Melissa James Gibson: On Spaces and Bodies, and the Movement In Between

by Julie Haverkate

in Interviews,Playwrights,TCG Books

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Back in July, TCG published Melissa James Gibson’s This and Other Plays. The debut collection by the Obie Award-winning playwright includes This, an un-romantic comedy about a group of friends; Suitcase, an anxious verbal quartet about stalled dissertations and improbable romantics; [sic], in which three, young urban-failures navigate the slippery allegiances of their triangular friendship and Brooklyn Bridge, about a latchkey kid who embarks on a journey through both the architecture of her building and the nature of kindness.

The playwright was kind enough to share a few thoughts on her first collection of plays.

Julie Haverkate: Your plays often take place in transitional spaces: doorways, stairwells, hallways, fire escapes. What is it about these spaces that intrigue?

Melissa James Gibson: I’ve always been drawn to cuspy locales, places that are essentially thresholds between public and private. They’re dynamic, as they’re often sites of negotiation, where people cut to the conversational chase as they’re in transit. In each of the collected plays, a lot of requests, explicit or not, are made and responded to in transitional spaces: feed me, love me, befriend me, help me, lend me money, ease my pain, etc. They’re sort of like conduit architecture, these locations, and, in terms of human interaction, they brim with every sort of possibility.

Julie Haverkate: Regarding that “conduit architecture”: Do you have any background in design, and if so, how does that inform your writing and your relationships with production designers?

Melissa James Gibson: I don’t have any formal background in design, but when I was in grad school at Yale as a playwright I had the privilege of sitting in on Ming Cho Lee’s first-year design class. It was an all-day Saturday class taken by design students in each discipline — sets, lighting, costume, sound — as well as first-year directors. Ming’s generous, humane and exacting approach really opened up my mind about the role of design in realizing a play on the stage. I became interested in more fully articulating the physical landscape of my plays on the page. As playwrights we’re often taught to focus exclusively on the dialogue, but the spaces and how the bodies move within the spaces inevitably inform the words and vice versa. I’ve found that the more I articulate my vision about the physical world of the play, the more designers are given license to be bold and inventive in meeting the needs of the script.  And I love to be involved in the design process for inaugural productions. Great designers are inevitably great dramaturgs, and I learn so much about my plays by thinking them through with designers.

PLAY. Melissa GibsonMelissa James Gibson’s plays include Current Nobody, Given Fish and What Rhymes with America.  She has received many honors include a Kesselring Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship, Whiting Writers’ Award and a Steinberg Playwright Award. She wrote the screenplay for Almost Christmas, which premiered at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, and is a writer for the FX series The Americans.

HaverkateJulie Haverkate is the marketing associate at Theatre Communications Group. Previously, she has worked at Meadow Brook Theatre (Rochester, MI), as well as in the literary offices of Electric Pear Productions and the Summer Play Festival in NYC. Julie has lectured and presented at conferences internationally, and her book, PARADE Diverges, was published by VDM. In addition to dramaturging every now and again, she also reviews for Show Business and Broadway World and writes the blog Critical Confabulations. She is a proud alumna of Florida State University (M.A. Theatre Studies). Twitter: @Critical Confab.