It’s a romantic comedy about money and the effect it has on relationships. We’re at this point in American history where everyone is looking at what they have and what they don’t have, so I was interested in looking at this one person whose life revolves around money. Eve, the mother character, is a financial guru and she has this job where she thinks and talks about money all the time. I wanted to know how that would affect her personal life.
When I was doing research for this, I was really interested in Suze Orman, who’s one of the more popular financial talking heads. One of her key points is how women deal with money—how often women give money away instead of saving, giving it to friends or boyfriends. In many ways I think it’s because women have an anxiety about money; they don’t want to take responsibility for it.Another thing Suze Orman talks about is how the first lessons you learn about money are through your parents’ relationship to their own finances. The play is loosely based on the Henry James novel Washington Square, and James’ female characters often inherit their money, and then they don’t know what to do with all the power that they have. And I feel that that’s true with Claudine, the daughter character. Her wealth has always been this burden; it separates her from other people. But because the wealth is her mother’s, the money defines her but is not part of her.
Claudine’s relationship to her wealth couldn’t be more different from her mother’s. Because obviously her mother has gained power from money whereas Claudine’s very passive and can’t figure out what she wants to do with her life—until she finds Henry, and then he’s what she wants to do with her life. It’s the only time she’s ever gone against her mother’s wishes, and it’s the first real choice Claudine has ever made.
Q: Did the play come about because of the financial crisis, or was that just a coincidence?I started it before the mortgage crisis [in 2008], but I did a huge amount of the work after the crash. Often you write a play because you want to explore something you know nothing about. I’m a pretty typical person with my own finances; I’m lackadaisical about them, and I don’t know as much as I should. So money was something I was interested in exploring as a topic. And then the crash happened and suddenly everybody was obsessed with their 401(k)s and whether or not their lifestyles were sustainable.
Q: How did you get started as a playwright?I was actually a professional stage manager for a long time, right out of college. I’d worked on a lot of new plays with the playwright in the room—plays by Paula Vogel, Naomi Wallace, David Rabe—but writing plays seemed beyond my reach.
So I was working on this Peter Sellars opera in Europe, when out of nowhere, in one week, I got my first idea for a play and my grandfather died, leaving me a little bit of money, just enough to change my life. Suddenly, I could afford grad school. So I made this really funky switch, where I decided, “Okay, I’m going to go to grad school for playwriting.” I wrote the play that I had had the idea for, applied to grad school with that one play, and got into Iowa. And became a playwright!
Q: What do you like in a play?I’m drawn to any kind of theater that makes me lean forward and wonder what’s going to happen next. And in terms of what I personally like writing, I like writing for certain actors, and I really love writing thorny and complicated characters. I usually start with a character and move outward from there. So that character-driven work really excites me.
Partially because I was a stage manager, I have fairly broad taste. I grew up watching a lot of avant-garde theater, so I’m intrigued by that, but I love story, and I love narrative. So plays that can do both of those things—mix a sense of theatricality and a sense of story and narrative—make me really happy.
Interview courtesy of the Playwrights' Center, which supported the development of Rich Girl.