Arts and CultureLooking For Arts & Culture Exclusives? Get Your Cheeky Card!
Emily Schwartz’s whimsical, darkly comedic plays have earned her critical and audience acclaim, with the Chicago Reader naming her “Best Playwright” of 2008. She’s artistic director of the Strange Tree Group, which she co-founded five years ago, and her work has been performed at Collaboration’s Sketchbook short play festival for five straight years. Last year she won “Best Play” at Sketchbook for “Cowboy Birthday Party”, in which rugged cowboys surprise their buddy with a gift so deliciously twisted, I can’t bear to spoil it here.
I spoke with Emily during a busy week between two productions. Strange Tree had just wrapped up a well-received revival of her play The Dastardly Ficus and Other Comedic Tales of Woe and Misery, starring the fabulous Nancy Friedrich and Carol Enoch as eccentric spinster sisters whose antics include marrying a severed head. As we spoke, she was gearing up for the premier of her short play The Dreaded Zeppelin at this year’s Sketchbook, which just opened last weekend. Directed by Brian Bell, the piece uses puppets to tell the story of a German solider (played by Scott Cupper) who dangles in the sky from a World War I Zeppelin. As you can gather, this is not a playwright with limited subject matter.
Cheeky: In your plays, you create really stylized worlds and then inject these macabre twists. It makes for great comedy. I also wonder if there’s social commentary going on underneath.
Emily Schwartz: I tend to write what entertains me, and usually that skews more toward the macabre. People ask me about what style I think I am, and I guess it’s kind of “Midwestern Gothic.” I grew up in Indiana. A lot of farmhouses and empty, open fields. And girl scout haunted houses on Frozen Corpse Road. Maybe it’s my family too; they have a slightly dry, dark sense of humor that has carried with me. And when I think of theater, I take it seriously but I don’t think it has to be “serious.” Something dark and something comical can also be something touching. It can have a sly point underneath it.
I tend to write so that you know you’re watching theater when you’re watching theater. I don’t tend to write, you know, like you’re watching a sitcom when you’re watching theater. I like the big elements and the surprise elements and the things that bring the audience into it and maybe turn a play on its head a little bit from what you expect. I don’t like the commonplace, I suppose, so that’s where I try to go. And I like to surprise myself. If I write something and I think, oh, well I figured that would happen, I’ll be like — wait, really? No! I didn’t want to figure that would happen! I want to be engaged in what’s happening rather than suspect the end before it happens.
Cheeky: You’re obviously a great fit for Sketchbook, seeing as this is your fifth year and the submissions are blind. How has Collaboraction been a part of your growth as an artist in the past five years?
ES: Oh, so much. When I first submitted [to Sketchbook], it was right after the 2004 Ficus. That was the only thing I’d done in town that was big. It had gone well, but I was like, what can I do now? I had no idea how to get involved. I saw this Sketchbook announcement for submissions and I said, you know, I’ve never really submitted anything before, so I wanted to try. And I think that was back at the point where they hadn’t put a limit yet on how many things you could send in. And I must have sent them ten short plays, maybe more.
I was writing up until their 11:59 deadline on the day . . . I was just like, I’m gonna keep writing and keep submitting because I want to do this so much. And I fell asleep, and I had a dream at the computer. And I woke up and I wrote “Sandy Simon In Her Backyard, circa 1989.” And that was the one that got in. It was the one I woke up in the middle of the night and submitted, at maybe 11:53. That’s the one that was picked.
And the director was Kimberly Senior, who was a [Collaboraction] founding member. It was a lucky break. I had a blast. She was fantastic, and that was my first experience with them and meeting everyone, and from then on I have worked with so many people again from the company. It’s a real community kind of vibe, and I think that’s why it’s so fun for audience members to come.
Cheeky: Can you talk about “The Dreaded Zeppelin”, your play in Sketchbook 9? I read that it’s a solo puppet show?
ES: It is. That’s all Brian Bell’s directorial submission. It’s about this World War I Zeppelin [flyer], and he is hovering in the atmosphere. When I submitted it, it had references to the fact that, you know, maybe birds fly past, or maybe things happen in the sky. I’m really excited that they actually get to suspend him, because that’s what I had written in. He’s in a harness, in the air, among the clouds.
