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'Icebergs' playwright tackles global warming and other threats with dark humor

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For playwright Alena Smith, the anxieties of being an artist are similar to the effects of global warming, which is the subject of her new play.

In Alena Smith's new play, “Icebergs,” a young filmmaker is trying to get a new movie going without selling out, while his wife battles with the ethics of raising children under the gloom of global warming.

At the same time, a neighbor’s marriage is falling apart, a visiting academic is recounting what it’s like as an African-American in a racist world, and a clueless talent agent is struggling to make sense of pretty much everything. In other words, it's not just the climate that's under severe stress.

Alena Smith is not only a playwright, but also a screenwriter. Her television credits include “The Newsroom” and “The Affair.” When she came into The Frame's studio, she started by telling us how the play was conceived.

Interview Highlights:

On the genesis of the play:

I had tried for a while to come up with a TV show that would take place in the Arctic Circle and be sort of like "Northern Exposure," but dealing with global warming. That didn't go anywhere, but I had done all this research about global warming and about the arctic and how it was changing, and then I had this idea that it could be a play.

On how the play finds dramatic tension:

I often feel like my plays start with a social taboo being broken. In this case, I had this idea that at a dinner party, someone would announce they were pregnant and somebody else would say to them, You shouldn't have a child because of global warming! And that was a real taboo, that the idea could grow an exciting dramedy, because it's both things.

(L-R) Jennifer Mudge, Nate Corddry and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe in "Icebergs."
Jeff Lorch Photography
(L-R) Jennifer Mudge, Nate Corddry and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe in "Icebergs."

On how the metaphor of icebergs applies to artists:

This actually relates to another suggestion of the image of icebergs, which is sort of being on shifting ground, being on things that are always changing beneath your feet. As an artist, you often feel like you are going from ice flow to ice flow. You never know when you're about to capsize and drown. Everyone is balancing a lot of different aspects to life, but I think artists are balancing more, [including] how do you stay true to your vision? Especially for a female artist — the pressure to have a child, make money, and also maybe save the world at the same time. 

On the play's commentary on racism and the election:

There were swastikas being drawn before Donald Trump was president, too. A speech in the play was very much inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement that has been going on for a number of years now. I think that these were [existing] problems, but that are felt much more acutely by the actors and by everyone in the theater now. Actually, our first preview was on election night and I was sitting in the back row in the balcony looking at my phone and seeing that Trump was winning. It felt like the bottom was sliding out of the world. 

We all thought Hillary was going to win. There's actually a line in the play, a sort of offhand joke where one of the characters says, "The future is female." We thought we were all going to cheer when we said that line. Now that line has become one of the most haunting in the play because she says, "The future is female" and the agent says, "If you say so." And instead of moving forward on all of these incredibly important, life-threatening issues, we seem to perhaps be sliding back and that's very terrifying.

(L-R) Rebecca Henderson, Keith Powell, Jennifer Mudge, Nate Corddry and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe in "Icebergs."
Jeff Lorch Photography
(L-R) Rebecca Henderson, Keith Powell, Jennifer Mudge, Nate Corddry and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe in "Icebergs."

On the theater's obligation to provide social and political commentary:

I think this is the central question that any artist is asking themselves right now. The best answer I have is that I see a lot of what's going on right now in our culture as a failure of storytelling. I think one of the reasons why Trump was so successful is because he gave people a story that was coherent for them, that addressed the rage and the problems that they were feeling, and gave them an easy sense of a solution to those problems. In a way, that's what we're used to with blockbuster movies. We want easy stories, but I think that, as artists, we have to challenge those easy stories. We have to give harder stories, we have to give alternative stories, we have to give people a sense that we don't all have to believe in the same story either. We have choices. We have alternative narratives that we can fight for and defend, and find other people to include in our stories. In some ways, all of our stories end one way, which is death. The play is also about death. It takes place on Day of the Dead and someone pulls the tarot card of death — lots of death imagery. I'm trying to say, in some ways, Let's try to use our lives to help each other the best that we can.

"Icebergs" is at the Geffen Playhouse through Dec. 18.

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