The Birth of Paper: Interview with Playwright Molly Rice

0
Molly Rice
Playwright Molly Rice



“The Birth of Paper” is a new play by RealTime Interventions that was created in response to Beirut’s humanitarian crisis (it is also a love letter to the postal service). The show will run virtually between June 24 – 29, 2021.

“The Birth of Paper” begins with a transcontinental letter exchange among strangers and ends with a series of live, virtual shows in which goods and goodwill are exchanged among potential friends. Before the show’s run is up, Beirutis will receive American-made gifts and audiences will learn about hidden ties between Pittsburgh and Beirut.

Playwright Molly Rice recently discussed this play and more via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your talent for writing and what was it about plays that most interested you?

Molly Rice (MR): There is something singular and thrilling about the array of tools that a theater artist has available in order to tell stories: visual, verbal, auditory, real time, real space. Something about the way these elements can combine to create unforgettable shared experiences just fits with my personal strengths as an artist and my aspirations as a storyteller. No other medium combines all these elements at once. I started out as a musician, actually— first as a singer/songwriter in my teens. I actually had a song on the top 100 charts in Alaska when I
was 19! I loved the lyricism that’s welcomed in songwriting, the way lyrics and music interact, and of course the live performance aspect. Then in my early 20’s, like you do, I started playing in louder, more theatrical bands, and found myself slipping in monologs to go between the songs of our set lists (sometimes to my band members’ dismay). A scrappy little theater company in Texas that loved doing rock musicals, Salvage Vanguard Theater, saw me perform and asked me to work with them, which led to my first play, a ‘comic book with music’ called “The Bad Cowboy,” in which the titular character breathed fire! Naturally, that hooked me. I moved into writing plays, with music and without.

MM:
How did you initially get interested in theater and how did you break into the industry?

MR: Like a lot of theater writers, I started out as an actor. I did mostly musical theater as a young person because that’s what was offered at after-school classes, but I was always more interested in the “serious” stuff. I was an early reader of Drama with a capital D—Tennessee Williams, O’Neill— with a ton of confessional poetry. Very emo. Then I got into the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, Texas, my hometown, and really got to dive into acting— which also meant I got to really swim in the texts of amazing writers. The school didn’t have a playwriting track back then, but if we had, I’m sure that’s where I would’ve ended up.
In my late teens and early 20’s I was simultaneously very involved with the grunge/ punk scene and the “regional alternative theater” scene— it was such a fun time to be experimenting in the arts. I found that I loved doing new plays by edgy writers— Ruth Margraff, Lisa D’Amour, Kirk Lynn. Again, I loved swimming in their language, being inside the compelling, evocative worlds they created. I performed more to immerse myself in their work than to scratch an acting itch.
And then I got terrible stage fright, one night while I was onstage. I literally realized, in the middle of a show: “OMG, all these people are looking at me!!” I honestly believe it was the true start of my writing career— it nudged me toward writing instead of performing, which was where I fit in best in the end. I started writing my own full-lengths, and eventually I said, “You know, I think I’ll apply for grad school. See what happens.” I got into Brown, and studied under
Paula Vogel, which was just a dream. That was where I really became a writer.

MM: Why did you get the idea for “The Birth of Paper” and how tough was it to design the format?

