“There’s a version of radical queer politics — identity politics — that says we should be different,” says Madeleine George. “We should be pushing against mainstream culture — we should not be trying to be at the center of something. Our power comes from being at the margins, where we have a bigger, broader POV, and where we can see being at the margins is a form of oppression. But then, I think, there’s another thing….”
George, a noted playwright, whose The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2014, is on one of many rolls during our conversation about her craft, her queerness, and her breathtaking and powerful climate change comedy Hurricane Diane, currently getting a divine production at the Avant Bard Theatre in Arlington, Va.
“Maybe I’m a little bit more mainstream in this way,” she continues. “But what I really want is for people of any gender and sexual identity to be able to identify with a protagonist who is a nonbinary person — or let’s say a trans-masculine butch person or somebody who has for decades and centuries been seen as niche or weird or different. I want that person to be eligible to be the universal human. And in order for that to happen, people from lots of different groups need to be able to identify with that person.
“And this is about systemic exclusion. We always have been asked to identify with straight white men. Always. They’ve been at the center. And if we want to look at TV, movies, or plays, we’ve been asked to identify with that person’s trajectory. I want little boys to be able to see themselves in female protagonists in stories, and for white people to feel like people of color are universal in the way that we are all each individually the universal human.
“I don’t want the protagonist role to be an exclusive place.”
George quickly adds that she’s “not trying to say, ‘Oh, we should dissolve identity categories.’ I’m not saying that at all. I just think that that kind of empathy has been the province of the oppressed for years. We’ve been forced to identify with someone who is at the center of the culture who is not like us necessarily, and doesn’t see what we can see. I want it to be able to go in multiple directions.
“And so, for me, that means just putting people in the protagonist role who haven’t usually been there, and insisting that people in the audience get on their ride.”
One can cover a lot of ground with George, and, in two distinct 40-minute conversations, we do just that. Her style is casual and deceptively low-key, but inadvertently press the right button, and she turns into a firebrand, full of opinions and common sense — albeit one not immune to retractions and small, sweet apologies.
“Don’t put this in the paper,” she says before launching into a particular observation that becomes a compelling secret for the interviewer’s ears only. Later, she’ll say something that is only mildly incendiary and immediately back off. “Don’t use that sentence, because that sentence has a fighting word that I don’t mean to say.”
Still, treasures — unburied — are unearthed throughout our talks. Illuminations, personal ruminations, all expressed with shimmering clarity. Mostly, we talk about Hurricane Diane, her stunningly funny work that imagines the god Dionysus as a nonbinary, butch lesbian named Diane. She’s decided to save the planet by recruiting four suburban New Jersey housewives to her cause. A god, after all, needs followers.
“I know people can get weird when you come out to them as a demigod,” Diane says in the play’s dazzling opening monologue. “So I’m not gonna ride in guns a-blazing, full Greek. My plan is to slide in on the DL, hit ’em with the landscaping design angle.”
The minimum number of acolytes Diane requires is four — “two ladies on my right side, two ladies on my left” — and she seduces, both sexually and spiritually, Pam, Renee, and Beth with ease. Her problem is Carol, who turns out to be quite the formidable nemesis. Diane arrives with promises of permaculture and climate redemption. Needless to say, thanks to Carol, things don’t go quite as Diane envisions. The play, richly, consistently funny, conceals a Trojan Horse: a sharp, sly undercurrent of consequential messages for its audience. It keeps us laughing, then leaves us shattered.
“It manages to combine this very comic, very charming relationship and then all this other much more serious stuff,” says Stevie Zimmerman, director of Avant Bard’s production. “I think Madeleine was brilliant in choosing this sort of Greek motif and the god figure to tie them all together. It’s very poignant, and I hope it moves people to act…because it does all start with one cul-de-sac at a time.”
For Caro Dubberly, the local nonbinary actor who plays Diane, the play’s truths cut harshly.
“I think there can be a sense of nihilism about the state of things like global warming,” they say. “[It’s] similar to how I felt during — and this is a really dark comparison — but when, like, Sandy Hook happened and nothing fucking happened about guns. If a god shows up and says, global warming is bad, you’re killing yourselves, it’s similar, to me. That’s the despair that I and other people often feel about this.”
