Though Rachel Axler got her MFA in playwriting, she’s spent the past few years working quite successfully in television. She won an Emmy for her work on The Daily Show before joining the writing staff of Parks and Recreation. Now she’s making her Off Broadway debut as a playwright with the world premiere of Smudge, which opened last night at the Women’s Project. Inspired by the most horrible thought she ever had, the play follows a young couple that gives birth to, well, a smudge. Vulture caught up with Axler during her brief trip back from
Pawnee Los Angeles.
So, tell us about this horrible thought that sparked the idea.
There was an article I read in The New York Times Magazine in 2003 or 2004 by a woman named Harriet McBryde Johnson about her relationship with this controversial philosopher named Peter Singer. His philosophy was basically that her life was not a viable one, that her personhood was in question, because she was born disabled. Her test was, “How would you understand the extent to which I value my own life and the extent to which my life has value for others? You look at me and see me in a wheelchair, but you don’t know that I take great comfort in controlling it myself. And I’m enjoying myself very much, thank you. It’s not for you to determine that quality of my life.” And then a year or two later, it was my final year of grad school, and the shuttle that took me to UCSD was right by the ambulatory center. And a woman in a wheelchair was coming toward me and I thought it was a child. And as she got closer, I realized this was actually a grown woman, sort of a half-formed woman, like very little of a body that I could see, and her face was very blank and she looked straight at me. And that horrible thought was, Oh my god, nobody’s ever going to love that person. Which was immediately overwritten by, God, no, this person probably has a family. She might have a boyfriend. She might have a girlfriend. She probably has a perfectly functioning life. And I thought about that article, and I thought, Oh my God, I just sort of nonchalantly took the very privileged and callous point of view. And I was like, “Wait a second, that’s what I have to write about.”
How did that experience evolve into the plot of the play?
I thought, I can’t write from that woman’s perspective — I don’t know enough — but I can certainly put myself in the perspective of a mother, who is putting her thoughts on the baby. And then I was thinking about it more, and I’ve never had a child. But isn’t every mother putting her own thoughts and hopes for a child’s life onto a baby? So I wrote a monologue and then ten pages of dialogue between a mother and a father who have very different ideas of what this baby is. I basically wrote ten or eleven really good pages and made the mistake of showing them to people. And the response was really, really great — “Oh my God, you need to write more of this” — I sent them to a very distinguished workshop. And then I had to write the whole play, and I dashed off the rest of the play, and it was utter crap [Laughs].
How did you force yourself to stick with it once you got the job at The Daily Show?
For the first year I was at The Daily Show, I didn’t write much outside of that. It was very much a full-time job because you’re not only writing jokes while you’re there, but you’ve also got to keep up with the news cycle. It was my job even to do stuff that I normally did, like watch American Idol. But the next year, actually, amazingly, off of those first ten pages — which is one of the ways in which I duped society — I wound up getting into this workshop, a group called the Lark. And we’d get together and sit in this large circle, and these phenomenal actors would do readings of new work for us. So I would have to bring in new work, which meant usually the night before the workshop, I would stay up all night. And I started working on this play again and I’d usually be sitting in this workshop just drinking a Frappuccino trying to stay awake. But it was during that year I got a version of the play done.
One of the central ideas of the play is that not every woman falls in love with her child on first sight. Is that something that’s worried you or that you’ve discussed with friends ... ?
I’m so thrilled that you said that that was a central idea, rather than like euthanasia or something. Yeah, I was actually in San Francisco, and the director’s then-fiancée’s mom came up to me and she took my hand and she said, “How did you know?” And I was so just blown away because I was like, “Oh, thank God, it works.” But it’s true, you don’t immediately bond with your child necessarily. At this point, a lot of my friends are having babies — I’m keeping them as far from the play as possible until they have their children [Laughs]. But the ones who’ve already had children, many of them have said the same thing. It’s like, look at this tiny thing that I have to take care of and, absolutely, this thing is cute, but it’s also terrifying. I’ve just been handed this human and I’m being sent home with it. And okay, so now what? And if you don’t have that immediate bond, then the “now what?” becomes so much harder. You’re not only trying to do something you’ve never done before, you’re also trying to create a relationship. And I think that a lot of the play is genuinely about both Colby and Nick trying to create a relationship with this thing that they don’t know how to relate to.
The smudge is really this abstract concept. How did you figure out how to translate that to the stage with lights and sounds?
It’s funny, when I write, I hear it way more than I see it. So in the script there’s a lot of parentheticals, like “beeps, flickering,” and then sometimes it was “violent beeps,” “angry beeps,” “the tubes glow,” or “the tubes glow ominously” or “the tubes glow faintly.” So I’m working with designers to create this thing that can be anthropomorphized. I kept thinking sort of like when you’re in a car and it’s raining and the windshield wipers are going and you start hearing the sound morph. If you start hearing it like it’s saying something, you can hear that in it. That’s how I felt about what Colby’s hearing with Cassie. She’s hearing this thing that morphs in her mind and turns into a language.
I also wanted to ask you a few questions about Parks and Recreation. I just started watching it this season and then went back and watched season one, but it feels like it’s really picking up this year. How has it changed from your perspective?
The way you watched it is actually a great way to watch it. I completely agree with you — I think that the show’s come into its own this year. And I think partly it’s because we’ve found the characters, especially Amy’s character — sort of discovering that it’s fun to see her have fun. She is cool in her own wonky way, and we had to find that coolness and give her more room to breathe. And I think we’ve moved a bit away from the pit, a little bit more toward the characters. It just opened up not only so many more story possibilities, but also it makes people care about watching these characters week after week because suddenly these are people with secrets and lives and desires beyond the ones that we saw in the first season.
You’ve said that in moving from The Daily Show to Parks and Recreation, you were interested in writing more for characters and following a story line. Is there a specific character you like writing for the most?
Yeah, I love writing for Leslie, obviously, but I think actually my favorite thing is writing scenes between April and Ron because they’re both so laconic — they’ve got worlds underneath their two-syllable sentences. When you write dialogue for them, there are fewer words on that page than on any other page of the script, but it’s all in them, like, staring at each other.
Speaking of April, when is she going to hook up with Andy?
Um, yeah, that’s definitely a thing. It was written in and then the acting was so good that we actually had to cut it down a ton. You’ll have to wait and see.
A lot has been made of the fact that you were the sole female writer at The Daily Show. Does it feel different now having other women around?
I love it! You know, there was a lot made of my being the only female while I was there at The Daily Show, but truthfully, it didn’t really affect me. It didn’t really occur to me that I would want to work with other women because it just didn’t feel like an issue. But yeah, it’s really made me realize, shockingly, how much I missed working with women, only because I can be a little girlie around them and not feel like I’m compromising my comedic nature. I’ve started wearing skirts to work. It’s something I maybe did twice in three-and-a-half years at The Daily Show. Like seriously. It sounds so frivolous and silly, but it’s actually not. Like I am enjoying wearing skirts.