Theater In Dialogue
The Final Frontier of Liza Birkenmeier
Liza Birkenmeier loves honey on her pizza. That sounds dirty, but it’s not meant that way. It’s meant literally. Like, say she was ordering pizza at her (our) favorite restaurant in the universe, Roberta’s, and there wasn’t a pizza on the menu with honey actually on it? She would, we would, opt to build our own pizza in order to ensure honey would be on it. Gently crisscrossing the sopressata, the mozzarella, caciocavallo, and parmigiano. Sure, it wasn’t on the menu, but isn’t everything just a suggestion of someone else’s idea? Certainly. This is also how Liza approaches playwriting. If there was only one way of doing things, Liza would be writing the same homecoming-hostage play over and over (not a bad idea) instead of constantly building completely new worlds in her work, showing her unique sense of place and character and conflict, all with the patience of a thoracic surgeon and the humor of Carol Burnett.
Dr. Ride's American Beach House
October 21 – November 23
“Liza is an experimental writer in the most literal of senses,” says Eric Shethar, Manager of Artistic Programs at Ars Nova where Liza’s play, Dr. Ride’s American Beach House, opens on November fifth. “Every play of hers, and even every rewrite, is an experiment—in genre, in style, in structure. At first glance, Dr. Ride doesn't look or behave like an ‘experimental’ play in the way we've come to think aboxut. But that ends up being entirely fitting for a play that's about feeling in the wrong skin or the wrong life, about being looked through or past.”
Long-time Liza collaborator and director of Dr. Ride, Katie Brook, is so right when she says that often the work feels “enormous and resonant” when you zoom out and look at a play, any play of hers, as a whole. It does “an artful zoom-in-zoom-out so subtly that it's only perceptible in its accumulation, so what at first seems small in Dr. Ride's American Beach House feels big, connected, earthshaking.”
But Liza wasn’t always a genius playwright, no, no, hers was first a tale of acting. A bright star on the St. Louis theater scene from a young, young age.
Trish Harnetiaux (Rail): Liza, you were an incredible actor first, right?
Liza Birkenmeier: Incredible, yes. In 1993, I starred in my own one-person version of Aladdin. It was an operatic endurance piece that incorporated sculpture.
Birkenmeier: My mom came to the living room to watch for a while, but then had to take a phone call. I also had community theater star turns as the Mayor of Munchkin City (twice). Also notable: Morty, the “leading elf.”
Rail: Super cool. Want to share a story or two about how you almost “made it”?
Birkenmeier: I read for Jennifer Lawrence’s part in Winter’s Bone. I never feel bad about that, though, because instead of working on that film after my senior year in college, I got the opportunity to travel with a husband-wife country band on a tour bus and babysit their second-grade child. I got to attend many state fairs and Harley Davidson festivals across Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, and Iowa, and had I been cast in that local no-budget indie that ended up being an Oscar favorite, I wouldn’t have had those experiences.
Rail: What was the first play you remember loving?
Birkenmeier: I loved anything performed live. At the mall by my house growing up, sometimes there was a piano player in the food court during the holiday season, and—I can’t be certain, but—I’m pretty sure I was that person’s biggest fan.
Rail: A seasonal piano player is a wonderful thing. Or, person. So, acting led to writing?
Birkenmeier: I was always writing and performing, and sometimes writing things down for the things I performed (myself). Often, I wish I had followed my own early notions and impulses about what to make. The quicker gratification of being in shows that other people had created was always going to be more alluring when I had school all day (I STRONGLY THINK WE NEED TO CANCEL SCHOOLS AS THEY ARE BUT THAT IS ANOTHER INTERVIEW). I was serious about school, and was also serious about winning things.
Rail: I think what initially drew me to you was your quiet competitive side.
Birkenmeier: I wonder, if I had been able to let go of my need to compete, and if I hadn’t so speedily decided that the way that musicals were made at the theaters in my hometown was the only way or the correct way to make live performance, what I would have allowed myself to create. For the most part, my initial impulses split. I was a child musical theater performer—
Rail: Uh, yeah you were. And we have the pic to prove it.
Birkenmeier: —and an experimental writer. I wasn’t an avant-garde enough thinker (at least as an adolescent) to realize that I was compulsively trying to create environments to be witnessed or experienced by other people. I participated in theater in well-tried ways, and kept my writing private. Eventually, as an adult, I was able to see that I was interested in exploring ideas with live voices and that there was a way that I could apply my writing to my specific awe of the world.
Rail: Now that you’ve written so many plays, is it easy for you to see an arc in your own work? Or are you always surprised by what interests you?
Birkenmeier: I don’t know if I see an arc, but maybe some kind of geometry or reorganization? I used to imagine—subconsciously—that I had to reinvent what “performance” was in order to make a piece of theater. Maybe this is still true in some way, but that sneaky idea put me in a stressful place when I was just starting out. I was trying to do so much at once; I was trying to prove that I was “good” at writing and that my writing was “important.” Lately, I think I’m starting to slowly understand that the best thing I can do as someone who writes for live voices and bodies is to make imaginative space for what the people in the room can already do best, or to magnify what’s exciting about witnessing them.