“The reason Diane cares about the world continuing is not out of some sort of benevolence,” adds Zimmerman. “It’s because a god needs acolytes and there are no acolytes if the world is gone.”
George, a youthful “almost 50,” is a member of the Writer’s Guild of America and is currently on strike. For three seasons, she’s worked as a writer on Hulu’s wacky, whimsical hit Only Murders in the Building, starring Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez. Season three is premiering later this summer but George can’t reveal anything, nor really talk about the work in detail due to the strike.
She’s also married to the gifted playwright Lisa Kron, a partner for 16 years. Kron, a force in her own right, wrote the book and lyrics to the Tony-winning musical Fun Home, based on the works of Alison Bechdel.
“I don’t mean to brag, but Lisa Kron is brilliant,” beams George. “It’s really great hanging out with her. She’s very funny. She’s really smart. She knows a lot about a lot of things, and so it’s like — I don’t know — the greatest person to possibly have as a daily conversation partner. I’m very secretive with my work and I don’t usually show it to her, which really drives her bananas. But eventually, she becomes a very important reader to me.
“I still think of myself as her new girlfriend,” she laughs, “even though we’ve been together for a while.”
Writing plays, for George, “is the place where my intellect and my soul and my heart all join together. It’s a place where I can really ask the questions that are most bedeviling me, the questions that I can’t answer by thinking alone. And I feel like that’s what [attending] a good play also does for us. It engages us on levels and invites us to bring forward our whole self, to not just think something through and not just have feelings, but an intoxicating elixir of all of those different components of our humanity. Bring all of them to bear on the issues that face us. Whether it’s something like aging, or whether it’s love, or whether it’s climate change, it’s real soul work for me.”
METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with your childhood. From which suburban cul-de-sac did you spring? And what drew you to playwriting?
MADELEINE GEORGE: [Laughs.] I’m from Amherst, a small town in Western Massachusetts. I actually started writing plays in high school. I had an English teacher who read short stories of mine and was like, “You know, you could just take out the words ‘he said’ and ‘she exclaimed’ and basically you have a play.” So I had encouragement. I wrote a one-act play and sent it to the Young Playwrights Festival in New York City. And they invited me to New York to do a reading of that play when I was 16 years old.
That really changed my life. I mean, that reading had Camryn Manheim, Danny Jenkins, and Katherine Hiler in it. And I just couldn’t believe what it was like to have actors of that caliber doing the little play I had written in the privacy of my own childhood bedroom. I was just going to be a playwright after that.
MW: Were your parents supportive of the choice?
GEORGE: Yeah, I mean they certainly liked the theater, but it wasn’t a huge part of their lives. They were a little, I think, bemused, but they were very supportive. I went to Cornell University and I studied linguistics there. I wasn’t a theater major. But then I went right from undergraduate to NYU to get an MFA at Tisch. I was like, “Okay, I’m not going to be a translator. I’m not going to be a syntactician.” I decided I wanted to be able to ask bigger questions basically about the human condition, which is what playwriting lets me do.
MW: Were you out as a teenager?
GEORGE: Oh, no, not at all. When I look at very young queer kids today, I just marvel at their self-awareness and the ways that they have community. Even though my little public school was very lefty-liberal and hippie in a lot of ways, I was not out to myself at all. It wasn’t until after college that I came out.
MW: When you were a young playwright, were you subconsciously creating queer characters within the work?
GEORGE: I mean, the play that I had at the Young Playwrights Festival in 1994 was called The Most Massive Woman Wins, and it’s almost like a choreo-poem. It’s very influenced by For Colored Girls…, but it was about body image.
It’s about four women in the waiting room of a liposuction clinic and they move in and out of dream states. It’s not a naturalistic play. I think it definitely prefigures other plays of mine, including Hurricane Diane, in that it’s this all-female world where issues about how to live in their culture are playing out in these emotional dynamics between and among women. And, in the case of Hurricane Diane, also nonbinary people.
