We had the good fortune of connecting with A.A. Brenner and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi A.A., how do you think about risk?
Growing up as a queer, Disabled kid in New York City, my mentor, hero, and best friend was my great-aunt Helen, who was a Polio survivor and basically my own personal Disabled icon. In an era when most Disabled children weren’t even allowed to go to school, Aunt Helen went to college, got her master’s, taught in the Brooklyn public school system for over 40 years, and even walked the Great Wall of China. She also instilled in me her life’s motto: that I could do anything I wanted to do, be anything I wanted to be, if I tried—which means always being ready and willing to take a risk. To this day, Aunt Helen’s words remain the ones I live by as a playwright, artist, and human being.
As a writer, I believe that the best art—the art that has the power to challenge societal structures, to force audiences to look inwards and question themselves, their identities, and, ultimately, the world around them—is art that is radically honest. It isn’t preoccupied with what others might think, but, instead, concerns itself with what you, the playwright or creator, want to say. And any time you make a statement, especially one that’s honest to your experience, there is always an inherent risk. Will audiences understand what I’m saying? Will they be ready and willing to receive it? Will theatres or producers be interested? But if you don’t risk it all by being true to yourself and your story, you’ll never create work that truly inspires, drives, and challenges audiences and yourself. The more specific and truthful you are to your big questions and personal experiences, the more likely your work is to have an impact on, and connect with, others.
So, while being a playwright, and entering the theatre and entertainment industries is in and of itself a risk—especially in the wake of the COVID-19 shutdown—I take risks every day, whenever I sit down and begin to write.
I also believe that, in life, the only way to make change, and to leave space for potential abundance, is to risk—and while sometimes these risks lead to loss, ultimately, they get you to a truer, more authentic version of yourself. The same is true of art-making: the more risks you take, the more abundance you make space for in your artistic life, and the more likely you are to discover new forms and catalyze change. Risk is contagious: the more you challenge yourself to take big swings, the more others around you will endeavor to as well. And it’s this sense of togetherness, this group empowerment, that I believe is the most vital to creating true, large-scale artistic and societal transformation.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
As a trans, Disabled, Jewish playwright and person, I am committed to deconstructing the links between white supremacy culture, family systems, and American society. I specifically interrogate the ways in which familial and societal expectations, ableism, compulsive cis-heterosexuality, and aspirational whiteness restrict and corrode all bodies, all in the name of achieving an ever-evasive, Sisyphean “American Dream.” It’s my hope that, in deconstructing these so-called societal “norms” through my plays, I’ll be able to illuminate just how simultaneously ridiculous and damaging they are, and call for collective liberation by encouraging audiences to eschew white supremacy culture and, instead, embrace a new culture of radical self-love. Professionally, I’ve found that I’ve had the most success (and also have had the most fun) when I just sit down and write exactly what I want to without worrying about what anyone else thinks. When I’m true to myself and what I’m passionate about, the work becomes specific and nuanced; when the work is specific and nuanced, it’s much easier for others to connect to. And, for me, that’s what theatre and art-making is about: connection.
I’m also incredibly lucky that I genuinely enjoy meeting people and making friends, especially with other creative people. I love hearing about what makes other artists tick, what their obsessions and passions are, so, in terms of how I’ve “[gotten] to where [I am] today,” it’s really just been through finding my people and making connections through shared obsessions and art.
Theatre is simultaneously both a big and small industry, and getting to this point of being considered an “emerging writer” (whatever that means) hasn’t been easy. I’ve had many moments where I’ve considered giving up, especially in the wake of COVID-19 and the abundance of theatre closures that followed. But I’ve learned that what makes the theatre is the people, not the institutions—so these days, I just try to go out there, be myself, and make friends with people I feel artistically aligned with along the way. Since I’m still very much at the beginning of my career, I’m really looking forward to continuing to make those connections and exploring what we can create together, specifically in terms of constructing new, nuanced narratives about the trans, queer, and Disabled communities (and all the intersections thereof). Over the past few years, it’s been awesome to see how much more inclusive of Disabled and trans representation the media has become, but there’s still a long way to go. Instead of watching stories with a trans or Disabled “best friend,” I want to see narratives about trans, Disabled protagonists; instead of stories about a Disabled person “overcoming” or discovering their Disability, I want to see narratives in which a character’s Disability is implicit to the plot without being the plot itself; instead of stories with only one trans or Disabled character, I want to see narratives with multiple trans AND Disabled characters. And I want to see trans, Disabled characters behaving badly! I want to see trans, Disabled villains.
