Bridget Carpenter's first play didn't go over too well. A senior at a girls' school which was "kind of, you know, Catholic," Carpenter shone as top student, class president, and all-around good girl. Then she wrote "Interlude," a one-act about a man and a woman trapped in an elevator, which her drama teacher arranged to have staged in the high-school auditorium. During the play, the audience heard the interior monologues of these characters--which featured some, well, impure thoughts. That is, when the two weren't busy smoking pot.
The school's nuns were not happy. After the performance, the holy sisters did not talk to their prized student anymore. At graduation, Bridget Carpenter did not give the valedictory speech, nor did she win any honors. The 17-year-old's reaction?
"I was like, allll rrrright! I never got that kind of bad attention before, I never Acted Out. I thought, Check it out! I'm in trouble!... I was hooked."
Eleven years later, Minneapolis's Eye of the Storm is producing Carpenter's Mr. Xmas. If the nuns ever catch wind of this play, Carpenter may find her high-school diploma revoked. Mr. Xmas is about pornography. And Christmas. Mr. Xmas is about the twin institutions of pornography and Christmas.
God rest ye, merry gentlemen.
Perhaps the nuns have had their revenge. Their muttering disapproval got Carpenter addicted to a profession with a fame-and-fortune potential somewhere below poet and above sculptor--a profession where even if you have made it, nobody has heard of you. And in playwriting terms, Carpenter is slowly but surely making it.
At 29, she has seen 14 of her plays professionally produced. In 1997, The Death of the Father of Psychoanalysis (& Anna) was staged in New York and Massachusetts, and in Minneapolis, by Eye of the Storm. Carpenter herself came to Minneapolis and the Playwrights' Center from Brown University's top-notch playwriting program on a Jerome Fellowship in 1995. The next year, she won another one. In the last two years, she's won two State Arts Board grants and the Playwrights' Center's McKnight Advancement Grant. Earlier this year, she won the Princess Grace Playwright Fellowship, a prestigious national award given each year to one "emerging playwright" under 30--past winners include Tony Kushner, perhaps the only contemporary playwright that many people have heard of.
Yes, Bridget Carpenter is Emerging, though the honor is dubious; to her, it means members of grant boards pat her on the head, cooing, "'Well, Bridget, some people know you, but most don't. But we think you're working really hard. Really.'" "Emerging" is a label she should probably get used to. Paula Vogel, Carpenter's mentor through her undergraduate and graduate career at Brown, has written successful plays over the last two decades, including The Baltimore Waltz, which was produced all around the country and which won her an Obie in 1992. This year, Vogel won the Pulitzer Prize for How I Learned to Drive, and the media has been treating the 46-year-old veteran like new talent. (Vogel says that she believes Carpenter will win a Pulitzer Prize in the 21st century.)
Says Carpenter, "It always confuses me when people say, 'Oh, have I heard of you?' and I say, 'Well do you go to the theater?' and they say, 'No,' and I say, 'Well, I doubt it.' And then they say, 'Tell me a title,' like it's a game, and they might guess right."
Of course, if any new play has the potential to create a media (and convent) buzz, it's the irresistible Mr. Xmas. But the script isn't simply about pornography. For Carpenter, the play began in a desire to explore and explode an American mythology. Pornography is the vehicle for the script's examination of success and manhood in America.
Carpenter has perhaps a more natural sense of the porn world than some of her Midwestern peers. The playwright grew up near the San Fernando Valley--she's got the freckles, the sun-streaked hair, and faint valley accent to prove it--and she describes the region as the nation's hotbed of porn. "There are certain coffee shops you'd be at at 3 in the morning and there were people who had obviously come from a porn shoot. And they looked really tired."
That demystification of the porn world gave Carpenter an ability to see pornography as an approach to a broader theme. Pornography, she says, "plays into people's desires to be watched, to be famous, to be on film. There's something so American about that hackneyed Andy Warhol phrase, your '15 minutes of fame,' but it's ingrained in our culture. Porn seems to embody that." It's a basic distillation of the American Dream. Men who are able to perform can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get their 15 minutes. Men who can't, fail.
Porn, on the most basic level, is the ultimate sellout, the greatest conceivable prostitution of an art (if porn acting can be labeled an art). There's an underlying irony in an emerging playwright expounding on the topic of fame in America. Carpenter has chosen a career that damns her to grant applications and a life sentence of obscurity, all for her love of an art. Meanwhile, her Mr. Xmas, Brian, has chosen a path where the art of love will deliver him from obscurity. Who's got it worse?