The complete text of Johnna Adams' play Gidion's Knot is published in the December 2012 issue.
My first and most essential question is this: How did you come to write this extraordinary play?
Well, I wrote it in class (laughter)—at Hunter, which you’ll remember, of course. You had to sit through all the scenes I brought in.
It was a longer process than that, though. I carried the idea around for several years and couldn’t find the right play for it. I tried a three-man version of the same idea—a son and a father, and the principal and the teacher—and all I was able to write was this terrible, extensive backstory to the scene I actually wanted to write, which was the parent-teacher conference. Eventually I became fascinated with how much stronger the story would be if it were about women—how that would change the dynamics. And what great roles these would be for actresses! I always write for actors.
Have you, or anyone you know, ever had an experience like this as a student, parent or teacher?
As a student, I was constantly writing stuff that—had I been caught—would have triggered something similar to events in the play, I’m sure. That’s part of the reason this was a fascinating idea to me. As a younger playwright, I wrote The Sacred Geometry of S&M Porn. My dad came to see it in California, and it was just what it sounds like: dirty, lots of nudity, lots of crazy things happening. There’s a group marriage scene involving members of the audience. My dad went through this, got flirted with by the actors, had his beard pulled on, had this whole crazy experience, and I said, “What’d you think, Dad?” and he said, “It was very interesting, honey.” But every time I’ve talked to him since, the play’s gotten better—now he thinks it was amazing, wonderful, he loved it. The fact is, we had lots of walkouts from The Sacred Geometry of S&M Porn—which is a legitimate reaction. But it’s the type of relationship that I have with my dad, I think, that really inspired Gidion’s Knot—the idea that if the world were to condemn me for some piece of writing (which the world does often to writers), he would stand against the crowd and shout them down.
Can you talk a bit about your process of writing it? You’d bring in these heart-stopping, beautifully crafted scenes week after week that would leave us speechless, and there was hardly any rewriting, so I had this feeling that it was being dictated to you by the gods.
It just emerged, for the most part. Now the child’s story, you may recall, was completely different when we read it in class. I could not write the child’s story in the first go-through at all—that proved very difficult. My process tends to be improvising at the keyboard more than really laboring through scene-by-scene. I got my undergraduate degree as an actor. I don’t act much anymore—but the way I write is to put myself in both characters’ roles and do an improvisation to write through the scene. I tend to write very fast, and I’m lazy, so I don’t like rewriting. I’ve trained my subconscious to get it right the first time, or else the pages are going to be thrown away. I can’t write every day for that reason—I kind of have to wait for the fairies to come, and abduct me, and take me to the fairy ring, which can be very frustrating because you don’t know when.
You talk about the difficulty in nailing the horrifying but beautifully written story that got Gidion suspended, which is clearly the heart of the play. Can you describe the balancing act that writing it entailed? You had to keep it in the voice of an 11-year-old boy, but it also had to reflect the size and horror of the medieval battle poems he grew up with at his mother’s knee.
You have to give yourself permission to write in a way that would horrify the people you love, in some ways. I had to justify the mother saying, “That’s magnificent”—there had to be a reason she would be able to stand up for it—so it couldn’t be just offensive. It had to be something bigger. I don’t like to see audiences get so offended that they can’t engage with a play. In almost every production, I have to stop myself from taking out the one or two sentences that cross way over the line for the audience, because that’s the point—the boy didn’t know those boundaries existed, and crashed into them.
Talk about your uncanny approach to dialogue in this play—when the characters reach an impasse, rather than toss in that good old stage direction “Silence,” you give them line after line of agonizing ellipses, so that sometimes there are only a handful of words on a page. Why all the blank space?
Well, to me, that’s tied in with the transformation from male characters to female ones. Women will take to these kinds of social confrontations that may involve life-and-death-level emotions, but you’re within the constraint of a parent-teacher conference, thus constrained by certain social norms of politeness. The ellipses, I think, are trying to make that part of the scene. They kind of show the structure of social conversation—even if I think you’ve killed my child, if we’re sitting here having a polite conversation as two adult, well-socialized women, we’re not going to leap across the table—at least not immediately—and strangle one another. So the awkwardness of fitting those huge emotions into this encounter results in these hard-to-avoid silences that are structuring the whole conversation.
Are these silences also a nod to the actors?
That’s part of it. I will say, having had it done at Contemporary American Theater Festival in West Virginia, working on these pauses with Ed Herendeen and the actresses there, I realized that, for me, it’s musical underscoring, in some ways. It’s a rhythmic pacing. You can hear musically when those pauses go on too long, or when they’re too short. The whole play has an aria feel, in some ways. It also is—I hope—freeing for the actors to own and endow the moments as they want to. Really, as I said, the piece was written for actresses more than audiences, in some ways.
This may be an unfair question, but do you think there’s a villain in the play? If so, who is it? Or is it the system?
Um…the system. That’s good—you supplied a good villain! Thank you. That’s a nice answer.
My idea was that both the play’s characters are trying their best to do the right thing in a situation where there really isn’t a right thing that can be done. That both the teacher and the mother would go into this encounter to face the person they least wanted to be in the same room with in the world—who was, at the same time, the person they most needed to be in the room with. I specifically tried to undercut the sympathy the mother might have garnered had she been really virtuous, by making her rather arrogant, a strong and abrasive personality, in some ways, and opinionated to the point of inflexibility. Although the teacher also has her strong opinions.
Early on, regarding the teacher, you have the stage direction “Something breaks inside of her.” We feel that the teacher is in some kind of extreme pain.
Yeah, I hope that moment helps any actress doing the role, that it will give her something underneath, because being the teacher in the room with the grieving mother, you don’t have permission to indulge in your own long, revealing monologues about yourself or your life. The teacher has to live in those ellipses, you know, and that’s a real challenge, I think, for the actress.
What do you want the audience to come away with?
I want the audience to have had an experience in the theatre that’s memorable. This can be a very difficult play to sit through. It’s not a feel-good play. When I listen to it, I usually put my head in my hands and close my eyes while it’s going on, and I’m not the only one! In West Virginia, at least three-quarters of the audience did the same thing. But there’s a tremendous release, I think, at some point after that—the play gives you permission to think and talk about things that we don’t think and talk about normally that are very important.
Tina Howe also writes plays, and she is the playwright-in-residence for the Rita and Burton Goldberg MFA in playwriting at Hunter College.
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