Interview with Playwright Jennifer Wilson

Susan Shay's interview with playwright Jennifer Wilson, “And That’s What Little Girls Are Made Of,” October 19 to November 4, 2012, Tides Theatre, San Francisco. November 26, 2012.

SMS: You’ve just concluded what you call a successful three-week run of your new play, the weekend before Election Day. Why do you consider the play a success?

JW: My objective was to generate conversation about the complex issues that keep American women from achieving their potential. Although we scheduled a couple of panel discussions following performances, we discovered that we didn’t need the planned panels. The audience spontaneously wanted to discuss the issues the play illuminates. That was very exciting, and confirmed that these issues are intense and people want to talk about them.

SMS: For those who were obsessed with the election and missed the play, would you please summarize the production?

JW: This is my autobiographical story of trying to start a venture capital fund to invest in women entrepreneurs in the late 80s. That makes it sound kind of dry, but it wasn’t! Although it follows all the way from beginning to end of my entrepreneurial adventure, it incorporates experiences from my career in business to demonstrate how a person’s entire life contributes to the conception of an idea. There’s an amazing amount of “stuff” included in the play, so I guess I’m not surprised people wanted to talk about it. It moves really fast, the actors are all wearing those horrible shoulder-pad outfits from the late 80s, and 80s music is interspersed throughout to connect the scenes. Remember Donna Summers’ She Works Hard for the Money? And Abba’s Money, Money, Money?

SMS: How did you attract an audience for the play?

JW: I was so offended by the anti-woman rhetoric of the Republican party in the six months prior to the election, it was important to me to contrast that dialog with the story depicted in the play. Still, there was so much noise around the election, it was a challenge to get the attention of audience-generating media. That said, we had fantastic media coverage. Peter Dellevant of the San Jose Mercury-News immediately caught on to the venture capital aspect of the play and wrote a very original articlebefore we opened. Then we got several column inches in the entertainment section of the San Francisco Chronicle during the run. When Mary Duncan’s article in The Huffington Post appeared soon thereafter we were over the moon. So, although I would have preferred to fill every seat at every performance, my director assures me that we achieved very admirable totals, especially for a new play by an unknown playwright. (NB: These articles can be found in PDF format on the Media Page)

SMS: So, would you say this is a play about venture capital?

JW: No. I’d say the play uses venture capital to tell a story. Still, there are so many misconceptions about that business, made more vivid by the focus on Romney’s Bain Capital career. I was married to Jean Hoerni, a brilliant Swiss physicist who was one of the founders of Silicon Valley. When he was a partner at Fairchild Semiconductor he invented the process to make microchips, the planar process, that’s still being used today. When he was inducted into the Computer History Museum and the Inventor’s Hall of Fame he was referred to as one of the first “serial entrepreneurs.” He founded many companies, but do you think he was self-financed? Never. If it hadn’t been for venture capital none of those companies would exist. Plus, he was an immigrant. People! Let’s figure out this muddy immigration issue once and for all. Jean couldn’t find a decent job in post World War II Europe so he immigrated to the US and worked for Linus Pauling at Cal Tech before he was recruited by Nobel Prize winner Edwin Shockley. Just think of all the brilliant people who weren’t born here but are attracted to our culture of opportunity.

SMS: So I take it you’re a cheerleader for the venture capital industry?

JW: In any business there will be examples of the very best and the very worst and venture capital is no exception. Still, venture capital is a uniquely American vehicle to generate a healthy economy. Risk just doesn’t come natural for most cultures around the world. But America was born on risk-taking and it’s a vital part of our culture. How exciting is that? So many of our heroes are risk-takers. Charles Lindberg, Amelia Earhart, and many more who were earthbound, so to speak.

SMS: That reminds me of the name of your company, Sky Venture Capital Fund. Why did you choose that name?

JW: Naming the business is part of the play. You’ll just have to see the play. But I should add that I wanted to communicate the unlimited, untapped potential of talented American women who are eager to make things happen, if only they can gain access to investment capital. Our country is on the verge of missing the boat on this issue. The economy’s at risk if we don’t figure out that integrating women into all aspects of our world is essential. Research shows that companies that do so are ahead of those that don’t. The creation of new companies is part of this matrix. We’re stuck in the mud on so much of this.

SMS: I assume that you’re a Democrat and a supporter of the President?

