Yeah, It’s Me; But It’s Also You, Seattle: An Interview with Emerald City‘s S.P. Miskowski

S.P. Miskowski’s Emerald City, which is receiving its World Premiere production by Live Girls Theater at the West of Lenin in March, is a play about our city, its ever-evolving nature, the seeming difficulty in making lasting connections, and the ease with which one could fall into and out of love with everything it offers. The story centers around a freelance writer who is sent back to Seattle on assignment, while there she becomes embroiled in a search for closure of the frustrations she experienced while living here. For this reason, the play is being billed as both a mash note, and a break-up letter to the city we call home.

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Promotional image for S.P. Miskowski’s Emerald City, running in Fremont in March. From left Shawnmarie Stanton, Gretchen Douma, Megan Ahiers, Jennifer Pratt and Morgan Rowe.

Miskowski herself had a pretty illustrious time during the 20 years she lived in the Emerald City, self-publishing her own lit zine, becoming a resident playwright at Aha! Theater (then one of the pioneer companies in the burgeoning Fringe Theater movement), and for a time, served as the Editor for The Stranger, which was jostling to overtake the Seattle Weekly as the region’s leading Alt-Weekly at the time. After a while, Miskowski began turning her focus on becoming a published author. In addition to Shock Room: A Horror-Movie Blog, on SeattlePI.com, Miskowski self-published Red Poppies: Tales of Envy and Revenge in 2009, a collection of short stories originally printed in anthologies and similar publications. Knock Knock, her most recent novel, was picked up by genre publishers Omnium Gatherum and is currently available both in print and Kindle versions.

The Seattle Star spoke with Ms. Miskowski recently, discussing the origins of her latest play, the mixed feelings that fed into her decision to leave, how Seattle could begin addressing those concerns for those who’d like to stay, and briefly delved into her history at the helm of an upstart publication.

Seattle Star: When are you coming up to Seattle?

SPM: I’ll be in Seattle for the opening night of Emerald City.

SStar: Are you not participating directly in the rehearsals, as you did for the workshop version a couple of years back?

SPM: No. I’ve revised the play several times in the past few months, and chatted with Meghan (Arnette) throughout rehearsals…I’ve revised, and I think we’re good.

I gave her a new script in January, and another two weeks ago…Development in over and Meghan is rehearsing with the actors. Which is where things should be.

SStar: Are the revisions based on notes she had given or your own desire to see some changes?

SPM: Both. She had notes of her own, and notes from the actors and designers, and I had things I wanted to address as well.

I had some new ideas about the play and we kept chatting and pushing things forward.

SStar: Are we looking at an entirely new play, then?

SPM: Not entirely new from the January draft, but quite different from the one I started with in the 2009 Bakery Series reading. The heart of the play is the same, the ideas are there, but the story and characters have developed far beyond what we had back then.

SStar: Is this the same cast as the Bakery Series?

SPM: Yes. Gretchen (Douma) was with us at the start, and she has returned. I wrote a new role for Shawnmarie (Stanton), who joined us as Dot at one point. Tina Rowley won’t be joining us but Megan Ahiers will. Morgan (Rowe) and Jennifer (Pratt) are still here.

These are terrific actors, and it was important to Meghan A. and to me to keep the continuity as much as possible.

SStar: That’s too bad about Ms. Rowley.

SPM: Yes, but she is quite busy these days. I hope to work with her at some point, if we get a film of “my new friends” off the ground.

[Miskowski’s my new friends (are so much better than you) told the story of two mothers, one who joined in her daughter’s cyber-bullying of another girl to the extent of creating a MySpace page, the other the mother of the victim. It was performed as a solo show, featuring Morgan Rowe, in 2008 – ed.]

SStar: Is that in the works?

SPM: If we can find a producer to manage it. SJ Chiro wants to direct and Morgan (Rowe) and Tina (Rowley) want to play the two women. I am dying to see that film!

Indie producer, come to me!

SStar: I like the blog entry Morgan wrote regarding that piece, and the fact that she’s working with you on Emerald City.

SPM: Thank you! I do, too. Morgan is brilliant. We read the my new friends script while I was in Seattle last year, and Tina and Morgan killed me. Just beautiful.

I hope that project happens. SJ is excited about it and so am I. We need someone with some experience to join us.

SStar: You’ve been working on Emerald City for a couple of years now, do you remember what the initial idea for the play was?