We contain multitudes, and I want to see (and write) it all.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I’m currently based in New York City but have a deep connection to LA, so here are some of my favorite spots in both places: If you’re looking for a spot to write (or just to grab a great cup of coffee), my favorite coffee shop in LA is the Intelligentsia on Abbot-Kinney in Venice. I’m obsessed with Venice, which definitely makes me a bit of a tourist, but I have no shame. I recently discovered there’s actually an Intelligentsia in New York City at the Highline Hotel; they have an amazing outdoor patio that I’ve been taking full advantage of this summer, and if you work for long enough, it becomes a cocktail bar in the evening!
For a weekend in New York, I’d take friends straight to Central Park; I’ve been going there since I was a kid and know the entire geography based on where the statues are. Afterwards, I’d hit up an authentic New York deli for some matzoh ball soup (skip the line at Katz’s and try the 2nd Avenue Deli or Veselka instead). Then I’d grab dinner in the West Village at Hudson Clearwater, and hop over to the East Village afterwards for a drink (there are so many options it’s hard to go wrong, but my friends and I always somehow end up at Bibi Wine Bar). The next day, I’d grab a bagel at H&H, then hop on a train to Brooklyn and head to Coney Island, stopping at Di Fara in Midwood for the best pizza in the city on the way. Once you arrive at Coney Island, get a hot dog at Nathan’s and ride the Wonder Wheel, or the Cyclone if you’re up for a bumpy adventure (perhaps before the hot dog).
As far as a weekend in LA goes, I (unsurprisingly) usually stay in Venice so I can take full advantage of the beach. I’ll typically grab a meal in Downtown Santa Monica, or drive over to Malibu to eat at one of those cafe’s directly on the water. I love going out in West Hollywood for an evening adventure, and also have wanted to spend more time in Silverlake and Echo Park, both of which sort of remind me of Brooklyn, where I currently live. I’m excited to spend much more time in LA over the next couple of years so I can develop my list more thoroughly!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
So many. I’m incredibly grateful for all the teachers, collaborators, and mentors I met through my time at Columbia University School of the Arts’ MFA Playwriting Program—Lynn Nottage, David Henry Hwang, Chuck Mee, and my thesis mentor Lucy Thurber—as well as through my time as the Casting & Roundtable Apprentice—and, later, as a playwright-in-residence—at The Lark: Krista Williams, Lloyd Suh, Andrea Hiebler, Gregg Mozgala, Nora Brigid Monahan, John Eisner, and so many more. I’ve also been extremely lucky to collaborate and grow with some amazing emerging playwrights, directors, producers, dramaturgs, and designers: my entire Columbia MFA Playwriting cohort, but especially frequent collaborators Greg Nanni and Ida Esmaeili; directors Colm Summers and Spencer Whale; producers Raffie Rosenberg, Jessie Hirschhorn, and Jason Aaron Goldberg; dramaturgs Anisa Threlkeld, Austin Tooley, and May Treuhaft-Ali (who is also an incredible playwright); and designers Betsy Chester, Liam Bellman-Sharpe, and Richard Ouellette. I’d also love to dedicate this shoutout to the Disabled theatrical community, specifically my entire Lark-Apothetae cohort, Sonya Rio-Glick, Ryan Haddad, Jordan Berger, and the amazing folks at National Disability Theatre, MAC (Museum, Arts & Culture Access Consortium), and CO/LAB Theater Group.
Photos by Jessie Hirschhorn, Brian Murphy, Danielle Diamond, and Hannah Rose.