In Conversation with Abby Rosebrock

After having three of her plays newly published, Abby Rosebrock met up with TRW at Drama Book Shop in New York City. While there, she signed copies of BLUE RIDGE, DIDO OF IDAHO, and SINGLES IN AGRICULTURE, and sat down to unpack the complexities in her work, from how hard women are on each other to navigating the expectations forced onto us, and how it’s important to learn to nurture your intuition instead of focusing too much on what others think your work should be.

Abby Rosebrock’s plays examine relationships from unexpected angles. She writes about damaged characters who may seem broken, but her expertly crafted words peel back the layers to reveal new depths and strengths. Even in the darkly comedic, off-kilter situations in which her characters find themselves, Rosebrock’s plays remain big-hearted and uplifting.

“And I guess that’s kind of what the plays are about: the way women are brutally hard on themselves and each other.”

– Abby Rosebrock

Katie Stottlemire: So, we’re here at Drama Book Shop, and you’re signing copies of three recently published plays. How are you feeling?

Abby Rosebrock: It’s thrilling. I feel so honored to have my work homed here, and to have DIDO OF IDAHO chosen as a monthly feature.

KS: As it should be! DIDO OF IDAHO was the first play of yours I read, and I couldn’t put it down until I finished it. And when I did, I had to take a few moments to digest.

Abby: Wow, thank you.

KS: I read all three of your plays the same way, actually. I would start and not be able to tear myself away until I’d finished. They’re all such visceral reads, and the characters are all so truthful and fully dimensional. I think it really speaks to your abilities as a playwright to be able to write characters I feel like I know after only reading the words they speak on a page.

I want to talk specifically about Nora, from DIDO OF IDAHO. We are introduced to Nora while she is having a drunken rendezvous with her secret lover, who’s married to a woman named Crystal. Then, after Nora passes out, Crystal wakes her up, and the audience goes on a wild journey with Nora throughout the play.

Abby: Nora is like, my shameful id. But so is Crystal. They’re both kind of feral versions of me. When we meet her, Nora feels completely defeated and is convinced she needs someone to save her—that she can’t survive, let alone thrive, on her own. She’s got this primal drive to install herself at the feet of someone else. Crystal’s the opposite; she thinks she needs to barrel through life, bending people and things to her will. Neither woman is really able to sit still with her own immense fear and grief.

DIDO OF IDAHO, by Abby Rosebrock, 2018 Ensemble Studio Theatre production (photo by: Gerry Goodstein)

KS: As much as we want Nora to get what she wants, this guy is obviously dragging his feet and has no intention of leaving his relationship for her. I want scream at her: this can’t be the way to go about it!

Abby: Yeah, a lot of people react that way to Nora. Women readers, especially, often dislike her or get frustrated with her, at least in moments. It’s always a little funny, but also terrifying, when you unleash these gnarly parts of yourself on the page and people express aversion. Like, “Wow, what a piece of work she is!” I was fascinated to notice that women are often harder on Nora—and on this character Alison in BLUE RIDGE—than men are. And I guess that’s kind of what the plays are about: the way women are brutally hard on themselves and each other. Even though they’re often suffering at the hands of men and institutions. But even people who judge Nora tend to have fun with her.

KS: Yeah, we come around to Nora. We just have to go on her journey first. Well, more accurately, she has to go on her journey first. A line of Nora’s that really resonates with me is when she’s talking with her mom, and her mom tells her she has to love herself, and Nora asks, “What does that feel like?” Which is a question I think almost everyone can relate to.

Abby: Self-love can be monumentally challenging, especially if you were taught a different way of relating to yourself. Nora grew up in a household where the focus was on behaving in ways that appear correct to other people: “Make straight A’s and don’t have sex and go to church.” That’s a terrible way to live, always checking to see whether you’re measuring up and assessing how others perceive you. You tend to berate yourself constantly, often without knowing it. So Nora’s convinced she’s a bad and undeserving person, a failure. And the only antidote she can really believe in is this charismatic lover.

