Friday, August 26, 2016

Reading Monday

READING


Mercy

Directed by Markus Potter

Starring Zack Robidas, Dan Grimaldi, Sarah Kate Jackson, and Erik Heger

New Jersey Rep
Monday August 29, 7pm
179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740

No reservations. First come, first serve. Doors open at 6:30

When Orville’s pregnant wife is hit by a drunk driver, the doctors can only save the baby. Deep in grief, Orville tries to piece his life back together as a single father until he happens to see the drunk driver on the street one day. He befriends him under an assumed name and buys a gun, and Orville begins an agonizing conflict between revenge and forgiveness.

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Study Playwriting With Me


I'm teaching a playwriting class at ESPA this fall and it's online so you can take it no matter where you are.

http://primarystages.org/espa/online-classroom/online-first-draft

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Monday, August 22, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 868: Peter Lefcourt




Peter Lefcourt

Hometown: New York City

Current Town: Santa Monica, Ca

Q: Tell me about Drama Queens from Hell

A:  It’s always difficult for a writer to trace the original spark that set off the process of writing a play. In the case of “Drama Queens From Hell,” it may have been a combination of wanting to write something about competition among actors and about the growing tendency to demand diversity in casting, a response to the “Oscars So White” meme. As usual, the script took off in its own direction, resulting in a play that could be labeled, oxymoronically, “a noir comedy.” The breakthrough, in this instance, was the idea of using a remake of the Billy Wilder classic, “Sunset Boulevard,” as the plot device upon which to hang the themes. The story of remaking the film winds up being thematically akin to the story of the film itself – older, cast-aside actresses vying with one another to play Norma Desmond. Just how that happened, I have no idea.

Q: What else are you working on now?

A:  I am in the middle of a new play, tentatively entitled, “Nine Hours.” The play is set in July, 1969, on the eve of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and follows Ted Kennedy’s actions during the nine hours that elapsed between his driving the car, with Mary Jo Kopechne inside, off the bridge on Chappaquiddick Island and his reporting the accident to the police. The conceit of the play is the visit of Ted Kennedy’s two dead brothers – Bobby and Jack –to help him do damage control. In the process we see the agonizing choices confronting the senator, as well as the dynamics of the Kennedy family, and the political zeitgeist of the time.

Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  I would want the theater to be more financially viable, so that playwrights, directors and actors could make a decent living devoting their time to it. Almost every other developed country in the world – as well as some underdeveloped ones – subsidizes theater as an art form that elevates peoples’ consciousness. In this country, it is largely an activity indulged in by artists as an act of philanthropy.

Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Early on, I liked Ionesco and Pirandello – for their cogent use of the absurd. These days I admire Alan Ayckbourn, for his unique comic voice: Tom Stoppard, for his all-around brilliance, and, for similar reasons, Donald Margulies, Christopher Durang and Terrence McNally.

Q: What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Theater that I am still thinking about days and weeks after I’ve left the theater. Sometimes for years, maybe decades. I can still remember vividly the first time I saw Mamet’s “American Buffalo” off Broadway (1977), with John Savage and Robert Duvall.

Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Get a good day job.

Q:  Plugs, please.

A:  “Drama Queens From Hell” opens August 20th at the Odyssey Theatre and plays for six weekends, through 9/25. Details at: https://www.plays411.net/newsite/show/play_info.asp?show_id=4453 or 323 960-7787


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Tuesday, August 09, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 867: Stephen Brown



Stephen Brown

Hometown: Spring, TX

Current Town: Brooklyn, NY

Q:  Tell me about Montgomery:

A:  Aw man. I'm usually pretty quiet or embarrassed when it comes to my own work, but this play is going to be fucking awesome. It's crazy and very different than anything I've ever written. I grew up loving the Coen Brothers' films - Raising Arizona, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou - and have always wanted to see their style onstage somewhere. Something that's wild, musical, with bigger than life characters, usually doing something stupid, but grounded in emotional honesty. So I wrote this play.

It's about two 14 year old girls who kidnap a country music star. And all the shit that comes after that. People get shot. Songs get sung. A father tries desperately to connect with his daughter. And the daughter tries to exact her revenge on those that wronged her. It's a vengeance play.