SPM: I was in Seattle rehearsing my new friends with Morgan…It was Autumn of 2008. It was a great time, very painful but great. my new friends was the most personal and painful thing I’ve ever written, and I would not have gotten through it without Morgan. She was my muse, editor, and collaborator on that piece.

Some days I just called her and cried. She made it all right, and we gave ourselves over completely to the girl in the story. I have never had such an overwhelming emotional response while writing.

Anyway, around that time Meghan (Arnette) and I went for coffee and we were talking about the landscape of the city and how it’s changed. And we got onto the subject of spite mounds. She said I ought to look at the large-scale photos of them at MOHAI. And we talked for a long time about Seattle and how people we know see the city, what it means to them.

After we opened “mnf” I returned to California; I was still managing ticket sales for the show back in Seattle, but I wasn’t there for the joyous part of it, the critical reception, shows selling out, so I needed to write to keep my brain busy. I decided to write a play that month–November–as part of NaPlWriMo. Emerald City came from all that I had seen and heard while I was there working on the other show with Morgan.

SStar: Was it always a love/dear john letter?

SPM: It was both. Love letter and dear John, not only for me but on behalf of my friends who were frustrated, living there and still trying to get their dreams going. I read the gripes that Seattleites wrote online, about the city, and I began to see patterns in the relationship people have with Seattle. The suicide fence (on the Aurora bridge) began after I started writing, and so that went into the play.

As I turned the pieces of the play this way and that, a thousand conversations came back to me–artists who loved the city but felt underappreciated, journalists whose dream jobs had disappeared. I have friends who worked at the P-I and at the Times, and their heartfelt frustration is right there in the play, so it’s also a tribute.

Compared to what I went through with my new friends, Emerald City was a play written in tranquility. Relative tranquility.

SStar: Some distance, at least, both literal and figurative.

SPM: Yes. And the more I revised, the more fun the piece became. I found that all of the frustration had gone and I had some damn funny stories in its place.

SStar: At the feedback session during the (staged reading of Emerald City during Live Girls’) Bakery Series, you mentioned that you shared some of the frustrations expressed by your friends.

SPM: I used to share those frustrations, yes.

S.P. Miskowski had lived in Seattle for 20 years before deciding to move to Southern California in order to begin anew.

SStar:Were you a native Seattleite?

SPM: No.

SStar: Where did you move here from and when? Why?

SPM: My family moved from Decatur, Georgia to Arizona and I went to college there. Then I got married and moved to Seattle in 1988. My ex-husband was an artist and small press publisher. Zines. We knew a lot of publishers of zines and chapbooks, I edited and published a quarterly fiction magazine, and we were looking for an art-friendly community. He painted–had some work in a COCA show when they were next to the Lusty Lady–and we knew poets and painters in Seattle.

We moved to Seattle to be–his words–“literary kingpins!” He was very funny, but I think some of the locals took him too seriously.

After we split up I decided to renew an old interest in theater, so I applied to the UW grad school program and started writing plays.

SStar: How would you describe Seattle during those days?

SPM: Shambolic. My favorite cultural event was the Alternative to Loud Boats book festival.

SStar: Took place during Seafair, I’m guessing.

SPM: Yes. And there were wars between literary factions. It was a good festival, and the concept was funny.

SStar: Well, there was a lot of competition between artistic factions, sometimes needlessly so.

SPM: And self-destructive. Wars between artists often are. But it was amusing to have to wait for each side to PUBLISH their latest argument. Nothing online. No ‘online.’ Just poets and photocopiers, going as fast as they could!

SStar: I think we first met at Aha! Theater during Tuesday.

SPM: That sounds right.

SStar: Did that have the poster with the rodent?

SPM: Ha! That was Feasting. Paul Mullin was doing Tuesday and Dawson Nichols was doing his solo show as Poe (I Might Be Edgar Allan Poe). We were Aha!‘s resident playwrights. Bald Faced Lie was just getting going.

Feasting was the show that ended my theater company from UW days. The show was produced by AHA! But they let me bring in my collaborators from Present Company Theater. We were overdue to break up. That show finally did it.

SStar: Didn’t you start working at The Stranger around this time?

