Much like the characters in her new comedy Support Group for Men, playwright Ellen Fairey recently sat down with the play’s dramaturg, Isaac Gomez, for an open discussion about her work and writing process.
Isaac Gomez: What inspired you to write Support Group For Men?
Ellen Fairey: The initial thought happened while I was watching Brian Kerwin, the actor who played Joe in my play Graceland. There’s a scene in the play where he’s alone in his apartment chopping carrots and drinking white wine. As unremarkable as that sounds, something about it felt like the definition of loneliness. I remember thinking, ‘I want to write a play about that guy.’ Around the same time I met a writer in Los Angeles who told me about a men’s group he went to on Thursday nights. It was held at the apartment of an aging, out-of-work musician in North Hollywood. The way he described it – each man assumed a Native American name, they used a talking stick, the sad apartment in the Valley – struck me as both heartbreaking and inherently comic. It sounded like the setting for a play I would want to write. At the time I missed Chicago terribly – Chicagoan’s voices, their directness and warmth – so I set the play here instead of Los Angeles, which I have no business writing about. Also, I am forever interested in, confused by and pondering what it means to “be a man” and what it means “to be a woman.” Or neither. Or both.
IG: What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to write a new play?
EF: By the time I sit down to actually write, there’s a chance I’ve been thinking about the play for a long time, years even. In a way I’m just unleashing the voices in my head. I usually start with a scene – not necessarily the opening – just something to get characters talking. Sometimes I’ll listen to music I think they might listen to, eat what they might eat (over the sink in the case of these characters), walk around the house talking to myself, acting out conversations. I become a little bit possessed.
“I am forever interested in, confused by and pondering what it means to “be a man” and what it means “to be a woman.” Or neither. Or both.”
IG: Is there a play that has changed your life? Why or how so?
EF: There are plays that have certainly taken my breath away, so much so that I’ve had to lean against a car (or person) after the performance. European Repertory Theatre’s production of Ivanov was the first time the car-leaning thing happened. It also occurred after Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive and Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj, both at Atlantic Theater Company, as well as 2666 at the Goodman. I laughed and cried the entire walk home after seeing the closing performance of August: Osage County at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
IG: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received about writing?
EF: “Write what you don’t want people to know,” which is probably just another way of saying “open a vein.” Also, “No one cares whether or not you have an MFA.”
IG: What do you hope audiences take away from Support Group for Men?
EF: The same thing I hope to feel after writing it: less alone.