Lucy Gillespie: Finding ‘Unicornland’ After Divorce

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Lucy Gillespie is an Anglo-American playwright, screenwriter and producer currently based in New York. Raised in London on Shakespeare and school dinners, she moved to the U.S. to study Theater at Northwestern University.

As a playwright, Lucy’s work has been developed by Ensemble Studio Theater, Naked Angels, Caps Lock, [the claque], PS.122, 3rd Kulture Kids, Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, FullStop Collective. Full-length productions include: “The Forum” ([the claque], 2015), “One of Us” (EST Bloodworks, 2014), “Outfoxed” (FullStop Collective, 2012), and “The Atwater Campaign” (terraNOVA Groundworks Reading, 2012).

An alum of the Obie-award winning Youngblood Playwrights Group, Lucy has held residencies at MacDowell and Byrdcliffe. She received her MFA from NYU in Dramatic Writing as a Goldberg Fellow in 2014. She is the creator/producer of “Unicornland,” an original series that goes live in October 2016. #unicornwithus!

Are there striking memories from your childhood about art or creativity?

[Pause] I went to a very musical primary school where we would be in concert choir or orchestra for three or four hours every day.

Wow. This was in London?

Yeah. It was not especially academic but it had a reputation for getting kids into good schools due to its strong creative component. As an educator, I now know there is a very important connection between intellectual development and creativity.

That’s interesting because in America, it is completely flip-flopped.

One hundred percent, yeah.

So you were truly immersed in art.

Totally. Academics were kind of secondary. One teacher would just dictate essays to us and that would be our class, which was probably useful for me because that was how I learned writing structure.

Did your parents support this environment or were they baffled by it?

Neither. My mother was a journalist-actor and my dad was a musician for a very long time. They really didn’t want me to do any of those things.

Why?

Because they’d done them and those things did not given them joy. I am materialistic and that’s because my family appreciates the things money can buy you. We just liked autonomy. My mom and dad’s families didn’t get along very well, so my parents had the privilege of creating their own life and not depend on their families’ support. That’s the privilege money can buy you.

So when they told you their reasons for why you shouldn’t pursue the arts, what was your reaction?

Oh, I hated it. I remember teaching myself to touch-type when I was eight-years-old. I did it because my mother was [also] a journalist, so I wanted to type like she could. I remember showing her one day, and she said something like, “You won’t be so slow when you get some practice.”

There was always the sense that my parents had gone further down the road and they knew it was a worthless road. It was frustrating because whatever experience I would have would be dismissed. “Yeah, I remember that. Don’t worry about that.”

They thought you would have the same experience.

Totally. I think about that a lot, actually. Whatever I’m doing, my parents have been there already, and it failed, and I’m just living in denial that I’m on the failing path.

Do you remember the first time you wrote something?

I started writing stories and novels when I was nine. I was not very popular throughout high school, so I would sit in the back of the class and write stories in my notebook.

I used to do that too.

I still have some of them.

I still have all my notebooks, like from [the Department of Dramatic Writing], but I just haven’t looked at them.

I actually started to throw everything away and I really like it.

There’s something about asceticism that seems to be very in right now.

Because of that Japanese book, right? It’s also practical because I’ve moved like 25 times in the past 10 years, so it’s just hard to bring all those notebooks everywhere.

What are some of your most prized possessions right now?

Ooh, I don’t know! [Pause] Well, I just made this web series and it was very expensive. I spent all the money I made in the year after grad school on this web series. Now I have two hard drives that are each worth $40,000. I think those are my most prized possessions just because I’m so into the web series.

Let’s talk about it. What is “Unicornland” about?

It’s about a woman who dates couples to learn to love again after her divorce. It’s inspired by the fact that I was married, and when I realized I was unhappy, got a divorce. Part of it was I had not been fully honest with myself about my reasons for wanting to be in a relationship, and I didn’t communicate with my partner. I felt like something was wrong with me and I didn’t know how to be in a relationship.

