A conversation with Sarah Treem

During rehearsals, Artistic Director PJ Powers (PJP) conducted this interview with The How and the Why playwright Sarah Treem (ST). Spoiler alert: Some key plot and character details of the play are discussed. An edited version of this interview appears in The How and the Why Backstory.

PJP: I swear I’m not trying to be too cute with this question, but how and why did you become a writer?

ST: People ask this a lot and my answer sounds so cute, but it’s the truth. I’ve always considered myself a writer. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I’m an excellent mimic and when I was a kid, I would write poems in the voices of Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss to entertain myself. My grandmother lived in New York and when we came to visit her, she would take me to theater. She took me to The Crucible when I was 9. I guess she thought I could handle it.

I wrote my first play at 12. It won a young playwrights contest, which I took to signify that I had found my calling. I remember a certain sense of relief—like, oh good, one less thing to worry about. I was a pretty serious kid. I continued writing all through high school and college and after college I went straight to Yale Drama. So, I wish I had a more interesting answer for this question, but I don’t. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. It is very much a part of my identity. The writing has been my constant companion for my entire life.

PJP: What inspired you to write The How And The Why?

ST: So that’s a more complicated question. Literally, the play is inspired by a book called Woman by Natalie Angier, a science writer for The New York Times. It’s an exhaustive exploration of female physiology. I tore through the book in my late twenties and stumbled upon these two theories—one was the grandmother hypothesis and the other was the menses as defense hypothesis. They’re both real theories in evolutionary biology. If you want to blow your mind, look up what happened to Margie Profet, who was my inspiration for the Rachel character. It’s perfect proof of the old adage, truth is stranger than fiction.

One a personal level, it’s a little hard for me to remember where I was at 28 when I started this play, but I think I was, like many girls I know, in an emotional vortex. That’s a tough age. You’ve outgrown your childhood and your younger self, but there’s a real period of searching that needs to happen before you can formulate an appropriate adulthood (at least, I think there should be). That searching can be really scary and painful because who knows where you’re going to end up. That’s where I was when I started that play.

When I write well, it’s usually from some deep and existential anxiety. I think The How and the Why came from this question, “How the hell do I become a grown-up?”

Evolutionary biology, in particular, is storytelling. Scientists look at trends across millennia and come up theories for why things happened the way they did.

PJP: Have you always been interested in science? Are there scientists in your family?

ST: Most of the members my family are doctors. I really love the history of science and medicine. For example, I did a whole study about the evolution of childbirth throughout history. It has changed drastically—even the concept of pain within childbirth, which we now take for granted, has evolved. In the colonial era, it was like “Eh, you’ll live.” By the Edwardian era, women were writing their last will and testaments before going into labor. Now it’s all become hypermedicalized.

There’s just so much you can extrapolate about the priorities and principles of a culture by examining its relationship to the body. And especially, women’s bodies. Who controls them? Who makes the decisions over them? I love that part of Zelda’s explanation where she takes you through the historical re-evaluation of menopause, based on changing perspectives on femininity. Evolutionary biology, in particular, is storytelling. Scientists look at trends across millennia and come up theories for why things happened the way they did. And when I say “story,” I don’t mean myth. These stories are routed in empiricism. But they are narratives.

Elizabeth Ledo (left) and Janet Ulrich Brooks as Rachel and Zelda in "The How and the Why."
Elizabeth Ledo (left) and Janet Ulrich Brooks as Rachel and Zelda in “The How and the Why.”

PJP: Do you connect more personally to the younger character of Rachel in the play, rather than to the older character of Zelda? Or is that a silly generational presumption on my part?

ST: I think when I was writing it, I was straddling both parts. I felt very connected to Rachel’s outrage and very connected to Zelda’s remove. Zelda’s speech about work as a lifeline—that’s from me, that’s what I believe. And Rachel’s speech about being dismissed for presenting a radical idea as a young woman—I believe that, too. And then there are parts of each character that are sort of antithetical to my personal philosophy. I love Zelda’s speech on love as stress, but I don’t buy it. And I have a lot more respect for the feminist generation than Rachel does. But in the end, when Rachel asks for help and Zelda answers, that was me talking to myself.

