Name: Benjamin Benne
Hometown: Hacienda Heights, CA. It’s a town in the Los Angeles County sprawl.
Current Town: Minneapolis, MN.
Affiliations: 2016-17 Many Voices Fellow at the Playwrights’ Center.
Q: How do you self-identify?
A: Latino. But I’m also half white. Lately, I’ve begun to refer to myself as a Jewtino of Guatemalan heritage.
Q: Tell me about at the very bottom of a body of water.
A: This is the play that I refer to lovingly as “the fish play” for short. It’s part of a trilogy of mortality-themed plays that I wrote within a twelve-month span following the passing of my father. This was the 2nd play in the series and is my favorite that I’ve written to date. The piece centers on a woman named Marina, who has long been mourning the death of her youngest child and only daughter. Every week, Marina makes a ritual pot of catfish soup; but, at the beginning of the play, Yoshi, her fishmonger of two decades, isn’t at the fish store. And with a long-standing ritual suddenly broken, Marina’s world steadily expands into new directions beginning with inviting Yoshi’s replacement, Taishi, over for catfish soup. As Marina makes new and meaningful connections, magical occurrences also begin to invade her world. These magical moments have been dubbed “Moments of Transcendence” and include origami cranes taking flight, clouds descending to earth, and volcanic bursts of light. The play was 1 of 6 selected (from a pool of 1200) for The Lark’s 2016 Playwrights’ Week this past fall. It also was a finalist for Austin Playhouse’s Festival of New American Plays, a Bay Area Playwrights Festival finalist, an O’Neill National Playwrights Conference semi-finalist, and a semi-finalist for American Blues Theater’s Blue Ink Playwriting Award.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I recently had a workshop of my play, q u e r e n c i a: an imagined autobiography about forbidden fruits, with The Joust Theatre Company in New York. It’s a memory play about a man named Milo who runs into his best friend from the 8th grade when visiting his old neighborhood. That encounter recalls the disorienting exploration of his sexual identity at age 13; the story forms a circle from age 23 to age 13 then back to 23. That play was an O’Neill National Playwrights Conference finalist, Headwaters New Play Festival finalist, Bay Area Playwrights Festival finalist, Princess Grace Award finalist, and was the submission that won the Many Voices Fellow at the Playwrights’ Center.
During my Fellowship term, I’ve been focused on working on my first two-hander, real-time play that abides by the unities of time, place, and action and is (mostly) a piece of realism. It’s definitely the biggest writing challenge I’ve given myself in terms of both form and content. Also, the title keeps changing. The other play I’ve been working on is a commission with Forward Flux Productions in Seattle that will be produced this fall. It’s called las mariposas Y los muertos and it follows three, young women who form a band that begins to gain a lot of buzz. But as their career is on the ascent, they begin to divide over what artistic compromises are too great a cost to continue on their trajectory toward ubiquity. I collaborated with musician Angie Citlali who wrote original songs that will form an EP to be released as a teaser for the play, as well as being featured in the play itself.
Q: What have been the defining moments of your journey as a playwright?
A: I wrote my first full-length play in undergrad called Captivity. It was about a Guatemalan woman who worked as a live-in nanny for an affluent couple in Los Angeles. My playwriting teacher submitted it to a colleague of hers, and I was awarded the Mai Hayakawa Memorial Scholarship to attend New York Theatre Intensives 2011 summer conservatory in association with Ensemble Studio Theatre. I spent six weeks living in Chelsea while taking courses in playwriting, development workshops, acting, and devising on a daily basis. I worked with Jose Santana, Janet Zarish, Susan Merson, Rod Menzies, and had seminars with Donald Margulies and Caridad Svich, among others. It was the first indication that this was a path I might want to follow. But it wasn’t until my father passed away in 2013 that I felt the urgency to pursue playwriting whole-heartedly. I enrolled in a playwriting class and that’s when I met Rebecca Tourino and the playwrights with whom we’d form the writer’s group, Parley. That’s when I had the accountability to a group and the opportunity to workshop my plays with actors on a regular basis. My voice was honed and supported during the period of nearly three years, which resulted in me getting my first production and being awarded the Many Voices Fellowship at the Playwrights’ Center in 2016. This Fellowship has been my first opportunity to completely immerse myself in my writing and feels like the first significant step forward toward a career.
Also, this past year, I participated in a bake-off with Paula Vogel and had a play presented as part of Playwrights’ Week at The Lark (my first reading in New York), which are two, beautiful dreams that have come true.
Q: Who have been your playwriting mentors and heroes?
A: Susan Merson was my very first playwriting teacher and champion.
Rebecca Tourino Collinsworth was the mentor who affirmed that I was talented and encouraged me to be audacious.
Christina Ham has been my mentor since I began my Fellowship at the Playwrights’ Center. She doesn’t let me let myself off the hook; she’s constantly pushing me to go deeper, and I love her for it.
Pilar O’Connell is a collaborator of mine who has fought for my work. She’s the reason I had my first production at Annex Theatre.
Elena Araoz is a director who has been championing my work and who I look forward to working with over the next year and beyond.
Q: What advice do you have for Latin@ playwrights at the beginning of their career?
A: Look at the writers you admire and observe the journey that they took to get to where they are. Don’t seek to follow what they did step-by-step—we all have our own unique journey—but it helps to have blueprints of what others have done. Reach out to others and build a community. Relationships with collaborators who understand and want to support your voice are essential; find the actors, directors, dramaturgs, and other writers who you want to work with and who want to work with you. Know that that process takes a lot of time and patience. Artists are so generous—always busy—but so willing to answer questions and be helpful when they can so don’t be afraid to try reaching out. Also, I love watching YouTube videos of my favorite playwrights talking about their process and pretend they’re speaking directly to me; it can be uplifting when I’m feeling low and dark. On a practical level, I advise that everyone read a lot of plays—get on New Play Exchange and read contemporary plays that are being developed right now. Also, read Jose Rivera’s 36 Assumptions about Writing Plays and do Julia Cameron’s the Artist’s Way. Carry a notebook with you everywhere you go and jot bits of inspiration: images, overheard conversations, daily musings and curiosities; these bits can become fodder for plays. I believe plays should spring from a deep NEED to communicate and/or explore something. It should be an obsession. It’s also an opportunity to experiment. Writing requires surrender and the absence of a censor—rewriting requires discipline and persistence. If you’re going to spend years developing a play, you have to love the play and the process.
Q: What else should we know about you?
A: I don’t speak Spanish fluently. People have totally given me shit for this. I’m finally starting to work past the “shame” that other Latinx folks have verbally heaped on me. But also, I totally downloaded Duolingo on my phone. I also identify as queer. And as a Christian. I’m a son, brother, nephew, grandson, friend, lover, ex-boyfriend, and stranger.
***For more on Benjamin Benne, see:
- Visit Benjamin Benne’s personal website
- Read Benjamin Benne’s work at New Play Exchange
- Benjamin Benne Profile at the Playwrights’ Center
- Playwrights’ Center Interview with Benjamin Benne
- “I Interview Playwrights Part 830: Benjamin Benne” – Adam Szymkowicz
- “A Closer Look: Benjamin Benne” – Claire Keichel (Playwrights’ Week Interview, The Lark)