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Melissa James Gibson: city living; A playwright's weighty themes come to rest on younger shoulders.

Sasha's problem, as problems go, appears manageable enough. This 11-year-old, the heroine of Melissa James Gibson's new children's play Brooklyn Bridge, must write an essay for school but cannot find a pen. Yet this complication becomes but one sapling within a precocious fifth-grader's larger forest of self-inquiry. Like other frustrated creators populating Gibson's dramas--the trio of artistically inclined neighbors in [sic], or the wheel-spinning doctoral students of Suitcase, or those that resemble flies from a distance--Sasha moves within a holding pattern of avoidance and uncertainty, stymied by an alienating city life that tends to wrap its inhabitants inside cocoons of self-preserving apathy.

Her pen is actually the least of her problems. "Having a point of view / Taking a stand / Deciding what's important": these are the real challenges Sasha faces, not only with her pesky school report, but with neighbors, family and her entire life in the shadows of the play's titular span.

Is all this existential baggage too weighty for the shoulders of a pre-teen protagonist and, by extension, Brooklyn Bridge's younger audiences? Not according to the Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis, which gives the play its world premiere this month under the direction of Daniel Aukin, with original music by Barbara Brousal. For four decades, CTC (a 2003 winner of the regional Tony, the first children's company earning this distinction) has challenged its young patrons with ambitious, provocative plays. Under the leadership of Peter Brosius, artistic director since 1997, the company has prioritized new-play development as integral to these efforts. Gibson joins a growing stable of accomplished writers--including Kia Corthron, Nilo Cruz and Jeffrey Hatcher--bringing new works to CTC in recent seasons.

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Brooklyn Bridge is the product of Playground, a partnership between the Minneapolis company and New York's New Dramatists that encourages established playwrights to write for not-yet-adult audiences. Selected Playground proposals evolve into first drafts, which undergo a 10-day collaborative development period in Minneapolis. Revised projects receive readings in the Twin Cities and New York, and consideration for future mainstage production at CTC. Playground was a natural fit for Gibson. Known for her witty, tragicomic forays into the affectations of urban young adulthood, this playwright spends most of her extra-theatrical hours with youngsters, teaching and counseling at a private school and mothering two kids of her own.

These interactions inspired her portrayal of Sasha as an astonishingly wise, sensitive and inquisitive adolescent: "I find children to be deeply intuitive human beings," Gibson says. "My daughter, even at age four, is incredibly well attuned to human emotions and behavior--like a psychic sometimes. That's inspiring."

Gibson approves of CTC's aim of bringing leading American dramatists into the fold of children's theatre without distilling or simplifying their voices. She speaks of Brosius as "a visionary in the field. He has encouraged me to be adventurous, not to condescend to children. Kids are smart. They will not accept being lied to. He told me that, whatever I write, I had better tell the truth." Such encouragement comes to life in Brooklyn Bridge, a drama in synch with Gibson's other signature works.

Reviewing the 2001 production of the Obie-winning play [sic] at New York's Soho Rep, Village Voice critic Jessica Winter likened the drama's central trio (the writer Babette, the composer Theo and auctioneer-in-training Frank--aspiring, not progressing, in their chosen crafts) to procrastinating students "forever wandering into their shared hallway in furtive search of each other, as if to put off writing a pesky term paper." Gibson's follow-up, Suitcase (which also debuted at Soho Rep, in early 2004), also meditates on stalled assignments--two doctoral theses, to be precise--and their would-be authors, Sallie and Jen. These perpetual students languish in an academic limbo that mirrors larger conditions of avoidance and uncertainty in their dealings with the world beyond their cluttered desks and locked apartment doors. That Sasha faces her creative block in middle school rather than in graduate school or post-collegiate life does not render her crisis any less earth-shattering.

As with Gibson's other "apartment building plays" (as she labels them), Brooklyn Bridge delves into the peculiarities of life inside the urban high-rise. "I'm fascinated with that silent dialogue that goes on in apartment buildings," says the Brooklyn-based playwright. "For my family, awareness of our neighbors is a constant concern. We may not know them well, but we know when they shower, listen to music or eat pizza for dinner."

Gibson's dramaturgy makes audible--resounding, even--those unvoiced conversations that underscore apartment life by exploring the places where public and private lives intersect. Hers is a drama of hallways, stairwells, rooftops and lobbies, in which overheard voices, accidental glimpses, vaguely familiar acquaintances and discarded belongings give fragmentary insight into nearby private lives.

