Matthew Ivan Bennett, resident playwright of Plan-B Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, is on the road. Not literally. His new play, A/Version of Events, getting its world premiere March 5-15 by Plan-B, is set in and around an automobile inhabited by a Mormon couple in mourning for their lives. Christy Summerhays directs.
Plan-B, the vest-pocket professional company devoted to works that often navigate political, cultural and societal highways, bills the play as “a claustrophobic road trip about healing at different speeds, getting trapped in the wrong memories and whether or not we can outrun ourselves.”
Carleton Bluford and Latoya Rhodes play the couple, Cooper and Hannah, who travel West on I-78 following a visit to the Ground Zero memorial in Lower Manhattan. They are headed home to Utah, and the journey is revealing.
Along the way, over rolling green hills of Pennsylvania, Cooper and Hannah unpack stuff that has been jammed too tightly into their shared emotional glove compartment: a tragedy in their past, the nature of their marriage, shifting views about their faith, questions about mental stability.
“It’s about a young couple who lose a child and then go on a road trip, finding out they have hugely different stories about what happened,” Bennett told me. He answered a slew of other questions. Scroll down to learn more about A/Version of Events. (And read my earlier piece about actor-writer Carleton Bluford’s Plan-B world premiere, Mama, closing Feb. 22.)
Bennett is resident playwright at Plan-B, where he’s premiered several plays including Eric(a), which won Best Drama at United Solo Theatre Festival in New York in 2013 and Mesa Verde, which was nominated for the American Theatre Critics Association/Steinberg Award for Best New American Play in 2011. Recently, he received the Holland New Voices Award at the Great Plains Theatre Conference for The Cause. He has worked with Chicago’s Circle Theatre, Rising Sun in New York, Source in D.C. and Monkeyman in Toronto. His work can been read on the New Play Exchange website.
The production team of A/Version of Events includes set designer Randy Rasmussen; sound designer Cheryl Cluff; costume designer Phil Lowe; props designer Jerry Rapier; lighting designer Jesse Portillo and stage managers Kris Bushman and Jennifer Freed.
Performances of A/Version of Events play 8 PM Thursdays and Fridays, 4 and 8 PM Saturdays, 2 PM Sundays at the Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Center, 138 W. 300 S in Salt Lake City. Visit the Plan-B website for more information.
Here’s my chat with Utah playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett.
I’m always interested in the first seeds of a play. The first inspiration. What did you “see” first when conjuring A/Version of Events? The road trip? The couple?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: The first image was a baby crawling next to a river, and a tired young mother lying on the grass nearby. I worked at a TV station in the mid-2000s, and in 2005, I think, which was a high-water year, a toddler drowned in Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City. On camera, of course, the mother was hysterical. She’d only looked away for a few seconds. Also, in undergrad, my acting professor shared with me her own drowning story (her boy, who was about eight). I was sketching out new play ideas on the train, and had an idea about a Mormon couple who had been party people in college but then settled down — out of social pressure and (for the man) real faith. But I didn’t “see” anything until my mind skimmed on these child-drowning memories. Then I saw her in the park, and them in the car months later.
The play is a road-trip story about a married couple with darkness in the past. A death. Substance abuse. But I was surprised that it became a discussion about faith. Did you always know that these people would be talking about faith, or did you discover that along the way?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: I always knew faith would play in. Because aside from the child-drowning stories that sparked the piece, my family lost a child in 1997. My mother got pregnant when I was 18. The doctor advised an abortion because of a catastrophic chromosomal problem. My parents, though, didn’t believe in abortion so she carried Benjamin to term. He lived a month. He was born on my stepdad’s birthday and died on my birthday. It was a crisis of faith for me and faith-building for them. I kept my feelings from them at the time because I didn’t want to upset them. But the whole thing made me desperately angry. I could not understand the point of Benjamin’s pain.
