On February 24, Plan-B, in its permanent home at the beautiful Rose Wagner Theater, will present the world premier of MESA VERDE, a new play by Matthew Ivan Bennett. Mesa Verde is the second of four plays in Plan-B’s 2011 season. I was lucky enough to see the first, She Was My Brother, about a love triangle between a trans-gendered Native American Zuni and two Victorian anthropologists. Disney on Ice this was not. In fact, it was probably the most unique subject matter I’ve seen explored on stage- and a well-acted, emotional powerhouse to boot. Such is Plan-B’s legacy. With it’s world premier just around the corner, SLUG hunted down the mastermind behind Mesa Verde’s script and original story, Mr. Matthew Bennett, to find out what he has in store for Salt Lake’s theatre-going public. Read on—he just might convince the less theatrically inclined among you to test the waters of Plan-B’s socially conscious, emotionally enthralling brand of modern theatre.
SLUG: Thanks for taking the time to catch up with us, Mr. Bennett. It is said that Mesa Verde is your most personal play to date. Can you talk about your inspiration?
Bennett: Mesa Verde was emotionally inspired by my partner of many years getting ovarian cancer. We were both young when it happened (24 and 26) and neither of us were equipped, exactly, with the wisdom for it. I remember having a nightmare of a gray, screaming, pulsating blob that was eating her hips. She was scared about the possibility of never being a mother, and I was trying too hard to help her get well.
SLUG: And yet Mesa Verde is largely concerned with mother-daughter and sister-sister relationships – how did this familial theme take root?
Bennett: The familial theme came partly from the fact that Mesa Verde began as a ten-minute play for SLAM, where I was told to write a play with three women. Two became sisters. However, sibling relationships surface frequently in my work. One of my earliest ten-minute plays (written at 18) is about siblings. Since I'm not a woman, the mother-daughter aspect of the play necessarily draws on my mother-son and father-son experience, but elements of the mother-daughter relationship are borrowed from friends' lives too.
SLUG: Mesa Verde first took form as a ten-minute play for Plan-B’s unique SLAM event. Did you always intend to work it into a full-length production?
Bennett: Partly it got expanded because so many people liked the ten-minute version and encouraged me to explore those story threads. I knew it was right, though, because thinking about the story brought up so many emotions and ideas—about sickness, about civilization itself, about radical environmentalism and the "Sins of the Father/Mother" effect.
SLUG: Can you talk about the play’s title?
Bennett: Well, Mesa Verde means "green table." That's a major abstract symbol in the play for the feeling of being alive, of fully participating in life.
SLUG: Plan-B Theatre is known for producing overtly moral and/or socially conscious works. Is Mesa Verde a play with a moral? Is there a bigger social issue at work here?
Bennett: I would say there are bigger social ideas in the play, but they're set deeply in the psychologies of the characters (the character of Tamara in particular). No big social idea is championed in the piece because the characters' journeys ultimately are interpersonal. As a person I'm repeatedly drawn to the microcosm/macrocosm perspective, though, so I tend to see our individual lives as reflecting huge social movements. The crash of an ancient civilization and the ego death of one woman might have a lot in common.
SLUG: How much of a hand do you have in production?
Bennett: At Plan-B I've never acted in or directed anything that I wrote. I've acted in pieces that I've written before and it's rewarding—being able to add to your own stage time is a plus—but on the whole I prefer a "hands-off" model of play production as a writer. I prefer it because, even though it's terrifying from the point of view of the ego, it's always far more fun to see the play you wrote if the director, and actors and designers, run free with it. I'd rather be surprised by what my words inspired than control how they're expressed.
SLUG: As a writer, have plays always been your preferred medium?
Bennett: My preferred medium early on was poetry, and in college I had loads of poetry classes, but my love of theatre continually brought me back to dialogue and I began writing and producing plays. Theatre evolved rapidly into my preferred medium because, even though I can be a quiet person, I'm social-minded. Playwriting lets me head-trip on words as well as work with others.
SLUG: How long have you been at it?
Bennett: I remember wanting to be a writer as early as third grade, mostly because I coveted tweed and the smell of books. I mainly wrote poems and short stories when I was a kid, but began writing dialogue at fifteen. (So that's seventeen years writing plays.) I've been writing specifically for Plan-B since 2005, when I first participated in SLAM with a ten-minute play called Must Have Been Cold.
SLUG: In all that time, how many of your pieces have been performed?
Bennett: 13 of my ten-minute plays, five of my one-acts, three (and all) of my radio plays, three comedy sketches, and (with Mesa Verde) eight of my full-length plays have had some form of public performance.
SLUG: In my mind that’s pretty prolific, are you able to make a living?
Bennett: I have a 9-5 job as Assistant Business Manager at Pioneer Theatre. I earn money from writing, but not enough to pay rent. I could probably buy a year of electricity for my current apartment, and a year of cell phone service, with my writing money. Past years I might have also been able to buy groceries. But I still think of my writing as "making a living" since it benefits my life in non-monetary ways. For instance, a manuscript can be used to steady a table leg. Also, there's the satisfaction of having contributed to social debate with a line like "I fucking care about the fucking environment" (a line from Mesa Verde). And it's fun, brings me into contact with big-hearted dreamers and…I like that.
SLUG: I’m jealous. So what’s next for Matthew Ivan Bennett?
Bennett: I'm working on a beautifully grotesque theatrical mongrel called What Are You? for Plan-B. The play is one part dark comedy and one part voyeuristic drama that runs headlong into the mist of bi-racialism, transsexualism and spiritual uncertainty.
SLUG: Wow . . . sounds like my kind of smorgasbord. Mesa Verde premiers in less than two weeks and is no doubt highly anticipated by many. What might you say to those among us who are maybe on the fence about attending this production? What are they in for?
Bennett: If you're on the fence, I'd ask you, "What if you saw a little something in the sisters that reminded you of you? Good or bad. And what if that resonance gave you a new perspective?" [As to] what you are in for . . . you're definitely in for an out-and-out sister fight.
Buy tickets and read up on the ins and outs of Mesa Verde and the rest of Plan-B’s exciting 2011 season at planbtheatre.org