What’s your name and where are you from?
Already hard questions! My name’s Corinne Donly, and I grew up a lot of places. Southern California is where I was born, but I went to middle school and high school in Texas. Houston, outside of Houston.
Is there a place you think of as your hometown?
No. No, it’s a weird part of my identity, feeling kind of without a place. But I like New York. New York is the first spot that I chose for myself, and I’ve lived there longer than anywhere else.
What’s the project you’re working on here at SPACE?
The larger project is attempting to write from the perspective of non-humanity--trees and rocks and other non-human beings. I’ve been doing that for awhile now, in different incarnations. But this specific project is trying to be a play about an aspen grove. Aspen trees are linked underground via their root systems; they’re clonal colonies, so all of the aspens in a grove are technically the same tree. (Some incredible facts about aspens, p.s.: The trees themselves definitely need a lot of sunlight, but the roots can wait underground, for years and years, until the conditions are right for a new tree. So aspen colonies are incredibly resilient, and if you plant aspens somewhere, it’s hard to ever fully get rid of them, because the roots just hang around, just waiting for the next opportunity to send a tree into the world. I think--and I’m sure I could be wrong about the specifics of this--but I think that the oldest living organism in North America is an 80,000-year-old aspen grove in Utah. Isn’t that amazing? They really just live and survive!) Anyway! All of the trees in this play are aspens in a clonal colony, and they’re all named Roberta, and they’re trying to negotiate a sort of individual-identity-versus-a-group-identity thing. And also, they’re in a time of a lot of rain, and some of the individual trees are starting to die, so the tree, as a whole, is actively losing parts of itself. The Robertas are trying their best to think “big picture”--to consider a larger timescale, maybe, and know that the essence of Roberta will persist into the future, even if a lot of years have to be spent underground--but also, you know, it’s painful for the individual trees to be confronting the ends of their little lives.
Are Aspens something you studied when you were studying ecology?
No, no. I mean, I didn’t actually engage that often with specific plants. It was mostly theory stuff I did. But I did develop a reverence, a new way of being with non-humanity. I--You know what? Maybe I’m going to revise the place I feel like I’m from: My Dad is from Colorado, and I go there more often than I go anywhere else, to visit my family. The forests in the mountains of Colorado feel like one home of mine. There are lots of aspens there. I realized recently that, in fantasizing about this play, I’ve actually just been picturing this one section of this one forest. I’ve been writing about a real grove that I really know and love. Probably, I’ve just been missing it.
What’s next for you and your project?
I’ve got to get a draft going! Here at the farm, it’s been a little bit of research and then a lot of just trying to commune with the trees that are here, to dislodge myself from my own habits of seeing, to write text as it comes. But I do actually need to shape the text into a thing! I’m scheduled to have a reading (of any play) at the end of July, but I haven’t chosen which play yet. So I would love to hold myself to that as my deadline for having this play in order. And then also, for me personally, I’ve got a play that I wrote called “Wood Calls Out to Wood” coming up. It’s an adaptation--or a “translation,” I like to say--of a painting, of Heironymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. It’ll have a production in July. That’s the next big thing; I go into rehearsal for that next week.
What do you find is the most challenging thing about writing from a non-human perspective?
[Laughs] On the one hand, it’s really easy, because no one’s going to tell you that you’re wrong. But then, there are big debates about the ethics of that. Because people want to be like, “Well, empathy. And if storytelling has the ability to generate empathy, then why not write non-human characters as a way of getting people to extend their empathy toward the environment?” But then other people are like, “There’s real danger in misrepresenting the beings that you’re speaking for,” which gets into the whole anthropomorphizing thing, you know? I try to walk a bit of a line with it, keep it tongue-in-cheek, wry. I’m not pretending that it’s actually the trees who are speaking. The trees in my play admittedly sound a lot like humans. But I am trying to use human language, spoken from the imagined perspectives of non-humans, as a way to invite different ways of understanding or experiencing the world.
