Interview with “FM50” Playwright, Jeni Mahoney

Posted by MB - March 4, 2013

Playwright Jeni Mahoney



PY Literary Director, Michael Doyle, talked with Jeni Mahoney, the first playwright in our “Feminine Mystique: 50 years later” Reading Series.  Read their conversation about her writing, her inspirations, her response to being included in our Feminist reading series, and her future projects.


PY: The Feast…is a play set in a war zone in which a well-meaning but naive diplomat’s wife finds herself empowered under extreme duress. How did this play come about? What did idea did you start with and how did the process happen?


JM:  Much of the inspiration for “Feast” came from a trip to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia in early 90’s. I arrived in the dead of winter two weeks after the first democratically elected leader of the country – on the verge of being overthrown – looted the Treasury and fled into the mountains. So here I was in a country the size of Connecticut, in the midst of fighting three wars, and there’s no government. Electricity and heat and water were sporadic at best, months of garbage spilled into the streets, you’d stand in line in the snow for butter for six hours only to find out there was never any butter to begin with, if your car broke down you might be able to buy a part off a neighbor’s car, but if you got a flat it was all over because no one had tires. The TV had one channel and it was always showing Tom and Jerry.


I spent a lot of time going to funerals in Georgia. The traditions around death were quite elaborate (days of sitting with the body, a series of feast, a live lamb, etc.) but people clung to these traditions. It was as if the chaos of life made these things even more important. It was important to go out and celebrate birthdays, even though it was dangerous to be out at night, or go to a concert on New Year’s Day even though there was no heat or electricity, just a single generator used to light the stage. It was important for people to give me gifts because I was guest, and it was important for me to accept this even though it felt wrong.


When people learned I was a writer they’d get excited and say, “You will tell America what is happening. If only they knew then they would help.” Having watched how things had played out in the former Yugoslavia, I found the earnestness of their optimism difficult and sad and sometimes downright maddening. Still it’s hard to deny the beauty of such hope, such faith in the innate goodness of people who have the wherewithal to help.


People tend to see Audrey as a criticism overly-simplistic, western, feel-good altruism – and she is that of course – but she grew from my own personal sense of feeling ridiculous; my struggle to sort out what it actually means to offer something meaningful. It’s easy to laugh at her as being this ridiculous “other” person, but I think it’s dangerous as well. We all have a bit of Audrey in us, and a bit of Niles too (sometimes more than a bit).


All this being said; I didn’t set out to write a play about Georgia. I’ve never thought of the setting as being Georgia. I think it’s an amalgamation of a lot places, and a lot of things I was struggling with at the time – a lot of coming to terms with my relationship to the world with bits of Georgia, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Russia, Greenpoint, pre-gallery Dumbo and Bed-Sty. It all just started with this vision of a woman sweeping and feeling uncommonly alone. There’s a knock on the door. And this is what happened.


PY: Why do you write for theatre? 


JM: I started in theater as an actor when I was a little kid, I think there was something very comforting about the mix magic and concreteness it offered; you can go anywhere, be anything, but stage left is always stage left, and upstage is always upstage. For some reason I liked that. Seeing myself as a writer came much later. I was a terrible speller and my grammar was atrocious – in school that’s all anyone cares about; that’s what writing is – so I assumed it wasn’t for me. Looking back, I should have known I was different. All the other kids were clamoring to do “Annie Get Your Gun” and I was the geek in the corner suggesting “The Lower Depths” or “Beidermann and the Firebugs.”


There is something primal about the aliveness of theater; this sort of shamanic journey that takes us to an “other” world which is both inside of us and outside of us – and you only really get that when you’re in proximity to others whether it’s in a theater, a stadium, a concert hall or a town square. It’s like that experiment where you have two frog hearts in dishes, and when the dishes touch the hearts start to beat together. Is that gross? Well, you get the point.