SPM: That started just before the Aha! residency. I had collected my MFA from UW, and started looking for work. My boyfriend, Cory, saw an ad in the paper that he and his friends read. It was for a part-time arts and entertainment editor, a job I was suited for. So I applied. After two interviews, I flew to Arizona to attend to some horrible family business, came back, and found that the job offer had changed. The editor, Christine, was quitting and wanted me to replace her.

SStar: Surprise!

SPM: I told her, again, that I was not a journalist and had no interest in being one. But she and Tim, the publisher, had read the fiction magazine I published for four years, and they wanted me. They also wanted a bit of maturity in the editorial role. Ha ha ha. Joke was on them!

I was given a file folder full of resumes from people who had wanted the job I just stumbled into. And I was told that these were the people I should watch out for. Man, I should have taken that moment more seriously. I just kept thinking: why would anyone want this job long-term? It’s a stepping stone or a starter job, for god’s sake.

SStar: Why that particular moment?

SPM: Well, that folder was full of spiteful wannabes. Now and then a hate letter would come through and the tiniest bit of research would track it right back to a name in that folder.

SStar: I don’t like where I think this is going.

SPM: Dude. Tell me about it.

For a year I had a ball and the publisher loved me and it was pretty fun, most of the time. Stressful but fun. Love fest central. Of course there were angry people but they seemed to be on the periphery. And there were a few mopey types who whined that the paper was getting too big, too commercial, “too organized!” Boo-hoo.

SStar: Wait, really?

SPM: Yes, seriously. You have to understand, there were staff members working for nothing, then for next to nothing, and Tim was very good at inspiring these folks. They BELIEVED. When the first cigarette ad was accepted, people actually cried. They thought they were doing something outside the world of commerce, and they found out that they were wrong.

Meanwhile, we doubled in pages and circulation.

SStar: So, what happened at the one year mark?

SPM: Johnny Eddy resigned as Production Manager. Johnny was the Man. He was the person who held together all the duct-taped equipment and incompatible hardware. He made the system work. He took the paper into the re-design that made it able to compete with the Weekly for ad revenue.

But the thing about Johnny was…He ran the place. In his hippy-dippy fashion. He made it all work, and he was there when I was there–all week and on holidays. He was exhausted. He needed a break. He wrote a letter of resignation to get (Stranger publisher) Tim Keck’s attention. And instead, it backfired when Tim accepted it.

Over the next several months we had no fewer than five people put “in charge” of production. But no one could pull it all together. It was chaos. At one point we had two people who hated each other, and Tim had given both of them the responsibility for overseeing production. One would come to me and set the word counts, and leave. Then the other one would come to me and change all the counts after the edit. Chaos.

This is when I started telling Tim off. Loudly and frequently. And eventually he replaced me with a writer I had recruited for freelance articles.

The owners were business smart. Very smart. You will never go broke in Seattle making people think they’re in a special, exclusive club that is cooler than everyone else. That is money in the bank. The fear of being provincial and dull is so powerful, there. And of course there were some flat-out brilliant people working there, at The Stranger.

What I realized after the fact was that the provocative nature of the reporting was a tactic used by many publications. Say the craziest and most outrageous thing you can think of, and watch the numbers rise.

SStar: Were you okay with that sort of thing while you were working there? Did you even think about it?

SPM: I didn’t think about it as much as I should have. That club feeling–look at us!–is intoxicating when you’re right there.

SStar: That’s something I have seen with some folks who end up working there, up and down the totem pole. I had a friend who worked in the ad department, nothing to do with editorial.

SPM: And they went a little nutty?

SStar: Yeah, until she left and then it was the opposite reaction.

SPM: I saw that, too.

What I keep from it all was the excitement of that growth spurt during my time there, the joy of working with smart people who could be hilarious. The paper grew so fast during that time, and then leveled off at its current size. But for a while it was crazy. Crazy was fine as long as Johnny was there. Crazy without Johnny was too much crazy.

SStar: What else did you do while you lived here?

SPM: Oh, I had a million jobs. Friends urged me to apply at the Weekly and the Times, but as I said before, I didn’t intend to make a career in journalism. And I don’t think people understand how intense the rivalry was between the publications. The Rocket died. The Weekly became free. There were older journalists who hated me. It wasn’t a good time to find work in that field, even if I had wanted it. So I worked temp jobs and wrote plays.

SStar: Is that what you were essentially up to when you left?

