Playwright Ann Marie Healy has created a dynamic and thought-provoking new world in What Once We Felt, where babies are downloaded, entertainment is digital, and two different classes struggle to coexist. Happily for Flat Earth, Healy has taken the time to talk with us about some of the themes in this futuristic dystopia and about some of the playwriting opportunities she's had. What Once We Felt opens Friday, March 14 at the Davis Square Theatre in Somerville.
FET: What do you find compelling about setting stories in a dystopia, and what other dystopian works have you been interested in?
AMH: It's funny because I don't read a great deal of dystopian fiction. Of course I am inspired by George Orwell and I love Margaret Atwood. But most of my favorite writers are working in different genres: Chekhov, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Lorrie Moore are just a few examples of inspiration. I found myself working within the dystopian frame because I love "world making." It was so fun to create an alternative universe with such different language and norms. That initial curiosity led me to use the alternative world to probe into the moral and ethical issues percolating in the cultural zeitgeist. To this day, I am still surprised at how the narrative shaped itself! But then, that is the joy of playwriting. You never really know...
FET: It is clear in the culture of What Once We Felt that new technological advances are opening some doors to literary possibilities while closing others. What are your thoughts on the future of books (or lack thereof)?
AMH: To be honest, I'm not totally sure what to think. But I do think about it a great deal. (My husband is also a writer and we often talk about it.) A few things seem clear to me:
People will always read great works of fiction and nonfiction. Younger people will probably not read them on the printed page.
The publishing industry is changing radically and will probably look very different in ten years.
I don't know if writers can or will make their money from writing in the future. (So some things never change!)
Four years after writing this play, I am still chewing on these issues: a recent piece on Jeff Bezos and Amazon in The New Yorker (written by George Packer) only adds to my confusion about the future of the industry. I found Packer's piece tremendously moving in many ways. The publishing industry is still populated by people who genuinely love books and the "slow" work of making them great. Only time will tell how that culture will ultimately assert itself against the persuasions of an engineering mindset driven by algorithms.
FET: What inspired the choice to populate this play with an all-female cast? What aspects of world-building in this setting, if any, does a society without a gender binary influence?
AMH: Caryl Churchill is one of my greatest playwriting inspirations so I was nodding, in some ways, to her formal inventiveness with Top Girls. I thought it would be interesting to explore questions of power, intimacy, co-creation and rebellion in a world with only one gender. It was almost like a sociological experiment: controlling for the bias of gender. When I started, I didn't really have an agenda or anything in particular I wanted to say about the role of women. The story carried me to a specific place, as it always does, but I started with only questions and curiosity: what does a female-only world look like?
FET: You were a member of the playwrights collective 13P, which the new Boston Public Works takes as its model. Can you speak for a moment about your experience as a member of 13P?
AMH: 13P was totally magical. It was one of my favorite theater experiments and experiences. The model allowed us to make choices based entirely around artistic vision with no thought of institutional sustainability. I realize, in retrospect, that this model was a total gift! Of course, I always need to clarify: all that magic and artistic purity is only possible when you have leaders working behind the scenes. People like Maria Goyanes, Rob Handel and Madeleine George were often putting in long hours to organize, get grants, and generally keep the boat floating. They are a huge reason 13P achieved its alchemy of artistic vision!