Jill Campbell began her career at The Public Theater during Joseph Papp’s reign. She spent three formative years in the UK, where her first play Forgive Me Father was produced at the London Fringe and at the Dublin Fringe Festival.
Her latest play, Chemistry of Love plays at La MaMa (74A East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue & the Bowery) in New York City's East Village from May 2-19. Chemistry of Love strips bare the process of making art, revealing the toll it takes on one’s self and peers. Click here for tickets and follow the show on Facebook, Twitter, and http://chemistryoflove.net!
1. Who or what inspired you to become a playwright? I’ve been involved in theater in some way my entire life. I initially wanted to become an actress. I studied acting when I was a kid at places like Usdan where Mark Blum and Austin Pendleton taught or guest lectured. In high school, there was this program that BOCES sponsored on Long Island. It was equivalent to the High School of Performing Arts in NYC. It was run by theatre gypsy Bert Michaels. Bert had appeared in the original West Side Story and Saturday Night Fever films. He was the real deal. He treated us like professionals and we worshipped him. He never candy coated the profession and he worked us hard. I went to my high school in the morning and in the afternoons I would study at BOCES. It instilled so much discipline within me. It taught me what it meant to work hard. I also took an acting class with Geraldine Page when I was 17. I had to audition for her and she accepted me. This rocked my world. I received my BFA, moved to NYC to pursue an acting career, had several bad experiences (the casting couch did exist) and one day decided I didn’t want to act, but I wanted to produce. I got a job for Straw-hat Productions and later at the Public Theatre. I had also always written from a young age. I have journals full of short stories and plays; I loved to write, but I was not confident enough to share my work. My grammar was atrocious. I had to teach myself good grammatical tools (I’m still learning). I took the odd writing class, but it wasn’t until I moved to the suburbs of New Jersey, that I wrote my first play, Supurbia. I was very depressed and missed NYC terribly. I couldn’t understand how I had ended up as a New Jersey housewife harboring contradictory dreams. I signed up for a playwriting class at Gotham’s Writers Workshop and that was it. I was hooked and felt that I finally found my niche in the land of theatre. People seemed to respond to my work. All my proceeding theatrical experiences fed into my writing. It felt very natural. I was obsessed with the work of Eric Bogosian, Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter and Christopher Durang.
2. Who haven't you worked with that you would like to? That is such a tough question, because I just want to continue to work and write in whatever way possible, but I could start with the dream list of directors listed in this New York Times article: http://theater.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/theater/female-directors-more-prominent-in-new-york.html
3. What made you want to write Chemistry of Love? The play is about a mid-career artist, Lara, who has had some success, but never the acclaim her work deserves. When she is nominated for the $500,000 grant it forces her to dig deep within and analyze what success really means to her. We also follow Lara’s mentor, ex-boyfriend and best friend. Each has an unexpected reaction to her impending success. Can they deal? Was it easier to accept her as a struggling artist instead of a successful one? What will this do to their relationships? Are they really happy for her? They each seem to want a piece of the success she’s worked her ass for. But do they deserve it in some way? They have been there for her, supporting her emotionally, sexually, introducing her to the right people.
I am also a mid-career artist dealing with similar issues. I have at times neglected my loved ones for the sake of this obsession. Was it/is it worth it? Should I have remained a New Jersey housewife and dedicated my life to my kids? That’s art too. Why am I doing this? I love playwriting, but it’s a brutal profession, especially for someone like me who has not gone to grad school and who doesn’t always have the time to network the way one needs to in this profession. I used to think that all you had to do was write the play. That’s only the first step. I’ve had to take a hard look at why I am doing this and what success really means to me. What theatre means to the world. Why do we need art in our lives? These are all questions, the lead character in my play deals with while dealing with the reactions of the people whom she is closest to in respect to her $500,000 grant nomination and her impending success. The nomination alone has created buzz and now everyone seems to want a piece of her. It’s amazing how a little success changes everyone’s attitude towards you when you’re an artist. You leap in their minds from hobbyist to artist. These are all things I am exploring. Saying that, there’s a hell of a lot of humor in this play. I have been laughing my ass off in rehearsals.
4. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing the show? I hope they continue to think about it long after they have left the theatre. I hope they flip it around in their minds, connecting the intricate dots. Laugh, smile, and cry. I hope they have more compassion towards anyone who devotes their life to art. The play is also an interesting study on contemporary conceptual art and how technology is infiltrating our work. It looks at three generations of artists. One in his sixties, one in her forties and one in his twenties plus there is the person who is not the artist. She’s the one "they do the work for."