So I think that I was hitting a certain part of my stride at that point. I was young, I was 19, I was not out, I wasn’t politicized in that way around identity. But I considered myself a feminist and I think I was like, “Writing plays that center women feels right to me.”
MW: What was the light bulb that went off that made you feel part of the LGBTQ community?
GEORGE: I mean… there was a girl. [Laughs.] Although I will say that I remember, at one point, I spent a summer living in this remote cabin that had no phone, back in the days when there were no cell phones. I just had a radio. And I remember making mac and cheese while listening to Prairie Home Companion alone in this remote cabin.
And Garrison Keillor was like, “Today is Pride Weekend here in Minneapolis,” or wherever it was he was broadcasting from. And the audience burst into applause. And in my tiny remote cabin, I burst into applause. And I remember standing there holding this wooden spoon like, “Why am I clapping for Pride Weekend?” And I was like, “Oh, maybe my subconscious is sending me a message here via NPR.” So that was an early indication. And then, I also fell for someone.
MW: Let’s talk about Hurricane Diane. I haven’t seen it performed prior to us speaking, but I have read it and I could not believe how many times I laughed out loud. Just literally sat there in my chair laughing at the rhythm of jokes, trying to think how Diane would be portrayed — because often her dialogue is just one word. You leave a lot of room open for interpretation.
GEORGE: On the one hand, there’s a very specific kind of transmasculine or butch sort of swagger that is important to the character, but beyond that, there is a lot of flexibility and freedom in the character. I think that you can play that character as very grave and serious and intense. Or you can play the character as the person who originated the role, Becca Blackwell, did — as a straight-up goofball with a lot of charisma.
Over the years, since the original production, it’s been played by people who, in their lives, identify as very fem. It’s been played by a pregnant woman. It’s been played by people who are young, who are in their sixties. It’s got a lot of space in it. I feel like that’s because the character is a god, and gods are big. They contain multitudes.
I hope it’s fun for actors to intersect with a part like that, and take it where they want to take it, within the boundaries of it’s a person whose power and charisma comes through this one pretty queer-identified channel, which is blending genders in a way that gets straight ladies all hot and bothered.
MW: I loved how you deal with the set, with the dish towels being a signifier as to which of the housewives’ kitchen we are in. That’s a stroke of theatrical genius because it’s so simple and yet so effective. “Oh, we’re here. Oh, we’re here. Oh, we’re in two places at once.” Where did you come up with that idea?
GEORGE: Gosh, I don’t know — I think at the point where I figured out that setting it in a cul-de-sac was going to be really fun, and to create a central ritual space in this otherwise sterile, suburban landscape.
I think the greatest thing about theater is that you can do so much with so little. The idea of having these identical houses all played in the same space is a comment on American suburbia without having to say a word.
The more you let theater do what theater does best, I think, the happier audiences are. We all think people want to go to Broadway and have a giant cannon of confetti shot in their face, but actually, I think people love it if you take a dishtowel and throw it over your shoulder and then it means this whole new world.
MW: You tackle so much in Hurricane Diane. It’s a comedy but it’s also, ultimately, so moving, so resonating with regard to what we’re going through as a society with climate change. I enjoyed the queer aspects of it, but what I really got out of it was the perils of climate change denial — that if we don’t do something soon, if we don’t start to see the world differently from the HGTV version of the world, we’re screwed.
GEORGE: That is absolutely my main interest. The queerness in the play is just there because that’s the universal person for me. If I’m going to write about somebody, why shouldn’t they be queer? That seems as good of a main character as any for me to talk about whatever it is that I’m also interested in.
In this case, yeah, I definitely wanted to write a comedy that would really come in hot with the jokes and that would also have the fun of watching a butch dyke slay a bunch of Jersey housewives. That’s a fun gambit for me.
I also wanted to think about my own complicity. Like, how do I go around every day knowing what I know and doing what I do? I know that I can’t use single-use plastics the way that I do, but I just got a Jameson’s on the rocks at the theater yesterday in a single-use plastic cup. So what, in that moment, is happening for me? Of course, even to ask that question is such a privileged position. There are plenty of people who have no luxury of being like, “What is the nature of my complicity?” They’re trying to keep their house from collapsing, or they’re starving because the crops are dying.