SPM: When I left Seattle four years ago it was primarily because of Cory’s job in game design. We had been in Seattle for 20 years. I didn’t see anything new breaking on the horizon there, and it was time to do something somewhere else. I had dreams I wanted to pursue; I desperately wanted to write stories and novels, again.

It’s hard to change when you know a lot of people in one small city and they keep telling you how they see you. Like a family. People naturally fall into roles and then expect one another not to change. I was ready to change big time. I didn’t see myself writing only plays for the rest of my life.

I love theater artists, and the projects I’ve done in the past few years allowed me to be with those artists, and still pursue my goals as a fiction writer.

Emerald City, not coincidentally, is about change and permanence. It’s about what happens to someone who can’t let herself change and move on. And about the speed with which we can all be overwhelmed by social and physical changes.

SStar: Did the connection with Live Girls begin before or after you left?

SPM: Before. Meghan and I met at 14/48, when she directed one of my plays.

SStar: That festival has a way of building relationships.

SPM: Great relationships! And a great attitude. 14/48 fosters respect between artists. It’s an antidote to the cool club mentality.

SStar: Would you say that the cool club mentality is one of the problems that affect this city’s arts?

SPM: Huge problem. Huge mistake. Nothing is gained by trashing other artists. Nothing. And anyone who has to point out how cool they are in relation to someone else is definitely delusional and not cool.

When I met with Meghan for coffee in late 2008 she and Live Girls! Theater were considering giving up their space in Ballard and going to venues that matched the various projects they wanted to do. That sounded pretty exciting. It’s turned out to be great.

SStar: They have used it to great effect so far.

SPM: It takes organization and professionalism, and they’ve handled the process really well. These are the artists I want to work with. If I am going to write a play, then I want to work with (New City Theater’s) John Kazanjian or Meghan, people who do what they say they will do. No games, no cool club. Intelligence and hard work.

SStar: Is the cool club mentality something that’s endemic to Seattle? Is it possible to specify?

SPM: I think many of the things we see in Seattle that could be good–large number of artists, for example–goes bad when people feel overwhelmed or not appreciated.

For all the artists working in the city and making it such a lively place, there is still not nearly enough acknowledgment of that contribution on the part of city officials. Yes, there is more funding and better access to resources than before, but not nearly enough. Not commensurate with what artists give to the city.

So people become discouraged. It’s fine to work for free for a while. At some point, though, you need recognition and support. It seems for some reason in Seattle that the city just doesn’t do that. There is another new wave of kids, and another, and another. And each wave is touted and then forgotten, as the next wave arrives.

SStar: The collective amnesia, tied to a general “nobody cares about this stuff in Seattle” mindset, is pretty reprehensible.

SPM: For all the incredible history of theater in Seattle, there is nothing that commemorates what artists have contributed.

SStar: That’s true of not just of city politics, but the organizations, institutions and publications that have been around during all that time.

SPM: So many layers. And that’s another thing addressed in Emerald City. Layer upon layer of history without stopping to take stock.

SStar: All right, let’s talk about the dreams you’ve chosen to pursue, how is that going?

SPM: Better than I ever imagined.

SStar: Poppies and Knock Knock seem to be doing well for you.

SPM: Oh yes. I have a publisher and an agent. I have a contract to write three novellas related to Knock Knock.

SStar: Are those coming out at the same time or separately?

SPM: The novellas will come out one at a time, over the next twelve to fourteen months or so. They are pretty extensively planned already, and I’m working on the first one.

SStar: Anything else germinating in the background?

SPM: A novel set in that crazy time in Seattle we talked about–when everybody was starting a new publication and going to war with everyone else. A comic novel, of course.

SStar: Not a horror comedy hybrid?

SPM: I always seem to write horror or comedy. I think that novel about publications and the 1990s will be comic.

SStar: The darkly comic strain of Poppies.

SPM: How could it not be? I once watched the publisher of The Stranger run down a huge flight of stairs and hand the paper for the week–ads, text, graphics, all of it, to some guy in a funny outfit. When the publisher got back to the top of the stairs he said, “Shit. I hope that guy was the courier to take it to the printer.”

Comic. Definitely comic.

SStar: Are you still working on the blog (Shock Room, on SeattlePI.com)?

SPM: Not so much these days. I don’t want to post unless I feel I can do justice to the film or book I’m writing about. If I’m too busy, I’d rather not post than post something shabby.

Just can’t do it. If it’s crap, why bother?