In Conversation with Eliza Clark
On November 16, after seeing the world premiere of Quack at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles the night prior, Alley Theatre Director of New Work Elizabeth Frankel met playwright Eliza Clark for lunch. Here are excerpts from their conversation.
Elizabeth Frankel: I loved the show last night and am so excited that we’ll be making a production of your play at the Alley in just a few months. To start, let’s back up. When did you begin writing Quack?
Eliza Clark: I wrote the first scene of Quack about four years ago. And at the time I was, I think, pregnant or had just had a baby and I was really interested in vaccines and people who don’t vaccinate their children. So that’s sort of what the jumping off point was for me.
EF: Were you ever debating if you would vaccinate?
EC: No, I was not debating. I am pro vaccine.
EF: Ok, great. (laughs)
EC: But I live in LA, so there are a lot of people here who don’t vaccinate, which I find kind of baffling. I wanted to write a play about it. And so I wrote the first scene and then I put it in a drawer.
EF: And was that first scene Doctor Baer and Kelly?
EC: It was Doctor Baer and Kelly and Meredith. It was basically what the first scene is now. But then I put it away. And then Donald Trump was elected. And I was writing something else, and I just couldn’t—I had this nagging feeling that I needed to go back to it. And so I went back to it about two years ago—in 2016, early 2017—and wrote it very quickly about all the things I was angry about. At the time, it was about the alt-right. I finished the first draft two months before the Harvey Weinstein article in the New Yorker. So, the ways in which it has reverberations with the Me Too movement is kind of coincidental.
EF: Has the political climate affected any of the writing or revising since you completed the draft?
EC: It has and it hasn’t. I definitely have had what’s been going on in the world in the back of my mind (or, really, in the front of my mind, because don’t we all?) while I’ve been revising the play. But at the same time it was important to me that it be about characters and not about topics. And, y’know, I’ve been a woman in a man’s business for a long time, so it’s also my experiences. It was influenced, I think, more by the experience of being a young woman in a male-dominated industry than it was by things I was reading on the news.
EF: That makes sense. And I think it’s fair to say the play very much speaks to the experience of women, and that women in the audience will find a lot to relate to in the female characters. And yet, your main character is a man. So, I’m curious about how you came to put Doctor Baer at the center of the play.
EC: That’s the trick! (laughs) Well, for me, it is about the women. Women have been taught to be the side characters in men’s stories for thousands of years. There’s something sneaky going on in the play. You’re focused on the protagonist, who is this dynamic man, but the women that surround him make it possible for him to exist. He is that quintessential self-proclaimed “feminist man”—“male ally” or whatever—who doesn’t actually adhere to any of the values of feminism or of being an ally. But he’s at the center, because he’s held up by all the women who are his supporting cast. I feel like it mirrors the way the world works.
EF: Absolutely. So we had read the draft you completed in 2017. And then we had a reading of in our Alley All New festival in January 2018. How was that process useful to you?
EC: It was super useful. I did a lot of rewriting. The play solidified for me over that weekend, and it was nice to be able to have a few days to dive into it, and to have a new cast that I hadn’t heard read the words before. It was also helpful to do a talkback with an audience from a city where I don’t live. It was an exciting experience, and it felt like the Alley was a big part of the play’s growth and process.
EF: Oh, good. Then, I gather, you had some readings without an audience at Center Theatre Group in May, prior to their producing the play this fall. What did you learn through those workshops?
The development process for this play has been the most rigorous that I’ve ever had. I think the play is in the best shape of any play I’ve ever written because of that. Center Theatre Group decided to do the play, and the Alley decided to do the play, before I knew I was going to have two more workshops. So I was able to know going into that development that I was working toward a production—toward two productions. I was able to really focus on what is the experience of the audience going to be. When I started the rehearsal process, I was in a much better place with the play— I knew what the play was. And while I was still trimming and shaping during the rehearsal process and we found cool things—and I’m sure we’re gonna find amazingly new and cool things at the Alley—the play itself, what the play is at its core, exists because I had those development workshops.
EF: And how was the process of working on the world premiere?
EC: It was awesome. Y’know, I had a baby two months before we started rehearsals. So I’ve been like pumping while I’m rehearsing, which has been a little nutty. But it’s fun. I had both my kids at the theatre for tech, and I have amazing pictures of my son on the stage…
EF: You brought both boys to tech?
