Who are you? What do you do?
My name is Eliza Bent. I do a few things: I’m a playwright, an actor, I teach, and I have an arts consulting business.
What are you here at SPACE to work on?
I’m here at SPACE to work on plays. The main thing that I’ve been working on is a piece called BONNIE’S LAST FLIGHT. It’s an unwieldy piece about flight attendants, retirement, and the paths we do and do not take. And also Mark Twain.
How long do you expect the play will be?
I think it’ll be seventy-five minutes--the length of a flight. The play happens in an airplane. It’s Bonnie’s final flight as a flight attendant so there are farewell speeches, goodbyes, revelations occur. Snacks and beverages are also served.
So the passengers are all characters she’s never met before?
The audience members are the passengers.
And Mark Twain is aboard!?
Yes, Mark Twain is also on the plane.
Currently, the idea is that we have this woman, Bonnie; a close coworker friend of hers, then a fresh young face — a new flight attendant who’s learning the ropes and making mistakes. There is also a pilot and a co-pilot. Those are all of the central characters.
And then Mark Twain has found his way onto the plane.
I still am sorting out why.
But I think part of it is that he was an intrepid traveler, a giant of American literature — in all of his amazingness and also all of his problems. He always is full of aphorisms that are totally annoying, but just as equally true and amazing. I think that he and Bonnie share a quality of irritating people at times, but also of saying truths.
He has this moment, “Twain on a plane,” where he stands up and talks about modern air travel.
What makes his aphorisms annoying?
Just read them, they’re so annoying!
This is the classic one: “The coldest winter of my life was summer in San Francisco!”
Maybe annoying is incorrect and groan-inducing is more accurate.
“Quitting smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it a thousand times!”
What made you want to write this piece?
I really dug into the voice of BONNIE in a previous show I wrote and performed called TOILET FIRE. That show, which was about digestion and religious identity, is where I found Bonnie. She seemed so fun and had more to say about her world outlook. I wanted to explore that.
Have you ever written a spin-off like this before?
No--hopefully it will be the Frasier to my Cheers. But I would say that a lot of the things that I write are twists on aspects of my life. And I suppose in that sense — I did retire from a job a year and a half ago.
What was that job?
I worked at American Theatre magazine as a senior editor.
You also mentioned that you teach. What do you teach? Why do you do it?
I teach Freshman Writing at Brooklyn College. It’s fun to be in a classroom. What I really love — specifically about Brooklyn College — is the truly incredible diversity of the student population. It’s amazing to have so many different world outlooks and language backgrounds in one classroom. Nineteen people that speak nineteen different languages and we all get along!
It’s also an incredible thing to be tasked with teaching how to write — it’s such an important skill.
Do you find that exposure to other languages works its way into your own writing?
Yeah, Italian sometimes gets used in my plays. I lived in Italy for some time. I speak Italian — not as well as I did when I lived there. Yesterday I was really stuck: I wanted a character to write a letter and I was so grossed out at even beginning to write this letter. And then I thought — well, a way to get out of overthinking it would be to write the letter in Italian. And then immediately I was able to write it. I mean it’s a brief letter — it’s no Proust — just a little letter that was so much easier to do in Italian. I’m sure I’ll want to translate it eventually, and that can become more dicey because you have to think as it transitions into your mother tongue.
Why was it easier to write in Italian?
Because I have less flexibility in that language. The cool thing about using a language that isn’t your mother tongue is that you’re forced to actually say the thing that you want to say. You can’t dance around it. I’m famous for dancing around topics so it’s good to have a way out of that.
A big thing we talked about at Brooklyn College was giving yourself a constraint, some rule to apply to a play in any way you like. It could be anything: people don’t use the word “the” in this play or other ridiculous things like that. So one of the first plays I wrote at Brooklyn College, THE HOTEL COLORS, was using Italian as part of this constraint. It was a direct translation from Italian to English, so characters would speak in this very peculiar way.
As you teach writing at Brooklyn College, how do you balance transmitting your passion for writing with developing your students’ technical abilities? Correcting grammar seems like such a dry task for a playwright.
It’s easy for me because I don’t know the rules of grammar — woh, something just jumped out of the lake!
Speaking of which, we’re at your favorite spot on Ryder Farm — can you tell us a little about it?It’s one of my favorite spots. It’s a nice view, very peaceful, I love the dock. Glad to be here.
Do you get a lot of work done here?
Oh, I never write here. Too much nature. I come when I need a little break.
What’s next for you and BONNIE’S LAST FLIGHT?
It’s having a workshop in October, supported through a space grant from LMCC that Annie Tippe is directing. The idea is to invite some cool, smart people, and find a potential home for it. And then, way in the future, I’m working on a live talk show that I’ll be assistant directing, which is a very new endeavor for me.
What’s the talk show?
It’s called REAL TALK / KIP TALK. There will be three episodes at Abrons Art Center in December, February and April. It features Kippy Winston who’s a real mover and shaker in the performance world.
If you could be someone or something other than Eliza Bent — say, a farm animal, which would you be?
I’d be a penguin. An Arctic farm penguin.