Anne Washburn (Rail): Your parents were Back to the Landers, right? You grew up in a remote Berkshire’s location with a garden and chickens; you drank raw goat’s milk, but it wasn’t a full-fledged farm. I suppose my question is, in setting a play on a working dairy farm are you writing about what you had, or about what you didn’t have?
Emily Devoti: My parents moved up to the Berkshires before I was born. We weren’t completely self-sufficient, but we did drink only raw milk from the goats, and my mom made some cheese and yogurt and we had a huge garden. And we made maple syrup, and had bees. We didn’t make money from it—my dad was a teacher by day, and kept up the place after work.
I’ve never written about that experience. I usually write historical plays. What led me to write about this is, I was in a corporate job (where I worked with a certain other playwright, Anne Washburn), and I was chatting with a lawyer there. He was lamenting the bad leisure habits of his kids. “I have every confidence that they can learn to hang out at the mall when they’re 18,” he said. “Meanwhile, I want to teach them some values.” He mentioned how a colleague of his had bought a farm for his family, in South Africa. My head immediately went into a spin. This was so ridiculous, and obscene. And yet this guy couldn’t see that. I thought—well, I don’t know South Africa, but I DO know the Berkshires. And I did grow up amidst the tension between locals and “weekenders.” I can write about this!
The reason I set it on a dairy farm, is that dairy has always been a huge industry for Massachusetts and upstate New York, and really is a pragmatic industry that crafted the often romanticized landscape. Also, when I was younger, I was reporter for a local paper, and got to know a bit about the dairy industry. And I saw what a hard life it was, and witnessed the farms steadily disappearing into condos. I wanted to explore that, too. The play is not at all about my own family, but I used the experience of growing up on a kind of farm to find my way in.
Rail: In our time at the Unnamed Swiss Financial Institution we worked with real businessmen; they are human and sympathetic, as are we all, but it is a very different cultural approach.
Devoti: Growing up, I always thought people who worked for corporations were a different species. When I worked side by side with them, I learned they’re as varied as anyone else. But the big thing I observed was how “family values” motivated them. It was “my family” this, and “my family” that. And I have no problem with that, as I think families are deeply important. But everyone was working to pay their mortgage, to pay for their kids’ private schools and private lessons, to pay for the nanny or daycare—depending on their rank. It often kept them from looking at the bigger issues. In the name of family and survival, a lot of atrocities can be made. A lot of OTHER people’s families can suffer iniquities. This idea struck me, and I explore it a bit in the character of James, the businessman who buys the dairy farm to teach his kids values.
Rail: This play is an interesting blend of the very pragmatic, and the fabular…
Devoti: The voyage at the center of the play belongs to Meg, the woman who owns the farm—the mom, the wife. She’s a former mathematician and she sees the world in a very concrete way—the beauty of the landscape for her comes from its pragmatic uses. At the top of the play, everything has a functional form—the farm, the family, the landscape. But when this all begins to unhinge, her vision changes—structures are upended and nature bleeds through in various guises, including rain, sounds, feelings…and a character called Auroch, who just might be the last living wild cow.
Rail: Many of your plays have been set in the past. And this play, though it’s almost contemporary, takes a historiographic pleasure in recalling the details (particularly the social/adolescent) of a 1980s Reagan America. Have you ever set a play in the present? Is that idea interesting to you or is a slight distancing piquant or necessary to you?
Devoti: Right now, I’m collaborating with a director on a screenplay that is very contemporary. And I’m writing a play about poker—I’ve been playing a bi-weekly game with a group of dames a generation older than me for about 7 years now. And when I’m done it will be my first full-length truly contemporary play. I love to create full-blown worlds onstage, worlds that are unfamiliar to an audience, and also the challenge of having to do all that with language. So, in order to write a contemporary piece, I feel I need to find a world that is unfamiliar enough that I can create it from scratch and with lots of very specific details. I don’t like to write about the mundane unless I have an unusual framework for it. So, yes, I am starting to write plays set now. But then, in April, I’m going to Boulder, CO to participate in a historical play cycle curated by Shakespeare & Co. (Lenox, MA) and Colorado Shakespeare Company. They’re commissioning four writers to start, and the plan is to create for America the sort of history cycle that Shakespeare created for England. It’s a really exciting project, and right up my alley. So, back I go.
Rail: You’ve been involved with New Georges for years.
Devoti: I have! I actually interned with them back in 2000 while we were in the Dramatic Writing Grad Program at NYU. In 2001, they asked me to write a short play as part of their Dawn Powell festival, produced at 78th Street Theater Lab. That’s also where I first worked with Jessica Bauman, who’s directing Milk. Soon after that, Susan Bernfield invited me to be the literary manager. My whole time in that role, she was really generous about developing my own work as a writer. Over that time, and since, I’ve often been involved with the productions, even if it’s just been babysitting some shows, or as a friend of the company. And I got the chance to see what an amazing producer Susan is—really looking out for the best interests of the play and writer in a way I never imagined was possible, and putting so much of herself into it. And Sarah [Cameron Sunde], too! I’ve also seen the company grow over time. So now, when I finally have the chance to be their PLAYWRIGHT, it’s wonderful, and we have a short-hand together which is making the process really smooth and fun.
Rail: When did you start writing Milk? Has it undergone a lot of development?
Devoti: I started writing the play when Reagan died—so, 2004. His voice was on all the radios, all the apologists were out memorializing his achievements, and I just wanted to shake people and say: Don’t you remember what he did?? Among all the other infrastructural atrocities he committed, he contributed big time to the start of agribusiness and the end of the family farm. As his agricultural secretary, John Block, later said, “American agriculture has been a pampered, spoiled child.” So they let the free market take care of it. During the early-to mid-80s, farms were closing at a rate of 35 per day across America! Anyhow, this was the impetus, and it set off a bunch of personal things for me, and it just started to all come together.
So, that’s when I started writing it. I gave the play to Jessica to read, and we had a simple roundtable reading at the Lark in Spring 2007. Then I had a mini-workshop with New Georges in the Fall. The following spring, New Georges was invited to develop the play with the Orchard Project, that was 2008. That was amazing, and helped us to really find the play. We were staying in farm houses, and so we decided to rehearse there, and we found out how that sense of real space—inside the houses and outside in the fields—influenced the scenes. I also started to explore the more stylized elements here… A lot of the play is about people who can’t communicate, who can’t say how they feel, who trap that inside. And we came up with a way for light and sound to show the pieces of themselves they were keeping hidden.
Rail: So your feeling on the whole raw milk controversy?
Devoti: The fact that something so wholesome is contraband is entirely perverse so of course I’m attracted to it!
Rail: I belong to a raw milk collective and the illegality of it is a silly but a very real pleasure. Standing around on a street corner in the cold, waiting for “the van” to arrive.
Devoti: The covert element does make it sexy. I’m drawn to the raw milk issue because it epitomizes our approach to food, and to society. Live things are risky, they’re scary. We don’t know exactly what we’re gonna get. The need to normalize and homogenize is deadening