Q&A: Marielle Heller, Star and Playwright of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Spills Her Guts
How did you first come in contact with the story of Minnie?
My sister, who is much younger and cooler than I, gave me the graphic novel for Christmas. I don't think she could have possibly guessed how much that gift meant.
What was it about the book that truly moved you?
I was so taken by the brutal, unflinching honesty with which this story of a teenage girl was told. I have read so many wonderful stories of young boys that delve into the complicated and humiliating thoughts of a teenager, and had never seen a teenage girl's inner monologue depicted so accurately. And, more than anything, I loved this character. I saw this girl going through sometimes horrifying events, and yet she never loses her spirit. She is an artist, a curious mind, and a loving person who is just trying to survive, and I was really inspired and moved by that. I wanted to live in her mind.
This is your first book adaptation. What was that experience like?
It has been a long and complicated process. At one point I had photocopies of the book pages strewn all over my floor, covered in markings and notes, and I wasn't leaving the house for weeks at a time. I have such reverence for the book, and love every single page -- but that type of adoration doesn't really help you adapt and chop apart a story. So I had to get over that and find a way to tell the story in a theatrical way, which is very different from the storytelling of a novel.
For one thing, most people don't read a novel in one sitting, but you do see a play in one sitting. So there was the issue of how much can people take in, and then the question of how things build tension, and how things lead one thing to the next, which is also different in a play than in a novel. Ultimately, I had to let it become its own piece.
What was your biggest obstacle with this project and how did you overcome it?
The biggest obstacle has been not giving up. It's hard to remember now, because at some point the project took on its own momentum and started rolling and gathering speed, and I couldn't have stopped it if I had wanted to. But for a long time, I felt as though I was pushing a boulder up a huge hill. And on the days that I felt like crap about the whole thing and like my arms were shaking, I would just make a point to not do any work on the play because I knew I wouldn't do good work, and I wouldn't convince anyone to get involved or give me money or be excited about it. If I wasn't feeling it, nobody else would. That has proven to be true at every step of the way.
Your mentor, Berkeley Rep's Artistic Director Tony Taccone, happens to also be your father-in-law. Did this writing and pitching process become more of a personal matter?
He and I have worked together before, and have a surprisingly comfortable relationship talking about difficult subject matter. But sometimes he wouldn't know if it was okay to think something was funny so he would ask some of his female co-workers.
Your husband and several actors from Saturday Night Live, like Fred Armisen, Seth Meyers, and Will Forte, took part in a benefit for your show. How important was their involvement to this presentation?
The comedy event we did was crucial to this play being mounted -- we never could have done it without that one magnificent evening. For a long time I will be indebted to my friends and family members (my husband and sister) who performed, but maybe if I point out how beautiful and talented they all are here in the Village Voice, they will let me off the hook.
Did you want to play the role of Minnie while writing the play or did you consider hiring someone closer to Minnie's age?
The first thing I knew after reading the book was that I needed to play Minnie. Somehow I had to embody her. I never questioned that. My background is as an actor first, and my connection to this character felt physical and guttural. The next thing I had to figure out was how to be a writer.
Do you think in order to stay consistent with the intentions of the book that Minnie's character would have to be played by an older woman?
I thought a lot about how the book was written by Phoebe as a grown woman, with some perspective from having made it to the other side. And how different that is than an actual literal teenage diary, taken from under someone's mattress and published. What does it mean to turn your stories and memories into a book? In Phoebe's book, there is a deference shown to the voice of a teenager and keeping that authentic, but there is also a crafting and storytelling of a woman who has made it through this story and is processing it by making it into art.
I call Diary (the play) a memory play, because it is structured the way a memory would be -- with moments flowing into each other, and one thing jumping to the next the way our mind does -- like this memory is being pieced together and turned into this play. That was my attempt at creating a similar experience to reading the book, hoping that it would at once feel like a totally honest portrayal of a teenager and her innermost thoughts, and at the same time it might feel like an older woman reliving and remembering this portion of her life.
So much of the story is not just about the events in the life of this young girl, but what she does with those events -- how she documents them, and turns them into art, and through that, how she grows. This play is some extension of that process of documenting and turning life's moments into something bigger. It's a continuation of that processing that Phoebe began when she decided to write this amazing book.
The subject matter in this story is very difficult to take in. Do you think a story like this isn't as taboo because it takes place in the '70s?
I think female sexuality is always taboo, unfortunately. It being in the 70s maybe helps us to justify some of the "grown-ups' " behavior or lack of parenting, but it doesn't negate what people are truly scared about -- the honest depiction of a young girl's growing sexuality. I think what helps with story the most is its optimism and humor.
Do you think the response to this type of story would be different if it were told in present times?
It's hard to tell. I think there are girls out there right now who are just as amazing and resilient as Minnie is, and their stories should be told more often. Hopefully the more we tell these stories, the less taboo they become, and the less alone teenage girls feel.
Are you planning on writing any more plays?
Absolutely. This play started me writing, and in the last year I've been writing more than acting. I have started working with a wonderful writing partner, Cailin Goldberg-Meehan, and we are working on screenplays. Our first screenplay was actually about 15-year-old girl best friends who are real nerds. It's kind of a girl's Superbad, and is really fun.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl through May 1st at 3LD Art and Technology Center, 80 Greenwich Street, thediaryofateenagegirl.com, $25