Supporting creative work by women
Jaclyn Backhaus is a playwright, whose latest work– Shoot the Freak– will premiere as part of (not just) 3 New Plays, a month-long pop up event featuring work by more than 60 artists September in New York City. This exciting event offers a new mode of production. Jacklyn, along with two other playwrights– Kevin Armento and Jerry Lieblich– have pooled resources to produce their new play AND offered free rehearsal and performance space to many other emerging and established companies. The goal is to make producing on a shoestring viable in the Big Apple.
Jaclyn spoke to Works by Women about the inspiration for her play, why she’s excited about this new model of production and which women artists inspire her.
WORKS BY WOMEN: Tell me about Shoot the Freak. What was the inspiration for the play?
JACLYN BACKHAUS: Shoot the Freak is a play about six Bushwick twentysomethings who set out to Coney Island to relive the magic of their trip in 2006, only to get caught in a giant storm surge. It’s part modern rom-com, part psycho-thriller, part hipster takedown, part global warming PSA, part whimsical romp, part Goosebumps, part hot-dog-eating contest.
I got the idea in 2011, when I was sequestered in my apartment during Hurricane Irene, and I misheard an NPR segment about the Coney Island Museum acting as an evacuation shelter. I haven’t been able to find record of that story ever airing, but the idea stuck with me. I finished the first draft of the play about two months before Hurricane Sandy hit the Atlantic Coast, which was eerie because that storm actually ravaged the museum site. It’s still closed for renovations, I believe.
WBW: (not just) 3 New Plays pools resources of artists. Do you see this as a new model of theater production?
JB: (not just) 3 New Plays was spurred into existence with questions, rather than answers. Jerry Lieblich and Kevin Armento, the other playwrights, sat me down and presented me with the idea. How can we present our plays in a fiscally viable way? Can we establish a sense of community with other artists working today? What can we do to help develop other emerging artists’ work as we continue to develop our own?
I think it’s definitely a new model. We wanted to have our plays produced, but we didn’t have the big-city budget to do so. We were looking for a way to combat the sort of counterintuitive idea of producing up against several other shows at the same time. Theater is a collaborative art, so we sought out ways to embrace that more fully. And once we decided to do it this way, all the pieces fell into place: we found the Tom Noonan’s Paradise Factory, which has been instrumental in helping us shape the month. We found our producing team, which is working hard to make sure all the facets run smoothly. The model is working, but I don’t think it’s the only new way to present work.
In some ways, this is the way I’ve been working for awhile now. My company, Fresh Ground Pepper, acts essentially as a presenter of work utilizing pooled resources (artistic and tangible) in the form of monthly events throughout the five boroughs since 2009. Most of what we’ve presented is either brand-new or in some longer stage of development, though. (not just) 3 New Plays is my first experience with fully producing work in this manner.
(not just) 3 New Plays playwrights: Kevin Armento, Jaclyn Backhaus & Jerry Lieblich
WBW: What most excites you about (not just) 3 New Plays?
JB: I think the most exciting thing about (not just) 3 New Plays is the variables we are juggling in the name of experimentation not with the work itself, but with its infrastructure. There is a giant question mark that hangs above the New York theater scene, this question of HOW: how do we keep going, how can we find ways to create, how can we continue to do so in new ways? The whole event is basically us dabbling with those questions.
PLUS! I’m so excited to see the other plays. I’ve been reading drafts of Jerry’s play since last summer and Kevin’s since last fall. It’ll be fun watching all of our brainchildren come to life in the appropriately fanciful way.
AND ALSO (I’m cheating because this is my third thing I’m most excited about): I’ve been working with my director, Andrew Neisler, since we were in school together in 2004, and Shoot the Freak is a reflection on many years of our friendship, as well as many of our own sensibilities and/or inside jokes. So that has been very special.
WBW: Why theater?
JB: I used to write plays for my brother and my hamster when I was little and put them on for my parents. My high school theater company was a second home to a lot of us weird Phoenix kids who wanted to put on plays. I think theater always gave me that sense of communal joy—we are all attempting something that is alive and scary—and that continues to inspire me in my collaborations today.
Plus I’ve tried to write by myself for myself, like prose and essays and things, and it’s just so hard for me. I’m much more at home watching actors roll around and say the things I write and help me shape them. I love workshopping and creating texts specifically for others. Theater’s just at the crossroads of what I love most about all things.
The cast of Shoot the Freak | photo by Lisha Brown
WBW: What’s next for you?
JB: Next up for me! I am the resident playwright of Theater Reconstruction Ensemble, and we’ve already begun working on our next piece, You On the Moors Now, which takes a bit of inspiration from Jane Austen, two Brontes, and Louisa May Alcott. I’m also continuing to develop my musical Folk Wandering with Andrew Neisler and composer Mike Brun (we have also begun to talk about our next project, which is exciting!). I’m also starting work on a piece with the LiveSource Collective next year.
Fresh Ground Pepper will round out its year with our 5th Annual PlayGround Reading Series, presenting the work of seven playwrights/theatermakers in the FGP PlayGround PlayGroup.
AAAND I’m getting married to my fiancé, who is a theater director named Andrew Scoville. That wedding will inherently be a little theatrical so I feel it should be included here!
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theater?
JB: They are similar challenges that echo women in all manners of workplace, but they ring a little truer and stranger in the theater. The notion of a woman “changing the game” as a playwright/director/artistic director/producer is always treated as a novelty, rather than the norm. The number of plays (and films, for that matter) written/directed by women is grossly off-balanced in relation to men. So many plays boast casts brimming with men and meaty parts for male actors, while the female actors keep getting stuck in the distressed/neurotic/helpless/vapid corner.
And, I think one major component is that when institutional theater houses are presented with this research, they nod and say “Yes, yes, yes, of course. Yes. We must do some more for our women” and then forget about it when it comes to planning a season according to ticket buyers and pass holders and regular patrons. The disconnect between the research and the action taken is apparent.
The only thing I can do about it, though, is keep making my work. I can only be a theatermaker, male or female, if I make theater. And if I’m not going to be produced because my plays have big feelings or don’t have enough parts for burly Alan Alda types, then I’ll just produce them myself.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
JB: Several of the year’s best plays were written by women. No one talks about theater without talking about Annie Baker and Amy Herzog. Rachel Chavkin is KILLING it. Pam MacKinnon and Diane Paulus won the Tonys for directing! So many of my female peers are doing amazing things in the theater world–if you need to know some female playwrights, directors, producers, actors, just let me know and I will pull out my laundry list. The whole 3NP team is made of up women and they are all incredible.
I am very hopeful. There are very many bright stars among the women in theater, and they only allow the rest of us to brighten and shine accordingly.
For more information on (not just) 3 New Plays, visit www.notjust3newplays.com.