In 1977 Queens in New York, two 16-year-old girls with a wild streak are determined to enjoy their summer, even with the serial killer known as the Son of Sam running around.
Such is the world of Tammy Ryan’s play “Tar Beach,” which opens Friday, Oct. 28, at Fresno State. Son of Sam is peripheral to the main action of the play, which centers on the relationship between one of the 16-year-olds and her younger sister, but the killer serves as a metaphor for themes that run deeper.
We caught up with Ryan by phone and email to talk about the play, which is receiving at Fresno State its second production after a world premiere at Luna Stage in West Orange, N.J.
Q: “Tar Beach” is what you might call a semi-autobiographical play. (“None of it happened, but all of it is true,” you told me.) What made you decide to pick this particular time in your life to highlight in a play?
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A: I’ve always been obsessed with that time period. When I was growing up in Queens, NY in the 70s, it was a particularly stressful time, the city was going bankrupt, there were racial tensions, lots of drugs, and that year, in 1977, the serial killer Son of Sam was approaching the year anniversary of his first killing. I was 16 at the time, coming of age, and I’ve often wondered what the impact was of growing up there then on me as a person (and a mother of two girls) What messages did I internalize, what fear did I take with me as I left that time?
I have another play I wrote before “Tar Beach” called “Dark Part of the Forest” that explores some of this from a mother’s point of view. In “Tar Beach” I wanted to write from the girls’ point of view.
The idea for the play came out of a playwriting workshop I took with Connie Congdon in New York City in 2009. It was a very stressful time in my life for a lot of reasons. My sister had just gotten sick (she has since passed away, in fact she died a few months before the world premiere in New Jersey) my husband was having some difficulties with his job, there were financial issues, the recession was in full swing, and in some ways I guess there were a lot of similarities to 1977 in terms of people’s stress levels. The play came out of my subconscious almost fully formed that day – based on prompts in the workshop – but it took me a few more years before I would draft it, not until 2011, at a writers residency. In 2013 I started workshopping it with Luna Stage, where it premiered in 2015.
Q: Give us a brief introduction to Mary Claire and Mary Frances, the 16-year-old friends who drive the action of the play.
A: I thought it would be funny if they had similar Catholic names. Growing up in a big Irish Catholic family, every family has a Mary Somebody in their family. They’re similar in that they both are yearning for adventure, excitement, and they are both under the radar in terms of their families paying attention to them. The term “helicopter parent” hadn’t been coined yet, and lack of supervision is what I mostly remember as a kid. Which could be why we grew up to be “helicopter parents”; we know the effects of lack of supervision.
You could call them “boy crazy,” which is a weird term for me, but they don’t have a lot of outlets for their youthful energy … so they’re busy hatching plans and getting into trouble.
How they’re different: Mary Claire is more successful attracting boys. Mary Frances might be more cynical than Mary Claire. Mary Frances is tough, clear eyed and not afraid. Mary Claire has Reenie and even though she often feels jealous she also feels responsible for her. Mary Claire’s parents fight a lot. I think Mary Frances’s family dynamic is not as violent, but they come from the same “tribe” so their families’ behaviors are recognizable to each other.
Q: You were kind of wild at 16, right? Do you think that was the times or just your particular family dynamic?
A: I’d say both. Of course, it could’ve been just the working-class community I grew up in Ozone Park Queens – but it was a crazy time. The adults in my life were very occupied with their own stress and struggles, but were still parenting the way their parents did, which was basically to leave kids to their own devices. But the times had changed, at least in New York City, and it really wasn’t safe for kids out there.
Q: One character in the play says of Son of Sam: “I’m not going to let him control my life.” Were you personally afraid of Son of Sam? Or was he more of an abstract worry hanging at the periphery of your life at the time?
A: I remember other people being afraid, and so I guess I thought I was afraid of him too. It was the first time a serial killer was being sensationalized by the news media, and so everyone was whipped up into a frenzy by that point. But at that age you feel invincible, and what I remember feeling mostly was a constant yearning for adventure and I didn’t want Son of Sam interfering with that!
I wasn’t involved in sports or theater or really any extracurricular activities (growing up a girl in a working class family in the ’70s), so again, you were pretty much left on your own. But I think the fear I felt went deeper, a sense of being “prey” in a way, as a young girl coming of age in what we call “rape culture” now. Of course I didn’t know that phrase then, but as a young woman, I was beginning to understand that this was the world I was growing up in, this was a fact of my existence.
Q: People in Fresno are familiar with you as a playwright because of last year’s “The Music Lesson,” produced by StageWorks Fresno, which was also directed by J. Daniel Herring. But “Tar Beach” is quite different. How so?
A: Well, it’s not necessarily a “family show,” like “Music Lesson,” which was originally written with young audiences in mind. “Tar Beach” goes darker than “Music Lesson” and is based on my personal experiences growing up in New York City, and “Music Lesson” was inspired by my neighbors’ experience in Sarajevo. “The Music Lesson” is a more straightforward story while “Tar Beach” plays with realism – it’s a memory play really, not straight realism. Although “Music Lesson” deals with memory, trauma, and music, there is memory, trauma and art in “Tar Beach.”
Q: A mother and father are depicted in the play. Have your own mother and father seen “Tar Beach”? If so, was it a weird experience for you?
A: They have not seen “Tar Beach,” though they have seen some of my early plays that were also “semi-autobiographical” the way “Tar Beach” is. They have a good sense of humor about it, and are supportive of my right to write about my experiences, even if the characters they inspire are not always perfect role models. They know it’s fiction and I think are secretly pleased about it, because no matter how imperfect the characters are, they are always trying to love each other better. The play I hope ends with a sense of hope, at least in terms of the love the family members have for each other. Plus they enjoy all the “in jokes” they see in my work. As dark as my work goes, it is always told with humor. I think the dark and the comic have to go together, like life.
Q: Have you ever thought what it would be like for your own daughter to use her experiences growing up to write a play someday? What do you think she could write about?
A: She would only write “happy” plays. Haha. My oldest daughter is turning 24 and is training to be an opera singer and once told me she is “an interpretive” artist and has no interest in writing herself. And the younger one who is turning 15, and is my writer, writes in the vein of teenage dystopians – like the novel series she reads with vampires and such. I’m happy to see parents figure very peripherally in her work, and that their worst traits are that they are usually annoyingly nagging or worried about their kids.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: I’m very grateful to director J. Daniel Herring for giving the play its second production and I’m excited already by his approach and the design he’s envisioned. I’m looking forward to hearing what his young actors discover in the play and how Fresno audiences respond. It’s an idiosyncratic play in some ways in terms of place, character and time period, but I’m hoping that the specific in this case will give rise to the universal and audiences will find it easy to relate to.
- Opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28. Runs through Nov. 5.
- Woods Theatre, Fresno State
- www.fresnostate.edu/artshum/theatrearts, 559-278-2216
- $17, $10 students