PJP: I know you’ve become a mother since this play premiered, and I’m curious if you now look at any parts of the play differently?

ST: Not really, actually. I didn’t think it was easy for Zelda to give up her child when I was writing the play and I certainly don’t now. And actually, I think I stand behind the play even more, now that I’m a mom, because I know how impossible it is to be completely committed to your passion as a parent. Your child becomes your priority. It just happens. I think Zelda was quite prescient to realize that and fear it. Zelda wanted to work, more than anything else. She knew she would be a preoccupied, resentful mother. And we are so judgmental of women who make those decisions. We’re terrified of them actually. But everybody gets to make their own choices with their own lives. I love being a mother. I love my son literally more than anything in the world. And if you tried to take him from me, I would kill you. But I am not as productive now as I used to be. Not by a long shot. I am very lucky to have incredible support. And to be born into a generation that both recognizes the complex responsibilities in a professional woman’s life and endeavors to assist her. Zelda didn’t have any of that. So I understand the choice she made. Even though Rachel would hate me for saying that.

PJP: Since The How And The Why premiered in 2011, there has been the much-discussed book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg, as well as the provocative cover story in The Atlantic “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”  Do you sense anything shifting in recent years in the ongoing discussion about balancing work and career?

ST: Yes absolutely, and it’s really exciting.

I devoured Lean In and also the Anne Marie Slaughter piece in The Atlantic that preceded it. I think this is a very special time for professional women. I love reading that Lena Dunham or Lorde proudly identify as feminists. Just 10 years ago, that was a bad word. I remember the popstars of my generation (I’m 33) insisting that they were “humanists,” whatever that means. Everyone was terrified to have the conversation aloud. To say, “Wait a second, this is hard for me. Hold up, I’m confused.”

I really loved Anne Marie Slaughter’s point that it’s not about women making it all work—it’s not about logistics—it’s about happiness. Working mothers don’t want to leave their children for 80-hour weeks. It isn’t worth it. But our system is not set up to provide women an alternative. Especially when you get to the top of these fields—be it science or government or entertainment—there is no culture of respect for family time, for maternity leave, for helping women do good work and also be good moms. So everyone suffers. Women suffer because they’re being asked to make impossible choices—themselves or their children—and the industries suffer because they’re either losing talent or people are miserable. I’m so glad that people like Anne Marie and Sheryl have put this conflict into public dialogue because awareness creates action.

It’s not about women making it all work—it’s not about logistics—it’s about happiness. Working mothers don’t want to leave their children for 80-hour weeks. It isn’t worth it. But our system is not set up to provide women an alternative.

PJP: During the first few productions of The How And The Why, was the play generating the type of audience discussion you had hoped for, or have there been responses that surprised you?

ST: I don’t think I hoped for any specific kind of response. I just hoped people would sit through a play that is basically a long conversation between two women about science. I had never seen these types of characters up on stage before. I wanted to write women who were complicated—strong and vulnerable and angry and loving—like real people.

I hate when I see these female characters on stage whose “strength” is a defense. Because they’re really broken. Or frigid. Or crazy. Those are not the girls I know. I like a tough lady. So I was pleased to see that audiences have really engaged with these characters and not too many eyes have glazed over.

I was disappointed by the critical response to the first production in The New York Times, because Isherwood didn’t engage at all with any of the ideas I was wrestling with—feminism, motherhood, gender discrimination, even biology. He wrote off Rachel’s character for being angry, as if her anger negates her legitimacy. Which is exactly the point she’s trying to make in the play. Anger in young women makes people so uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable. That’s why I write about it so much. So anyway, I wish he had understood that.

There was a gorgeous response from Jill Dolan who writes a blog called The Feminist Spectator, which in-and-of itself made writing the play worth it for me.

