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How the Darkest of Humor Can Help Us See the Light

An Interview with “Witch” Playwright Jen Silverman

“Witch” playwright Jen Silverman

“Witch” playwright Jen Silverman. Photo by Dane Laffrey.

Was The Witch of Edmonton [the source material for Witch] something that has always been of interest to you? How did you come to be inspired by this piece?

Jen Silverman: I had been interested in the source material for a long time, but I only knew it as a written text. It’s thought to have been written by three different playwrights, which is part of why it was so unapologetically messy. Most of the plays I encountered from that time period that dealt with witches were essentially propaganda plays: they instructed people on what to do if they had a witch in their midst. The Witch of Edmonton is the only one I found that boldly announces to the audience that it is going to do this exact thing, and then does entirely the opposite. It says, “This is a play about how evil and awful witches are and how the good folk are being led astray.” But then, in the first scene, you meet a woman who isn’t a witch at all — she only becomes one because she is so reviled. The devil shows up in the form of a dog and even he says, “It’s hard to be you — would you like to be a witch?” The original play is so disarming and subversive that I had always wanted to engage with it without knowing how I would go about doing that.

“The Witch of Edmonton is the only play I encountered from that time that boldly announces to the audience that it is going to do this exact thing, and then does entirely the opposite.” — Jen Silverman

I was talking about this to my agent, Rachel Viola — I always tell her about my weird obsessions. She happened to be having lunch with Bobby Kennedy, who heads up new play development at Writers Theatre in Chicago. Bobby and I connected, and Writers Theatre commissioned it. I still didn’t know how I wanted to engage with the original, and Bobby suggested I just start writing, without having to articulate to him too much about where I thought I was going — and that ended up being the key.

Once I started, I discovered that with each subsequent draft, I was learning what the play wasn’t rather than landing on what it was. So I would throw away most of it, keep what seemed right, and just keep working. I’ve never had quite this experience before in writing a new play. I can’t tell you how many drafts I went through before I gave Writers a “first” draft.

Can you give me an example of what the play wasn’t? What was thrown out along the way?

JS: It isn’t at all faithful to the original in the ways I’d thought it might be. The devil isn’t a dog, as it turns out. So many of the original play’s concerns about land and title and status are absent — or are subsumed by my concerns with the question of invisibility: the ways in which we are rendered invisible to each other, how that invisibility shapes and sometimes destroys us. My play revolves around the twin questions of despair and hope, which is also very different from the original. This was a late discovery for me — I wrote the witch/devil track so many times in so many ways. It took a number of drafts to realize that the radical, future-oriented act at the heart of the play is the act of falling in love.

The Witch of Edmonton
Title page from a 1658 printed edition of “The Witch of Edmonton” by Rowley, Dekker & Ford.
Courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University.

You do a wonderful thing with the tone of this play — it truly is a dark comedy. Each of your plays is so tonally distinct. Is tone something you set out to create or is it borne of the situation and characters?

JS: Dark comedy is the only way I know to mine grief. It’s how I metabolize despair in my personal life, and I guess also in our collective political life. I like to shape-change in terms of how I explore structure or genre, how thin the lines are between one tone and another. So my plays end up looking like completely different creatures. I’ve had people say that they read The Roommate and then Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties and didn’t realize at first they were by the same playwright. But I think I come back to the same obsessions again and again, from different lenses — the question of transformation, whether or not we are capable of change; how far people will go to feel visible, to be perceived the way they long to be perceived; intimacy as a radical or dangerous act; how we get trapped by systemic power dynamics; what it takes to break free. I can’t shake these questions so I just keep asking myself versions of them. And dark comedy is also something I return to again and again, because it’s a vessel for so much that we couldn’t look at otherwise.

You also mine comedy in calling out societal norms and upending them.

JS: Yeah…to be honest, whenever I start paying attention to how gendered so many day-to-day interactions are, I feel like my head is going to explode. Ways in which women are talked to or talked over, how women’s bodies become public property, immediate assumptions that are made about intellectual ability or authority based on what our voices sound like or how our bodies are shaped. I have to ignore so much of that in order to not live in a state of constant rage. But raging at people doesn’t shift behavior based in unconscious bias — asking individuals to examine and question their unconscious assumptions is what creates change.

Those textures permeate the early scenes between Elizabeth and Scratch. Scratch comes from the position of ultimate power and unexamined assumption — he’s the devil! (Or a devil.) But as Elizabeth becomes real to him, and as his feelings take him into new territory, he starts asking himself new questions — and then having to work to uncover new answers.

So many of the early iterations of those scenes taught me how contemporary this play needed to be. Nothing about this play is actually about England in 1621. To me, an adaptation is just choosing a different shaped window to look at what’s happening right now.

Your description of the time period of the play is “then-ish,” which I love. Can you talk a bit about how the past is woven into the fabric of the play and how it’s represented in the overall design?

JS: This is the question that Marti [director Marti Lyons] and I have been asking ourselves since we started working on this production. In Chicago, our design gave the audience a more literal engagement with a period construct, the “then-ness.” In this second production, we’re exploring a different tactic, leaning more into the “ish” than the “then.” We’re working with scenic designer Dane Laffrey and costume designer Danae Iris McQueen to capture authentic textures that viscerally invoke the harsh conditions of Elizabeth’s world — mud, wood, burlap — while engaging in the same kind of contemporary cheekiness of the text itself.

Why do you think this is the play you were drawn to writing now?

JS: To me, we are poised in the quintessential moment of asking ourselves if we can fix the system from within or if the only way forward is just to burn it all down. I am neither as optimistic nor as radical as many of my friends, and I do tend toward believing that I have to engage with the systems that are present. That the needle gets moved — painfully slowly — because you work with what you have, not because you throw it all out. And yet, in the last three years, I have really questioned whether we are leading ourselves to a point where the systems themselves can’t be salvaged. The question that the play is posing is closely aligned with questions that I am asking daily.

I wrote this play in this way because there’s no other way that I can process these huge questions. I think in a different moment in time it would have been a very different play. I wake up in the morning with the feeling that we are hurtling toward something inexorable, and I have heard people — with whom I have absolutely no political common ground — express the exact same feeling. It’s either very strange or very human that we can agree on nothing except our fear of impending doom.

When we first did this play in Chicago, a woman came up to me and told me that she saw the play as an argument for hope. She and her husband had been discussing whether you can bring a child into a world like this, and she said they saw the play and decided to have a child. We had this conversation at a moment in which I did not, myself, feel any hope whatsoever, and I couldn’t see it in the play either. She completely reframed the play for me — she gave me an entirely different window through which I could see it. So while Witch examines what despair can lead to, maybe it also reminds us that hope has the same power.

By Amy Levinson, Geffen Playhouse Associate Artistic Director

For tickets and showtimes, please visit geffenplayhouse.org/witch or call our Box Office at 310.208.5454 (open daily, 7:00 a.m. — 6:00 p.m.).

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