Portrait of an artist in overdrive: Durham hyphenate Monica Byrne | Theater | Indy Week

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Portrait of an artist in overdrive: Durham hyphenate Monica Byrne



Nine p.m. last Thursday night, downtown Greensboro. Just a few blocks up from the epicenter of restaurants, cafés and clubs in the downtown nightlife district, we're in the Elsewhere Collective, a defunct three-story department and catalog sales store that's now a collection of museum, gallery and studio spaces. We're here to see Monica Byrne, an emerging author, playwright, actor and Durham resident.

Byrne is the first theater artist to be granted a residency there. And The Memory Palace, the work-in-progress she's performing, is an exercise in family biography, environmental theater and immersive psychological drama. Byrne greets an audience deliberately limited to a group of six, and then she takes on the role of her mother, Mary Ann. As Mary Ann conducts us on a tour of her house, different sections of the building become her domicile.

The loss of vision Mary Anne has suffered due to illness is replicated by the dark shades Byrne wears during the performance and reinforced by the six flashlights that we receive at the start—our sole source of illumination. As we make our way in darkness through rooms and up narrow staircases, experiencing the exhibits narrated by our host, we're pervaded by a sense of almost magical realism. It's almost as if we were walking through the person's mind, encountering the mental constructs of the people she loves and the lives they've lived. It is a kind and generous place, but one where sense deficits and disease have already forced certain, sometimes drastic, compensations.

Thirty minutes later, the show was over, to be repeated several more times through the weekend before it closed Sunday.

"It's been a fantastic year," Byrne told me in an interview after her performance in Greensboro. "I've been on overdrive ... I've been extremely ambitious, and it's really paying off in so many dimensions—personally, creatively, in terms of career and the people I've met."

Indeed, Byrne's Greensboro residency and performances are only the latest step in a watershed year for the young artist. Last fall, she appeared in a production of Redghost at Common Ground Theater (and, according to director Jay O'Berski, served as "script doctor"). Then, in January, Byrne's first full-length play, a dark comedy called Nightwork, was produced by the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern to popular and critical acclaim at Manbites Dog Theater. That success has already sparked a commission for a new play, What Every Girl Should Know, which Little Green Pig will premiere next April, as well as other proposals still in negotiation.

O'Berski, who also directed Nightwork, has seen firsthand the evolution of the writing of this Wellesley and M.I.T. grad (and onetime aspiring scientist).

"Her work often deals with the erotic, and violence, and the darkness in mankind," O'Berski notes. "But also there's a sense of hope and grace and lightness as well. All of that's inherent not only in her work but in just who she is."

Byrne's labors haven't been confined to the theater. She has had four short stories published in the past year. "Five Letters From New Laverne," a speculative meditation on loss, appeared in the biannual Shimmer; "Nine Bodies of Water," in which a series of scenarios spin out of a single lottery ticket, was published in Fantasy Magazine. In "The Comedy at Kualoa," published in Electric Velocipede, a theater critic ruminates on a fatal artistic misinterpretation. And in "The Reclamation Rite of One April Nora Hess," published in Gargoyle, Byrne explores one woman's apparently deep-seated need for a certain form of sexual symmetry.

And that doesn't cover a March residency at the Vermont Studio Center, where Byrne worked on—what else?—a novel she hopes to finish by the end of the year.

"I'm always looking ahead, because my ultimate goal is to make a living from doing this, which I know is really difficult. Most successful playwrights don't earn a living from playwriting; it's that and a dozen other things.

"But the hard work is definitely a response to the fact that there's nothing else I want to do with my time," she says. "I'm not resting on my laurels. I'm just on to the next thing."

Byrne traces a crucial step in her career to advice she got from Ross White, a former improv instructor at DSI Comedy and founder of the emerging Triangle-based literary center, The Hinge.

"At the time I was sending out nonfiction proposals to places like Seed magazine, and he asked me how my writing was going," Byrne says.

"I said, 'All I really want to do is write fiction. But I think I need to pay my dues first.' And he said, 'That is the dumbest thing I've ever heard. If you want to write fiction, then start writing fiction.' It completely twisted me around."

Taking the advice to heart, Byrne quit a job with public radio that was eating her life, got a 9-to-5 job with "discrete expectations, where I knew I could go home every day"—and then "started living the dream, writing two hours every night."

Four years later, she has a rapidly expanding body of work that speaks to an artist coming into her own.

O'Berski, for one, thinks she's on her way: "She's got a great duality: She's a humane, groovy, hippie chick—but she packs a mean punch."

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