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Icebergs playwright Alena Smith. Photo by Jeff Lorch Photography.

Breaking the Ice

With Icebergs Playwright Alena Smith

Icebergs playwright Alena Smith. Photo by Jeff Lorch Photography.

Set on a hot early November night in the hills of Silver Lake, Icebergstells the story of a couple on the precipice of deciding whether or not to have a baby. Against the backdrop of climate shifts unprecedented in human history, this play asks how we grapple with a biological and emotional drive to bring new life into the world when the world itself seems to be falling apart. In the week before rehearsals began, I had the opportunity to chat with playwright Alena Smith about evoking the feeling of Los Angeles, developing a world premiere play and writing a comedy about climate change.

Where did the play come from? What was the impulse for you to write it?

Alena Smith: One place it definitely came from was wanting to write a play set in Los Angeles that was reflective of the experiences that I’ve had since moving here about four years ago. I wanted to capture a certain atmosphere or vibe that I feel is specific to life in this city, and I wanted this play to be seen in the context of other artwork that has organically grown out of Los Angeles and been done by Los Angeles artists — high among those for me is Ed Ruscha. There’s something about the quality of light in Los Angeles. I write plays instead of making paintings, but I was still trying to respond to that.

Two characters in Icebergs — Abigail and Calder — are trying to work in Hollywood, and you work as a writer on a television show. What was it about the story of being in “the industry” that made you want to tell it on stage?

AS: What I’m aiming to do with a lot of my plays is give the audience the feeling that they’ve just walked in off the street and are witnessing the real, intimate lives of people. That’s why I like to write plays that, more or less, operate in real time. I’m trying to create characters that feel like people you might know. So, in the context of a play about thirtysomethings in Silver Lake, working in film and television is what a lot of them would be doing. But I also have brought in characters who are not in the industry, and none of the characters are completely defined by their jobs. That’s one of the tensions in the play: how much do we define ourselves by what we do for work and how much do we define ourselves by the more personal parts of our lives like who we love, our friends, our family? How much value do we give to that private side of things, even in a town like Hollywood where it feels like all anybody focuses on are public, professional ambitions?

The play is a world premiere, and you’ve been developing it at the Geffen for some time. What has that process been like for you?

AS: Compared to previous plays, there was an ease to the writing of this one that I think actually fits with the general atmosphere of Los Angeles that I was trying to capture. I gathered the images and the emotions and the people that I wanted to express and I let them sit for long enough so that when I wrote it, it kind of came out the way it is and things haven’t changed that much over the development. With that said, we had a wonderful workshop in April at the Geffen where we had a group of actors come together to read the play and have a series of really deep conversations about the issues sparked by it. That allowed me to deepen and clarify the characters’ different journeys, so I think the play got substantially stronger from that workshop time even if the DNA of it was always there.

The play’s characters are so of this moment — as are the environmental concerns — but the central conflict of whether or not to have a child feels timeless. What was it about this question that compelled you to reexamine it?

AS: I think that it may be a timeless question, but our generation is approaching it in a very different way from previous ones. That has to do with shifts in expectations for women — and for men — and a renegotiation of roles within a relationship. It also has to do with the economic realities that have caused people to put off childbearing for longer and longer. And there’s the sense that we may have already crossed a certain brink after which catastrophic climate change is inevitable. So, I’m trying to look at it from the perspective of this moment with this demographic of people and their social conditions.

The relationships in the play are so central that it’s not an “issue play,” but, as you mentioned, it does deal with anxiety around climate change. I love that you’re able to integrate the anxiety of the characters without being prescriptive. Can you talk a bit about that balancing act?

AS: There is an emerging philosophy around climate change that has to do with acceptance, and this play is really about processing a lot of grief. That’s the reason why it takes place on the Day of the Dead. It’s about loss. I’m a playwright. I don’t know how to help us to stop using all fossil fuels — thisplay is going to be using fossil fuels. So, from a human perspective, it’s about learning how to cope with a pretty devastating situation. I hope, perhaps, that the audience will feel some solace in joining together as a community to look deeply at these things.

That being said, there’s a great deal of humor in the play even as it deals with more serious topics — did you set out to write it as a comedy?

AS: I think that’s just my voice. I tend to find in my plays that the sadder things get, the funnier things get.

By Rachel Wiegardt-Egel

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