Q&A: Eleanor Burgess
Eleanor Burgess is a Brookline native and award-winning playwright, who has also worked as a history teacher, gardener, and pastry chef. She lives in New York City.
What does it mean for you to be from Massachusetts?
I think there’s such a thing as a New England personality, which I think of as a kind of a combination of frankness and distance. New Englanders are straight-talking people – they tell you what they think and they don’t try too hard to be nice about it. But at the same time, they can be uncomfortable expressing their deepest emotions. To put it in a flowery, non-New-England way, people talk more about what’s on their minds than what’s in their hearts. New Englanders talk in subtext, code, and paradox – you tease someone to say you love them. When I got to college I got in a lot of trouble because I would say very mean things – I thought that was how you form friendships – and people from other states were like “why are you so mean?”
I also think being from Massachusetts involves a certain duality – a looking forward and looking back. Massachusetts is a place where a company or a university doing cutting-edge research can be next door to a building from the 17th century. I think we have this real sense of pride in our history and identity, and yet we’ve also been a politically forward-thinking state for – well, centuries. We’re neither afraid of nor obsessed with change – we’re willing to keep the best parts of what has been, and reach for new and better things in the future.
Do you think any of that comes out in Chill?
Absolutely. For starters, the characters have that very Massachusetts way of talking. Abrasive, but there’s so much affection under it. I wrote the play partly because the plays I was seeing in New York rarely featured people who talked like the people I know.
Also, Massachusetts tends to be liberal (although of course not exclusively). And the play, which takes place between 2001 and 2011, starts right after George W. Bush has been elected. I remember growing up in 90s Massachusetts and thinking that the liberal Promised Land was right around the corner. We were gonna fix the environment, make progress on human rights and international cooperation. There was a heartbreak to that, a missed opportunity. A lot of us have had to rediscover again and again what it means to be a liberal – and a lot of that redefinition happened at the state level, here.
Is this play a product of its time? Could the same play be set in a different decade?
That’s interesting. Yes, this was very much a love letter to my specific generation. It’s a play that asks, why are millennials the way they are? And how are they? There’s so much talk about this new generation – but very little of that discussion is from a millennial perspective. Most of it’s just “oh millennials, they’re always on Tinder and they love their smartphones so much…” But this generation just officially replaced baby boomers as the largest group in the country. I think it’s way past time that we take the millennial experience seriously – that we talk about what it was like to grow up in the midst of two wars, a teetering economy, and the end of the “American Century,” and about the very different picture millennials have of work, family, society, and what makes for a meaningful life.
At the same time, I’ve also found that the play’s surprisingly universal—because at its core, it’s about friendship, and it’s about growing up. And it’s about what happens to friendships over time. Our friends are such a core part of our life, yet we discuss friendship so much less than we discuss family, or romantic love. We don’t talk about what it really means to be a friend to someone, and how friendship looks different at different stages in your life. I’ve had people who came of age in the 60s or 70s see a reading and say, “I remember seeing my childhood friend after growing up, and having that same feeling, that same distance, and that same longing for closeness.”
Then, politically, the play has become suddenly very much of this time, now. It’s a play about how these huge historical forces that we have no control over affect every part of our lives. The characters are grappling with: What kind of America did you think you were going to come of age in? And what kind of America do you find yourself living in now? And how do you regroup and handle that gap? Admittedly, when I first wrote the play, I did not know how very relevant that question was going to be…
You once quoted a favorite teacher who told you to “write about things that seduce you and terrify you.” How does Chill do that?
In terms of terrifying – this is a play about the passage of time. It’s so basic, but it’s one of the hardest truths to grapple with: We are mortal people who get older, we only get one life and it doesn’t always (or ever) go the way we planned. How on earth does anyone ever handle that? When you look at a lot of the canonical American plays, so many of them are about regrets, or disappointments, or the slow realization that your life is not what you dreamed it would be.
In terms of seduction, there’s something seductive about going back, especially with high school. Your high school love—your high school best friend—they have this power. Even when you’ve grown up and you know that your life is different, there’s something so emotional and vivid about that time in your life. And it’s very seductive to go back, and to want to be young again.
It’s a two-act play, and the acts happen ten years apart. So a huge chunk of the story happens unseen at intermission. Was that challenging for you as writer?
It definitely was—because in the end, a drama has to happen in front of you. There have to be live feelings and tensions in the present, not just reveals about the past. But at the same time, writing with this structure let me dig into how life actually feels. And most of the time life doesn’t feel like an Ibsen play. The big things don’t always happen to us in one dramatic evening – they happen incrementally, and suddenly we wake up and realize we’re far down a path we don’t remember choosing. A play about semi-ordinary nights, and the deeper meanings they carry, was a fun challenge.
It was also wonderful to play with the contrast between the two acts. I’m so interested in how people and their relationships change as they grow up, and with the time jump, we get to actually see it – the different language people use at different ages, the way they move their bodies at different ages, the way they think and talk about each other and themselves. It makes the audience into active participants – the audience figures out the meaning of the play for themselves, by watching these two nights, and making the comparison.
Why do you write for the stage?
I love theatre because every character gets an equal shot at the audience’s empathy. Plays don’t tell a story through one character’s POV or cut to one character’s reaction shot – every character is equally present, equally alive in front of you. Which gives you the opportunity to feel for every character, instead of just the hero. As a playwright, you can present a whole set of people who are very different, some of whom seem unlikable, some of whom the audience has never seen or cared for before, and suddenly, seeing them live, in person, spending time with them, the audience begins to understand them, and feel for them in a way they never would have before.
A lot of times, especially in this digital age, we read and watch things we already agree with. And we change channels, or apps, the second we don’t. But in theatre we sit in a room with things that are new or uncomfortable or unfamiliar for us, and we let them unfold. And we grow.