5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Marielle Heller

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures is a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner that hit actress-playwright Marielle Heller right between the eyes. Told from the viewpoint of a 15-year-old girl, Minnie, at the vortex of childhood and womanhood in 1970s San Francisco, what distinguished Gloeckner’s coming-of-age tale for Heller was Minnie’s bracing self-awareness, her zen-like prepossession. Inspired, Heller quickly tried to acquire the rights to the novel, but Gloeckner (or at least her publisher) initially, then repeatedly, demurred. Thus began a tale of doggedness that took months to pay off, but it did — and the adapting began.

One key for Heller, she says, was persuading Gloeckner that audiences would be as jarred as Heller did reading it. Far from Beverly Cleary-land, the piece is more Judy Blume via Vladimir Nabokov: Minnie, as the book begins, has just begun an affair with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe.

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That adaptation has come together is unsurprising considering the Heller’s industriousness:

…She studied Theatre at UCLA and at RADA in London. She was in the world premiere of David Edgar’s “Continental Divide” directed by Tony Taccone (TIME magazine’s theater event of the year) at Berkeley Rep, and continuing to Birmingham Rep in England and the Barbican Theater on the West End, and the La Jolla Playhouse… She worked with American Zoetrope and Francis Ford Coppola on the development of new films… She has worked toward the development of numerous new plays, working hand in hand with playwrights at Cherry Lane, Naked Angels, Clubbed Thumb, Ensemble Studio Theater, the Chocolate Factory, the Committee Theater, Six Figures, The Fringe and others. She is proud to be an affiliated artist of New Georges.

A second key was Heller’s development process: Under the mentorship of the aforementioned Taccone, the script began taking shape; later, Heller began to collaborate with Sarah Cameron Sunde and Rachel Eckerling, who remain co-directors of this production.

Produced by Aaron Louis in association with New Georges and The Essentials, The Diary of a Teenage Girl runs through Apr. 12 at 3LD Art & Technology Center (80 Greenwich St.) and features actors Jon Krupp, Michael Laurence, Mariann Mayberry and Nell Mooney.

For tickets to The Diary of a Teenage Girl, call 866-811-4111 or click here.

And now, 5 questions Marielle Heller has never been asked — and a bonus question:

Marielle Heller and Mariann Mayberry
Photo by Jim Baldassare

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“So, why do you love this?” Mariann Mayberry, who plays the mom, Charlotte, asked me that on the first day of rehearsal. I told her that I feel so drawn to tell the real story of what it feels like to be a girl coming of age sexually. I love stories about teenagers, and almost all of them focus on boys and their boners and all. But girls have just as many confusing, awkward, hilarious thoughts and feelings buzzing around in them. And I loved this character, Minnie, more than any other character I’ve ever encountered. She is totally honest. I admire her.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“When are you going to get a real job?” I’m not sure if that really counts as a question about my work, but that is the most idiotic question I think you could ask an artist, right?

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Can we make this faster, funnier and more political?” That is a real quote… I don’t even know what to say about it.

4) The Diary of a Teenage Girl occurs in 1970s San Francisco. Are there any differences between the time and place of the piece and, say, a 15-year-old New York girl in 2010? Does the time and place affect how the main character thinks and feels?
Absolutely. The culture of the country in 1976, and particularly the political climate in San Francisco at that time, was so in transition. It feels like everyone was still reeling from the ’60s, and the teenagers at that time were finding themselves without significant grown-up figures or rules. It was a really volatile time to be a growing up. At the same time, I think being a teenager is always volatile and emotional, and even with fantastic role-models, it’s the most confusing time of our lives. So as much as I think this story is so specifically Bay Area and so ’70s, I believe it touches on universal themes of coming of age: Is what I’m feeling normal? What is love? Who am I? What the fuck am I going to do with my life and will I even survive?

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Marielle Heller and Nell Mooney, Photo by Jim Baldassare

5) You were very persistent pursuing the rights to adapt the graphic novel. With so many obstacles against you, how often were you tempted to give up? Why didn’t you? How did you find that balance between persistent and annoying?
I honestly don’t know. I just tried to act on the days that I was feeling positive and filled with optimism, and on the days I felt like giving up (which came around a lot), I just wouldn’t talk to anyone about the play. It was so clear to me that this play had to happen. I felt like something was pulling me that I didn’t have control over, so I couldn’t really question it. I had never been so clear with something I wanted to do in my whole life. It’s a rare kind of invigorating feeling… I think I would be lucky if it ever comes around again.

Bonus Question:


6) What about The Diary of a Teenage Girl will appeal to boys, young men and men?
As girls, we have been watching the stories about boys forever, and relating to those main characters as though they were us. I think it can totally go the other way. Feelings are feelings…and Minnie’s longing for belonging, and finding love, and sexual awakening, are universal. In some ways I think it could be refreshing for boys and men to realize they aren’t the only ones who go through this major confusing period of sexual awakening. But, of course, it’s also scary. We don’t like to look at the sexuality of women in the same way we are comfortable looking at male sexuality. It’s hard to find it as funny! But I think we do a good job of that with the play — it’s really surprisingly funny.