On October 29th, Geva’s Fesitval of New Theatre (FONT) will present Christina Gorman’s Far From the Trees in a one-night-only staged reading. In the play, an Oregon widower spends his days unearthing the forest of petrified trees he’s discovered on his land. When his nephew is expelled from graduate school for “academic sabotage,” the university demands its scholarship money back, driving the family into a debt so deep they may never recover. But a botany student arrives with unimaginable news: the beloved trees are priceless. All the family has to do is sell. Why then can’t they let go?
We talked to playwright Christina Gorman, who was selected as a member of the Public Theater’s inaugural Emerging Writers Group in 2008, to find out more about this funny and moving drama.
GJ: Could you give us the SparkNotes on how you become a playwright?
CG: I’ve always liked theatre. Growing up, my mom took me to see Annie when I was in sixth grade. That was my first Broadway show; I grew up in New Jersey. It became something I loved, but I didn’t really think about doing it until I got into college, and I ended up stage managing. I interned at Julliard for a year as a stage manager, and did a little work as a stage manager. Then I kind of flipped out: “Oh no, I need a real job, I have to make real money!” So I went into advertising for a few years, and it was while I was there that I said, “This was a huge mistake. I miss theatre so much. I’d only written for myself, and something just made me [want to try to write]. It wasn’t a huge moment, I just thought, “Let me write this down,” and as soon as I started I thought, “Oh, this is what I want to be doing.” And I’ve been doing that ever since.
GJ: FONT presents readings of new works. As a writer, what do you get out of seeing your play with an audience, but before it is fully staged?
CG: That’s the time where, if I was trying to trick myself or fool myself into thinking something worked in a play—once you hear a poor actor say it, even with all their talent, it comes out of their mouth and you say, “I’m so sorry, you’ll never have to say that again! I’m gonna change that.” That’s what it’s for. I feel like it’s also time to look at the stuff that I might really like, but doesn’t need to be in the play or doesn’t belong in the play. I can really get a sense of where things are dragging. I have a very sensitive boring-meter. You can’t get that unless you have an audience.
GJ: Far From the Trees is probably best described as a family drama, but it has a lot of science and a lot of jargon in it. You don’t need to understand these things to enjoy the show—how important was accuracy to you?
CG: Do you mean the universe stuff or the trees stuff?
GJ: Both! I wasn’t an expert in either. But the trees, foremost.
CG: A friend of mine, and a fellow playwright, gave me an article about a man in Washington State who had found this forest of petrified trees, and she said, “This sounds like your kind of thing!” I just thought it was amazing, the idea of a regular guy doing it for the love of it, and then discovering “this is worth money,” and how that can really change matters. I did research—I didn’t know anything about petrified trees—and everything about them in the play is accurate. That they ring when you hit them in just the right way, that they’re iridescent on the inside…all of those things are actual facts. That’s what I liked about it; I didn’t have to make up anything. In fact, I had to remove something from it because it confused people. They can’t find any roots under the actual trees. They can’t figure out where they come from. Did the land shift, and the trees just shifted upright? I thought it was a beautiful mystery.
And I was trying to write another play at the time, about a scientist at the Hadron Collider, and that’s where all the universe science comes in. Someone who’d be interested in trees, and someone who’d be interested in the changing nature of the universe, would seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum in many ways. You know, big versus small. Change versus stasis. I thought, “I’ve got to put those two people in the same play.”
GJ: As a playwright, what kinds of themes or topics do you find yourself attracted to? Not just in this play, but in general?
CG: Well, I noticed this only after writing a lot of plays. What seems to come up a lot with me is suffering. I used to call it trauma, but I think “suffering” is more accurate. I tend to write about people who’ve been through something major, something life-altering. It sounds like I do it on purpose, but I don’t. It’s about having to get through it, about having to get un-stuck. How do people move through that kind of emotional upheaval, and life-changing matters?
GJ: That’s certainly true for the characters in Far From the Trees
CG: And usually the horrible event happens before the play begins. It’s about the aftermath of it. Coping.
GJ: What else would you like audiences to know about Far From the Trees?
CG: It’s a great cast. This is the first time I’m working with a cast that, I’ve never worked with any of them before, but all five of them are people I’ve seen in other work, and said, “I really want to work them! Hey, you know what role they’d be good in?” And all five of them are actually in the play. It’s kind of a dream cast in that sense. I’m so excited.
Far From the Trees will be presented in Geva’s Nextstage Theatre at 7 PM, followed by a conversation with the playwright and a light reception.