PY:  The play addresses some traditional feminist issues: gender roles, socio-economic inequality and violence. Did you set out to explore these issues? Do you consider this a feminist piece?


JM: I don’t really think about issues to explore when I start out with a play – as I’m writing the characters tell me their issues and do my best to follow their lead. Even once I get a sense of an “issue” I try not to let it interfere; I don’t want it to distract me from what the characters need.


I don’t know if this is a feminist piece. The women are struggling with some difficult stuff, and discover they have surprising power; and when the men (especially Niles) embrace the parts of their nature that we might call more feminine, they become stronger… so maybe it is.


PY:  Do you consider yourself a feminist playwright? Are you a feminist? Is there a distinction between the two? Is being a “woman playwright” a category you find yourself put in and how has that benefitted or limited you?


JM:  When I first started writing I used to get guff from people who called themselves “feminists” because I wasn’t writing about “women’s issues” – which was only slightly less annoying that being praised for writing stuff that doesn’t “sound” like it’s written by a woman. What was I supposed to write about? Tampons? Boyfriends? I’ve always chafed at the idea that there are things I’m supposed to write about, or views I’m supposed to uphold.


I guess I’m a feminist in that I write about the things that interest me as a human being and how those things filter through all kinds of the characters in different ways. I hope my characters are human beings first –  we all move through life wearing numerous filters and veils (gender, class, culture, experience, environment), it’s the complexity of those veils; the layers, the shades, the textures, that makes human beings so endlessly unique and fascinating, and yet at some level so deeply inter-connected.


But I’m not terribly interested in labeling my work as feminist – I tend to be label-resistant. It feels reductive. I don’t feel limited by the fact of being a woman, though I struggle with the term “woman playwrights” – it can feel like a modifier or a distraction or (strangely) an adjective.  I think that’s less of a problem today than it was even a decade ago. Our ideas about gender and identity are expanding and that’s exciting. And really, isn’t that what the The Feminine Mystique was about – releasing ourselves from the expectation that we should build our lives around the roles assigned to us by our genitalia? We’re not there yet – clearly there are many battles left to fight – but 50 years later, maybe we’re finally starting to get it.


PY:  What are some plays and who are some playwrights that you consider to be important feminist pieces and why?


JM:  I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer this – with my mistrust of labels and all, but here’s a few worth mentioning: Githa Sowerby – because no one mentions her and “Rutherford and Sons” is a masterpiece; Lorraine Hansberry, because she wrote so powerfully about being human; Daro Fo and Franca Rama (I think only Eve Ensler can come close to Franca Rama when it comes to feminist playwrights). But the truth is that, aside from Franca Rama, none of these writers set out to right feminist theater. Ibsen took on the Feminine Mystique long before the sexual revolution in A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler and to oft neglected Rosmerholm.


I’ve been inspired by a ton of great female theater-makers but I don’t want to start listing names because I’ll surely forget someone; I’ll just mention one – not a playwright – Lynn Austin, the founding Artistic Director of Music-Theatre Group, a no-nonsense, passionate believer who supported so many talented women; women who have become the backbone the today’s Theater. A complicated hero I am honored to have known. The fact that many people reading this will not recognize her name (or some of the names above) is – to my mind – a great tragedy.


PY:  What’s next for you?

JM:  Like many women, I’m struggling to balance too many things – parenting, working, making art, being human.  To be honest, finding time to write is what’s next. I’m mid-re-draft on the most ridiculous, ambitious, sprawling thing I’ve ever attempted to write “Bad Water Juju” (it’s either complete genius or just a thing that needs to get out of my head); and another piece “Kandahar,” which is a riff off of Arthur Schnitzler’s “Das Weit Land” – it’s sort of the polar opposite in that it’s probably the most controlled and tightly knit piece I’ve ever attempted. I’m also Artistic Director of Seven Devils Playwrights Conference – so I’m gearing up for that which is in June.

For more information on the reading click here! 

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