We're doing a reading of it through ESPA Drills at the Lucille Lortel at 7pm on 8/16. The indomitable Tessa LaNeve has been spearheading the entire program while dramaturging my play via caps locked text messages (she thinks she's sooo cool). The amazing Suzie Agins is directing. It's going to be a blast.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I'm trading time between two new plays right now. The first is a horror play about the competitive world of cat pageants. The second is about this mother who doesn't get invited on her family's summer vacation, so she goes anyway to ruin it for everyone. It's called "Fucking Disney World." It's also a vengeance play. I'm finding out I tend to write a lot of vengeance plays.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  When I was 6 my brother tried to burn me at the stake. My mother caught him and his friend tying me to a tree and setting kindling around my ankles. She sent him to his room and grounded him for a week. I felt terrible about it. So I sat on the other side of his locked door and passed him Reese's Peanut Butter Cups underneath it. I sat there the whole day in case he needed anything.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  More dance parties.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Plays that feel like a god damn ride. Plays that are physical, hilarious, dangerous, violent, and just a liiittle bit weird. That have a sense of adventure. Plays like Year of the Rooster. Kentucky. The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. The Coward. I worked at EST when they did Hand to God and the staff would all stand in the back and watch every performance. It was like touching lightning. I also love it when plays work in some kind of live music. The New Group's production of A Lie of the Mind several years ago was this whole other experience because of two guys playing music out of found objections on stage during the performances.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  I think reading as many plays as possible is important when starting out. I didn't really study playwriting or theater, so I learned a shit load about structure, different styles of storytelling, and what was even possible onstage just by hanging out at Drama Bookshops and reading plays (without ever buying them sorry Drama Bookshop).

And then read everything else. Read poetry (both bad and good). Read George Saunders' short stories. Read some world history. Read the graphic novel series DMZ. Read strange confessional posts on the internet. Do it all, man.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Check out my fellow ESPA Drillers next week:

"Surfacing" by Mike Poblete - August 15th at 4pm
"Rapture2K" by Daniel McCoy - August 15th at 7pm
"The Call Center" by Joshua Strauch - August 16th at 4pm

RSVP and more info here: http://primarystages.org/espa/espa-programs/espa-drills

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Thursday, August 04, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 866: J. Stephen Brantley



J. Stephen Brantley

Hometown: San Antonio, Texas

Current Town: New York City

Q:  Tell me about The Jamb.

A:  The Jamb is a coming-of-middle-age story about Tuffer and Roderick, two gay punks turning forty. I wrote it – its first incarnation, anyway – in 2008, because I wanted to see queer characters onstage that were more like me. Everything was pretty liminal at the time. I was a few years clean of drugs, the glue was drying on what became a long-term relationship, I was leaving behind my misspent youth and coming up on forty…while the story is definitely fiction, it’s also deeply personal. I’m also acting in this production, so I’m really feeling that.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  A sequel! Seven years of revisions on a play will get you wondering what its characters might be up to now. In Double Negative, Roderick and Tuffer return to the desert, this time to bring Roderick’s ailing mother to see a monumental earthwork in the middle of nowhere Nevada. It takes place in 2015, the same day as the SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality, so it has to do with that. We’re doing a reading on September 17th, before the closing performance of The Jamb.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  There was a kid in my elementary school, total class clown, called Scott Wolf. In fifth grade Scott found himself in leg braces. Actually a strange A-framed contraption that kept his legs constantly splayed. This was around the time I started writing plays – sprawling monomyths, fantasy stuff – and I imagined Scott playing a wise-cracking dragon. I had it all worked out: we’d cover his leg braces in green satin, and he’d wave his crutches like wings. It never actually happened, but so what. Decades later, I’m still doing it, writing weird plays with bizarre props for my brilliant actor-friends.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  I wish commercial theatre could be as brave as we are in the indie trenches. And I would like theatre in general to be as accessible – in every sense – as television. I don’t quite understand why a nation that loves sports and loves movies doesn’t also love theatre, which is, at its best, a combination of both. I’d like to change the way theatre is thought of as something that only appeals to ‘theatre people’.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Reza Abdoh, for the way he fused dance-theatre with political playwriting in immersive productions before anyone was doing that, and told timely stories with such passion and urgency. And Lanford Wilson, because each play he wrote was completely different to the one that came before it.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Adventure theatre. Theatre that never tries to be film. Theatre that constantly reminds you it’s ephemeral – and so are you.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Produce your own work. Direct your own work. Perform your own work. Muck in with set construction if the designers will let you. Do each of these things at least once and learn something about every aspect of how a story gets staged. I think it makes you a better writer, not to mention a more grateful artist. Don’t wait for someone else to make your plays happen. Get in a room with actors as soon and as often as you can, and listen to them.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  The Jamb opens September 1st at The Kraine! And then next March, Hard Sparks has a residency at IRT. We’re working with playwrights Bob Bartlett and Melody Bates. Official announcement coming soon!

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Sunday, July 31, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 865: Lojo Simon



Lojo Simon

Current Town: Laguna Beach CA

Q:  Tell me about your upcoming show.

