Bess Wohl explores art, tragedy, and trauma with her play ‘Lust’ as part of ‘Seven Deadly Sins’
As the very overused (and oft disputed) saying goes: Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague. The new idiom should be: Bess Wohl wrote Lust during the pandemic. The show is one of the 10-minute plays exploring the cardinal sins in the new experimental theatre production Seven Deadly Sins, which opened this week and is playing in New York City’s Meatpacking District.
“I’ve been writing throughout the pandemic,” Wohl said during a midday Zoom while the play was in rehearsals. “I’m one of those people who the more stressed-out and terrified I get, the more I write. My only response to anything is just to start writing stuff. It can be plays or poetry or journal entries or letters to friends. That’s the way I cope. So I know a lot of people who didn’t want to do anything, which I also completely understand, but for me it was like, I just wanted to keep writing.”
What emerged was an exploration of how art and self-expression can help heal from tragedy and trauma. Even though the setting is a pole dancer (Wohl admits, “you got to give the people what they want”), she explores the deeper roots of the sexy sin and how we can heal from the pain, something that feels particularly resonant as we slowly heal from a still ongoing pandemic.
“We’re in a moment that’s unprecedented in our lifetimes. What’s it like to come out of a pandemic? None of us has any idea,” Wohl says. “So I feel like all of this feels like a really sort of grand experiment to me, and my piece included. There’s formal things I’m trying to do in the piece that I’ve never tried to do in any of my writing before. And so I just have no idea. I could fall flat on my face, but it’s fun to just try something very, very different and be part of something very different.”
The Tony nominee (her Broadway debut play Grand Horizons, which closed right before Covid hit and is up for a Tony) shares how she wrote over the past year, what it’s like to work alongside other writers, and how she relates to the sins and her play.
This is one of the first shows to open since theatre has been closed for over a year. What is it like to be a part of theatre returning to the city?
Yeah, I mean, it is totally my first play back…I wrote during the pandemic, but then this is my first opportunity to be back in a process, a rehearsal process, casting process, a development process with [director] Moisés [Kaufman] of working on the script.
Everyone in a company gets the rehearsal report every night. And even though six of them are not my plays, I get so excited to get the rehearsal reports in my email. And I read them over just so excitedly every night. I’m like, “Oh, there’s going to be gloves in that play.” I read props notes. I really missed it. So it’s exciting to come back and to come back with a project that involves such a huge diverse group of people and other writers. As a writer, you never get to work with other writers, so that’s really fun.
How did the process work with the other writers?
We each got a sin. And I was given a choice of a couple of different sins. I tried not to pick lust, but then of course, how can you not pick lust if it’s one of the ones that you’re offered?
And then we did some Zooms all together to find out from Moisés what the parameters were for the pieces and what the concept of the whole evening was. And then he said, “Now go write your plays.” And everybody wrote their plays. We had a deadline, which I missed, but I came close enough. And then we started working individually with Moisés. So we haven’t collaborated together, but it’s just being in a process with other writers is very unusual in any way. So it’s fun to even just get to celebrate each other by being at each other’s shows, and being part of something together is really nice.
What made you choose lust?
I knew that I was interested in thinking about lust, but I had no idea how it would manifest. And it’s funny because I have three small children and it’s been a pandemic, so it has not been a particularly lusty period for me. But I think that allowed me to think about lust beyond the most obvious manifestations of it and think about “What really is lust and how can we feel lust in ways beyond the first-level ways that we think of it? And what’s the relationship between the lust and power and desire and justice and how does lust develop in places where justice has been denied?” So just thinking about all of those things became really interesting to me in the formulation of the piece.
I feel like in the pandemic we were all very in touch with our basest needs and desires. Like, we could be as lazy as we wanted or eat as much as we wanted because we weren’t going to feel seen and judged but we could only judge ourselves. I’m wondering if your experience during this time inspired your play in any way.
Yeah. That’s really interesting. What you’re describing is this odd combination of “I’m hidden and yet I can’t hide at all from myself,” which is really the most important person that I need to make peace with. I’m trapped with the only person I can’t possibly make peace with, and that’s myself. And I think that’s really true. I think, like everyone, even being with my family in isolation, it was a moment of confronting, all of these parts of myself that I don’t normally look at so carefully or that I have escapes from. There’s only so much you can scroll social media to drown out the sounds of your own thoughts before it’s like, hmm.
So I did think about that a lot. I think it’s interesting that lust ended up being the one that I chose or that found me, or in whatever way, because really I think I was in closer touch with other sins during the pandemic, like gluttony and wrath. Wrath is a big one for me during the pandemic.
Yeah. I felt sloth a lot.
Yeah, sloth. I definitely had sloth. I definitely had some envy, for sure. Probably had pride in ways that I don’t even see yet. But lust was one that I think I chose because it felt far from me. Lust felt like this sort of sexy, fun sin that is kind of a sin, but also what makes most television shows and movies percolate or whatever. It gives them their energy. It felt like a real source of energy.
And I think in the pandemic with so much exhaustion and so much despair and so much loss and grief, there was something about lust that felt alive in a way. Even if it’s a sin, it felt revitalizing. And my piece, I think, very much is about somebody who confronts a real horror and sort of flirts with lust as a remedy but actually finds a deeper way out of it through her own self and her own art and actually transcends the sin of lust in a lot of ways. Even though they’re supposed to be sins, probably part of me chose lust because I was like dying to connect with it.
Is any of the story personal to you in the way that you’re approaching it?
The character is not me at all. The character is a pole dancer. Because I also felt like, with lust, you got to give the people what they want a little bit. You have to sort of own your sin and represent your sin within the context of the night.
I started with this pole dancer and then sort of built the piece from that character. But I think that the part that I do relate to very much personally is the sense of overcoming some kind of trauma or tragedy through connecting with your own voice and your own spirit and your own art. Really, to me, it’s like how art can pull you out of your pain, if you let it.
Each play is set up behind storefronts. Did you consider the form and that concept as you were writing your play?
Yeah, I did, a lot. My play really depends on being in this particular form in a lot of ways. Another element of the form is that the audience will be listening to the actors with earbuds on, because they’re through glass. So they’re listening to their voices, and that element is something that became really important to me.
It almost feels voyeuristic in a way.
Yes, I think so. I mean, obviously it’s lust, but like strippers and pole dancing and this idea of looking into spaces where we’re not normally allowed to see or where there’s something sort of transgressive about seeing them.