IN CONVERSATION WITH BEKAH BRUNSTETTER
A few weeks prior to the start of rehearsals, Elizabeth Frankel, Director of New Work at the Alley, called playwright Bekah Brunstetter at her home in Los Angeles:
Elizabeth Frankel: We are so looking forward to producing The Cake following our reading of it in the Alley All New Festival last year! To begin, how did you come to write the play?
Bekah Brunstetter: I was at a point in my life where I was wanting to put conservative people at the forefront of a play. Coming from a family of conservative people, I had been neglecting that part of myself for a while, but then it got to a point where I couldn’t ignore it anymore and I was seeing a lot of vitriol against people with conservative values on the internet and in the media and I just felt called upon to defend that point of view with my plays -- but also tell a story in which someone actually is able to open their mind and heart a little bit. So I knew I wanted to do that and I heard about the Colorado cake [Supreme Court] case and it instantly felt like a play to me, especially because cakes bring people together and it was just so weird and interesting to me that in this story, a cake was dividing people. And that, combined with my obsession with reality baking shows and food TV, felt like a great area for a play.
EF: Where are you from? Where is your family?
BB: Well, I’m from Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
EF: So just like in the play.
BB: Like in the play, even though the play makes Winston feel like a smaller town. Winston, I want to say, is the third biggest city in North Carolina…it’s pretty big, but my experience of growing up there was kind of like your local shopping center becomes your little community so to me it feels like a small town in the sense that you’re always going to the same stores and seeing the same people there. The character Della’s bakery is located in my favorite shopping center there.
EF: What is the bakery called?
BB: It’s based on Dewey’s, which is in the Thruway Shopping Center, yet the only similarity is that this bakery makes this pink lemonade cake, which I grew up completely obsessed with. The similarity ends there. It’s actually a Moravian bakery and there’s a handful of them so it’s not run by one woman. It’s way less kitchy than Della’s bakery. I also went to this bakery called Our Daily Bread in the mountains of North Carolina and it’s a bible-themed bakery. Della’s bakery in the play is sort of inspired by a handful of bakeries.
EF: To get back to your family, now that we’ve discussed the bakeries, in what ways do your politics and your family’s differ? Or in what ways are they the same?
BB: Speaking of my mom and me innparticular, we want people to get along. We want people to be happy. We want people to lead good lives. I feel like we both believe that. But, you know, my parents much more strongly adhere to the bible and look to that for the moral structure of their lives whereas I tend to look to the people in my life and the things that I experience to craft my morality based on what I’m witnessing in the world around me. That feels like the major difference. And the obvious difference is that I consider myself to be a way more liberal person than my parents, even though on the grand spectrum of liberalism, I think I’m a little more conservative than most of the people in my work world and in my peer group.
EF: Back to the play itself, you had an early reading of it in our Alley All New Festival in February 2017. How was that process useful to you?
BB: It was so useful. North Carolina and Texas are very similar to me in how we treat family and how we treat food and how there are liberal and conservative people living on top of each other. So just to have Texas actors immediately gave the play an authenticity that was really useful for me. When you’re workshopping plays that take place in the South outside of the South, that’s something that is hard to grasp and something that’s of course so important to the play, so that was really useful. And then I unlocked some major plot events towards the end of the play while at that workshop at the Alley. I’d been working on the play for a while at that point but something felt missing towards the end of the play – the big gesture that Tim does for his wife Della – and I thought of that while I was working with my actors at the Alley during the festival.
EF: That was exciting. I remember it wasn't there in the first reading and it was there in the second.
BB: Exactly, exactly.
EF: Since that reading, the play has now had five productions including one in North Carolina, where the play is set. How has it been watching your play in so many productions at this point?
BB: It’s been awesome. I’m learning new things about Della and the tone of the play with each production. It’s also been
interesting to see it in all the different sizes of theatres because you really want to feel like you’re in the bakery. It should feel intimate as opposed to presentational. It’s been interesting seeing all the different spaces and seeing how everyone from the director to the
scenic designer invites people into the bakery regardless how big the physical space is.
EF: And has it been any different watching and experiencing it in California with the LA and La Jolla productions verses the two that happened in North Carolina and South Carolina?
BB: I’ve actually been surprised by the number of people who saw it in LA who are Christians. You know, you sort of think “They’re not here. They don’t exist here.” You know? But there were quite a few who came to see it out in LA and they said to me that they felt like their point of view was being respected, which was just really a nice thing to hear because that’s what I set out to do. Surely in North Carolina and South Carolina you get more people who have had the character Jen’s experience coming from a conservative family and now being a person living a world in which those values don’t feel morally right, you get more people relating to that part of the play – that split in half feeling.
EF: After our production, The Cake then has productions all over the country. Congratulations! We are all so excited about this explosion of The Cake everywhere. What is that like for you at this point and how involved will you be in any of the productions after ours?
BB: I’m going to be as involved as I can be. I’m going to be back at work at NBC's “This is Us” so I can’t be there all the time but I’ll
fly out when I can. At a certain point you’ll make yourself crazy, or I will at least, if you’re in every rehearsal. At a certain point, I have to let the play go or I’ll rewrite it in a bad way. I’m still tinkering with stuff really lightly, so my plan is to continue to do that remotely and to Skype into table reads as much as I can. I’m waiting to see what the Supreme Court decision is on the Colorado cake case, which is surely going to come out this year –
EF: Perhaps during the run of our production.
BB: So I’m waiting to see how we as a people, as a country, react to whatever that decision is, and that might require some tweaking.
