Playwrights' Center Associate Artistic Director Hayley Finn recently connected with Affiliated Writer Dipika Guha on her upcoming play Getting There, loss and longing, strong female characters, and working in theater and television.
Hayley Finn: Your play is very rich with visual imagery. How do you start a play and what is your relationship to the visual landscape as it relates to text?
Dipika Guha: I start writing plays often thinking about tone and what the feel of the world is. This play is a homage to María Irene Fornés and her approach to what a scene is and how it lives on the page and therefore in our imaginations; the scene as a literary unit as well as something that exists in an actor's body on stage—the intersection of those two things. She is so masterful in the way she creates those structures. She was a huge inspiration.
In some ways, my instinct is to focus on this idea of illumination, and literally what light is falling onstage? How does it exist? How does it evoke meaning? I have an interest in negative space in that way. I think Beckett is another influence on this play; in Beckett’s work, the on-stage sparseness draws attention to what is emotionally missing that carries through thematically for the characters' own journeys. Getting There is so much about loss. The characters are all on a journey of grieving what's been lost for them tangibly and intangibly.
Hayley: Beautiful. I love the way you describe the light in your play. I have never heard a playwright talk about the light on the front end of the play as opposed to in production. As you’re creating the scene you're thinking about where light is falling. Fascinating, it doesn't seem you come from a visual background at all?
Dipika: No, not at all. Light as an emotional language is always the way I have keyed into my work. It's something to do with how it lives scenically and how that impression lives in our minds. The tone of the world as it relates to our visual imaginations is as large a part of the storytelling to me as the story of what happens.
Hayley: Moving from California to England, have you noticed a difference in light and light quality?
Dipika: Yes. And within California—Northern California light feels so different from Southern California light. There are so many generalizations about people and how light affects your disposition but I think that's really true. There is something inexplicable in the way that light affects the landscape and how it informs us as people, both in terms of outlook and, in a deeper sort of spiritual way, in terms of what we are drawn to and what has pull for us. Light as a metaphor for desire is also an engine in my work and in this play.
Hayley: We talked about loss but I also feel there's a deep sense of longing in this play. Do you find that to be true and how do you see that operating in the play?
Dipika: Yes, you are exactly right. They are two sides of a coin and these characters, in particular, seem to flip quite quickly from one side to the other. They are, in a way, answers for each other. How do you survive loss? It's through longing. And perhaps to answer longing, you have to lose things. That paradox is what the play turns on and the characters are in a vortex of.
Hayley: This play seems to have a romantic quality as well. You set it in Paris where some quintessential moments take place. All different shades of love are discovered in this play. How do you see love in the play? And do you see yourself as a romantic? How does that influence your work?
Dipika: Yeah, I sort of set out to create a romantic container for this play. So Paris obviously is the first place that came to mind as I was thinking about where in the world you could you exist by yourself? What does it mean to exist in a solitary state? Some cities seem permissive of this but other cities seem repellant of it. In New York, you can't sit and have a meal by yourself but it's completely fine to do that in Paris. Why? It was something I wanted to investigate and was curious about. I wanted to create a container where the characters could be or learn to be okay with feeling whatever they’re feeling and expressing it; where it is culturally permissible to weep on the streets (which maybe New York and Paris share). It’s okay to weep on the streets in both of those places but I sort of love that some cities like Paris are in and of themselves an emotional state.
So this play is full of people feeling in public spaces which I love. There's a permissiveness in that it really challenges what we see as public and private. The lines we draw about what is acceptable in public and in private, emotionally, I think are artificial. The play deconstructs that and Paris seemed like a great setting to do that in because these lines appear less defined there.
Hayley: Could you talk about the genesis of the play and how it evolved since the initial idea?
Dipika: I had a conversation with Ed Decker at New Conservatory Theatre Center about how there aren’t many plays about friendship. I wanted to write a play about friendship and queer friendship. The mission of NCTC very much has to do with queer stories and marginalized voices. That was the initial seed. These characters existed in an experiment I had done a few years prior to that conversation. I was really interested in this idea of fragments and if fragments of feeling could hold our attention on stage in the way that they can in a book. I was reading Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets at the time. It is an exploration of the color blue as a meditation on grief and also literally the color blue. She searched for it all over the world; variations of that color.
I saw the fragments as an answer to this question of tone and light and how we might capture it in a sliver. I tried this experiment. It was a complete failure because it turns out, it is not possible on stage to hold our concentration for that amount of time without a throughline, in the way we can in a book. We can lose ourselves in a book and then come back to it. After this conversation with Ed, I rescued some characters from that draft and created this story.
