Merry XXXmas

With her comic new play, Minneapolis writer Bridget Carpenter gives new meaning to the term "Blue Christmas"

And she likes rust. She has an old rabbit trap hanging on her wall. "I think it's for rabbits," she says. "I got that in Fargo for $4. The guy who sold it to me had only one arm, and when I bought it he said, 'Careful with that thing, that's how I lost my arm.' And I looked horrified and then he laughed and said, 'Just kidding.'"

In the course of researching Mr. Xmas, Carpenter developed a new hobby: shopping for porn. She asked all of her friends for good titles. They demurred: You know, uh, I've never seen any. I mean maybe at a party or something.

Carpenter laughs. "All of my guy friends and family members would just mumble. 'I've only seen a little, maybe at a party or on cable.' And I'm wondering: What kind of parties are you going to? Is this a guy thing? Do guys go to parties and watch porn?"

Naughty but nice: Award-winning playwright and Dirty Debutante aficionado Bridget Carpenter
Christopher Peters
Naughty but nice: Award-winning playwright and Dirty Debutante aficionado Bridget Carpenter

But she had one friend she could count on: "OK, Maurice. You love porn."

He responded, "Oh yeahhhhh... I love me the porn."

Maurice gave her production company names and people to look out for, and Carpenter began going to video stores. "It was a really empowering experience to go in and know what I wanted and not get overwhelmed by the flesh. I had a little list. I was treated really well. I went downtown to Wabasha Books on Hennepin, and I was invariably the only woman in there. I could see people perk up and wonder what I was doing, and the store guy said, 'Uhhhh...can I help you?' and you could see that there was the beginning of some kind of weirdness. And I said, 'Yeah, I'm looking for Vivid Productions, do you have that? And do you carry the Dirty Debutantes series?' And he got completely professional.

"That was a really exciting experience, more so than actually watching the movies. I got brassy about it, because it was such a high. I'd sit there with films spread out around me reading the backs of tapes going, 'Oh, where's T.T. Boy?' or, 'Oh, I'm going to see Ron Jeremy.' It was titillating to be a woman who was knowledgeable about pornography, more so than actually watching the movies."

As indicated by her affection for field trips into windowless storefronts, Carpenter defies the stereotypes of the withered, reclusive, pretentious writer. Talking with her is like improv theater; she acts out her speech, mocking herself, drawing characters, implying stage directions with her voice. Perhaps that is why she is drawn to playwriting: Lonely as it may seem, it is the only kind of writing which is inherently social, collaborative, living. At rehearsal the actors talk and joke with her as if she were one of the cast. Carpenter watches intently while the actors are working, but when the stage manager calls a break, she shouts to one, "Boxing is magic--magic, I tell you!"

Carpenter is ridiculously positive about the process of staging Mr. Xmas because it has gone well; she and Stangl cannot stop singing each other's praises. But, of course, it's not always this way. "When I was younger and taking classes at the Mark Taper Forum," she explains, "I was rhapsodizing to [playwright] Eric Overmeyer about the 'magic of collaboration.' I gushed to him, 'Oh! It's like people are giving you presents!' He looked at me and said, 'And sometimes its like a dog comes in and shits on your rug.'"

Bridget Carpenter has had her share of dogshit. "There was a production of mine a few years ago in another state, at another theater," she says. "It was a play I was very proud of, and the director had simply wildly mishandled the piece. It was ponderous; it was slow. I couldn't stand to watch it.... And as I sat, tortured, watching the matinee, I looked around me to note that some of the older members of the audience--my audience--were sleeping! I was amazed. And jealous, too: It was so tiring to watch, and I thought, 'Boy, I wish I weren't so tense and upset, I'd love to be able to take a nap.'

"And this woman next to me kept shifting around and sighing loudly, just to make sure that other people knew that she wasn't having a very good time. And at the end of the play, the audience clapped, and the lights came up, and she turned to me and shrugged. I shrugged back, sort of in commiseration. 'Well,' she said. 'That was a hard sit.' I nodded. I sort of wanted to giggle or cry, I didn't know which. She shook her head and sighed again. Then she looked at the notebook in my lap. 'Oh, did you have something to do with this?' she asked, mildly interested. I looked at her and smiled. 'Nope,' I said."

This trying to make a living on something you love is a noble cause, but a trying business. "It is always hard to make a living," Carpenter says. "Always. Always. Always. Near to impossible. Truth: I live hand to mouth. Month to month. I have no savings. I have no health insurance...My worries about money are, frankly, ever-present and at times, crippling.... Isn't it strange and extraordinary that this choking fear is somehow, incredibly, balanced by a passion for making plays and a drive to spend inordinate amounts of time alone in a room arranging words on pieces of paper?"

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