Calamity West’s newest play, Rolling, tells the story of Valerie, a journalist whose groundbreaking story about sexual assault may have been a fraud, and the public and private misogyny she faces when she returns home to escape the fallout. It is nearing the end of its run at Jackalope Theatre Company in Chicago, having garnered excellent reviews from Timeout Chicago and the Chicago Tribune. Two of her previous works, Give It All Back (2015) and The Peacock (2013), have been cited by the Kilroys, an organization which recognizes excellent new work by female and trans* playwrights. I sat down with West to talk about her work, its reception and what it means to write as a woman.
Rukmini Girish: I’m curious about how often your plays seem to take place in these claustrophobic, small environments. Is that something you do consciously, something you look for?
Calamity West: I don’t think it’s something that I do consciously, but I think it got to a point, especially with Rolling, that through workshops or productions or rehearsals, people saying to me, “It’s just so claustrophobic,” and I’d just be like, “What are you talking about?” I don’t think I’ve quite figured that out as deeply as I could beyond to say that I feel like those kinds of environments just make for really good drama. The characters can’t leave and you can’t leave—I mean, you can leave but hopefully you won’t. I think the environment of the actual play and then the environment of the theatre, they just work well together and it just heightens the drama in easier ways than if it was some play where it was sprawling and every scene change was a different location.
RG: Not like The Peacock. All of it takes place in this one creative writing workshop.
CW: Yeah, it’s one girl and she has one line and it’s 1946, I think, and it’s based in—loosely based, never specified—in the Iowa workshop, which was starting in 1946. I got the idea from reading a biography about Flannery O’Connor. She’s in that program, the first year Iowa launched, she was there, and she was one of two women, and she was there with a bunch of veterans, and she was writing these really violent stories and riots would start in the classroom because all of these veterans were just like, “Who the fuck are you?” and she’s just like, “I don’t know, it’s just a story” and anyway, I wondered what a play would look like. It was reminiscent of that time and also reminiscent of what I was going through at the time, which was feeling like I’m a writer in a boys club, which is totally what I feel like. I had female colleagues but one by one they’ve totally stopped because it’s a really, really discouraging field for women. And that play was a response to my MFA experiences but also my experiences in Chicago as a female playwright.
RG: In that case—your plays have been called homages to Chekhov and Ibsen and so on and so forth. How do you feel about that?
CW: It feels pretty weird. I don’t really know what they mean by that. It just feels like a really convenient label to place on a female writer so that you don’t just have to come out and say that she’s good, you have to compare her to, like, some old white Russian writer—who was awesome—but the idea that I can’t be on my own, I still have to have shadows of these old, white playwrights looming over me and that’s what I need to be compared to, is questionable. But the people writing the reviews are also—tend to be—white males, aged between thirty-five and sixty-five, and that’s all they know.
RG: Who would you like to be compared to, then? Who would you say are your literary influences?
CW: I think Annie Baker. But I couldn’t be compared to her because she’s the master, right? She’s the best. She’s an alien, she’s not even real in my head, she’s so good. I’m going to use this word for lack of a better word, but I think there’s a fearlessness of her work that I do not have. Like The Aliens—I saw a production of it at Red Orchid and the first five minutes of it is total silence, where it’s just two guys on a park bench. One of them is definitely high and he’s literally just thinking and playing a story out through his gestures of thinking and I don’t have the balls to do something like that in one of my plays, you know what I mean? I think maybe she just trusts us, the audience, way more than I trust audiences but yeah... I guess I don’t want to be compared to anybody.
RG: What do you think we can do—we meaning women who write and, especially, women playwrights—to encourage other women to write?
CW: Do it really well... Be as articulate and brave as you can about your work and confident in it... Don’t be afraid to call out discrepancies or misogyny in the field, again in an articulate and smart way. And actively support each other. Do check-ins, go see each other’s shows even if you don’t know the person. For me, I don’t even know you but, like, you have a vagina and you wrote a play so I’m gonna go see it and tell people to go see it. It’s those small things that actually do make a huge difference whether you want to think it does or doesn’t.
RG: Awesome. Well, you are developing your new play about Tony Kushner [titled Tony Kushner Decides to Write a Gay Fantasia Based on National Themes]. He’s a gay man. You told me that, at one point in the play, he’s being played by this black male character. There’s been a lot of conversation about appropriation in the media recently. How do you handle writing about people whose experiences are different from your own?
CW: I think the Tony Kushner play is a reflection of that question, in that if you’re a writer—whether you’re a journalist, nonfiction, poet, fiction, playwright, whatever—your job as a person and an artist is to be as human and vulnerable and empathetic and sympathetic a person you can be so you can see the right and wrong in every situation and apply it to the page so you can have three-dimensional characters. And that’s why art’s the shit is because no matter what form of art, it’s a reflection of the best and worst parts of humanity. I’m not going to limit myself to telling stories about white girls because that’s what I am. There are too many voices and too many experiences in my head to do that. I’m not gonna cater to that box because of it. And I think part of the reason why, with Tony Kushner, the first Tony Kushner is Tony Kushner as you would imagine him, and then Tony Kushner as a woman and then Tony Kushner as a black man—my choice in doing that is to explore the different parts of Tony Kushner as he is an archetype as the playwright. Because Angels in America has one of the best female characters, maybe of all time, in it. He’s a white male, but he was able to write an amazing, amazing female character who, despite all odds, triumphs in a really complicated and really believable way, if any of that makes sense. You can do whatever you want and fuck everybody else, you know what I mean? That’s how I feel.
Photos of Calamity's plays via 3arts.org
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Rukmini Girish is working towards her MFA in Nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago while trying to stay active in theatre. She also writes for Floodmark, a website providing inspiration for poets outside academia. She graduated from Augustana College.