PMA Podcast Transcript: Episode 28, Landings: A.A. Brenner '16

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Alex Iankoulska: My name is Alex. I'm a senior in PMA and I'm here with A.A., a recent Cornell grad doing her masters in playwriting at Columbia University. So AA. Why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself?

A.A.: I'm A.A. I graduated from Cornell with degrees in English and Performing and Media Arts in 2016. Really enjoyed my time there. Before Cornell, I grew up in New York City and I'm super happy to be back. The year after I graduated I actually did a fellowship at Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, DC, I had a really wonderful unexpected year there. But was super happy to return home to New York where I worked for another year and then started grad school at Columbia, which is where I'm at now.

Alex Iankoulska: What advice do you have for graduating students?

A.A.: Yeah, so that's a great question. Like I mentioned, shortly after graduating, I found out I got this artistic fellowship at Shakespeare Theater Company in DC. It was sort of unexpected. I'm a playwright and I knew when I was at Cornell that I wanted to pursue playwriting and theater, but that I also wanted to take a few years off before I attended grad school. That was the advice that I had been given by my mentors. And so I was thinking, you know, what am I going to do? And I wasn't sure, but I knew that there were all these professional development programs at a variety of theaters. And one of them happened to be at STC, where I ended up. There are some in New York, some in Chicago. I applied to a whole bunch. DC wasn't even on my list, but my, one of my dear friends was supposed to move there for a job and he convinced me to apply to jobs in DC. He actually ended up not moving out there at all. But he got me there. So I guess sort of the, to loop back to the advice, what I would tell graduating seniors is just to look everywhere and anywhere and take a chance and, you know, do something that you never thought of or, you know, apply for programs in a city that you've never been to or that you didn't even consider. The time right after graduation is a great time to explore anything and everything you're passionate about and there's so many different routes you can take and it's all good. As long as you're having fun and doing what you love.

Alex Iankoulska: What things did you do outside of the classroom that accelerated your career?

A.A.: That's a great question. So I did the Cornell in Hollywood program, which was amazing, between my junior and senior year. I am a playwright and theater based, but I wanted to get a sense of the industry and everything Cornell had to offer. That program is super robust. I had a great time in LA, really got my footing there and got an understanding of what, you know, that industry, the film and TV industry, would look like. Which further cemented my path of pursuing playwriting first and foremost before I branched out any further. So that was super helpful. I also had—I did study abroad at Cornell. I went to—the creative writing program has a Rome sort of study abroad for a month over the summer. That was really awesome and expanded my horizons in different directions there as well. I think that experience was really great on a personal level and creative level because it provided me with experiences that I wouldn't have had if I had just been in Ithaca, so I definitely recommend going away for a bit. And other than that I interned with the Dramatist Guild a bit while I was on campus. Aoise Stratford was the regional representative and I believe still is up there and she got me involved. So that was awesome. And yeah, I mean I just sort of took whatever opportunities came my way to intern and, you know, get my feet wet, meet people. I just sort of did it. And I didn't always know where all of it was leading, but I knew that it was all tangentially related to what I wanted to do. And it was all super helpful in helping me figure out how to move forward. 'Cause the thing about this industry is it isn't always linear and that can seem really scary to people, but it actually is an adventure and kind of a fun one 'cause it means you really can't go wrong. There's like so many ways to go about things.

Alex Iankoulska: How did you get to where you are?

A.A.: Well, it actually all started right before I went to Cornell, strangely. I started writing plays in high school and I, on a whim, submitted a very first draft of one called Tiger Tiger to a competition for young writers through a company called Young Playwrights Inc. And unfortunately, the company no longer exists, but the idea was they'd have this national playwriting competition, and if you won, or were a finalist, you'd receive a play reading and a professional mentorship from a New York–based company. And you'd go and you'd see your play read at an off-Broadway theater and work with a dramaturg and director and professional actors. So I did win the competition in 2011—I guess it was 2012. And so my freshman year, not only was I doing stuff with Cornell, but I was also doing stuff with YPI. So that sort of already—it was great to have that positive reinforcement for my writing, initially. Advice I would give to folks is like, just submit, submit everywhere and anywhere. You never know what's going to happen. I wrote the play in a weekend and the reason I submitted it to that competition was because they promised advice from like theater professionals and I was like, great, I want to know what to do with my play next. Never thought it would win. But you never know what these things, so if you're interested in anything, it is out there, definitely check it out. So I did that. And then at Cornell I really took advantage of every opportunity I could to do work. At the Schwartz Center to do work, and Risley just as much, and as many different types of theater as possible.

