Dramatic Influences: Sophie McIntosh
What is an artistic obsession? In Dramatic Influences: Theatre Makers and What Inspires Them, we catch up with Columbia Theatre artists and ask them about the things that keep them up at night—the Wikipedia pages they google at 3:00 am, the restaurants where they people-watch when they’re in search of artistic inspiration, the books or plays they read again and again. What drives these individuals, even as it drives them crazy? This week we speak with Playwriting student Sophie McIntosh about rabbits, JFK, and Gen Z’s environmental angst.
McIntosh is a New York-based playwright originally from Wisconsin. Her plays include macbitches (a New York Times Critics Pick), cityscrape, and Eleven Months of Nuclear Summer. McIntosh's plays have also been developed by Pioneer Theatre Company, The 24 Hours Plays: National, The Bechdel Group, the Unicorn Theatre, and Breaking & Entering Theatre Collective. She is the co-founder of Good Apples Collective.
In a durable jacket and blue jeans, Sophie McIntosh was prepared for the weather. As we sat at a metal table by the sculpture garden outside of Dodge Hall, she offered me some gingerbread that she had in her tote bag, slicing off a chunk with her state ID card and presenting it to me in the palm of her hand.
What’s the best place in New York to write?
Sophie McIntosh: I am a non-adventurous person in terms of where I write often, just because I am someone who is so, so distractible. I cannot go to a coffee shop and write. I will get nothing done. I do love the 7th floor library in Dodge Hall.
Is there a book that reigns supreme for you in terms of how it inspires your own writing? What’s your favorite?
SM: I love Animorphs (by K. A. Applegate, 1996 - 2001). I always go back to Animorphs. The PDFs are free online. My favorite book is either book seven or eight. I think it's in book seven that Rachel turns into a grizzly bear. It's badass. It becomes like her go-to, kick ass animal she turns into when she has to kill aliens and stuff. I latched onto it in a way that I didn't necessarily latch onto something like Harry Potter. The way it deals with characters and morality was something that most kid books don't really get into.
Has Animorphs impacted your writing today?
SM: Animorphs definitely made me interested in dark and gritty themes really early on, and in exploring a character's relationship not only with violence, but also with ruthlessness — the alignment (or misalignment) of what they want, what they're willing to do to get it, and how this impacts their perception of their own morality. The books also encourage a projection of empathy, because these characters spend so much time occupying bodies that aren't their own and sharing their headspace with wild creatures, which fed into my own interest in animal psychology. I think all of these themes come up in my work in various aspects!
In the realm of writing that you find inspiring, do you have a favorite Wikipedia page or a JSTOR article that you keep going back to?
SM: There’s an article about Mary Toft that I got really into and that ended up being part of my inspiration to write a play called cunnicularii about a woman who gives birth to a rabbit. I grew up in Wisconsin and [my high school] had a thing called Forensics, which was like competitive speech and debate. I first heard about Mary Toft through Forensics. We would stand up and give speeches on certain topics and then whoever had the best speech and the best delivery of their speech would win. And I wrote really good speeches. I was not necessarily great at delivery, I'm not necessarily an orator as it were, but I ended up kind of illegally writing the speeches for many of my classmates. One year, the time period we were writing about was 1700–1750 and I was writing about Anne Bonny and Mary Reed who were female pirates who dressed up as men. Another person did a speech about Mary Toft, who was a woman who had given birth to rabbits, and I was like, "what is going on here?"
What was going on?
SM: It was a hoax. Her husband and mother in law coerced her into putting dead rabbits inside her vagina and expelling them. Basically for notoriety and attention. They had the king believe them. Eventually it all came out and she was disgraced and they had to threaten to cut her open, basically, to get her to confess to it, which is wild.
Can you talk at all about how this story influenced the play?
SM: The play is about a woman who gives birth to a rabbit, but it's set in more modern times. I purposely play it a little loose with the time period. Maybe it's set in the present day, maybe it's the ‘70s, maybe ‘60s. The woman gives birth to a real rabbit. She has spent her whole life really, really excited to give birth, and have kids, and be a mom. And then she has this creature. And it is not what she expected and she's not bonding with this baby and everybody she meets is like, "This is your cute, beautiful child. Why do you not love her? What is wrong with you?" The play is about postpartum depression—and the story of Mary Toft gave me the narrative bones of the play.
Do you have other historical figures that you find inspiring for your work?
SM: I am a JFK buff. I like presidential assassinations; and the Kennedy assassination is one that I've read too much about. I think I'm more interested in the legacy of the assassination than the plots behind it—the impact on America is really interesting to me. I'm interested in charisma, what that is, and what it means to have it, and how it can be wielded. The charisma of the Kennedys is so fascinating to me and the way Americans talk about our founding fathers and the deification of the founding fathers is creepy to me, and so weird. This is our mythology. This is our legacy, you know?
I think it has to do with this idea that the president is such a celebrity in our country. We make such a spectacle of their personal life and I think so much of [presidential assassinations] comes down to American individualism in the sense that we have people [in the US] who are predisposed to think, “I am gonna be the guy who shot the big guy. That's how I'm gonna stake my claim.” I know that I have to write a play about it at some point, but I don't want to write a play about a white guy being a white guy. I'm trying to figure out what my spin on it wants to be.