JW: I am so much a Democrat and so much a supporter of the President. Just look at what he’s done for women in the four years he’s been at the mercy of Mitch McConnell. Imagine what he could have done if McConnell had thought about the country instead of his power base. Plus, he’s a dad of daughters, another feature of the play. Dads of daughters really get it. If their daughters aren’t able to contribute their talents to making our world a better place, that really burns them up. I’m also a cheerleader for Nancy Pelosi. She had a fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Committee before the play opened and I treated my cast and staff to tickets. Gloria Steinem was a speaker. What an inspiration for all of us. It’s been fascinating for me to observe media coverage of Pelosi, especially in the last decade. (Isn’t it amazing that she’s been doing this for 25 bloody years?) There’s an element of our culture that’s scared to death of powerful women. So many of the public comments about her are personal. Same is true of Hillary Clinton. And did you notice the pushback when pregnant Marissa Meyer was hired to head Yahoo? Crazy weird. And so American. We really have to figure this out. It seems that no matter how accomplished these talented women may be, there are cultural ropes that are trying to hope them back and tie them down. What’s that all about?

SMS: Your dad was a Republican Governor of Iowa, Norman Erbe.

JW: Yes, and I really miss being able to talk politics with Dad, father of three daughters. He would be astonished at what’s happened to the Republican party. I’m pretty sure he would call himself a Rockefeller Republican, one of the moderates who’ve been keeping their heads down lately. But they’re still out there. I’m guessing their time is about to come, but they have a lot of miles to make up. Have you noticed that there isn’t one Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi in the Republican Party? Can you think of one powerful Republican woman without scanning your memory bank of Senators and Congressional Representatives? What does that say about the Republican Party? They may have a long, lonely dry spell.

SMS: So, timing your play right before the election, does it make reference to politics?

JW: There’s just one tiny reference to politics that places the play historically. It refers to government efforts to control what women do with their bodies. Seriously, every conversation I’ve had with men demonstrates abhorrence of government having any control whatsoever over their bodies. I cannot fathom why they feel women should be the exception. That’s so bizarre. It must be their envy of our ability to gestate life. I believe eventually women won’t be required to devote their bodies to this biological function. Until then, government has no place in making our decisions for us.

SMS: Rape was an unfortunate part of the Republican dialogue this election cycle. Does your play address this volatile issue?

JW: Volatile indeed! The play has gone through many rewrites, but the scene that remained intact, and the scene universally praised for its skill, was cut fairly close to performance. In all my discussions with men about rape over many, many years, the vehicle that seems to help them understand the violence of rape is imagining being raped by another man. Even before the Republicans made this an election issue, I felt that effectively communicating the essential nature of rape was important, not only literally but metaphorically, in that so many obstacles for women are beyond their control. The scene is very visceral. It’s very effective. But because it’s a monologue in a play that’s mostly rapid-fire discourse it really threw off the rhythm. And it was so powerful that it really threatened to dominate the take-away, when there were so many other issues vying and deserving of attention. My talented director, Jennifer Welch, and my amazing dramaturg, Suze Allen, had to sit down with me and insist that it be cut. That was painful. But of course I still have it and hope it sees the light of day in another life.

SMS: You refer to discourse, dialogue. Tell me about the characters in the play.

JW: The play is very simply staged, with just an office desk and a screen upon which images are projected. There are only three actors, each of whom play me. In order to separate the script into the three parts I refer to them as Jen, Jenny and Jennifer. But they’re all me. I divided myself into three parts for a couple of reasons. Everyone has various sides of their personality that are revealed differently depending on who they’re interacting with and what the situation is. Dividing the individual into three enabled me to demonstrate this complexity. It also helps the audience to identify with at least one of the three characters, if not all three. Plus, we all talk to ourselves. That’s a lot easier with three actors! They interact but they also address the audience directly, as they would in a monologue. So I call it a monologue with three actors. In scenes that require a male presence they toss on a necktie and assume male postures and voices. I can’t say enough about my talented cast. They were amazing! And funny! There’s lots of humor in the play.

SMS: Humor? The subject sounds very serious. How did you incorporate humor?

JW: It’s true that I’m very serious about my objective. But turning this story into a play and making it humorous was essential to beginning the dialogue. We can’t address serious social issues unless we’re willing to step back and laugh at ourselves. It’s just too painful otherwise.

SMS: Why did you choose theater as a medium for this story?

JW: I hope the play will generate change. Sometimes entertainment is the best way to do that.

SMS: What’s the future for “And That’s What Little Girls Are Made Of?”

JW: We’re in the planning stages now. I’d like the play to be produced throughout the country, generating discussion, inspiring entrepreneurial women who will be creating new businesses, unleashing more investment capital to create more jobs. Based upon audience reception we’ve begun to make plans to take the play to other geographic locations. Of course we’d like to first take it to Silicon Valley, but Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, New York, Boston, Seattle are all in our sights.