worked a lot with Daniel Talbott who did site-specific work. He was doing a lot of film work which was great. He writes for TV. And I think what was so helpful in that collaboration—we’re still very, very close friends. He definitely keeps me in check. He sees me when I see him—it’s that he could speak all the languages. He was the first artist I collaborated with who was a writer, director, and actor.
Up until then, it was simply the actors being like, “I don’t get this moment.” And maybe me not quite understanding what they were saying. And doing that very—I guess all early writers do it although it has nothing to do with my experience in particular—but they’re like, “It’s the line.” [laughs] It’s like every young writer, I love teaching them because I am now like, “Well, what’s around the line? Why are they saying it?” Trying to unpack what they’re really saying about the beat. And Daniel was able to do that to me. He was able to turn back and say, “This line is great, it’s just that we don’t understand how we got there in the scene, or what it is saying or doing, or how it’s getting us to the next section due to the given circumstances of the moment.” And I have never been talked to that way or worked that way. And so that was very, very helpful.
Hayley Finn: That’s so interesting. Daniel is an actor too.
Crystal Skillman: Yes, a marvelous actor.
Hayley Finn: And from that background, he was probably able to relate; help get into the psychology of the character.
Crystal Skillman: Yeah. And he was really good at knowing. He was a very good teacher as well. He really knew what people needed, when. He knew when the actors should talk. He was very free, but he also knew when we needed to talk. He also had a secret which I think is amazing. He would give me notes while we were shopping. And I fell for it every time. I fell for it every time. [laughs]
Hayley Finn: I love that.
Crystal Skillman: I made it much more fun.
Hayley Finn: [laughs] I love that. So, you said playwrights have invested in you, believed in you, and have helped you as producers and dramaturgs. I’m curious to know, because you refer to yourself as an entrepreneur, would you ever be interested in producing? And what is your relationship with other writers? How do you see that moving forward?
Crystal Skillman: Yeah, ultimately, I do have a dream. I would love to be part of an initiative of… Marsha Norman had this idea first—giving credit where credit is due—of a national playwrights’ theater run by playwrights. I’ve always thought it should be rotating AD’s (which is what we’re talking a lot right now about other initiatives for social justice; and in dealing with systemic racism; and helping theatre move forward as it needs to be; and have voices heard that need to be heard). But I always wanted a place where there was no “no.” And I have a theory. [laughs]
Here’s my theory as a playwright if I ran that theater. I think there’s a misconception—and I understand that when you give an open call, you’re going to get a lot of scripts. And you will get maybe someone who has never written a play before. They just watched a lot of TV and they wanna write 500 horse-drawn carriages on a stage, set in the 1800s. I’ve read those plays working in lit offices. However, I believe that that’s the minority of the scripts that are out there. There are more playwrights than we thought there were going to be. And so, what I mean by no “no” is, just to clarify, you would have had a couple of productions; could be showcase code; there could be some kind of rules, right, so that you’ve done a little bit of work. But when a script comes in, you would have a conversation, and it would be like, “I don’t know if you see where this play is at?” And it would be with other playwrights, like some kind of council. I don’t know, everything’s like Lord of the Rings, so who knows how realistic this is, but some kind of counsel of: This feels like it needs a reading; this feels like it needs a workshop; this feels like it needs a production; have you met with so-and-so? Some kind of connective world which is really what we do for each other in copies and all those things. It’s just really putting all of that energy into something that can keep building as an institution and hopefully get more support, and financial support for playwrights wanting to produce.
I don’t see myself necessarily producing other playwrights, but more creating a mechanism where it just doesn’t have to be as hard or we don’t have to do so much crowdsourcing. I don’t know, it’s exciting on Facebook to read, “I’m looking for…” and then it also makes me go, “Oh, I have to write my name down, because if I don’t write my name down, then no one...” It’s just weird. There’s got to be a better way to see everything and share and develop and I guess it goes back to my philosophy of being able to see potential in a script and at least have people that can do that in a non-systematic or gatekeeping way.
