The complete script of Brooklyn Bridge is published in the April 2005 print issue. In the play, which premiered in 2005 at Minneapolis’s Children’s Theatre Company, city kid Sasha is home alone. She isn’t supposed to leave the apartment while her mother is out working. But she needs to write a very important homework assignment about a New York landmark, and she can’t begin till she finds a pen—a hunt that soon involves many of the people who also call her building home.
B. Walker Sampson: What sparked the writing of Brooklyn Bridge?
Melissa James Gibson: Children’s Theatre Company had invited members of New Dramatists to propose projects. I was talking with Elissa Adams, director of new play development at CTC, about it and she said, “What if you inserted a latchkey kid into your apartment-building world?” It was a great suggestion and I just ran with it.
Was the Brooklyn Bridge always going to be at the center of the play?
That happened pretty early on. At St. Ann’s School, where I work, one of the major assignments of the fifth-grade year is a New York City–based research project. The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the old favorite subjects for the students.
Daniel Aukin has directed your last two premieres—Brooklyn Bridge and Suitcase —as well as the New York premiere of [sic]. Does your continued work with him have any influence on your composition?
I’m not sure if that’s true as I’m writing it, but it’s absolutely so in the realization stage. I am a person who really likes working with people with whom I feel simpatico, because I feel like we get to a new layer each time we collaborate. There’s something so great about the familiarity and the reference point that makes it such a rich experience.
What did you learn with this project about writing for young audiences?
That it’s really no different. Something I’ve always loved about teaching children is that they don’t bring expectations about what theatre is, or what a proper play should be. They just arrive and expect to be transported. That’s such a lovely thing for a playwright. That was the great revelation—that one doesn’t need to make an adjustment.
Is this play more optimistic than your others?
It did dawn on me that Sasha’s definitely the most mature character I’ve ever written. She has a certain wherewithal that some of the other characters in my other plays are lacking—she’s able to assemble this group of people and allow herself to accept what they’re offering.
Lisa D’Amour said in Theater magazine [Summer 2001] that for both of you, “The narrative exists, but it is more like a house to be explored, rather than a train that one boards to get directly from destination A to destination B.” Would you say this holds true for Brooklyn Bridge?
There’s definitely a motor to the narrative. Sasha has a clear purpose, more so than characters in others of my plays. At the same time, I hope, she’s still sidetracked by what are to me the satisfying digressions of life. In a way she has to lose track of the assignment before she can fulfill it.
You’ve said you’re “interested in giving the audience associative license.”
When I see a play, I like when I’m allowed to experience it in a way that’s different from the way someone else does. Sometimes that can be a function of the direction, sometimes the writing. I don’t enjoy watching a play as much when I feel there’s the mark of the definitive about it. That doesn’t feel authentic—life is anything but definitive. Why pretend that it is?
You’re quite detailed about the visual elements of your plays. Do you write stage directions with the intention they’ll be followed, or to be suggestive?
I’m very interested in taking a greater degree of responsibility for the visual elements in my plays. Articulating the importance of the landscape in the stage directions really gives the designers license to “run with it,” to create their interpretative magic. Designers have always managed to transform whatever rudimentary thing I’ve imagined and do something wonderful with it.
The way you write dialogue—with its idiosyncratic punctuation, line breaks and rush of words—is very authentic. Is this a style that has evolved for you over time?
It’s been there since pretty early on, and it’s sort of a natural thing. I always get self-conscious when I talk about it—the pauses, the thought breaks, the stumblings, the overlaps. I don’t think in complete sentences. Articulation is always a struggle. So it’s an attempt to articulate the inarticulateness of being human.
There’s a consistent sense of fragmentation in your plays—pieces of lives tucked into view.
I have a continuing fascination with living in proximity with other people, particularly in apartment buildings. I’m fascinated by what we glean about one another, about relative strangers—what we presume about our neighbors’ identities, which is very far from the truth. The evidence that we leave behind. The conversation you overhear as you walk by your neighbor’s door on the way to the elevator. I know when one of my neighbors tends to take her showers, and I know her not at all. I celebrate that about the urban experience.