Interview with Baylee Shlichtman, playwright of "The House of Flightless Birds"
Q: The House of Flightless Birds tells the story of two brothers trying to articulate who they are, and trying to transcend the home they have grown up in - a place where being "different" isn't okay. Our audiences have been really moved by this play. What do you think they are responding to?
A: I think Manuel and Augustín are fully realized and easy to root for, so when bad things happen to them or they make a "bad" decision, you're invested in the outcome. For some, this play is meaningful because it touches on an aspect of their identity that was portrayed with truth and nuance, whether they're Latine or neurodivergent or queer or a combination. It's a kind of catharsis to see yourself or a part of yourself on stage and to be treated with care. And yes, to that end, I do think it helps that I drew from a place of personal identity when I wrote this play. I have something at stake for this to be done well.
I also think it helps that while this play can be bleak at times, it's also very funny and never renders hope completely out of reach. Personally, I don't believe in telling an emotional story that leaves an audience in despair. It'd make the whole thing feel cheap and like it was all for shock value. I hate stories that do that to me, so I don't do it to my audience.
Q: The highly regarded AlterTheater Ensemble commissioned this play. Could you tell us a little bit about the commission, and how the play emerged from it?
A: In Fall 2020, I was selected for the inaugural Alterlab: First Acts residency along with four other BIPOC playwrights who were either in university or within two years of graduating from university (shout-out to Lily Gonzales, Alicia Margarita Olivo, Devin Porter, and Jasmine Sharma who are doing great things in and beyond the theater space and whose work you should all check out). We were each commissioned to write a new one-act and would meet once a week over Zoom for twelve weeks to have our pages read and to just be in community with each other, facilitated by the incredible Diana Burbano.
It was a safe creative space where I know I at least felt like I could explore writing about identity in ways I hadn't thought possible before First Acts. I know that eventually I would have written an autistic character like Manuel, but I don't think it would've happened as soon as it did without the support and encouragement from my cohort. I also took chances with the language, specifically with the metaphors, that I may not have if I was creating this piece on my own. I would come in and preface my pages with "this may be too weird" and then they would read it and tell me I could push it even further.
Q: You went to USC and graduated with a journalism degree. How did you get into playwriting and theatre?
A: The fall of my junior year, I had some free units in my schedule and decided that it might be a fun writing exercise to take a class exploring a type of writing I had no experience with. I signed up for THTR 365 which was taught by the amazing Luis Alfaro (hi Profe) and wrote my first full-length play Cluttered Purses which is shelved at the moment. I didn't write another play until right before the pandemic hit in February 2020 when I got the sudden urge to circle back to my childhood hyperfixation with Greek Mythology and the house of Atreus specifically and ended up doing a retelling centering on Clytemnestra (Clytemnestra: A Greek Triumph) that is still one of my favorites that I've done. Then the pandemic happened and there really wasn't anything to do but write, and I was already in a playwrighting headspace so I kept doing that.
Q: Do you think a playwright should write plays with a particular purpose or mission today, or is that kind of aim potentially limiting?
A: I think there is great value in writing for the sake of pure entertainment and nothing else. Art does not have to be thought-provoking to be useful, it can be enough to allow for escapism. But I also think this conversation has another layer to it when you take into account that marginalized writers don't get the privilege of making art that is purely escapist. Placing a body in a space that wasn't designed with them in mind will automatically be read as an assertion. The work could be the tropiest play in existence, but the notion of a marginalized body embodying those tropes will generate discourse and have importance assigned to it. The only thing you can really do about that as a writer is to be aware of it and tell the story you need to while knowing it's coming.
Q: What kind of playwriting inspires you when you read it or see it onstage?
A: When I'm reading, it's all about the character for me. If a writer is making compelling, truthful choices with their character work, I'll come away buzzing. I also appreciate really visual stage directions, the more impossible to pull off live the better. Voice is another thing. I love naturalistic writing, but I really love when a play leans toward the poetic without leaning too much and losing the audience. And while the plot itself is the least important element to me, I like to be able to dissect and analyze the structure of a written play to see if I can implement something into my own work. I like to be able to count a play's ribs so to speak. Shape needs a cadence, or the shape isn't working.
Bad plays can inspire me too. I sometimes call myself a "spite writer" because a lot of my plays start off as me getting angry over something. That something could be an egregious sentiment or choice made in a play that I'm inspired to refute with my own writing. When seeing a play staged, I have more room to pick and choose what I take with me. I've seen plays where the story and characters do nothing for me but the presentation is so well-done that I'm left meditating on it for months.
Baylee Shlichtman's new drama The House of Flightless Birds now showing at the 2022 OC-Centric New Play Festival.