"Call Me Adam" chats with playwright and director Laura Abbott about her show I Am Not I which is currently running in the 2014 NYC International Fringe Festival at Teatro SEA at the Clemente through August 22 (107 Suffolk Street, between Rivington and Delancey). Click here for tickets!
I Am Not I is about Jane Jiménez, daughter of a Mexican-American father and Jewish mother, who is about to have her quinceañera. But how can she "transition into womanhood" when she doesn't feel like a woman? How will her parents and girlfriend react when they find out she's not who they think she is?
1. Your play, I Am Not I will be making it NYC debut in the NYC Fringe Festival from August 8-22. What made you want to write this show? Dan Bacalzo asked me the same thing recently for a GLAAD interview. I told him: The person I am closest to in this world came out as transgender in 2008 (I am purposefully vague in describing our exact relationship out of respect for his privacy.) My very conservative, Catholic, Italian-American family did not exactly react well to this news. He confided in me first because of our closeness—but also because, I think, I identify as bisexual. I wish I could say I embraced him in rainbow-colored solidarity, no questions asked…but found myself in denial initially. I love this person with all of my heart, and always have, but it was an adjustment. Getting used to the pronouns. Change in appearance. The inability to speak of the past or look at old family photos. My conservative family members had an enormous journey ahead of them to fully understand, but even my queer, liberal self had some learning to do. But we all learned. And this play was a cathartic, therapeutic way of turning that journey into art. I think the "T" in "LGBT" is the least understood in our community, and I hoped that—by synthesizing our story into this play—I could help audiences begin to learn as well.
2. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing I Am Not I? I hope that they come away with the desire to reach out to their loved ones they may not see eye-to-eye with. This play is really about four people attempting to speak the same language and failing until it’s almost too late. Whatever keeps an audience member divided from people in their life, I hope this play inspires them to reflect on the common humanity they share with everyone. I hope that they go home and start a conversation, make a phone call, send a Facebook message, etc. to that person they just can’t agree with or understand, but still want to love and include in their life. At the end of the play, Lisa urges Rey to: "Think about what’s important." I hope that audience members are reminded of what’s important in their relationships and figure out if it’s simply pettiness or anger or pride that is keeping them from forgiving or loving.
3. What excites you about having I Am Not I in the NYC Fringe Festival? How do you feel this festival will nurture the show as opposed to another festival? Fringe is a juried festival, which means that people read and evaluated this script before selecting us to participate. The Fringe team sees potential in the work—all of the shows are here because someone felt they deserved a stage in New York. That means so much to me. By the same token, a lot of the shows are from fledgling artists just beginning their careers (and our team is no exception.) Being a part of Fringe means that you are here because of your potential—not because you’re a big name, not because you’ve got a ton of time and money to waste, not because of nepotism. This industry can be so insular, and Fringe is a festival that warmly embraces emerging talent and allows their voices to be heard amid all of the noise in this city. They’re celebrating their 18th anniversary—they are an enormous part of the NYC cultural landscape. To simultaneously be so huge and support unknown talent is a dichotomy that applies to very few theatre festivals. We are able to get media attention here, advertising and production support, a gorgeous venue to perform in, and we are part of a large (but intentionally chosen) community of like-minded artists. Beyond Edinburgh, I can’t think of any other festival that does what FringeNYC does. It’s an incredible honor and privilege to participate.
4. In addition to writing the show, you are co-directing the show with Jordan Reiff. What made you want to take on the role of co-director and what have you enjoyed most about working with Jordan? Story time. When I originally applied to be part of the Fringe festival, I submitted the application with director Chrysta Naron. She directed the 2013 reading of I Am Not I, and is one of the most perceptive, intelligent, talented directors I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. Unfortunately for us New Yorkers, she moved to Texas (where she’s originally from) in May. We talked about possibly bringing the show to Texas, or waiting until she was able to visit the city to produce a full production. Then we got the news that the show was accepted into Fringe. She continues to support the team from afar, but we couldn’t logistically have her direct—and I was uncomfortable trusting this piece to anyone else. It’s such a personal play, and I’m wildly protective of it…so I decided to direct it myself. However, I’m really not a director. It was a strange stroke of fate that I happened to randomly bump into Jordan (a college theatre friend) on the street one night in Hell’s Kitchen. Jordan and I were both on a playwriting track in school, but he has decided to focus his efforts on directing these days. Knowing how incredibly smart he is, and having a lot of respect for him, I asked if he’d like to come on board. I really couldn’t do this without him. I love having Jordan in the rehearsal room to bounce ideas off of. As a playwright himself, he knows the right questions to ask. As a director, he’s got such a clear vision (where mine can sometimes get a bit muddled).
5. What are you looking forward to most about having this cast bring your show to life? Just that—I’m looking forward to seeing them bring it to life. I’ve done readings of this play before, but never a fully realized production. So seeing the cast up onstage during our tech rehearsal in the gorgeous Teatro SEA space was utterly surreal. I’ve never seen the dance element of the show, either, but Kendra Slack has choreographed some stunning moments for this Fringe production, which dancer Claire Cuny beautifully executes. Seeing the dancing and lighting design, hearing the live music, watching the actors live these moments—watching the whole thing get woven together—has been so exciting and I cannot wait to share this with Fringe audiences.
6. Who or what inspired you to become a playwright? Jonathan Marc Sherman. I was in Women and Wallace my freshman year of high school. Finding out that Sherman wrote that play when he was 18 absolutely blew my mind. It made me fully realize that there should be nothing stopping me from writing. Actually, a script I started at age 16, Trapped, was a Top 20 finalist in Sondheim’s nationwide Young Playwrights competition. The same contest that Women and Wallace won in the late 1980s. And, when I received my certificate, I discovered Jonathan Marc Sherman’s signature on it—he was one of the judges that chose my play.
7. Who haven't you worked with that you would like to? There’s a world full of talented artists out there—the mind boggles at the potential answers to this question. I guess, if I had to choose the actors I’d most like to see inhabit one of my plays, I’d say: Shuler Hensley or Tracee Chimo. Their talent takes my breath away.
9. What have you learned about yourself from being a playwright? That I am an intensely passionate person. However, being very non-confrontational, all of my impassioned speeches and fiery verbal battles happen on the page instead of in reality.
10. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? The ability to fly. That way I could have avoided taking the L train to Brooklyn for I Am Not I rehearsals. It’s literally the worst.
11. If you could be an original flavor lifesaver, which flavor would you be? Probably pineapple: unexpected, different, but still able to hold its own against more generic flavors.
12. How do you want to be remembered? With honesty. I think we rob the dead of their humanity when we act like they were saints in life. I’m a shy, socially awkward, introverted person—my personality isn’t big enough to leave an imprint. But my greatest hope is that, someday, I’ll write a play that does leave its mark on time.
Laura Abbott is a Vermont native and graduate of Ithaca College. She was the first Digital Marketing Apprentice in Roundabout Theatre Company's history, and served as a contributing writer for the organization's official blog and educational Upstage Playgoers Guide during the 2012-13 season. Her one-minute plays Falling and Wish I Were Human were featured in Playsmiths' annual Flash Fest in June 2014. A one-act she wrote while in high school, Trapped, is published through Playscripts, Inc. A rough draft of Trapped was a Top 20 finalist in Stephen Sondheim’s nationwide Young Playwrights competition.
As a performer, she has been seen onstage at the Kitchen Theatre Company, St. Michael’s Playhouse, as well as acting under the direction of the incomparable Bob Moss. She portrayed "Jo Widmere" in an excerpt from Lil Surfer Girl, an award-winning MFA student screenplay, at the 2014 Columbia University Film Festival.