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Durham's ascendant novelist and playwright Monica Byrne takes New York

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It was a little before 10 o'clock on a Thursday morning last month as Monica Byrne boarded a New York-bound train in Durham. A one-month sublet in Harlem would be waiting when she arrived that night, but that was one of the only things she was sure of. Otherwise, anxiety and uncertainty would be her traveling companions for the 11-hour journey.

Byrne was traveling to New York as a writer suddenly in demand. In March, she landed a six-figure deal for her novel The Girl in the Road from Crown, a significant achievement for any writer, let alone an unknown first-time novelist. The final revisions to the book had occupied much of her time in July, through a series of emails and phone calls with her editor.

But that's not why she was going to New York.

Instead, it was her play What Every Girl Should Know, inspired by the pioneering sex education work of Margaret Sanger, and the New York premiere it's slated to have at the prestigious New York International Fringe Festival.

She had placed its fate largely in the hands of Jaki Bradley, a New York-based director she knew. Bradley brought on a producer and two choreographers that Byrne had never met, held auditions and cast the show without her input, and had been rehearsing the production for three weeks in a dance studio in Brooklyn— all without the playwright seeing any of the work.

But Byrne was on the hook for the $10,900 required to mount the show.

Byrne had bet that she could raise the funds in one month through a crowd-funding campaign. The drive would close on opening night, and with a cast and crew by then in full production, there was no backing out. No matter what, the show was going forward. Byrne would be personally responsible for any funds she hadn't raised.

And on this day in August, she was still short of her goal. As her train pulled into Penn Station that evening, Byrne was wagering five figures and a sizable part of her future on a show she'd written and was funding—but had not yet laid eyes on.

She was trying to be confident about the choices she had made.

And she was about to find out whether or not she'd been right about any of them.

In April of last year, theater-goers fortunate enough to be in Durham for the world premiere of What Every Girl Should Know saw the show in a dingy, institution-green corner of the cavernous second floor at the Cordoba Center for the Arts, a former textile mill behind Golden Belt.

The setting was a Catholic reformatory on New York's Lower East Side a century ago. We watched spellbound as a quartet of disowned, disgraced but resilient teenage girls learned, through smuggled contraband, about Margaret Sanger's advocacy of birth control.

By the fall of 1914 when the play takes place, Sanger, who would go on to found Planned Parenthood, was already in exile. Under a federal law called the Comstock Act, anyone who distributed information on contraception in the United States was subject to steep fines and imprisonment at hard labor.

We saw the girls beatify her as their secret saint, and detail the painful circumstances that brought them to this room. As Byrne's script flirted with magical realism, we witnessed how imagination liberated their circumscribed lives and marveled as their faith began to manifest in coincidental—and then increasingly fantastic—ways: oranges that turn into talismans, a package in the mail that is seemingly straight out of a revenge fantasy they'd previously shared.

The inaugural production of Every Girl provoked stillness, tears and standing ovations in Durham. But how would it play in New York?

In the bio that Byrne supplied for the New York press (titled "What Every Reviewer Should Know"), she wrote:

The playwright Monica Byrne has gotten her gynecological checkups and birth control (Levora, 150μg levonorgestrel) at the Planned Parenthood in Durham, North Carolina for the last eight years because of lack of affordable healthcare, especially reproductive healthcare. She grew up Catholic but realized the Church's teachings on sex were a crock of shit around age nine.

Byrne still vividly recalls the disillusioning event of her childhood. It came the day after she first learned that two of her college-age sisters were sexually active, while overhearing them talking with their mother in the kitchen of her childhood home in Annville, Pa.

"According to what I had been taught by Catholic authorities who were not my parents, that meant my sisters, the sweetest, loveliest people, who took care of me, were going to Hell."

Byrne pauses. "I remember a very dark night of the soul."

A day later, Byrne reached her first anticlerical realization. "I just thought to my-self, 'The Church has got to be wrong. My sisters are good people. The end.' That was my first break with the Church."

Byrne recalls attending pro-life marches later on as a student in her Catholic high school. "But even then, I didn't think that contraception itself was bad. I was just like, 'That just doesn't make sense.' It doesn't make sense to be against birth control and abortion."

