The Playwright’s Playground: The Lonely and the Brave – An Interview with ‘Marie Antoinette’ Playwright David Adjmi

Writing is deeply personal. For David Adjmi, playwright of Marie Antoinette, writing is not only personal it is something that is stirring, deeply passionate, and all encompassing. In the process of writing a play he says, “I feel more myself than I have ever felt. It feels like the pinnacle of me being a person.”

David Adjmi, Playwright
David Adjmi, Playwright

The life of a playwright is also at times a lonely one.

The original, distinctive work of Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette opens the 2014 -2015 season at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. The contemporary take on the young Queen of France is also a relevant play about America today and a play for Adjmi where the political becomes personal.

David Adjmi has been awarded a Mellon Foundation Playwrights Residency, the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Kesselring Prize for Drama, the Steinberg Playwright Award , and the Bush Artists Fellowship, among others.

My conversation with David was electrifying, and it could have continued for hours. He is a truly fascinating subject with a generous, forthcoming, and engaging spirit that I truly appreciate.

There is great passion and intensity with David Adjmi. His last six plays were written back to back in eighteen months, the last play being Marie Antoinette in 2006. The fast- talking, full of ideas Adjami discusses his current juggle writing a new commissioned play, working on rewrites, and writing his first book -a memoir.

“I want to be able to live up to my ambition. I want to feel that I can be a part of the theater in a significant way.”

Sydney-Chanele: Why do you write? Why are you a playwright?

David: I don’t know exactly why I write; I don’t think about it. I often fight with myself. You know, I often don’t want to write a play. In fact, I’m writing something now and it’s the first play that I’ve written in eight years. It’s very hard to write. It’s painful. And, it makes me very anxious because I don’t know what’s going to happen.

When I’m writing, I don’t know if it’s all going to work. I don’t have control over all of it. So I have a lot of control issues. I get nervous and it makes me want to avoid the whole thing because it’s so fraught for me and it’s so deep. I end up getting to such painful places in the writing and I can’t know where I’m going to go.

It’s just a very perilous process to make a play. So I sometimes don’t want to do it, but I feel amazing when I am doing it. There are points in the process of making a play that I feel more myself than I have ever felt. Ever. It feels like the pinnacle of me being a person – writing the play.

You have said that you encompass all parts of yourself in writing a play. What are all of those parts?

I think I encounter both my ideas about life and the things I think I believe, and my hopes and terrors. And also, my bullshit and the contradictions that I don’t want to look at about how I live and the things that don’t really make sense that I want a resolution to. It’s all that stuff. Because it’s easy to write a philosophical tract about something, but when then when your characters encounter the contradictions to those ideas of your philosophy you have to honor that.

You have to honor the ideas and the emotions to be authentic.

Right. The emotions and the ideas in life are often in conflict. I always thought, “Wow. It’s so interesting how people can have ideas about any thing and convince themselves of it as long as they cut off parts of their humanity.” I’m fascinated with this. In a play you can’t do that unless you’re a hack writer.

A lot of people go through life compartmentalizing.

Yes, and my plays are very Dionysian usually and they break down those compartments. That’s where the drama comes.

In 2006, you completed Marie Antoinette. Reflecting on the past eight years, how have you grown as a writer? How are you a better playwright today than you were then? 

Well, I’m working on the first new play that I’ve written since then. It’s three-act play and I think I understand more how to make something work, and juggle lot of big scenes with action. It’s about the craft, the craftsmanship. You just learn that it’s got to be supple. All of the parts have to move together. It’s got to look really easy and that is just something that you acquire over time.

I don’t think I’m better; I admire some of my work and think “that’s quite good actually.” I think I am less sentimental, and I’m more rigorous about observing the character – and not confusing myself with the character. You know what I mean?

The intensity of my emotions when I’m writing can sometime overwhelm my characters, and I confuse my experience when I’m writing with the characters. I’ve learned a lot about that. I’ve also changed as a person, and I’m a lot more accountable and responsible for my life. My characters fight a lot more harder. Or, they don’t ask for as much. The character that I’m writing right now, he’s interesting.

That sounds like maturity to me. Are you saying that the characters are more grounded?

I don’t know if they are more grounded. They are not as self-pitying. I think there was a wall that a lot characters hit in some of my plays. Where they couldn’t find any other solution and just wanted people to take care of them. There was something in me . . . I’ve broken past that quite awhile ago. My characters have gotten more inventive in the face of suffering, and I guess that mean I have too, I hope.

Kimberly Gilbert and Sarah Marshall. Courtesy of Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
Kimberly Gilbert and Sarah Marshall. Kimberly Gilbert and Sarah Marshall. Photo by Stan Barouh.

So it is an evolution – the evolution of the Playwright.

