From the Playbill: An Interview with Playwright Rachel Bonds

Technology has given people so many paths to access one another—across states, across time zones, even across death. Yet loneliness remains a fundamental part of the human condition. Despite its prevalence in society and the shared experiences we might have with others, we often remain adrift.

Playwright Rachel Bonds explored the distance between people who know each other intimately—siblings, friends, lovers—in plays like Five Mile Lake and The Wolfe Twins. In Swimmers, she turns the lens on co-workers, who see each other constantly but know very little about one another. In her own words, Rachel explains the play’s origins and why director Mike Donahue is a great collaborator.


What was the initial inspiration behind Swimmers? 

I wrote the first draft of this play during a very trying time. I was feeling stuck and frustrated with my career and a little hopeless. There was an element of “Screw it!  I’ll just write a giant play with 11 lonely people and no one ever has to see it or know it exists.”  That difficult time gave me freedom to write something I would never have dared to write otherwise and allowed me to get at something really personal and unique and strange.  The play initially came out of loneliness, fear about the unwinding and unknown future (cue apocalyptic themes), a need for some guidance, and a real need to connect. 

Do you think that corporate culture has made us less human, more robotic?

I often view “corporate culture” as something that asks us to be more homogenous and for our lives to follow a linear path focused on making more money and being more successful and climbing the ladder.  But I think corporate culture is undergoing a seismic shift right now—there is a bigger emphasis on flexibility, and happiness, and balance. Our definition of success is starting to change a lot—it’s not as clear-cut as it used to be.  This is something I think about all the time as I navigate my ever-unpredictable career.

What are the challenges of writing a play with a large cast?

I’m bored of seeing the same people on stage all the time. So I wrote for people I don’t get to see enough of and want to see more of. I also wanted to challenge myself to write for people who are not me, who do not come from where I come from, who have very different stories to tell.  That being said, all eleven have some aspect of me in them; there is always some seed of understanding between us. 

One of the biggest challenges of a large cast is that it’s a tough economic pill for any producing organization to swallow.  Most theatres are not going to want to produce the play.  Ever.  But Marin was willing to take the risk, which is so exciting and heartening.  There’s also the worry that with so many characters, maybe a few will suffer from two-dimensionality—but I worked really hard to make each of these people complex, and important, and real and human.

What is your writing process like? Is it the same for every play? 

It’s different for every play.  I get inspiration from reading fiction, from travel, from music, from wandering around.  It usually starts with something very small—often an image from a book, or a lyric from a song, sometimes a joke (all too often stolen from my husband, Robbie).  Sometimes I start working with a director in the early stages, with a half-baked first draft.  Sometimes I write 3 or 4 drafts before I let anyone read anything.  Lately I’ve benefited from talking to a set designer (particularly a brilliant one, as Dane [Laffrey] is) earlier on in the development process—it helps me think about how the play can and should move in the most elegant way.

What is your relationship like with directors, specifically with Mike?

It is important to me and for my plays that a director be rigorous and specific, and very focused on the nit-pickiest of details.  Because the events in my plays are often small, internal shifts in a character, I have to trust that the director will be able to pull these events out, highlight them, build the right kind of emotional crescendo.  And because my plays require people to be highly vulnerable and emotionally honest, it’s important to me for the director to be, as Mike is in spades, kind.  He pairs rigor and humanity in the best way—this is why I work with him again and again.

What do you hope the audience takes away from Swimmers?

Their umbrellas? (example of stolen joke from husband)

I never know how to answer this question.  Maybe because what they take away is entirely their business, and not mine anymore.  It’s my job to follow my taste mercilessly, to build something I find interesting and funny and sad, and to build it well, to ask for the right director and the right actors and the right designers, and then it’s my job to let it go.  Then it belongs to the actors, and it belongs to the audience.  I guess I hope at least one person leaves feeling a little less alone in his/her/their life.