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Selma Thompson is the author of A Modest Proposal (Samuel French). Her award-winning work has appeared on CBS and USA Network, and she's written for Universal, Fox, and others. Education: Honors English, Princeton; M.F.A. Dramatic Writing, N.Y.U.; foreign study, drama, University of London. Thompson teaches dramatic writing at N.Y.U.
Your work passes the Bechdel test; (or we wouldn’t be having this interview) but is meeting the criteria of the test something you set out to do when you write? If not, how has seeing your work, as now identified through this lens, changed or informed your writing?
Writing work in which women are central has always seemed natural. I started writing plays out of frustration with the roles available to me as an actress. My years writing movies-of-the-week for CBS were spent in a matriarchy I never stopped appreciating: female executives and, often, producers, creating female-driven roles for largely female network stars, often based on the lives of real women. At the time, working in a female-driven television genre had less prestige than the male-centric feature film industry, yet I'll always be grateful for the chance to reach a global audience while dramatizing challenges in women's lives, often addressing sexism and racism in the process. Marlo Thomas made one of my first television movies. Geena Davis optioned a screenplay of mine, wanting to star in it, but we couldn't get it set up at any film studio. I feel grateful to have worked with both of those feminist trailblazers, but the different outcomes, I believe, speak to glass ceilings that only now are slowly being shattered..
The Bechdel test is, by its existence, a kind of political rubric – and now identified in film and theatre theory. Are there any other politics or rubrics that influence your work? Is it important to you to identify as a feminist writer?
Feminist cartoonist and playwright, Lynda Barry's beautiful book What It Is is full of insights, writing prompts, and inspiration. The DuVernay Test concisely addresses standards for racial inclusiveness in drama, and I take inspiration from it; one of the projects of which I'm most proud is USA Network's Perfect Crime which was set against a backdrop of racism and sexism in the military. On a purely aesthetic level, Jose Rivera's, "36 Assumptions About Playwriting" and David Mamet's "Three Magic Questions of Drama" are essential -- even if men came up with them. Oh, and ... am I a feminist writer? Hell, yes!
How important is getting feedback for your writing process and what do you hope to get from feedback at a reading?
Drama is a conversation among collaborators and audience, so, of course, the writer must discover how the work is being experienced. Once she knows that, she can fine-tune what is on the page. And the magic happens when feedback reveals possibilities to be found in the writer's story which she may not have fully, consciously realized at that point in her process.
How is the feedback you get from a live audience reading different from other types of feedback you seek?Drama is meant to be performed. Hearing a piece read aloud is what takes the work to the next level. What is the rhythm of the piece? Is the pacing appropriate to the story? If a reader stumbles trying to speak the dialogue--the dialogue needs polishing. If listeners start coughing or fidgeting or slipping out to make a call or find a restroom, the playwright now knows the exact spot that needs work. A talk-back afterwards may offer a zillion contradictory suggestions, which the writer may or may not find helpful ... but if several people have opinions about the same spot in the text, that means the playwright needs to ask herself what more she has to do with that beat. At a certain point, much later in the process, the writer may consider how best to present the work on the page--ways to keep the text moving, to format, to hone descriptions so that they engage, etc--the better. to seduce an important reader who needs to say yes to the project. The creative process, though, is most helped by a good table read or workshop presentation..
Tell us about a woman character you’ve written who surprised you, or took a turn you didn’t expect.
CBS hired me to write a movie based on a true story about a woman who became a Grandparents' Rights advocate after her daughter gave her Downs Syndrome baby up for adoption rather than let the grandparents raise him. When I interviewed the real people, I was unnerved to discover that the "good" and "bad" characters in the story were flipped. The crusading grandmother was ill-equipped to raise a special needs child and tone-deaf to her daughter's pain. The baby's mother had bravely faced the hardest choice of her life, and out of love, found a group home for Down Syndrome kids run by a couple who'd dedicated their lives to understanding the needs of these children and had a vision of how to raise them to be happy adults. I dreaded telling this to the network, who had bought the project as a starring role for Patty Duke as the crusading grandmother; but as I took the conference call, my eyes fell on Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie on my bookshelf. That helped me spin a pitch about a sympathetic character who loved her daughter so fiercely that she couldn't see her daughter had grown and needed to make her own difficult choices in the world. The network would never have bought that story, but having already invested significant money in purchasing rights, they gave me a shot at creating a protagonist who must eventually learn she is not the hero of her own story, and that her good intentions have a dark side. Patty Duke brought so much to her role in No Child of Mine. And the real woman who has created a family by adopting some dozen Down Syndrome children calls me up every few years to say hello and thank me for getting it right, a humbling reminder of our duty as writers, as feminists, to face the truth as we find it.
What are you working on now, or what can we look forward to hearing about next from you?
The Bechdel Group's 24 hour challenges have inspired me to start thinking about an evening's collection of short plays that offer a mosaic of female experiences of aging. Meanwhile, I am working to finish my first novel--an art school satire. I also write film reviews.
9/18/2017 08:33:02 pm
I loved every word of this interview, Selma. Thank you so much. I continue to learn so much from you and about you.
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The Bechdel Group
Working to challenge the portrayal of women in film and on stage.