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Interview with Jessica Brickman
The Insomnia Play

By Beth Herstein


Ben Vershbow as George and Julie Lake as wife Georgina in
The Insomnia Play

This month, The Babel Theatre Project features two shows in repertory: Jessica Brickman's The Insomnia Play and Emily Young's The Calamity of Kat Kat and Willie. The Insomnia Play tells the story of Georgina, who, not surprisingly, can't fall asleep. More surprisingly, during the night she is visited by the Sandman and the ghost of her mother. All the while, her boyfriend George sleeps through her fantasies and her ruminations about their relationship. The Calamity of Kat Kat and Willie is the love story of British expatriate Kit Kat and her sometime boyfriend Willie, to whom she turns for help in pulling off one last heist. Both of these works are world premieres and both are the products of promising young female playwrights.

Recently, I conducted a telephone interview with one of the authors, Jessica Brickman. Brickman is extremely likeable - bright, warm and funny. She is also extremely unassuming despite the fact that her career is off to a fast and promising start; she just attained her undergraduate degree from Yale University in 2002. Initially, she says, she had intended to become a doctor. "Then I realized it was ok to just sit around and read poetry and fiction, which was what I really wanted to do. So, I became an English major." While at Yale, she directed a number of plays. In addition, she headed the Undergraduate Shakespeare Company, "which is a good name for people who just hang and make Shakespeare jokes and once in a while put on a play if we could."

Brickman graduated with an English degree, "which means I came to New York armed with a copy of Chaucer and no practical skills," and set out to work in theater. Shortly, she got a job as the PA for the musical Nine. "I basically got a lot of coffee." While there, she befriended the show's composer-lyricist, Maury Yeston. "He helped me find jobs with people who were not averse to having protegees. Who were not averse to having somebody very young following them around, just watching them and learning how they work their way through the world and through the creative process."

Among the people for whom she worked are the icons Stanley Donen, Elaine May, and Arthur Penn. She found it inspiring to work with them all - especially Elaine May, she says, because of May's great success as a female playwright and screenwriter. "It's very encouraging to see other women writers."

Along the way, Brickman was accepted into the Juilliard Dramatic Writing Program. "It's great and also free for the writers," she says. Of Juilliard itself, she states, "It's a crazy place with a lot of history. The great thing is, and I don't mean this in a facetious way, they don't actually ask you to spend much time at the school ..." The program operates on the premise that "the writer is a solitary, socially awkward person." There were weekly meetings with the other student writers and with teachers/playwrights Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang in which she received comments on her writing. In addition, the writers were invited to sit in on as many theater classes as they wanted. Primarily, however, she was left on her own to write.


Julie Lake and Drew Battles as Sandman in The Insomnia Play
Through another bit of serendipity, Brickman met Geordie Broadwater, the artistic director of Babel Theater Company. They share a mutual close friend, who grew up with Geordie in New York City. After the two were introduced, Geordie said, "I've got this theater company, and we're looking for plays to do over the summer. Do you have anything?" She gave him some of her work, and "this [The Insomnia Play] was the one that he liked ... It was a very lucky moment for me."

Brickman has enjoyed the opportunity to meet and work with playwright Emily Young, the author of The Calamity of Kit Kat and Willie. "She's one of a kind," Brickman says. "Incredibly bright, and she wrote this original, lovely, really good love story." In addition, Brickman says she has learned a lot from Emily, who is an actor as well as a playwright. "She has already gone through the process of learning how to be an actor," Brickman says, and she can apply that knowledge when she writes for actors. "She also has an understanding of characters, so it's great to have her in the room."

Writing The Insomnia Play, Brickman states, her goal was to recreate the surreal state of mind of someone who is trying desperately to fall asleep. "When you have insomnia, as the night goes on, your imagination starts to take over the world. Things that are going on in the outside world somehow belong to the story that is going on inside your head." Thus, the characters who visit the sleep-deprived Georgina are not real, but are products of that process.

In addition to the play, Brickman recently got "a job in TV," she says. "So I decided to take a year or two off from Juilliard and focus on that." Again, Brickman is being unassuming. The "job in TV" to which she refers is as a staff writer for Studio 60, the highly anticipated new series by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Sports Night) that begins on NBC this fall. Brickman, a native New Yorker, is still getting acclimated to her new life in Los Angeles. After only four days of work, she can't say much about the experience. So far, she says, it's a very friendly atmosphere, but the demands are high. "They told us the other day that [Sorkin] needs to get out an episode every nine days."

Settling into her life as a television writer, Brickman just found a place to live in Los Angeles and signed her lease. As soon as she can, she'll be flying back to New York for the opening of The Insomnia Play. "I'll be there with bells on."

In addition, she is quick to give credit to Broadwater and the actors for their invaluable contributions. "They have been wonderful to me, working and reworking things in rehearsal, open to new ideas." Moreover, she stresses, they continued working on the show, on their own, after she left for Los Angeles. "I was there for the first two of three weeks, " she says, during which time "we really became a group, a quirky group. They were so invested and so helpful that when I flew out of town a week ago, I felt that nothing could go wrong if it was in their hands."


The Babel Theatre Project: The Insomnia Play in repertory with The Calamity of Kat Kat and Willie through July 29 at Medicine Show Theatre 549 West 52nd Street. For tickets, call : 212-352-3101 or visit theatermania.com.


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