For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed award-winning playwright and novelist Penny Jackson, who lives in New York City. Her latest play,I KNOW WHAT BOYS WANT, will be staged at the Lion Theater at Theater Row July 16 to August 2. For more information and tickets go to Telecharge.
Q: What are you currently working on? Tell us about it.
We are about to present I KNOW WHAT BOYS WANT, a cautionary message for modern-day social media users, addressing the important question of whether we can ever rid ourselves of incriminating content on the Internet. It’s about Vicky, a prep school girl, who discovers a sex video of her has been leaked online and her life turns into a nightmare. Our cast is young and committed, and is presently living in this world where a text from a cell phone can ruin a life. We had a previous workshop production in 2013, which sold out, and then the play was chosen as one of the best plays in Indie Theater by nytheater.com. The play was then published by Next Stage press and was part of the curriculum of contemporary playwrights at Stony Brook University. We felt this was a play that needed to be produced again, and Ego Actus, my producer, and Joan Kane, the director, restaged the play with a revised script to reflect even more changes in social media and bullying. An anti-bullying organization, NOBULLY.ORG, contacted me and their founder Nicholas Carlisle will be talking about how to stop bullying at our Sunday, July 26 matinee.
Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?
In 2013, Joan Kane of Ego Actus and I were discussing the terrible suicide of a high school student in Staten Island who jumped in front of subway train because of a sex video of her at a party that had gone viral on the Internet. “Please write a play where the girl is not a victim,” Joan asked me, and I did. Vicky, my main character, is a fighter, but can she really win against the vast world of the Internet?
This issue is important to me because every week there seems to be another terrible story about a teenage suicide due to bullying. Suicide is the number one cause of death for teenagers. Although I wrote this play in 2013, “revenge porn” is a new horrible term for posting videos and photographs of naked girls without their permission on the Internet, and it has become rampant not only here but also over the world. People send me news stories about teenagers killing themselves because of a viral video and although Google should be applauded for their new policies about cyberbullying, this issue still seems to grow worse. It’s important to me and should be important for my audience because teenagers are the future. If they live in a world where cyberbullying is allowed, what kind of leaders do we expect to see in our country?
Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?
Joan Kane – artistic director of Ego Actus, who truly believes in the importance of social change in theater. I’m also influenced by young women today who are trying to create theater about important issues – Cecilia Copeland of New York Madness who wrote a courageous play about rape; and Jenny Lyn Bader and her theater company Theatre 167, which is a multicultural and multilingual ensemble that produces plays about social justice. As for other playwrights, I love Tom Stoppard for always creating brilliant women. Thomasina, the math genius in ARCADIA, is one of my favorite characters.
Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?
Again, Joan Kane, who keeps pushing me further and further as an artist. I also have to thank my fellow theater women at The League of Professional Theatre Women who support me; my wonderful playwright colleagues at Manhattan Oracles; and New York Madness, which has given me the opportunity to present many of my plays in their NYC readings.
Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?
I have adapted I KNOW WHAT BOYS WANT into a screenplay. I am also revising a wild play that takes place in a theme park in California inspired by Lewis Carroll and his Wonderland titled ALL ALICES. The Mad Hatter is one of the characters, as well as these teenage girls who have to become “the perfect Alice” in the theme park. It’s Stepford Wives meets The Cheshire Cat.
Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?
When everything begins to sing – the actors, the directions, the set, the costumes, the production and finally the audience.
Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?
I would love to have I KNOW WHAT BOYS WANT produced everywhere – LA, London, Chicago, and then also in schools and universities. I truly believe that my message about no tolerance for bullying is so important. Our children today are our leaders tomorrow.
Q: What has been your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?
Being a woman. Being a woman over 40. Dealing with producers who are looking for “emerging writers” who are usually young males. Listening to artistic directors who claim they don’t care about the gender of the playwrights. Walk down Broadway or The West End and count how many female names are on the marquees.
Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?
I see as much theater as possible. I read plays that I can’t see because they’re produced abroad. I also write fiction – short stories and novels. And I read fiction. Right now I’m crazy about Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, a novel that uses time in a brilliant way.
Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?
Hearing other people’s voices in my head, be it a teacher or a critic.
Q: What is your favorite piece of art?
For theater it’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill. Did you know he sobbed so much when he wrote this autobiographical play that the ink was smeared on his typewriter? I also worship Mark Rylance and his performance in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem is now legendary. And I love poetry and for every play I write, I make sure there is a poem included somewhere. My trademark.
Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?
Whoa … so many heroes. I think I have to say I admire all the soldiers, American, British and from all over the world who fought against Hitler and his hideous regime. I can’t imagine the horrors those soldiers faced. Also the soldiers from World War I, many of who are my favorite poets like Rupert Brookes.
Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?
I really hope that this production of I KNOW WHAT BOYS WANT will change the pernicious climate of cyberbulling. I would be so grateful if someone who sees my play comes back to his or her home and realizes that the nasty photo he was about to post is dangerous and illegal.
Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?
Q: What is your guilty pleasure?
Watching men’s tennis. I love Federer and Nadal!
Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?
Don’t listen to other’s opinions and listen to your own voice.
Q: Where would you most like to live?
New York City is the greatest city in the world. But I adore London and try to visit friends there for theater trips twice a year.
Q: What is your idea of success?
Changing the perception of a social issue for my audience. I hope to do this with I KNOW WHAT BOYS WANT and have teens and parents and everyone else really understand the consequences of social media. Your IPhone can be a deadly weapon.
Q: What is your idea of happiness?
To collaborate with other artists who share my vision. Also being with my family and friends and we’re all in good health and good spirits. I also wouldn’t mind meeting Benedict Cumberbach.
Q: Final Thoughts?
I am very grateful for everyone in theater who has given me the opportunity to be able to present my work. Making theater is very very difficult. A friend said the key to a production is to know when to put out the fires and there will always be a challenge in any play production. I wish that there were more theaters in New York City that weren’t so expensive! No one should go into this field thinking they will make money. They have to love theater passionately and be willing to make sacrifices.