When a fellow student organized a World AIDS Day observation, activists were invited to conduct workshops—as long as they agreed in advance not to talk about contraception.

"It was a condition of their coming ... but they did anyway. And I was sitting there thinking, 'Yes, someone is fucking talking to people about condoms in Lebanon Catholic School.'

"There were five pregnancies in my class by my senior year out of 47 students. About 20 percent of the girls got pregnant.

"So, abstinence-only education—there you go, that's where it gets you when nobody has any information about their bodies."

Though her recent achievements suggest an overnight trajectory across the world of letters, Byrne has taken pains to delineate a much more incremental rate of success.

She moved to Durham eight years ago after burning out while completing her master's degree in planetary sciences ("paleo-biogeochemistry," she stresses, with a grin) from MIT in 2005. While working on her thesis, she rediscovered her love for creative writing and theatrical improvisation.

Now, with her degree in hand and a new career course to plot, Byrne faced a question. "I never had a doubt I had a talent for writing," she recalls, "but at the time I had no idea if I had a talent for writing fiction."

She landed a position as one of the founding producers of WUNC-FM's The Story. Although she was unhappy in the job, she kept the position until Ross White, a founder of Durham's Hinge Literary Center, offered her some blunt advice.

"I said, 'I thought to be a writer I needed to be a journalist first,'" Byrne recalls. "And he said, 'That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. If you want to write fiction, start writing fiction.'"

She left The Story, found a day job at a lab that provided her a steady income and began work on a series of speculative fiction short stories.

A recent post on her blog, an eye-opening, self-styled "anti-résumé," comes with a spreadsheet detailing the outcome of every creative work she's submitted for publication since starting out in 2007. Its broad, color-coded bands of pink (for form rejections) and tan (for the few personal rejections) are only sparsely interrupted by the acceptances, in individual lines of light blue, as early works were published in Fantasy, Gargoyle, Shimmer and Electric Velocipede.

Even when counting the acceptance of her upcoming novel and her play, Byrne calculates an acceptance rate of only three percent—"and I'd be considered by most as one of the successful writers," she says. The Girl in the Road was rejected 67 times.

Byrne's fortitude is inspiring: It took three years and 96 failed submissions before she had her first story published in 2009, a tale called "Five Letters From New Laverne." Instrumental to her development were fellowships at University of California at San Diego (where she studied with Neil Gaiman) and the Vermont Studio Center, and an alumni travel fellowship from her undergraduate alma mater, Wellesley, she termed "life-changing."

But just as influential, Byrne says, was seeking out and soliciting responses from writers whose opinions she highly valued, both individually and at websites like onlinewritingworkshop.com. "That early validation was important."

Her first venture into theater came almost as an afterthought, fueled by the realization that she needed some distance from her novel—and by a fit of pique at an ex-boyfriend "who always talked about writing plays and never did. I just said, 'I'm going to write a play. It's not that hard, and it'll be fun.'"

The resulting dark comedy, Nightwork, was based on her experiences as a lab technician. Validation came soon. Jay O'Berski, artistic director at Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, had directed Byrne the year before in the group's Fistful of Love. She gave O'Berski her script. He read it and told her he wanted to schedule a reading of it.

"I was completely riveted in a way I've never been with a first-timer's debut script," O'Berski recalls. "I wanted to produce it right away."

After directing Nightwork in 2011, O'Berski suggested that Byrne write a play based on the life and work of Margaret Sanger.

"I've been shocked that nothing has ever been done in a big way about her, because I consider her the mother of American feminism," O'Berski says. Convinced that Byrne could capture her work without resorting to a straight, and theatrically deadly, biopic, O'Berski presented her with her first script commission.

The result was What Every Girl Should Know.

Two days before her departure to New York, Byrne had hit a wall. After an initial rush, her Indiegogo campaign to cover Every Girl's budget of $10,900 had stalled at about a third of its goal. Blindsided by the demands and rhythms of crowd funding, sleep deprived and visibly worn from the stress, she openly questioned her future in the theater over coffee in Durham.

