Thursday, February 6, 2014

Spinning Into Butter: The Play and the Playwright

After earning her MFA in playwriting at the University of Iowa, Alabama-born Rebecca Gilman moved to Chicago to work for an educational testing company, and to become a member of Chicago Dramatists. Several years later she was temping for an accounting firm by day, writing plays at night and piling up the rejection letters—150 of them. She had one play produced, in a tiny suburban theatre.

 Then she wrote Spinning Into Butter. In 1999 it was produced at Chicago’s fabled Goodman Theatre and became an immediate critical and popular hit. Its run was extended three times. Even before a second production at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, Gilman was one of the most famous and sought-after young playwrights in America.

Spinning Into Butter became the third most produced play in America in 2000.  It was made into a movie released in 2009 starring Sarah Jessica Parker, with script by Gilman.

 Spinning Into Butter is set at fictional Belmont College in Vermont. Gilman had attended Middlebury College, a similar small college in Vermont, though she later graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama.

 Writing about Gilman in American Theatre magazine, Chris Jones notes that “In the case of Spinning into Butter, her status as a white woman gave Gilman no qualms about exploring (sometimes in a comic mode) the effects of racism on an East Coast college campus.”

 He notes the effect of the play’s most dramatic moments on its first audiences, spoken by Dean of Students Sarah Daniels: "This seemingly kind and sympathetic character confesses her own veiled racism in a searing second-act monologue that shocked the audience at the Goodman Studio into a silence so complete it seemed born of personal agony."

"Gilman’s point, of course" (Jones continued), "is that liberal intellectuals often talk a good game about diversity, but so fail to have the requisite experience or true understanding of minority experiences, that they end up as part of the problem."

But there's another factor that Gilman herself mentions.  “While the concept of political correctness has made us more sensitive to how we perceive each other,” Gilman says, “there’s also a danger that the rhetoric will be allowed to mask some of our really angry feelings. People are now often afraid to articulate what they actually feel about each other.”

After seeing Spinning Into Butter at the Royal Court Theatre in London, critic Michael Billington wrote, “It is rare to find an American playwright dealing with ideas as well as emotions.”

Gilman, an admirer of playwright Wallace Shawn, agrees that this play centers on its subject. “I think the first two plays of mine to receive any attention—Spinning Into Butter and Boy Gets Girl—could be described as issue-oriented plays. I started with a theme with both of those plays whereas I usually start with characters or situations.”

But, writes Aimee Levitt in the Chicago Reader: "... once you experience them, Gilman's plays at their best amount to more than dramatic explorations of controversial issues where characters function less as people than embodiments of different points of view. Gilman never seems to forget that she's writing about human beings.”

" In my play Spinning Into Butter, which deals with racism on a small college campus in Vermont," Gilman said, " I tried to strike a balance between a comedy of manners and a serious exploration of white racism. But I worked very hard to make sure that the comedy wasn't simply a diversion -- that the ideas of the play were still being explored, although satirically. I think that the subject matter actually allowed for that."

The Goodman Theatre Artistic director Robert Falls adds, "Rebecca is both subversive and exciting.  She uses a simple and sparse language with characters that remain unsentimental and truthful. And there’s a real ferocious comic voice behind her writing.”

Why set a play about contemporary racism at an elite college, with almost all white characters? One answer might be speaking to the likely audience. " I think theatre is still a middle- to upper-class art form,” Gilman told Chicago Magazine. “I love Glory of Living, but it’s one of my least produced plays, I think, because poverty is depressing to theatre audiences."

Glory of Living, based on a real murder spree in Alabama, was that first play in a tiny suburban theatre.  It went on to be directed in New York by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Since Spinning Into Butter, Rebecca Gilman's plays include Boy Gets Girl (named best play of the year by Time Magazine), The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, Blue Surge, A True History of the Johnstown Flood, The Crowd You're In With, and adaptations of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter and Ibsen's A  Doll House.

 Now living in Wisconsin and teaching at Northwestern, her latest play went onstage at the Goodman Theatre in January: Luna Gale, about a social worker who must decide the fate of a drug addict's baby.

The fun of writing plays," Gilman says, "is that you have to inhabit everyone's point of view. Everybody, no matter how hideous, thinks they're justified. Why people do the thing they do—unless they're a sociopath, everyone thinks they have a good reason. That's why I love to write plays. I get to write reasons."

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