Bonus Material

3 Views on 'I Love You So Much I Could Die'

3-in-1

February 29, 2024

Jen Silverman

Jen Silverman (they/them) is a playwright, novelist, and screenwriter. Plays include Highway Patrol (The Goodman); Spain (Second Stage Theater); Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties (WoollyMammoth, MCC, Southwark Playhouse London); The Moors (Yale Rep, ThePlaywrights Realm); The Roommate (Williamstown, Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, Steppenwolf, South Coast Rep, etc); and Witch (Writer’s Theatre, The Geffen, The Huntington). Books include the debut novel We Play Ourselves, story collection TheIsland Dwellers, and novel There’s Going to be Trouble forthcoming from Random House on 4/9. Silverman wrote The Miranda Obsession as a narrative podcast for Audible, starring Rachel Brosnahan. Silverman is a three-time MacDowell Fellow and a member of New Dramatists. They write for TV and film, including Tales of the City (Netflix) and TokyoVice (Max). Honors include fellowships from the NationalEndowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim. More info at www.jensilverman.com.

Danny Tejera

Danny Tejera is a playwright from Madrid. His play Toros (Dir. Gaye Taylor Upchurch, Second Stage Uptown) was a NYTimes Critic’s Pick and on Theatrely’s Best Off-Broadway Theater of 2023 list. He is a member of EST/Youngblood and a Colt Coeur Resident Artist. He has received fellowships from MacDowell, Millay Arts, Stillwright, and Tofte Lake Center, and commissions from Second Stage Theater and EST/Sloan. He got a B.A. from Columbia University and a Playwriting M.F.A. at UT-Austin, where he was mentored by Annie Baker and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. He’s represented by WME and 2AM.

Kate Cortesi

Kate Cortesi is a Brooklyn- and Boston-based playwright from Washington, D.C. Her work has been performed around the country and internationally, including in translation and is published by Samuel French and Dramatists Play Services. Full-length plays: Great Kills (Princess Grace Award), A Patron of the Arts (Cherry Lane Theatre Mentor Project, In Scena! Festival, Rome), ONE MORE LESS (NYFA award, Relentless Award finalist), Love (Sky Cooper New American Play Prize, Marin Theatre Company, Ojai Playwrights Conference, Kilroys List), Is Edward Snowden Single? (The Pool Plays, The Jungle, and Second Thought Theatre among others) and Ten Grand (South Coast Rep commission). Commissions: Playwrights Horizons, Keen Company and South Coast Rep. Residencies: New Dramatists, Huntington Playwriting Fellow, O'Neill Theatre Center, and New Georges Affiliated Artist. katecortesi.com

Jen Silverman saw Mona Pirnot's Love You So Much I Could Die and felt called to write a response. 3Views couldn't wait to share Jen's essay with the world, and their thoughts prompted more responses from theater makers who were similarly moved by Mona's piece. We now present views from Jen Silverman, Danny Tejera, and Kate Cortesi in the form of a modified 3-in-1 that speaks to the power of disrupting form in the American Realism Machine.

Jen Silverman on I Love You So Much I Could Die

by Jen Silverman

When I was in my mid-twenties, an artistic leader explained to me the problem with my plays: “You want to play with form and content at the same time. People won’t let you do that – either you get to mess with form or content, but both is too much.” 

The pronouncement landed with a shocking clarity, because it sounded so right. After all, I did want to push up against the limits of how a form could hold story. And I also wanted to interrogate what a story was. And also, my agent kept getting feedback that wasn’t about my actual plays so much as the thing that my plays would be if you put them into an American Realism Machine and pressed buttons like It’s Hard To Be A Woman or Guess What Mom I’m Queer. So the “people won’t let you do it” part sounded true, too. And what did I know about theatre, anyway? I hadn’t been raised attending the American theatre, I had been raised by two scientists in a handful of different countries. Everybody in the world knew more than me – if not about what my plays should be, then about what the American landscape would tolerate. 

And so I tried to write plays that weren’t Too Much. The problem was, I couldn’t figure out how to separate form and content. They seemed fluid and vitally linked. I asked myself what a Form was, what Content was. I asked myself what a play was and then realized that was the question that kept getting me in trouble. My instincts were misaligning with my marching orders. 

It has now been many years since I thought of American theatre as a place for marching. This is partly because I got older and realized that nobody knows anything and we’re all going to die, and partly because certain plays appeared in the landscape like beacons, throwing illumination forward until I could see not only where I was standing but also where I wanted to be going. Some of these include: Young Jean Lee’s Lear, David Adjmi’s 3C, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon, Lucas Hnath’s A Simulacrum, and most recently, Mona Pirnot’s I Love You So Much I Could Die.

