Anna Ziegler on gender reassignment, parenting, literary bonding, betrayal, the blinding force of love, and BOY


The last of this season’s *EST/Sloan First Light Festival RoughCut Productions will occur with performances of BOY by Anna Ziegler this Wednesday, December 10 at 7:00 PM and on Thursday, December 11 at 3:00 PM. BOY tells the story of a family with twin boys, one of whom suffers a botched circumcision and who is then raised as a girl. Anna took time from what you will learn is a very busy period of her life to answer our many questions.

The story of BOY bears many resemblances to the case of David Reimer, a twin boy born in 1965 in Canada who suffered a botched circumcision and who, at the advice and under the care of psychologist John Money, was raised as a girl. How much did that incident inform your writing of BOY?  

The story of David Reimer was certainly the inspiration for my play. It gave me a very general framework – boy loses penis, boy is raised as a girl, boy learns what happened to him and returns, at age fifteen, to being a boy. I set the play during the same time frame as the Reimer story because it is also a chronicle of where science was during those years—if the play were set now, for instance, no one would believe that such a decision could be made, and indeed, it likely wouldn’t. But the play departs quite radically from Reimer’s story in almost all other respects. For instance, the John Money/David Reimer story seemed to lack the particular angle in which I was most interested – a story in which love is the blinding force, as opposed to greed or ambition or cruelty. I wasn’t interested in writing a story about a villain and a victim, but in exploring the complicated terrain of mutual need, love and dependence between doctor and patient, and the problems that arise when someone is desperate to see an experiment succeed.

In another interview you mentioned that “betrayal and forgiveness and the durability of love” are recurrent themes in your plays. Is this true in BOY?

Ha ha. That might have been my way of not answering that question! I mean, one would be hard pressed to find a play that doesn’t involve at least some of those things. But having said that, I think those themes play a huge role in BOY too. At the heart of the play is an incredible betrayal, stunning in its scope and consequences. That Adam can ultimately find a way to forgive his parents speaks to his gradual recognition that it was in fact love that drove their decision, and to all the characters’ deep humanity and good intentions, however flawed.

If I have the chronology right, you had your first child around the same time you were writing BOY. How did becoming a mother for the first time inform your writing?

You’re right! My son Elliot was born in June, 2013, right smack in the middle of my time with BOY. So I had already done many drafts of the play by the time I became a mom, but when I continued to work on it, my perspective shifted. Unsurprisingly, I related much more to the parents in the play, and their position came to seem all the more heartbreaking. There’s a moment that’s actually no longer in the play when the doctor, Wendell, who’s been nursing resentment towards his own mother (who’s also no longer in the play), realizes that he has failed his patient, a patient he thought of as his own child, and he says, “I never forgave her – my mother. I thought one had to work hard to truly fail a child. I thought it was painstaking, deliberate work.” This idea keeps coming back to me these days. How blinded by love we can be to the real needs of our children.

There are quite a few literary references in the play – to Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Leigh Hunt. Are you saying as much about literature in the play as you are about science?

Oh gosh, I think you’re my ideal reader! You caught all my references. And who knows? Maybe subconsciously I’m trying to say something about literature’s limitations being comparable to science’s. Or maybe I’m just dusting off the old English degree and putting it to some use for once – when else can I show off that I read those books? But from a practical standpoint, many of those texts appear in the play because the act of reading connects two of the characters – the child, Samantha, and the doctor, Wendell. Books become incredibly important to Samantha’s growing – and changing – sense of herself. Frankenstein, Paradise Lost and Jane Eyre are also so much about freedom and captivity, creators and their creations, and man’s overreaching, that they felt appropriate to the play.

When did you first become interested in science? In playwriting? Which came first?

Playwriting definitely came first! As mentioned above, I was an English major – your classic kinda scared-of-science girl writer. I regularly cried in math class in middle school. It was only when I was commissioned to write a play about a group of female scientists, and began to research Rosalind Franklin in particular, that I became more interested than I was daunted. When I was working on Photograph 51, I had the probably-obvious-to-most revelation that science is driven by people and personalities as much as any field is, and that changed the way I looked at the entire endeavor of science – and of writing plays about it.

Yes, we should probably mention that Photograph 51, which dramatizes the story of Rosalind Franklin’s role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, was the widely acclaimed EST/Sloan Mainstage Production in 2010 and has received many productions around the world since. Besides BOY and Photograph 51, what other plays have you written that have a scientific component?

None, really. I did write a couple drafts of a play about Heinrich Schliemann, the businessman-turned-archeologist who believed so deeply in the truth of Homer’s stories that he made it his life’s work to find the real Troy. This was also a Sloan commission, but it turned out not to involve very much science (and maybe not very much drama either) so I didn’t pursue it further.

What’s next for Anna Ziegler?

Immediately after these RoughCut performances in First Light, I’m getting on a plane to San Diego for the Old Globe’s New Voices Festival, where my newest play The Last Match will be read on Saturday night. After that, it’s basically the holidays, when you’re allowed to do very little, right? I think those will go on for about three months for me this year, if at all possible. I also have a commission I’ll be working on in 2015 from Seattle Rep – an adaptation of a book called The Lost Bank, which is about a topic even more daunting to me than science: finance. And maybe Matt Schatz and I will actually write our musical about Lenny Ross, the child prodigy who went toe-to-toe with Mike Wallace in an interview that made Ross famous but also foreshadows his tragic end. Sounds like a musical, right? And then, you know, other things, like watching with wonder as my one year old grows and grows and also, more importantly, the next season of Game of Thrones (when is that coming out already?) and trying to decide for myself whether or not Adnan of Serial fame is guilty or just really really unlucky.

*The First Light Festival is a month-long series of workshop productions and readings that is part of the play development process of The EST/Sloan Project, a joint venture of the Sloan Foundation and the Ensemble Studio Theatre.