Abby Rosebrock Opens Up About Writing and Starring in Her Fantastic New Play ‘Different Animals’

Anne Sexton’s poem "For My Lover, Returning to His Wife," ends with the line: "As for me, I am watercolor. I wash off." She’s just addressed the letting go of love and the acceptance that she’s been but a passing fancy, a mirage in a passionless period of life, "littleneck clams out of season," "a bright red stoop in the harbor." So she "gives him back his heart," giving him permission to return to that which makes him whole, not that which simply excites him. It’s a saddening poem, but when it comes to love, sex, relationships, or simply trying to connect with other human beings, it’s all very tricky territory.

We all carry the same desires, and yet we end up running around life as if blindfolded, ending up with all the wrong people, in all the wrong places, looking for some semblance of what it is we’re after. But love isn’t always a choice, and the way it works into your veins has little to do with consciousness. Your need for a person outweighs your ability to thrive on anything else, and until that wish is fulfilled you pine and pine before accepting that you must either go after what you want, or suppress your feelings. Either decision is frightening and leaves you feeling as if you could have done something differently. You can never be sure.

And with Abby Rosebrock’s fantastic new play Different Animals, directed by Bruce Ornstein, she explores that rift between romantic love and connecting with the world. Bright, hilarious, and filled with authentic drama and personality, Rosebrock gives us a unique tale of four South Carolinians as their romantic trials and tribulations lead them into adultery, blackmail, polygamy, and Olive Garden bathrooms. Rosebrock plays Molly, a vivacious and permanently manic young woman obsessively in love with a totally normal middle-aged man, Leo (played by Dirk Keysser). The trouble is, Leo happens to be married to the very sweet but clearly unhappy in her marriage Jessica, played by Cesa Pledger.

That unhappiness takes the form of an affair with the handsome young town pastor, Will, played by Brady Kirchberg.  Jessica and Will try to keep things casual without disrupting her marriage to Leo, but when Molly pounces on Leo and inserts herself into the picture, the pleasantly dull marriage morphs into a ménage à trois. It’s a brilliantly done modern study of marriage and the decline of monogomy that forces you to turn your own conventions inside out and reconsider the possibilities of love and what it means to actually want to be with someone, what that connection actually asks of you, and how far you’re willing to go for it. The women of the play may be young, but they feel as though they’ve lead full lives and are as richly dynamic as they are hilarious and ridiculous. 

Last week, I got to chat with Rosebrock about her Medieval background, bringing Different Animals to life, and longing for something more than sex in an Olive Garden.

You didn’t start out as a playwright, you’re actually studying literature.Yeah, I still am getting a PhD in Medieval English literature at Columbia, but I’d always wanted to be an actress. I’d done all different kinds of writing in different genres but I took an acting class when I just couldn’t take not acting anymore. And I started writing some scenes for class and thought I should write a full-length, and that is how this happened.