"I didn't think I was the kind of person who gave a shit what other people thought," she said at that time.

"I still mostly feel that way. I'm pretty insulated, for whatever reason, from how other people perceive me. But with the campaign, for some reason, I'm feeling really sensitive about how it's being perceived, and how I'm being perceived.

"I now have a very visceral understanding of the pressure of money in the theater. I didn't anticipate how vulnerable I would feel."

After conferring with her father and director Bradley, the three agreed to cover a $3,500 donation to the campaign, a loan they acknowledged might well never be repaid.

On top of the financial struggle was the knowledge that a production was being rehearsed in New York that she had no control over. "Being in North Carolina during the first several weeks of production was really difficult," Byrne recalls. "I felt cut off."

As her fundraising efforts seemed to be stalling out, Byrne also fell prey to what she terms "a demon that tells you that everyone—or one person—is acting in bad faith, or if they don't answer your email in five minutes, they're not on board.

"It sat on my shoulder," Byrne says with a laugh, "and I was like, 'SHUT UP!'"

Amid the financial Sturm und Drang, there was one significant silver lining. More than two weeks before its opening, Every Girl had already sold a quarter of the seats for its entire run. Confirmation that the buzz was building early for the show—and earlier than most of its competition at the Fringe—came in a news story on the website TheatreMania.com. In it, Every Girl was listed among the festival's top advance sales performers.

Meanwhile, in New York, Bradley and producer Brandon Smithey were also feeling the stress as Byrne's arrival came near. Smithey remembers their anxiety: "Oh, Monica might not like that—or 'What will Monica like?"

Having worked with playwrights before on new scripts, Bradley believed she had to manage Byrne's expectations before her first appearance in the rehearsal studio. She'd already budgeted into the schedule the usually fraught debriefing after their first rehearsal (the one where the writer says, "What have you done to my play?").

At the outset of that meeting, Byrne told her, "I've got nothing. I'm very happy."

Bradley recalls replying, "Oh. Then I guess I'll ... go home now?"

"I went into this production having made the decision to not grasp on it," Byrne says. "I did that with the first production [of What Every Girl Should Know] and it almost cost me two collaborative relationships.

Every company at the festival endures a combination load-in, tech-in and final dress rehearsal, one to two days before opening. It comes as close as the Fringe gets to a theatrical hazing ritual: a stopwatch time-trial affair that any survivor of high school drama festivals would recognize, and loathe, on sight. Still, when 10 companies are staging productions in a space over the same week, there's precious little time to waste.

What Every Girl Should Know was assigned to the Robert Moss Theater, a black box space on the third floor of a nondescript office building on Lafayette Street in the East Village—not far from where Sanger did much of her outreach work in New York.

Byrne's New York premiere occurred at 2 p.m. on Aug. 15. The intimacy of the room, about half the size of such Triangle black boxes as Manbites Dog and the Kennedy Theater, reinforced the audience's proximity to the unfolding psychological drama. At the end, a crowd four seats short of a sellout responded to the curtain call with applause, cheers and whoops of undisguised delight.

The remaining four shows in the run were sellouts, and the four reviews Every Girl received were all positive. The most influential, in Time Out New York, designated the production a critic's pick, with a rating of four out of five stars.

Byrne found herself fielding offers to publish the script, and she was approached by a representative of the Paradise Factory, an East Village film and performance venue run by the respected veteran actor and writer Tom Noonan (and supported by Wallace Shawn, Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken), about the possibility of a September one-off benefit performance. People with Estrogenius, a women's arts festival that has produced the work of UNC playwright Mac Rogers, have expressed interest in presenting the show.

Meanwhile, another production of Every Girl, by Impact Theatre in Berkeley, Calif., opened last week. "It feels like [Byrne's play] is really of its time, and people are picking it up for that reason," says Tracy Ward, the director of the Berkeley show. "It feels really exciting to be on this wave of productions."

And another planned show is already on the books: Portland's Salt and Sage Productions will produce Every Girl next April.

In a Facebook post announcing the show, Byrne signed off, "That makes four productions. This could be a movement, y'all."

After Byrne's most recent adventures, it just might be one at that.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Byrne on fire."

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