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So Sasha must decipher snippets she hears through floorboards and glimpses she spies through partially open doors. In fact, this wise adolescent succeeds precisely where her Gibsonian Gen-X counterparts falter: in finding within New York's cacophony opportunities for constructive interaction with her neighbors. This hopeful new spin Gibson puts on the urban experience is of particular interest to Elissa Adams, CTC's director of new-play development: "What excites us about Brooklyn Bridge is how the play explores the particularities of city living where one coexists with people without really knowing them, and suggests that they can form a new kind of community, even a family." The play's rosy outlook may be one concession Gibson makes for children's theatre, sparing young audiences from the bleak social vision that usually lurks beneath her crackling wit. But here, too, the playwright stays true to her own observations that, unlike their world-weary elders, "Kids do not pile layers of protective obliviousness onto their dealings with others." Through Sasha's journey, Brooklyn Bridge suggests that grown-ups can (with the help of those younger) unlearn those defensive social patterns that can turn densely populated cities into profoundly isolating places.

Approaching Brooklyn Bridge, Aukin has relied on what he has learned in his past collaborations with Gibson (the two Soho Rep premieres, and a summer 2004 revival of Suitcase at California's La Jolla Playhouse). Experience, he says, has taught him "not to become seduced by the sparkling surface" of her style. He describes the spatial qualities of Gibson's writing as "both cubist and cinematic. When I read her stage directions, I get the impression that the set would have to be some sort of moving, rotating machine if they were to be followed literally." The opening paragraph of Brooklyn Bridge illustrates his point:
  The Brooklyn Bridge, floating in space. Then, hallways, apartment
  doors, stairs, windows, a front stoop, a fire escape, a roof, and an
  elevator stuck between floors become visible in the foreground,
  thereby placing the bridge in perspective. As with an advent calendar,
  five tenants of the building are suddenly visible standing in their
  respective windows. Just as suddenly, the tenants and bridge are gone.


Together with a team that includes lighting designer (and Gibson's husband) Matthew Frey, Aukin has learned to seek a pared-down essence within Gibson's ambitious visual aesthetic. "It's impossible to create the exact effects she describes, but, at the same time, her writing is very generous to the creative team assembled around it. The essence of her vision must be honored in some way, and that demands big decisions from a director and designers. Finding the spirit of her spatial impulses has been the challenge, and the joy, of working with this material."

Aukin and his casts have trusted a similar strategy for confronting Gibson's poetic dialogue--which freely disregards conventions of capitalization, punctuation and sentence structure. In Suitcase, for example, Sallie says to Jen:
  Oh
  My
  Stupid Life I'm
  Ashamed of it
  It's just that when I was younger I
  wanted to see everything
  Do You Know What I Mean
  I wanted to See Everything
  But now I find I
  basically go through My Stupid Life
  um
  averting my eyes
  basically


"Some actors have struggled and rebelled against her use of language at first," says Aukin. "It gives the impression that she's making a lot of their choices for them. But we've found her language to be a musical score that is hyper-realistic: much closer to the way people speak than so-called 'naturalistic' dialogue. There's a great deal of freedom and variation to be found within the formal structure." For Christina Kirk, the actress acclaimed for her creations of the roles of Babette in [sic] and Sallie in Suitcase, Gibson's technique "foregrounds everything we experience in everyday conversations: the awkwardness, the pauses, the hesitations, the stops and starts, and the thought processes beneath the words. She writes with real precision and virtuosity."

Driving that virtuosity, at least within [sic] and Suitcase, is the seething verbal frustration of characters Kirk describes as "hyper-articulate, but so insecure that they need language to fend off their demons. They're floating in space, with language and nothing else." Sasha, on the other hand, discovers her own terra firma of words, after securing the instrument with which to write them.

What lies on the other side of Brooklyn Bridge for Melissa James Gibson? Is she destined--like so many of her subjects--to remain cloistered within the confines of apartment buildings? Not entirely. One current project is a stage adaptation of Homer's Odyssey, which has been commissioned for development by La Jolla Playhouse. "I was ready to move out of the apartment world, to try an adaptation on that scale. I'm excited about the possibilities," Gibson says. Some of her own characters might shrug at the prospect, but Sasha would certainly approve.

Jonathan Shandell is a 2003-04 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, supported by a grant from the Jerome Foundation.
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Title Annotation:profiles
Author:Shandell, Jonathan
Publication:American Theatre
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Words:1598
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