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"Reasons to Live" at the Skylight theatre - Interview with Playwright Meryl Cohn

By Ester Benjamin Shifren

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The Skylight Theatre has once again teamed up with a noted Los Angeles performance group, this time it is the Open Fist Theatre Company. If their previous partnerships, one over the summer with Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble (Bulrusher), are any indication of what they have in store for us then audiences are in for a treat as the comedy REASONS TO LIVE makes its West Coast debut this week.

Meryl Cohn created the play, chosen as a “Favorite Play of 2012” by the press when first presented at Provincetown Theater, after a lifetime of observing similar characters. She wanted to write a play about the desire to find hope and humor after something difficult happens. Meryl’s own tendency to temper darkness with humor comes from being part of a chaotic family that was sometimes a little mean, but always funny. She talks about the disparity of people who don’t hesitate to speak bluntly, so that you never have to wonder what’s on their mind, and yet it’s difficult to know what secrets lay beyond. The play, touted as a thought-provoking comedy about overcoming adversity, has a “crazy is relative” line announcing the West Coast premiere.



Receiving her M.F.A. in Dramatic Writing from N.Y.U.'s Tisch School of the Arts, Cohn’s accolades include the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award and Curve Magazine's Lesbian Playwriting Award. Helmed by director Susan Morgenstern, who began her directing career while working with noted satirist/singer/songwriter Tom Lehrer, Reasons To Live will run through the end of November, and possibly beyond…

- What started you down the road to playwriting? 

Meryl: I was really excited by theater when I saw plays as a kid. I remember sitting in the audience of A CHORUS LINE and PIPPIN and I'M GETTING MY ACT TOGETHER...not wanting the shows to end.  I wished I could act or sing - and I'm miserably bad at both of those things. It was several years later that it occurred to me that someone actually wrote the plays, and that maybe I could be that person. I took my first playwriting class when I was a student at Smith College. My teacher, Len Berkman, pushed me to produce the first play I wrote, at the theatre there. I loved playwriting so much that it changed my plans. I was going to apply to graduate programs for psychology but I tore those applications up. 



- Noting your success with writing a humorous column Ms. Behavior, your plays, and your book published by Houghton Mifflin, “Do What I Say: Ms. Behavior’s Guide to Gay and Lesbian Etiquette,” you appear to be comfortable in many genres. Do you have a favorite, or gravitate in a particular direction when you start a new project?

Meryl: Sometimes I know I'm sitting down to write a play because the story presents itself in that form in my mind; I know what the conflict is and maybe even how it ends. And if there are characters talking to me, I guess it had better be a play!  Other times, I sit down to write and I'm surprised by what comes out and the form it takes. For the last year or so, my writing has been much more varied than it's been in a very long time.  In addition to plays, I've been writing fiction, non-fiction, even a few poem-like things, which is kind of fun and also horrifying, like watching something come out of your body that you didn't know was there. 

 - Like the Silverstein's in Reasons to Live, every family has their ups and downs. How has your family played a role in your career?  

Meryl: My family, especially my extended family, consists of a bunch of characters that would make the Silverstein’s seem relatively normal. They are unusual in that they say things very bluntly; you never have to wonder what anyone is thinking.  But at the same time, there are a lot of secrets. I think watching these people my whole life, and more importantly, listening, has helped to form my ability to write characters. 



 - Are your characters created from the people you've known? If so, is there any one person in particular who has become your greatest resource?

Meryl: Some of my characters are created at least in part from people I've known, but no character is totally based on any one person. One of my plays, And Sophie Comes Too, ran for a couple of weeks in a festival in New York. My mother came to see it every night.  Finally, on the eighth or ninth night, we were standing in the lobby, and my mother turned to me and said, "I think the mother in this play might be based on me."    

And now, whenever she says something that really makes me laugh, she says, "Use THAT in your next play!"

- As a writer, who has had the most influence on you? What is the play(s) that have most inspired you?

Meryl: If I like a writer, I might try to read everything he or she has written and then I'll move on to someone else. I don't know who has influenced me the most, but I appreciate a lot of different writers: Gina Gionfriddo, Beth Henley, Tracy Letts, Chekhov, are some of the ones that come to mind first. But I also love seeing small productions of plays by playwrights who have not yet been "discovered" by the mainstream; I learn a lot from these people who are writing interesting plays, who are not famous. 

- What advice might you want to share with young women writers just starting out?

Meryl: Feed your soul, whatever that means. Do things that matter to you. And when it comes to your work, at least 50 percent of the time, try to write what you really want to write, without regard to what other people say is publishable or producible at that time. 

- What else are you working on right now?

Meryl: A bunch of memoir-ish pieces that I won't be able to publish until everyone I know is dead. And I've also started writing a Young Adult book, which I've always wanted to do. 

The cast includes: Jordana Berliner, Michael Cotter, Katherine Griffith, Jessica Ires Morris, Judith Scarpone, Jennifer Schoch, and Amanda Weier

REASONS TO LIVE opens October 25th and runsat 8pmFridays and Saturdays, 3pm on Sundays through November 30, 2014.

Location: The Skylight Theatre is located at 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave, LA, 90027. Tickets are $30.


Reservations: 213-761-7061

or online at Skylight Theatre



Published on Oct 28, 2014

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