An Interview with Playwright Jen Silverman

By LWT Literary Manager Christine Scarfuto

The Roommate navigates territory that we typically ascribe to college freshman and twentysomethings. You meet a relative stranger and have to negotiate the intimate, absurd territory of sharing a living space, from strange food in the pantry and odd boxes in the corner to determining what your relationship will be (Good friends? Acquaintances? Silent sharers of the kitchen in the wee hours?). It’s not a narrative we think of when we imagine divorced women in their fifties suffering from empty nest syndrome. And yet, in The Roommate, Jen Silverman writes a play in which these two disparate realities come together, forcing us to look at middle aged womanhood in a whole new light.

Silverman is no stranger to New Haven—her play The Moors, an absurdist comedy inspired by the world of the Brontë sisters, was presented at Yale Rep in 2016, and her play with music All The Roads Home, about three generations of women fighting to find their way in the world, was presented at Long Wharf’s New Works Festival last year. Long Wharf is thrilled to welcome her back to New Haven, along with longtime collaborator Mike Donahue. The two premiered The Roommate at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2015. Since then, the play has had a robust life nationally, with productions at South Coast Repertory, Williamstown Theatre Festival, and Steppenwolf Theatre among others. Literary Manager Christine Scarfuto recently sat down with Silverman to ask her a few questions about The Roommate.

Q: Can you talk about where the play came from?
A: It’s rare for us to see exciting, provocative, complicated, morally ambiguous portraits of older women onstage or on screen. There’s something so sanitized about the images we receive of women who are, say, over thirty-five—and that image doesn’t actually mesh with the fifty- and sixty-year old women I know, who are hilarious and complex and fascinating. I wanted to write a play that gave two female characters the same due that older male characters receive much more often.

The origin point of the play is that my partner’s mother was, briefly, living with a roommate her age. Hearing her stories, I was fascinated by what it means for two adult women to navigate living together, and my imagination took off from there.

Q: The play does a marvelous job of playing on our assumptions about Sharon: she’s a woman in her fifties, an empty-nester, a recent divorcee whose only social obligation is her Thursday night reading group, and so we assume she is lonely, feeling a loss of purpose, and set in her ways. But the play quickly turns all of that on its head. Why are we so quick to think of women of a certain age in this light? Why did you want to subvert that image?
A: I think there are so few nuanced images of women in general in our society. Even younger women, in a different way—the Madonna-Whore dichotomy is alive and well in 2018. I think there are deeply-rooted reasons for this: there’s a deep-seated cultural fear or unease around female sexuality, female leadership. Stories about women have, for so long, taken a back seat to stories about men. A lot of artists and writers are working to change that, which I think is so important.

Q: The play is ultimately about change—about embracing the new, the next big adventure, even when it feels too late to do so. What makes this transformation so exciting for Sharon? For Robyn?
A: I think we all reach moments in our lives where we feel trapped by the accumulated decisions we’ve made, by the things we’ve become accustomed to. We may not even be aware that we’re unhappy—we’re just mired in the status quo. Sharon’s status quo is her loneliness and her feeling of being invisible; similarly, Robyn has been moving through the world as a lone wolf of sorts, although in much different circumstances. The two of them create a combustible energy together—they can imagine themselves differently, because they create a new space of imagining together. Once you can see a new life for yourself, the natural next step is to reach for it.

Q: This play is very different from a lot of your other work, which tends to be less realistic in nature. And yet, The Roommate shares the same dark, comedic, absurd tone of some of your more obviously theatrical plays. Did you set out to write a realistic play? And, how do you think The Roommate is in conversation with your other plays? How is it not?
A: I’d never written a true two-hander before, nor had I ever written a play that masqueraded as American realism (unit set, etc.). I was interested to explore and then subvert that particular set of conventions. For all that, The Roommate isn’t quite what I’d call realism—it exists in a liminal space, where it makes use of the conventions of American realism without staying true to them all the way.

A lot of my plays are about people seeking or finding transformation—people who are either succeeding or failing at pursuing a different vision of themselves or their lives. In this way The Roommate is in direct conversation with plays that are stylistically very different, like Collective Rage: A Play In 5 Betties (Woolly Mammoth, MCC Theater), or The Moors (Yale Rep, Playwrights Realm).

Q: What has your development process been like for the play, and why are you excited to revisit The Roommate at Long Wharf?
A: Mike Donahue and I developed and premiered the play at the Humana Festival in 2015, with Actors Theatre of Louisville. The play went on to have a fairly active life after that in other theatres, but I’d always wanted to re-examine the ending—but wanted to wait until there was an opportunity to reunite with Mike. Mandy Greenfield offered us that chance last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and during our two weeks of rehearsal, I rewrote the last few scenes. Williamstown is a beautiful whirlwind of a process, and I’m so excited for the version of The Roommate that emerged to have its next life at Long Wharf. Mike and I feel that there is still more to learn about the thing we’ve built, and we’re looking forward to learning it together with Long Wharf audiences.

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