I didn’t do what this character does, which is literally date and sleep with couples, but I met a lot of people and asked a lot of questions, specifically about how to make your love work. I joined the kink and fetish scene and that was a really interesting place to figure out people who really stretched their relationships. Every episode is the main character with a different couple.

How many episodes will there be?

Eight. I am very proud because our cast is incredibly diverse. The actors are spectacular. The story is one of this woman trying to break out of who she’s been told to be in relationships, and really figure out what she wants. She’s terrifically horny and has a very curious mind, but is shy and introverted. The story is of her being an observer, but over time discovering not only what she likes, but what she’ll ask for.

For example, the first episode is her dating the perfect couple—who she wanted to be when she was married. It turns out they’re totally dysfunctional and in it for all the wrong reasons. Underneath the surface, they’re totally a mess. The revelation that not everyone has it together is a huge one for her. In a later episode, she has finally made it with a couple and they’re having great sex. Then, she fakes an orgasm, and it turns out she has never had an orgasm during sex because she’s never asked her partner to do the things that will make her come.

Is this is a drama or comedy, or both?

It’s a dramedy. I hate that word, but it is in a really quiet way. It’ll be out in October. The final episode is her going to her first sex party. We staged it at a location where real sex parties are held, and the host and hostess were there in latex.

So the Lucy that was in your marriage really held the beliefs of a sacred partnership?

I was not jealous at all. My ex-husband was just very traditional about a lot of things. I didn’t push the boundaries of our relationship in any way. If there was something I was unhappy about, I rationalized it. “He is pretty cool and nice, so there must be something wrong with me and I should figure it out, and not bother him.”

Yet your work actively pushes boundaries.

Yes, but that’s why I think I write, which is to do the things that I’m not doing in my life. Which sometimes means if I’m doing a lot of things in my life, I don’t need to write.

So writing is a form of escapism for you?

It just helps me work things out. It usually helps me come to an understanding about myself or the world so I can progress or become more comfortable.

What’s the biggest misconception about you?

At DDW, a professor seemed to really dislike me. He disliked everybody, but what I got from him was that I knew everything, didn’t need any help, and nobody could push me. I’ve gotten that from a few people. “Lucy thinks she’s hot shit so she doesn’t need any help.” But I really do, and the misconception is that I’m superior, when really I’m in awe of people around me and nervous about the contributions I want to make. That’s always frustrating because some people would have attitude or is dismissive towards me, and I don’t know how to break out of it. I think it’s the English thing sometimes.

That could be true. Another friend of mine is English and she gets that some time to time.

It’s not just the language or accent, it’s also that you are taught not to express your feelings in England. The education system is different. If you have a strong emotion, you’re not supposed to act on it in any way. The demeanor is just very different.

When did you come to America?

I was 19.

What was that transition like for you?

My mother is from Chicago and I was born in Westchester. We lived there until I was five. So I always felt like I was coming back to the States, and this was my home. But I didn’t realize how different England was from America, culturally.

Give me an example.

[Pause] In England, conversation is built on this game of lowering your status. In order to relate to you, I might say, “I was up all night working on this presentation and it’s crap. I’m terrible and I don’t know what I’m doing.” You might say, “No, I think you’re amazing! I just fell asleep during my board meeting!” Constantly trying to one-down each other is very English. Everybody knows that when you’re complaining, it’s actually a social exercise rather than actual complaining.

In America, it’s definitely encouraged to speak up and brag about yourself.

Exactly. There have been times where I’ve said, “My play is shit.” And someone is like, “No, it’s not so bad!”

In Chinese culture, mothers like to one-down their own children to be polite. I find it really funny because it becomes very exaggerated and surreal.

I do enjoy that element of English culture. It’s a game everybody knows they’re playing.

What’s your favorite thing about writing and what’s your least favorite thing about writing?

[Pause] I don’t know that I like or dislike anything about writing. I enjoy the feeling of a character or situation becoming clearer. I like writing dialogue. I don’t like outlining at all and I feel very uncertain when I do it.

Is there a challenge to having a lot of energy?

