It was “a life-changing moment,” says Carpenter. “Paula told me something I knew already but that no one had said out loud. I said, ‘Yeah, I know. Good.’ I felt recognized, and that’s a very powerful thing.”
The phone call marked the beginning of a mentoring relationship that spanned Carpenter’s undergraduate years and drew her back to Brown for a master’s degree after two years of traveling and attending theater festivals. During that time she returned to her hometown, Los Angeles, and participated in a playwriting group at the Mark Taper Forum run by Oskar Eustis (who would later become artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company and would in turn produce the world premiere of her play Fall). While at the Mark Taper, Carpenter realized she needed more training.
The recipient of more than a dozen prestigious awards, fellowships, and grants—a Guggenheim, a Susan Smith Blackburn, a Princess Grace, two Jeromes, and three NEAs among them—Carpenter is now an oft-produced playwright with film and television notches on her belt as well. She developed animated movie ideas at DreamWorks and Disney for a time and is a story editor for the Showtime TV series Dead Like Me.
Though she enjoys working in new genres—she has even written an opera, Barnum’s Bird—Carpenter says playwriting remains “the place I give my heart away.” Screenplays and TV scripts, she says, are “acquaintances who can come over any time for tea” at her Hollywood home, but plays “[are] my best friends. They live here.”
A theater director with whom Carpenter worked in Minneapolis, where she spent four years after leaving Brown, once told the city’s Star Tribune that he liked “the breathless, runaway quality of her vision and aesthetic, which is fast, satirical and socially engaged.” Difficult to pigeonhole, Carpenter’s plays are often humorous, but they aren’t what she calls “boulevard comedy” like the works of Neil Simon. “They are funny in more dangerous ways,” she says. Family and longing are recurring motifs. “The people in my plays all want things in a way that makes their teeth hurt,” she says.
Carpenter’s breakout play, The Death of the Father of Psychoanalysis (and Anna), which had its genesis in a playwriting assignment at Brown, is a comically dark take on fathers and daughters. Its odd conceit is Freud’s inability to speak clearly because of mouth cancer, which reduces him to emitting sounds only his daughter Anna can understand. In the script, Carpenter represents Freud’s lines with dashes.
Mr. Xmas is a full-length musical satire about the pornography industry, and the one-act Tiny portrays a foul-mouthed game-show clown gone berserk. The tragically wacky Fall, inspired by Carpenter’s passion for the lindy hop, follows a precocious fourteen-year-old girl through the torments of attending a summer swing-dance camp with her parents. The Faculty Room, which premiered this spring at the Humana Festival in Louisville, captures the desperation and isolation of teachers in the remote Midwestern schools where Carpenter was an artist-in-residence during her years in Minneapolis. “My plays are not answers,” she told a reporter in 1998; “they are questions that I can’t shake. Americans are really built to expect answers.... The tension is of opposing forces—a kind of tornado inside of you. You hope that the unclear, murky things fall away and you go towards a clarity of questioning.”
A collage artist, Carpenter says: “I tear things up and put them together. I like arranging words and ideas on pieces of paper. That’s analogous to my writing, one idea laid next to another. That’s how I think.” In Vogel’s classes, says Carpenter, a similar assemblage took place. “Paula will refer to Jacobean tragedy, then to Roman Polanski, then to the way [Johnny] Carson used to do something on The Tonight Show and then she’ll go back to Shakespeare,” Carpenter recalls. “She’s not afraid of lowbrow culture, and she’s well versed in highbrow. She’s got an incredible amount of tricks up her sleeve.”
What Vogel couldn’t teach her was “what my voice was. That was already there,” Carpenter says. “She taught me to listen for it.”