Interview with Playwright Joni Ravenna
Joni Ravenna Interview
Q: "Corrupt Impressions" presents parallel situations - one in a courtroom, one in a classroom - in which the characters have the choice of either seeing the truth or succumbing to their prejudices. It feels very topical. Were there specific news stories that led you to write the play, or did it emerge gradually to you over a period of months or years?
A: Like most people, I was interested in the Eric Garner case. The idea that memory and credibility of a witness is so key to justice. But what most people don't realize is that none of us remembers what really happens perfectly. The way the brain works to piece together memories is so interesting. It often plays tricks on us without our even knowing.
Q: In addition to being a dramatist, you have also been a magazine journalist, a television producer, and a host of TV shows airing on FOX Sports, ESPN and KVCR-TV, the Coachella Valley's PBS affiliate. To what degree has working in print journalism and TV informed your playwriting?
A: Well, first and foremost I love writing plays and have since I was in the fourth grade. I have an overactive imagination and if I don't put it to work FOR me it ends up working AGAINST me in my real life. In the theatre your first job is simply not to bore anyone. With journalism you have to temper that desire to entertain with the ethic of journalistic integrity.
Q: You have written a couple of biographical plays - helping people to tell their life stories onstage through the medium of theatre. What is that like compared with the typical alone-at-the-keyboard playwriting experience? Is the collaboration closer to journalism or oral history?
A: That's really a great question. It's funny, but again, you learn so much about how the mind works. I've spent hours with two separate individuals for two separate projects recently, each time recording the conversations over many months. Inevitably, I always get a lot of it wrong. I think that I've heard something or understood something only to go back and forth with the person, sometimes arguing. You want to pull your hair out because you're sure that they said and meant one thing and they tell you they didn't say or mean that at all. There's a real trick to listening and understanding what someone is trying to say, trying to remember from their past. Again, memories can be very faulty. My husband's a lawyer and he always says that in order for someone to understand something, he has to say it three times. Once more, it goes to how the mind works and how one remembers what one thinks one has heard. It's fascinating to me how often I get it wrong.
Q: Your plays are very engaging - it is very easy for the audience to get wrapped up in the story. Is that engagement something you strive for as a playwright? After all, there are some plays out there that are obscure and opaque to a fault.
A: That's very kind of you to say. It goes back to the number one job in my opinion of any fiction writer and that is to first not bore the audience. Again, if you're dealing with an autobiographical play or book then there's a fine line you have to ride.
Q: How would you say you have grown as a playwright from when you started? What are the key lessons that you've learned about the art of playwriting?
A: Well when I started writing in earnest, I was at USC. My first play, "A Brush With Fate", was a full-length farce that ran for several months at West Coast Ensemble in L.A. and the reviews were VERY mixed. One was brutal. I'm ashamed to say that I didn't pick up a pen for the next ten years. But when I finally did start writing again, I had a tremendous amount of good luck. What I've learned is not to give so much importance to negative reviews! If I ever get lambasted again in the same way, I've promised myself that I won't let it hurt me the way it did when I was younger. Not everyone's going to like or "get" what you're trying to say and that's okay.