Your characters are Mormon and they struggle with their faith. Were you raised LDS? Why was it important to you that these characters were Mormon and from Utah?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: I was raised LDS, but left as a teenager. Like anyone, I struggle with Big Questions, and my reference point for them is unalterably, sometimes maddening, sometimes helpfully, influenced by my upbringing. So LDS people — especially liberal, outsider LDS people — have a vibrant presence in my creative mind. I suppose Cooper and Hannah could have been Baptists from Colorado, but, as a writer, I like rendering the people I know. I like looking for the universal in the incredibly peculiar and specific sociology of my city.
There is a certain mystery about Hannah and Cooper’s relationship and about the truth of what happened to them, and there’s an expressionistic quality to the staging; an infusion of music and movement are suggested in stage directions. Is it your most “surreal” play? Did you know going in that it would not be — for lack of a better term — “well-made”?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: Going in, I conceived the piece as a hyper-realistic long-form one-act. But when I actually began typing, I realized that I would hobble the story’s meaning by writing one long scene. When we read the second draft, we were talking about one of Hannah’s big monologues and my producer, [Plan-B artistic director] Jerry [Rapier] said, “This doesn’t need to be realism.” He and I started talking about it as a production then and how a light might single out Hannah, symbolically pulling the audience into her perspective. From that, the play’s true form emerged. Also…while I was writing this I had been thinking a lot about non-verbal moments in plays, how they can be twice as expressive as a line. How a gap, or hole, or blank space in a character can let the audience in. So that was the point of the dream-like interludes.
How is A/Version of Events different from your other plays?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: It blends my tendency to write lines that are loaded with as-yet-not-understood subtext with my love of dark comedy.
I was struck by the way the characters avoid talking about things in the first half of the play. They play word games, trivia games, car games, make high-context pop culture references. It creates a kind of tension. Can you share some thoughts about that?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: Dramaturg Heather Helinsky was instrumental in pushing me to write more games into the play. I had them in the rough draft, but she stressed to me how powerful they were. So when I rewrote, I thought about all the car games I’d ever played — the Alphabet Game, Perdiddle, 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall, etc. — and put way more in than I eventually kept. At one point, Movie Line felt very central to the piece. But as the expressionistic form emerged, it shrank into the background.
Also, another thing I was thinking about while writing this is how analogies are used in relationships. Humans can’t not analogize, and this is often poisonous in close relationships. If I make a comment about another couple to my wife, like, “She kind of busts his balls, huh?” she’s instantly analogizing and wondering. “Is he saying I bust his balls?” Obviously, the more she identifies with the other woman, the more likely she is to draw the analogy, but we make analogies from practically nothing in relationships all the time.
Bringing it back to games, though, the way a couple plays a game can be an analogy for who they are. On New Year’s Eve I was at a party where a bunch of couples played a card game called Lucky Bastard. You win mainly with luck, but also by being vicious. It was fascinating to see which couples would be mean to each other and which wouldn’t. And by the way, I don’t think that being mean in a game necessarily says, “This is a doomed couple.” I think it says: “This is a couple who dares to passionately hash things out.” So, on one level, yes, the games in the play are a failure to communicate (aversion). But they’re also rich with information about their feelings toward each other. At least, that was my intent.
Do you meticulously map out your plays, or do you discover character, action, events as you write?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: I used to say, “It depends on the play.” With some stories, I’m a very meticulous outliner. With others, I feel my way through with a core image, an unmet desire, or my confusion as a tapping white cane. But I’m trying out a hybrid method now. Instead of drawing up a blueprint, I just keep the architectural rules of thumb nearby and ask myself, “What do I want people to feel when they walk into this building?”
Do you think about “themes” while writing, or do you let theme emerge?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: Oh, man. I think this is the most dangerous question you could ask me right now. Here’s the thing… I feel like my most successful writing has sprung from a terrifying nexus of “themes” that I would be hard put to describe. When I write with a theme sentence tacked on my corkboard, or written and circled in my notebook, the plays tend to go nowhere. They can have good dialogue and suspense, but I usually get comments back like, “It’s well written, but too familiar.” Or someone asks me, “Who exactly is the audience for this play?” Obviously, when I was writing A/Version of Events, I had two theme things in mind: (1) how and why we avoid talking out our grief, and (2) the fact that everyone has their own story in their head about everything. But those are pretty intellectual things and the play isn’t that intellectual.