And another thing is it would teach patience because it’d be like, “Great, you want that. That might be in two years from now.” or “We could do a production. It might be in five years.” so that conversation starts so the playwright can also learn to appreciate the time and the work that they need to do. I think we’re living in a time where playwrights do a lot of work. I think they really understand that now, in a great way, and are applying that hustle.
But still, when I teach the younger playwrights, they still think sometimes, if they haven’t been told, they think that it’s mystical, like a Greek play, and they’re just gonna come out of their MFA program, raise up their hands, and some magical being’s gonna swoop down and bring them to the great producing center in the sky. [laughs] Everyone I’ve spoken to thinks—from Tony award-winners to those just starting out—it’s never gonna go away; the amount of work you have to do. It’s never gonna go away that you have to talk about your work or present your work in some way that people can see what you see. And so when I say entrepreneur, I think what I’m really saying is that I was getting very frustrated as a writer for two reasons.I’d been writing for about 10 years, when I realized I wasn’t sure where I was going. How was I going to keep challenging myself as a writer, do the work I want to do, but also build a career?
There are two things that I did to alleviate that. One is a gift. Bobby Cronin saw my work on Geek that Qui Nguyen had helped produce. He called me up and he said, “I think you should write musicals. I saw this. I know you can do it because we’ve worked a little bit on a musical thing before.” And he said, “I have the rights to this movie Mary & Max. I really think we should work together on this and take a look at it.”
So that was number one. When I entered the musical theatre world, no one was waiting. [laughs] No one was like, “Oh, I don’t know what to do.” They’d be like, “I gotta get my workshop. If I can’t get that, I gotta raise as much money for this 29-hour reading and we’ve got to get people here to see it.” And that’s how everyone talked; everybody!
Now, first of all, we need to solve some of that and get more money for the development of musicals. It’s very, very difficult. It’s wonderful for programs like Playwrights’ Center who have been doing it all, with wonderful things, with their Core Writers. But in general, it is hard. And I’m absolutely passionate about that as well. How can we support more new musicals?
I would say that the reason why they do that is because they understand, it’s hard to read a musical. I mean it’s really hard. It’s hard to understand what works. They understand they have to show what works and they have to show the story that they’re passionate about. And by showing the story, then other people will be excited. And so, I started to apply that to plays.
I let go of feeling bad if, “Great you read it. You didn’t even get it.” How can I make it clear on the page to you? How can I have you at a reading? How can we discuss it? How can we engage in what we’re really here to do? Let’s forget about the wheels of systematic culture. You want to work in lit and be a dramaturg. You want to talk about scripts? Let’s talk. Let’s get to the actual work and less of the actual gatekeeping. So how can we deepen that relationship? How can I show you what I'm doing so that you can either say, “That’s a story I’m invested in!” or not. And then we can move onto a different story if we want to. The second that I did this, something started to build. My second revelation happened when I started to write comic books.
My husband is a comic book writer. We began collaborating on a few things including Eat Fighter, which is on Webtoons. And at that time, I just said, “I’m a writer. I’m not a playwright. I’m a writer.” And that was really helpful because once I accepted I could write in all mediums—if it doesn’t work out with theatre, or if I have to wait two years, or I have to develop something for a year longer than I thought and I’m now seeing the benefit of that—it’s okay. I’ll work on my TV show. I’ll work on my audio drama. When I put all the pressure on one form or one thing, it was stressful for me.
And I know how hard my friends in literary offices work. I know how hard artistic directors work. I know how hard everyone’s working. And I’m sure it’s stressful for them too. I have no doubt that there are many plays that are like the play that got away; that they wish that they could’ve gotten through. So, we’re all united in that. We’re all united in that we love this thing. We think everyone should succeed who has something to say that’s impactful in theatre and in a theatrical way. Everybody’s trying their best. So that really helped me see people better and work better and create better work and be happier.
Hayley Finn: I love that because it breaks down those notions of perceived power dynamics and then it’s more like we’re all in this from different angles in the field. We’re all approaching this with the best intentions. I really appreciate that perspective. I also love that notion you said of once you released needing to be just a playwright and you could be a writer, that that seemed to open up more doors for you and alleviated the pressure. I’m curious to know if writing for one medium has helped the other mediums? And have you learned things from those mediums?