A:  I’m currently in rehearsal for LOVE ALL, which ironically was my attempt at realism that turned into a memory play. It’s a brand new piece about a writer trying to come to terms with a family secret. I’m loving rehearsal because there’s lots of action in the piece, including a father-son tennis match and a mother who loses herself in playing cello, so we’re all getting to play with my favorite stringed instruments.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I’m developing RELIC with director Evan Pappas and actor David Perlman. It’s a solo comedy with 30-plus characters about an unemployed actor who finds one of the world’s most cherished religious relics in his grandmother’s attic. The relic brings him fame and fortune, but, of course, his life with the relic is not what he imagined. Next step is to get into a rehearsal room.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  I was the editor of my high school newspaper in the 1970s in northern Virginia, just outside of DC, where my dad worked in the Pentagon. The newspaper received an advertisement from an LGBT bookstore in DC, and the advisor said we couldn’t publish it because it would encourage kids to make poor lifestyle choices. I launched a protest, appealed to the school board and was featured in the Washington Post. The irony is that I lost my appeal, the ad was never published, my father punished me for making trouble, and my brother turned out to be gay. I don’t always succeed, but I keep following my heart.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  I’d get rid of labels that divide us and our work into arbitrary categories. Theatre-makers should be encouraged make art that crosses boundaries of comedy, drama, musical, film, dance, performance art, etc. and simply tells compelling stories that matter.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  I’m attracted to theatre that is political and poetic, so I guess my influences would include the Greeks, Brecht, Lorca, Tennessee Williams, Doug Wright, Caryl Churchill, Marina Carr, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Suzan-Lori Parks and Sarah Ruhl.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I recently saw Paula Vogel’s INDECENT directed by Rebecca Taichman at the Vineyard Theatre, which was the most powerful storytelling I’ve ever seen combined with the most moving, beautiful, and stunning directing I’ve ever seen. With live music, movement, metaphor, story, imagery, intensity, intellectual prowess and raw emotion, it lived up to the full potential of live theatre, and that excites me. Everyone in the theatre felt it – there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Write with imagination. Write every day. Write to inspire. Write big. Write what matters. Write like your life depends on it.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  I just finished a young adult novel, so I need an agent for that. And my favorite play, ONE FOOT, is still available for a professional premiere. Check out my work on the New Play Exchange (https://newplayexchange.org/users/1031/lojo-simon) and on my website www.lojosimon.com
 
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Thursday, July 28, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 864: Nina Segal




Nina Segal

Hometown: London

Current Town: Brooklyn

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I'm about to go into a Chicago workshop of Big Guns. Big Guns is a piece about the threat of violence - and about our desire/disgust relationship to it in the West. It's also about theatre and how we, as audiences and as makers, have the ability to both conjure and deconstruct - and perhaps an equal desire for both. It was developed with Soho Theatre in London as part of their writer's residency and at NDSM Treehouse in Amsterdam. Its a play for two actors and (maybe) a bunch of guns.

I just completed a week's workshop on a collaboratively-made piece with Built for Collapse, for premiere in NY in 2018 - narrowly it's about the rise to prominence of the lobotomy procedure; more broadly it's about connections and disconnections and the fifties and the arctic and kitchen utensils and power tools and freezing.

I'm under commission with HighTide to write a piece called Touch Me Don't Touch Me about invisible disease, directed by Ben Kidd from Dead Centre; and am in the early stages of a piece about national and global drought, the meaning of green lawns in deserts, and the dismantling of the welfare state.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  I started school in the UK a year late and immediately led a small-scale five-year-old feminist revolution against the gendered uniform. I couldn't see how you could play in the dirt in a skirt. I think my plays are political, but my grammar and phrasing is terrible, due to the missed year of schooling.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  The assumed need for categorisation. I think there's a danger, in the increased push towards professionalism, in the need to market and sell a show well before the thing itself is made, in the need for pitches and statements and prize-winning synopses, that artists are often pressed to make decisions about how they speak about the work before the work is ready to be spoken about. On the other side of it, I think critics and programmers also feel a pressure to turn a show into a soundbite, that can be more easily packaged and explained. This doesn't leave a great deal of room for work that falls outside of easy categorisation.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Tim Etchells. I'm always wary of referencing Forced Entertainment too strongly - I was probably introduced to them in the first year of university or even before that, so the reference always feels a little juvenile. But those are formative years and so the references stay with you, perhaps more strongly than anything that comes after that.