It really was a piece where my characters surprised me and where I had to let go of agendas. Even though I knew faith would come into play, I resisted Cooper’s earnest religiosity at first. I didn’t want to “muddy up the play.” Luckily, I went and talked to my parents while I was still working and asked them to tell me again about Benjamin’s death from their perspective. It was healing for me personally and it made Cooper less controllable (in a good way).
What have you discovered in Plan-B developmental readings of the play, and what has director Christy Summerhays brought to the table in this process?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: I had a version read in my playwrights’ group, in a living room, when it was 44 pages — not done — and a bloody mess. They said encouraging things and then things like, “You could cut your first 40 pages and start the play on page 41.” (Horrible, but true.) And, “This is play about America; Hannah and Cooper are the political left and right.” (I tried working with that and got lost.) But my favorite part of that night was when they laughed at Cooper’s line, “That’s why I think you’d like therapy.” That, right there, told me I was on the right track.
The second reading was in my producer’s [Jerry Rapier’s] living room with his little boy babbling helpfully through half of it. There we discovered the form wasn’t realism. Christy gave me a liberal LDS perspective and I ended up meeting with an LDS female friend just to talk about grief in LDS culture. Basically, it’s not very different from other religious cultures. What I heard over and over was that there was a pressure to feel: it was part of God’s plan; they are in a better place; you should be happy that they’re in that place; depression is proof of your lack of faith. The last one was key.
Last, something Christy has pushed for — that I appreciate — is less definite declarations from Hannah. That is, she thought that Hannah would, in her grief, not be as sure about things I thought she was sure about. I think that’s helped a lot. We made some minor, but significant, line changes in our last meeting that really sustain the cloud of grief through the end.
What was your first brush with theatre as a kid? Are there theatre people in your family?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: The first show I recall seeing is a musical version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” at Promised Valley Playhouse. But I was in a version of The Pied Piper of Hamlin in the fourth grade. I auditioned to be a rat, but I sang too well and they made me Martin the child. When I later told people about the show, I lied and said I was a rat. I have a lot of “first brush” tales from my teen years, but my Uncle John — who was a local actor — influenced me a ton. I saw him in a comedy at the Hale Centre Theatre called Beau Jest that he was hilarious in. But aside from admiring him as an actor, and wanting that charm for myself, I began thinking about plays after I saw that one. I mean, I’d dissected and written about plays in school, but I began reading plays on my own then. And wondering why they were good. I read books about writing and read my Uncle John’s screenplay and wrote notes on every page. (Probably more notes than he wanted.) I read “An Actor Prepares” in a lawn chair in my backyard and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in my dad’s hot tub. I had no idea what Albee’s play was about when I bought it. It shocked me.
You were an actor once, right? Tell me about schooling and acting and the moment you thought you might switch over to playwriting.
Matthew Ivan Bennett: I still love acting, and long to act. Growing up in Salt Lake in the ’80s and ’90s, doing community theatre, I thought acting was Fiddler on the Roof. When I got to college (Southern Utah University) I was cast in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child as Vince. My parents hated it. I felt I had discovered a new continent. But I wrote through college and had scenes and short plays and one full-length play produced at school. The electricity of that first play is still in my nose. A friend of mine wrote me a letter after seeing The White Light of Terrence and told me that he’d reconciled with his mother because of what I wrote. It’s the best response to a play I’ve ever gotten, even now.
I knew I’d switch over to playwriting when I was close to graduating and thought seriously about being a regional theatre actor. It wasn’t the travel that bothered me, but the idea of doing King Lear eight times a week. I didn’t have it in me.
What was the first play that you wrote? Even if it was juvenilia…
Matthew Ivan Bennett: Hard question. My first full-length was The White Light of Terrence, in college, about a boy who starts having visions while in the care of a pastor. My first real, cohesive, actual play (though ten minutes long) was in high school. It was called Tequila Weedmonkey, and was about two high-school exes who meet in Mexico ten years following graduation. I wrote a screenplay in high school called “Area 51” (about radioactive chicken), and a short film called “The Peregrine” (about a man who willingly becomes homeless in order to track down the homeless killer of his wife). I wrote lots of poetry and short fictional sketches as a young person, but the first scene of dialogue I remember writing was something I called The Day It Rained Curly Fries. If I remember correctly, it was about a couple who almost broke up in an Arby’s.