Crystal Skillman: Yeah, so much; so much. I would say musicals do it too as well in their own way, a bit more than plays because you have the most freedom in plays. If your play is brilliant and it’s five hours, there are things to consider (how it works with ticketing and all that stuff, is it shown in parts, etc), but you can do that. Of course, economy makes it a great play, but it doesn’t have to be 90 minutes. I mean, we like 90 minutes, but it doesn’t have to be 90 minutes if people are riveted and excited. It’s about what works and what’s impactful. I think the forms of musical theater, comics, TV, screenwriting, they’re really economical. You really have to use that medium and tell that story that way. So, in going back to writing plays, working in these other mediums really helps you create tighter work, even better dialogue, because you’re very aware of the action that’s happening. You’re not repeating things in a draft.
My first drafts are significantly stronger because I understand the repetition of beats much better than I did before I wrote for those mediums. And I understand, to use musical theatre as a quick example, sometimes the younger me used to write a whole scene when really all someone needed to do was cross the stage with the suitcase. We know they’re leaving. There we go. Let’s get onto the next thing! And we didn’t lose anything because that scene wasn’t pushing things forward. So, the cause-and-effect, the turn of a scene, the tension of a scene, and how it works in each medium has been greatly enhanced.
Comic books are probably the most difficult but I actually think plays are the hardest thing to write because you’ve got to get the live moment that’s perfect. Even if the first production was great, the script has got to be strong enough and clear enough so that if you’re not in the room, someone could do something entirely different with it, but still get the essence of the story and it still is the play. That’s a beautiful, incredible thing. I just think that’s the fire. That’s the hardest.
But in a comic, you’ve really got to understand, as a writer, what the artist is drawing yet not do their job, right? So that’s a lot. It’s even more. You know, a sunflower grows from the ground, right, but that’s not moving action forward in a comic. I get to be a little bit more inventive with plays in that sense. I’ve got to be specific, not do their job, and figure out what’s in each panel, get the appropriate pacing, and indicate what’s on each page, and the page amount. And of course, some of those things change and then the artist brings in things, but you have to be specific and clear. And then your editor works with you with that. So, there’s just a lot more variables that force you to really think.
The first time I gave a draft to my husband was when we were working on—it actually just came on the compilation for Princess Bubblegum in Adventure Time. We have an Adventure Time story—and he was like, “This is great! There are 5,000 things happening in this panel.” [laughs] It was like a Looney Tunes. If you really looked at, I had like three. I had, like, “And then in the background, it looked like this. And then in the foreground...” You know? It was like I had my Scott Pilgrim hat on. I was like, “There’s a robot fight in the back!” which you could absolutely do of course, but I had even beyond that. It was just too many spinning plates. And so, through working on the clarity, that was really helpful. I guess the sense of space and time once you start working, almost like with storyboarding, it really helps you when you come back to the pace of your own work.
It’s like when I was a visual artist and I worked on sculpture. That really forced my brain to work in a new way, but it was storytelling, just in a different way. And then with the television and screenwriting, it’s really exciting to harness the craft of telling a story through pictures and what that is. It almost lets you be a little bit of a director, not in terms of where the shot is, but what the shot is. It gives you great clarity.
Stafford Arima said something that I think is genius advice in working on plays and musicals. He said, “If I can’t hear, do I understand what’s going on? If I can’t see, do I understand what’s going on? If I can’t speak, do I understand what’s going on?” The greatest theatrical works or—this is advice in particular for theatre—they do that, you know? One of my favorite plays in recent years has been Paula Vogel’s Indecent, and it might be because of that combination. I believe I would understand what’s happening in that play no matter what.
Hayley Finn: Since you come from this visual background, how do you like to collaborate with directors in terms of realizing that physical world?
Crystal Skillman: Yeah, it's really fun to do. I think I teach young writers because I see them being really precious, and I’m not. If anything, I had to learn to get a little bit more… how do I say, be open but very clear what the story is.
