Sari Boren (Fiction/Creative Nonfiction Finalist ’14) writes prose and plays and is an independent museum exhibit developer. She’s about to perform her one-woman show Exhibiting at the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education in Lincroft, NJ (Monday, December 2nd, 7 PM), having premiered it at the Newton Theatre Company in April 2019.
Here, she discusses the origins of that play, the conditions under which she writes best, and other details of her fascinating life as a creator.
What are the origins of Exhibiting, the one-woman show you’ve performed at Newton Theatre Company and now the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education?
About two-and-a-half years ago I was sitting at a bar with my long-time friend Melissa Bernstein, the founder and Artistic Director of Newton Theatre Company, after we had seen a play in Harvard Square. Over drinks she said she wanted me to write and perform a solo play based on my essays. I’ve been an essayist for years and many of my essays are memoir-based. My immediate response was: No Way. I had written those essays, in part, to get those family stories and feelings out of me and onto paper, so I could step away and be done with them. I wasn’t interested in revisiting those stories. But over the next few months I grew intrigued with the idea of writing a play and decided to give it a try.
I’ve attended and read plays for years, so I wasn’t going into this entirely ignorant, but it still felt like a leap. I started reading more plays; friends gave me copies of plays and books about playwriting (because my writing friends are the greatest), and I took a week-long playwriting course with New England playwright Nina Morrison at Grub Street. I covered my dining room table with print outs of all my relevant essays and started cutting them up and moving sections around, but I struggled to find a structure and focus to my play. I didn’t want to just stand on stage and talk. The major breakthrough came one day when Melissa and I were brainstorming and we came up with a fictional frame for the play, which surrounds and supports the true stories at the heart of the play. Then I was able to develop a narrative arc, with two key questions that I try to answer over the course of the play, one of them being: Why can’t I read my father’s Holocaust memoir?
What have you found most challenging about the shift to playwriting? What has surprised you most?
Taking stories that I’d originally written as prose and moving them into a play forced me to revise my own writing to be heard, rather than read. I had to simplify both the language and the sentence structure. It was a little painful at first, but I quickly realized that I had to get over myself and make the language work as spoken language. I’ve also had to pay more attention to the narrative arc, to grab and hold the audience’s attention. My essays are mostly written in nontraditional forms that don’t rely on a typical narrative arc. I was (and still am) afraid of boring the audience when I’m up on stage and they’re all staring at me. To paraphrase something I’ve read: you can walk away from a bad painting or close a bad book, but you’re trapped in a bad play.
Most surprising to me is how much I love playwriting. I get to make things up! I’ve written two 10-minute plays so far and am currently trying to write a full-length play, all of which are fictional. Playwriting feels aligned with my essay writing instincts and styles: the brevity of language, experimenting with form, and making the reader/audience meet me halfway by raising unanswered questions.
Is there a throughline that connects the different aspects of your work: prose writing, playwriting, and exhibit designing?
Yes, in my essays and plays I often write about the tensions that form when stories of personal history intersect with the public interpretation of shared cultural history or cultural events, such as wars or 9/11. This emerged unconsciously, and took me a while to see and name it. The reasons now seem obvious. Both my parents are Holocaust survivors, and in my professional work as a museum exhibit developer I interpret history for the public. The influence of my museum work shows up in some form in every play I’ve written so far, and also in many essays, for example, in “The Slurry Wall” where I critique the way that one artifact at the 9/11 Memorial Museum has been publically discussed. Also, just now responding to your question, I realized that my creative writing is in some ways a response to my exhibit writing. In the latter, I usually need to make declarative statements, to answer questions and explain. There’s little room for nuance or ambiguity. When I explore questions in my creative writing, I almost never land on an explicit answer.
You’ve had numerous residencies (including, recently, the Ragdale Foundation) and grants from St. Botolph Foundation and Mass Cultural Council. What forms of support have been most important to your work?
Both the Mass Cultural Council award and the St. Botolph award arrived at the best possible times: after long strings of rejections. Months and months of rejections. The money is, of course, always helpful but, even more so, the grants were a validation of my work when I most needed it. As for residencies, they’ve become an important part of my process. I’ve always made big leaps in projects during residencies, not only because of the time to write, but the time to deeply focus on a project with minimal distraction. I also love working in a community of artists and hearing about and sometimes adopting their creative practices.
What artist do you most admire but work nothing like?
The essayist Tim Kreider. First off, he’s hilarious. He creates a version of himself as a ridiculous character, with ne’er-do-well friends and a never-ending stream of romantic partners, but he’s brilliant at making connections and drawing on references you’d never expect. And his essays are deeply vulnerable; he digs away at some messed up part of the human condition that sneaks up on you at the end of the essay. (Start with his collection We Know Nothing or his Best American Essay in the New York Times “A Man and His Cat.”)
What do you listen to while you create?
I can’t listen to music when I write. I like to work in white noise of cafes, and I seem to have some of my best ideas when I’m tuning out an uninteresting speaker at a conference or lecture. My notes from professional conferences are filled with writing ideas. I should create a writing practice where I crash random conferences and sit in the back to write.
What are you currently reading?
I’ve just started reading Flights, the novel by the recent Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk. I was embarrassed I’d never heard of her. Flights is written in a collaged form she calls a “constellation novel,” and since I write essays in collaged forms I want to see how she’s making that work. I’m also rereading several plays: “Knives in Hens” by Scottish playwright David Harrower, “Arlington” by Irish playwright Enda Walsh, and several plays by British playwright Caryl Churchill.
Related reading: read Sari Boren as part of the ArtSake discussion What Do We Owe to History in Our Art?
Sari Boren is playwright, essayist, and museum exhibit developer. Her solo play EXHIBITING premiered in 2019, at Newton Theatre Company, as did her short play TO REST at the Somerville Theater Festival, and she was a 2019 member of Company One Theater’s PlayLab Unit. Her essays have been published in numerous journals and “The Slurry Wall” is a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2019. Sari co-manages Boston’s Four Stories reading series, teaches writing at Grub Street, and has received writing grants from the St. Botolph Club Foundation, Mass Cultural Council, and Vermont Studio Center.
Images: from the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin; Sari Boren.