So I’m very aware this is a particular position, but I think it’s common. It’s certainly common among people who might go to the theater in the United States, people who have some notion that these things they’re doing are wrong, but they just keep on doing them. I don’t even mean, actually, the individual things like the one-time use of plastic.
It’s this bigger, sort of more aggregate thing, like how are we going to shift our whole society? How are we going to hold corporations accountable? All that stuff. That’s why using myth is useful for talking about it, because the characters in this play, they may talk like they’re in a sitcom, but by the end of it, I hope, we feel their sort of mythic size. Carol’s not just a person, she’s representative of a bigger thing. The same with Diane.
MW: What does Carol represent to you?
GEORGE: I feel like she’s, in the end — this is a spoiler, but whatever — in the end, when she’s like, “I reach out and I connect to everyone else,” it’s like she’s part of our whole society that is seduced by this inertia, that’s like, “We just want to keep doing all the things that we’re still doing. We want to live the same way that we’re still living, and we don’t want to do the difficult work of breaking free from these systems that we’re in.” The difficult work of collectively holding ourselves and holding the, particularly, fossil fuel companies accountable for what we’re doing. We don’t want to break out of that. The comfort of denial is distributed widely at a lot of levels of American society. Carol is the avatar of that.
MW: When I was a kid in the sixties, you just threw everything into the trash. There was no recycling when I was growing up, and that’s a hell of a habit to break. But eventually, you break it because of overwhelming responsibility and guilt. I’m hoping that the younger generation raised on recycling norms is instinctively going to do better than my generation.
GEORGE: Yeah, I hope so. We certainly have a lot at stake.
What did I just read? California put this law in place controlling emissions from oil refineries. Well, the big oil companies spent $20 million to fight it, and now it’s held up in the appellate courts. Like, come on! This isn’t even about carbon in the atmosphere. This is about keeping kids from having chronic respiratory illnesses who live near these facilities. Like, $20 million to fight this? This is some demonic stuff moving through the world. This is not right.
MW: Diane even says it pretty much at one point: “Screw you. You don’t deserve me. I’m going away.” Do we deserve this planet we’ve been given?
GEORGE: That’s a really good question. And that is the question of the play. I feel like that’s a great thing to be thinking about when you watch the play. Hopefully, when people are actually watching the play, they’re mostly laughing — because it’s filled with jokes — and then all of a sudden, there are opportunities, I think, to ask that question and think it through.
MW: What do you think? Do we deserve this planet?
GEORGE: I honestly think that one of the problems is the way that we use the word “we.” Who did this, and when, and how? The word “Anthropocene,” which appears in my script, is this term for the period of time when human beings have started to set the terms for how the planet exists, but really, it’s the Capitalist-cene. Really, this is a small group of people in one part of the world, living in one social system of social organization for about two-hundred years. We did all this damage in this really short time, so I don’t think that we deserve to live like this on the world’s delicate, fragile surface. No. I think we’ve really taken our planet for granted.
MW: I think one point of the play is that the world is attempting to reclaim itself.
GEORGE: Right, totally. There’s such interesting problems and opportunities with that, where nature surges back in the gaps that we leave. I’m a big fan of this organization called Biophilic Cities. They have all these amazing research projects on how to reintroduce — or make space for — the natural world in urban environments, like different kinds of parks that move water through the city, or putting live forests in hospitals, stuff like that. That’s the future.
MW: I was not familiar with the idea of permaculture until this play. Though I can’t remember a play that made me laugh so hard at the mention of pawpaw. You got a lot of jokes out of that fruit.
GEORGE: That’s just like money on the table, if you don’t make pawpaw jokes. Come on, got to. I have still never eaten a pawpaw. It’s so terrible. They’re a very delicate fruit, so you really need to be near a pawpaw tree at the right time to get one. You don’t have them in a supermarket.
MW: I would love to see an audience filled with Trump MAGA supporters watching Hurricane Diane, because I don’t think they’d get it.
