What is your name and where are you from?
My name is Erika Sheffer, and I’m from Brooklyn, NY.
What is the project you are working on at SPACE?
I’m working on a new play that takes place in the orthodox Jewish community of Brooklyn, NY in Midwood. I’m working on a first draft now.
What gave you the idea for this project?
I’ve always struggled with my place in the orthodox community. I grew up, I spent a lot of my life in orthodox schools, up until junior high. And as a woman, and as a woman who has a career, I felt outside of it. So, the play came out of that struggle, that I’ve had to find my place in that world, and sometimes I don’t think there is a place for someone like me in that world.
Does the story come first or do the characters come first?
It’s funny, I think the world comes first. With this play and with Russian Transport, I just started writing about the world that these characters inhabit. I’ll write several pages without the characters that end up being in the play, there might be other characters in it and fill out the world a little bit, and then the story, the story pretty much takes over and the characters serve the story.
How have you been spending your time at SPACE?
Sometimes I’ve just been banging my head against the wall, but that’s normal. And the good thing is that when that happens I can take a walk and enjoy some fresh air and get back to it a little more refreshed.
How is it different writing in the city vs. writing on the farm?
I feel a little more languid here. I think when I’m in the city, time is so precious, and so, there’s more of a push to get it done and write it now. Whereas here, I can write for an hour or something and if I reach a point where I’m like, “You don’t know what’s happening next,” I take a little wander and think about it. Y’know, just time to think! Then I’ll be walking and there’s an idea! Then I’ll go back and write that idea.
You have more “space.” Womp womp…
But you do! There’s something to be said for the time to muse and the time to really explore a subject and to go as deep as you can go. I think that takes time, which is why I’ve never been a particularly prolific writer. Well, in terms of number of pages, I’m prolific.
What’s coming up next for you and your project?
I have a production this season at Steppenwolf of Russian Transport. That’s going to be the regional premiere and the Chicago premiere. So I’m going to go out there for a little bit for that. And I’m going to keep working on this play, and I have some other projects that are in the very early stages that I’ve been working on, that have been percolating. They are like zygotes.
When you set out writing a play do you give yourself a deadline?
When I start going crazy that it’s taking too long, I schedule something like a reading with actors where I know they’re gonna show up. I’m like, “OK, it’s in three weeks.” Then in those three weeks I gotta finish an act or, like, sixty pages or seventy pages. That’s how I do it. I give myself time, then, when I freak out about how little I’ve accomplished, I get some actors and then I finish it. But in the time you feel like you’re doing nothing, you have been thinking about it. You have been using that time. But you just don’t have as many pages to show for that time.
What’s the fastest you’ve written a play?
When I was in production for Russian Transport, I wrote so many drafts of that play. I wrote some drafts in six weeks. I remember writing one draft in five days. I had, like, a fever and was a little bit crazy. It was totally a fever dream. Obviously, I had to do a lot of rewriting… but it was a good shape. I found the structure in those five days.
Do you like to write through the whole thing or do you like to perfect an act or scene first?
Both. For a while, I’ll really try to perfect the first act, but you can’t really perfect the first act without the second act. So, I do both. Actually, what’s been interesting and good about this play is that this is the first time that I’ve thought about the play in terms of the ending and not just then end of first act. Like I think that’s why in my first two plays I did so much rewriting on the first act, because I honestly hadn’t thought about the second act before I started writing the play. But with this one, I know what my act break is and I know what action I’m moving towards at the end, which I think is very helpful. I think it’s easy to get bogged down and keep rewriting, I’m prone to that. The more you do it, the more you realize a play has an ending, the easier it is to work on. It makes it easier to rewrite when a play has an ending. You learn that through experience.
Where did you get your start playwriting?
I was an actor for several year and started writing plays. My training is having been on stage.
How does that inform your writing?
I think it makes me want to write really interesting plays because I’ve been on stage in really boring plays. I’ve been on stage for those long slogs. I don’t think people should be bored when they go to the theater. I don’t like being bored when I go to the theater.
If you were to be reincarnated as a farm animal, what farm animal would you be and why?
So like a domesticated animal?
I guess it could be a wild animal on a farm.
I did see a deer the other day. I guess if I could be a farm animal I’d come back as—I’m from Brooklyn, I’m not a big animal person. In fact I was super brave the other day because I walked past the chicken coop. Normally, I’d try to avoid it. So, I’d guess I say turkey, cause they look like they don’t give a shit. And they’re just like, “I don’t care.” They’re so balls to the wall. I was less afraid of the turkeys than of the roosters. The roosters are like, “I will cut you.”
Any final writing advice?
I guess, to me, writing is finding that sweet spot between having patience with yourself and being hard on yourself, and I think you need both.
Interviewed by Emily Simoness