I’m going to open this post by formally apologizing for the extreme delay in posting this - I have been dealing with a slew of problems pertaining to my ankle (to get everyone up to speed, I tore a ligament entirely and split a tendon). Anyways, this was an interview I was really excited about.
A.A. has such a good vibe, and I was thrilled by the chance to interview a playwright. I photographed A.A. in July at Strand Book Store, which I found to be a fitting location for our conversation as well.
Without further ado, I give you our interview transcript.
Allison: Tell me a little bit about your background.
A.A.: I’m A.A. Brenner, born and raised in New York City, spent most of my life here except for a couple years where I went to college up in Ithaca, New York. I am really a true New Yorker at heart. My family has been here for a few generations. Mom is from Brooklyn and Dad is from Massachusetts, and sort of the old Jewish New York niche has fed into my life and my art, so that’s a really big part of my identity both as a human and a writer.
I write a lot about memory, identity, and family, and also being Jewish, and religion, because that is so important. Obviously tradition, especially with Jews, is a hot topic as they say. I’m also very queer, which has fed into all of my art, and I actually have cerebral palsy, very mild, and that has started feeding into my art as well.
I feel like since I stand at a unique intersection of identities, I have a responsibility to try to represent folks in all of those identities (and then some) to the best of my ability. Representation is so important and telling those stories is so vital, especially because a lot of them are stories that aren’t typically told, so I’ve sort of taken it upon myself to tell my story and to tell the story of my communities.
Allison: So how did you get into playwriting then?
A.A.: So I’ve been writing for almost as long as I can remember. My great aunt was a first grade teacher in the Brooklyn public school system for over 40 years and we were very close. She didn’t have a family, so I was basically her surrogate child. She taught me how to read and write and was having me write stories as early as three years old, so she started me off young and ever since then, I’ve been writing stuff.
I always write with a lot of dialogue, so it made a lot of sense for me to start writing plays. I’ve also always been interested in the theatre; I have acted in the past, and in college I tried my hand at directing. I also do dramaturgy, as well as playwriting. Basically we read The Glass Menagerie in my ninth grade English class, and it felt like “This is the form for me. I need to write a play.”
So I did, and here we are almost ten years later!
Allison: So what are some recurring themes or ideas in your plays?
A.A.: Really anything about identity - I’m a really huge fan of James Baldwin and the idea of representing who you are and who your communities are on the stage - it’s really important to me as I mentioned before. I write a lot about queer people. I write a lot about Jews. I write a lot about disabled people, the disability community, and everything in between. Whatever I can represent that is truthful and honest from my life, or from the lives of my friends, people I care deeply about, my family, that’s what’s important to me.
Allison: What artists, either from your medium or other mediums, inspire you?
A.A.: I was initially inspired by Tennessee Williams and the sheer honesty and how personal The Glass Menagerie really was - that had a huge galvanizing effect on my art, and it sort of challenged me to dig into myself, and find that within myself and tell my story. Same with James Baldwin. I’m a big fan of Flannery O’Connor and just pretty much anything where people are dealing with some deep-rooted, familial, blood-and-bone-type stuff, because that’s the stuff that’s really disturbing, but also people connect to it and really resonate with.
Allison: Who were some of your mentors you met along the way?
A.A.: Oh my gosh, so many. Pretty much all of my high school English teachers. I had a great teacher in 12th grade, Ms. Muniz, who I took a James Baldwin class with and that really jump-started my actual becoming a playwright, because she was challenging us to dig into that honest place and write from it. Also along the way, I worked a lot with Young Playwrights Inc. when I was coming into myself, so Artistic Director Sheri Goldhirsch was very a very formative influence, as was all the staff at YPI… more recently I just spent ten months as the Artistic Roundtable Apprentice at The Lark. The Lark is an international play laboratory and development theatre, and the folks there have been so supportive and instrumental in getting me onto the next path in my career. I’m about to start at Columbia’s MFA Playwriting program this September, so I’m super excited to work with the folks there as well. I’m sure there’s a million more people that I’m forgetting to name as well, including many great professors I had while completing my undergraduate degree in theatre at Cornell - my professors there were really awesome.
Allison: What are your favorite books and plays?
A.A.: Obviously The Glass Menagerie, and I love A Streetcar Named Desire. I’m in the process of writing a modernized adaptation of that called Blanche and Stella, that’s just Blanche and Stella, so very excited about that. Again, Flannery O’Connor and James Baldwin… just anything by both of them I love. I also love and hate William Faulkner.
Allison: So the play you’re writing based on “A Streetcar Named Desire”, will that be produced and shown?
A.A.: So that’s way in the works, ultimately yes. I’m waiting a little bit on that one. Stuff that is actually getting produced right now, I just had a show go up in D.C. at the Capital Fringe Festival that’s called God is Dead and April’s Getting Married. We were very fortunate - I started writing that play two years ago, and when I was a fellow at Shakespeare Theatre Company. STC has a wonderful professional development program, so I got to work in the artistic department there. I met folks who were interested in producing this play I had written, and lo and behold, two years later we’re up at Fringe and getting really kind, generous reviews, and it’s been going so well. It’s unimaginable almost from where we began.
Allison: What is the most rewarding thing for you about being a playwright?
A.A.: Definitely connecting to audiences. Any time I walk out of the theater and folks come up to me and say, “Wow, thank you for telling my story,” or “Thank you for making me reflect more on my life and experience,” that is always very very rewarding for me, and that’s why I write.
Allison: What are your favorite and least favorite things about being an artist in New York City?
A.A.: My favorite thing is the community here is amazing; it’s so vibrant and widespread. I did live in D.C. for a year as I mentioned, and while the community there is lovely, it is definitely smaller, so it was nice to come home to such a wide variety of artists and such an artistic city in general. The arts are so central to the structure of New York: it can’t exist without it, so that’s really cool and has been very inspiring. Other than that, the worst thing is the money. I’m fortunate that I’m from here and my parents are from here, so I’m able to live with them, but living with your parents when you’re 24 can sometimes leave something to be desired. Happy to have the option, but wishing that it was easier to make a living.
Allison: When you sit down to write, what helps you get started?
A.A.: That’s a good question. I do try to start with free-writing to get the juices flowing and to see what’s on my mind and what I’m interested in. Something that was really interesting, we had a talk with David Henry Hwang at The Lark a couple months ago, and he was saying that he always begins his plays with a question, something that he’s questioning in his life or something he would want to write about, and I think that’s very much where my plays start from as well.
Allison: Is there anything else you want readers to know?
A.A.: Storytelling and representation is what really excites me, and I’m here to write about all the things that make me uncomfortable and other people uncomfortable, so that we can reflect on it in a mature, honest, and important way.