Where have you been spending most of your time on the farm?
I didn’t expect that this would be the case, but I am really into that hammock by the sheep pen. I’ve been, like, taking out a blanket, taking my laptop, just swinging in the hammock and typing away. The key advantage to that spot is that it’s easy to go back into the house and refill my coffee as needed. I also visit the cows each day, as I think you know. They’re beautiful.
Is there a question informing your work right now, and if so, what is it?
The question that’s always informing my work has to do with form or with the structure for a play. I think structure communicates as much as content does, and if I want to be thinking and writing ecologically, that has to be informed by the structures I choose. I’m always trying to resist a dominant plot model, resist conflict being the motivating force of a play, really trying to avoid building to a climax. The question for me, always, is how to still write an engaging piece but simultaneously teach different narrative values. To boil that down, it’s just about discovering how a particular structure communicates and what the right structure is for each play. And for me, that has to be found over time. There’s a lot of free-writing until I start to understand what structure I’m moving toward. Right now I’m thinking that this aspen play is a circle--a circle play. But who knows?
How does teaching inform your point of view on theatre-making, playwriting?
I might have to talk around this one for a little while, while I figure out what the right answer is. One: As an educator, I want to constantly check myself and make sure I’m not teaching theatre or writing as if there’s a set way to do either. I’m always interested in what’s exciting to students or what assumptions they have about the theatre--or about what the theatre can do--before having been taught differently. So in teaching playmaking and acting stuff, I learn a lot simply from being with students in moments of discovery. It reinvigorates my own sense of possibility. But then, increasingly--and underpinning everything I do anymore, really--is an anxiety toward this moment on the planet, environmentally and societally. I teach a class at Brooklyn College on “ecopocalypse,” and we read texts that forecast the end of the world--nonfiction texts that say “If we keep doing x, the end is coming” and then fiction pieces that take on apocalyptic backdrops. A lot of our conversations are about how, for many groups of people (like indigenous Americans), the end-of-a-world has arguably already happened. Or about how, today, it’s typically poor people and communities of color who bear the brunt of climate change and environmental toxins--and it is absolutely world-destroying for those communities but doesn’t necessarily look like a flashy, Hollywood moment of apocalypse. On a basic, personal level, it’s been helpful to have conversations with young people (albeit a small group of them) about how they are navigating this particular moment in the U.S.--these huge and interrelated and destructive realities. One thing that seems true is that students come into the class already pretty saturated with talk of apocalypse and climate change. It’s not unfamiliar terrain for them. So, really, hanging out with them helps me stay close to the question of how I can generate interest in a topic that people are already tired of. I mean, we’re studying these texts in an English class, so the conversation is always about what’s rhetorically effective in them, but as a writer, I’m also always monitoring: “Well, which texts are shifting the students’ perspectives? Which ones empower without overwhelming? Where can wonder be found, even amidst all this fear?” These sorts of investigations definitely show up in my writing.
Is there a play or a piece of art that’s inspired you recently?
Yeah, I’m enormously inspired by Gertrude Stein--so many of her pieces! When I was speaking earlier about wanting the work of a play to be done through its form, I think Stein is a great example of that. She’s a genius with form. Or with a seeming lack thereof. And with language and with the way she puts two words together. When I was writing this last play--the one that will happen in July--I was reading Stanzas in Meditation. It is, I find, such a difficult Stein text; it’s not even playful in the ways one expects Stein to be playful. Anyway, I was having a hard time with it, but then I looked back at my own writing, and I noticed all the small ways that Stein was seeping into it. Stein, I think, gives me a lot of permission. I’m grateful to her for that.
If you were reincarnated as a farm animal, what animal would it be and why?
Which farm animal?! Oh my god. There are so many I might choose! I mean, I know that it’s not really a farm animal, but I feel a kinship with rabbits. Also, I like goats. I like their ability to climb. Plus, I’ve had some goats be very affectionate with me. And I like that the young ones get called “kids.”
Interviewed by Maggie Gayford