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Sarah Treem's new play When We Were Young and Unafraid, now in its world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club, may be set in 1972, but it's also about being a woman right now, today, in the United States. The show follows Agnes (Cherry Jones), whose B&B on an island near Seattle secretly harbors abused women. As Treem notes in this frank conversation with TDF Stages, that's a topic that's all too relevant in 2014, even among those who might seem immune.
TDF: I saw the play last week, and I was struck by the blend of action and ideas. On one hand, there's a lot of capital-p plot. Agnes clashes with her increasingly independent daughter Penny (Morgan Saylor). She harbors Mary Anne (Zoe Kazan), an abuse victim who can't stay inconspicuous, and she grapples with Hannah (Cherise Boothe), a drifter who's looking for an all-female compound on the island. But at the same time, these characters represent various strategies for existing as an American woman. Hanna embodies radical, separatist ideas, for instance, and Penny seeks a balance between being smart and being popular. What's appealing about dramatizing with large themes?
Sarah Treem: I've always thought that's what theatre was supposed to do. My favorite playwrights are Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn, David Hare. They put ideas on stage. I feel like theatre is the only medium where you're allowed to do that. Having now written for film and television, you don't really get to have a conversation like that. [Treem's screen credits include Netflix's House of Cards and HBO's In Treatment, and she's currently creating the drama The Affairfor Showtime.]
In theatre, ideas come alive and they matter. Usually, when I approach a play, there's some question gnawing at me. The process becomes figuring out what the question is actually about. What is the anxiety behind it? And for me, it's got to be a question that I really, really need to be answered. Otherwise, I won't finish the play
TDF: What was the question that gnawed at you here?
Treem: I was thinking about the link between sex and violence and love and power. I was thinking about how blurry those lines are, and I was wondering where that crosses over into behavior that's not okay. When does that dynamic become harmful?
TDF: That's certainly an element of the script, but feels like the play pushes beyond that question, too.
Treem: Right. That's where it started. I started with this idea of sex and violence and then expanded into the idea of, "Well, why doesn't feminism quite work in the way people initially hoped it would? What are we missing?" It's a lot of what Hannah talks about. She has this whole speech where she says, "If we really want gender parity, then we have to live separate but equal from men." And I find that those ideologies are great in theory, but they won't work. They just don't translate into practical life. Sometimes, the way we relate to each other is very biological and very primal. It just is. And the play is trying to get at that---how, for some women, there can be this feeling that sex is an obstacle. For these women, it's this thing that keeps them from being able to become what they want to be.
TDF: Can you talk about why you set the play in the 70s?
Treem: I wasn't always going to set it in the 70s. I initially thought I wanted to write a play set in contemporary times. I had just come out of a relationship that was pretty abusive, and I was really surprised by the fact that I had gotten into it, that I had stayed in it, that I'd lied to people in order to stay in it.
I was devastated afterwards. I couldn't figure out what had happened. I was such a smart girl, so educated. I didn't seem like "the type." So I wanted to write about domestic violence in a contemporary setting.
But honestly, in my experience of writing about that kind of stuff in the past, I felt like if you set a play that has something to do with feminism or gender relationships in contemporary times, then there's a lot that people bring to the table before they've even seen the play. "Well, that's not my life. That's not the life of the women I know. That's all behind us. Why are we still having this conversation?"
If I had written a play about domestic violence in contemporary times---and maybe this is just my own projection---I feel like people would have come to it and said, 'Well, that woman is an idiot. Why is she staying in that relationship? It makes no sense.' I felt like if I put it back in the 70s and set it in a remote place, then I could kind of get away with talking about it as a real question that didn't have an easy answer.
TDF: That's very striking… that in order to address a question you know for a fact has contemporary relevance, you felt like you could have more freedom as a writer and a thinker if you moved your story to the past. Do the events in the play feel as personally urgent to you now as they did before?
Treem: My life has evolved. I wrote this play in a very specific time in my life, and now it's almost four years later. My life has changed really radically. I met [my soon-to-be husband]. I had a baby. I am having this career, and I'm having this domestic situation where we're co-parenting in a way I didn't really have a model for. I didn't know it was possible. Our gender roles are not so stereotypical. And now I feel like the anxiety that I have to write about is starting to shift to something else.
TDF: Has that impacted your work on this production?
Treem: What's been nice about this production is that I've had a lot of distance from the time when I was writing it. I've been able to step back and see the play as a world. I've been able to do that more with this play than with any other play. It's helped me in general with making sure each character has their own separate arc and the play feels balanced… writing stuff. Sometimes, when you're so heavily invested in making a point, you're not so effective at that, but when you can step back, you can really focus on it.