A.A.: I tried directing which I hope to never do again. But it was, it was really great and informative for my writing and also taught me that I didn't want to be a director. I learned how to do sound design, which I've actually—fun fact, in the years that have followed, somehow have ended up sound designing almost every production of mine since. You never know when these skills can come in handy or who you'll have available. I've learned, you know, I guess basic set and costume design, also helpful when you're interacting with designers. And I took a great dramaturgy class with Ellen Gainor, which was incredible and spurred my passion for dramaturgy, which I still do here and there. And it's also very helpful if you're a playwright or just anyone in theater. Yeah. So it was just sort of like a voracious appetite for all things theatrical. And then also I tried out film, TV, LA stuff too. And I don't know, the path just sort of rolled out before me. But yeah, it's a lot of applying everywhere, a lot of trying things, and a lot of just seeing how it works out. Columbia was that way too. I'm currently getting my, as I mentioned, MFA in playwriting there. And I applied to a bunch of grad schools after two years out deciding, let's just see what happens. You know, these programs are very small and very selective. But hey, maybe it'll work out. And it, you know, the cards fell and Columbia was a choice that I had. I looked into it and realized that the program would be a great fit for me. And here we are. And now I'm halfway through my second year and it's been incredible. My professors are Lynn Nottage and David Henry Wong, doesn't really get much better than that. So yeah, it just sort of happened. And I'm excited to keep submitting everywhere and anywhere and just seeing where it goes.

Alex Iankoulska: Is there anything you wish you did differently?

A.A.: If I could have, I probably would have studied abroad for longer. I think I thought, what I was doing at Cornell itself in Ithaca was so important that I couldn't possibly leave for more than a month. And while it was true, I was doing a lot of theater there and I was very involved with stuff on campus, I probably could have escaped for longer and it would've been nice and helpful. Because, you know, being a writer, being a theater person, being a creative, all experiences are super, super useful just to your art and also to you as a person. And a big part of what you're doing in college is just like figuring out who you are, as a human being. And I've found that the writers who are most successful coming into grad school and just in general, are the ones who have the best sense of who they are as people, not just as writers.

Alex Iankoulska: Who are your mentors and how did they help you?

A.A.: Yeah, so Ellen Gainor, who I mentioned was a huge mentor at Cornell. I took her dramaturgy class, which was a graduate-level course and it was just amazing, really eye-opening into the field, what it is writing reviews, examining theater with a critical eye. She also just is an incredibly supportive person. Nick Salvato, also. I took Global Stages with him and he became my thesis mentor and just helped out a lot in general.

A.A.: Another incredibly kind person, Bruce Levitt. Bruce was my, just my regular PMA advisor. He is such a wealth of knowledge and again, an incredibly kind, supportive person. So the faculty at PMA, they're really there to help you. Austin Bunn, I remember having a meeting with him right before I graduated, before I found out I got the Shakespeare Theater Company fellowship. Basically pouring my heart out a bit, you know, being like, I don't know what I'm doing next. I don't know what to do. Have I wasted my time, you know? And he was like, no, no, you're fine. Like, calm down. It'll all happen. Like you'll figure it out. It's going to be okay. So I'm just super grateful for pretty much everyone. It's such a small, close-knit department and I really felt supported throughout my time at Cornell.

Alex Iankoulska: What do you hope to achieve in the short term and the long term?

A.A.: All right, well, short term I need to finish my MFA which, it's going to happen. It is, it's difficult. I mean we have a lot of work but the challenge is so worth it and I'm creating amazing theater, a lot of theater and I'm excited to see what I create next. So that's my short-term goal. And beyond that, I mean, just to continue writing to continue being produced. I have my first sort of professional, no, definitely professional production coming up. I was commissioned to write a play, co-write, a play that's going up at La Jolla Playhouse in collaboration with National Disability Theater. So it's my first play commission, which is awesome. It's for young audiences and I'm co-writing with this amazing artistic director, actor, and now writer Greg McGala. So I'm excited to see that happen. And yeah, just again to see how the road rolls out, to see where the cards fall and to hopefully, you know, continue getting produced in the next couple of years in New York and beyond.

Alex Iankoulska: How much did finances play into your decision?

A.A.: Yeah, so finances were pretty huge in my decision, both to take the fellowship at Shakespeare Theater Company and to move back home. The big appeal of the STC fellowship and the reason I could afford to move to DC's cause they paid for my housing. It was free housing and then a stipend, which was, you know, not a big stipend, but bigger than a lot of places. And it was livable. I took an extra job bartending. I'm lucky to have super supportive parents and to also be an only child. So I admit that, you know, those aren't advantages that not everyone has. But yeah, I mean, and then I moved back home to New York because, well, A. I love New York. The, you know, the theater that I wanted to make was in New York. And the theater that I wanted to get to know and intern with. I also was an apprentice at the Lark which is an incredible play development company that everyone should look into, look at. They have an amazing apprenticeship program. So I wanted to go back there and work but also I had free rent. And that was, that was huge. So yeah. I would say probably the biggest struggle that I've, I've seen my friends of mine have is with finances because, you know, the industry isn't necessarily the highest paying, especially when you're at a lower level, but you know what, everyone has figured it out one way or another and we're all just doing what we have to do. So there are ways, so don't be discouraged.

Alex Iankoulska: Well, thank you so much for this lovely interview and I won't take any more of your time unless there's something you'd like to add.

A.A.: Thank you. Yeah, happy to help out. I guess the one big thing I would tell everyone really is to like, don't be scared. It's going to be okay. You're going to be okay, and you will figure it out and graduating, although it seems really scary, what's on the other end is eventually amazing. Even if at first you have a bit of a hard time.