Alexis Spiegel: Choosing Participation Over Reaction

Alexis Spiegel is a playwright, teaching artist and a native New Yorker who mostly grew up in New Jersey. A graduate of NYU Tisch’s MFA program in Dramatic Writing, Alexis writes plays about characters who stay awake too long, often losing what they had, and changing.  She’s currently developing the devised play “The Black Jew Thing,” a theatrical exploration of interracial friendship, with co-writer Stacey Rose.

You mentioned that it’s always been a dream of yours to be interviewed. Why so?

That’s a good question. I’ve always been a fan of being on a bus, looking out the window, and fantasizing. I took the bus in high school and I fantasized that it would keep going and not take us to school. And I indulged a fantasy of being on Letterman, and being someone who had stories or was an expert on something.

Why did you first start writing?

I liked reading. It was that thing of, “I’m going to be a children’s book writer. I’m going to be a young adult writer.” I was going to write books like the ones I read. When you were young, did you narrate everything?

Yeah.

I remember coming home from day-camp after narrating the whole day, going to the bathroom and thinking, “I’m still narrating. Do people do this?”

What is one of your earliest memories about the arts?

From very young I loved musicals. The same time that I was listening to “Sesame Street” records, I was also singing along with records like the original cast recording of “Cabaret.” I think about “Cabaret” a lot. There’s something pretty perfect, and essentially theatrical about it.

I love that on the surface, it appears to be fun and frivolous, but in fact it tackles very serious themes.

It’s very well constructed. You get to go to the cabaret and there’s also a story and each thing keeps informing the other. But when you’re a little kid, it’s just songs about money and don’t tell mama, just stuff, but I wonder what impressions get made from those exposures when you’re young.

At some point, writing morphs from something that’s fanciful, to something we want to do professionally. What caused you to make that transformation?

I wrote a play for a one-act competition in college, and that went over well. It was a great experience, but I didn’t leave thinking that I would be a playwright. I still thought I was going to be an actor.

I didn’t know you pursued acting.

I went to L.A. after college, but I got over the idea that this could work for me somewhat quickly. I had to give it a try. I took some classes. I walked up and down La Cienega looking for a restaurant job, and I got one. I met a lot of celebrities that way—I found out people in Hollywood actually say, “Do you know who I am?” But it wasn’t very long before I said no when people asked if I was an actor. They weren’t asking if I was studying the craft or fascinated by theater. They were asking, “Will you do anything?”

Did you have any desire to act after your L.A. experience?

In L.A., I ended up teaching. I taught English and acting at a school for at-risk youths. Flash-forward to New York, where I had very difficult experiences teaching and vowed to get a normal job, and then I did. Then I had a bad break-up, and that was the next time I wrote a play. I would never show that play to anyone now.

We all have our break-up play. It’s practically a rite of passage.

When I finally sat down in this crappy apartment after moving out in a night, I started trying to put together what had happened. That was the beginning of my playwriting, and I sort of stuck with it.

What is the hardest part about writing to you? What is your happiest memory related to writing?

I think they might be similar answers in a way. The happiest memories revolve around when actors come in to workshop and rehearse. It’s just another level. Do you think you could be a novelist?

[Pause] I’ve never thought about it seriously until recently, but yeah, I think I could. Why do you ask?

I ask because you don’t get the thrill of bringing it to someone and making it something that’s bigger than yourself. I guess the novel becomes that in the mind of someone else, the reader.

What’s interesting about the joy of workshopping is that when it is performed, I’m incredibly nervous and don’t like to watch my own work. I like workshopping for the purposes of rewriting, but when it becomes a show, I don’t need to experience it.

So did you experience that through all the performances of “The Piano“?

[Pause] That came down to self-producing, because I was just too busy and preoccupied. In a weird way, I took away my ability to experience it because of the amount of work I gave myself.