The challenge is just knowing when to land. I have a lot of ideas and start a lot of things, but I don’t know what to commit to.

You did with “Unicornland.”

Yes. I also just think it’s an important story to tell, and that a lot of women could relate to it. People would ask, “Why is [the protagonist] even there?” I’m like, “Because she’s horny. Why does she need a reason?” I don’t understand that.

When you think about self-care, what are you currently working on?

I think it’s a great question for writers, and all people. [Pause] I took a meditation class after graduation because I felt the structure of school was really good for me. It was good to have so much going on that I couldn’t help but write, but I knew I wouldn’t necessarily impose that structure in my normal life. I wanted some kind of grounding. I did 40 minutes of meditation every morning when I taught. That helped me see when there were situations which were about me, or if there was something totally outside of myself. It was just taking the time to assess the situation.

Even doing 15 minutes of meditation is hard for me because my mind is always going.

I need to count or think of a mantra in order to sustain it. I need something for my head to chew on. Restlessness is my problem when it comes to writing, relationships, and discipline.

I have to do it in the morning before I open E-mails or social media, because I associate E-mails with work, stress, and action.

Totally. I was just in New Orleans for a wedding, and there’s an easiness and slowness there, whereas New York is very frenetic. I really liked that and I want to try and replicate it.

Your environment is very important and New York happens to be a city that can be a challenge for a lot of people. You’re constantly overstimulated.

Do people bring that up a lot?

[Pause] I think I’d have to interview people from different cities to truly understand it, but I do think it can be hard to find solitude here. You and I have talked about the stress that comes from juggling freelance gigs. What about that is stressful for you?

I became the assistant to a woman who used to run an ad agency and then started her own company. She was frenetically doing 15 different things and we ended up being a difficult pairing, because I was doing that too. She had a lack of structure about how she wanted to proceed and she needed me to be her rock, but I was also doing a lot, so I couldn’t be that for her. The whole process was a bit crazy-making. Some days I’d know exactly what I needed to do and would be overloaded with research projects and tasks. Other times I’d sit there for days, wondering what was happening.

Tutoring is great. My attitude towards it is you’re fixing a problem. There’s an end goal. Some tutors are afraid under their assumption that kids should always be tutored, so they would always have a job. I believe kids need tutors because they have some sort of mental block, and if we work it out, then they should be good and there’s a self-confidence that comes from self-reliance. What that translates to is that tutoring jobs have a fast turnover rate, so I’m always trying to find new work.

So there’s a level of unpredictability.

Yes.

I know you from your theater work but you also do work in other mediums. Do you have a preference?

I’ve kind of fallen out of love with theater.

Tell me why.

[Pause] It’s this Kafka-esque cycle with no relief and no end-goal. The amount of work you have to do just to earn a livable wage in theater is insane.

That’s always the riddle. There are times you feel like you are doing so much just so you can do it, that the act is its own reward. 

It started to feel like there was no way to be in theater and also have a life, that theater had to BE your life. I think that’s true of a lot of the entertainment industry, but it should be possible that you can also make enough so that you can take a vacation.

I’m pretty sensitive so I think I’m frightened off a little too easily. I’ve written a lot of plays and some of them have been widely developed by theater companies. Yet, I still feel pretty lonely in the theater world. I don’t have a strong sense of who my people and family are, or who I can reach out to. You do so much work to write a play; it is really an act of love. If nobody cares, it’s the saddest thing. The other thing is I feel the only people who watch theater are theater people. When I began working in media, I started to see how much technology has borrowed from immersive arts and how many interesting things are happening in the world.

Did you have a “this could be the rest of my life” kind of thing?

Sort of, yeah. I think there’s a lot more to life than artistic suffering. It always seemed like pain and misery was always the flavor of the month. [Pause] I don’t know. I also have some friends in Young Blood who are now doing terribly well and writing beautiful pieces. I don’t mean to be dismissive of anybody’s work. I just felt like Miranda in “The Tempest.” Suddenly, these new people arrived on the shore and I realized, “Shit, the world is so much more than I thought.” I got distracted and into other stuff.

