Supporting creative work by women
Lucy Gillespie has a busy December. Her play Outfoxed premieres in downtown New York City with FullStop Collective. Inspired by one of the biggest international criminal trials — American student Amanda Knox tried for the murder of her British roommate Meredith Kerchner in Italy — the play delves deeper than just a bioplay, looking at attitudes about women and Americans and how prejudice can sometimes subvert truth. Another one of her plays The Atwater Project will receive a reading with terraNOVA Collective later this month.
Lucy spoke with Works by Women about her inspiration for Outfoxed, how men’s stories are considered “neutral storytelling”, and what fun camping out for theatre tickets can be.
WORKS BY WOMEN: How were you inspired to write Outfoxed?
LUCY GILLESPIE: I was inspired to write Outfoxed when I went home to London for Christmas in 2009 and watched a documentary on the Amanda Knox trials. It struck me that the case rested more on the vilification of Amanda for being American, a young girl, a foreign student, than it was on any solid evidence of her guilt. I grew up in London with an American mother and an American passport, and the assurance that I would one day move back to the US, and this prejudice rang true with my experience of British (and European) feelings towards Americans.
The play itself is not a retelling of the Kercher murder or of Knox’s trial. Rather I was interested in the idea of how a young, idealistic, naive person can stumble so easily and lovingly into a place that is so hostile to everything she represents. I have lived in France and in the US now, and it can be particularly isolating to be a young woman abroad. Women carry the culture, so you have to be accepted by women in order to make a niche for yourself. I was interested in both sides of that dilemma.
Also, I had just written some plays that took place in schools and offices, and realized I had never written about family. Outfoxed, then, became about how Alyssa had been shaped by her relationship with her mother.
WBW: How was the play developed?
LUCY: Very attentively and lovingly, by FullStop Collective as part of their Play Development Series. They’re a great young company, doing very innovative, exciting and professional work. They have a giant family of associated artists – actors, directors, writers and designers with collaborative training, which made for exceptionally useful feedback after table reads.
Then, I was lucky enough to receive a MacDowell Colony Fellowship in December 2011 to finish it. I was reading and writing a lot about brutal murders, then had to walk 20 minutes through the pitch-black woods of Peterborough, New Hampshire every night for dinner… It was incredible, though. Many conversations had over those dinners with other artists made their way into the work.
WBW: What’s next for you?
LUCY: I’m currently an MFA candidate at the NYU Goldberg School of Dramatic Writing, which takes up most of my time. In class (with Annie Baker!!!) I am writing a play called Sanctuary set in the lobby of the LJS synagogue, which I grew up attending. I am also working on a screenplay set in Silicon Valley, about a girl whose start-up gets annexed for profit by her CEO father.
Oh! And an older play of mine, The Atwater Project (about the rise and fall of Bush Snr’s charismatic campaign manager Lee Atwater) is having a public workshop as part of terraNOVA Collective’s Groundworks series on Sunday December 9th at 3pm.
WBW: What’s your favorite moment in the theater?
LUCY: My favorite moment in any theater was in London, when a trip home coincided with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s staging of the entire Shakespeare Histories cycle. Tickets are 5 pounds if you are under 30, but they have a limited number available, and you have to wait on line before the box office opens to get one. I arrived every morning for a week at 5am and sat outside the Camden Town Roundhouse with 200 other people – artists and bankers and waiters alike. It was like a festival – everyone chatting with everyone else, board games, sharing cigarettes and snacks, the odd juggler. By the time we lucky few got into our seats, it felt like home.
And the actors felt it too. Random cast members drew straws to give the curtain speeches, and, having sweated already through 7 hours of fight sequences (before the final Henry VI), they were giddy and gleeful and just a part of the family. It truly felt like everyone in that room was making the play happen – something I only get otherwise from watching improv.
WBW: What inspired you to be a playwright?
LUCY: I was crap at writing fiction, too controlling and introspective to be good at improv, and too tall to be an ingenue.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theater?
LUCY: I spent a few months reading unsolicited playscripts for Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, and then for Primary Stages in New York. The more plays I read, the more I realized that most plays are about playwrights’ fantasies/wishful thinking. Of course, the best plays are complex and multi-faceted, but it seemed to me that a bad play that followed some schlub’s fantasy of hitting it big/getting the girl/fighting for independence from his family/the man could still be perfectly accessible and satisfying to an audience.
The problem that women face, I think, is that male wishful thinking has become the neutral standard in terms of structure and content. To a degree, it is expected and those stories are recognizable. Wishful-thinking plays by female playwrights fell flat, felt saccharine or felt inaccessible either because of the tone (too stream of consciousness, too poetic, too “insert criticism here”), or because the climax felt skewed – a goal too big (she can have it all!) or too small (my mother and I smiled at each other). I think that women think different ways, work different ways, respond to different stories than men do, but we are all trained in male storytelling, so when women sit down to write, they feel bound to a structure/content that is not intuitive but rather drilled into them as the only way to make a play.
At least, this has been my experience. And it is not lost on me how many women tell me they love my work, and how many men are indifferent to it or outright critical of it.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
LUCY: TV shows like Girls and New Girl are making young female artists a mainstream archetype. And playwrights like Sarah Ruhl and Annie Baker are their own genres (seriously, half of the play scripts I read at Primary Stages were Annie Bakeresque).
FullStop Collective presents Outfoxed November 29th through December 16th at Access Theater (380 Broadway at White Street) in downtown Manhattan. For more information, visit FullStop Collective’s web site.