Neither of us have really gotten to experience watching our play like an audience member. But when I’m in rehearsal or a workshop, then I get to experience it without the pressure. That exploration and playing in an imaginary world I set up that’s getting created by other people just because they’re up for it is the part that I’m hooked on.

So what’s hard about writing?

It’s really hard when life gets busy and you are not going to get that. It’s hard to write when you can’t imagine a reader or someone coming in and doing something with it.

This says more about me than you, but I sort of expected you to say money is the hardest part about writing.

That it doesn’t make any? Well…

That you have to juggle both writing and making sure you can support yourself.

What’s really true is that at this point, I’m used to working. I want to have to go to a job and I don’t necessarily need it to be in the arts. It’s okay that I have to think about unimportant minute things, get paid for it, and figure out how to make time for writing. Sometimes I think I want someone to send me to the woods, but that might not be it. I’ve just been working in New York for so long that it’s the only way I function now.  I’m not saying the balance doesn’t sometimes get thrown—that’s miserable of course.

It’s a hard balance because we can’t create from a vacuum. Great actors often say this too, but in between projects, we need to go live life so we have more things to say.

And all we want to ever write about is relationships, right? People trying to deal with each other. Some people say, I don’t know how anyone writes in New York, and I’m getting to a point where I don’t know how anyone writes anywhere but New York. I can’t really mean that but I’ll stick with it. I mean for example, the play I’m working on now is so influenced by having roommates. I wouldn’t have gotten that by living in a cabin in the woods. But I would like to teach again. I’m more frustrated that it’s so difficult to make a living at that.

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As far as self-care, what is your biggest challenge at the current?

I haven’t had health insurance since I graduated from NYU. I would’ve been in therapy all along if I did. But I just got back in after two years out. I was starting to have a relationship with someone, and when it wasn’t going to work, he handled that realization very badly. I got so upset by it, but I knew that it wasn’t about him. It couldn’t be—I just didn’t know him that well.

It’s never nice to be mistreated, but in the depth of emotions I was feeling, I remembered you can have therapy instead of driving yourself nuts. You can talk about it with someone who cares about working it out with you. I really think I have a great therapist. There are a lot of shitty therapists, but it was a huge relief just to make that appointment and know I wouldn’t need to build my self-esteem up by myself. It really feels good to ask for a little help and get a “yes” back.

So you advocate therapy for people?

Yeah I do. Maybe it’s not for everybody.

To me, it doesn’t work if you’re not a talker.

That could be the one place you talk. You don’t have to be hyper-verbal, do you?

Interesting.

That is sort of the idea, that it’s safer than most talking. That this relationship is not in any danger of being wrecked from what you say.

Do you feel that writing is similarly risky to talking? That what you write says something about you?

I don’t know if you’ve had this happen, where you go to therapy and you feel like, I was writing this week. I don’t really have anything to tell you. [Laughs] The last time I was unemployed, before I went to Tisch, I went to psychoanalysis. In doing that I realized in a meaningful way that life is full of choices. It’s almost this joke that analysts just go “why,” “why,” “why,” and it can drive you up a wall. But I realized that I’d been thinking in this way: This happened, so then I had to do that. There was this shift of realizing that I was active in this. I was making choices. I got into Tisch Asia while I was in analysis and it was a beautiful thing. There was this huge choice to make, which was to move to Singapore. When I decided to go to Asia, I really decided it. When the school closed, at least I didn’t feel like, “I have no idea how I got here.”

When I’m telling people to go to therapy, it’s often because I see them in that same place. We’re bouncing because we’re reactive. Everything that happens is sending you to something else, and you’re not getting to be an active participant in making choices. When things don’t work out now, I’m less likely to have that sense of, “How did I get here?”

Do you have a favorite writer?

I do! I was just thinking about that recently. I was feeling guilty about not having read enough. Do you have that sometimes?

Literally all the time. It’s that thing of feeling like you never have enough time.

