By Aaron Arbiter, Festival Assistant
Playwright Mary Beth Hoerner
As the youngest of five children, Mary Beth Hoerner knows what it’s like to watch and listen to the people around her. Her powers of observation are perhaps the key to understanding her as a prolific writer of plays, stories, memoirs and more. In The Charisma of Flying Saucers, Mary Beth offers us her take on one of the most widely speculated about questions in existence: are we alone?
New Mexico, 1958 – there are lights in the sky and a mysterious women is found in a field with no memory. For science-fiction fans the scene may feel familiar, but Mary Beth draws from a multitude of influences to tell a story that feels fresh and relevant. Is the truth out there? We encourage you to seek out your own answers. In the meantime, Mary Beth tells us about her experiences as a playwright.
AA: How did you find your path to becoming a playwright?
MBH: In my high school French class, we were required to read Beckett, Moliere, and the absurdists—so that was fun. I was so sure that I was misreading Waiting for Godot, that I cheated and bought a copy in English, and read them side-by-side. I realized that 1) I was not misreading—that was just a very new and weird world I was being exposed to—and 2) part of the problem was that my all-girls, Catholic high school French book did not provide translations for words like erection. In any case, reading the above left a mark.
In college I majored in English, writing, and political science, but one of my English teachers told the class that it was more likely that one of us would get struck by lightning than one of us would get a play produced. So I really never considered playwriting an option. I think I took every drama-based lit class there was though—some of them twice as the writers covered changed from time to time.
Flash forward many years to when I went to Columbia for an MFA in writing. I took playwriting classes for fun, won a scholarship to have a play produced, loved the collaborative environment of putting on a play, and here I am.
AA: Would you cite any specific writers who have had an impact on you?
MBH: If Beckett were alive today, I’d be stalking him full-time. I couldn’t begin to list all of the authors I worship, and I don’t think anyone influences me on a conscious level, but I am drawn to the weird, quirky, sometimes dark, and goofy—so apart from any lit that falls into that category, think Cohn Bros., “Portlandia,” etc.
AA: How do you spend your time when you aren’t writing? Do you think this influences your work?
MBH: I do go to the theater a lot so of course this influences my work. In addition to assessing the overall story, which I am the most hungry for, I am always interested in how the playwright gets characters on and off stage, how the exposition is presented, and what the audience responds to. This latter element is a mystery to me as I almost never laugh at what the audience laughs at, and when I laugh the rest of the audience is silent. I think people desperately need and want to laugh—so in this play I employed the familiar setting of 1950s sci-fi that people can relate to but tried to put a spin on it so that it was—God willing—surprising, interesting, and fun.
I read a fair amount about the brain and am fascinated by how little we still really understand it. I see that influence a lot in this story.
AA: So what was the genesis of this play in particular?
MBH: When I was doing research for my play Atomic Honeymoon, also set in the 1950s, I kept coming across all this UFO stuff, and I thought that would be fun to write about some time. Then when I found out that Carl Jung had written a book on flying saucers I started looking into the topic more seriously.
Many of the characters are either based on real people or are conglomerates of people I read about who were prominent thinkers on UFOs at the time. I wish I could take credit for all of the crazy coming out of Professor Turnbull, but the strangest words coming out of his mouth were said by real people.
Sheriff, D., and Reverend David are all out of my head. I think the genesis of David though came from an experience I had with a priest. I needed to make an appointment to talk to one, and the time he met me was 10:30 p.m. When I went to see him, he was incredibly ill—red, puffy nose, hoarse throat, drippy eyes—the whole bit, and I thought man, the buck stops with him. It occurred to me that he would have no one to turn to if he had a crisis of faith—no human person.
AA: The Roswell incident has been heavily referenced in popular culture. Why write about it now?
MBH: Charisma takes place actually a decade after the Roswell incident. In addition to what is explained in my previous answers, I do not think we have made much progress in explaining what so many people have seen and continue to see. I wanted to bring in the legitimate voice of Jung so these people might be taken more seriously. It was also fascinating to me to read about some religious visions and to see how similar some sounded to UFO experiences. Drawing comparisons between the two opened up some interesting questions.
AA: Science fiction themes are historically underrepresented in theater. What is your perspective on the genre?