OPEN is a great example of that. Jessi Hill directed it with Megan Hill acting. It’s a great example of a great room because there was one moment with one shift of the given circumstances. I realized that Jessi saw it a different way than I did because of the way she was talking. I took her aside and I said, “This climax moment, I see it quite differently.” It wasn’t about visually what’s happening. It was about the actual given circumstances of how we’re encountering this magician: why she’s telling us the story; what the stakes are. And she goes, “Oh, yeah, I hear you, and I think that’s really strong what you’re saying. But this is what’s tripping me up and why I didn’t go there.” And then I go, “Oh.” So, typically, when I change stuff it’s because of that.
I work with the director in service of the story and in terms of my work and rewrites and what isn’t clear. I think the more mature writer now understands that clarity is not about exposition, and exposition isn’t just about dialogue. [laughs] I understand that we’re talking about beats and moments, and sometimes that involves dialogue, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes that involves a stage action in a certain way. I’m actually very open with the visuals because I believe that when we are united in what the story is, there are 1,000 visuals we could pick. I think it’s tone.
That’s the big thing I learned in musicals as well. We always talk about the tone. It’s something you can’t nail right away in talking about it. You have to experiment and see it and see swatches of it. When people are dancing around sometimes it’s like, “Oh man this is great. This is friggin’ awesome!” But you have to be quite critical and it takes time to do it. You can’t do it all in one session. You’ve got to go away. You’ve got to think. You’ve got to talk to your collaborators. You’ve got to maybe even see a full production to understand, “Woah, wrong take there.” I think it’s a matter of how the visuals serve the tone, the voice, the message, and the story. And by message, I just mean what the audience leaves with.
I always was scared of the word message. I hated it because I hate didactic stuff. I just felt like when I first started writing, there were a lot of plays around that were like, you know… I like journalists talking but it was a lot of journalists talking. It just felt not very imaginative to me. I felt like imaginative plays were much less. I think we’re living in a much better time with imaginative plays; very exciting! Because I wasn’t seeing that happen, I think I got frightened like, “Oh no, these people sat down. They just want to deliver their message like, “‘serial killers are bad’ or ‘this happens’ or ‘this is not good for you’,” or just really clear statements, to me, that I didn’t understand why I had to sit there for three hours. I didn’t understand why it was theatrical. Now, I understand that it’s not a dirty word. It’s a very wonderful word. And I know it because we all have to connect in a musical about what that’s about and it takes time.
Sometimes you go through a couple of passes in the years before you realize, “Oh my goodness!” Thinking about Fiddler on the Roof; it took them to understand it’s about tradition. And then the opening number was born. Because of that kind of world, I’ve kind of understood when I come back to the story; I understand now to have that conversation with my director and with my team. But I’m very open to seeing because I just think that’s the most fun. Because I do think with a TV show, it’s a blueprint. We throw the script away. The best thing with theatre is that you can see that script performed over and over again in different ways, and how exciting when someone shows you something you never saw.
Probably the most interesting story of that is pretty recent in that Bobby and I had a new version of Mary & Max after we saw it in it’s Canadian premiere. This theatre in Austria—it’s kind of like the public theatre of Austria—the Landestheater Linz were doing it but we really weren’t going over. I mean we had conversations, but we really weren't gonna see it till we were there. You get what you get, you know. It was extraordinary. It was exciting to see the interpretive quality, and it showed the strength of the writing. It taught us about some of the things we were doing. I think that’s what collaboration is. You’re teaching each other. So, you’re servicing it but you’re also showing the writer, or the director’s showing you, what things can be.
So, it can’t really be exactly as I saw when I wrote it because it has to be more than that. What I write has to be the inspiration for some of these things. I always know with stage directions that it’s not going to. I’m trying my best to give tone and clarity to the moment, but I may see a different interpretation. I also know, from the more open me, when to speak up and say, “This, I think is saying this, but I was saying this.” And then we could have that conversation of how we see that. Is it the script? Is it the directorial choice what’s happening?
Hayley Finn: That’s great. So, I have one final question to bring it back to Pulp Vérité. I’d love for you to talk a little bit about how you see the tone of Pulp Vérité and what you’re looking for? And what you will be looking for in the workshop as it relates to tone?