Do you feel the portrayal of women in media has changed?

There’s a lot of visibility being brought to this in a good way. To a large degree, the issues are not only institutional, but socialized. [It’s about] preferences and the stories that are popular have this masculine color or tone because the popular age-old stories had that. I don’t think the gatekeepers are always aware of their prejudices, but because it’s such a resounding issue now, even the irritating question of “how do we get more women in the line-up this year,” is helping. It’s because it’s asked and otherwise they might not consider it.

One thing I remember is a play by Clare Barron called “Solar Plexus.” Apparently the Ensemble Studio Theatre considered putting it in their marathon, but they turned it down because it was too intense. The final moment is a couple kissing after he tastes her menstrual blood. But surely that’s their responsibility, if they think it is too much and a huge emotional experience, to say yes? Isn’t that the thing to put up? The people at EST are wonderful and the work they’re doing to develop young writers is very important. This experience was illuminating because it told me the people I idolized and wanted to impress weren’t on the same page as me in many ways. It taught me I didn’t need to work so hard to impress them and I needed to think about how I wanted to tell stories.

Do you feel that in the art world, affluence is something one gets to feel guilty about?

I don’t think there’s a correlation between affluence and talent, but I do see correlation between affluence and persistence. The more resources you have, the longer you can stay in this. The longer you stay in it, the more likely you are to be successful. Sometimes I feel capitalism does a great job of making things hard for the people who aren’t that great. I feel that way when I’m adjudicating the Fringe [Festival], reading a bunch of scripts, and feeling like most of them aren’t that interesting. Then, I’m happy for capitalism. Then there are times when people who have really intense, wonderful ideas are institutionally dismissed because they’re not trusted with the institution’s resources.

And because they can’t put in their own.

Yeah. Capitalism promotes happiness if you participate. If you don’t participate, you’re going to be in pain and unpopular. If you choose to live on a lower economic level to work on your art, capitalism doesn’t care about you. If you say instead, maybe I’m not going to do art, but I’m going to work hard to be the top of my field of get this promotion, then you’re rewarded. But is there shame around it? [Pause] I kind of liked the speech that President Obama gave at Howard University.

Which part resonated with you?

The idea that shaming and outcrying how shitty your experiences are, is useful up to a point. When you have the floor, when the mic is yours, you actually have to have something to say beyond that. You have to propose how to solve the problems you speak of. There are so many problems in society, so of course they are also problems in the art world.

For my part, I try not to write plays about white people by the water. [Laughs] But the topic of affluence in the arts is an interesting one. I feel an impulse to take stock of my resources and where I’ve been lucky, and also where my limitations have been with money and emotional support.

Do you have a daily routine?

The routine I had in New Orleans, which is my goal, is to wake up, exercise, then meditate. Then I want to write for three or four 45-minute periods with 15-minute breaks in between.

That is very disciplined.

If I go longer, I go longer. But I find that if I impose longer periods on myself, I get restless and angry and I have to stop.

If you see someone else who is also struggling with things you feel you’ve experienced, what would you say or do?

I don’t think I’d say anything specific. I’d have a conversation with them and try to figure out the origin of their restlessness. It could be anything, but I do think meditation is a good way to give yourself the help.

Do you believe in a higher power?

Yeah…

Do you identify with a specific religion?

No.

That’s awesome. Has that always been the case?

Well, I grew up Jewish and I had my Bat Mitzvah.

Do you have a definition of success?

[Pause] I want a job in TV. I would like to sell a script and be the showrunner, but I also want to write for television. [I want to] have a tax return where it says artist and the money I made that year is from art. That would be my definition of success. I would like to have a family in the next few years. I think that would require a lot of self-care because there will be a lot of creations demanding attention.

I have one final question. If you were a superhero, what would you power and what would your costume look like?

Ooh, fun. [Pause] I like the shapeshifting characters like Mystique. They always become evil though.

But it’s a cool superpower.

That’s such a useful superpower.

And would your costume just be the act of blending in?

Yeah, I would be my costume.

 

 

 

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