“In the very near future, habitat for Homo sapiens will be gone. And shortly thereafter…all humans will die.”
In Continuity, Bess Wohl’s new comedy, a film crew stationed in a New Mexico desert is shooting a high-budget thriller about climate change and an eco-terrorist villain. Maria, the director, must juggle a high-maintenance cast, a cynical crew, a cocky writer and a science consultant who, while pessimistic about the future of mankind, is excited about the craft services table on set. Six different takes of a single scene in the film’s climax present untold challenges for this experienced team.
Production dramaturg Jonathan L. Green spoke with Wohl about the end of the world and her path to Continuity.
Jonathan L. Green: How long have you been working on Continuity, and what led you to this story?
Bess Wohl: I’ve been trying to write about climate change, in one way or another, for the past four years. Continuity is actually my third attempt; two other plays I tried to write ended in frustration. My problem was always that the overwhelming scope of the problems facing us seemed to crush everything else in the play—and also crushed me, personally, as I sat at my computer. My only way out, I decided, was to “stage the problem,” meaning, I gave the characters the same problem I was experiencing: How do you tell a compelling story about climate change? How do you create human stakes in the face of something so vast? How do you find hope when there is so much bad news? And is giving an audience hope the responsibility of a storyteller or not? As many scientists told me, one of the biggest challenges they find in talking about climate change is the way our current global circumstances resist traditional narrative structure; this often presents a problem that’s wrestled to the ground, and then ends in uplift. I decided to try to place this conundrum at the heart of my play.
JLG: In many of your plays, the settings seem to be intentionally overbearing and active, almost characters themselves, often slightly surreal and cut off from the rest of the world: a silent Buddhist retreat in a forest, a creepy apartment in Barcelona, a remote film set in the middle of a desert in New Mexico. In a way, your characters affect their location—but then, the location retaliates and affects them. What is it about these kinds of spaces that interests you?
BW: Part of the impulse comes from my love of working with designers. I think of designers as primary storytellers, and feel that the words of a play are only part of it. In Continuity, much of the story is told by the light, by what the characters are wearing, by the offstage sounds. In life, words are only a part of our experience, and I think that’s an interesting thing to explore in theater. And of course, people trapped in their environments often make for great drama—there’s a natural pressure that emerges; and it also becomes a metaphor for all of us trapped in the struggle of being human.
JLG: The play takes place during a movie shoot that has fallen way behind schedule. Why use the lens of film to tell the theatrical story of Continuity?
BW: This past winter, I had my first experience shooting a feature film I wrote, which definitely played into the writing of this play. I had the
rhythms of the set very much in my body, and I was interested in the strange poetry of a film set—how many words are repeated, the almost choral feeling of it all. I also became intrigued by the way time functions on a set—this feeling of urgency and of waiting happening simultaneously. That strange relationship to time is also present in our understanding of climate change—there’s this odd feeling that we’re at once in an immediate crisis and yet, it seems like geological forces happen slowly, almost imperceptibly, as the days pass. The movie business is also something that everyone constantly says is “dying”—and yet, somehow also continues, strangely robust in its waning days, if they are indeed waning at all. I also felt that the sense of being caught in a system of loops applied to both movie-making and the environment. There’s a sense that we’re all caught in a system—whether it be extreme weather, Hollywood, capitalism, social or interpersonal patterns—and we can’t extricate ourselves from any of it anymore. So what do we do?
JLG: There is a stage direction in this play that describes a moment of silence: “The nothingness of waiting.” To me, some of the most moving moments happen in the silences in your plays, especially when the characters are coming from worlds where they are used to talking a mile a minute. Going into rehearsal, do you have a sense of what needs to be accomplished emotionally in these silences, or do you allow the discoveries during the rehearsal process itself to fill in the gaps?
BW: I generally have a basic sense of the emotional texture I’m after for the moments you’re describing, but I also would never cut off potential discovery in rehearsal. I look at my role as someone who sets the thing in motion, picks an eventual destination and then relies on other artists to ride and steer it to actually get us there. I do chime in if we’re totally off course, but one of my favorite things about playwriting is the opportunity to be surprised by the thing you’ve written. Often I have a clear vision of how it will all go down in my head, and then I’m shocked to see it interpreted in a wholly different way—and usually it’s much more interesting and layered than anything I could have come up with myself. I try hard to find the balance between knowing what the story is, and staying open to the much, much better and more magical thing that happens alchemically when artists get together in a room.