The full script of This is published in the February 2010 print issue. In the play, which premiered in 2009 at New York City’s Playwrights Horizons, Jane is a widowed single mom, while married couple Marrell and Tom are adjusting to parenthood, Alan is their sardonic gay friend with a remarkable gift for memorization and Jean-Pierre is a Doctor Without Borders. What begins as a seemingly harmless party game pushes the boundaries of longtime friendships and calls into question the characters’ ability to cope with their lives.
Todd London: Let’s play a game. Word association. I give you a word; you give me a sentence. Ready? Door.
Melissa James Gibson: A door is a thing that is filled with opportunities.
A hallway is a transitional space…also rife with possibilities. (Laughter.) It’s going really well so far!
An apartment is a place that is both a nest and a trap.
Friendship is salvation.
I’m interested in all aspects of architecture—physical, emotional, intellectual. That’s very much at the heart of how I think about building a play, so to speak.
“Threshold” is another word for “cusp,” for me. That’s the place I most seek to live as a writer, on the fine line between polar opposites, and as a section of dialogue, a character, a scene navigates forward, it’s always in danger of slipping.
(Sighs.) Yes, that sigh, that’s my answer.
Really important, and really hard to figure out. And so satisfying when one sees a play that is assembled in a way that feels both innovative and right.
It’s what we have to rely on and it’s completely unreliable. It’s just impossible, isn’t it? And beautiful.
“This” is that which cannot be articulated. That’s what I’ve decided.
Okay, game’s over—you did very well. (Laughter.) The play This begins with a game. Can you tell me about it?
Well, when I was just at the beginnings of this play, I was talking to Daniel Aukin, the director, and he told me about this guess-the-story game he played when he was young. As he explained it, it’s inevitable that the game becomes highly sexual and highly embarrassing in content. It’s inevitable that you wind up telling your own story—whatever buried-treasure story is in your head. It just seemed like a wonderful way to start.
In traditional Russian folklore, the house spirit resides on the threshold, and there’s a superstition that you should not pass greetings or gifts in a doorway. In This, the adultery begins in the doorway. And you said doorways are opportunities…?
I guess what fascinates me about doorways is that you are neither here nor there. It can be an opportunity to move to a new and exciting place, or it’s possible to retreat the other way and stay “safe.” But also it’s a place that lacks commitment—keeping one foot in both zones. That’s part of what I’m attracted to. As I said, they’re very cuspy places, thresholds.
When did it occur to you that being neither here nor there…or a lack of commitment…is dramatic? (Laughter.) I would imagine that everyone who ever taught you told you it isn’t.
I admire people who are able to be fully present in any given situation, and I aspire to that, but there’s certainly a part of my brain that resists it. It’s natural for me to be both inside and outside a situation. And despite the best teachers money could buy (laughter), that circumstance is very attractive to me because I understand it.
Let’s talk about structure. Italian novelist Italo Calvino writes, “Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly reshuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.” It’s easy for a novelist to talk about shuffling and reordering the “this and that” of life. Is the playwright free to shuffle and arrange?
I think so. I find it instructive, after having written a draft—I did this a lot with Daniel for this play—to try scenes in different orders, and discover how the experience of the piece changes as a result. There’s intellectual logic and there’s emotional logic, and in life and art they are constantly vying for supremacy—quite frequently, emotional logic is more interesting and accurate.
One thing that strikes me is the way your plays age with you. Your earlier plays [sic] and Suitcase take place among twentysomethings or thirtysomethings who are vaguely connected to one another. Family life becomes more important in Brooklyn Bridge and Current Nobody. Now This deals with adultery, the loss of a spouse, parenting. To what extent, as you get older, do ideas, conceptions and structures get overtaken by life in all its consequence, with all its emotional force?
I think that’s always the case. With each play there’s new terrain I’m feeling compelled to explore, and then there are formal and structural interests, and then naturally these things are informed by my experiences as a human being. Impulses deserve lots of respect, especially in the creative process, and I’m a big fan of finding out—on the page—about the things I’m grappling with in the recesses of my brain and heart.
You have said that this began as a play about adultery and became a play about grief. How did that happen?
On the one hand, I think it’s just about being in my forties and feeling mortality and trying to make friends with it. At the same time, I ended up losing four people to cancer in just eight months. Watching these people I love die too young—I don’t know what isn’t too young—it’s impossible not to reflect on that.
You build your plays through what I call the cumulative retrieval of insignificances. You start with things that are small, and they come to accumulate meaning and emotional content for your audience or reader. Maybe this goes back to free association: What is “insignificant”?
It feels like “everything and nothing” is the answer to that. A sort of “sidelight” view of life feels most native to me. I’m not interested in looking at things head-on. Maybe that’s just out of fear, but it seems that insignificant things accrue meaning in a different way. That’s how I make sense of my own life, I suppose. It’s not usually about enormous revelations; it’s a very slow accumulation of information that eventually leaves an impression. And I guess the “big answer,” at least in my writing, feels false. I know that can be frustrating; audiences sometimes crave clear answers. But I don’t have them. I’m more interested in the struggle to make sense, and peace.
It seems like you’re also talking about scale—that small comes to be very large, and large is approximated or approached through the accretion of the small. One of the characters in This, a “Doctor Without Borders,” deals with huge, sweeping catastrophes. The other characters suffer through intimate, quotidian events.
I guess I like wildly different-sized things next to each other, in the same way that I’m interested in hilarity and disaster as bedfellows. It does seem like they’re inextricably linked. On the one hand, the adultery is a huge event, and on the other hand it’s irrelevant. And of course different people often regard the same event as life-changing or insignificant.
One last word association. I realize, as you’re talking, that the biggest word of the play, spoken at a crucial moment by that Doctor Without Borders, is “dinky.”
(Laughter.) Ah, it’s such a beautiful word, “dinky.” I find it so apt, because it’s ridiculous. You almost feel ashamed saying that word. It’s almost onomatopoeic, somehow, in the way it so captures disdain by its very sound.
And in the play, that disdain is for…
For what the other four characters are choosing to spend their energy on. Which is not my opinion, but I think it’s a worthy opinion to have in the room. I think the truth is somewhere in between. It’s unacceptable to live in a bubble in terms of the outside world, but it’s equally wrongheaded to avoid what it is to be human—which means forming intense, painful, rich, joyous, adjective-filled personal relationships.
Todd London is the artistic director of New Dramatists in NYC.
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