Again, it’s about craftsmanship. The gears have to turn together in a seamless way. There is an element of the Artistan to being a playwright. There is something so old-fashioned about it. Like how you apprentice and learn this skill, this craft. It’s the w-r- i-g-h-t, like a wheelwright – you’re making something.

When I started, I was so much in the clouds and so “ It can be anything, it can be this, it can be that.” You realize, no, this has to have a kind of shape and a certain kind of machinery and you have to be responsible for that. You learn how to do that in a way that is really delicate, that honors your impulses and even enhances the resonances that you want to create with the things you’re making – through the craftsmanship. That’s something that I never totally got until the past five, ten years I started to really figure that out.

Did that insight come through working on rewrites and working with different productions?

Yes. You learn in theatre that there are all kinds of development stuff, and a lot of it can be difficult and painful. People don’t understand what you’re trying to make and don’t know where you are as an artist. What you can and cannot take in. What’s right and not right for your story. I’ve had to really learn – that’s a good note, this is great for me right now, and that, I’m going to pass. Then just smile and say, “Thank You.”

Learning too that process of how to protect your play – not being stubborn – but being very strong about what you believe in and learning what you believe in. Because in the end, and I say this to students, everything that is on that page and on that stage is because you were in the mood.

There is no reason for those things to exist . . . when you get these notes like, ‘Why did this person have to do this?’ It’s like, “Well, I wanted them too. That’s what they did. I don’t know, that’s what the story is.” They came at me like that.

You referenced working on a new play. What is it? Do you have a working title?

I can’t really talk more about it right now because it’s a Commission. I have a title but I’m not allowed to speak about it.

So, let’s talk specifics about Marie Antoinette. How involved have you been with this current production at Woolly Mammoth?

I haven’t talked to the Director, and I’ve had nothing to do with any of it. It is the first time that I have done a production and I have just let it go. I have done three productions of this play and I can’t micro-manage every one. I have been in touch with the dramaturg there, Kirsten Bowen, she’s great. She and I have been in conversation and I said, “Look out for this, look out for that . . .” But I’m just going to let them do what they are going to do.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre understands me. Howard and I have a long relationship. He wanted to do this play a while ago but we couldn’t make it work. So I am really glad that they are doing it now because it’s really one of my all-time favorite theaters.

When I first started looking into theaters – which plays were being done where – I saw they had done Harry Condoleon, Wallace Shawn, all of these writers that I admired. I said “This is the place for me.” When they decided to premier my play, Stunning, it was a huge honor for me and it still is. It’s an honor to have that relationship with them.

This is a unique time of creativity for you. You are juggling different types of writing work and you are also practicing the art of letting go with Woolly’s production of Marie Antoinette. How does it feel to let go?

I’m trying, I’m experimenting. We’ll see. I have eight productions of this play this season. I can’t be there for all of them. Steppenwolf Theatre is doing the show and Robert O’Hara is directing it. We’ve had conversations, and I know him, but I can’t be there for all of them. I’m traveling a lot and I have a lot on my plate.

This is for fun – real quick – name three adjectives you would best describe Marie Antoinette?

Three adjectives – jagged, expressionist, and I guess, personal. But I have also described it an expressionist, screwball tragedy.

Writing is very personal. How are you reflected in the play? It would seem that your politics are personal in Marie Antoinette.

Yes, very much but I don’t really stand in any one way in the play. I’m not saying that I’m with Marie Antoinette or I’m with the Jacobeans. I’m really hovering over all of it and looking at it. I didn’t insert myself totally in it. I’m not a proxy for any of the characters; I’m a little bit of all of it.

What I relate to her is this feeling of lostness. It’s almost like the active nightmare with Marie Antoinette. She’s kind of situated in this circle fence and then “Go. Lights. Camera. Action.” She’s sort of trying to feign being something but she doesn’t know if she is. She is coming into her womanhood and trying to understand her sexuality. She tries to be entertaining, but she’s actually quite lost. There is so much forlornness and anguish in her. I came to love her writing her but I didn’t know how I would feel before I started writing it. I came to really empathize with a lot of what she was feeling.

Marie Antoinette is about the young French Queen, but the play also makes a statement about America. What do you see as the themes in the play?

At least in my play, there is not a lot of continuity of where Marie Antoinette came from and how she was raised and what she was doing. It’s almost like she wasn’t really raised. She was thrown into the world and given a role to play. So much of what the play is about is her trying to negotiate between the role and who she is inside, and she can’t do it. It’s a very difficult thing; it’s a trick between negotiating between the interior and the exterior. What you show people and how you negotiate power with them and then how you try to make yourself feel whole and safe inside. It’s how those two things happen together. She’s got a very big problem doing that.

