Meet the Playwrights: Marianna Staroselsky '19

BY Paola Alexandra Soto, April 30, 2019

Ella in the Tundra, written by Marianna Staroselsky ’19 (Playwriting) and directed by Daniella Caggiano will be the second play performed as part of the New Plays Festival 2019 featuring nine new plays by the graduating MFA playwriting class. 


Ella, a world-class fertility doctor, happens to be every cursed princess’ fairy godmother. Her perfectly controlled world gets turned upside down with the appearance of a most unusual maiden in distress who also happens to be a convicted criminal about to go to jail.


The play has three performances scheduled the first on May 2nd at 8 pm, the second May 3rd at 2:30 pm, and the final May 4th at 7:30 pm, performed at the Ford Foundation Studio Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center. For more information and to make reservations click here.


Staroselsky spoke to us about the upcoming production. 



Who was your mentor for this piece?


My mentor for Ella in the Tundra is dramaturg and writer Jocelyn Clarke. He has been an absolutely brilliant delight as a mentor. We get together, eat massive meals, and he lovingly tears my play apart. It's the best. I've grown as a playwright and person in exponential ways thanks to this mentorship. I even went to Ireland (Jocelyn is from Dublin) to make sure we had an Irish meal before this thing goes up. 



How did you get the idea for the play?


I was endlessly bombarded by Facebook ads telling me to freeze my eggs or else. So I wrote this play instead.



How did you become a playwright? What was your first play about?


I went on an OkCupid date years ago when I was living in Chicago. The date turned into an opportunity to write for a twenty-four hour theatre festival (best internet dating outcome ever) and that’s when I truly fell in love. My first full length play, Cry Baby Meets Audrey Hepburn, was a surrealistic memoir — it was about my own coming-of-age as a fifth generation emigrant kid from the Soviet Union trying to come to terms with American norms, dealing with a series of nightmarish romantic relationships while reconciling my relationship with my family and their expectations for me.

What is your process for beginning a new play?


I don’t think there’s any one way but like any writer I have to care about the topic a lot, I have to have a lot of feelings about it to want to invest the amount of time and effort a play requires. I also have to be interested in something weird or complex that doesn’t quite make sense … something I want to explore through scenario and character and what if. Then I try to understand what the play is about… I sketch it out, maybe write a poem about it. I do a bunch of research and try to go on even a small getaway with the work—changing my physical surroundings can be immensely helpful for world building, it feels more like starting on a blank canvas. A more developed structure often comes a bit later, I start writing as soon as I feel ready.



Will your presentation be a full production, workshop production, or staged reading?


It will be as full of a production as the theatre gods allow! 



What do you hope the audience gets out of Ella in the Tundra?


The more intellectual answer: I hope they walk out thinking about fairytales a little bit differently. Or they end up pondering the narratives that they live by. Or that they think about the crazy inventions we come up with to deal with our own mortality. Or many other exciting ways in which their views might be tickled. But really if they cry, or laugh, or feel their reality shift even a little in an unexpected way, I’ll be happy, that’s all you can hope for and it’s the best.



How has the playwriting program prepared for you to become a professional working playwright?


Getting to meet and connect with the New York scene in a powerful way has been fantastic. Columbia acts almost like an agent and for emerging writers, even getting introduced to who's who in the field is incredibly helpful. And then there’s learning from the experiences of my wonderful professors and of course the craft. What a journey it's been to get to learn craft from some of the best in the industry!



How was the collaboration process with your director?


Our collaboration process has enriched me as a writer and a person. Daniella has been one of the most supportive directors I've ever worked with in that she really cares about bringing my vision to life and it has felt like a true collaboration. The subject matter of the play is fraught at times and it has been fantastic to work with a director who is sensitive to the complicated times in which we're living. We've had to have some challenging conversations one on one and in the room but ultimately I think it will make the show stronger and more connected with contemporary audiences. It was all done with care and great respect and that's what made the process very productive. 



Who are some playwrights that you admire and why?


Caryl Churchill because she's so impressively inventive with form. Tony Kushner because of the dense brilliance of his writing. Eugene Ionesco for pointing out the absurdity of being a person so perfectly and in a way that can only be done theatrically.



Now that your time in grad school is coming to an end, what are you most looking forward to?


Less grad school! Who knows, maybe I’ll go into sad withdrawal after all these years of schooling but I’m hoping that I’ll be more like some absurd really late wing sprouting butterfly finally ready to fly. 



You're currently also working on a PhD. What's your focus? Why did you decide to get an MFA and PhD at the same time?


That's right, I'm getting a PhD in Comparative Human Development (an interdisciplinary social sciences PhD in every possible way to study humans and then some) from the University of Chicago. No sane person should ever decide to get an MFA and PhD at the same time, but I was struck by theatre while working on my PhD. It even altered the course of my dissertation, which explores identity and anxiety through the lens of theatre pedagogies. It's been a crazy and fascinating path that chose me. 


Ella in the Tundra | Spring 2019

by Marianna Staroselsky
Directed by Daniella Caggiano

May 2, 8:00 PM
May 3, 2:30 PM
May 4, 7:30 PM