In July 2008, my best friend, an actress in New York City, suggested we see Brooke Berman’s A Perfect Couple at DR2 Theatre in Union Square. A Perfect Couple is a story about four people enjoying one summer weekend in the countryside. The characters include three middle-aged friends (Amy, Isaac, and Emma), visiting from the New York City and sharing one cottage, and a 23-year-old neighbor (Josh).
After falling in love with the play, I did some research (stalking) and found Berman’s e-mail address. I e-mailed her with questions about her creative process and about friendships/relationships in general. She seemed like a wise, intelligent woman, and I wanted desperately to pick her brain.
Though Berman was busy traveling at the time, she was gracious enough to answer my questions by e-mail. This interview was first published on July 17, 2008, on the original Too Shy to Stop website (no longer available online). I have edited it for clarity and ease of reading. Berman’s insight has influenced my life profoundly; I reread this interview frequently, and I think about her wisdom almost every day.
Laryssa Wirstiuk: Someone I met at a bar once asked me what kind of stories I write. Before I could think of a proper response, he said, “I hope you don’t write relationship stories.” (I do). How would you have responded? Do you find yourself writing “relationship stories”?
Brooke Berman: Yeah, this is a tough one and also, an inherently misogynist question. Men are never accused of writing “relationship stories” even when, I mean, really, most of Western literature are “relationship stories” in one way or another. Isn’t Anna Karenina a relationship story? Tender is the Night?
My questions are: What determines the intellectual substance of a story? Is it only the relationship, or is there another dialogue occurring? Are we talking about desire? Sex? Loss? Courage? History? What questions are being raised? Is there an intellectual backbone? A living argument, with more than one side, fully formed?
I’m interested in relationships (domestic arrangements, how we conduct our heart-selves) but also, for me at least, I’m not writing “just” relationship plays.
For instance, A Perfect Couple isn’t about who gets the guy. Which is why we end up with Amy and Emma alone on stage, re-living their past and then, questioning their future, learning to let go, step away from each other and “not know”. We witness a character move from lines like “I like to know what’s what” to “lets just not know”. That sounds like a spiritual parable to me.
A “relationship story” would focus, instead, on who wins Isaac’s love. A Perfect Couple is also about information: subjective, objective, and intuitive. And it raises questions about gender and societal expectation. For my money, it’s a play about female friendship. And anger and desire and memory.
Laryssa Wirstiuk: Where do you find your stories? Can you briefly describe your creative process?
Brooke Berman: My creative process is holographic and collage-based. I start collecting impulses – visual impulses, textual impulses, bits of arguments, ideas, thoughts, pieces of dialogue – and then, without imposing any order or logic, I let the disparate pieces talk to each other, almost as if they were guests at a really good party.
I keep really good notebooks and journals, often making literal, visual collages in these books. I collect the pieces, then move them around until the story comes.
I also, and I’ve been told this is unusual, involve actors as early as possible so that I can start to imagine these pieces as three-dimensional and sensual – really HEAR them – rather than “think” them.
This particular play, A Perfect Couple, was a commission from Arielle Tepper Productions. Arielle (and Bill Haber) asked me to write a play about contemporary marriage, which is why Amy and Isaac are about to be married. At the time, I confessed to Arielle, I was obsessed with the way single women in their 30s are pathologized by culture, told there’s a problem, something to fix. Or, they are treated as outsiders, dissidents (especially if they’re sexually active, which they often/usually are!). So, we agreed that would be a part of this play.
I was also obsessed with the way in which ideas around domesticity and partnership separate women from one another, altering friendships. Also, I wanted to know why people stay in relationships that clearly aren’t working.
And then, a remarkable thing happened. I was in a peer-led writing workshop, and in the middle of an exercise (led by the amazing Karen Hartman, a NYC-based playwright who was teaching, at the time, at Yale) in which we led characters from “safe” foods/liquids/relationships/places to “unsafe” foods/liquids/relationships/places (or the reverse, unsafe to safe).
The entire story for this play “dropped” in. Literally dropped in. As if through channeling. I saw the entire plot (which is unusual with me, more often things come in a piece at a time; this one came in fully formed).
So, I wrote that story and took it to London, where I workshopped the first draft at the National Theatre Studio in London, which means I spent a week working out the logic of the play and hearing pieces out loud, cutting and rewriting while working with a group of actors and a fabulous director (Orla O’Loughlin, who currently runs Pentabus Theatre in Ludlow, UK).
LW: How do you manage to write such believable dialogue?
BB: Playwrights have to train their ears. Listen to real speech! Real speech is amazing. And it’s not naturalistic. Forcing dialogue to be “natural” kills it. Also, working with actors over a long period of time helps tremendously.
So I don’t try to write believable dialogue. I try to find the character and then, let him or her speak. And then, I write down what she or he says. If you find the soul of your character and are faithful to it without imposing any of your own writerly ideas, the dialogue will sing.
LW: Have you found your own answers to the questions your characters raise (i.e. Are romantic relationships worth the effort? Could a person find love like a pair of shoes? Does the thing you want really want you back?)?
BB: The thing you want really does want you back! And sometimes, this involves waiting. And sometimes, waiting includes “sitting through” uncomfortable periods where you fear that your desires will not be met. But to compromise those desires, ie, by “shoe-shopping” is to compromise love itself.
I recommend focusing on your self – your work, your calling, your soul – and trusting that your partner (who is doing the same) will show up at the right moment. And that you will be bold and honest enough to recognize each other and take the risk of loving. I personally don’t believe in making dating a project or the sole focus of one’s life, regardless of gender.
We’re here to create and to experience creation in the world and there are many, many ways to have relationships and know love. For me, during the years I was single, I felt that I had to recognize that I was surrounded by love and by connection all the time – and let go of a lot of fear – before I could be partnered.
LW: Should a young person seek fulfillment in relationships or elsewhere? If so, where?
BB: Seek fulfillment through self-discovery. Go have brilliant experiences, relationships and otherwise. Develop fully. Learn to communicate responsibly. Have a blast in the world!
Travel, see art, listen to great music, eat great food, enjoy the world around you and inside of you, including relationships and love affairs. And then, love can find you. Don’t try to force people who aren’t ready to be anywhere other than where they are. Learn from them. And wait until they grow up.