While theatre was always a part of her DNA, Rinne Groff didn’t always have playwriting in mind. She graduated from college as a “serious actress,” beginning her career as a performer—and founding member—of the acclaimed downtown collective Elevator Repair Service. The next ten years with ERS paved the way for what she would eventually recognize as her education in playwriting—she not only performed in every show but she fell in love with the very act of creating theatre, uncovering what worked and what didn’t, as well as her own voice as a storyteller.
Now an established playwright, performer, and educator, Groff returns to her artistic home, The Public Theater, this July with the Off-Broadway premiere of Fire in Dreamland. In her play, directed by Marissa Wolf and set in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, a disillusioned 30-something woman meets a charismatic European making a film about the 1911 fire that burned down Coney Island’s Dreamland amusement park. The inspiration for the piece came from reading Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York. The chapter on Coney Island and details of the historic fire—particularly the image of the park’s majestic lion, which died atop a roller coaster—captivated Groff.
Groff has a theory that one’s most visionary work is born of ideas that seem a little impossible. For the playwright, the impossibility of telling the story of the fire and the lion became a part of the play—what if someone was trying to make a film about the animals that died in the accident? Suddenly, Groff’s play took on a filmic vocabulary. “What does a jump cut mean onstage?” the playwright asked herself. “What does it mean to make a play about a movie? How does that affect sound and structure… that felt really exciting to me—again, another impossibility to bump up against.”
At its heart, Fire in Dreamland is a play about what we do in the face of destruction and a woman searching for meaning in her life. This is a theme that Groff finds herself returning to time and time again in her playwriting work—the notion of what it means to find your own way forward. In many ways, this is reflected in her personal journey to playwriting. “I find it deeply compelling and interesting to explore,” says Groff. “How to take that step to the other side of the line where you say, ‘It might not look exactly how I thought it was going to look, but I will keep moving forward.’”