I saw I Love You So Much I Could Die at New York Theatre Workshop last week and very quickly I realized that I was in the presence of something strange and exquisite, something that would not just happen in front of me, but that would require something from me in order to happen. I would have to give curiosity and grace to the unfamiliar audience-performer contract that was being extended. But if I did that, the play would give me something unexpected in return: a transformation of itself and of me. 

The unfamiliar contract is this: Mona sits with her back to the audience for the entire play, and she does not speak. Though the play is built out of a series of stories and songs, the stories are spoken by a Microsoft text-to-speech tool. Mona plays and sings the songs.

If you are anything like the two women who were sitting in front of me, you might be thinking to yourself: “Wait a minute! She doesn’t turn around?” You might be thinking: “What do you mean a computer voice?” The women in front of me were not thinking these things, they were murmuring them out loud. The woman on the left was outraged. The one on the right was conciliatory, but alarmed. Any play that can upset people within its first forty-five seconds is – at the very least – already not a play you’ve seen recently. I was intrigued, but ready to retract the benefit of the doubt the second the play betrayed me.

Fast-forward to thirty minutes in. The women in front of me were riveted, quietly weeping. So was I. New York Theatre Workshop was silent that day – church-silent, awe-silent, a live and listening silence that I have not encountered in recent memory.

I find that what I am telling you so far about I Love You So Much I Could Die is that the audience contract is different from most, and that – for me – it holds. I am telling you that the play handles grief in a way that moved me profoundly. I will add a few more swift details: the play contends with a devastating trauma to Mona’s family, and the aftermath of that trauma. She does not give us all the particulars and we do not need them. Despite the words “trauma” and “grief,” Mona is wryly, sharply funny. Her punch-lines land, even when delivered by a computerized text-to-speech voice, which is a litmus test of good writing that I never even thought to carry out. The juxtaposition of what is withheld from us (her face, her speaking voice) and what is offered to us (her wit, her singing, her unarmored candor) create a tension that becomes transformational. 

There is a moment in the play in which Mona tells us that in her deepest grief, when she was unable to speak, she typed on her computer and the computer read her words to her therapist and to her partner (Lucas Hnath, also the director). That moment reframed for me our entire relationship as audience and performer. I realized that she had chosen a form in which she could interact with us exactly as she had done with the most trusted people in her life. She had chosen an artistic mode in which she treated us like family. Seen one way, her back was to us. Seen another, we were all facing in the same direction, physically aligned, looking toward an uncertain future.

Talking about what a play can be outside of itself, in a larger context, feels double-edged and dangerous. With my own work, I try now to think only about what I am making and why I am making it, and no longer about the theatrical context in which it will land. But Mona’s play is important for reasons both sui generis and contextual. It is excellent writing whose topics – family, grief, despair, love, resilience – are the timeless topics of human life. But it is also important because of its audacity in the context of the American theatre. 

There is a version of I Love You So Much I Could Die that is easy to imagine: in which Mona faces us, and speaks in her own voice, and tells us a detailed and chronological story about what happened to her. This would not be a bad version. Perhaps it would not fully communicate the untethered, surreally destabilized world in which Mona found herself, and which the current version viscerally delivers. But it would almost certainly be a play that the American critical apparatus would innately understand how to encounter. Realism is by and large the American idiom, and it is the mode for which our producers and our critics – and therefore our audiences – have the most developed vocabulary. 

This is in no way a critique of realism or of the plays that operate by its tenets. Give me a quiet durational play about human behavior and I’ll buy a ticket – I’m an inveterate eavesdropper, of course I love what realism can do. It is just that when you live in a country that celebrates and understands and upholds one particular way of making theatre, it is audacious and vital for artists to persist in making and finding and cracking open other forms. 

The way we encounter story is shaped at every second by the vessel of its form. To reinvent how to tell a story is to reinvent the story: to make us encounter it anew; to disarm us; to frustrate the parts of us that long for immediate familiarity and ease; to engage parts of us that were dormant or desensitized; to show us wonder; to show us mystery. To give a theatrical culture that gift is to light more candles on a path that is winding and wild, less certain, less often taken. To tell other artists, You aren’t lost, you’re just walking this way.

And what is that if not a kind of love?

Mona Pirnot in I Love You So Much I Could Die at New York Theatre Workshop Photo Credit: Jenny Anderson

Thoughts on Theatricality in Mona Pirnot’s I Love You So Much I Could Die

by Danny Tejera

What do we see when we see a playwright onstage in their own play?