GEORGE: Yeah, I don’t know, I don’t know. I guess, it’s hard to say. It’s hard to generalize, but I feel like a lot of people who may have conservative political leanings are close to the cycles of the natural world.
Nobody knows better than farmers what’s going wrong in America. Not to say that farmers are all one kind of politics or the other, but farmers, hikers, hunters, these people know what’s going on. They’re out there, and they’re connected to plants and animals, and they feel these shifts that are happening. I think you never know what kinds of coalitions might come up in the future.
MW: I did have to look up Anthropocene. I didn’t know what that meant. Fortunately, the Kindle lets you define. I was like, “Oh. This is really helpful.”
GEORGE: Kindle is the future.
MW: I loved reading your stage directions. Reading that whole passage of the storm was just “Wow, I’m getting this visual of it.” It’s not just saying, “Enter stage left.” There is literature happening here.
GEORGE: I think that it’s a real playground, the stage direction. As a playwright, you could be speaking to a future reader. Of course, if you’re just drafting the play for the first time, you’re really explicitly talking to your collaborators — actors, directors, designers, people that are going to come and look at the thing on the page and try to put it up in three-dimensions.
Then, in perpetuity, if you’re lucky, it will be published, and then other people like you will read it. And you want it to be playing in the theater of the reader’s mind. What do you have to write to make that happen? Enter stage left will only go so far, you know?
MW: It seems like you had fun writing this.
GEORGE: Yeah, I had a really good time, I’m not going to lie. It took me seven years and two productions to write it. It was a very slow process of trying to get it right. It started out a lot less funny, I have to say, but over time, I started to be like, “Wait. Why can’t this be a blast? Why does it have to be artsy and difficult?” That’s how it evolved.
MW: Was the first version, structurally, more or less like this in terms of plot, or were there substantial changes?
GEORGE: It was bulkier and more confusing. I shortened it a lot. I really worked to try to lean up the goals of the characters. Like, what is this character about? What is she here for? What’s she trying to do? And I’ll just say, TV writers are amazing at that, and people who are natural playwrights are often not great at it. They don’t put a character on stage, necessarily, to pursue an objective explicitly. We’re interested in other things — language, theme, stuff like that.
MW: Speaking of TV, you are in the writers’ room for Only Murders in the Building.
GEORGE: I am.
MW: You probably can’t tell us anything about season three.
GEORGE: I can’t. But I don’t think it’s a secret that there’s a lot that you might enjoy coming up in the third season. It’s very theater-y. It’s filled with amazing guest stars. It’s going to be a blast.
MW: What is it like writing for that show?
GEORGE: Well, we write as a writers’ room, obviously, which is very different for a playwright to experience. It’s highly collaborative. It’s extremely social. Even when we were on Zoom, it was very social. Everybody in that room, all three seasons, has been smart, funny, respectful, kind, bringing their best ideas with a lot of joy and a lot of humility.
I think that that is really due to the tone set by our showrunner, John Hoffman, who is also a former theater actor, and who has a lot of love for process and sets a very joyful and ebullient tone which is, of course, then matched by the stars.
That trio [Martin, Short, and Gomez], the vibe that they bring to the screen, which is of genuinely liking each other and having a fantastic time is the truth. I think they love each other and they’re having a fantastic time.
Sometimes shows are very hard-won. People are struggling, it’s difficult, whatever. I’m not saying that we don’t work very hard and that we don’t revise, revise, revise, but it’s very nice. Everybody’s really nice to each other and everybody really enjoys doing it.
MW: You’re a playwright, but you’re also part of the Writer’s Guild of America and are currently on strike. Are you allowed to answer any questions about this stuff?
GEORGE: I can talk about it in sort of general terms. Obviously, the WGA has talking points that they would refer you to.
MW: Well, my question is this: Do you worry about AI?
GEORGE: I do. I think if you’re not worried about AI, you’re not paying attention. It’s very tricky. James Schamus, who’s one of the members of the WGA negotiating committee, has said the AI is not, per se, the issue. We all use AI in our daily lives. We’re used to it. It’s that we need protections so that it can be a tool for writers to use and not a tool to oppress writers by other people.
