Last week Vertigo company member, and A Map of Virtue director Emilie Landmann, had the chance to spend some time chatting with the playwright, Erin Courtney. Erin's play is filled with sparse stage directions and many unanswered questions, creating an aura of mystery surrounding the play. We wanted to dive a bit deeper into how the play was conceived, and what inspired such a unique piece.
!Minor Spoiler Ahead!
EL: It's so hard describing this play to people without giving anything away. Cast member Paige Rogers compared it to "Love Actually," the way that it starts out with people meeting, then it turns to horror. And I love that surprise, that change.
EC: That was my goal, that it resembles something else at the beginning and that the tone of the play changes. Before the first production, there was no indication in any of the press material about any kind of horror or violence. So people were really shocked and scared.
EL: When you started writing it, it was part of a writing retreat with 13 other playwrights...
EC: Actually, the writer's retreat was separate from 13P, though some of the playwrights were on the retreat. The retreat was organized though Pataphysics and it was Erik Ehn who ran it. We were out in the woods, we were silent, and it was really scary. That's where I started the play, then a few years later we formed 13P and then when it was time to pick which play I wanted to be the artistic director of for my 13P slot, I thought, A Map of Virtue would be the hardest play. It would be the hardest to get produced, the hardest to explore, It's the most adventurous play of mine, so I thought, "that's the play I should do." It's the most challenging.
EL: Yeah, it is!
EC: Have fun! [laughs]
"...he had us all set an alarm or just wake up in the middle of the night, get out of bed, write for about an hour..."
EL: How did you start writing the play?
EC: I started with those monologues at the beginning and I didn't yet know that they were going to be kidnapped, then Erik Ehn had us do this wonderful thing- and I would recommend this to any writer- he had us all set an alarm or just wake up in the middle of the night, get out of bed, write for about an hour, then go back to sleep. So I was in this creaky old house in the middle of the night, half asleep and using dream logic, I started to write the part about the headmaster and the bird and the captivity. I went back to sleep and read it in the morning and I was like, "Oh, I guess this play is going to go to a darker place." That's how that came about.
EL: Do you have a favorite type of bird? Since there is a big theme of birds in the show.
EC: A meadowlark, of course!
EL: Was there any reason for the birds as a recurring image in the play?
EC: I do love birds. I think they're beautiful, when they're flying they're so beautiful. But I'm interested in birds because of the way we put so much symbolism on them as these figures of freedom and perspective. They have a "bird's-eye view" and they can fly above us. But the life of a bird, I imagine, is very challenging. They're just trying to stay alive like all other creatures. I like how birds are so elegant and beautiful, as humans we attach so much poetic significance to them, but that poetic significance we attach to them may not be what their lived experience is...
EL: Tattoos are a big plot point. Do you have any and do they have any meaning?
EC: I do have quite a few tattoos, I love tattoos. I’m writing a musical right now with Max Vernon called “The Tattooed Lady” that’s about the original tattooed ladies in sideshows at the turn of the century. As for significance, at the time I wrote “A Map of Virtue” I did have a swallow, a bluebird [laughs], on my back though, not on my chest. And it’s holding two cherries and it has a little star underneath it. So… the bluebird/swallow on my back is- I think I was turning 40 and it was going to be a symbol of committing to creative progress for myself, and then the little cherries are my two sons, and the little yellow star is my husband. So it was like, how to balance having a creative life and be courageous and forward moving and also, you know, have a family.
EL: That’s beautiful!
EC: Aw, thanks! And then, when I was in tech for “A Map of Virtue” in New York, I got a giant sugar skull on my arm, practically a sleeve, with these flowers… [laughs] So I really stepped it up.
“A great love carries within it a mourning for love.”
-Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions
EL: Were there any pieces of media, like films or books, that you drew inspiration from after you got your first inklings for the show?
EC: The main source of inspiration was also on that writing retreat. Eric Ehn asked each of us to memorize a poem, in silence, the first night. He had each of us take an envelope and each of us had a different poem in the envelope. Mine was from Edmond Jabès, who’s an Egyptian poet. It’s an excerpt from a longer poem he wrote, called “A Book of Questions,” and it’s a post-holocaust poem. It’s about how people survive trauma and tragedy, and how language survives, and how does love survive. There are certain images in that poem that filtered into the play.
EL: Do you have any inspiration for the horror aspects of the play?
EC: Probably the show that scared me the most was the original “Twin Peaks,” in that way where evil is not explained. And this is true in the world, I think. I think really violent people, sociopaths, and psychopaths, cannot be understood. They’re operating outside of societal norms in such a way, their logic is inexplicable. It's scarier and more realistic to not explain why.
EL: Do you have a favorite virtue?
EC: Well, the one that just popped into my head is curiosity. I think that’s a life-long virtue that helps you stay engaged and interested in the world.
EL: Are there any moments in the show that you’re the most attached to, that you love the most?
EC: I love towards the end when Mark and Victor describe how they met. I like those two monologues.
EL: They’re very sweet.
EC: And when that sweetness comes in the play is just really important to me.
EL: That’s one thing that I really enjoy about this play is how it ranges from comedy to horror. I would love to hear about that juxtaposition between the two.
EC: I think the kind of comedy that I like in films and in theater and in my life is that kind of awkward comedy and you’re thinking “maybe I shouldn’t be laughing,” not because it’s politically incorrect, but because it’s so dark [laughs]. And so, I like that kind of comedy and how we tend to use comedy when we are in pain, and how we use comedy to alleviate suffering. And then I also like comedy that’s about social anxiety and the way it’s sometimes really awkward to be a human.
"I would like it if people would leave the theater questioning their own assumptions."
EL: How would you describe your voice as a playwright?
EC: One thing that I’m interested in is juxtapositions and how- it’s sort of related to what you were saying about comedy, about how when divergent images or emotions are placed right next to each other there is an electricity or emotion that comes from the juxtaposition.
EL: What do you want audiences to walk with from any production of “A Map of Virtue?”
EC: I think a few things… I would like it if people would leave the theater questioning their own assumptions. Also thinking about responsibility and how are we responsible for each other. And I hope people will reflect on cycles of violence, the presence of circular experiences in life and also the danger of repeating things without knowing you’re doing it.