WE THE WOMEN
in conversation with
KIMBERLY BELFLOWER & HANNAH WOLF
We The Women is thrilled to be hosting a reading of playwright Kimberly Belflower's John Proctor is The Villain this month, directed by Hannah Wolf.
Hannah is a Los Angeles based director, dramaturg, teacher and creative producer who works to create "subversively shiny" work for the stage that experiments with form, content, and the role of the audience.
Kimberly is a playwright and educator from a small town in Appalachian Georgia. She is currently a narrative writer at Meow Wolf, a celebrated arts collective in Santa Fe. John Proctor is the Villain has been commissioned by the Farm Theatre’s College Collaboration Project.
We the Women: How did each of you get into your respective fields?
Hannah Wolf: I got into directing in undergrad. At the time, I thought that directing was a place for control freaks; where a young woman could be bossy and not be ashamed of taking charge. I've since learned that directing (for me) is actually about activation; I’m constantly questioning how I can activate a room of collaborators and extend that to the room of audience members.
Kimberly Belflower: To hear my mom tell it, I’ve always been a writer. She’d have my brother and me go play outside when we were children and while Jeff was climbing trees and
wreaking havoc in the woods, I’d sit down, find an assortment of rocks and sticks, and cast them as characters in my own story-world. But aside from those bones-deep impulses, I’ve been obsessed with books for my whole life. Growing up different in a small town, stories were my gateways into other worlds and other people. I read so much that at some point, it just became clear that doing anything other than writing would be a disappointment. I kept that deep inside, though, until I was in my twenties.
We the Women: What about your medium inspires you most?
Hannah Wolf: It’s an art form that depends on people. We need other people to make theatre and to watch it, and the feedback loop between actors and audience can’t be recreated in other mediums. I strive to make work that focuses on this required presence—work that crosses the proscenium and asks the audience to be aware of the person that they’re sharing an arm rest with.
Kimberly Belflower: Playwriting inspires me because it’s wide-open and alive and non-literal. Theatre is the only art form that can’t be digitized. It’s dependent on a relationship between the play and the audience, on happening right now.
We the Women: How did you two begin to work together? Do you find the process of collaborating challenging, or does it make things easier for you?
Hannah Wolf: I'm in theatre because of collaboration. I’m at my best when the rehearsal room is one of shared brainstorming, trying different ideas and often trying a lot of wrong things to find the right one. I love working on Kimberly’s plays because there is so much room for the director and for collaboration inside of her worlds. Kimberly is a writer who puts the impossible onstage and she needs the rehearsal room and the collaborators to see how that impossible can be shaped.
Kimberly Belflower: Hannah and I met in grad school at the University of Texas at Austin. We quickly realized that we were both fans of unorthodox generative processes—work that
doesn’t fit easily into genre boxes, and of each other. We first worked together on a
TYA play called The Sky Game, which we co-conceived. We had the dreamiest process of building and developing the play while in constant conversation with each other. I love working with Hannah because she always brings her own unique perspective to the work and really gets inside of the play.
We the Women: Favorite writers, artists, playwrights?
Hannah Wolf: David Bowie, Tina Landau, Taylor Mac, Lizzo, among many others.
Kimberly Belflower: My holy trinity is the Emily’s; Brontë and Dickinson, and Sylvia Plath.
My favorite contemporary writers in many mediums are Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, Rebecca Solnit, Carrie Fountain, Ada Limon, Meg Freitag, Miranda July, Claudia Rankine, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Lucy Dacus, Mitski, Lorde, Fiona Apple, Rainbow Rowell, Amy Sherman-Palladino, and so many more that I’m getting stressed out about it. This’ll do for now. My latest obsessions are: Helen Oyeyumi, Sally Rooney, and Poppy. A FEW of my favorite playwrights are Annie Baker, Caryl Churchill, Jaclyn Backhaus, Alice Birch, Jackie Syblis Drury, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and pretty much every writer who’s taught at or attended UT Austin’s MFA program.