Then there is this notion of her trying to figure out how to be a responsible human being: responsible to herself, responsible to her family and responsible to the State and civic responsibility. She doesn’t understand any of it. She can’t be responsible really because she doesn’t understand herself. She doesn’t feel like she is a whole person. She feels like she is a lost, regressed child. I am very interested in that.

I talk a little about George Bush in interviews only because I wrote Marie Antointette towards the end of the second term of Bush II Presidency. I remember seeing Michael Moore’s film – maybe that’s where the Sheep comes from – My Pet Goat. Remember in Michael’s film where Bush is reading My Pet Goat to the children and he’s told about the attacks and he just keeps reading? He just goes into this child’s pastoral thing about a goat. I remember thinking; he has no capacity to confront something.

There is something so childlike about Bush with all of the atrocity and brutality and everything. But those two things aren’t incompatible. I don’t judge – but I do judge Bush – I do and I don’t. We’re all people. We all have this trajectory and I think everyone’s got a different way of dealing with it. There are all different combinations of how people navigate the world and what they’re equipped with. I don’t know, I just try not to judge my characters.

Bush was a source of inspiration back in 2006, yet Marie Antoinette is so relevant – and how perfect is to be playing in D.C. today?

I know. It’s something, I guess, about these issues and the question of democracy and equality and leadership, and what the right thing to do is. Like where do you find the ethical compass of the correct way to be in the world? We are all searching for it. As organized religion becomes less and less influential, I think people are starting to think, ‘Wait. Who am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to do in this world?’ The political situation is so terrifying all over the world. It’s an absolute nightmare. It seems like people everywhere are struggling with ‘how can I be sovereign and how am I supposed to be myself and negotiate the needs of the cultures and communities that I am a part of.’ And, what does it mean to be a leader in the middle of all of this chaos? It is a very, very trick thing.

Yes. It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. But what was it about Marie Antoinette and her story to sustain an interest in write a play about her?

Kimberly Gilbert. Courtesy of Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
Kimberly Gilbert. Photo by Stan Barouh

There was no interest. It was such an odd thing, I didn’t want to write about her. This is what I mean when I say a play is sometimes psychic. I didn’t know that much about her and was supposed to write another play. I was in an artist colony in New Hampshire called the MacDowell Colony, and I was working on a play based on a Henry James novella. I couldn’t finish it. I was really stuck and it just felt stilted to me. I had to do it for Soho Rep for this Writer/ Director Lab that I was in. I said I give up and I was having all of these panic attacks and just couldn’t figure it out.

Then I said I’m not going to drive myself crazy and I started reading a book by Mary Gaitskill called Veronica that had just come out. In Veronica, she mentions Versailles or something and I just had this crazy, crazy flash of intuition to write a play about Mary Antoinette. I just knew it. I closed my book and rushed to the library and I took out some children’s book, and I went online and I read everything I could read in a very short period of time.

I made a timeline, and I finished the whole thing – research and everything – in seven days.

Oh my! Seven days for everything, including writing the play?

Yes, I wrote the whole thing in seven days. I researched it in two or three days and then I wrote it in four days. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t understand why I was writing it. I came to see in the middle of working on it that, ‘oh, these are my issues.’ I always want to write about these issues and explore these things. But consciously I knew it in some subterranean part of myself and that’s why I had that flash. I didn’t understand it consciously until I had written it.

Do all of your plays come to you like that? Do you write all of them that quickly?

No. They usually take years. In some of Marie’s speeches, I just had to change some of the dialogue because I thought, ‘I must be stealing this from something. Why is this coming out in whole chunks?’ The last page and a half of the play was written almost totally written. It just was written. I felt like I was transcribing something that was written. I Googled the lines because I thought I must have stolen it from someone. I don’t want to plagiarize. It was so weird. It was so intense.

That sounds like the definition of true inspiration to me.

I was inspired. It sounds cuckoo to say it. MacDowell Colony is just so magical. There are all kinds of weird magic going on. It was a gift. It was a gift from the gods this play – A gift from the gods.

Tomorrow in Part II: David Adjmi shares intimate insight about writing his upcoming memoir and details a new play commission – his first play since Marie Antoinette. The break down of a day in the life of David Adjmi is also highlighted, as David talks about his writing process, the rigors of a writing life and dealing with burnout.


Marie Antoinette plays through October 12, 2014 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.


Marie Antoinette review on DCMetroTheaterArts by Robert Michael Oliver.

The Playwright’s Playground is a monthly in-depth conversation with local female playwrights and artists in the D.C. theatre community. Female theatre artists make up more than 50 percent of those involved in the theatre, yet the number of female playwrights being produced is dramatically lower. In this continuing Column, I will also interview and introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights and artistic teams in the DMV area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and their motivations and struggles to write and produce their art. Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - [email protected] [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]


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