In Conversation with Sarah Burgess

A few weeks before first rehearsal, Elizabeth Frankel, the Alley Theatre’s Director of New Work, sat down to speak with Sarah Burgess, author of Dry Powder.

Elizabeth FrankelElizabeth Frankel: What was your inspiration for Dry Powder and how did you come to write it?

Sarah BurgessSarah Burgess: I got interested in private equity when Mitt Romney ran for president. His work at Bain Capital [an investment and private equity firm] was criticized as something that destroys jobs and is a bunch of elite New Yorkers profiting from the destruction of American companies and stuff like that. So, I was interested in how private equity became an area in finance that was criticized for some of the larger trends that we’ve seen. And I was curious about the mechanics of it…I had heard the term “leveraged buyout” but I didn’t know what that was and I wanted to educate myself. I started to find out about it and found it really compelling.

EF: When you became interested, did you instantly think “I’m going to do research and write a play”?

SB: I wasn’t sure it would be theatre but I was definitely thinking about writing something that would involve two characters -- a man and a woman -- and then some kind of authority between them. A man and a woman arguing over how to handle a situation representing the two sides of that argument: one would be protecting workers and advocating restraint and the other would present the counter argument, which is complete faith in the free market. I found that still unresolved conflict really interesting, specifically for writing about, but I wasn’t sure what form it would take.

EF: It’s interesting to hear you say that early on, you knew it would be a man and a woman representing each side of the debate. How did you decide which point of view to give to each character?

SB: The darker impulse, the more villainous character, is a little easier if it’s your gender you’re representing that way. It seems that, at least for me, you know what it’s like to live in that body and you don’t feel like you’re engaging in stereotypes as much if you are actually representing something closer to yourself.

EF: What did you do to educate yourself about private equity?

SB: Number one: I read a lot of news articles in the business press. For example there was a Fortune magazine article about Heinz being taken over by Warren Buffett and a Brazilian private equity group called 3G. In The Times there were a couple of big pieces about Simmons Mattress being taken over by private equity. There was a piece about Romney I read a couple times about his time at Bain Capital when Bain took over a company called Dade International. I also read “Barbarians at the Gate” [by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar], which is a business book classic, and I read a book about Steven Schwarzman and Blackstone called “King of Capital” [by David Carey and John E. Morris]. I read a lot, even technical stuff online about leveraged buy-out models.

After I wrote the first draft, I think when I knew it was going to be done at The Public Theater [in New York], I started to meet with people who worked in private equity to get their feedback and I learned a lot in those meetings about terminology. It was fun to get feedback from finance people because they tend to be more direct than theatre people.

EF: What was the development process like for the play?

SB: I wrote it when I was in Ars Nova’s Play Group [a writers group based at New York’s Ars Nova theater]. It’s a two year stint. At the end of the two years, Ars Nova gives you a 29-hour-workshop. It amounts to a week of sitting around the table working with actors, then Ars Nova would host a reading where you can invite people from the industry. That was a very helpful step in the process. In a room of people, things would get laughs and I was surprised that people were interested in the play. When I would talk to people and say what I was writing about, people seemed deeply bored by the idea. I’d say “I’m writing about private equity firms deciding whether or not buy a company and then they buy it.” It doesn’t sound like a barn-burner exactly. [At the reading,] I could see that the parts of the play that seemed to work could hold an audience.

Then [Public Theater Artistic Director] Oskar Eustis read the play. He told me that they were going to do it and I was very shocked. Then there was about a year’s development before the production. We had one reading and but also conversations. There were a couple drafts I sent and would get notes from Oskar and [director] Thomas Kail (Hamilton). Some things got smoothed out and changed over that year, especially around the character of Jeff Schrader.

EF: I understand that when you had the world premiere of Dry Power this past spring, it was your first professional production. Is that correct?

SB: That was my first production period because I didn’t go to go to grad school for theatre…I’d never had a play of mine produced at all actually.

EF: What was that experience like?

It was all very new. Even being in rehearsal with actors, that’s such a different thing from an actor who’s doing a reading of an unfinished play. In a reading situation or workshop, the premise is that this play is maybe going be good but there are some flaws and we’re all here to help the writer.  In a production, where you’re really transferring the entire play, the director and the actors are creating a product out of what you wrote. It was really cool to see it take shape and also to see what you need to change once it actually is going to be staged. Something will play one way in a reading but when it’s actually three-dimensional humans on stage acting it out in a real production, you need to adapt the script to that to some degree.

EF: Have you seen Dry Powder performed since its world premiere?

SB: The Alley’s production is the only one to happen since The Public that’s a real, professional production in any way. I’m very excited to come check it out there.

EF: Since the election, I’ve had a lot of conversations with theatre colleagues about how the Trump presidency will change the resonance of plays. Your play will be the first production at the Alley after Inauguration Day so I’d be curious to hear how you think the election will affect the resonance of Dry Powder.

I’ve certainly been thinking about it. What felt like a fun way to play with a nit-pick of a reality in our culture now feels a little more present…but of course Dry Powder doesn’t show the losers, the people who have been really hurt by this -- except arguably one person -- so it will be really interesting. And I’m really excited to see how it feels when you’re having fun with the people who’ve been vilified by some people at least. Who feels what about them is always shifting around as far as the Republican Party and sometimes the Democratic Party. On a larger scale, I don’t know… It is one angle on this thing that is now a bigger part of all of our lives that we can’t ignore, but it is a very specific angle on it.

EF: I hear you spent Christmas in Texas. What’s your connection to our state?

SB: My girlfriend is from Dallas and we tend to go visit her family right before Christmas. This time, I stayed in Dallas for ten days, except when I come to Houston for the first rehearsal – which I’m excited about. I had no Texas connection before I was with her. I’ve started to really enjoy it. I demand that her family take me to every Tex-Mex restaurant…I’m probably a stereotype of a non-Texan. I just get obsessed with finding good queso. I’m always bewildered by how flat it is compared to the mid-Atlantic and New York, where I’m from. And also it’s crazy how friendly people are compared to in New York. I’m always in such a good mood and blown away by it. I always so look forward to coming and am excited to come back again.

EF: Have you been to Houston before?

SB: I’ve barely been to Houston. I have a couple of good college friends who grew up there. I’m excited to come see Houston after spending all that time in Dallas. I know there’s a rivalry…

EF: What are you working on now?

SB: Theatre-wise, I’m going keep working on play about lobbyists. I might have a private reading of that in a month to see if it feels completely irrelevant or not…When you elect somebody, it’s like “what are these next four years going to be like?” It’s hard to wrap your arms around that. I’m also finishing a couple scripts for a limited series on Showtime which is an adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s most recent novel “Purity.” It’s been a really cool experience working with Todd Fields; he’s a great film director and I’ve learned a lot from him. Then I’ll have a couple other jobs that I’ll start tackling but the next major, for-sure thing is getting back to my next play very soon.