Three months after 9/11, Larke Schuldberg found herself at a party in Berlin, lost in translation. An exchange student in dramatic playwriting from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, she hadn't yet grasped the German language. Still, she was able to clearly detect sympathy from the city and people she met: Flowers overflowed the embassy steps and many Germans wore American flags in solidarity.
"Everyone there felt like it was very much this tragedy that had happened to our country," Schuldberg says.
Over the course of the semester, however, the atmosphere began to change with the United States talking of invading Iraq. One of her last weeks in Berlin, President Bush traveled through Germany during a tour of Europe and Schuldberg attended a large protest with her host.
"The mood went from being incredibly pro-American to incredibly anti-Bush in just six months," she says. "It was really mesmerizing to see."
Schuldberg, a 25-year-old playwright and Missoula native, wrote The Sound of Planes in 2009—a play about a girl who goes to Berlin to live with her aunt after a car crash kills her parents. She falls in and out of love and moves back to Seattle to eventually meet her husband who is, eventually, deployed to Iraq. Those particular details are purely fictional, says Schuldberg, but the ideas woven through the play in which the protagonist experiences language barriers as well as the worldwide reaction to 9/11 and the Bush administration all stem from her experience during her time in Germany.
Schuldberg started writing plays in 2002 when she signed up for a University of Montana writing workshop on a whim just after her sophomore year at Hellgate High School. She was the youngest at the workshop by far, but her five-minute play was selected for inclusion at the annual Missoula Colony festival, which features renowned television and Broadway writers like Ron Fitzgerald and Marsha Norman, among others. The next year, she was asked to submit another play, which was also staged, and she continued to attend the Colony almost every summer even after she began school at NYU.
Since that time, Schuldberg has written five full-length plays—more, if you count the ones she's shelved. Bang/Whimper was accepted into the 2007 New York International Fringe Festival, and two others will be performed by Missoula professional acting companies over the next few months. Montana Rep Missoula's production of Jane Doe, Or That There Dead Girl opened last week, and the Montana Actors' Theatre has scheduled The Sound of Planes for January.
Language barriers or the way people use language to shape reality is one of Schuldberg's ongoing themes. The Sound of Planes deals with the language barriers one experiences in a foreign place, but it also deals with the way people flip-flop past and present tense verbs to recreate their reality.
"The way we speak reflects our needs," she says, "like how we refer to people in present tense when they're dead. People sometimes cling to tense, as if speaking in the present will make it true. It reflects both the powerlessness and powerfulness of words."
The language in Jane Doe, Or That There Dead Girl, on the other hand, is explicitly about language on a seemingly simple level: It contains a lot of swearing. The play is a murder mystery comedy that takes place in Missoula. It's about the disappearance of a girl during the hottest week of the summer, the subsequent appearance of a body up Woods Gulch, and the ways in which the missing girl's friends and acquaintances process the situation in the midst of post-graduate stress.
Schuldberg chose to use strong language to elevate the intensity of the plot, but also to show how the most offensive language can lose its power if it's repeated over time. At one point a character says, "You think I care about your fuck yous?"
"My intention was to show how the more you say it, the more it loses its power," she says. "For better or worse."
The first reading of the script at the Missoula Colony created a stir, despite the fact that the Colony isn't a stranger to edgy themes and swearing. Schuldberg says some audience members told her that the strong language took them out of the story, while others—usually younger people—felt it reflected real conversation.
"I'm not quite sure what was so different about mine," she says. "There is a lot of use of the 'C' word and that's a hard one for people. It definitely breaks down across generational divides, and I was throwing it around all over the place. But I was surprised by the reaction. I was also sort of delighted."
Schuldberg's earlier plays have also dealt with the power of language, despite their diverse themes. While doing another semester abroad, this time in Johannesburg, South Africa, she wrote a political thriller called Nothing But the Truth inspired by two 2006 rape scandals: those of the former deputy president of South Africa and the Duke lacrosse players. In another, A Mars Play, the Vatican sends two nuns and a scientist to Mars to verify a miracle in order to prove the existence of God.
All of these stories start with questions, says Schuldberg, but none of them provide clear-cut answers. Language, especially spoken language, is ever-changing whether it's in light of war or death, media scandals or faith. It's challenging, she says, but fun when it come to the craft of plays.
"I write spoken language, and spoken language is always evolving," she says. "If nothing else, the training I've had has given me a sense of the traditional structure of storytelling. Now I can start messing with it, which I love."
Jane Doe or That There Dead Girl continues at the Crystal Theatre Thursday, Oct. 14, through Saturday, Oct. 16, at 7:30 PM nightly. $15/$10 on Thursday.