It’s not like we’re like, “Oh, put a halt to all technology.” I just think it’s like, for example, if AI is allowed to generate IP, in other words, to do the first draft of things and that allows corporations to bring writers in to do, quote, unquote, polishes on pieces of writing for a fraction of their union-negotiated fee, when in fact, what has to happen is a complete rewrite of the thing, that is labor exploitation. That’s using AI to squeeze more out of writers for less. That’s not cool. Can robots write a Fast and Furious movie? Probably. Can they write Succession? Definitely not.
MW: I don’t think AI could write Only Murders.
GEORGE: No, that’s right. Because only a bunch of depraved human beings could come up with those goofy scenarios.
MW: On a different topic, one that I never thought I would be discussing with anyone, but the distinct possibility that your play could be banned from school libraries or even productions. Some college group in Florida, say, looking at plays that might actually benefit from a lovely production of Hurricane Diane, may just go, “Lesbians? No. Too risky.”
GEORGE: I was having a conversation with somebody who is friends with an artistic director in Florida, and they were like, “Oh, well, this artistic director, they sometimes produce in an auditorium that’s on a college campus, so they are making their decisions about what to program for the season with that in mind.”
In other words, it’s not even to the point of getting your production banned, like they start doing it and someone shuts it down, and then the Dramatists Guild comes in on your behalf. This chilling effect that these censorship laws have is very effective. It’s like if somebody is worried that because they perform in an auditorium that’s on a state-funded college campus, they are going to get shut down, so they preplan their season with no gay content.
It’s very serious and it may even be more pervasive than we even see. It’s not even just about viral videos of empty shelves in an elementary school library. It’s like how people start to internalize those prohibitions. I don’t know what to say about it except that I’m, as you can imagine, very against those laws.
All of our favorite books have been banned. Name a book that you love, certainly, that’s from the canon of gay literature, and these are the most banned books in America.
MW: I interviewed Michael Urie recently. We talked a little bit about this, and he said, “They don’t like seeing us happy.”
GEORGE: So sad. It’s true that I’m very fueled by anger, and it’s helpful. I also like to feel like I can get a good grasp on the analysis, like what are the politics here? How is this working? Then every so often, it’s like, oh, I just feel heartbreak, and sick, and sad, and hurt, and humiliated, and angry on behalf of people who are more hurt than I am. It’s rough.
MW: Do things like the Right’s Target boycott worry you? And then Target pulling Pride merchandise from their stores? I mean, we all thought we were moving forward.
GEORGE: Nobody wants reactionary politics. I don’t. I tend to think that these backlashes have to do with the progress that we’ve made. The more that diversity is commonplace in our cultural life, the more freaked out the standard-bearers of certain kinds of hierarchies are going to be, and the more pushback they will try to execute.
I also think that whipping people up around certain kinds of identity hatred is a very effective demagogic tool to keep people in line in certain ways. I tend to think that individual people confronted by human beings that aren’t like them often rise to the occasion of being able to connect with them. And then it’s just in the abstract when whipped up by right-wing demagogues. People are susceptible to getting whipped into this kind of frenzy.
But I don’t know. I mean, it’s incredibly concerning the laws that are being passed at the state level hurting trans children, trans people of every age, and curtailing gay rights. They are just heartbreaking, shattering — and they have real effect, much more real than questions of what characters are in what stories.
But it just means that our collective defense of Democracy and civil liberties for all of us is just that we can never take a day off. We all want to be like, “Oh, we hit it, we achieved it. We have rights and we can relax now.” But I think the truth is, we always have to tend to Democracy, and we always have to take care of each other and make sure that we’re making space for each other, politically and culturally.
Hurricane Diane runs through June 10 at Avant Bard Theatre, Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two, 2700 S Lang Street in Arlington, Va. General admission seating. Tickets are $40, or $20 for students and veterans. Pay What You Can performances on Saturday matinees on Saturday, June 3 and 10. Call 703-418-4808 or visit www.avantbard.org.
Purchase Madeleine George’s plays at www.concordtheatricals.com.
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