By Lynn Venhaus
In what she describes as a dream, Liza Birkenmeier came home to St. Louis to oversee the mounting of her play “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House,” which the St. Louis Actors’ Studio is producing this month at The Gaslight Theatre, an appropriate location for a city rooftop peering over the Mississippi River near Interstate 55.
Featuring St. Louis references and specific songs from that summer, the action takes place on June 17, 1983, on the eve of astronaut Sally Ride’s historic Challenger Space Shuttle mission.
“To be in St. Louis for the process — for the process to be in St. Louis at all — is a dream. The play takes place here and is full of the wonder I have at the city and the people,” she said.
The New York-based playwright, 37, was commissioned by Ars Nova in New York City, where it premiered in 2019, and became a New York Times Critics Pick and a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award.
Selecting Sally Ride came later to the process, Liza said. But when she found out the date of her launch, and how, as the first American woman astronaut, she still couldn’t live an authentic life, so she was a closeted lesbian. In her obituary some 30 years later, she mentioned her partner of 27 years.
The play’s female characters include two lesbians who are childhood friends, Matilda and Harriet, who have MFAs in poetry but work as waitresses, and have invited a guest, Meg, to their Two Serious Women Book Club. Meg is an out-lesbian, and she is shocking to them, how comfortable she is being herself.
Smartly written and acted, the play gives us snapshots of women living lives of quiet desperation, and what a bold, risky, adventurous woman like Sally Ride represents to them.
The comedy-drama runs Oct. 6-22, with Thursday through Saturday performances at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at The Gaslight Theatre, 358 N. Boyle Ave., St. Louis.
Tickets are available through Ticketmaster or at the box office one hour prior to the performance. For more information, visit www.stlas.org
Birkenmeier has a connection with St. Louis Actors’ Studio, as she performed in the riveting drama “Blackbird” in 2018, earning a St. Louis Theater Circle nomination for outstanding actress as the 27-year-old Una, who confronts the 55-year-old man, Ray, who seduced her 15 years ago, when she was 12. John Pierson played Ray in this complex portrayal of ruined lives intertwined. Her director, Annamaria Pileggi, is also the director of her show.
In her notes, she said she is grateful to work with Pileggi, Patrick Huber, and Amy Paige again, and to be united (or reunited) with this group of artists.
After high school in St. Louis, Liza earned a bachelor’s degree in drama at Washington University and an MFA degree at Carnegie Mellon University. She now lives in Brooklyn with her wife, Shannon, and two cats.
Her work as a playwright has been seen and developed at The Public Theatre, TiQ, HERE, Dixon Place, University Settlement, Playwrights Realm, Lincoln Center, and elsewhere.
She is a New Georges Affiliated Artist, a Yaddo and Macdowell Fellow, and is currently commissioned by Sam French and the Manhattan Theatre Club.
“F*ck7thGrade,” a musical collaboration with Jill Sobule, was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for outstanding musical and was also a New York Times Critics Pick and finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Drama; it will return to the Wild Project this fall, where it premiered in 2022.
Recently, she premiered “Grief Hotel” at Clubbed Thumb, directed by Tara Ahmadinejad. Other plays include “Islander,” “Honestly Sincere” (New York Times Critics Pick/Drama League Award), and “Radio Island” (finalist for the Philip Seymour Hoffman Relentless Award).
This semester, she is teaching playwrighting at Washington University and has written a novel. There is a lot more wit, wonder and words in her future.
The Take Ten Questionnaire:
1.What is special about your latest project?
“There are too many special things about this production of ‘Dr. Ride’s American Beach House’ at STLAS for me to name. To be in St. Louis for the process — for the process to be in St. Louis at all — is a dream. The play takes place here and is full of the wonder I have at the city and the people.
Annamaria Pileggi and I have been working together since I was her student at Wash U. I’m wildly happy that she’s directing this particular piece here and now. The cast and creative team are full of former classmates and teachers. It’s a warm and surreal experience.”
2. Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts?
“It would have been so much saner for me to have chosen this! Truly, I have a compulsion to make stuff and then try to show people. I’ve always imagined building planets, inviting people to visit them, and then feeling desperate for someone to say: ‘Oh, I’ve always wished to be here!’ There’s no reason; it’s embarrassing.”
3. How would your friends describe you?
“Inspiring and competent. (Is this getting fact-checked?)”
4. How do you like to spend your spare time?
Walking around my neighborhood, trying to become a genius.
5. What is your current obsession?
It hasn’t changed in so many–thirty? –years! Novels.
6. What would people be surprised to find out about you?
“I love Provel cheese?”
7. Can you share one of your most defining moments in life?
“When I was in the fifth grade (at the Forsyth School), I insisted on playing the ‘sailor that gets mauled by the Cyclops’ in the class production of The Odyssey. There was no such part, but I guess I weaseled in a scene in which I could die a violent death, come back to life, and sing a solo. In a way I don’t know if I can explain, this is what I continue to do.”
8. Who do you admire most?
9. What is at the top of your bucket list?
“I would like to pull off an elaborate con. Ideally, this would be theatrical, nonviolent, and lucrative. Or have a novel published. Somehow this feels like the same thing.”
10. How were you affected by the pandemic years, and anything you would like to share about what got you through and any lesson learned during the isolation periods? Any reflections on how the arts were affected? And what does it means to move forward?
“My dad, who is a pulmonary critical care physician, was working in the COVID unit at the Veterans Hospital here in St. Louis, and I was at home in Brooklyn. While I think he’s the coolest person imaginable, I dreaded that part of his work. As things felt more ‘normal’ with time, I started to work again, and I found that writing in novel ways, for novel opportunities–for online pieces, podcasts, all non-live stuff–was so healthy for my brain.
I always think I’m being ‘creative,’ but I wonder if even in untraditional, off-Broadway theater, I had gotten into accidental habits. The first play I wrote for live performance since 2020 was called ‘Grief Hotel’ and somehow had, in sneaky ways, some sadness and anxiety of isolation, even though it was a comedy. It premiered at Clubbed Thumb in New York this summer, and was one of my favorite, proudest experiences.
11. What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis?
See my friends and go to Blues games.
12. What’s next?
“I wrote a novel. Wish me luck!”
More About Liza Birkenmeier
Current location: Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY since 2012.
Family: My wife, Shannon, and two cats, Lila and Lenù
Education: BA Washington University. MFA Carnegie Mellon.
Day job: This semester, teaching Playwriting at Wash U!
First job: Brown Shoe warehouse, replacing choking hazard laces on Build-A-Bear Sketchers.
Awards/Honors/Achievements: I’m most proud of being a two-time finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Drama and of my work with Ars Nova and Clubbed Thumb in New York.
Favorite quote/words to live by: Sentences that Yiyun Li, Annie Dillard, Elena Ferrante, Elif Batuman, Maggie Nelson, Iris Murdoch, and Annie Erneaux wrote.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.