Is there a place that you feel kinship with, geographically or architecturally? I feel like places can hold a lot of emotional resonance for writers.
SM: The apartment that I live in right now is the most at home I have ever felt anywhere; but I really think as much as I don't see myself living in the Midwest again, that landscape is so resonant to me, and beautiful. The weird, sort of marshy prairies near where I grew up, and up north, the Wisconsin Northwoods are really, really important to me. My great-great-great, however many greats grandpa started a lumber mill in Wisconsin, so we grew up near those big, big trees. The mill closed years ago but that land and the tall, tall trees—I miss that. I think I've been interested in writing work that is set in the Midwest, and Northwoods forests and prairies definitely crop up as settings in my writing.
What other forms or works of art do you find yourself influenced by?
SM: I'm hugely influenced by a musician named Joanna Newsom. She's my favorite. She's like a weird, shrieking harpist. She plays this giant harp and sings at the same time, which is crazy athletic, and she's a huge influence of mine because she has these weird, dense, poetic, mythological lyrics. In terms of playwriting influences for me, Annie Baker and Sarah Kane are my go-to girls; and I love Tracy Letts. I was also really obsessed with Arthur Miller when I first started writing plays. He's a good one to go back to. [I love] The Crucible. One of the things I love to write about is young women who are allowed to be violent and unwell and aggressive, assertive, feral, you know? I love that.
Are there other themes that come up a lot in your work?
SM: Animals come up a lot in my work. I think that the way humans interact with animals says a lot about the way we interact with each other, and about ourselves. I'm working on a piece about extinct animals right now that I've been really excited about. This one, it came out of [Special Lecturer Charles] Mee’s class. For one of his classes, he had us bring in Greek choral odes with no plot to them. I ended up bringing in a chorus of—do you know what an Endling is?
SM: They're the last of any species before they go completely extinct. So the last Tasmanian tiger in the zoo in Tasmania, she was an Endling. And Martha the Passenger Pigeon, she was an Endling. So I wrote a piece about these taxidermied Endlings who are stored together in an underground vault, waiting to see if they will ever get resurrected through DNA and cloning and genetic manipulation.
How did you find out about Endlings?
SM: I don't remember what prompted it, but one night I wanted to see the footage of the last Tasmanian tiger, and I was just so moved and disturbed. It’s weird to see them because they're animals that seem like they shouldn't exist, but they did exist. At the same time it seems like they should exist and they should be here right now and they aren't. I have a lot of climate angst and I have a lot of thoughts about being a young person on the verge of a world that is falling into shit. Feeling robbed, feeling frustration with the generations before us who left us in this position, but then also wondering, why aren't I doing more for the generations to come after us? Environmental guilt is something that I'm really interested in. That's a big theme in the play.
In undergrad I had a friend who was really into biology, she was a herpetologist. I ended up talking to her a lot while I was developing this piece. She worked with the handler of the last Rabbs' fringe-limbed treefrog. The handler was intimately familiar with this one frog who was the last of his kind. This guy had developed a really special relationship with the frog and the frog did end up dying. They are now extinct. The way she talked about it was so fascinating to me. The frog’s name was Toughie. I don't even have words for how it makes me feel, but it just feels like a breach in nature. It feels so wrong and so fascinating to me—what our willingness to let these species die says about us.
What else are you working on?
SM: Me and my collaborator, Nina Goodheart, we co-lead a theater company here in the city and we're heading into our second season. We’re working on a play which we co-wrote. I've never co-written anything, and that was a huge, exciting adventure. We went to Nebraska for a residency, and we were there for two weeks, writing this play. It's a play about a settlement that exists in mid-apocalyptic America during the climate crisis and there's a giant energy crisis. For the first half of the play you think that you're in Little House on the Prairie. You know, 1880s America, we're in a one room schoolhouse, there's no electricity, we're talking a lot about God. Then, as the play goes on, you realize that it is actually the future, and these people have sort of reverted back to the land—glorifying the pioneer and the homesteader. Very tradwife-esque. That was something that was really, really fun to develop with her, and it ended up being pretty environmental as well.
Sophie McIntosh is a New York-based playwright and theatermaker. Her writing gives voice to women and queer folks, offers empathetic insight into living with mental illness, and lovingly riffs on the cynical sincerity of young adults. She is the co-founder of Good Apples Collective, a developmental orchard for new theatrical works that she co-leads with her collaborator, Nina Goodheart. Recent productions of McIntosh’s work include the world premiere of macbitches (a New York Times Critics Pick) at the Chain Theatre, the premiere of cityscrape at Good Apples Collective, and the college premiere of Eleven Months of Nuclear Summer at Notre Dame University. McIntosh's plays have also been developed by Pioneer Theatre Company, the 24 Hours Plays: National, The Bechdel Group, the Unicorn Theatre, and Breaking & Entering Theatre Collective. She is a proud recipient of a BA in drama from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
Good Apples Collective recently released a list of resources for self-producing new theatre which can be found here. McIntosh’s play Eleven Months of Nuclear Summer will be performed at Schapiro Hall in April 2024.