MR: I first wrote the Birth of Paper in 2003, for a commission from a small but mighty New York theater, The Drilling Company. They would commission writers to write short plays on a theme, and would produce evenings of these works. So, they asked me to write about Paper. I was still living in Texas at the time and had only been to NYC once as a teen, on a family vacation. What I found so interesting is that I could use distance as inspiration. I could use the fact that I didn’t know anyone involved in the production, that we were thousands of miles apart, and that I’d never met the director or the performer as a kind of entryway to exploring the weird magic of performance, the line it dances between the real and the imagined.
At the end of the show, the audience members were given cards with my P.O. Box in Texas and a quote by poet Agha Shahid Ali: “The world is full of paper. Write to me.” And they did! People wrote to me for two years after the show was performed, first in Texas, and then in Rhode
Island when I moved. It was pretty astounding, and brought home to me how much people want to connect. The show was nominated for an Innovative Theater Award in NYC, and when I restaged it in Texas, it won Best of the Week and Best of the Fest in Austin’s fringe festival Frontera Fest. It was hitting a nerve. So, you can imagine, when COVID hit, my thoughts went directly to this play that was created to be performed at a distance.
The adaptation has been challenging. As we all know, screens are hard to “activate” like live theater. And when my company RealTime was deciding where to have the show performed from, we decided on Beirut, Lebanon, which is almost 6000 miles away from Pittsburgh. (If you’re going to do distance theater, do distance theater, right?) There have been challenges inherent in that choice: the time difference is seven hours, and Beirut is experiencing massive upheaval economically, socially and politically which has gotten worse week by week. This has caused a lot of static in terms of production as well as our personal concern for our collaborators.
On the other hand, we chose Beirut because the need to connect is so deep there right now. So, the project has taken on several new elements to meet that need, from a really beautiful, generous “pen pal” exchange between Pittsburghers and Beirutis to a gift-making and sending element that attempts to respond to the difficult conditions there. Local Pittsburgh makers have created items that get sent to audiences in Beirut, which they’ll open during the show, and that’s amazing. This show is the epitome of “hyperlocal-meets-universal”. Along the theme of connection between the two cities, the play now even includes research I’ve done about Pittsburgh & Beirut history and horticulture, as well as moments describing the making of the piece itself…it dances that line between distance and intimacy, between the real and the imagined, like the original version did, but in a very different manner.

MM: What’s your favorite part of the play and why?

MR: I can’t tell you, no spoilers! I think what I love about the show IS that sense of surprise. It’s live in your living room, yet all the way across the world. Some shows in the US occur at 5PM, which is midnight in Beirut, and there’s a sense of disorientation there, of not knowing where you are or when you are or what will happen next. There are some moments that I think bring us into the room together, as it were, in a really magical way.

MM: Was it a challenge to plan for live theater during a lingering pandemic?

MR: Our show is the final play of Post Theatrical, a five-month international festival of postal plays my company RealTime Interventions conceived and coordinated. Things are very different for audiences in June than they were in February; It’s hard to know if people will show up for a virtual show as things open up. I hope they do; this is a play that would have to be virtual regardless of the state of live theater, due to the distance factor. But I think it’s been more difficult with all my virtual projects this past year to know what people are craving from month to month in a quickly changing cultural environment, and to respond to those cravings with artistic work.

MM: What is some of the best feedback you’ve gotten about this piece thus far?

MR: We haven’t gotten any direct response yet because the show hasn’t opened, but here’s something lovely: We sent out a description of the project with a call for help from volunteers to package the “gift packages” we’re sending to Beirut audiences, and we received such an outpouring of support for the project that we got it done in four days. At this point we’ve got over 40 people involved in some aspect of Birth of Paper in both cities, from letter writers to makers to volunteers, and although that’s not quite the same as feedback on the show, it’s certainly an incredible show of support for this aspirational piece.

MM: What other projects are you working on right now and what themes might you like to explore in future works?

MR: I’m continuing work on a true crime concert musical & podcast, ANGELMAKERS: Songs for Female Serial Killers, with a mind-blowing team that includes director Kate Bergstrom, dramaturg Zharia O’Neill, podcaster Kahmeela Adams and producer Rusty Thelin (who’s also
directing The Birth of Paper). As is common in my company RealTime’s work, this piece is an interrogation of empathy— the limits of empathy, the dangers of empathy, the balance between empathy and justice, the question of how far empathy can and should reach. But it’s also a return to my musical roots, and writing songs again has been like the feeling of light on my face.

MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

MR: I am so grateful to all the artists who kept on creating during the pandemic— particularly the other theater artists involved in Post Theatrical. Your work, and working with you in solidarity, has been a lifeline in a dark time, for myself and for the audiences you reached. My goal is to keep making things. Plays, friends, songs, connections. To just keep making until the end.

*****

Tickets go on sale June 1 at posttheatrical.org/the-birth-of-paper. All patrons who buy tickets by Friday, June 11will receive a special, handmade item in the mail, to be opened as part of the show.