Playwright’s Perspective: Wives
By Jaclyn Backhaus, Playwright
July 2, 2019
Most of my plays end with a question. In a way, this is an admission of guilt. It is me, the playwright, admitting that I do not have the answers to the questions I pose. Sometimes the question is a line of dialogue. Sometimes the question exists within the stage picture. Sometimes the question is directed to the characters, sometimes to the audience. Sometimes, the question is directed to the world outside the theater, and we must all step out onto the street and ask this question to the wind.
“It was women though, whose art inspired me to believe in my own validity.”
When I was growing up and I found myself drawn to the arts, I was enamored by the lead artists at the center — confidence-oozing focal points, distillers of research, manifesters of narrative. They seemed to present their theses with unwavering confidence and steady hand and clear voice. Many of them cisgender, white men, who were given the benefit of the doubt by their benefactors. Who had models to emulate and well-trod paths to guide them. It was women, though, whose art inspired me to believe in my own validity, who told me that there were questions worth asking. So often, women’s questions are ignored. Preserving these questions on paper is power.
There are ants streaming one by one through my open window as I write this. Following a trail blazed by one another. One by one, we will ask our questions, and it will be easier for more of our voices to be preserved. (Don’t worry I’m not ant-infested, it’s really only like five ants and it’s a sign of spring, so I’m stoked about it.)
“I decided to keep exploring the connective tissue, and letting the connections teach me something.”
My son is at the park with my husband, who is a good dad. Our collaboration makes it possible for me to write. I was pregnant when I began writing this play. My brain was in fragments, and I was drawing connections between disparate worlds as my body was forging connections between me and the evolution of my new lineage-cells. Instead of dismissing these connections as “pregnant brain,” instead of writing three plays, I decided to keep exploring the connective tissue, and letting the connections teach me something. This is a comfort to me, that I honored this impulse. I finished the play when my son was two. You are witnessing the intersection of my pregnant brain and my early motherhood brain. Welcome.
In the words of Virginia Woolf, “Give her another hundred years, I concluded… let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days.” To which I’m like, V Woolf, ye of little faith, the question of betterness, of well-made-ness, is not a feminist framing of this question. In my playwriting process, I engage in a practice called Delighted Listening. I teach it through my company Fresh Ground Pepper; we were taught it by a theater artist named Mary Wright, who learned it from a storyteller named Jay O’Callahan. Through this lens I listen to all plays I write, to all plays I witness, and to all collaborations I participate in. Delighted Listening is listening actively to plays for only two things: What delights you? and, What do you want to know more about? The answers to these questions are subjective, and the answers to these questions are often questions. The categorical dismissal of questions is a patriarchal act. The embrace of them, of the unknown, is an embrace of possibility, an embrace of freedom, an embrace of intersection between all facets and lenses of humanity.
“What does it mean to subvert? On the page or subtextually? Through casting or through narrative undercurrent?”
When I moved to New York for college, there was a bet placed back home in Arizona on how quickly I’d move back, tail between my legs, ready to commit to a more comfortable, predictable, and well-trod lifestyle for a woman. But I’m still here. And with Wives, through our rehearsal process, through our collaboration between you, the audience, I would like to continue to ask questions. What does it mean to subvert? On the page or subtextually? Through casting or through narrative undercurrent? What does it mean that the play is called Wives when some of the most important characters…are…not wives? How can our questions be framed as answers? How is subversion a feminist tactic? Isn’t it wonderful, a little more freeing, to charge ahead into a future that can be forged in a new image? An image different than the one we’ve been given? What does that future look like to you? How can I delight in it? How can I know more about it?