5. Why did you want your play to be at La MaMa? What do they offer that another venue would not? I do feel one lands where they’re supposed to. Everything about La MaMa feels right to me. It’s not corporate. It’s still quirky. They remain true to Ellen Stewart’s dedication to the experimental artist. One feels very free and supported there. My play is not safe. There’s some stuff that will freak some people out, but La MaMa is willing to take risks in artists and their work. The director of my play George Ferencz gave me a DVD of Elizabeth Swados’ La MaMa Cantada, it took me months to get around to listening to it, but when I did, I realized why he wanted me to hear it. I am so in the right place, I just wish I got the chance to meet the welcoming, exacting, inspiring, ass pinching, bell ringing, green vetoing, power house who would welcome the audiences to the theatre each night by ringing a bell and saying, "Welcome to La MaMa Experimental Theatre, dedicated to the playwright." "Never apologize, never be sorry!" Thank you Ellen!!!
6. What did you learn from working under Joseph Papp's reign at the Public Theater? The Public was my first professional theatre gig. Every waking moment I spent there was a learning experience. There are some moments in my life I have forgotten completely, but I remember times at the Public so clearly, from walking into first rehearsal for Taming of the Shrew with Morgan Freeman, Tracy Ullman and Helen Hunt; running lines with Morgan (joy). Learning how to make the perfect 50-cup pot of coffee. Mainly, I remember running the budget reports for each show and being shocked at how much was in the red. Nothing made money. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, but then discovered the importance of funders. Like La MaMa, they are dedicated to the art, the work - if it’s good, the money hopefully follows. If it’s not, at least they went for it!
7. You spent 3 years in London, how do you feel that time helped your playwriting to grow? The city of London was my version of grad school. My ex-husband was transferred there for 3 years and because of visa restrictions, I could not take on a job. This was around the same time that I had begun to write plays, so I decided to use every bit of my time taking classes, attending lectures and going to as much theatre as possible. I met playwright Bernard Kops’ who had been teaching playwriting from his apartment for twenty years. I learned everything from him. The Brits, I feel, are much more language oriented and more sub-textual than Americans. I learned to experiment with form and language. I learned how to thread subtext into my work under the surface of my words. I learned how to deal with exposition or to get rid of it entirely. I probably saw three shows a week for three years. I went to everything, everywhere from the West End to The Bush (Kane, Churchill, Kops, Pinter) and it influenced me immensely. When I returned to the States, no one got my work. They seemed to want very plot centric material. I think Chemistry of Love is a perfect balance of both. I do think you need plot, but it should not overwhelm character or interrupt the magic. It’s about the balance. Also, pub culture made it really easy to meet people in London. You would see a play and meet half the production in the pub next door afterwards. I met Max-Stafford Clark and John Caird that way and asked if I could send them my work. They both called me in for meetings. I was floored. There is a private bar backstage at the National for cast, crew and friends. It’s amazing.
8. What is your favorite part of the creative process in writing a play? I love when you get to the part where you know the world so well, that the play starts writing itself. I go into this trance and later I look at it and I’m like, "when did I write this?" I also love infusing research into the work. I find that very inspiring. Also, of course the first time you hear actors read it is always a blast.
9. What have you learned about yourself from being a playwright? I’m smarter than I thought I was.
10. What's the best advice you've ever received? Don’t be lazy. This is a brutal art form. One will write a million drafts and sometimes you just want to be done and to have it read and to submit it, but if you have anything niggling in your mind about the work, don’t submit it. Take your time, do another rewrite, ask yourself the hard questions. Always go one draft further than you think you can.
11. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? This is a freaking hard question that I’ve been thinking about a lot. Maybe to be able to predict the day the world will end, but if I could do that, no one would believe me anyway - they’d think I’m a freak and would try to commit me, so maybe it’s something simple, like eliminating global warming. That’s simple right?
Jill's plays have been produced or workshopped in New York at La MaMa, Mabou Mines, New Georges, Cherry Lane, Mind the Gap and Easthampton Playhouse, and at The Side Project and Women’s Theatre Project in Chicago and Luna Stage in NJ. She has been a resident artist with Mabou Mines and is a current member of the PDU at The Actors Studio. Campbell is also a documentary producer who has worked on Dancing Across Borders directed by Anne Bass and Never Stand Still, filmed at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. She’s the Assistant Producer on the documentary Out of Print, narrated by Meryl Streep, which premieres at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. She is currently writing and producing Hamlet of Canfield Gardens about the life of her mentor, British playwright Bernard Kops.