My Time In Wassaic
Lavinia Roberts is a published and award-winning playwright, puppet designer, and educator. She has over 50 plays published with Applause Books, Big Dog Plays, Brooklyn Publishers, Heuer Publishing, Plays: The Drama Magazine for Young People, Pioneer Drama, Smith and Kraus, and others. Her work has been performed in all 50 states and internationally in Australia, Canada, Ireland, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.
with Joe Brommel, April 2019
I want to ask about the role of speculative and/or science fiction in your work. On your site, you say that you're interested in it “as a way to reexamine our world and imagine and explore different ways of being and perceiving.” Can you talk a little bit more about that, specifically as it relates to theater?
Well, what I appreciate a lot about science fiction is that you can explore contemporary issues or create entirely new worlds with new social constructions and values; it can be a space that isn't necessarily as sexist as our culture, or it can be a space where you're specifically exploring sexism and are able to have a conversation about it. As a medium, that's what really interests me and excites me.
As a theater-maker, it's also exciting because when you're considering the aesthetics of the world you have the opportunity to create something that's completely fantastical and different. I appreciate how ephemeral theater is and how everyone is really present in the moment, sharing in that world and that space. It’s really rooted in community and ritual and play — you're working with choreographers, and directors, and designers, and performers, and they're all bringing their different skill sets and imaginations. So if you give them this fantastical script and world they have a lot of space to play together and create something completely unique together.
I think science fiction is an enticingly wide-open genre right now, too. In the past it was white dudes writing about green aliens with laser guns, but a lot of past sci-fi tropes are being blown up right now.
Yeah, I’m someone who's very anxious about climate change and the future of our planet, but I'm also someone who's very hopeful. I believe that technology is a tool that we can use to live sustainably, and have better lives where everyone can reach their full potential, and contribute in a way that nurtures them and the community. But technology is all about how we use it. If you ever want to freak yourself out, just look up nanoweapons.
For sure. But that nuance gets lost in a lot of science fiction. Most of the time it either has a blind optimism in technology or an uninteresting pessimism in technology. With the latter I’m thinking of things like Black Mirror, where the message, more often than not, is just: “technology is bad!”
Yeah, I think sometimes it's easier to scare people than to inspire people. But, again, I'm a very hopeful person, and I think our issues with technology have more to do with corporations and oligarchies being centered around making money than on what would be best for society as a whole.
I liked what you said about the “ephemeral” nature of theater, too. Can you talk more about that? Because I think in a lot of visual art, the assumption is that if something is good it will last longer. Ephemerality isn't valued in and of itself.
Well, in a consumerist, capitalist culture we're really centered on permanence and accruing material goods, but theater is about experience. Theater makes you live in the present and be empathetic towards these characters and these worlds, have a discussion and experience as a community, and be asked questions as a community. And I appreciate how each performance is different and changes depending on the energy from those who are experiencing the work and those who are performing the work for the audience.
Can you talk about how site-specificity plays into that? Because you've created installations or staged theater pieces in interesting places like a museum ship, an abandoned hospital, a Victorian house, a national park, and a 50s hotel. And that interest in community seems adjacent to an interest in site-specificity.
What I appreciate about doing work site-specifically is that the space already has a narrative and a history. I'm really interested in using imagery and iconography that speaks to people on a subconscious level, and I think that happens when you have a really interesting space that has a narrative, and a history, and a feeling to it already. And then, depending on the location, it can become more accessible to audiences who maybe don't have access to or don’t feel welcome in traditional theater spaces that are further away or don't reflect stories that interest them.
What did you end up working on in Wassaic, then?
I was working on a play called The Centenarians, which is about a future where nanotechnology helps people live longer lives, but where only very wealthy people have access to it. This Massachusetts senator’s working to make it accessible to everyone, but there's another senator who’s in the pocket of the corporation that owns the nanotechnology, and who’s over 100 but still looks like he's in his 20s.
I say that I write plays because I have questions I don't know the answers to. So that play asks questions about how we might behave differently and the implications for the planet’s natural resources if people could live a long time, and about the huge disparity between the health care of really wealthy people and really poor people. We did a reading of it while I was in Wassaic, which was good because I got to ask questions about people’s experiences and perceptions, and which ideas would bring up more interesting conversations.
Photo by Jeff Barnett-Winsby