PJP: Much has been written and debated about the depressingly low percentage of plays produced in this country that are written by women. As a now-established yet still-young playwright, do you have advice for those who are earlier in their career, trying to get their work produced?

ST: Oh God, I have a ton. Mostly, hang in there. It’s a war of attrition. But also, don’t be precious about your talent. If you want to be a writer, write. Keep writing. Wherever and however you can.

I once had a conversation with Danai Gurira, whose work I am in awe of. She doesn’t get produced as much as she should—not even close—because she’s mostly writing about African women and her plays are grand and ambitious. But Danai has never stayed in New York, crying over her ramen, because nobody wants to do her work. She travels all over the world, she acts in independent movies, on The Walking Dead, she writes constantly. She once said to me, “I walk through the doors that are opening to me. I don’t waste my time beating my head against the ones that are closed.”

That advice changed my life. So I would pass it on to any younger playwrights and just add—keep moving. If a theater doesn’t want to produce your play, fuck them, move on, find a theater that will. Only take notes from people who already like your work—those are the only notes that are useful. Keep reading. Don’t put too much faith in agents. You have to hustle for yourself. Support your fellow artists. Get married. Have babies. Live your life. And again, keep writing. I love the artist Josh Ritter. I may get flack for that—he’s a little sincere—but he has a line in one of his songs: “I’m singing for the love of it. Have mercy on the man who sings to be adored.” And that’s how I feel about choosing to be an artist. You better be doing it for the love of it. Because if you’re not, may God have mercy on your soul.

Writers Kate Barnow and Sarah Treem, winners of the "Outstanding New Series" award for "House of Cards" pose in the press room at the 2014 Writers Guild Awards.
Writers Kate Barnow and Sarah Treem, winners of the “Outstanding New Series” award for “House of Cards” pose in the press room at the 2014 Writers Guild Awards.

PJP: You’ve been incredibly prolific in recent years, writing and producing for TV shows (House of Cards, In Treatment, How to Make It in America and The Affair) plus you have a film in the works. Yet you still write plays as well. How is the creative process different in the theater than in your other work?

ST: It’s like coming home for me. It’s the form I imprinted on. I think writing is a bit like that. It’s the rare writer who can move easily from poetry to fiction to drama. Our creative brains choose one avenue of expression and form around it. So when I start a new play, I kind of relax—it’s like yes, this is where I live.

But being a playwright has never paid my bills and I feel extremely fortunate to have become a part of the television industry. It really is the golden age of television. We’re creating content that is disseminated and devoured immediately and we’re influencing the national conversation. I was surprised to find that the different mediums really inform each other. Contrary to popular belief, writing for television has made me a better playwright. In TV you have to choose your words very carefully. Because with a camera, excess is obvious. Even little speeches in television have to be well justified or they feel ridiculous. The best scenes say the most with the fewest possible words. That rigor with language has absolutely improved my playwriting.

PJP: With so many projects on your plate, I’m curious what attracts you to the ones you decide to work on?

ST: Oh God, I didn’t mean to have so many projects happening at once this year, but you don’t get to choose when things go. The play that’s opening at Manhattan Theatre Club in the spring, I started in 2011. And this TV show has been in the works for two years. And the movie just kind of appeared. So I’m just trying to keep my head above water at the moment.

But in general, I’m attracted to work about women, obviously, about families, motherhood, gender relationships, small towns, science, generational divide, living and dying … I think that’s mostly it.  I try to only work on projects that speak to some deep fear of mine. Because I know I’ll finish the project in order to sedate the terror. If I’m not scared to write it, I’ll get bored halfway through and abandon it.

PJP: What’s next for you?

ST: My plate is so full now, I’m just thinking until next October, when the TV show will hopefully premiere and the play will have opened and the movie will be done. And then I want a break. I want to spend time with my husband and my son, somewhere nobody can reach us. I want to get pregnant again. That would be nice.

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