Meet Managing Editor extraordinaire Alexa Derman, connoisseur of all things feminism, Hamlet, and show tunes. Alexa’s writing style is so wild that no one dares label it a certain genre, and her plays have been performed in various theatres across the country. Normally, this Yale freshman watches the spotlight illuminate the characters in her plays, but now, we’re opening the curtains for Alexa’s turn in the spotlight—the Adroit Blog Staff Spotlight, that is!
Bindu Bansinath: Anyone who's familiar with Adroit is no stranger to the name Alexa Derman. How did you originally get involved in the magazine?
Alexa Derman: I actually got involved through a former poetry editor. We both attended a summer program at TeenInk way back when, maybe four years ago, and she worked at Adroit and asked me to submit. This was maybe three websites ago for the magazine. I remember the font was really ratchet and it was this weird peach color. Anyway, I included a postscript in my submissions being all, "Heyo, if you ever need staff members!" and Peter "interviewed" me via Skype chat when I got back from a Bat Mitzvah and suddenly I was on staff. It was a little surreal.
BB: Sounds like it! Can't imagine Adroit in peach.
AD: I had no idea we'd explode and become so professional.
BB: What made you stay on with Adroit in its initial stages?
AD: I think I was just excited to be a part of something bigger than myself and my school literary magazine. I'm sure a tiny part of my tenth grade brain got a little bit of a power trip from these big fancy writers asking me to evaluate their work, but more than anything I remember just being excited, all the time. You know, offline and back in the world of my hometown I was stuck in this English class where people thought Shakespeare was what "old English" meant, and everyone's favorite author was John Green (not my personal cup of tea). But suddenly when I logged into Submittable, I got to talk to these kids across the country about short stories, of all things. I was really in awe of everybody. And then as the work we received began to get more experimental and innovative, that thrill of discovering really new ways of looking at literature also drove me to stick with it.
BB: For a tenth grader, that's a huge responsibility. How was your own writing process affected by your work at Adroit, if at all?
AD: I think I began to see writing differently in general; a short story didn't need a beginning, middle, and end, for example. I definitely drifted more towards innovative work. And I also think being surrounded by so many confident teens made me have more confidence in my own work, enough to start seeking out opportunities to showcase it, if that makes sense? Until Adroit almost everything I wrote just ended with me closing the Word document—I never tried to show it to other people.
BB: I hear great things about your hybrid writing and the pervasive feminism in your work. Could you talk a little more about that?
AD: I'm really into theatre, and Stephen Sondheim is my favorite composer (isn't he everyone's?). His personal motto about creating art is "content dictates form." I really take that to heart. A lot of the things I've written could be considered "hybrid" in that they're sort of genre-less and collage-y, but I don't ever set out to write in a weird form—I just try to pick the form that best serves that I'm writing about.
As for feminism, I think that's relevant to me in two different ways. First: writing about Ophelia was a mechanism, really, to write about feminism (and more specifically feminism and the modern millennial, I think). I didn't really realize that at the time. Second: I think that oftentimes, being someone who writes pieces (in particular, plays) about women constitutes as an act of feminism, because women's voices are severely lacking in literary circles (Just look at the VIDA count). More often than not, the stories I'm interested in telling happen to be women's stories, but I'm glad that they are, especially for plays. Sometimes, being a feminist writer just means creating developed female characters in a sea of ingenues and femme fatales and other archetypes.
BB: I’ve heard (and read!) much about your explorations of the Ophelia character. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
AD: In the past month or so we've mostly gone our separate ways, but Ophelia and I spent a lot of time together for about a year and a half. When I first read Hamlet in drama class my friend and I were assigned to perform the nunnery scene, and I remember writing this really scathing character history and wishing I got to play Hamlet. I was so frustrated that I had to get onstage and just say "Good my lord, how does your honor this many a day?" while he got to deliver all of these gorgeous lines, and I misplaced that anger at Ophelia—I was really mad at her for being a "lesser" character. When I stepped back and redirected that frustration about having to just play "obedient" at the people in the play who've made her that way, I sort of came to terms with my own tendency to view passive teenage girls as perpetrators of the patriarchy when in reality they're victims. I spent a lot of time exploring that topic and realization through Ophelia in a lot of different mediums.
Next Spring, I have a one-woman [play] about her opening in New York, if all goes according to plan.
BB: You’re also a successful playwright. Tell us about that.
AD: I've been super lucky to have been on a sort of whirlwind of seeing my plays done in different places. In June, I had staged readings at Kean University and at the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, and had a piece fully mounted with the Blank Theatre's Young Playwrights Festival. It's been... wild, to say the least. Basically, I have a lot of pieces going up in different young playwrights festivals and it's been really cool. I love being in the rehearsal room so much; my favorite thing is to hear the director and the actors talking about the characters without me. When your work really exists externally to you and is now being interpreted and made important by somebody else, there's nothing like it. I've overheard some of my actors improvise banter in character while waiting around for rehearsal to start—it's surreal. I've been really, really lucky.
BB: In the context of your work, what are your future goals?
AD: This is really specific, but I'd really like to better be able to write a three-person scene! All of my plays and most of my stories are about two people, because I love so much to write about relationships more than anything else (On my computer, all of my word documents for pieces are "Name 1 & Name 2"). Someday, I'd like to shake up that dynamic a bit and write about three.
On a less literal note, I'd really like to try my hand at writing "smaller" pieces. I come from a really heavy theatre background, and what they say about theatre is that it's about the day that something happens, the most important day in that character's life even. Thus, I have a lot of short stories that end in screaming matches and these huge exhales and releases of tension. I'd like to work on writing pieces that don't just blow up, where everyone doesn't get to just say everything on their mind. Smaller stories.
BB: What do you want other people to discover when they read you?
AD: I write a lot in dares, to get myself going: "Write a story about a stripper but every other paragraph has to be about American History." "Write a play that collapses into a well-known tragedy at the climax." "Write a monologue that makes the drug addict character win the argument and the audience." "Write about the definition of good writing." I force myself to find a way to write pieces that are seemingly impossible to write. I think what I want other people to discover is that the right words can make anything into art.
BB: What is the worst writing advice you've ever received?
AD: Write what you know.
Alexa Derman is a freshman at Yale University, where she plans to study English and Gender Studies. A 2013 YoungArts Finalist and Merit Award winner, she has also received recognition from the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, Bennington College, Princeton University, Sierra Nevada College, Johns Hopkins University, and Rider University for her fiction, nonfiction, and plays.
Alexa's work is currently featured or forthcoming in Word Riot, The Sierra Nevada Review, Dramatics, Hanging Loose, Winter Tangerine Review, and elsewhere, and will soon appear in an anthology by Samuel French. Her plays have been produced or are slated to be produced by the Blank Theatre Young Playwrights Festival, Stephen Sondheim's Young Playwrights Inc., Semicolon Theatre Company, The Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, International Thespian Society, and youth company Contagious Drama, taking her to locations as varied as Hollywood, New York City, and Nebraska. She loves to collect soap and ugly floral shorts, and is an award-winning hair and makeup artist.
Bindu Bansinath’s work has appeared in The Columbia Review, The Susquehanna Review, 2RiverView, PANK, Notes to the Future, Damozel, The Round, Miscellany, and more. She is forthcoming in CALYX, and is a rising freshman at Columbia College of Columbia University.