Say What You Need To – An Interview with Christina Masciotti
by Meghan Falvey
Christina Masciotti’s work has been produced for the past ten years in downtown New York, and her most recent play Vision Disturbance was hailed as a showcase for her “gift for writing” by Ben Brantley in The New York Times, and went on to be selected as one of the Top Ten Plays of 2010 by Time Out New York. It was featured in The Public Theater’s 2011 Under the Radar Festival, and has been translated into German, Spanish, and Italian for ongoing international tours.
Next up is the TNT Festival in Boston, where Vision Disturbance will be presented for four performances from Feb 20-23.
I first saw her work in 2002, and everything I’ve seen since (at least one play a year) has been unlike any other theater I’ve encountered.
Q. Where do you think your work falls in the spectrum of contemporary American theatre?
A. Well, at one end of the spectrum you have traditional conventions, of character and dramatic action structure, and then at the other end you have the conventions of experimental theatre, of breaking the narrative and general meta-commentary.
My work draws from both ends. My plays are story-centered and character-driven and each has a plot. I make use of those traditional conventions that audiences use to orient themselves.
But at the same time, all my plays disorient the audience through more experimental means. First, there’s no exposition to latch onto, you’re dropped right into another world without signposts. To get your bearings in the story you have to listen carefully to decipher what’s been said.
Generally, I’m less interested in adhering to theatrical conventions and more focused on how the audience will encounter the world of the play.
Q. The New York Times described your use of language as allowing the characters to achieve “eloquence, not despite, but because of their awkwardness and uncertainty.”
A. I think that’s true in general of people’s speech, and I respect that. Spoken language is paramount in my work, sometimes to a disconcerting extent. Partly because I grew up in one of many American families where more than one language is spoken at home, and each member of the family has more facility in one language than the other. I was struck by the ways a new language emerged out of that situation– where there’s misappropriation of idioms and this huge gray area where nothing makes sense. You have to draw on context to figure it out.
And, really, this happens all the time. You have to stop and think about what must have been meant, but wasn’t actually said. Words are inadequate for all of us. I make no attempt to mask that.
And since we’re all experienced at being ill-equipped ourselves, and listening to our equally ill-equipped family and friends and so on, we all figure out ways to ferret out meaning from statements that, if they’re written down, seem pretty odd. I allow for that oddness without explaining any of it away. Explaining is for outsiders; it automatically puts the audience at a distance. I would argue my work asks the audience to have a more intimate experience because I’m not polishing off any of the weirdness or surface wrongness of how people speak, and so the audience gets raw access to all of it and they have to decode the speech, and thus the characters and the story themselves, by listening.
MONDOHe didn’t discriminate against junk. Driving around sees plastic, he picks it up. How much junk, you can’t imagine, folks. Sees a plastic flower on the street, he picks it up. He wanted me to put a “Baby on Board” in my car because he picked it up somewhere! I don’t have a baby! He had this mentality of people who are alcoholic. Driving, next block, there is trash there, he takes it. He saw something, he said, this is brand new. He picked up computers. Going here and there to find stuff, in case he needs. Everything and anything and everywhere! “I can use this to make business.” He was gonna fix it and sell it. He never sold a thing. First time I realized how junky he was: I came to his house. Car was junky, he said how good car was. He has this junk car, big car full of painting. I said what are you gonna do with all this? He said, “We just got house, we can use painting.” Right. “I bought all this for nothing, only $100.” We had to carry it to the house, 2 gallons, 1 gallon, all day carrying the painting. So much painting, we could paint the whole neighborhood, folks! We gave some to a couple friends, they brought it back, said it was no good. That’s why the store was giving it away, it was no good! Where can you use this stuff? We had a friend in Philly who worked next to the river and a flood took his car. He was going to give away his car for free. We call the guy, my husband starts asking questions, “What’s the problem with the car?” He goes on, problems, problems, the car didn’t work! “Does the door open?” “No.” “Does the window open?” “No.” “Can you turn it on?” “No.” He kept asking questions. Nothing you could say would make him not want this car! Can’t put on A/C cause the car stinks. He says, “Maybe I can take it to a place, and I can clean it.” He had to have that car. Like he had to have everything. Betrayal means shit. Betrayal means you were an idiot and you feel sorry for yourself. Forget the word betrayal. There was no betrayal, he was just doing what he always did, collecting. Of course he would pick up a girlfriend, he picked up everything. You can never have enough junk, folks. -from Vision Disturbance
Q. In SOCIAL SECURITY the communicative limits of language are further amplified by the fact that the main character, June, a retired pretzel factory worker, is deaf from 40 years working with machines.
A. She relies on reading notes, and basic lip-reading. That adds another layer to discern, or “mis-discern.” She hears what she needs to, which is a tendency certainly not limited to the hearing-impaired.
