A Conversation with Rachel Bonds
Shortly after a spring 2019 workshop of Goodnight Nobody, 2018-2019 Literary Apprentice Liam Gibbs spoke with Goodnight Nobody playwright Rachel Bonds about motherhood, creativity, and the process of developing the play.
Liam Gibbs: Goodnight Nobody focuses on three friends who have known each other since childhood—K, a new mother and a teacher; Reggie, a stand-up comic; and Nan, a painter—who reunite for a weekend at a farmhouse owned by Reggie’s mom Mara in upstate New York. Can you talk about your inspiration for writing this play?
Rachel Bonds: I was interested in writing a character who was a new parent, and exploring how alienating and confusing taking care of a newborn can feel. I also was interested in having two different generations of parents onstage: a mother to a new baby and a mother of a much older child.
I also wanted to write a woman who is no longer young but is also not disappearing, who is still a sexual being, who is still very much vibrant, alive, creative, complex, and invested in her work.
I’m also fascinated by and drawn to stand-up comedians. I always have been. They practice one of the purest forms of art, they serve a noble purpose in our society, but also tend to struggle with mental health. And sometimes, as we’ve seen lately, they’re despicable people. Not that I think [Reggie] is despicable, but I do think he’s both self-obsessed and plagued by self-hatred, and I’m interested in how those two things can live in one person.
And finally, I’m interested in asking the questions “What is mental illness? What is madness? What is the line between spirituality and delusion?” I think the lines between madness and spirituality, madness and creativity, are really blurred, and I was interested in exploring that.
LG: The characters we meet in the play are so carefully and specifically defined. Do these characters draw influence from people you know or have had in your life?
RB: They’re all drawn from me in some way. My grandfather was an abstract painter, and my sister is a visual artist, so art-making very much lives in my unconscious. Those people are dwelling in me. I myself am a new mother, and when I first had my son, I spent a lot of time talking with and crying with new mothers in breastfeeding support groups, among other places, so a lot of K is pulled from the stories I gathered talking to those women. My dad was an incredibly funny, acerbic guy who instilled in me a deep love and appreciation of comedy and a respect for what is funny in the world, so I think a lot of Reggie comes from his influence. And I think a lot of Nan comes from me. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression myself, and the intersection of this struggle and the struggle to create art are so linked. So they’re all probably me and not me, but no one character is based on any direct person. And I do want to emphasize that all of this is fiction. There are certain elements of my life that I pull from, of course, but I’m not interested in this being an autobiographical play.
LG: Two of the characters in the play are visual artists—Nan is a painter, and Mara is a sculptor. What has it been like to explore visual arts in the play? Are there specific visual artists who inspired these characters?
RB: Because I’m not a visual artist, I’ve been relying on research and spending a lot of time on my painter friends’ websites to see what galleries they’re associated with, where they’ve had shows, when and where they have solo shows, when they have group shows, et cetera. My sister has helped me with some research since she has a much better grasp of the field than I. I was thinking a lot about Kiki Smith when thinking about the kind of work Mara makes, and where she fits into the wider art scene.
LG: How does your own experience as an artist influence your writing about creativity?
RB: As a writer, particularly a playwright, you’re kind of dealing in the occult. You’re hearing voices. You’re trying to transcribe them. Images appear to you in dreams, or when you’re out on a run, words float up to you out of the ether. The part of yourself that you access to do good writing feels really linked to the part of yourself that grapples with spirituality, with the idea of the soul. Thinking about these things helped me write Nan and Mara, and to think about how they connect on a kind of transcendent level (at least in Nan’s mind).
LG: Goodnight Nobody is a McCarter commission. What has the creative process for this play looked like, and how have you worked with Tyne [Rafaeli, the director] to develop the piece over time?
RB: This was the first play I wrote after giving birth. I wrote it in tiny fragments whenever I had a little bit of time to work. We did a table read of the first draft at McCarter during the summer of 2018, which was the first time I had ever heard it out loud, and then I went back and made some revisions based on things we learned in that reading. Then Tyne came on board, and we had a really fruitful three-day workshop during which we unearthed every question in the play and tried to get to the heart of what the play is actually asking.
LG: The title of this play comes from a beloved children’s book: Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. Can you talk about why you chose this phrase in particular and why it felt like the right fit for this play?
RB: We read that book a lot in my household, and I read it a lot as a kid. When we started reading Goodnight Moon to our son, I was like “What the hell is this ‘Goodnight Nobody’ page? I don’t remember this! It’s so creepy!” And then that phrase started turning over and over in my brain, the phrase really haunted me. It carries so much loneliness and longing, and it felt like the perfect title for this play about immense sadness. I think everyone in this play is carrying a lot, a lot, a lot of sadness. But it’s also a comedy! Both of these things are true.
LG: Finally, on that subject, what’s your favorite line in Goodnight Moon? I’m a big fan of “goodnight mush” myself.
RB: Oh, that’s a good one! I like “Goodnight noises everywhere.” A great last line.