Humor, Humanity, and Heartbreak in Bryna Turner's Plays

Bryna Turner writes the plays they want to see. "As a queer person, I've been left out of a lot of narratives and not included in a lot of history.” Turner's work has addressed exactly that: their plays are a masterful reclamation of queer histories and a celebration of queer stories, seeking joy and laughter where other plays often sink into despair. 

Originally from Northern California, where At the Wedding is set, Turner moved across the country to major in theatre at Mount Holyoke College. They directed Jack, or The Submission by Eugene Ionesco in their senior year. Their audience found the French absurdist play difficult to understand, prompting Turner to think more critically about what they were actually interested in communicating to an audience.  The following semester, Turner decided to stage a play of their own for the very first time. The play was Uncommon Womyn, a response to Uncommon Women And Others by fellow Mount Holyoke alum Wendy Wasserstein. Through this process, Turner says, "I realized, this is what I want to do." 

Upon their graduation in 2012, Turner moved to New York, determined to accrue lived experience to equip them to write their plays. They worked at The Public, continuing to write in spare moments. According to Turner, "I think I also had this grand idea of entering the real world upon graduation—that the maturation and sophistication would naturally occur in both my life and my work." In the "real world," they decided that maturation and sophistication would emerge from investing time into their playwriting; this discovery eventually led them to join an MFA program. 

Turner graduated from Rutgers University's Mason Gross School of the Arts in 2016, and in the same year, concluded their time on the esteemed Early Career Writer's Group at Clubbed Thumb. Reeling from a heartbreak within months of graduation, they thought about quitting playwriting, especially plays about love. But with a Mount Holyoke Instagram post and the encouragement of a friend, Turner's next play (about a long-term relationship) was written within a day. 

On Mount Holyoke's Instagram page, Turner found letters featuring the intimate relationship between Mary Woolley, the College's 11th president, and Jeannette Marks, the head of its English Department. The relationship intrigued Turner, and inspired by these real historical events, Bull in a China Shop was born. Though Evan Cabnet, the recently installed artistic director of LCT3 (Lincoln Center's new playwright program) couldn't attend the play's 2016 staged reading, it caught his attention, and the play was programmed as his debut production at LCT3. 

Bull in a China Shop, directed by Lee Sunday Evans in 2017, was met with acclaim. "With a light hand and welcome irreverence," Time Out New York declared, "Turner neatly dispenses with two hoary shibboleths: that history is perforce dry, and feminists unfunny." The sentiment was echoed around critical circles, and LCT3 extended the fifty-performance run by an additional six shows. 

In recognition of their profoundly human and radically funny work, Turner has received some of the most prestigious playwriting accolades, including a 2017 MacDowell Fellowship and a 2018 Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award. Turner's playwriting career has continued with their other plays, Phases of the Moon and How to Separate Your Soul from Your Body (in ten easy steps!), participation in the WP Theater 2018-2020 Lab, and most recently, their seven-year residency at New Dramatists. 

Turner's latest play is At the Wedding, which premiered at LCT3 in 2022, directed by Jenna Worsham. Like the rest of Turner's work, this play tells a story often left untold in the theater. “There is a specific humor that queer women walk around with and own that I’ve never quite seen on stage this way,” Turner explains in an interview with Playbill

And humor is always present in At the Wedding, though its premise, described by Worsham as "a drunk lesbian at a wedding trying to process her feelings about her ex," reveals the pain and heartache under the play's surface. At multiple points of the play, one lovable character is described as "a small comedy of errors risking tragedy." But Turner's style of writing, remaining joyful when so many narratives about queerness center trauma and pain, is almost the opposite: despairing characters and tragic stories… risking comedy. 

Malaika Fernandes