In terms of how it feels, it’s really cool. It’s never happened in my career before to have so much love given to one play in one season of programming, but there’s something about it that just feels right and inevitable because I’ve been avoiding writing a play like this for a really long time; the plays that you’re scared to write are usually the best ones because there’s something really human going on inside of them, so human that you’re scared of it, and I put so much of my self into it and it just feels really incredible to have that rewarded. The play is honoring where I came from, honoring the people who made me but also honoring where I’m at as a human being today and just having all of that affirmed is great because when you go into something as a playwright, when you shut out the world and you’re like, “I have to write this, and I’m writing this for me” and then to have the play also attract other people in a way that all these people want to perform it…I can’t explain it. It’s this incredible full circle feeling. Like it makes me think of when I wrote my first play when I was 18 and I was trying to understand who I was in terms of my parents. I’ve been on this exact same journey since I wrote my first play 18 years ago so to have it all be kind of coming to a head now is so amazing.
The Alley has been integral and I really appreciate your support and I’m so glad you’re doing it, too.
Just announced: The Cake is going to New York! The play will have its New York debut at Manhattan Theatre Club on February 12, 2019 – two years to the day after its final reading in the 2017 Alley All New Festival.
EF: And have your parents seen the play?
BB: My parents saw it at PlayMakers Repertory Company in North Carolina. It’s still a process with them. But they’re proud of
me and supportive and in the way that I’ve had to, they’re able to compartmentalize like “Alright. Bekah’s working on this play that is discussing some things that are difficult for us but at the same time we’re so proud of her so let’s celebrate that.” The fact that they’ve been able to do that affirms for me why I wrote the play to begin with.
EF: I know you’ve been working on The Cake while also being a writer and producer for NBC's “This Is Us” and Starz's “American Gods.” How has it been juggling your work in theatre with your work in television?
BB: In my daily life, it doesn’t necessarily feel like juggling because I’d always had a job and also been a playwright. Since I
finished grad school at least, I was working in the corporate world and also writing plays so I developed this system, at least in my head, where I go to work and when I come home, I work on my plays. And on the weekends, I work on my plays. In time
off work, I work on my plays. So of course it gets a little crazy sometimes and my husband gets on me because I don’t really have anything that I do just for fun. And I’m not super good at just relaxing but I find working on my plays to be relaxing because that’s where I’m just myself and I’m not at work. I don’t do as much writing in my free time as I used to because “This Is Us” being such an amazing big deal has been way more demanding than other jobs I’ve done but I’m able to find the time and the space for the plays because it’s really important to me, so the time just happens. And a lot of my playwriting colleagues spend a lot of time developing [television shows] and doing feature [film] stuff and I haven’t really done that. I’m on hiatus now and I’ve just been doing theatre. My plays are in second position to my television work in my head always so I’m able to find the time because I’m not doing so much of that other stuff, I guess.
EF: Other than so many productions of The Cake, what else is on the horizon for you in the year ahead?
BB: I’m working on a play for Theater Breaking Through Barriers, which is a company in NY that has an ensemble of actors with disabilities. I’ve been writing short plays for them for years and I’m working on my first full length for them. I’m also going to be working on a play for South Coast Rep after that. Then I’m working on books for three different musicals, one that I’m not allowed to talk about yet, and the other two that I’ve been working on for a number of years. They’re in various states of development. One is of them is with Karen O; she’s the lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The other is with Cinco Paul, an awesome feature writer who did the Despicable Mes and The Secret Life of Pets. It’s an R&B musical about teenage Mary Magdalene falling in love with teenage Jesus, and I’ll just leave it at that.
EF: Do you bake?
BB: Oh, yeah. Yes, I do. I’ve got a pineapple upside down cake in my freezer from Easter that I’ve been trying not to eat. I was saying earlier that I don’t have anything I do for fun but the only thing I do for fun that is relaxing to me purely is baking and cooking. If there’s a reason to bake a cake, I love to do it. I’m way better at cooking than I am at cakes. Cake is actually really hard. You’ve really got to have the time and the patience, you know?
EF: I’ve learned that from Della.
BB: Exactly, exactly.
EF: So I know that like the character Jen, you somewhat recently planned your own wedding in North Carolina.
EF: Was it in Reynolda Gardens like in the play?
BB: No, it was in the mountains of North Carolina in Ferguson, near where my family and I used to go cut down our Christmas tree every year. The North Carolina mountains have this beautiful section of Christmas tree farms and it’s my favorite place in the world so we did it near there.
EF: And what were your colors?
BB: (laughing) Emerald and midnight blue.
BB: Same as in the play…
EF: Did you have a wedding binder? With tabs?
BB: My friend gave me one as an engagement present but I didn’t really use it but I probably should have it. It got pretty disorganized.
EF: What kind of cake did you have?
BB: Everybody got a little blueberryrosemary cobbler but then we also had a cake that was a chocolate pound cake with vanilla icing and my friend from high school made it.
EF: Is she a professional baker?
BB: She is. She bakes for a local coffee shop in Winston. She does all their baked goods. And then on the side she’s also done cakes for occasions. I think this was maybe one of her first official wedding cakes but it was gorgeous -- really, really delicious. The day after the wedding, I just sat there and ate the cake because I hadn’t eaten anything in a month and I just had a fork and was going to town and it was one of my favorite parts of the wedding.
timely new comedy
June 1 - July 1, 2018
A reality TV baking show, complex moral questions, and loads of butter make up the recipe for this brilliant comedy about three women trying to reach out across a divide that keeps growing.