PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Greg Pierce, Playwright of Slowgirl

By Robert Simonson
July 12, 2012

Meet rising playwright Greg Pierce, whose Slowgirl is currently inaugurating Lincoln Center Theater's Claire Tow Theater, the new home of LCT3.

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Lincoln Center Theater's new rooftop space, the Claire Tow Theater, recently got off to a rousing start with the world premiere of Greg Pierce's play Slowgirl. The work was an unusual one for a young American playwright. First of all, it wasn't set in a well-appointed apartment in Manhattan or Brooklyn. The intimate drama takes place in the home — shack, really — of Sterling, a middle-aged man who has retreated from the world to live in a rural, heavily forested part of Costa Rica. He receives a rare visitor in his garrulous, outspoken niece Becky, whom he hasn't seen in nearly a decade. Becky is also in retreat from civilization, having just undergone a traumatic event in high school. The play opened to warm reviews, introducing Pierce to theatregoers. (The Landing, his new musical with composer John Kander, had a developmental reading earlier this summer at Vineyard Theatre, which will fully produce it in 2013.) Pierce, however, doesn't need any introduction to the theatre. It's in his blood.

Have you been to Costa Rica?
Greg Pierce: Yes. I was down there working on another project. I went down there with the director and spent some time. That was the inspiration for the play, really, my walking around different places in Costa Rica and thinking up a story that took place there.

Did you two go down there because you thought it would be a good place to write and work?
GP: He owns some property down there and he's a surfer, so he was sort of familiar with the place. We wanted to get out of New York and get somewhere new.

Was his place anything like the house in the play?
GP: Not really. I started with that and as I started writing Sterling's place just got much more spare and stripped down and monastic.

Željko Ivanek and Sarah Steele in Slowgirl.
photo by Erin Baiano

I've never been to Costa Rica. What are things like down there?
GP: We were in this one, very jungly area. There weren't many people around. I was amazed at the wildlife I'd never seen, the amount of different-looking flowers and animals.

Did you encounter any of the animals that are mentioned in Slowgirl?
GP: I did. I definitely encountered an anteater. I saw some interesting snakes.

The idea for the play just occurred to you after hanging out there a while?
GP: Yeah. When we were working on this project, it was very sort of charted out and structured. I was very interested in writing a play that was without that — just jumping in and writing it and going line by line and seeing what came out; trying to tap into something more subconscious. So I did that with this play. I wrote it and then cut away until there was a play there.

So, was the first line you wrote the first line in the play?
GP: Yes, exactly. I decided on an uncle and a niece. The niece walks up and says, "Uncle Sterling? Uncle Sterling?" And that's how it started.

Željko Ivanek
Photo by Erin Baiano

A lot of young American playwrights tend to stick pretty close to what they know. Hence, you see a lot of plays about young, middle-class professionals living in U.S. urban centers. A play set in Costa Rica that gets a major production in New York is pretty rare. Do you think young playwrights today don't go outside their comfort zone enough?
GP: I think playwrights should write plays about whatever they want to write about. "Write what you know" is always the advice young writers are given. I've been thinking lately about how terrible that advice is. Because I wouldn't want to see plays that are all about what I'm experiencing now in New York. That's boring to me. What makes plays exciting is a playwright who is interested in the things they're writing about because they don't know them already.

If Tom Stopped followed "write what you know," he never would have written any of his plays.
GP: Exactly. And in Tom Stoppard's plays, he's incredibly knowledgable, but there's always this feeling he's hungry to know more.

How did your play happen to become the inaugural production at the new Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center?
GP: That came about because LCT3 asked [director] Anne Kauffman if she wanted to direct something in the new space and did she know of any plays. My agent had just sent her Slowgirl and she really liked it. [LCT3 artistic director] Paige Evans read it and liked it. We did a reading and they took it.

So this is your first experience working with Anne Kauffman.
GP: Yes. We didn't know each other. And we've loved working together. We're going to work together on another play. I'm developing a four-character play and I'm close to having a first draft.

Sarah Steele as Becky
photo by Erin Baiano

In the character of Becky, you did a great job of capturing the way that — unfortunately — teenagers talk and act these days. Do you have teenage sisters or girl cousins?
GP: I haven't. I have an older sister and younger brother. But I tutored for a while after I came to New York, for about five years. I was tutoring a lot of teenage girls and boys. But as I was working on this play and walking around New York, the great thing about teenage girls is they talk really loudly. You can walk behind them and listen.

And they don't hold back on anything.
GP: They really don't. They want everybody on the street to know exactly what they're going through. When we were talking to Sarah Steele about the character, we realized that teen girls are all about superlatives. "I'm the sexiest. I'm the funniest." That was a good cue for Sarah. I think she kind of nailed that.

Were you familiar with Željko Ivanek before this production?
GP: I had seen him on stage in The Cherry Orchard. He was in the play with my uncle, David Hyde Pierce. I've since seen him in Blue/Orange and Pillowman. I've always been a big fan.

So you have theatre roots in your family.
GP: Yeah. My grandfather was an actor, George Hyde Pierce. My brother, Randall Pierce, is a music director. And all my other family members are theatre junkies. There's a lot of theatre there.

Did you ever want to be an actor?
GP: I did. I came here as an actor. I was at Oberlin College and was performing there. I moved here and started up a sketch-comedy group. We did that for a few years. We wrote and performed. And then writing kind of took over.