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Playwright Bess Wohl on Continuity, her new dark comedy at Manhattan Theatre Club
Playwright Bess Wohl relishes a good challenge. Her book for the musical Pretty Filthy was based on interviews with porn stars. She set her play Small Mouth Sounds at a silent meditation retreat so there was practically no dialogue. Yet Wohl admits writing about climate change in her world-premiere dark comedy Continuity at Manhattan Theatre Club felt "almost impossible."
It's telling that Continuity is the second climate change-themed comedy to debut in NYC this year, after Madeleine George's Hurricane Diane at New York Theatre Workshop. Clearly playwrights (much like scientists) are wrestling with how to fashion a compelling narrative about the environmental catastrophe we're facing without alienating audiences. Do you scare the crap out of people and risk everyone tuning out? Or do you offer a bit of hope in order to inspire change? It took Wohl several attempts over many years to find the right way into the topic: a group of artists facing the same predicament she was.
Continuity takes place on a movie set in the middle of the New Mexico desert where the director, screenwriter and cast are arguing over how to tell a story about climate change while they shoot six different takes of a single scene on a simulated sheet of ice. Not only does the structure allow Wohl to examine the issue in multiple ways, but the entire play serves as a metaphor for how we experience climate change in our everyday lives.
"On a film set you are often counting down the time and, also, standing around doing nothing," says Wohl, who worked as a screen actress before seguing to playwriting. "There is this sense of a crisis and yet it doesn't look or feel anything like a crisis. I think that's part of the experience of living in the world right now. There is also the repetition in the way you shoot a movie -- the sense of being caught in a loop. I was interested in relating that to the different positive feedback loops in the climate" -- in simple terms, the domino effect a change in the climate can cause.
If that sounds a bit heady, don't worry: Wohl leavens the scary science with laughs. "There's always a mixture in her work -- the incredible humor that is often rooted in very small human fragilities, and then this pathos that is about larger human sadnesses," says director Rachel Chavkin, who previously collaborated with Wohl on Small Mouth Sounds and is currently up for a Tony for helming Hadestown on Broadway. "One of the ways Beth has chosen to look at climate change in Continuity is the question of whether you can see and understand a change -- or an end of something -- when you are standing inside of it. It's about the existential confusion that comes from being inside a shift of certain circumstances."
Just as watching repeated takes of the same scene doesn't give us a sense of what the final movie will look like, humanity doesn't know how climate change will play out. "Is there continuity to humanity, or are we living through an extinction?" asks Wohl rhetorically. "And then there's the continuity between people and countries. We like to divide the world up into borders and walls, but when you look at it from the outside, the Earth is continuous. I think it's very hard to talk about what's really happening with climate change, so this play is just making a space where we talk about these things and look at them together in a communal way."
Gerard Raymond is an arts journalist based in New York City.
Alex Hurt, Jasmine Batchelor and Megan Ketch in Continuity. Photos by Matthew Murphy.