Monday, June 21, 2010
Del Mar native Annie Weisman has set her new play in her beachside hometown. "Surf Report" is full of recognizable Southern California characters who behave in ways that are funny, surprising, and compelling. We talk with Weisman about her play.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): It's a daily reminder that we live in Southern California in a beautiful community that, in many ways, is defined by the sea and surf. Now a new play called "Surf Report" uses this same locale to explore the changing nature, not of the ocean, but of relationships, identity and the dynamics of power. Playwright Annie Weisman is a native of Del Mar. Her play "Surf Report" is getting a world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse this month. And, Annie, thank you for joining us.
ANNIE WEISMAN (Playwright): I’m so happy to be here. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, did you – You’re a native of Del Mar. Did you grow up surfing?
WEISMAN: You know, I grew up watching boys surf.
WEISMAN: And it’s something that’s really changed, I think, in the last 15, 20 years or so. When I was a kid, girl – It just wasn’t a possibility for girls to surf.
WEISMAN: It never occurred to me. We didn’t have any sort of role models to surf. So we sat on the beach and we watched our brothers and boyfriends and – surf, and these days, you know, girls are surfing a lot more, and I think it’s great.
WEISMAN: You know, it’s just one of those social shifts that happens and I think there are a few pioneers, a few pioneer girl surfers who set that in motion and now a lot of girls do it. I actually met, through doing the play, the Playhouse has partnered with this organization called Surf Divas…
WEISMAN: …in San Diego, and they’ve been real pioneers in getting – encouraging girls to surf and – and I think it’s great because, you know, a lot of the social pressure on girls at that age is to kind of sit and be looked at…
CAVANAUGH: Right, yes.
WEISMAN: …on the beach.
WEISMAN: And surfing is a much more, I think, powerful expression of – and, you know, way to inhabit your body as a teenage girl. I think it’s a lot healthier form of expression than, you know, just getting – trying to get a tan and look good. So I really – I was happy to meet those – that organization. I think they’re doing great stuff.
CAVANAUGH: So you didn’t actually go out on the waves and surf the waves yourself…
CAVANAUGH: …but you definitely imbued the culture of surfing during growing up in Del Mar.
WEISMAN: I did, yeah, very much. It was a big part of my life and a big part of, you know, I was just really immersed in the culture.
CAVANAUGH: What role does the surf report have in this play?
WEISMAN: Well, the surf report becomes a kind of emotional and – gauge through the play. I think it becomes a metaphor for the changes in the story and in the relationship. So it becomes – it’s both literal – I mean, the people, the main characters in the play, kind of listen carefully to the surf report to see what kind of day it’s going to be.
WEISMAN: Then it also becomes figurative in that it indicates the changing dynamics and the changing relationships as things are predicted to be better or worse as the story goes along.
CAVANAUGH: Now this is the second play that you’ve set here in San Diego. And I wonder, what is it that draws you back creatively to write about this city and its culture?
WEISMAN: Well, I – Having grown up there, it’s really just a part of who I am and what my perspective is and how I think. But I went away to school on the east coast and in England and trained in theatre and literature and far away. But I always felt that the culture of Southern California was unexplored in this form.
WEISMAN: That there aren’t plays but that it just felt like it could be – it’s sort of virgin territory in this form, you know.
WEISMAN: So for me, it was just that kind of exciting area to explore because I knew it so well and because it felt like it could be all mine. It felt fresh. And I really feel committed to writing seriously about Southern California culture in theatre, and I’ve had the experience of doing these, you know, first my play “Be Aggressive” and now this play, “Surf Report” at the La Jolla Playhouse, and it’s been really gratifying to see the way the audiences have really embraced it, even the kind of real, you know, critical stuff about the culture that’s reflected but it’s also very loving, and that you can see and hear from the audience that that’s a need that hasn’t been fulfilled yet…
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, dying for it, yeah.
WEISMAN: …that they don’t get to see a lot of material onstage about who they are.
WEISMAN: It’s a lot of, you know – A lot of us in Southern – a lot of Southern California natives, we feel the kind of cultural inferiority complex to the east coast and New York. We feel like, oh, that’s where the serious things happen. And so to really write seriously about us here is valuable. I think people appreciate it. I appreciate it.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with playwright Annie Weisman. Her play "Surf Report" is getting a world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse this month. And, Annie, one of the characters in “Surf Report” is named Bethany. She’s a young woman who left San Diego to become an artist back in New York, in Brooklyn. She’s happy that she got out. Now, I’m wondering, even though you have this commitment to write about Southern California, do you identify with her character and her need to leave?
WEISMAN: Yeah, her struggle is very similar to mine, the feeling that – I think I – In her, you see a lot of the kind of adolescent impulse to define yourself against where you came from…
WEISMAN: …against your parents, against where you’re from, and to kind of belittle it and minimize it and try to break out on your own and do something new. But the play’s really about the pull and the return. And one of the things that – one of the metaphors that the surf plays in the play is – and you see it both physically onstage in the design, which kind of represents a big wave and an ocean, that even though she fights and tries to get away, these currents kind of pull her back. And the play, without giving away what happens in the play, there’s a feeling of there’s very powerful forces beyond her control that pull her back home.
CAVANAUGH: Now you also get in a few digs at New York and the kind of big city, east coast culture that…
CAVANAUGH: …in a sense you’re trying to counter in writing a play set in Southern California.
WEISMAN: Yeah, I think I do try to defy expectations about what can be – what’s taken seriously in the larger culture and what isn’t because I think a lot of Southern California cultural exports are the sort of shallower aspects of beach culture and…
WEISMAN: …people think it’s not a place where any serious contemplation happens. And there’s a character in the play who’s very much a sort of typical Southern California character in a lot of ways and there’s a lot of comedy that comes from her ignorant attitudes and her shallowness but then you kind of realize through the play that she actually has a depth and a importance and…
CAVANAUGH: And that I think…
WEISMAN: …a vibrant…
CAVANAUGH: …that you’re talking about Jenna.
