Rachel Bonds likes deadlines.
The prolific playwright whose 2014 opus, “Five Mile Lake,” is at Princeton’s McCarter Theater through Sunday, May 31, honed her craft and gained welcome artistic discipline by joining writers’ groups for which she had to prepare new material for each meeting. Although she says she writes up a storm, the requirement to finish, advance, or introduce fresh compositions at a regular, appointed time focused her and kept her going purposefully forward instead of writing perpetually with no fixed aim.
Bonds says she usually has two or more pieces percolating at once. “Five Mile Lake” alternated with 2010’s “Michael and Edie” for Bonds’ attention. And a large multi-character play with music is being developed alongside a more intimate piece — the latter reflecting Bonds’ reputation as a playwright with a distinct voice that explores the inner workings of sad and complex young people experiencing pronounced traumas.
“I thrive on the pressure to get something done,” Bonds says by telephone from her Brooklyn apartment. “Pressure doesn’t allow me to go down the rabbit hole to where I’m writing but not completing anything. To keep my navigation constant, I have to have a deadline, have to have a priority, and have to have someone counting on me. It balances the frenzy. I have to keep working towards an end. I have to keeping churning (material) out in a pragmatic way to meet my commitments.”
Bonds talks about going back and forth between “Michael & Edie,” a play about book store co-workers whose romance, instigated by Michael, is stymied by festering events that affect them too much as individuals to subside enough for them to be a couple, and “Five Mile Lake,” which has a different take on unrequited love, sibling relationships, and the way people from cities and small towns intersect.
“Michael & Edie” was started in 2008 and “Five Mile Lake” in 2010. “I staggered their writing, working on one and then the other, then took them through the process of reading scenes at writers’ groups and showcasing that led to productions. I find that things happen in spurts. You have an intense period of creativity and writing followed by an equally heady period of production. Right now, I’m in the flurry of both. I am working on writing two plays, both commissioned, that have projected dates for production while my earlier plays are getting attention and being produced.” (“Michael & Edie” received an excellent production, directed by James Ijames at Villanova Theater, in February.)
“One of the plays, commissioned by the Manhattan Theater Club, is a departure from anything else I’ve done. It’s big and has a lot of characters. It’s so different for me to navigate through its writing and to work with a collaborator because the play includes music. The other is more in keeping with what people expect from me. It’s a quieter three-character piece in which all three play against each other in a concentrated way.”
Bonds has been writing, almost compulsively, since she was in high school. She began writing plays while a student at Brown University, which remains part of her life as her mobile telephone retains its Rhode Island area code (she graduated and moved to New York City in 2005).
Those first plays were solo pieces Bonds composed for her to perform and regroup. “My father died while I was in college. I needed some place to put all the grief I was feeling. Writing has always been a release of sorts, from the essays I wrote in high school to the plays I began at Brown. A solo performance became the right outlet for all of the emotion I was contending with and needed to express. An incident I needed to deal with became the catalyst for everything I was doing in the theater, performing and writing, to combine. My talents, or my interests, joined.
“Writing naturally took over. It came first, and it was the mode of expression I preferred. My solo piece led to two-character pieces that involved characters that are not me. The farther they were away from me, the more I saw into what was driving them or holding them back. One thing did last from my solo performances. My characters largely dealt with grief. Different characters dealt in different ways, but grief touched and united them all.” She adds that other ideas began to emerge in the writing, including body image and personal potential.
“Acting did not fade away,” she says in reference to her artistic development. “I did a lot of it when I first came to New York, but writing satisfied me much more than performing. I think some of that had to do with control. While acting, you’re speaking someone else’s words and following a director’s vision. As a writer you create characters and situations. You initiate the process. A lot happens as you collaborate and work toward production, but the story is yours, and you are a primary participant.”
From characters dealing with grief, Bonds says she became attracted to characters confronted with crossroads. “I feel drawn to people who are lost and figuring the ways they can go. They are finding life different from what they thought it would be. They are saying, ‘Who am I?’ I find these characters deeply sad and funny. Even when things are drastically horrible, there is comedy in some aspects of their lives. It’s finding and relating the juxtaposition between the sad and funny that matters.”
The idea for “Five Mile Lake” came as the writer “was thinking about a small town, one that doesn’t offer a lot of opportunity or culture, and considering the fates and attitudes of the people who stayed in the town and the one who left it. Jamie is one who stayed. He works in a donut shop, but he inherited a lake house and his time is spent fixing it up. His life looks boring and mundane, but Jamie doesn’t have the ambition of some of the other characters. He, sometimes to their disapproval, is content.