Share a little about your relationship with Plan-B? How have you built muscle as a writer there?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: I first submitted to them when I was living in Chicago. Jerry surprised me by promptly getting back to me and saying my play had good dialogue but the piece wasn’t a good fit for the theatre. I moved back to Salt Lake shortly thereafter and went to see a play there, A Letter to Harvey Milk. I instantly and badly wanted to work with them. I submitted again, got rejected. Then Jerry asked if I would write for a 24-hour theatre festival. I agreed, having never written anything overnight before. But I’ve been writing for Plan-B every year since.
I’ve built muscles with Plan-B by being asked to do many different things. I’ve written ten-minute plays, radio plays, an elementary school assembly called Different=Amazing, and regular dramas, too. Together we’ve developed pieces about the life of Leonardo da Vinci [Di Esperienza], the Japanese-American internment camp at Topaz, UT [Block 8], and transgender dating. Altogether, I think it’s 20 plays. Around that. Eight “Slam” plays, six radio plays, a school tour, four dramas, and a few plays for fundraisers and staged readings.
The one I point to as an important step is Eric(a), the transgender play. It wasn’t just that the material was backbreaking, it was the fact that I did three page-one rewrites. I literally started over three times after a month or more of writing a rough draft. In August I wrote an hour-long sketch for a reading series and we scrapped it, knowing it needed a different angle. In December/January I wrote a 90-minute play with a mythological-surreal framework that nearly everyone thought was the flatulence of Kafka. Jerry wounded me by saying only one scene was usable and I hit back by saying he didn’t understand metaphor. I lay awake all night and made myself read Julie Jensen’s “Playwriting: Brief and Brilliant” cover to cover. Jerry dropped the show from the September slot; I was crushed. I began re-working the play in my notebook with only one character (the transgender one) and outlined a well-made play, but put it on the back burner.
I wrote a broad physical comedy called A Night With the Family. Over the summer, Jerry asked if I might salvage pieces of the play for a one-act. It was unexpectedly easy. I knew the character and wrote a 20-minute play, cobbling together speeches and scenes I’d already written and giving them a simple format: a trans man talking at an event called “Living Trans,” telling us about the woman he fell in love following his transition. I gave it to Jerry and he immediately (and frustratingly) wondered if I could write a full-length play instead. So I re-thought the structure and dug a lot deeper. It’s been my most important step as a writer because it was flat-on-my-back humbling and I learned to listen to feedback in a new way. From the beginning, really, everyone was saying, “Hey, that transgender character is where the energy is.” I didn’t listen, maybe, because the notion of writing a whole play about a transgender man seemed medievally hard and just not something I could do. And, it was a big step because I’m far less scared of starting over.
Who are some playwrights that you admire? Some titles that had an impact on you?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: A list with no order: Annie Baker, Lisa D’Amour, Constance Congdon, Kia Corthron, Kathleen Cahill, Julie Jensen, Jon Robin Baitz, Sam Shepard, Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, Lillian Hellman, (without shame) Neil Simon, Peter Shaffer, Alan Ayckbourn, Miller.
Perhaps an unlikely title that had a big effect on me was The Living Room by A.R. Gurney. I can’t say why in one sentence, but it made me cry for a day and a half. Another unlikely title that had a big effect on me was Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith. Both have unconventional storytelling with multiple characters across time; both manage to be more than the sum of their parts.
Who is your best editor?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: My best editors are actors who will nobly try anything but know when something is not their fault.
Remind me where you were born and raised.
Matthew Ivan Bennett: I grew up on Whitaker Drive in Taylorsville, Utah. I remember squirrels and pheasants and junkyard dogs. I remember there being no fence behind my house, just a field with wheat and irrigation ditches. Now it’s churches and little league diamonds and strip malls. But I keep the other place alive in my head.
That sounds like five sentences that could launch a great new play.