Playwright Rachel Bublitz

The title word of Rachel Bublitz’s stark new three-character play, Ripped, has multiple meanings as it explores layers of truth about the sexual assault of a college student named Lucy. There is a ripped dress, relationships are ripped apart, the alarming reality of the number of college-age women who are victims of rape is ripped from the headlines. In the days leading to the May 22-June 15, 2019, world premiere of the drama at Z Space in San Francisco, Utah-based Bublitz fielded some questions about her new play.

“I started with knowing I wanted to write a play that dealt with rape, but not in the way we mostly see it,” Bublitz told me. “So often it’s cut and dry and the message behind it is ‘rape is wrong.’ But we know that — most people know that rape is terrible. Instead, I wanted to dig into how people define rape and make it all a lot more murky, hoping to create space for people to think deeper about both consent and rape.”

Bublitz characterizes the play this way: “At the top of the play we’re in a bedroom where a young woman wakes up not remembering how she got there. From that scene we jump in time and space to the events leading up to that morning and beyond as she tries to piece together what happened in the night before. The entire story is told through Lucy, the young woman, and deals with her relationships to two young men, her high school sweetheart Bradley, and a new friend Jared.”

Krystle Piamonte plays Lucy in the world premiere of “Ripped” in San Francisco.

Z Space artistic director Lisa Steindler  directs the production. The cast features Krystle Piamonte as Lucy, Edwin Jacobs as Bradley and Daniel Chung as Jared. The production team includes intimacy director Maya Herbsman, set and lighting designer Colm McNally, assistant lighting designer Camille Simoneau, sound designer Sara Huddleston, costume designer Christina Dinkel, props designer Hannah Clague, creative producer Rose Oser and stage manager Christina Hogan. Learn more about the engagement here.

Here’s my interview with playwright Rachel Bublitz. Learn more about her work at her website.

The profound ubiquity of sexual violence against women in our nation is now coming to full light. Did the #metoo and #timesup movement help prompt Ripped, or was it simmering coincidentally?

Rachel Bublitz: I started writing this in 2014, so before either the #metoo or #timesup movement picked up steam (or existed?). I knew I wanted to set the play on a college campus after my dad told me a story about going to my younger brother’s orientation. The parents were hearing a safety lecture. A mom asked if she should send her daughter to school with mace, because of all the violence and date rape that was happening on college campuses, and the woman leading the lecture told her not to, because it wasn’t going to be a stranger who assaulted her daughter, it would be a friend. She added that her daughter wouldn’t mace a friend. That really cracked open so much for me, in terms of this play, and it rang so true. In my experiences and so many women I know, it isn’t the stranger coming out of a bush that we’re always told to fear, it’s our friends, boyfriends, people we’ve trusted, that end up hurting us or taking advantage. And I got to thinking that maybe the perpetrators don’t even realize what they’re doing, or that it’s so harmful.

I love that all three of your characters — including the victim, UC Berkeley college freshman Lucy — are culpable in their roles related to consent, which is not to blame the victim. You create complicated characters and behaviors. It’s black and white at times, but gray, too. Do you feel that? Was that the goal?

Rachel Bublitz: Yes, it was intentional and so, so hard! Going back to the idea that rape is always talked about in black and white straightforward ways, I was much more interested in the gray. That being said, there is also black and white, because it was important that the script wasn’t about someone who claimed to be a victim that wasn’t. I wanted all three to have positive and negative attributes, and make them as human as possible, and likable. I think it’s important to realize that likable people are still capable of horrible things.

Lucy has complicated history with self-worth, alcohol, desire, expectations. Was she “complicated” from the start, or did that grow or change? 

Rachel Bublitz: She’s always been very complicated. Finding the balance so that any audience comes out feeling sympathy for her has been hard. Though with this production at Z Space I am having a great time finding that with my director, Lisa Steindler, and our fantastic actor Krystle Piamonte. The use of alcohol has always been there, but was tweaked after I read Jon Krakauer’s book “Missoula” for research. It became apparent that alcohol and these issues around date rape and consent are all linked, especially on college campuses. I also think, as she’s such a young character, and totally out of her element, it made sense that she’d also be mixed up with her self-worth, desire, and expectations. I know I was at 18.

Booze is a major part of your play. The fog of intoxication complicates reality. Does its free flow reflect a connection between drugs/alcohol and sexual assault in our wider culture?

Rachel Bublitz: I think so, totally. I was really inspired by “Missoula,” which I mentioned above, and how much drugs and alcohol play the part of social lubricators. I’m pretty sure that’s almost always been the case, but the way it’s described in the book, and what I’ve learned talking to folks in college right now, it seems like it’s more the case than ever.

I see the men in this play as perpetrators, but it can be seen that alcohol blurs the judgement of one of the guys. He doesn’t hear “no” from a drunk Lucy, but she is more drunk than he, putting the burden on him to draw limits. I wonder if men and women view the play differently. Have any of the talkbacks of past readings shown different reactions to the play along gender lines? Any memorable talkback comments that stick out?