MBH: I am not a huge science fiction fan—I think because it is often more about the situation and special effects and less about character and relationships. I think people have shied away from attempting sci-fi on stage because film is a better medium for pulling it off (and even film has had its troubles, esp. in the ‘50s!). Another reason is that it is not taken as seriously as other types of literature so it is especially difficult to take on those themes and not get dismissed as schlock or fluff. I can’t tell you how difficult it is to write a synopsis for this play, not only because it is an ensemble and doesn’t have one hero whose journey is easily summarized, but because so many eyes roll when they hear the term flying saucer. Sci-fi can also become dated quickly as the future keeps catching up with us.
I think all those challenges are why we should be attempting sci-fi on stage. There is only so far you can take the effects. Trust the audience to fill in the gaps, and provide a good story.
AA: I think you’ve addressed this pretty well, but were there any challenges you had that were unique to this project?
MBH: In doing research I came across a ton of very scary material, including believable- sounding contactee experiences and terrifying unexplainable animal massacres on bizarrely large scales. But I want people to run to the theater not run from it so I chose to not go there.
- Making Carl Jung’s theories digestible in one- or two-sentence increments was a unique challenge I do not recommend.
- Tackling serious questions about existence while maintaining an element of fun is a very challenging endeavor. Some people want it to be one or the other—so striking that balance is tricky, and it is something I will always be working on.
AA: What is the best advice you’ve gotten as a writer?
As a beginning writer, the best advice was, “Don’t write something you want your mother to read.” We self-censor so much anyway, this was something I needed to hear early on. For playwriting, one that stands out is, “Tell the story you want to tell, and let the director worry about how to pull it off.” The only problem with that is I ended up co-directing Atomic Honeymoon—so it was left to me after all to figure out how to pull off an atomic test blast on stage.
One of the things I love most about going to a Martin McDonagh play is to see how the director pulls off what he throws at them. Implying there’s a flying saucer in the sky is nothing compared to killing cats on stage.
AA: I’ve been asking this question to each of this year’s playwrights, but do you think it is significant that this is the second year in a row where the Dionysus Cup has featured all female playwrights?
My first class at Chicago Dramatists was a marketing class. We had to prepare a resume as a playwright, and I listed my name as M.B. Hoerner, thinking I had a better chance not being female. Imagine my surprise when I was told theaters want to produce female playwrights. That said, I think in order for the theater to survive and pull in new audiences the best stories have to be told—period.
AA: Is there something that you hope audiences will take away from seeing your play?
MBH: There is no moral or lesson to be learned here, but here are a few of my hopes:
- That people will think about some of the mysteries presented in the story
- That they think about how large a role the unseen plays in our lives—and that this will help people to observe, question, wonder, read . . .
- That people will think about how their weakness might actually be a strength
- That even when big questions about life are explored all it really comes down to is your relationships—so be present there
- That the government is very selective about what info it shares. What is it keeping from us now that we deserve to know? Who is making these decisions? What is the agenda of the person providing the statistic?
- The characters don’t notice what takes place at the end of the play. What in your own life is in plain sight that you do not see?
- That we still don’t know that much about what else is “out there” than we did in the fifties. The assumption is that religion and science are at odds. I hope the play blurs that distinction. Science and religion share the desire to explain our existence. Both tell imperfect stories, but both can provide (a bit) of solace.
2015 marks the eighth time Polarity has produced a Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays. The Festival provides a six month development process for the selected playwrights and affords them a series of feedback encounters with a director and dramaturg selected for their experience with new plays, as well as with the play-going public.
This year’s festival includes …And Eat It Too by Aline Lathrop, directed by Hutch Pimentel, Josh Altman, Dramaturg; Leavings by Gail Parrish, directed by Helen Young, Maggie Carlin, Dramaturg; Girl Found by Barbara Lhota, directed by Dan Foss, Sarah Laeuchli, Dramaturg; andThe Charisma of Flying Saucers by Mary Beth Hoerner, directed by Rachel Ramirez, JD Caudill, Dramaturg.
The 2015 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays runs July 9-19 at the Greenhouse Theater Center at 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue. Tickets are $10 per performance or $15 for a full festival pass. Seating is general admission. For tickets and information visit www.petheatre.com or call the box office at 773-404-7336.