Gracie Gardner on ATHENA / by Declan Maloney Drummond

 Photo by Peter Falls

Photo by Peter Falls

 

Athena is about two very different teenage girls forming a shaky friendship as they practice together for Nationals. What drew you to this story?

Back in high school, I became close friends with a classmate because we were both the slowest runners on the cross country team. It was this feeling of: "We're next to each other, should we be talking?" That dynamic was something I was constantly negotiating as a shy teenager -- if I initiate a conversation, am I foisting an unfair burden on this person? Or am I being rude if I don't speak at all? In this play, Mary Wallace and Athena are constantly wrestling with those questions on a larger scale, but they are fencing directly across from each other, engaging in this form of socially sanctioned violence against one another. I used to fence as well, and I was drawn to the idea that you could see the actual sport play out on stage -- not a simulation of the sport or a theatrical gesture to indicate it, but actual, real time game play. My hope was to use that idea to explore the lengths to which someone would go to maintain a connection when they feel alienated. 

At the heart, what do you feel that Athena is really about?

My friend Tanya Everett (who is one of my favorite playwrights) saw the play and said something that felt right to me: "We want to love and be understood and we fail so often, not because we are bad people but because we lack tools."

How was Athena developed into production at JACK?

I started writing this play years ago, but it wasn't until recently that Emma and Julia (the amazing women who run the Hearth) officially commissioned it, and I started digging into it with a production in mind. The turnaround from commission to opening was November to February, which is quite fast. During the development process I was on the west coast, and Emma and Julia were in New York, and we were all working sixty hour a week day jobs, so it was challenging. They recorded actors reading the play and sent it to me, which allowed me to do revisions. 

 Photo by Mike Edmonds

Photo by Mike Edmonds

How involved were you in the casting/rehearsal process? Do you usually try to have a hand in that process for your pieces?

Being in the room for casting and rehearsals is essential for me in the initial production of a show. I just don't know what the play is until it's on its feet, and huge changes can happen in that time. For me, it's important to be open to the possibility of change, even if none occurs. In this case, an enormous rewrite happened in between casting and first rehearsal. The play changed a ton, not only because I had been working on it for so long, but also because having the complexity and intelligence of actors in the space makes you reconsider your preconceptions. 

The New York Times review of Athena said that it only wished more stories of “the awful, wonderful, completely ordinary business of growing up in a woman’s body” had been told sooner. What stories do you think deserve more attention in theatre?

I've been interested in creating theater that upends the sports genre for a while now. I came up with the idea for Athena when I was in high school, when I was actively fencing, but reading plays like Never Swim Alone in college expanded my sense of how gesture could be used to examine a character's interior life. Back when I was in school, I created a play called Manning Manning Manning about Peyton, Eli, and their often overlooked brother Cooper Manning, which examined my complicated relationship with football. Once I moved to New York, I was sending out that play and an earlier version of Athena to theaters and development opportunities. No one I submitted to was interested in either of these back in 2013, and I got buried in rejections. 

A year ago, I wrote a piece called Ballgirl, which is about a teenage girl who works on the sidelines of the US Open catching stray balls as they bounce off the court. That play was also directed by Emma Miller who directed Athena and went up at the Queens Theater this summer.

I'm happy to see that some theaters are changing their minds about who can write what kind of stories. That, for me, is what I'd like to see more of on our stages: adventurous writers asking difficult questions, bringing surprising characters to life, and theaters having the creative vision to cast their expectations aside.

What’s next for you?

I'm writing a play called Los Angeles which is an adaptation of Dante's Inferno.

 

ATHENA is currently playing at JACK, and performances have just been extended through to March 24th. 

FOR TICKETS: https://www.artful.ly/the-hearth/store/events/14073

 "Manning Manning Manning" Photo by Ally Schn

"Manning Manning Manning"
Photo by Ally Schn