Rachel Bublitz: So many crazy talkbacks for this play! I’ll say that I haven’t noticed a divide based on gender, I’ve noticed more of a divide based on age. The younger the audience, the more they will have sympathy for Lucy, the older, less so. What I find interesting (and heartbreaking) is how some audiences find her culpable in both cases, even though one of the events is supposed to be without gray area at all. And with that final scene, it’s interesting how far back I’ve had to take her actions in order to have anyone side with her, or feel sympathy for her. Another huge influence on this play was a podcast from “This American Life,” the episode called “Anatomy of Doubt.” And among the many things dealt with is the fact that often people dealing with trauma don’t respond the way society feels they should. It’s also touched on in “Missoula,” this idea that our brains need to recreate the trauma again and again hoping to make sense of it. I wanted to include that, and have her not make the best choices, and it was hard to do that and still have an audience on her side. And I don’t just mean that they think she’s correct, I mean having any sympathy for her at all. It’s interesting how often talk backs have mirrored the way these events are often covered by media, with audience members vilifying her choices, even going so far as to use the word “slut,” and adding how these two young men have such promising futures ahead of them.

Daniel Chung plays Jared in Rachel Bublitz’s new play “Ripped.”

You embed some wonderful mystery in the play. For example, at the top of the play, Jared seems to be following Lucy at night, and when she confronts him with words, he says he couldn’t hear her because he had headphones on. Later, he repeats her words back to her, suggesting that he in fact heard her; maybe he was lying. You leave room for the possibility that there is a potential rapist in him. Did you seek to send the message that part of him might indeed have an aggressive nature? 

Rachel Bublitz: So one thing is very true about this play: Everyone loves Jared. Everyone always falls over themselves to love Jared so much. After my first initial readings I had to go back and find places to make him have that potential for sure. He grabs her, at one point, and that was added in, as was his denial that he was ever rough with her. That was to show the audience that Lucy wasn’t the only one remembering things incorrectly. And yes, the headphones, and their initial meeting was a part of that as well. I don’t think he intended to grab her and take her away right then and there, but he also isn’t being completely honest either.

Did you know from the beginning that Ripped would be a three-character play? Was is larger-cast at one point?

Rachel Bublitz: I wanted it to be a four-person play, originally. I had a forth character for a bit, and they just didn’t have their own agency in the story. The story really belonged to Lucy and these two young men.

Was there an overwhelming theme that you began with, or does “theme” emerge after (or during) the writing process?

Rachel Bublitz: I almost always start with theme when I write. I figure out what I want to grapple with, what I want ask my audience, well before any other piece of my process. I’ve found if I don’t do this, I have characters just talk and talk forever. And usually they’re funny and the dialogue sounds natural, but nothing bigger emerges.

The play has enjoyed some nice development with various theaters. 

Rachel Bublitz: Early development had a huge impact, the first two readings taught me a lot about the play and how an audiences digests these characters. The first was at the Wyoming Theater Festival, and DannyLee Hodnett, the artistic director, and I had many conversations that shaped future drafts. Also its second reading at San Francisco Playhouse: I worked closely with my director Claire Rice, and at the time Playhouse associate artistic director Jordan Ramirez Puckett. It has also morphed quite a bit in these past few weeks as it’s getting up on its feet for the first time at Z Space.

The statistics of sexual assault in the U.S. are staggering. According the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women will be raped at some point in their lives and 20-25 percent of college women are victims of forced sex during their time in college. What sort of research did you do write the play? Did talking to women friends inform the play?

Rachel Bublitz: [In addition to Jon Krakauer’s “Missoula” and the “Anatomy of Doubt” episode of “This American Life”], I have talked to women friends, but not particularly because of the play, just because these incidents are so prevalent. I know barely any women who have never been assaulted, and that staggers me.

In Ripped, a crime is committed. The police are brought in. But you don’t make your play a police procedural, like “Law & Order,” in terms of sharing the facts of evidence collection, charges, investigation and the resolution of the case. Were there more details about the resolution of the case in earlier drafts?

Rachel Bublitz: I never went down that route. I almost did, having at one point the forth character being the head of security for UC Berkeley. But it felt so impersonal, and beside the point. No one is arguing if they had sex or not. It’s if it was consensual or not. I had at one point thought of including her going to the police just to show how humiliating and dehumanizing that experience so often is, but there was never space for it and it felt strange to try and force it in.

Maria Marquis and Maria Leigh in the world premiere of Rachel Bublitz’s play “Of Serpents and Sea Spray,” produced by Custom Made Theatre Company in 2016.

You write plays in many styles and genres, including plays for young audiences. In terms of your “adult” works, how is Ripped different from (or similar to) your other plays? What play, for example, lives in the same world?

Rachel Bublitz: I am always very excited to write works that ask questions of the audience, and that don’t shy away from “big” topics. The other two plays that first come to mind that share this with Ripped would be my full-lengths Let’s Fix Andy, which is about male body images and friendship, and Burst, an environmental play about plastic, recycling, as well as women and the boxes we’re so often painted into. I also have a one-act wrapped up in almost the same topic (it deals with statutory rape) called Break Room.