“His brother, Rufus, has been pulled away from the town by ambition and has not been unsuccessful. He returns to town for a change of pace and to sort out his relationship with Peta, who is with him and is all big-city achievement.
“Mary is the character who is caught in between. She works with Jamie, who adores her, but she is attracted to Rufus and always has been. In some ways, I think of ‘Five Mile Lake’ as Mary’s play. There is a lot about who is fulfilled and why and about what people want or expect from life. Who, if anyone is happy within his or her realm, and who is not?”
Bonds grew up in Sewanee, Tennessee, in the eastern part of the state, in the Great Smoky Mountains near Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge (Dollywood), and the state university town of Knoxville. She attended St. Andrew’s School, where she says writing was an emphasized part of the curriculum. Her father was a university professor. Bonds says her paternal grandparents were interested in the arts, and her grandmother would take her to the movies and to theater.
“I don’t know whether I was 8 or 10, but somewhere around that time, my grandmother took me to see the movie of ‘A Chorus Line.’ I was mesmerized. I loved watching the stories of all of these people and how they handled their audition. I kept thinking, ‘This is important.’ I joined the theater program at St. Andrew’s. I wanted to see more movies and plays. I caught the bug,” she says.
Writing was also important at St. Andrew’s. Says Bonds: “They pounded into you how necessary it was for you to express yourself critically, creatively, and practically. Most of my writing were essays. ‘A Chorus Line’ remained in my head, and when I went to Brown, I took a course in playwriting. That led to a greater interest in theater. At the time, I wanted to be an actor and was interested in the development of female characters. My father’s death led to me writing the solo piece we talked about. Everything generates from there.”
After finishing college, she moved to New York, where she honed skills through interaction with active writers. “I joined writers’ groups, the Youngbloods at Ensemble Studio Theater and Ars Nova. They helped a lot. Besides providing the deadlines I needed to keep my writing on track, these groups introduced me to other writers who offered comments and criticism that made me consider how I was expressing a given idea or emotion. The good thing is no one tries to rewrite. They ask questions and explain what seems unclear or underdeveloped.”
The interaction also took her writing further. “I met people in the theater and began to understand professional theater. People knew of my work. I could get readings and showcases. The point of playwriting is to be produced, and I was working with people who could make that happen. I was also finding out the writer’s responsibility. It was all important to completing my plays and getting them on stage.”
After seeing some shorter works performed, her longer works attracted interest. “My first real production was at the Ensemble Studio Theater, which included one of my pieces in a marathon of new works. I kept writing and writing and sharing and sharing. Ars Nova helped me get an agent. I found so much of this indispensable. I was not a terribly efficient person. I didn’t pay attention to E-mails. My agent and others forced me to get plays ready for someone to read seriously. The plays were read. People vouched for my talent. It was like a gift. I could lead the freelance life I enjoyed and spend my time writing while others were looking out for me professionally and showing me the way to discipline and getting to the real objective.”
Even now that her plays are being widely produced, Bonds continues to participate in writers’ group and has expanded her membership. She says she also benefits from residencies designed to develop new work. She spent six weeks at Philadelphia’s Arden Theater, where she met Ijames.
In addition to “Five Mile Lake,” “Michael & Edie,” and the works in progress, Bonds is the author of “The Noise,” “The Wolfe Twins,” “Swimmers,” “Anniversary,” and “Winter Games.” A “voracious” reader who enjoys the novels of Nicole Krauss and Jennifer Egan, Bonds says influences include Virginia Woolf and current playwrights Caryl Churchill and Melissa Jamas Gibson.
Bonds — who is married to Robbie Saenz DeViteri, a movie producer (and director of a video of her “Michael & Edie” and Ensemble Studio one-acts) — says she looks forward to continuing work on her large play with music, work she regards as a challenge. “It’s incredibly hard and incredibly rewarding to do something different. I am definitely growing from it. It’s great, and interesting, to collaborate. I also enjoy that as I work, all becomes clearer when at one time, it seemed murkier and murkier. Then, of course, I have my more typical play to keep me comfortable.”
Five Mile Lake, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Through Sunday, May 31. Tuesdays through Thursdays and selected Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, 2 p.m. $25 to $92.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.