Playwright Erin Courtney, a Hermosa Beach native, started writing “A Map of Virtue” after reading a poem by Edmond Javes, an Egyptian Jew who was alive during the Holocaust and wrote about people witnessing horror and then how they find language to express it.
Courtney, who was attending an artists “silent” retreat when she began writing into the night and through the next day, eventually finished the play and saw it produced. Called a “delicate gem” by the New York Times, “Map” went on to win her this year’s prestigious Obie Award, given to the best of off-Broadway stage works. The Mira Costa High School graduate, who now lives with her husband and two children in Brooklyn, NY, will read from the published book of “A Map of Virtue” this Sunday at Pages in Manhattan Beach
Briefly, it’s a story of a couple, kidnapped and held captive in the jungle with two other strangers, who experience the horror of almost dying, and mistakenly witness something that could cause irreparable psychological harm. Theater critic Alexis Soloski notes that though it begins “as a quirky meditation on chance and symmetry, Ms. Courtney’s drama soon reveals itself as one of the most terrifying plays of the past decade.”
“It starts off with two intercut monologues that feel like the two characters are being interviewed,” Courtney explains (by phone). “The scene’s interview style is cut in a way that depicts the characters as interviewees that are just blabbing on, story after story, never actually making any cohesive point.
“As the play progresses you go back in time and you see these scenes that lead to their kidnapping and captivity. The rest of the play is them being rescued. Afterward, each of the characters, now four of them, is interviewed about how they are dealing with the repercussions of experiencing such a horror. It’s at this point that the audience begins to notice how language and perception, with regard to processing evil, is complex.”
Recalling the creative rush that sparked her writing of “Map,” Courtney said she hadn’t slept in over 24 hours. Besides the brief breaks taken to stretch, eat a couple of small meals, and munch on some chocolate, she had not stopped writing. A man named Erik Ehn, a rather intense experimental playwright who traveled the world and recorded stories of genocide to use as the basis for his plays, served as retreat host.
What might sound like utter torture to some – sitting in a room chock-full of experimental playwrights and fighting the urge to fall asleep as she penned away at the blank sheets of paper that lay strewn in front of her – actually is an event that Courtney looks forward to every year. The very reason that she even finds herself in silence and completely engrossed in her writing at three o’clock in the morning is her thirst for that synergistic energy that occurs when creators and artists work in the same place. It was this same undying appetite for creativity and the visual arts that led her to the East Coast in the first place.
Courtney, whose sunny South Bay origins seem to belie the dark themes of many of her acclaimed plays (“Demon Baby,” for example), left Hermosa Beach decades ago to study painting at Rhode Island’s Brown University. There she veered towards dramatic studies, eventually marrying fellow playwright Scott Adkins. In 1996, the two moved to New York, where Courtney began her Brooklyn College MFA studies under the direction of experimental theater maven Mac Wellman.
Besides taking a leading role in running 13P, a production collective of playwrights, Courtney also teaches playwriting at Brooklyn College and is co-founder of the Brooklyn Writer’s Space.
“All of my plays have been produced here in Brooklyn,” she says. “I haven’t had a chance to share with my friends and family, but I thought it would be a great opportunity to share my work with my peers in California.”
Erin Courtney will read from “A Map of Virtue,” Sunday, Aug. 5, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Pages in Manhattan Beach. For more information visit pagesabookstore.com.