One thing’s for sure: we don’t see the “real” playwright. Onstage is not the “real” Milo Cramer, Ryan J. Haddad, or Heidi Schreck. Someone is pretending to be “Milo Cramer,” “Ryan J. Haddad,” or “Heidi Schreck.” Specifically, Milo Cramer, Ryan J. Haddad, or Heidi Schreck are pretending to be “Milo Cramer,” “Ryan J. Haddad,” or “Heidi Schreck.”

It’s a convincing illusion, so convincing we might forget other things we know to be true: it’s not just a playwright onstage, it’s a playwright wearing a specific outfit. Their hair is done. They know where to stand and what words to say. They wrote these words months, or even years, ago and memorized them. They will say these words in this exact order eight times this week.

What do we see in Mona Pirnot’s sneakily brilliant I Love You So Much I Could Die?

Mona/“Mona” walks onstage in silence. She sits in a chair with her back to us. A little human alone on a big stage. Has NYTW always been this cavernous? The house lights stay on. A big scary audience watches her.

“Mona” doesn’t talk. But Mona does: through a Microsoft text-to-speech tool, Mona talks to me from her bedroom, or wherever she wrote this play. I am seeing two Monas simultaneously, “Mona,” onstage, her back to me, and Mona, in my imagination, writing this play.

No, that’s not quite right. I’m seeing three Mona’s: Mona onstage, her back to me. Mona at her desk, writing these words. And then, of course, Mona “in the world of the play”: Mona in Zoom support groups. Mona doing volunteer work to keep herself distracted—from what, exactly, I don’t know yet. Mona on New York City streets, paralyzed by grief. Mona reading self-help books. Mona falling in love. Mona getting a call with very, very bad news.

And for the 65 minutes of the play, I’m right there with her. I too am alone on a big scary stage. I’m angry at a Waffle House. I’m using a coping technique I learned from a Shia LaBeouf movie. I’m in the hospital. I’m on the floor. I’m in a relationship with Lucas Hnath. I’m with my mom in her backyard, listening to a song I wrote about death.

Why does I Love You So Much I Could Die feel so distinctly vivid to me? Why do I feel so close to it? Why—compared to so many other works of theater—do the world and images and emotions it conjures, feel so… real?

I offer that it’s not just the content of the stories, nor is it that Mona’s stories are, strictly speaking, true. It’s how they’re presented to me; it’s the theatrical decisions that were made to deliver the information; it’s what I literally see and hear in the theater.

Jen Silverman, in their beautiful essay on the play, wonders about a version that is just Mona, front-facing, speaking to us directly. I wonder about this too. In this “default” version of the play (as if there could be such a thing!)—what would we lose?

One thing that jumps to mind: helpful distance. Things that are too close are hard to see. Someone’s raw diary is unlikely to move me precisely because there isn’t enough space to read it clearly or come to it on my own terms. But what about a diary, artfully treated? (What about, say, Sheila Heti’s highly compelling alphabetical diaries?)

The text-to-speech tool is a heartbreaking and integral part of Mona’s story. During periods of intense grief, we come to learn, Mona could only communicate by employing it. And it is also an exquisitely used theatrical device. It allows Mona to have her grief and share it too: to have the closeness of a first-person, while also giving an audience the necessary distance to access it. Mona’s play is so full of feeling that it’s easy to forget this. But bold, inventive decisions have been made. As a result–compared to the version of the play that has been put through an American Realism Machine–in this version, I simply believe it more. I see it more. I feel it more.

I don’t think about these things while watching the play, because I don’t have to. They’ve done the work for me. All I know is: now the theater is dark. It’s very, very dark. In one long devastating cue, light has disappeared from the room. Mona sits by the glow of a tiny lamp. My eyes latch onto the Microsoft text tool, still lighting up, one word at a time.

Mona Pirnot in I Love You So Much I Could Die at New York Theatre Workshop. Photo Credit: Jenny Anderson

Sonata for Soprano and Laptop (Mona Pirnot turns away to let us in)

by Kate Cortesi

The story of our art form over the last few years has been told to death, I know. Bear with me.

We had theater.

We lost it.

It came back, unrecognizable but determined to not be dead, lurching towards any audience member with a screen at home like a confused but friendly zombie.

The results weren’t always pretty, by which I mean fulfilling, but that wasn’t really the point. The point was, both sides of the audience-theatermaker contract were so afraid of losing this thing we love, we swallowed our skepticism and practiced being game as we entertained previously unthinkable questions. Can the Empty Space of the theater be a Zoom square? Can collective laughter be collected in a group chat? Can watching a recording alone at home feel like the theater, if we dim the lights and pretend hard enough?

While most of those experiments felt more like studies in what was lost, the era of pandemic theater fostered two habits of mind that theatergoers would do well to bring into every theater space evermore: a deeper understanding of the components of live theater that cannot be substituted digitally—which is to say, the features that make theater uniquely itself—and the practice of being game.