We the Women: Rankine is so wonderful! I took a poetry class with her before transferring from The Claremont Colleges. What do you try to convey in your work? Messages about relationships, society, politics, etc?
Hannah Wolf: When I encounter a new script, the question I ask myself is, “What is this going to cost me?” I make work that leans into my fears, that is not only taking risk with form, but also with content. For me, these are plays that don’t make addiction and recovery into sob stories—these plays let feral women run wild, they center on queer women and these plays expose the hypocrisy of those in power, especially when it is ourselves. These plays feel as if they’ve poked an exposed nerve and they can only be made in processes that are welcoming, inclusive, and rigorous.
Kimberly Belflower: I think the most common denominator in what I try to convey in my work is that I really try to externalize the internal. I write from a place of obsession and try to make plays that feel like feelings. I’m interested in how obsession leads to the transference or projection of self—what or whom do we focus on in order to avoid focusing on ourselves, or perhaps to better understand ourselves? I’m less interested in what happens and more interested in how it lands inside of the characters. I write a lot about wildness and Too Much-ness and the many facets of
womanhood. I also write a lot about the American South, which is where I’m from—an infinitely complicated place with beautiful and terrible legacies that I carry around in my bones.
We the Women: Favorite project to date that you've worked on?
Hannah Wolf: I directed Lucy Prebble’s ENRON with a cast of all women and non-binary actors while I was a grad student at University of Texas at Austin. It hit all of my directing boxes: high theatricality, challenging storytelling, a massive team, and the telling of a story that I felt needed to be seen by the undergrad population at UT. I’m at my best when I surround myself with experts of areas that I know little about. ENRON was a team of experts in their own disciplines and we were able to each be a piece of the larger puzzle towards a singular vision. This vision had space for many elements, including three six-foot-tall raptor suits worn by dancers, confetti cannons, and a lot of women in suits.
Kimberly Belflower: This is so hard. I’m a lucky, happy playwright who has had so many meaningful collaborations and projects. But last summer, my play Lost Girl (shameless plug:
now published by Samuel French!) received its world premiere at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, through the Rep’s Professional Training Institute, a competitive program that gives free yearlong actor training to local high school students. Lost Girl is the play I’ve worked on the longest. I often say that I wrote the play while writing myself—it is my raw, tender heart, presented in eighty minutes. The entire process of development, rehearsal, and production at Milwaukee Rep was so wonderful I had to pinch myself sometimes. It was the world premiere of my dreams.
We the Women: What does your process entail? How do you step into the creative space?
Hannah Wolf: A lot of research and analysis outside the room, only to put it all down once I’m inside the room and focus on the people in that rehearsal at that moment. I work to create rehearsal rooms that are rigorous, full of love, and where failure is celebrated.
Kimberly Belflower: For a while, my plays don’t look like plays. I do a lot of freewriting, a lot of what I call “wild vomity pages” where characters probably don’t even have names, and a
lot of reading and walking and feeling crazy. I’ve come to trust that all this accumulates to something. Then once it’s accumulated into enough, I can shape it. I’m a mega rewriter.
We the Women: How much of your writing is taken from real life experiences that you've had?
Kimberly Belflower: My plays are universally deeply personal, if not necessarily autobiographical. They’re also always in conversation with other work that’s consumed me in one way or another—I think since books and pop culture played such a huge role in shaping who I am, they’re also central to the ways in which I think about shaping my stories
We the Women: What challenges do you face as women in a male-dominated industry?
Hannah Wolf: I'm constantly thinking about the role of a director and how historically it's been a role by and for white men. The tools that we're taught in classes were made by and for men and we’re at the beginning of a discussion about how people who don't fit into the historical demographic can shape their own practice and have it be seen as "good directing." It's taken me a long time to shake off the tools and habits that I adopted early on in my process that have never worked for me, and I'm constantly in the process of creating a practice where vulnerability is accepted and expected for leaders.
