Interview with playwright Gina Gionfriddo

Wilma audiences swooned over Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw in the 2009/10 Season. The 2014/15 season opens with Rapture, Blister, Burn, Gionfriddo’s newest play (and, like Becky Shaw, a Pulitzer finalist).  The play follows Catherine, a celebrity academic, who returns to her hometown after her mother’s heart attack, and reunites with her best friends from graduate school, who are now married. Gina Gionfriddo talks with Wilma Dramaturg Walter Bilderback about the play.

Walter Bilderback You've said that Rapture, Blister, Burn isn't the play you set out to write. Could you tell our audience a little about that?

Gina Gionfriddo I actually set out to write a play about the impact of Internet pornography on the American psyche.  I had a pre-Internet childhood.  When we became curious about sex, we had to work so hard for every little scrap of information.  Now it’s just, as one of my characters says, point-and-click to see full penetration online.  So I went chasing after some wisdom about how this colossal change in access to porn has impacted us.  I read a lot of great books like The Porning of America, but I wasn’t able, finally, to translate a sociological inquiry into a living, breathing drama.  But when you read about the history of porn, you inevitably read about feminism because pornography as an issue really split the movement in the eighties.  Now, I had attended a women’s college, but never taken a Women’s Studies course.  (I was a bit like Avery, the young girl in my play, and felt it was all antiquated and not relevant to me.)  So I found myself reading these feminist texts for the first time at forty.  That led me to start thinking about different generations of women in conversation about their lives.

WB The play has been compared to Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles, written a generation earlier, but you've said it wasn't on your mind when you were writing.

GG No, it wasn’t.  But now when I look at them side-by-side I see that they share the same preoccupations, chiefly... Does career achievement make a woman less desirable to men?  (A year or so after I wrote this play, Phyllis Schlafly weighed in with her answer--an unequivocal yes.) 

WB Rapture, Blister, Burn has a lot of topicality, with recent writing by Anne Marie Slaughter (“Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”), Hanna Rosin (The End of Men), Susan Patton (“the Princeton mom” Pictured below), and the "War on Women." Were you expecting that?

GG No, I wasn’t.  I think the publication of [Sheryl Sandberg’s] Lean In fired up the discussion about how viable it is for a woman to have a thriving career and a thriving family at the same time.  This isn’t a new conversation, of course, but I’m always happy to engage it.  When I went to a women’s college twenty-five years ago, that conversation felt sort of taboo.   It felt dangerous to imply in any way that a woman’s opportunities might be curtailed by her gender.  But I think the “you can have it all” rallying cry carries its own kind of tyranny.  My daughter is almost three.  I have scaled back my work life for her early years, and some of that is a choice and some of it feels like a necessity just because I’m tired!   The conversation really ought to be about how some other countries better accommodate working families.

WB One of the things I like best about the play is Catherine's literary seminar, where we see three generations of women discussing a wide range of topics relating to feminism. At what point did that become a focus for you? In an interview with Playwrights Horizons Artistic Director Tim Sanford, he says you did a lot of re-writing on the first of those scenes through rehearsal.

GG There came a point (a few years ago) when I found myself sounding like my mother when I spoke to women ten and twenty years my junior.  And I was horrified, but also intrigued.  Then,  when I was doing research on Internet pornography, I was surprised to find that Naomi Wolf and Phyllis Schlafly make some of the same points and recommendations.  Both are saying that –maybe -- unlimited sexual freedom and access keeps women alone.  Wolf is more egalitarian on the topic; she thinks porn is harming men, too.   The piece that fired up the play was how curious it is to find such politically different women finding common ground.

WB I'm curious why Catherine's seminar is called "The Fall of American Civilization."

GG I sometimes feel like we are so addicted to our devices we’re sort of fiddling while Rome burns, you know?  And I’m as guilty as anyone.  I’ve clicked on the Kardashian link instead of real news.

WB In your interview with Tim Sanford, he mentions the "specter of violence" that hovers over your previous plays, including Becky Shaw. In Rapture, Blister, Burn, violence seems to have been displaced to discussions within the seminar. Do you think this indicates a new stage in your playwriting?

GG No. There’s violence aplenty hovering off stage in my new play.  This was definitely my attempt to build a play from ideas rather than action.  It was a tough road to making it work, though, so I’ve gone back to good old fashioned conflict for now.

WB You've said "Rapture, Blister, Burn feels like a play about years 40-45." Could you explain why?

GG I think that Becky Shaw was a play about 35 and this is a play about 40-45.  The difference is a question of how much time do you have to change your life.  Of course, it’s never too late to make a change, but it gets harder.  There’s a sense, at 40, of leap now or let it go.

WB You studied playwriting at Brown with Paula Vogel, with whom we've just worked on Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq. Could you talk a little about her impact on your writing?

GG  I went to Brown because of Paula.  I was so astonished by The Baltimore Waltz and I felt I had the same impulse to address darkness and sadness with comedy.  Her workshop made it very safe to do that because her sense of humor is kind of dark and off-center like mine!  I also feel like Paula gave me tools to have a long career in theatre.  The danger in writing programs is that they figure out what you’re good at and push you to just do more of that.  Paula told us that the time will come when you have to smash the mold of what you’re good at or else stagnate creatively.   I remember she asked me what plays I hate because “the plays you hate teach you more than the ones you love.” ###


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