KS: And you played Crystal in the initial production of DIDO OF IDAHO. How do you negotiate these two parts of your creativity as you work on your plays?

Abby: I learn a ton about a play when I’m performing in it. Also, I now realize, performing gives me things to do besides worry about how people will react to my words. For a long time I think it felt less vulnerable to be a character than it did just to be me, the writer.

KS: Let’s talk about your other plays, like SINGLES IN AGRICULTURE, which is about a convention for single farmers looking for love.

Abby: Yes, the whole thing is set in a motel room, where we see these two characters who have yet to find a partner interacting on the last night of the convention.

KS: And you acted in it, too?

Abby: I played Priscilla, a farmer from South Carolina.

KS: Which is where you’re from. And your roots are absolutely a huge part of your work. The premise of SINGLES feels like it could quickly become a caricature of these people who live in ten-person towns and are desperately lonely and looking for love. Instead, you turn it into this really intimate night between two of those individuals, and we learn so much about them. And while they may be wildly different from us and our experiences, we identify with their desire to be loved and to have someone to share their lives with.

Abby: It came from the loneliness of living in New York. I guess externally my life at the time couldn’t have been more different from Priscilla’s. She’s raising goats; I was editing and writing and shuttling between rehearsals. But we were both lonely and scraping by. So that play wrote itself pretty fast and came out more or less all in one piece. It just felt like this primal cry of isolation and longing. So I was focused on what I had in common with the characters, not on the differences.

KS: You do the same thing in BLUE RIDGE, which is about a halfway house in North Carolina, where a slate of different folks are staying for various reasons while they’re getting their lives back together after grappling with addiction and other issues. How did you find this story?

Abby: The main character, Alison, has just vandalized her boss’s car after a thwarted love affair, and she’s in this despairing place where she’s blaming men for all her problems. I guess she’s kind of like Nora in DIDO in that sense; she doesn’t really see herself as capable of transcending the structures and traumas and disappointments that have shaped her life so far. Self-belief hasn’t really paid off in the past; it’s actually gotten her into a lot of trouble—poverty, heartache, certain kinds of danger. So why would it help now? Her views aren’t without logic, and she still has this veneer of charm and wit, but she’s living in hell. I wrote the play to look for a way out of that. Not that I’d ever vandalized a car.

BLUE RIDGE, by Abby Rosebrock, 2019 Atlantic Theater production (photo by: Ahron R. Foster)

KS: I’m curious about how you got into theatre.

Abby: Well, I was getting a PhD in English, specifically medieval poetry, and then I wound up getting into comedy, and now here we are. It’s kind of a jarring contrast to go from improv comedy to playwriting. Because improv is all about agreement, about the “yes, and,” and dramatic writing is about conflict, conflict, conflict. When you have two scene partners existing in opposition to one another, two characters who see the world in different ways, you’re breaking a basic rule of improv. But I also think that plays should be funny. So while writing scripts, I try to incorporate a certain amount of riffing and play and agreement, where characters match energies and share in the same oddball worldview.

KS: Right, and when you’re writing, you can edit your improvised ideas and pick the best, most truthful, and most fraught outcome, as opposed to being stuck with the original idea.
Before we end here, I’d like to ask you one final question. What has been the best, or most resonant, piece of advice you’ve received from someone about navigating the theatre industry?

Abby: There’s a documentary about Elaine Stritch where she’s getting out of a cab, or into a cab—I don’t know, I barely remember the context—but she says something like, “Everything everyone says in this business is bullsh*t.” I think I’m paraphrasing, but the sentiment has stuck with me for a long time because her delivery was so funny and spontaneous. And kind of serious, but not bitter. I never want to be cynical, but I keep thinking about that line, and how important it can be to shut out the cacophony of other people’s voices. You really have to nurture your own intuition instead.

Read Abby Rosebrock’s Bio




Article by Katie Stottlemire