But you trained at Upright Citizens Brigade as well?
I did about a year of training at UCB before I started acting. It was really great and opened up the entire world for me. 
I’m sure it’s a totally different environment or way of thinking for you who have been working in a more academic mindset.
Conceptually it’s exactly the opposite, because academia is all about critique and deconstructing things and finding inconsistencies and problems, and improv is all about creating something from nothing, constructing things, accepting whatever you’re given.
Was improv something that came naturally for you? I find it terribly frightening.
Yeah, it’s really scary for me, and I think for everyone who does it. But it’s really great training for your brain. It forces you to ignore the judgmental critical signals in your brain that shut you down when you feel afraid. 
So how did you become a part of Bruce’s workshop?
I was living with a boyfriend—who is no longer my boyfriend but we still swap writing—and he just kept pushing me to act because we kept watching movies and I apparently kept saying how much I wanted to be in them, and he sensed that I was miserable without acting. So he made me sign up for a class and I found Bruce’s. I could afford it and he seemed nice and accessible, so I started and the rest is history. 
Did you do a lot of acting when you were younger?
Yeah, when I was little I did a lot of community theater in South Carolina and I always wanted to be an actor but just got really depressed when I moved to the city for college. But that was also when I found literature; I had never been a very literary person or much of a reader before, so I got distracted with that for a few years. 
How did you begin writing for the stage? Did it begin with shorter scenes for class?
Well, I wrote some very short plays and one acts for class because I noticed other people were doing that too. Also, pretty much all playwriting is about conflict, and, coming from an improv background, I didn’t know what to make of all the fighting and bickering that I was seeing in published plays. So I thought this was a great opportunity to use what sketch writing training I have from UCB and join the ranks of kids who were writing their own stuff. I had a couple of works in a showcase that Bruce did and he liked them enough to encourage me to write a full-length. So I drafted this play really fast, in like a week or so, but that first version is just entirely different from what I have now. I spent a year revising it with Bruce’s help and the workshop’s help.
Was it totally different when you began? How did it morph into what it is now?
When I first showed it to Bruce he said it was a bit unfocused and had a few characters with a lot of emotional meat and some characters that are completely superfluous, so with his help I narrowed it down to the four characters that I was most interested in. I had just been in a wedding in the Domincan Republic, so I had a character that was from Santo Domingo and I still kind of like him. I think he deserves his own play. But now it’s hard to imagine anything in this play taking place outside of Spartanburg.
Did you write the character of Molly knowing you were going to play her?
I originally wrote Jessica for me.
After seeing it, it’s not only hard to imagine you being Jesscia, but someone else playing Molly.
Very early, I imagined her being for me but it quickly became clear that Molly was going to be a more fun character to play, so I selfishly switched my allegiances to Molly. 
What was the casting process like?
Dirk reminded me of my dad. I mean, it’s funny, Leo isn’t based on my dad at all but the way he speaks, his idiom or whatever is totally just my dad’s voice that I stole, and Dirk struck me as someone who could do that.
And the Cherry Lane Theater is an incredible place to have your first show. I’m sure this is a great place to come and work everyday.
Totally. Yeah, we had a couple of options, I wasn’t a party to a lot of that stuff. We ended up here and it was a dream come true. People hear the name and want to see the show. 
The show has a lot of musical interludes, which I loved. How did you decide what you wanted for those?
I only listen to music that my brother got me into in the early ’90s and I wanted something to capture a southern flavor. It became clear we needed music because the sets that were designed were pretty complicated and take time to switch in and out.
Did growing up in North Carolina inform this show a lot for you? Were there a lot of real people or experiences you drew from your hometown?
Yeah, totally. I almost feel like I don’t have anything left to write about now because so many of the things that I think about my past are poured into this play. No one character is based on someone I knew, and no one situation is based on real things that have actually happened, but recently some stories about people I went to church with growing up have come to light, and people who had wild affairs that everyone knew about. I did, however, go to church school and learn how to give a blowjob on a Twix bar, like in the show.
There were a lot of little lines and moments like that that felt like you knew they were coming from somewhere personal.
Yeah, so much of our social lives were wrapped up in church growing up that it was sort of this lascivious exciting place where you’d go and hook up with people or drama would always go down. I wanted to capture that somehow.
What playwrights do you love?
I do read plays and go to plays all the time, but I think the writers that I most admire most are on television, like Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler. 
Yes, I happen to love The Mindy Project in a really strange way.
And, weirdly, her character is dating a Lutheran minister. 
So much of this play seems to be about romantic desire versus what happens when you actually obtain the object of affection, and the claustrophobia of being connected to someone else.
I always want to write comedies that are romantic. I always want to write about relationships and sex, and I always want it to be funny. That’s the theme that most breaks my heart that I want to explore. When you finally do achieve what you want to achieve, or land the person you want to land, you’re suddenly stuck with all this loneliness in a way, and it sucks, it’s so sad. A mentor of mine who was my Russian literature teacher in college was responding to a draft and mentioned that there are all these confined spaces in the play. And then Cesa said something like this too when she was working on Jessica. She realized that Jessica has sex in an Olive Garden, she works in a Barnes & Noble, her husband’s stuck in a cubicle all day—everyone feels like they live in a shoebox, and I think there’s something thematically significant about that. All of the closed-in spaces and the desire to be a part of something bigger and more meaningful than having sex in an Olive Garden bathroom.
Do you think your medieval studies have helped you in your writing?
I’ve had a lot of teaching I’ve had to do through Columbia, so that’s been really helpful. It’s like you get fifteen students where you just do a character study of all of them over the course of a semester, and getting to see people and their creative process—because it’s a writing class that I’ve been teaching—so I feel like teaching has given me a lot of food for thought. I wrote a chapter recently on The Wife of Bath’s prologue, it’s truly the most hilarious brilliant thing. Have you read it?
I have not.
I don’t necessarily like that period more than the 19th or 20th Century, so I feel like I’m pretty objective when I say that it is one of the best pieces of writing of all time. It’s hysterically funny and it’s basically a standup routine of this woman talking about her five marriages and her romantic exploits. It’s this disorganized ramble full of joke after joke after joke, and the character so clearly emerges from the page. I think that kind of humor is something I’d like to achieve in my own wiring; I can never aspire to be Chaucer, but there is a lot of emotional intensity in medieval that has a very special quality, a spiritual intensity that you don’t necessarily get in later periods that are less inflected with religion. So that’s probably useful in my writing. It’s hard to get past all the religious dogma in a lot of those texts, but once you do, the wildness of the people’s feelings and experiences is really something special.