Writing for women of a certain age: meet Jen Silverman, the author of The Roommate

Coralie Cairns (front) and Nadien Chu in The Roommate, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

playwright Jen Silverman

Jen Silverman is the New York-based playwright/ screenwriter/ novelist who wrote the comedy The Roommate. Last produced at Chicago’s Steppenwolf in 2018, it’s the season-opener at Shadow Theatre. She made time in her schedule for some questions.

You write, have always written, in a startling variety of forms. Could you riff, as a multi-lingual world traveller, on your initial attraction to theatre? And your entry point into writing for the stage? 

I didn’t grow up going to the theatre – I stumbled into it by accident my freshman year of university and was absolutely electrified. I thought I’d discovered something secret and magical that was just for me. I thought that nobody else had ever felt the way I was feeling. When I’m making a play now, I think about plays as gifts or invitations to the audience. And that’s the feeling I try to write from: Let me tell you something that’s just for you.

Whom do you consider mentors in playwriting? I’ve read that Paula Vogel was an inspiration for you. 

I had an amazing first teacher, Emily O’Dell, who gave me an introduction to theatre that was full of powerhouse female playwrights: she introduced me to plays by Sarah Kane, Caryl Churchill, Naomi Iizuka and Paula Vogel (who was Emily’s teacher, and later briefly mine). Other mentors of mine along the way included David Adjmi and Naomi Wallace, who I studied with in grad school. And I saw plays by playwrights such as Marcus Gardley, Young Jean Lee, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Basil Kreimendahl, that really shaped my idea of what theatre could be.

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Could you take us back to the seed that germinated as The Roommate? 

It’s rare for us to see exciting, provocative, complicated, morally ambiguous portraits of older women onstage or on screen. There’s something so sanitized about the images we receive of women who are, say, over thirty-five – and that image doesn’t actually mesh with the 50 and 60 year old women I know, who are hilarious and complex and fascinating. I wanted to write a play that gave two female characters the same due that older male characters receive much more often.

The origin point of the play is that my partner’s mother was, briefly, living with a roommate her age. Hearing her stories, I was fascinated by what it means for two adult women to navigate living together, and my imagination took off from there.  (My mother-in-law is not running any kind of criminal endeavour, for the record.)

Many of your plays seem to feature women characters pushing for change in their lives, or chafing at the lack of it. Could you expand a little on that? 

I think we all reach moments in our lives where we feel trapped by the accumulated decisions we’ve made, by the things we’ve become accustomed to. We may not even be aware that we’re unhappy – we’re just mired in the status quo. Sharon’s status quo is her loneliness and her feeling of being invisible; similarly, Robyn has been moving through the world as a lone wolf of sorts, although in much different circumstances. The two of them create a combustible energy together – they can imagine themselves differently, because they create a new space of imagining together. Once you can see a new life for yourself, the natural next step is to reach for it.

A lot of my plays are about people seeking or finding transformation – people who are either succeeding or failing at pursuing a different vision of themselves or their lives. In this way The Roommate is in direct conversation with plays that are stylistically very different, like the absurdist comedy Collective Rage: A Play In 5 Betties (Woolly Mammoth, MCC), or the gothic-absurdist The Moors (Yale Rep, Playwrights Realm).

Do politics, and the current “populist” regressive craziness of the world, impinge with any directness, on your work?  

As a queer woman raised in a number of different countries, I bring a specific lens to my work. I am fascinated by power dynamics, and the many kinds of power and disempowerment that can exist simultaneously within a relationship – or a culture. When it comes to theatre, I’m interested in a political vocabulary that is complex, contradictory, and built on questions instead of answers. That said, to ask burning questions — especially now — is inherently political.

The Roommate by Jen Silverman, currently onstage at the Varscona Theatre, runs through Nov. 10. Nancy McAlear’s production stars Coralie Cairns and Nadien Chu. Tickets: 780-434-5564,  shadowtheatre.org  

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