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The Perfect Ingredients

Speaking to Bekah Brunstetter about cake baking and play making

The Cake playwright Bekah Brunstetter. Photo by Alison Yates.

As we began rehearsals for the Echo Theater Company productioncurrently being presented at the Geffen Playhouse, I had the opportunity to sit down with playwright Bekah Brunstetter to discuss the perpetual potency of her play The Cake.

You mentioned in the first rehearsal that when you wrote the play, you feared that it would be dated very quickly. Why was that, and in what ways have you found that to be untrue?

Bekah Brunstetter: It’s not so much that I thought it would be dated quickly — it’s that I actually thought it was already dated at the time. I have struggled with my own parents and their view on same-sex marriage. But in 2015, I felt like my parents were the only people left in the world who had a problem with this — Obama was president and so much progress was made under his presidency. So I knew that I had to write it because it was something I had to do for myself and for my parents, but I did kind of wonder, would this matter to anyone else? And then of course, since I finished the play, Trump became the nominee and then the president and he brought into the forefront values that were still present during the Obama presidency but were kind of shoved into the closet. So I didn’t set out to write something so relevant — it just became incredibly relevant while I was working on it.

The play’s been produced and will continue to be produced a number of times in the coming season. Have you found that audiences in different places have different reactions to the play, or that somehow it’s gauged differently in different places?

BB: Honestly, it’s pretty consistent, which is cool. It’s definitely been in different sizes of theaters. In a smaller theater, the audience feels more like they’re sitting in the bakery, so they get a little more drawn into the quieter, more emotional moments of the play, whereas larger productions tend to hit the comedy of it more. But I’ve found with every production that — or at least, what I can feel when I’m sitting in the audience is — you’ve got people laughing and relieved to be laughing at this kind of story. And people finding themselves moved by it in a way that they didn’t expect to be. That’s probably an arrogant thing to say, like, “my play has been moving people!”

[Amy laughs]

BB: It makes people emotional because it gives people permission to see a little humanity in this incredibly divisive, upsetting, emotional story.

By the way, if you witness an audience being moved, it’s not arrogant to say it!

BB: Good. I had a little moment of, like, “what did I just say?” [laughs]

You answered this a bit, but can you elaborate on what sparked the idea for the play? It sounds like this came from a very personal exploration, or a personal question that you had with your folks.

BB: Yeah, because of them and conversations I had struggled to have with them, I knew I wanted to write a play that humanized conservative values but was also a hopeful look at people being forced by their love for each other to really reckon with each other’s points of view. Then I heard about the cake case [Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission]. I thought it was so perfect — a perfect place to explore this thing that I wanted to explore because cake is so universal. The real cake case is all men but I started to imagine a woman — it’s a totally different story with women. It started to reveal itself to me pretty quickly once I found the proper setting and story.

I hadn’t even thought of that, actually, that the famous case dealt with all men and this deals with women.

BB: You have to fictionalize this. I mean, I’m not a docu-dramatist. And I want to be able to write things unlike how they played out in real life. You’ve got to change enough of it that it could be clearly inspired by but not necessarily “based on.” This way, I can make it different without it being factually inaccurate.

You also mentioned in rehearsal that you’re still doing rewrites, so I’m wondering what it is that you feel needs to be addressed even after numerous productions.

BB: I’m looking at small moments in which the characters in the play can make it clear that they’re living in the current world without the play becoming overtly political. It’s a really fine line but 2018 is really different than 2016. In 2016, the white supremacist rallies and protests hadn’t happened in Charlottesville yet — those are in our world now.

Can you give me an example?

BB: Sure. Previously, there were lines of Macy’s like, “I can’t believe this kind of hate still exists down here,” which is something that I believe people felt about the South in 2015 or ’16, but that’s just not really the case anymore. So, I’m looking at little moments like that, and I’m still thinking about and tinkering around with a few of the “fight scenes” to make sure that they’re really human and specific. Those scenes are about something so political, but you don’t want them to turn into HuffPo articles. I’m so lucky that this production is a remount because we’ve already done so much of the work and I can really spend time on that. Most of the time you get a three and half week rehearsal before tech, and the actors are just figuring out who they are and I’m still figuring out what I’m trying to say with the play. Now, I am really getting down to minutiae, which is a cool place to be with the rewrites.

You do something that’s so delicate in this play in granting validity to every point of view. How are you able to maintain this sense of fairness throughout?

BB: I think it’s kind of who I am as a person, sometimes to a fault. I’m constantly playing devil’s advocate in my head, constantly seeing the other person’s point of view. I think it’s just where I live with my own brain and my own heart. It’s how I created the characters and their dilemmas because I literally don’t know how else to do it.

Debra Jo Rupp is playing Della for the third time and she’s garnered a lot of attention including winning an Ovation Award. What is it about her performance, do you think, that so perfectly embodies who this character is?

BB: She’s a very experienced, very well-trained comedic actor, which means that she knows the humor of the play and she knows how to bring an audience into a joke and craft it to make sharp, hilarious moments. More importantly than that, she’s an incredible dramatic actor. I think a lot of people who know her from That 70’s Show don’t know that about her. She brings a profound vulnerability to the character that is essential. Della is, in a lot of ways, a fragile woman, a woman in pain who is just trying to do her best. Those are the characteristics that hopefully make her universal to a predominantly liberal audience. Debra Jo so expertly brings out those aspects of the character. She’s made a very specific character — there’s nothing familiar to me about her character. She’s even more specific than I could have ever intended her to be, so you can’t dismiss her. In a very positive way, she doesn’t always play what I wrote. She’ll take the words and craft it in a way that even I didn’t expect, which is really cool!

Because you’re writing and producing on This Is Us, which must take up an enormous amount of time, how are you balancing television and playwriting right now?

BB: My husband always reminds me that when you are trying to do many things in your life, for your own sanity, you need to make a hierarchy of those things. That’s how you can decide what gets your attention and what you should be working on. So obviously, This Is Us is my number one priority right now. It’s my main job and it’s a joy to work on. It’s a lot of work but incredibly rewarding and it comes first. Then, whatever time I have left after that is for my playwriting. Hopefully, I fit in life and self-care and all that good stuff, but for me playwriting is self-care. Playwriting is where I release the toxic stuff that has been building up in my head that I haven’t been able to express. It requires some crazy time management and sometimes frantic box-checking — like, “okay, this scene is done!” I’ve pretty much always had a full-time job. Before I was a TV writer, I was working full-time in other fields while also writing on the side, so I’m accustomed to a routine where you go to work, you do your job, you come home, you drink a glass of wine and you do your other job. Playwriting is a pleasure because I’m the only one in charge of it. And being a TV writer has made me love playwriting even more.

By Amy Levinson

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

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