With those two things in mind, let’s talk about I Love You So Much I Could Die, a quiet, sad and beautiful piece of theater written by and starring Mona Pirnot, directed by Lucas Hnath.

The subject of this autobiographical play with music is a terribly difficult period of time when Pirnot’s sister underwent a prolonged health crisis which in turn devastated Pirnot’s own mental and physical well-being.

But if the play’s melodic line is the untamable grief wrought by the incapacitation of a loved one, its counterpoint is the equally relentless, loving care offered by Pirnot’s long-term partner. (Both the sister and the boyfriend are unnamed, which has the effect of foregrounding relationships over individuals.) While grief as the harrowing flipside of love’s coin is well-trodden ground, it’s the form this play takes that made my evening so wondrously bizarre and unforgettable.

Pirnot spends the entire show seated at a desk with her back to the audience. Not once does she show us her face, not even when she picks up her guitar and sings. Just as shocking as the play’s facelessness is the fact that Pirnot’s first-person monologues are delivered by a non-person: every line is spoken by the Microsoft Word text-to-speech function on a laptop, which sits open on the desk. There’s no illusion to this trick. The front rows can plainly see the cursor bouncing along the text of the document.

So. Back to this question of which elements of theater can and cannot be computerized.

Before I saw this show, if you’d asked me what we get from a live actor, production value-wise, I’m sure I would have put her face and her speech at the top of the list. But we had those on Zoom, didn’t we, and yet the theater-ness of theater remained elusive. So, one thing Pirnot and Hnath taught me is the actor’s indispensable quality is simply: her presence. Give me the back of her head. Restrict the blocking to sitting in a chair. Mute her voice. Miraculously, the empathetic theater contract can still be completed. It turns out the one thing we cannot digitize is attendance.

But wait, you know what can be outsourced to a computer? The on-stage actor’s freaking lines, though this delightfully appalling discovery warrants an asterisk. The script wasn’t written for a human. Crucially, it was written for a laptop and here Pirnot’s craft as a writer is so good it risks going undetected. I suspect that if a human read I Love You So Much I Could Die, it wouldn’t go well unless the actor impersonated A.I. The statements are short. Words repeat. The use of lists is manyfold and masterful. It all hits—from the cadence of her very funny jokes to the gut punch of each wretched detail—because Pirnot knows the strengths of the actor for whom she writes.

Okay, great—I can hear my experiment-resistant mother interject—but why?

It’s a grouchy but important question.

Why is Pirnot writing for a computer? Why does she withhold her face?

Let’s turn now to the subject of audience gameness, which I will define as willingness to engage open-heartedly with things that initially confuse or repel us to discover their hidden gifts.

I was not put off by 65 minutes of the back of Pirnot’s head, and the laptop delivered its lines like a pro, but there’s no denying that both choices are so jarring they demand interrogation. The gifts I found were hidden where they usually are, in the relationship between form and content. In this case: the wildly contradictory nature of grief.

A line in Pirnot’s first song goes: I… call up my friends and tell them I don’t wanna talk.

This passing detail makes briefly explicit the duality underpinning the whole experiment. When we’re gutted by loss, on the one hand, words fail, company disappoints, the trivia of real life is unimportant to the point of being fake; the only thing that matters is the person who’s not there. On the other hand, we cannot get through tragedy alone, and we need trivial things like food and sleep. We need a partner to lift us off the floor when our own limbs won’t rally. Maybe we need a laptop to do the job our uncooperative vocal cords have abandoned.

The form of this play is beseeching us: Don’t look at me, but I need you to bear witness. I am unable to speak, but I have a story to tell you.

Speaking of songs, Pirnot sings us five original compositions in a soft, smooth voice suited for lullabies. We get a sad happy birthday to herself and a song of thanks to her partner, the refrain of which is the play’s title. In contrast to its co-star the laptop, her voice sounds humane and fragile, but at no point did I fear it would break. If communicating via technology is one workaround for the muteness of grief, music is another. Putting those two answers to pain side-by-side makes Pirnot’s anguish feel like a modern affliction and an ancient rite at the same time.

The day after I saw I Love You So Much I Could Die, I drove my teenage daughter to her ice-skating lesson in the suburbs and, as usual, I willed myself to keep my mouth shut while she told me about her life. It’s a truism of parents with cars that we get our kids’ most voluble disclosures when we’re driving around not looking at one another. Are we less moved by our children’s woes for the lack of eye contact? No. We’re grateful for the veil erected by driver-passenger blocking that liberates our kids to be vulnerable with us. Distance makes space for closeness. Teenagers in the backseat, like the woman sitting on stage, don’t really want to talk to me and they need me to know how they’re doing.

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