EC: Both boys to tech. My older son is obsessed with theater. And there’s this amazing picture of him on the stage —he sang Frozen for everybody, I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s an applause cue in the show, and they played it for him, and he was like “where is that coming from??” He felt like he was a star, and it was amazing. Yeah, and so the process of the world premiere has been really exciting, and I’ve learned a lot. And it’s so cool to see it with audiences -- and terrifying. Terrifying and great at the same time. Y’know, I have found in every process of every play I’ve written that I have a very specific tone, comedic but dark. There are audiences that really grab onto the comedy, and there are audiences that really grab onto the darkness. And so it can be a wildly different experience night to night. Which is, y’know, it’s a rollercoaster—emotionally. (laughs)
EF: So you’ve written about a TV doctor. You had your world premiere in Los Angeles, which is obviously the hub of the TV industry. Has that led to any interesting comments or discussions about your portrayal of the TV world --- which, obviously, you’re part of in your own way, too, as a writer?
EC: Yes. A lot of TV people have seen it and were like: “Oh, I work for a guy like this.” People related. People were like: “Who is that?” And I’m like: “It’s a character. I made it up.” (laughs) People asked me, “Which boss did you have that is like Dr. Baer?” But I’ve actually had really great bosses, so it’s none of my bosses. Dr. Baer is complicated. He’s a narcissist but he has done some amazing things. The people that work for him really admire him. And I think people—especially women—have had the experience of working for a person that they really admired who at some point became problematic for them. The play is also about mentorship and the weird, tricky relationship between a mentor and a mentee—particularly an older man and a younger woman. Which is a weird—it’s weird. It’s a weird relationship. And, y’know, you love, and admire, and respect the mentor, but they also take advantage of you, and they see you as beneath them, and what happens to the relationship when you surpass them?
EF: How has writing for television influenced this play and your playwriting in general?
EC: Hopefully, at its best, this play has really propulsive forward movement. It’s suspenseful and exciting and, though it takes place in an office, you’re—I hope—on the edge of your seat wondering what’s gonna happen next, which is a thing I’ve learned from television. I like seeing plays that have that drive. But also, it’s made my playwriting richer to be a television writer, because I don’t get to write a 20 page scene for television. And my favorite thing to write is dialogue. If I’m gonna write a play, it needs to be theatrical. It needs to exist on a stage. I really feel that the experience of seeing Quack and being trapped in that office with the characters is theatrical.
EF: What TV show are you writing on now?
EC: I am an executive producer on Animal Kingdom on TNT. I’m the showrunner.
EF: And what does that mean, exactly?
EC: That means that I run the writers’ room, basically. And I work with John Wells, who is an incredible boss. He is the executive producer over me, but he’s really given me the space to—this year, I’ve taken over running the room, which means I’m in charge of how the discussion is going and figuring out how we should tell our stories.
EF: What else is on the horizon for you in the months ahead?
EC: My husband and I are writing an adaptation of a book called Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff for AMC as a miniseries. It’s a really beautiful book about a marriage. The marriage in the novel is different than ours—but the main character is a playwright. In some ways, it’s about some of the questions that Quack is asking, about what it means to be a husband or a wife -- the woman behind the man, that kind of a thing.
EF: And how did that project come about?
EC: Zack and I met working for an AMC show. It was called Rubicon. And it only had one season, which in TV, means it failed. But we got married, and one of the other writers was our officiant. The show may not have been a success, but it was a success for us personally. (laughs) And I’ve worked on other AMC shows and so has he—and so AMC came to us saying, “We’d really like to do this book. Are you guys interested?”
And then I have a four month old, so I’m also doing that. And I just bought a house.
EC: Thank you so much, yeah.
EF: And you moved into this house…?
EC: Tuesday! Two days ago.
EF: (laughs) Two days ago!
EF: And our morning together here has sort of been overshadowed by the surprise events of tonight. What are you doing tonight, Eli?
EC: Tonight, I am performing in Quack at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Because one of our actors has lost her voice completely. And so I just found out, like, ten minutes before I came into this lunch with you that I am, uhhh, performing. Tonight.
EC: As Kelly! And we shall see. (laughs)
EF: How do you feel?
EC:I feel like I’m gonna throw up. But, y’know, in a good way. It’ll be fun. I love this cast, and we will have fun together. It’s a little crazy. I sort of can’t believe it. It’s surreal.
EF: So you’ve been around and fully involved with the world premiere in LA and then on the horizon in two months is another production with us at the Alley in Houston. Have you had an experience like that before, where you’ve gone from working on one production to another?
EC: I have not. I am very excited. And I think sometimes the hardest thing as a playwright is the idea—I mean, one of the things that’s beautiful about theatre is that it’s ephemeral and, y’know, it’s there and then it’s gone. But it is so exciting to get to do another production of this, and with a whole new group of people, and to see what a whole new group of artists and creative minds bring to this. I can’t wait.