Rail: Why do you keep saying “live voices”?
Birkenmeier: Oh, whoa, I do. I think I just like to emphasize the difference between something that is purposefully designed to be performed in a room of people, where the performers are close and pretending to do things (and really doing things) right there! People doing stuff right in front of us is so emotional. Maybe I’m trying to emphasize that by using that phrase?
Rail: Talk about the Sally Ride play.
Birkenmeier: Dr. Ride’s American Beach House is about four people hanging out on top of an old house in St. Louis, Missouri in the summer 1983. Generally, they drink and listen to updates on the radio about Sally Ride’s imminent launch into space on the historic STS7 mission. Specifically, the play is about the performance—and the power—of the self as subject and object, especially in terms of desire and sexual repression. Trish, I will tell you that most of it is hilarious, really.
Rail: Say more things about it.
Birkenmeier: Sure, I’d love to. I’ll try. I feel like I should say something smart about sex and identity here; the play’s power dynamics are—hopefully—electric because of the repression and expression of those things. But sometimes it’s hard for me—what I have to say “about” queerness— because as far as I can tell, my entire perception of the world—conceptually and sensorially—is queer. This piece is my best attempt to sketch a planet built out of these experiences.
Rail: Perception is a funny thing. So is “truth”. How can we ever know if someone is telling the truth?
Birkenmeier: We will probably never know if someone else is telling the truth because they probably don’t know if they’re telling the truth. Trish—don’t you think everything we feel and say is an approximation? We’re super culturally stuck on the idea of some things being subjective and some things being objective, because that is deeply comforting. We might not understand our place in the universe, but given the right tools and perspective, someone could. (Isn’t that what we all imagine?) Anyway, it seems like: no. There is no truth except for subjective truth. We might as well not worry too much about if what we’re hearing is “objectively” true, or a “fact”, but more about if what we’re hearing is true to the person saying it. Does it acknowledge or expand your shared reality? Thank you for asking! That’s what the play is “about”! Kind of!
Rail: What is exciting to you about theater right now? About new plays?
Birkenmeier: Like when I was a child, I found almost anything performed live—
Rail: With live voices?
Birkenmeier: —to be thrilling in some way. My tastes change all the time, so as soon as I name something I’m excited about or less excited about, I’m lying. I also think that our short attention spans and our ability to consume personalized media constantly could help us engage in live events, we’re just at an awkward place of growth, figuring out how.
Rail: What is frustrating?
Birkenmeier: We all know that capitalism and other violences of our Classic American Power Structure stifle the possibility for relevant art to become popular art, so I will talk about something smaller but that I’m seriously frustrated about! Not enough air hockey in Brooklyn.
Rail: Yes. Everything you said. I am very good at air hockey, let’s play. BUT, CAN WE CONTINUE THIS ON TEXT?
Rail: GREAT. WE TEXT IN ALL CAPS AND DON’T KNOW WHY, ISN’T THAT TRUE?
Birkenmeier: CORRECT. FOR YEARS AND YEARS
Rail: NEXT QUESTION: IF SOMEONE HANDED YOU A HUNDRED DOLLAR BILL AND YOU HAD TO SPEND IT ON YOURSELF WITHIN ONE HOUR, WHAT WOULD U BUY?
Rail: BE MORE SPECIFIC
Birkenmeier: REALLY NICE PIZZA
Rail: (We had to redact something, sorry.)
LIZA, IF YOU WERE IN ORBIT, UP IN SPACE FOR SIX MONTHS, AND COULD BRING THREE THINGS. WHAT ARE THEY AND WHY?
Birkenmeier: GREAT QUESTION—
1. MY TWO CATS LILA AND LENÙ BECAUSE DOGS HAVE BEEN INVITED TO SPACE AND IT IS ABOUT TIME TO CHANGE THINGS
Rail: WHAT IS NUMBER TWO?
Birkenmeier: THE SECOND CAT
Rail: GOT IT
Rail: FINAL QUESTION LIZA - WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF AMERICAN THEATER?
Birkenmeier: THE FUTURE OF AMERICAN THEATER IS LESBIAN SPACE CRIMES. I THINK YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN.
Rail: YOU KNOW I DO. FINAL, FINAL QUESTION: WHAT IS THE CHEESE PIZZA OF PLAYS?
Birkenmeier: MY PERSONAL CHEESE PIZZA OF PLAYS IS JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR
An excerpt from Dr. Ride’s American Beach House.
(Matilda and Harriet are by the Mississippi River, on a roof, looking at the neighboring apartments through binoculars, maybe… dealing with a lifetime of repressed energy and desire?)
Good idea. I can see everyone. I hope someone’s doing something perverted.
I thought I might be able to look into their kitchen and see what they cook for dinner. Do you think they’re serial killers?
Their place is nice.
Where did they go? Can you see the Riverboat MacDonald’s?
I don’t care for that aesthetic. Mark Twain, et cetera.
They’re probably photographers for National Geographic… and they went to Reykjavik to take pictures of the Aurora Borealis or a plague or—an animal plague.
The vagaries of their home life are the reasons I wake up.