The real story of the German Zeppelins in WWI is that they had these gondolas that would hang below, because once they had the technology for the Zeppelins to go above the clouds, they couldn’t see their targets to drop the bombs. So they needed to lower some men below the clouds to, you know, see if they were over cities or over major targets. So instead of making it a gondola, I just had him hanging.
And they’re going to have all the puppeteers – and they’ve explained to me how this works, I’m excited to see it myself – in these blackout costumes. With the way they’re working the lighting, you should not be able to see them. When the light dilates the pupils of the audience they really will only be able to see Scott [Cupper] and all these two-dimensional puppets of clouds floating past and ridiculous props and other crazy things that happen in the air.
Cheeky: Here’s a standard question, which I’m actually really interested in because you have kind of an absurdist bent in your work.
Cheeky: Who are some of your influences?
Ah, my influences . . . [she leans in and whispers] . . . Keanu Reeves?
[We laugh very hard.]
Cheeky: Done. Answered.
ES: Um, my influences . . . I get compared a lot to Edward Gorey. And I love him, he’s awesome. Charles Addams, all those kind of creepy . . . my favorite books from childhood were from the Alvin Schwartz series, “Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark.” I loved those. I carried them around until the spine wore out. So I always secretly imagined that I was related to Alvin Schwartz. I was like we’re so related in some way! I was nine, but I knew this in my heart! Secret daughter.
Cheeky: What do your parents do?
ES: My mom’s a librarian and my dad’s a cartoonist, he works in printing.
Cheeky: OK, so very literary and creative.
ES: Very creative. We were always reading and going to odd places and telling bizarre stories. Playwright-wise, I like Peter Barnes a lot. I like Lillian Hellman a lot. I like [John Patrick] Shanley. I don’t know, it’s always a tricky question to answer. I’m across the board, kind of.
Cheeky: You have a great ear for dialogue and you write in many totally different styles. Does that just come from a lot of exposure?
ES: It comes from, I don’t know, a lot of breaking out of the style – if I’ve seen something or read something, I’ll think, I wonder if I could do that. I wonder if I could sound like that this week. And so it’s kind of a game, to see if I can actually make cowboys sound like cowboys. To see if somebody would watch a play and not know that this tiny girl wrote the play . . . It’s like, hmmm, what can I get away with this week?
Cheeky: The music and sing-alongs in your work — can you talk about that?
ES: I had always wanted to play the guitar and use music in things. I took seven years of piano lessons and also horribly, horribly played the flute in elementary school. I’d wanted to play the saxophone but we didn’t have a saxophone, we had a flute. So I ended up with that. And I thought that I was doomed to a music-less existence until I saw this guitar in the back of Guitar Center during a Labor Day sale.
I was getting a guitar for my brother for his graduation present and I said, “This is what you want, I’ll buy it for you.” I kept carrying around this guitar with me, like, “Why not this one? Why not this one?” And he said “That is a guitar for a girl! I don’t want it.” And I said, “We can’t just leave it here,” and so I also ended up purchasing a guitar, and taught myself to play. I continued to muddle around with it until I started thinking, hey, I know how to do this now. I can add these things in.
I think it’s another aspect of making theater as big and theater-y as you can, or adding an element of surprise to it. I just want people to come in and enjoy it, and sometimes when I read it I think, this is a spot that calls for a song. Which is sort of strange because I never really go into it thinking that. I just start writing something and I’m like, oh yes, clearly here is where the song goes. And that’s how songs kind of end up there.
Cheeky: And here it is, the final Nosy question. What’s the Cheekiest thing you did this week?
ES: I’m really trying to think about it because usually I’m very polite. [laughs]
Cheeky: It doesn’t have to be rude! A bold move? Something saucy, even.
ES: No, I know. [This week] we had a strike of the show, so all the Ficus props had to move to the house. I finally broke down and got a storage space for the company because I decided I didn’t want to be drowning in ficus trees and fake chandeliers and cobweb pieces and baby powder. So now we can hang up the costumes. That was a big move – deciding that we could move out. I’m very protective of my things. Like I really love all of the crazy things that we collect for Strange Tree. So having them out of my possession frightens me a little bit.
Cheeky: So that’s a bold move.
ES: That’s a bold move, I suppose.
And of course, Emily’s bold moves are available on stage this month. The Dreaded Zeppelin and a host of other short plays and multimedia projects are currently on stage at Collaboraction’s 9th Annual Sketchbook Festival, which runs through May 10th at the Building Stage. Click here for a schedule and tickets.