About the Playwright
Bess Wohlʼs plays have been produced or developed at The Williamstown Theatre Festival, The Contemporary American Theater Festival, The Cape Cod Theatre Project, Peopleʼs Light and Theatre, The Pittsburgh Public Theater, The Northlight Theater, TheaterWorks New Works Fesitval, The Geffen Playhouse, Ojai Playwright's Conference, and The Pioneer Theater.
Current projects include Pretty Filthy, an original musical, in collaboration with the composer/lyricist Michael Friedman and The Civilians, and the upcoming world premiere of her new play, American Hero, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival with director Leigh Silverman.
She recently completed a screenplay adaptation of the bestselling novel, The Luxe, for Paramount Pictures, and is now writing an original feature. Her screenplay adaptation of her play, IN, was included on Hollywood's Black List of best scripts. She has developed original television pilots for Fox and HBO, and is currently at work on a new pilot for the USA network.
Her work has been supported by a MacDowell Fellowship, PlayPenn, and the Sewanee Writer's Conference. She is a member of the Ars Nova Play Group, and has been the recipient of new play commissions from Manhattan Theatre Club, Center Theatre Group and The Pioneer Theatre.
She is a graduate of Harvard and earned her MFA from the Yale School of Drama.
A Conversation between Playwright Bess Wohl
& Associate Artistic Director and Dramaturg Zak Berkman
Zak: What spurred you to start writing Barcelona?
Bess: I started the play during the Iraq war. I was interested in what it means when your country does things you personally do not approve of. How should you react to this, as a citizen? To what extent does an individual citizen bear responsibility for the actions of his or her nation?
Zak: Has your original impulse changed at all as you've worked on the play?
Bess: As I work on the play, I find myself more interested in the journeys of my individual characters, and less interested in the more abstract questions that first spurred me to write. The characters have become clearer and more specific, and I find myself wanting to dig deeper into who they are as people, and let the thematic questions take care of themselves. I now feel that it is my responsibility to tell the story of these two people-- and I'm counting on the audience to find larger thematic resonance in the world beyond.
Zak: You started this play before you were married, yes? And before you became a mother? Have these life changes altered your experience of your own play, what you're hoping to communicate?
Bess: I would say that the more distance I have from the act of writing the play, the more clearly I'm able to see it. So I don't think it's about the specific life events that have happened to me personally-- but I do think a bit of time passing has enabled me to get a helpful dose of perspective on the play, hopefully allowing me to make it accessible for a wider range of people.
Zak: What does "being an American" mean to you? How do you feel this might be reflected in the play?
Bess: I feel very grateful to have been born in a country that has such great resources and can afford so much opportunity to such a wide diversity of people. I think a lot about what kind of responsibility comes with having such privileged status as a global superpower. Perhaps one pitfall of this position is that I find that there can sometimes be, among our citizens, a very uniquely "American" blindness to the rest of the world-- leading to bad behavior both globally and on a personal level.
Personally speaking, I myself have had the experience of traveling in Europe and cringing to see other "loud Americans." I hope the play explores this phenomenon-- the American tourist-- on both a personal and political level. What does it mean to impose one's on values and fantasies on another country, or on another person? And how can we see "the other" clearly, without projecting? How do we distinguish between "difference" and "danger?"
Zak: I first learned of Barcelona after Teri [Zak’s wife, actress Teri Lamm] saw the reading at Ojai Playwrights Conference. What kind of development process has the play had? What aspects of this process has been most valuable to you?
Bess: The play was first developed at Ojai Playwrights Conference, where I was lucky enough to meet Teri! Since then it has had a workshop through People's Light and Playpenn, a reading at Manhattan Theatre Club, and its first production at Contemporary American Theater Festival (part of the rolling world premiere with People’s Light). Each of these experiences, and the people involved, have taught me new things about the play. It's hard to say what's most valuable-- but I'd have to say getting the play in front of audiences tends to be where I learn the most. Even if it's just a reading, feeling the audience response in the room teaches me where the play is working and where I need to work harder on it. The audience is really the best teacher.
Zak: How did you and director Jackson Gay first meet? Have you worked together before?
Bess: Jackson and I were classmates at Yale Drama School, where she immediately distinguished herself as an extraordinary talent. Many people don't know this-- but Jackson is also a fantastic actress! I cast her in the first play I ever wrote and directed, which we performed in the Yale Cabaret and then at the Fringe Festival in NYC. She was absolutely brilliant and hilarious, playing a former actress from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats. So I have directed Jackson-- and it's wonderful to have her now directing one of my plays. It's been a dream of mine to collaborate with her in this way for a long time.
Zak: Why did you agree to let People's Light & Theatre present the world premiere (in partnership with CATF) of Barcelona?
Bess: I'd of course heard great things about People's Light from Jackson and others in the theatre community, so I was thrilled when you reached out to me. I also knew of your work, Zak, with Epic Theatre Ensemble in New York, and was a great admirer of what you’d done there. Then, we first met to discuss the play, I was struck by your passion, honesty and your sharp intelligence. At a time when so many cultural institutions are closing down or cutting back, you’re bravely bucking the tide-- and continue to be a great resource and champion for playwrights. You understand the process, being a writer yourself, and you’re able to guide a play in a way that is both gentle and clear. We continued the conversation when I came down last year to see Ken Lin's Fallow, got to meet Abbey Adams [People’s Light’s Artistic Director] and everyone else at People's Light, and was so impressed by the quality of the work and the commitment to the artistic process on every level. I am so grateful to become part of the People's Light community.
Other Perspectives on the Play
"Barcelona by Bess Wohl is… a morality play, which moves from romantic comedy to political thriller."
--Lauren LaRocca, fredericknewspost.com, 29 June 2012
"This is a play about what is broken in us and how we burn through the most difficult defenses to find what we are worth and in whose eyes. The most astonishing part is the script that dazzles and dances with human foibles, in what may be one of the most entertaining plays appearing anywhere, in any city, this calendar year."
--Grace Cavalieri, danmurano.com, 22 July 2012
"One of the many things Bess Wohl’s new play Barcelona does well is solve its problems without answering its questions. That quality–resolution without reduction–may derive from the playwright’s ability to listen more than she talks…
Are we blind to the truth about ourselves, this play asks, or do we just pretend to be blind? And different as we are, how can we be so much the same? A playwright interested primarily in what she has to say might give us answers to those questions, and we would probably leave those answers in the theater, for all they might be worth; Bess Wohl lets us take the questions home and tape them to the mirror in the bathroom, where we can keep an eye on them, and they can keep an eye on us. We should thank her for that."
--Mark Dewey, shenandoahpress.org, 16 July 2012
"The true character of this handsome Spaniard… is revealed only reluctantly, as is that of Irene. She begins as an embarrassingly familiar cliché of the crass American tourist, but when it slowly dawns on her that she may be in over her head, she undergoes a radical transformation, passing through a wide range of emotions that make her a far more complex and compelling character."
--Bill Rough, wordpress.com, 14 July 2012