Crystal Skillman: Yeah, well we’re gonna probably work with someone showing this little set and projection, which is exciting. The play is very unique and doing its own thing, but it lives in the tradition of playwrights really fucking with the living room play [laughs] as well, which is kind of exciting. I think the idea of the house—and really this is also to do with tone—that an audience comes in. There’s a house Joy has entered. Okay, here we are. It’s a theatre piece. Okay, it’s about them coming back. And then: as their filmmaking techniques are being used; as their memories are coming up; as the stakes of Joy’s sister still being held over in Syria are rising; as what they’re encountering and what they’re doing grows more desperate and intense, the house begins to transform into a literal camera. They’re starting to film themselves in all sorts of inventive, different ways. And there are several plot twists in the piece with that.
So, I’m looking for the tone of, here we are. We are in a perfectly pristine, beautiful, wealthy place because this is in a very wealthy house in Cape Cod. This is a very wealthy place that we are experiencing. And as the play goes on and that wealthy place transforms into a camera with their specific vision of what they’re trying to do, and communicate in order to bring this girl back to her sister into this collective—she’s the leader of it-—it gets darker in the sense that the piece becomes like a camera they’re trapped inside. Those different viewpoints that they’re trying to get across. How they were strained working together but start to work as a collective. So, in an interesting way, I think the physical space eradicates or becomes shabbier, so to speak. Or is just really being devalued in the sense of a beautiful white pristine house with beautiful paintings and vases. But the people become stronger and their connection becomes stronger, so they become stronger than the system that they were trapped in, at least from their attempt to save a life. I feel like Kel‘s life in the play is representative of us trying to save our souls, so to speak, with our choices as a country and being involved with humanity in the world and what is possible; what can we do. So that kind of tone, that kind of shift, is exciting.
There’s dark humor throughout and a lot of discussion about the play, from the very beginning, has been the last sequence which is quite… disturbing and yet hilarious. It makes a lot of people uncomfortable; not the very end but as we near the climax of the piece. And you know it’s something I’ve always known works, and I’ve always known it works because it’s probably the most uncomfortable part of the play.
It also is doing what the tone is doing, which is, say when you look at yourself and you see yourself and you see the absurdity of something that is really true. There’s this climactic pitch of a story within the story and the piece. It does what it’s meant to do because some people come from this play and they love it, but they want to see that. They want to see it. They love to pitch so much they want to see that story. But that’s the power of what these people have and what they’re doing is they’re using story to try and find the truth. But how do you find the truth when every time you tell a story, things change and shift.
I feel the same way about feedback, honestly, as a playwright. I’m pretty vocal about that with my students. When I try to talk about someone else's play, it’s never really what I have in my head. I’m just doing my best to capture the words I speak out loud to reflect the best I can do. I think that’s what storytelling is. We’re trying to find those words. We’re trying to show that through visual images and those choices. So, all that struggle, I think, is a part of the tone of the play. It’s very darkly humorous.
Someone once mentioned, “This is like the ballast of a ship.” It’s about keeping that balance. If it tips too far in one direction, you lose it. And if it tips too far in the other direction, you lose it. You gotta keep them engaged moment to moment so that you can take them to some of these places. It does come back out to an experience for the audience. You’ll actually find that in every play or musical I write because if it’s going to be theatre, I don’t want the story to end and the audience to get up and just leave. I really want to prepare them to leave. I used to think that it was so that they’ll go and have a meaty conversation. And of course, they will go and have a meaty conversation, but it’s more than that. I think it’s an acknowledgment that you came, you were here, you dug in deep, and let’s prepare you to go outside with what you have experienced. I think that’s super important because—I’m sure so many playwrights feel this way right now—the connection between the play and activism is really connected. And as an activist, I just realized that’s how to do it. It is in this preparation. It’s in my play Rain & Zoe Save The World as well. I feel like it’s in Mary & Max. It’s in a lot of pieces.
Hayley Finn: I’m so glad we were able to have this conversation, and I’m excited to see the upcoming reading.
Join us for an online reading of
PULP VÉRITÉ by Crystal Skillman
Wednesday, March 3 at 7:00 p.m. CST
The Ruth Easton New Play Series is supported by the Ruth Easton Fund of the Edelstein Family Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board.