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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

On the Ground Floor with...MJ Halberstadt

The Mayor of BPT (Photo: Ze Laing Photography)
On April 29-May 3, work by this year’s MFA class – MJ Halberstadt (May 1), Michael S. Parsons (May 3), Rick Park (April 29), and Jaclyn Villano (May 2) – will be featured in our annual Ground Floor New Play Series, along with BPT Visiting Professor Richard Schotter’s The Sussman Variations (April 30). We celebrate these exciting writers on the blog by offering an inside look at them and their plays!

All five readings are free and begin at 7 p.m. – reserve your seat and get additional information.

KAM: Tell us a little about And Then Came Tuesday.

MJH: I consider And Then Came Tuesday to be a comic tragedy -- it's light and funny but its structure suggests Greek tragedy. The plot centers around Peggy Babcock, who has hosted her weekly book club every Tuesday for as long as anyone in Rockville Centre can remember. She entices the book club with an array of delicious cakes, a view of her gorgeous garden, and news of a former book club member mysteriously filing for divorce within a week after the wedding. Despite Peggy's husband Bobby's warnings, the women begin an effort to dig up the truth about the 'newlyfleds,' recruiting the Peggy's spoiled daughter and the local hairstylist. The search becomes a race to uncover the truth when the book club begins suspecting that Peggy's efforts to dig up secrets are meant to protect a dirty secret or two of her own. I began writing the play last summer, and have been workshopping it on and off in both Ronan and Melinda's classes.

KAM: What makes you passionate about this idea?

MJH: I think the attraction that has kept me invested in developing this play has more to do the form and medium than it does with the ridiculous story. I've been inspired to explore the idea of 'funny tragedies' based on an interview I read with Yasmina Reza, who suggested that her plays fit into that 'new genre.' I realized there's no reason a tragedy can't be funny or light- as long as the path to the unhappy ending is humorous. I'm also very glad to have created a world in which lots of colorful, complex and funny women actors can play- those are opportunities I don't see as often as I like. It's important to find where the gaps are in theatre and to try and fill them.

KAM: Does And Then Came Tuesday align with your original vision for the work, or did it take shape as you went along?

MJH: The shape and perspective have completely changed. Originally this was Peggy Babcock's story about how her curiosity about her neighbors ended up biting her in the butt, but it didn't work with the same intrigue I was going for (think Six Degrees of Separation). Upon a suggestion that Ronan and Melinda both made (independent of one another, funnily enough), I took the play in a more 'Greek' direction and have turned Peggy's book club into a chorus that takes us on the adventure of their friend's downfall as a result of a mystery they are working to solve along with the audience. Using Greek tragedy as a model has helped shape what the play has become, complete with a blind seer, a tragic hero and a sacrifice -- while helping the play's sense of humor along, oddly enough.

KAM: How would you describe your writing to people who are unfamiliar with your work?

MJH: I'm still figuring that out myself a little bit. Most of my plays are ultimately about family- and usually they have to do with what rocky sibling dynamics after the parents are out of the picture (I should add that I get along fantastically with my own siblings and my parents are very much still in the picture). Tuesday is ultimately about family, and what we sacrifice for people we love -- sometimes our relations must take priority over marriage, friendship, or reputation. If I were to give myself a mission statement, it would probably include something along the lines of 'normalizing LGBT characters' and 'blurring the line between comedy and tragedy'. For example, one of the women in the book club happens to be a lesbian -- a fact that is secondary to the plot, and doesn't really warrant much comment (aside from one joke I'm particularly happy with). Most of my plays feature LGBT characters, with their gender identity/sexual identity being important, but not the focus.

KAM: What is the least likely thing you've gained inspiration from?

MJH: There's this fabulous 'alienation bench' that Thos. Moser Cabinet Makers only ever made 10 of. That inspired a full-length two-hander when I was at Emerson College for undergrad. For Tuesday, I was inspired when my boyfriend told me about a strange jogging partner he once unintentionally acquired. If you come hear the reading, you'll hear the result in the opening of Act Two.

KAM: What’s next for you?

MJH: I just learned that I've been awarded BU's Global Fellowship in Playwriting, so I'll be living and writing in Paris this fall! I have a 10-minute play titled "w4m" in Boston Actors Theater's Summer Play Festival, and am hoping to present my full-length play not Jenny in a festival this summer over at the CFA in June. Once I get back from Paris, I'm exploring options of moving to New York or Chicago, but for right now I can't see too far beyond taking everything I've learned at BPT and churning out new plays and, more importantly, new revisions. I have far too many ideas brewing about what to write about next -- disability, language development, transgender identity, Parisian sushi joints. I'm open to suggestions!

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