EXCLUSIVE: Classicalite Q&A with Bekah Brunstetter of ABC's 'Switched at Birth' on Writing Plays, Going Hollywood

By Jon Sobel on May 19, 2014 09:27 AM EDT

Bekah Brunstetter has gone Hollywood. But she's proving that an established New York City playwright can move to L.A., take a job as story editor on a TV show (ABC's Switched at Birth), and still remain in close touch with her live-theater roots.

In her new West Coast neighborhood, Brunstetter is working on a commission for South Coast Repertory about Heaven. And beginning June 12, New Yorkers can see the premiere of a new one-act by the author of Cutie and Bear and Be a Good Little Widow as part of Theater Breaking Through Barriers' (TBTB) fourth annual festival of one-act plays integrating actors with disabilities and able-bodied actors. John Guare, David Henry Hwang, Neil LaBute and Bruce Graham have also contributed new works to the event.

Bekah Brunstetter took some time to talk with us about her background, her creative process, her work with TBTB and her TV career.

Classicalite: How did you originally connect with Theater Breaking Through Barriers and get your first commission from them?

Bekah Brunstetter: It was a while back, but I’m pretty sure Ike Shambelan, who is basically the loveliest, smartest, most well-intentioned guy (who sends the most thorough and thoughtful emails I’ve ever received from an Artistic Director) had seen or read something of mine, and reached out. He said he had a couple of great actresses with prosthetic limbs, and he wanted me to write something hilarious and dark and irreverent for the two of them. I was scared of and enticed by the challenge and was instantly In.

CL: Are there people with disabilities in your own life who've served as inspirations, either story-wise or otherwise, for the plays you've written for TBTB?

BB: You know, I didn't have any people with disabilities in my life when I was growing up (though honestly, sometimes I very much wish that I had. I wasn't comfortable with disability--i.e., always felt self conscious of my own behavior around it--until my adult life). Soon after I started writing for TBTB, I started writing for Switched at Birth (ABC Family) which features a plethora of incredible deaf actors. We think and talk a lot about deaf identity and culture. Through SAB, and also interviewing the specific actors and actresses I've written for through TBTB, I have learned so much. Ultimately, it just comes down to the universal experience of being Other, and also the universal need to be able to laugh at, well, everything.

CL: The short play you've written for TBTB this year is called Murder. Can you tell us a little about it? What should we expect? And where did it come from?

BB: I'd been thinking about something for a while that I very much wanted to write about: professional jealousy between women. Women can be VICIOUS to each other. Smiling at each other but screaming and puking with rage behind their eyes at each others' successes. I've felt it, I've witnessed it, I've caused it, I've tried to stop myself from feeling it. I really wanted to write about two women who want to Kill each other out of jealous rage, but can't do that, because we shouldn't do that. Technically. But ultimately, I find that if you say out loud that you are jealous--it's so liberating. So I wanted to write about honesty, too.

CL: A few years ago you seemed startled by an Atlantic Stages press release headed "Atlantic Season Features Mamet, Shepard, Brunstetter." This year you're on a program with Hwang, Guare, and LaBute. Have you now accepted status as an "important" playwright? Or do I have to come over there?

BB: Yes and No? I think it comes and goes! Now that I'm doing TV, and I'm not in NYC anymore (I live in LA now, WHAT?) and have way less time to work on plays, I worry that I'm less involved and therefore less relevant. Sometimes I panic when I feel like that part of my life is over, or closing, or something. But ultimately--my ideas are plays. They always are. And even if I have no seconds in the day I find time to write them because they're how I sort through my feelings and thoughts. And then there are days where I get some nice playwriting news, or an awesome email from a high school acting student who's working on something I wrote years ago, and then I just smile and feel like: Yes. I am still that.

CL: In my view, your work covers unusually varied subject matter. Do you travel widely to get ideas? Read voraciously? Or--what?

BB: I think it always starts with something deeply personal that I've feared or longed for or felt. I build around that with things I've read, or witnessed, or heard about. No matter how much I read, I never feel like I'm reading enough, so I try not to treat reading as research, but more like: Let's try and keep this brain full of the world as much as possible. I think my ideas moreso come from life directly. As for traveling widely: That's what I'm now attempting to do, to stuff my brain with more things I've never seen. Iceland and Scotland this summer!

CL: I understand you're from North Carolina. Whereabouts? And do your southern roots figure in your work?

BB: I grew up in Winston-Salem, in the middle of the state. Growing up, I didn't feel super southern. I guess I felt moreso just--suburban. But since I've left NC (left after college for grad school) I've thought more and more, and written more and more, about the specifics of my upbringing there (Southern Baptist church, military family, etc.) and have definitely written about those things. I think when writers are first starting out they often reflect back on how they came to be who they are--what is specific to their upbringing--and dig around in there for plays. There's good stuff there.

CL: A critic who shall remain nameless once referred, perhaps overly pregnantly, to your "unfailingly pregnant and resonant dialogue." How do you strike a balance between dialogue that's naturalistic and dialogue that's dramatically effective? And is that one of the hardest parts of play-writing?

BB: This playwright is very grateful to the critic for the very kind words. It certainly comes with time. With my first plays, my characters were very much just robots for whatever I needed them to say. They were super overwritten and irksomely poetic. Gradually, I learned to focus more on dramatic action, but even still, I write to express and amuse myself, first and foremost. You have to do your best to put that aside, and stay true to the characters you've created. Give them a chance to speak, but filter them through your voice, which you have to have a strong grasp on. I'm still a big fan of over-writing, and then combing through, cutting and fixing later. There's really nothing wrong with that!

CL: More generally: What comes naturally, and what's hard grunt-work?

BB: Naturally: Writing. Hard-grunt: Rewriting.

CL: What are you working on now, and what's up next for you?

BB: I'm working on a commission for South Coast Repertory about Heaven, which I'm very excited about. I just finished my first movie job--I got hired to adapt a book last year, and I won't say what the book is in case it's not public knowledge and I'm not supposed to say. I'm also working on a web series about a high school guidance counselor. As for what is most of my life, I'm the story editor on Switched at Birth, which is endlessly challenging and rewarding.

Most importantly, I'm trying to grow some basil in my backyard.

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TagsSwitched at Birth, Bekah Brunstetter, John Guare, David Henry Hwang, Neil LaBute, Ike Shambelan, Theater Breaking Through Barriers, actors with disabilities

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