#serials@TheFlea Playwright Interview: Alena Smith Talks Office Sex Politics

03/17/2011 3:19 PM |

Chicago OHare Airport

One of the more intriguing entries at last week’s installment of the Flea’s ongoing #serials@theflea production was O’Hare, an absurdist mood piece about office dronery, unfinished renovation products and modern sexual politics. The scribe behind the piece is Alena Smith, whose previous works include Plucker and The Sacrifices.

Ahead of O’Hare’s second episode, which will be staged Friday and Saturday at the Flea, Smith discussed the pros and cons of working in a short, serialized format, and how she’s planning to maintain the first installment’s unique tone. (No spoilers, the only detail she gave about the next chapter is that new characters will be introduced.)

The L: Compared to the other series from the weekend, O’Hare was more of a mood piece than plot-driven. How do you plan on maintaining that vibe in the second episode?
Alena Smith: Writing this piece, I wanted to take the idea of a “serial” in a more abstract or conceptual direction than a linear, plot-driven episodic structure. I’m interested in making a “series,” like a series of shapes, or a series of variations on a repeated idea. So the progression or momentum of O’Hare from week to week will be precisely about maintaining that repetitive, non-plot-driven vibe, while at the same time introducing enough variations to keep it hilarious and reaching ever farther into the absurd.

The dialogue in the piece was very exact; do you have much experience working in an office environment that you drew upon to create these dynamics and rhythms?
I have about as much experience working in an office environment as I do watching people work in office environments on television. I drew equally on both the real and the pseudo-versions to create this piece. My last office job was actually pretty exciting. I worked for a private investigation firm that happens to be right around the corner from the Flea. My work there was boring, basically shredding documents, but the environment itself was entertaining. I just finished writing a TV pilot about my experiences there. So perhaps that will lead to me getting a real job (as a TV writer).

The piece subverts the standard narrative about office sexual activity and harassment, where the male is the instigator. How much of a “political” reading into gender/work issues do you want audiences to make? (To rephrase that badly worded question even worse, was this just an interesting premise you wanted to explore, or is there a larger thematic point you wanted to make?)
This is a great question. I’m fascinated by the way that, for our generation (meaning anyone in their 20s and 30s right now) sexuality and gender have, in the short time we’ve been alive, gone through some pretty extraordinary breakdowns and mutations. I don’t think anyone has a totally solid footing when it comes to these issues—in other words, nobody, male, female, gay, straight, whatever, is quite sure how they are supposed to act or what they are supposed to want or feel. This piece is definitely meant to be an exploration of all that. PS—I’m no scientist, but I think all these changes have something to do with the internet. So this piece is also, in a weird way, about the internet.

Speaking generally, what are the difficulties in working with such an abbreviated amount of time? Is the format limiting? Are there any benefits? What about for the serialized format—do you feel a need to keep the conclusion more open-ended than otherwise?
Working in this very short format is fun and freeing for a playwright—you can take risks and introduce conceits that would not be able to sustain themselves over a two-hour traditional play. It can be more about form and less about content.

Catch the second episode of Alena Smith’s O’Hare, and four other short plays, in #serials@theflea on Friday (at midnight) and Saturday (at 11pm and 1am); tickets are $10 at the door, includes one free beer.