Jennifer Blackmer's UNRAVELED

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It's "Theatre Thursday" again and the Ingram New Works Festival is in full swing. Our Ingram New Works Playwrights have spent months of hard work preparing for this awesome festival. Now it's time to enjoy the stories our playwrights have been weaving for us. Speaking of weaving (more like knitting)... today we celebrate Jennifer Blackmer and her festival play Unraveled. Our New Media/Marketing Coordinator Shane sat down with Jennifer to talk about her upcoming play.

Shane: Describe your new play Unraveled in one word.

Jennifer: Emotionally-charged. The hyphen makes that one word, right?

What is your new play about?

The play centers on the relationship between a young woman, Joy, and her mother, George, who's dying of cancer. George also suffers from a condition called chemotherapy induced dementia, which has prevented any meaningful connection between the two women for quite some time. Anna, an unusual hospice nurse/avid knitter, comes into their lives and teaches Joy a thing or two about life, loss, and the process of letting go.

Who's in your cast?

I have been blessed with some crazy-good talent in this process: Joy is played by the amazing Amanda Card. The character of George is actually embodied by two actors – Young George is played by Rebekah Durham and Old George is played by Rona Carter. Patrick Waller plays Michael, Joy's graduate student, and Anna is played by Marin Miller. The play is directed by the incomparable Denice Hicks. It honestly doesn't get any better than this group.

Where did the idea come from?

To put it bluntly, this is the play that I've been terrified to write. Two years ago I lost my own mother to cancer, and she also suffered from chemotherapy-induced dementia. Her doctors told us when she was diagnosed that we had eighteen to twenty-four months with her if we underwent aggressive treatment, which we opted to do. The chemo threw her into dementia only a few months after we started. So we were supposed to have at least some time to be together, time to talk and laugh and say goodbye, but we were robbed. I was furious about that for a very long time. My uncle told me during Mom's funeral that he didn't know anything about this condition; most doctors call it "chemo brain" and leave it at that, but more and more information is starting to come out about the nasty mental effects of chemotherapy. He told me, in what I'm pretty sure was an obvious nudge, that her story "needed to be told."  That said, this play is pure fiction. I had the most amazing support system in my husband, my kids, my dad and sister, my friends— when Mom died we all leaned on each other. Joy, my protagonist, doesn't have that support system, so she's forced to confront the reality of the situation on her own. She makes some interesting choices, choices that I wouldn't have made in a million years. But that's the basis of good drama, right? 

Sounds like great drama.

Well, thank you. I just realized that I probably scared away some people with all of that talk about losing loved ones. It's intense, but it's funny, too. In the same way that hairstyles in the eighties were funny. Oh, and plaid pants in the seventies— those were really funny, too!

When did you start working on this play?

While the idea for this play had been percolating for a couple of years, I had no idea how I was going to approach it until I got the call from Rene Copeland telling me I'd been accepted into the Ingram New Works Program. After I finished jumping up and down and high-fiving everyone around me, it struck me that I had to actually write the damn thing. When the lab met for the first time in September I had kind of a rough outline, and then when we met in October I had twenty pages, twenty of which are no longer in the play. It's been roller coaster ride ever since. Now it's May, and I've completed seven full rewrites. I've gotten more accomplished as a playwright in this last six months with Tennessee Rep than I ever have before. Period. 

The Ingram New Works Project offers playwrights the opportunity to write the play they're dying to write. What makes this play the one you were you dying to write?

As I said, I wasn't really dying to write this play— I was avoiding it because it terrified me. I knew if I were to do this I'd need support, and an environment that would help me experiment with a group of peers and colleagues that I trusted. I was not disappointed. Nate, Garret, Brian, Rene, Liz and all of the actors created a safe space for me to play, and experiment (as Nate brilliantly put it in his first blog post about the "weird science" of playwriting). I've learned a great deal about myself as a writer and as a person, and I'm excited for the future, thanks to this experience and these people.

What do you like about working in Nashville?

Everything. Seriously. This community not only supports the arts, it CULTIVATES the arts, which is truly extraordinary. Not only that, but it CULTIVATES AUDIENCES FOR NEW WORK, which is even better. Theatre can only go so far on revivals; much like any art form, its future lies in new works, new voices, new ideas. And yet playwrights are so rarely supported in our process; we're expected to hole ourselves off in some isolated room, write the next great masterpiece in our spare time, and then magically present it to the right theatre at the right time. That simply doesn't happen. Theatre is collaborative, so it needs to be created collaboratively— playwrights need the same opportunities to try and fail that actors and directors are given in the rehearsal process, and we rarely get it. I've felt supported from the moment I set foot in Nashville, and I hope the people who live here realize what a truly vibrant community this is!

What's next for you?

There are already a couple of theaters interested in UNRAVELED, so I'll be pursuing its first full production hopefully soon. In addition, my play THE HUMAN TERRAIN has received some notice lately; I was a finalist for the David Charles Horn Prize in the Yale Drama Competition, so there will be a reading of that in New York this summer, hopefully leading to its premiere production. It's been a good year so far.

The staged readings for Jennifer Blackmer's Unraveled are May 11 & 15 at 7:00 PM and are located at Nashville Repertory Theatre's Rehearsal Hall (Studio A in the NPT Building). You can't make it to the festival? No problem! You can view the live stream of Jennifer's play on our website May 15 at 7:00 PM (thanks to our friends at HowlRound TV). For more information about the festival and to make reservations please click here.