Kimberly Belflower: I write plays about young women, which covers a vast territory. But I often see “plays about women” assumed to be niche, as if all women-centric stories can fit into the same box. I’m also constantly reminded that standard leadership, collaborative, and process practices are modeled after very masculine and Western ideas. The same goes for story structure—Sarah Ruhl wrote a great essay about how the dramatic arc follows the same progression as the male orgasm, and that’s probably why it’s the default model. It’s frustrating to try and make work outside of that model and have feedback and expectations exclusively geared toward those masculine norms
We the Women: Your last meal on earth would be?
Hannah Wolf: Smoked Salmon, fresh King Crab, fresh baked sourdough and a beer around a fire on Couch Beach in Douglas Alaska.
Kimberly Belflower: Boiled peanuts from Fred’s Famous in Helen, GA as an appetizer. Then either a NYC sesame bagel with lox and plain cream cheese, OR a rare steak from my
family’s farm, served with crispy roasted potatoes and sautéed spinach. Banana pudding for dessert. Two beers throughout: a Hopsecutioner IPA from GA’s Terrapin Brewing, and a Stash IPA from TX’s Independence Brewing.
We the Women: Favorite bookstore? Book?
Hannah Wolf: I LOVE and return to Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties almost daily. I have a soft spot for Rainy Day Books in Juneau Alaska, the used bookstore that I spent a lot of time in as a child. If you’re ever looking for self-published books on homesteading in Alaska, or fishing techniques, it’s the place to be!
Kimberly Belflower: Book People in Austin, The Strand in New York, and this perfect, overstuffed bookstore I went into once ten years ago in Sedbergh, England that I still think
about at least once a week. Top three books are Wuthering Heights, Bluets, The Autobiography of Red.
We the Women: Kimberly, you live and work in Santa Fe. How did you find your way to the town, and do you like it? I’m from Santa Fe and moved back (from New York and Los Angeles) two years ago! Small world. Do you find it challenging to be far from Los Angeles, New York, etc?
I found my way to Santa Fe through a writing job at Meow Wolf about a year and a half ago. I’m totally enchanted by the Land of Enchantment and the City Different. I’ve never lived anywhere like this, and I’m super inspired by the landscape, cultures, and people here. I do find it challenging to be so geographically isolated from major hubs like New York and Los Angeles, as I’ve done more traveling for my playwriting in the last year than the rest of my career combined. It’s been a bit grueling. But at the same time, I find it refreshing to be making work outside of everything. Going to grad school in Texas after living in New York for several years really showed me that there’s top-notch work being made everywhere, and that having a quieter place to call home is an asset to my quality of life.
We the Women: Agreed. The quality of life here is quite unreal and endlessly gratifying, especially after living in major cities. What, to each of you, are the three most important things in life?
1. A community of strong people that support and challenge each other.
2. The ocean
3. This childhood photo of Kimberly:
1. A community of people who make me laugh, really see me, and make
things/live life in a way that inspires and challenges me.
2. Beautiful sentences
3. Hannah’s senior photo:
We the Women: What does the future hold for each of you and for your work?
Hannah Wolf: I want to be able to work with writers who I love, with collaborators who challenge me, and I want to extend this work to audiences who have historically not been invited into the theatre. I dream of a position wherein I can open doors for other creators, explore the form of theatre, change the architecture of the institution to make it more welcoming, and hopefully move the cultural needle in the process.
Kimberly Belflower: Hopefully making just so many plays. I do want to write in other mediums (musicals, young adult novels, lyric essays, and television, to name a few), but theatre is my number one love forever and ever amen. I want to get to a position where I’m able to be really intentional about my collaborators, and build working relationships that I return to again and again. I also really love teaching and want that to be a part of my life forever.
-Interviewed by Alexandra Malmed