Why do you set the play in California? You live in Salt Lake City. Are you a California native?

Rachel Bublitz: I am a Californian, born and raised. I grew up in San Diego, one of the settings, and spent over ten years living in the Bay Area (San Francisco and Berkeley), the other setting for Ripped. Sometimes I defer to “write what you know” and I know both of these places like the back of my hand. I try and have complete settings as well as characters and since I know these places so well it felt natural to set them there. Also, coming from San Diego to the Bay Area for school I know very well how different and jarring that can be.

Edwin Jacobs plays Lucy’s high school boyfriend Bradley in the San Francisco world premiere of “Ripped.”

I admire how industrious and imaginative you are about submitting your work to theaters. You send out hundreds of queries a year, as I recall. Can you talk a little about that process and your drive? Do you save rejection letters? 

Rachel Bublitz: Last year I sent out 574 scripts and/or queries! And in 2017 I sent out 416. I am a big believer in practicing, a lot. I feel like having these huge goals to send out an insane amount of scripts makes me better at it. I’ve also developed relationships with theaters across the country because of this — theaters I likely wouldn’t have met otherwise. I think it’s a pretty impossible dream I have, to support myself and my family as a writer, and I just feel like if I don’t put every ounce into it I’m selling myself short. And not putting all those hours and days away from my kids to good use. They miss me a whole lot and I’d hate for that to be for nothing. And yes, I keep every single rejection letter. They remind me how much I push myself.

Are you a playwright who can work on multiple plays at once?

Rachel Bublitz: I am. Right now I’m working on three other rewrites while keeping myself available for tweaks on Ripped.

What’s your writing day like? Where do you write? When?

Rachel Bublitz: I mostly write while my kids are at school. I walk them, it’s about three miles round trip, and I try and get a run in on my way home. After my banana, I jump into either writing, submitting or promoting. Depending on deadlines I’m under I’ll switch these up, or what mood I’m in. I don’t write every day, necessarily, and I don’t find it helpful to force myself to write when I feel stuck. On those days I tend to submit or go for a really long walk to let my mind wander. I’ve started teaching a few classes at Weber University, and that eats into my writing more than kid things. Lesson planning is no joke!

How much of your workday is spent pitching your work to others, and how much of it is purely writing/editing/research?

Rachel Bublitz: It depends on where I’m at in my process. I tend to research and stew longer than I’ll write my first draft. As for pitching, I try and see and know the work of a theater before I start throwing ideas their way. I also prefer to do those in person as much as I can. But on a typical script I’ll spend a month or two researching and sketching out a rough outline I almost always throw out, and then will get a first draft done in two weeks or less. On those days I’m writing four to five hours in a day.

What is the Salt Lake City playwriting community like? Do you find support there?

Rachel Bublitz: The Salt Lake City playwriting community is so welcoming! I moved here in 2016, and was welcomed with open arms. Since then I’ve joined the Plan-B Theatre’s The Lab, and formed a playwriting group with another local Matthew Ivan Bennett, after prompting from you!

Will you remind me of your training/schooling as a playwright and one or two major takeaways of your education that you find surfacing in your plays?

Rachel Bublitz: I started as an actor, which I am constantly using in everything that I write. I received my BA from San Francisco State University in Performance, and retuned to SFSU for my MA in English and my MFA in Creative Writing. My teacher Michelle Carter talked a lot about leaving space in your plays for your audience to crawl inside of it with you, which I think about often, and she also had us think about our plays in terms of what unanswerable questions lived at their hearts. Both of these give me so much to think about in first drafts and rewrites. Michelle Carter is the best! I also had a great class with Peter Nachtrieb, where I wrote the first draft of Ripped, actually, and he talked a lot about humor and how effective it can be in all types of scripts. This was helpful for me to hear, because even my more serious plays always have laughs. It was good to know this wasn’t a thing to run away from.

How did Ripped come to Z Space in San Francisco? Was it workshopped/read there, too? Did you have a prior relationship with them? Are you in residence there for rehearsals?

Rachel Bublitz: Ripped came to Z Space through their first Problematic Play Festival, last year. They sent out a call for plays that may not be producible because of content, which fit Ripped because it looks at the gray areas surrounding rape.

About twenty friends sent me the call, and my script was the first one they read. It was accepted in the festival, where we had about a week of rehearsals and a public reading. Z Space expressed an interest in the world premiere shortly after, which was like a dream come true. Small world time: my biggest connection to Z Space before the Problematic Play Festival is that Peter Nachtrieb is the resident playwright at Z Space, and it was in his playwriting workshop that I started working on this play!

I was out in San Francisco during the first week of rehearsal, and will return on the May 21 for dress rehearsal, and then previews and opening. In the meantime, I’ve been chatting with my superb director, Lisa Steindler, regularly and video calling in to hear new pages as the emerge.

And remind me how many long-form plays you’ve written.

Rachel Bublitz: I just counted, and I have nine that I’ll send out and let people read. All told, I have 13.