Ten Questions – Eleanor Burgess
1. What was your most memorable theatrical experience as a child?
My sister and I and our friends used to spend almost every summer afternoon playing dress-up. It was sort of like episodic improvisational fan fiction – what if Jo March and Princess Leia went on an adventure together? What if Harriet Tubman and Joan of Arc teamed up to fight Nazis? It was like going to theatre camp only we made the rules and made up all our own stories. It might not have involved rigorous dramaturgy, but I think it got me addicted to inhabiting characters and imagining all their possible interactions.
2. Is there a production you wish you’d seen?
The original production of Medea, circa 450 BCE? I wouldn’t understand a word, but I’d love to watch the audience. For similar reasons, I’d say the original performance of Hamlet, Showboat, Shuffle Along, or A Raisin in the Sun. It’s probably becoming clear that I’m as much of a history nerd as a theatre nerd, and I am just sneakily using this question to talk about time travel. For a more normal answer, I’d say the Second Stage production of Water By the Spoonful, it’s one of my favorite plays and I’ve never seen it live.
3. Who was the person who made the biggest impact on your career?
I’ve been blessed to spend my career so far surrounded by brilliant and generous collaborators, mentors, and peers. I’d never be able to list them all. But really I think the most honest answer is my husband. He’s the person who encourages my weirdest ideas and sees me through my grimmest moments. But even more importantly, his interests, his areas of expertise, and his worldview are wildly different from mine. I think that’s a wonderful thing for an artist, to be constantly reminded that there are entirely different ways of looking at the world.
4. Who are your heroes (writing/composing etc. or otherwise?)
Anyone who seeks diligently to add good things to the world is a hero to me, whether those good things are knowledge, kindness, art, reform… Anyone who’s using their talents to offer physical, emotional, or intellectual sustenance to their fellow human beings. I think it would be sad to only be inspired by great artists or thinkers or even activists when “ordinary” people offer a deeper and more difficult vision of everyday heroism.
5. If you could be anyone (past, present or fictional) who would you choose to be and why?
I want to know the parameters here – am I them for a day, and then I go back to being myself? Or do I live their whole life? Because I would love to spend a day being Jesus or Beethoven or George Patton or Nelson Mandela or Elon Musk. I want to know what it’s like in their head. What that level of courage or compassion or creativity feels like. But in terms of actually becoming someone else, I don’t know. I do not in the end want to be anyone besides myself. I want traits and experiences and knowledge other people have. But I want to be myself and live my own life, including (most of) my own flaws, mistakes and limitations.
6. If you could have a love affair with anyone (past, present or fictional), who would you choose?
I think Septimus Hodge? I know that’s super problematic since he has a dalliance with a teenager but honestly that’s one sexy fictional character. So many quips. So good at both math and literary criticism.
7. When you sit down to work, what must you have with you in the room?
A book, usually nonfiction, especially history books. I think the best way to avoid obsessing about “is this good enough?” is to focus, not on yourself and your writing, but on the world. How does the world work? What extraordinary and insane things have people been through? What urgently needs to be said in the world right now? If I sit down to read for long enough I always end up with something to write.
8. When you’re in despair with a piece of work, how do you maneuver out of that?
I try to get in a room with collaborators I trust, and hear what they’re excited about in the work, and what questions they have. They can often remind me of what’s alive about a piece, or point me towards a more specific problem to address than just “gaaaaahhhhhhhh this sucks.” But I also try to give myself a break – change media, go to a museum or a dance performance, go for a run, play songs badly on a guitar. Read. Strangely enough, yelling “WORK!” at your brain is not always the best way to get it working.
9. If you hadn’t become a dramatist, what profession would you have chosen?
I used to want to be a college chaplain, and I think that would probably still be my choice, if I could ever settle on a theology I’m comfortable with. I want to be part of the big collaborative human effort to figure out how human beings work and how we ought to try to live with each other, and chaplaincy feels like another, though very different, avenue for that sort of pursuit.
10. Which of all your works is your favorite, and why?
Oh man. I’m very gratified to see how audiences are responding to The Niceties. It feels like the play enables people to hear and process and talk about very important ideas, and I’m thrilled to think it’s offering audiences some combination of entertainment and moral and intellectual challenge. That’s amazing. But my favorite work will always be the next one, the one that’s not yet mangled by the realistic limits of my abilities and that’s still a perfect platonic play, sitting in my head, “with no mistakes in it yet,” to quote Lucy Maud Montgomery.
ELEANOR BURGESS’ play The Niceties will have its world premiere this fall with Huntington Theatre Company, Manhattan Theatre Club, and McCarter Theatre Center. Her plays have also been produced at the Alliance, CATF, Centenary, and Portland Stage, and developed with New York Theatre Workshop, New Group, Ensemble Studio Theatre and I73. She studied history at Yale and dramatic writing at Tisch. www.eleanorburgess.com
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