WEISMAN: Yeah. Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Which is one of the funniest characters in “Surf Report.” She is kind of the stereotypical Southern California blonde beach girl but she becomes, as you say, more than a stereotype. Talk about some of the phrases that she uses over and over again and where you came up with those.
WEISMAN: Well, I think, you know, trying to keep up with whatever the current slang is was impossible…
WEISMAN: …so what I tend to do is kind of make up my own version of it that feels new but familiar. So she has, yeah, a very particular way of talking that can be – that we recognize as the kind of, yeah, a typical Southern California way of phrasing things. She can be really over the top and silly and – but I play with it and I think I defy expectations with her…
WEISMAN: …that she ultimately becomes an unexpected source of kind of insight and wisdom.
CAVANAUGH: You have said that you have your own inner Jenna.
CAVANAUGH: What do you mean by that?
WEISMAN: Well, it’s part of who I was growing up and who I still am, this sort of Southern California girl who can try to define herself by, you know, wit and language and – and, you know, sarcasm and trying to be a step ahead of everyone else. I think that that’s a part of me, too.
CAVANAUGH: Now one of the central relationships in this play is between Bethany, that young woman who left San Diego to go to Brooklyn and is now back home, and her mother, Judith. Describe what that relationship is like.
WEISMAN: Well, it’s a very fraught relationship because the daughter Bethany has decided that she has really, as I think a lot of girls do, has decided – has a very – a little bit distorted view of her mother and father. She kind of worships her father and she’s really vilified her mother and decided that her mother is sort of the source of all of her difficulties and problems, but that it’s – that they come from her mom. And so she’s really defined herself by trying to not be her mother. And over the course of the play, she learns more about, as I think we all do, as we get older, we start to see our parents as human beings and not just as reflections of parts of ourselves. She learns that there’s a more complicated story to who her parents are, that neither one of them is either perfect or terrible. And she has to kind of – that it’s part of the growing up process we see with her.
WEISMAN: Sort of a coming of age story in that way. But the struggle with her mother is one of the main conflicts in the play and I think it’s – I’ve had a lot of feedback from people saying, umm, they get it, it’s familiar, it echoes some of what they’ve gone through with their parents.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Annie Weisman, I can tell that there are – you just don’t want to tell us that much about this play and I can understand that because you, you know, obviously it unfolds and that’s where the pleasure comes from in actually seeing the play.
CAVANAUGH: I can’t let you go, though, without talking a little bit about the – We talked about the dynamics of power. Well, the character that personifies that is named Bruce.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about him.
WEISMAN: Well, Bruce is a figure who is – was one of the main reasons I wanted to write the play, was to create this character because he, to me, is a very fascinating and unique Southern California creature because he is, at once, a very – very much a laid back, committed surfer, who just lives in a kind of hedonistic way, enjoying, you know, by the whim of the waves and the beach and the sun. And then he’s also someone who’s involved in investing in the biotech and telecom worlds and has made a fortune doing that. So it’s that tension between the culture of surfing and the sort of casual, laid back culture of surf – of beach culture and then this very rigorous, academic, scientific, technological world that he’s a part of?
WEISMAN: And that’s something, that’s a conflict that exists in La Jolla that people don’t know a lot about, I think, outside of that community, that there exists this really rigorous, serious, scientific community right on top of this beach culture. And I think it’s fascinating. And it’s some of the most, you know, brilliant, advanced minds in the world are working there in this context. And so he represents those who – that conflict, and he’s someone who is just a charming and dangerous person. He’s a narcissist who kind of has his own title pull, who kind of pulls people into his orbit and that’s a lot of what the play’s about, is the way that he has pulled particularly women into his orbit to sort of serve him and how that dynamic works and whether the – and just in the way that Bethany tries to kind of swim away and get to the east coast but gets pulled back, Judith, who is his longtime assistant, finds herself very much in his powerful wake.
CAVANAUGH: Wow. We’ve been talking about Annie Weisman’s play “Surf Report,” which opens June 23rd at the La Jolla Playhouse. Before I do let you go, Annie, you’re in LA right now, you’re just about to start writing for television, start writing for the show “Desperate Housewives.”
CAVANAUGH: Are you looking forward to that?
WEISMAN: I am. I’m excited. It’s been – it’s a good fit for me. It’s a show about female dynamics and it’s got comedy and drama and it’s a good gig. I’m looking forward to it. It’s – For me, you know, being a playwright means finding balance and jobs to help support you and this is…
WEISMAN: …this is a good one. I’m lucky I have it.
CAVANAUGH: Does this mean you’re going to be writing with other people?
WEISMAN: Yeah, there’s a team of writers…
WEISMAN: …who come up with stories and write scripts. So I’ll be one of them.
CAVANAUGH: And is that a new thing for you, sort of that collaborative nature?
WEISMAN: Well, I’ve been doing television for the past actually six or seven years so, off and on, so it was new to me when I started but I’ve now had some experience with it and I enjoy it. It’s a nice change of pace from the solitude of playwriting.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Annie, thank you for talking to us about “Surf Report.” I appreciate it.
WEISMAN: Thank you so much.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with playwright Annie Weisman. “Surf Report” opens June 23rd and runs through July 11th at the Mandell Weiss Forum on the campus of the La Jolla Playhouse. And if you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, if you ever wanted to complain about or praise Navy food, now’s your chance. The task of feeding the Navy, that’s what we’ll talk about as These Days continues here on KPBS.