Hayley: So it started with the characters and the narrative came later?
Dipika: That’s right. It did. And even before that, some of the concerns that these characters had before they had names. Each fragment was asking a question around loneliness, grief, and longing, and really, what it means to be in a female body.
Hayley: You create strong female characters. Is that something which you set out to do in your work or do many of the characters that come to you happen to be strong women?
Dipika: I don’t know how intentional it has been in my work on the whole. I definitely am aware and have been aware that women say fewer lines in plays and in films than men. And that has a cumulative effect on storytelling and how we take up space and how we expect to take up or not take up space in the world. With this play, it was quite conscious of wanting to write for female and queer bodied people. I also began thinking about who I wanted to be in a rehearsal room with. The last time we did a reading of this, the actors kind of looked at each other and were like, “I’ve never been in a room with you before.” It had to do with there being so few plays with 5 women of several age groups so those actors had never been in a play together. There's usually space for one of those roles in a play so rehearsals have been joyful.
Hayley: How did you come to the theatre? How did you begin this journey?
Dipika: In several incarnations, I guess. From an early age, I was incredibly shy. Theater gave me a way to be with other people. I could disappear and be seen at the same time. That was really attractive to me. I was in my early twenties in my first year in the US (I came on an academic fellowship.) when I had the great fortune of taking a class with Sam Marks, who is a wonderful playwright and superb teacher. He was able to literalize some of this language of anomaly and the language of difference in theatre (that I had always instinctively kind of felt). Then, with Sam’s encouragement, I went on to study with Paula Vogel. She speaks a great deal about defamiliarisation or making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. She made me feel like there was space in this form to create new ways to see the world. Getting to study with Paula who is a formalist and fundamentally interested in how you can change the form to say what you want to say really allowed me to feel free in my writing. I connected to her pedagogy because growing up in multiple languages—literal languages and also emotional landscapes—theatre felt like a natural form for me.
Hayley: I love thinking about how the fact that you grew up in different emotional and linguistic landscapes has made you want to create a form for the content.
Dipika: I think it brings us back to this curiosity about fragments in a way. So much of my own life has felt fragmentary, but in order to piece them into an order, there needs to be a throughline—especially in theater.
Hayley: You're a brilliant playwright. You have this career in film and television. Can you talk about the difference in how you approach TV writing and playwriting?
Dipika: TV has been so much about stability and having jobs you can count on; having financial stability and health insurance. There are so many life things that are challenging as a playwright. TV has been the answer to many of those questions. Artistically, they could not be more different. I wonder what life would be like if we wrote theatre in the way we write TV—in a room collaboratively in a way that's sort of a mind-meld? It was a big adjustment having gone from the singularity of my own voice to really appreciating what writers’ rooms do at their best, expediently taking us through many options of how stories might go. As a playwright, this is the kind of progress you make draft to draft rather than day to day—having so many writers work on a problem means we’re chewing through much more story and much, much faster. I think that knowing where my voice starts and ends has been helpful in writers’ rooms. I'm not looking for the room to reflect my voice back to me or to validate my point of view because I’ve had time to develop my sense of self as a writer outside this medium. As tv writers, we are also involved in production. This is not generally true in theatre unless you run a theatre company. That has been a massive learning curve for me—being on set, making casting decisions, scouting locations, etc. And that's where your diplomatic skills as a playwright come in handy.
Hayley: Very intriguing... diplomatic skills as a playwright?
Dipika: Well you know—as playwrights we learn to negotiate process when it's going well and when it's going less well. So you learn to pick your battles.
Hayley: So what's it like now coming back to the theater after TV?
Dipika: I have gone back and forth for the past few years so I don’t really feel like I’ve been away from theatre. There’s just been a lot of writing at night and on weekends as I’ve had a job in a writers room more or less consistently for the last three years; it’s been a back and forth with varying degrees of sleep and lack of sleep. In theater, we are creating a singular thing that is based on the text. Whereas in TV there is a lot of—there is a phrase “That's just dialogue” or “We can dialogue that out.” Dialogue is so secondary to visual storytelling and structure. So it's really nice to be in the intimacy of the rehearsal room where dialogue really matters.
Join us for an online reading of
GETTING THERE by Dipika Guha
Wednesday, January 13 at 6:00 p.m. CST
Presented in partnership with New Conservatory Theatre Center.
The Ruth Easton New Play Series is supported by the Ruth Easton Fund of the Edelstein Family Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board.