I do a bad thing where I’ll reread something I’ve already read, because you have books that feel like friends. They feel like somebody gets you when you read them.

So what’s one you return to a lot?

I love the play “Top Girls” by Carol Churchill. She did whatever she wanted when she wrote that play, but you can follow her wavelength. I love how she writes into these tensions that aren’t just one thing. The scenes are written on top of layers and layers of tensions between women—political, personal, just deep. Everything about it is interesting.

We were just talking about how you had been on a little writing hiatus. Why so?

[Pause] I’ve been on hiatus but I haven’t really been on hiatus. I haven’t been waking up with a routine writing every day. I haven’t really had that lifestyle since school. That feels like hiatus. You feel a little disappointed in yourself. But then again, maybe it’s okay. I was also saying how it was important to not have writing become this punishing thing.

I am not somebody who can write every day. I need variety and I can’t just talk shop. I can’t just talk about dramatic structure and plays and submissions 24/7.

Especially submissions. Maybe that’s the hardest thing about writing. I hate all that shit. Talk about “Death of a Salesman.” I read something about how Arthur Miller built steps to his house while writing. That made a lot of sense to me. I live my life to find things out about what I’m writing. You don’t want to turn writing— which at least in its better moments is a joyful thing—into something else.

I think that happens very easily in this industry.

Mostly because of comparison. I think that’s the most dangerous thing.

I remember feeling envious of people at DDW that made absolutely no sense. Like, I’d never written a sketch, so why would I be upset that someone else earned recognition for sketch comedy?

Why do you think that happened?

[Pause] I think it had to do with getting approval. When you think of writing as a career, it feels like you are competing with people. I didn’t start writing to compete.

I agree. Every professional who spoke with us at NYU told us that the thing is to find a few people who you actually connect with as a writer and who you trust to share work with.  And try not to compete with them! I’m not saying that’s not an effort but it’s not impossible.

If you had to pick one message you wish to convey through writing, what would that be?

Hard question.

[Pause] I’m developing a play with Stacey Rose called “The Black Jew Thing.” We’re workshopping it in DC at The Mosaic Theater at the end of September. You know this week, we all saw videos of police killing Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Stacey and I’ve gotten to a point (we’ve been working on this play for two years) where when these things are in the news cycle, we each want to talk to each other. We use each other and the context of our play to process grief. I have had, through most of my life, the option of ignoring that grief because of whiteness.

My point is, I had this thought today—I wondered if [Stacey] feels like the child in the family who’s going, “Do you see that this is crazy?” In a family unit where there’s dysfunction, there’s usually one who just wants everyone to look at [the dysfunction]. There’s the group who’s in denial, and then there’s the person who says, there’s something wrong. Look at it.

I don’t know if there’s any one message I try to convey. I’m sure I could have a lot of fun trying to articulate one. That could be a monologue play! But I think being compelled to look at the ugly thing, believing that it’s better to look at it, and that it can’t be worse than not looking at it, is a real writer thing. Having that in you is probably part of why you do it.

Final question. If you were a superhero, what would your power be, and what would your costume look like?

Flying, done. And I like gold sequins on pastels.

2 thoughts on “Alexis Spiegel: Choosing Participation Over Reaction

  1. One of many things I love about Alexis that sparkles through this interview is an absence of self-victimization in the stories she tells herself. I knew her as a charmingly, unabashedly urban child surviving a gothic childhood as the smartest kid in suburban hell. She did this by ferreting out weirdos and then saturating herself in fiercely unprotected, authentic experiences with them, objecting to whatever unfolded only when it threatened to mirror cliche (when her objections could be astonishingly strident!). Her perceptive, literary emails at 14 years old, the depth of her commitment to seeing, her unrelentingly disruptive charm pegged her as a writer early on, as did her sense of entitlement to be interesting. The tone of this interview would make the adolescent Alexis I remember — wondering about her future — sooooo relieved, I imagine. She didn’t grow up compromised by the wrong things!

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