WAYNE (writing)Didn’t you tell your doctor you’ve been having trouble sleeping? JUNE (glancing at the note)That was only from the heat that I had trouble. WAYNE (writing)The doctor can give you something to help. JUNE (glancing at the note)I don’t need help. With the air condition I sleep right through. If I was sick, I was gonna call 9-eleven. The prayin’ hands, I was sweatin’ so much, I had to break the chain to get it off my neck. Yay-yuh, I broke the chain. I couldn’t get it straightened out. It hurt my neck, I had to break the chain. I ripped that chain off my neck. I ripped it off. I had to. I was sweated so bad. It was all around my neck. It was curled up on my neck. Then I had chills yet. Nobody was around here. I was waitin’ for Peedro to come around. He took my dresser away yesterday. WAYNE (with a money gesture)Did you pay him? JUNENo, I give it to him. Geez. He left right away. He don’t hang around or nothin’. He put that table together for me. He said it was a good table. Strong wood. He lifted that up just like it was a feather, turned it upside down. I couldn’t ask you to do that. You’re pretty unhandy around the house yet. WAYNE (writing)Talk to Pedro outside. Don’t bring him in your house all the time. He’s looking to take advantage of you. JUNE (glancing at the note)Peedro’s not fresh. He never made a pass at me. WAYNENot like that! JUNEYou think I’m hangin’ up with him? You watch everything in and out, standing on the porch and stuff. Next time I know you’re lookin’, I’ll go over and sit on his lap.
Q. In ADULT you have another seemingly classic story about a deadbeat dad trying to reconnect with his 18 year old daughter, but the way they communicate, and the holes they fall into when they don’t understand each other, becomes a third character in the story.
A. That gap between them throws every scene for a loop. It’s a culture clash, and a generation gap, and it foils every attempt at a conversation. Yet they keep trying. They don’t give up trying to get through to each other.
TARAYou never reached out to me. You sent birthday gifts through snail mail so they came a week late. You think that counts for anything? It’s more personal communication like using Skype or FaceTime that makes a difference. STANLEYTara, I don’t even know what you’re talking about. TARAYou have no right to tell me who I can or can’t see. STANLEYYou think you can dictate the terms people speak to you? Ain’t what you wanna hear? Too bad! You know how many things I wish I never heard? I’m fifty years old. I deserve to hear things that make some sense, and how much sense are you makin’ lately? You and this drug dealer who’s playin’ you. TARAI told you he stopped being a drug dealer a long time ago. STANLEYIt doesn’t matter he stopped, it matters he started in the first place. Doing drug dealing you learn to take chances and that becomes a lifestyle. People who do that kind of thing have no respect for women. They look at women as accessories rather than equal human things. They accessorize with women, like who’s the other pimp who likes to dress in white? TARANow he’s a pimp? STANLEYPay attention to what I’m saying. You grab one word and take off. I didn’t say he was a pimp. I’m saying one form or another they learn to do the same thing. Risk-taking in every form. We’re talkin’ about our underworld. You don’t wanna be involved with that, socializing with the gutter. You’re running into the wrong people. We’re looking for preppy kind of people. You went to a prep school among all those people who travel all over the world. So worldly. It’s a great big open world to you. TARAExactly! I need to learn from my own experiences!
Q: Then there’s VOLUNTARY COMMITMENT, about a family scrambling to deal with mental illness. Two sisters in their 30’s, one of whom is hospitalized for the first time, and their parents, one of whom is depressed. Again, their struggle to communicate is an intrinsic part of the story.
A: It’s hard to talk about something you don’t understand. They have no idea what’s happening: what it means about them or how to help, and they all scatter in the face of this bottomless thing threatening their family. Eventually, they each find ways to move forward, but not in the same direction.
ELENIDid you hear anything from the Kaslov hotel project? GENEI didn’t get it. Mel DeFali has Al Kaslov in his pocket. BOOTSEYWho’s Mel DeFali? GENEDid you see his rendering? They had it in the paper. I could’ve taken the same materials and made a nice building. I hate him. ELENIYou don’t hate someone because you don’t approve of their taste and be outspoken about it. People think you’re weird. Mel DeFali is involved in the community. That’s how he gets work. GENEForget it. I don’t wanna talk about it. (Eleni playfully pounds on his back with her fists.) GENEEleni! Stop it with your monkey hands! BOOTSEYMom, go outside and rip the door off a car.
Q: I have the sense that all your plays have featured characters as they confront other people’s understanding of their lives– June, Mondo, Stanley– they all used to have lives in which they were known. But in the space of the play, they get disembedded from that context – whether through divorce or retirement or emigration or a hospitalization – suddenly they have to talk about themselves.
A: Stanley has to start talking if he wants his daughter to know who he is. All of them are confronting circumstances where they have to communicate with some external force that is appraising or almost judging them. Who they are, what they are capable of, what they owe, and what they are due. They have to tell stories about themselves because– you have to represent yourself through words, that’s all you have.
CHRISTINA MASCIOTTI’s plays have been produced or developed in New York at venues including PS 122, HERE, chashama, the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, Abrons Arts Center, New York Theatre Workshop, The New Group, and CUNY’s Prelude Festival. She has been honored as a Berks County Community Foundation SPA Fund Fellow, a multiple-year finalist for The Princess Grace Award, and a nominee for the Susan Smith Blackburn Award, the Barrie and Bernice Stavis Playwright Award, and the Francesca Primus Award. Her work has been supported by The Greenwall Foundation, NYSCA, the Independence Community Foundation, LMCC, and The Puffin Foundation. She studied playwriting at Brown University and earned an MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.