Tim Crouch. I recently got to spend some time in the Adler and Gibb rehearsal room with Tim Crouch and the way he makes and deconstructs and rebuilds and breaks again constantly is fascinating to me. And the fact that maybe he believes in theatricality, whilst still being absolutely aware of it's artifice.

I want to make a joke about another Tim but I can't think of any and it wouldn't be a great joke anyway.

Also, this one time at a show when the singer of a pretty terrible band sensed that he was losing/had lost the room and jumped down into the crowd with his microphone and ran all the way around the edges of the space either trying to get closer to people or trying to admonish them for not caring and when he re-climbed the stage on the other side, the microphone cord which had snaked all round the room after him, pulled tied around the crowd's ankles and everybody was dragged together into the centre of the room and suddenly you felt like something was going on. It wasn't theatre but it felt how I want to feel at the theatre.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Theatre that asks more questions than it answers. Theatre that defies description and so always sounds a bit shit when you breathlessly try and tell someone how good it was (see microphone cord story above).

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Don't agonise too much about it - it's not supposed to be perfect.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Big Guns reading - 3pm on August 5th at the Theatre School, DePaul University, Chicago.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 863: Joshua Young


Joshua Young

Hometown: Columbus, Ohio

Current Town: Bronx, NY

Q:  Tell me about Who Mourns for Bob the Goon?

A:  This play is dark comedy about a PTSD therapy group where everyone thinks they're third tier comic book characters. Specifically it's about vets who have coped with their PTSD by identifying with their lesser known comic counterparts as part of an untested (and maybe unethical) version of drama therapy. The group begins to unravel when a woman is admitted who believes she's from an anime, not a comic. The premise in writing was something very personal to me; I find that we, as Americans, often fail to mourn the lives who've impacted us the most.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I'm writing two plays. School Bus Witchhunt and Copper Pirates. School Bus Witchhunt is a story about a school's administrative board going after a white parent because her son was accused of calling a black friend on the bus the n word. Copper Pirates is about a man who hunts copper (something extraordinarily common in poor communities) whose stash was raided. The thin thread holding his life and family together falls apart because someone stole his copper. Both stories are 100% focused on poor communities in America.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  I think the older I get the more I reflect on visiting my father in prison when I was a child, and how that memory fuels my current activism as an artist. And how that memory fuels my sense of defiance.

My parents were both indigent and very young when they had me and it took some time for them to transition into being 'parents.' Longer for my father than my mother... and my father's getting in trouble with the law in my early years reflects that. I have two very clear memories of this experience. I remember when my father was in court for sentencing and my mother telling me it was important that we showed up, as the court was more lenient if they saw a sympathetic family in attendance. Crying children help. I also recall the process of visiting him in prison, and -to a child, maybe 5-7 years old- it just felt like a trip or something special to do. "Oh it's Saturday, we're gonna go visit your father."

It took many years to figure out my identity as an adult and embrace the environment I emerged from. It took many years in NYC to realize how different I was to so many people in the communities I was involved in. It saddens and scares me how out of touch people in theater are with these large swaths of America who are living in or near what we would classify third world environments. The disadvantages my folks faced in my youth, including my dad getting in trouble with the law, were dictated by where we were and are headed as a society. The lack of opportunity and even hope that is dictated to the lower class in this country... I'm trying to change that. I was lucky in that, despite the disadvantages my parents had to overcome, they were always supportive towards me... and genuinely bright people. The idea that poor folks in this country aren't bright is a mistake too many people make.

I pursued writing as an act of defiance. My folks insisted as I grew up that I fought for whatever I could cling to that brought my happiness. Their theory was that life was going to be miserable no matter what I did, so the least I could do for myself was find a path/ career/ life that could have the potential to make me happy. My not giving up my hopes and dreams as a playwright is a subtle and consistent act of defiance and protest to our society at large and an act of honoring that mentality my folks imbued in me. Going into the arts or actively finding methods of self expression, is overtly discouraged in poor communities. I think of my father being in prison, how he got there and why, how my parents dealt with their circumstances in life, how they raised me... and it really is the best little anecdote that explains who I am as a writer, a person, and an activist.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  The aesthetics, the types of stories being told, and even the way theater is made is far too controlled by the mentalities of people who have had affluent lives. The sons and daughters of the upper class, and even upper middle, and even middle class, at some point took over the theater scene, especially the downtown theater scene, and have made it an impenetrable monolith.

If I could change one thing... well I would tear it all down. I'd find an army of people from poor communities across America and jam them into every board of directors, theater company roster, and artistic role I could find. I can't do that... so instead I created my own company that is expressly aimed at supportive voices from lower economic background. It's a start.

The stories that need to be told from these communities are so important, and can be so entertaining, enlightening, and engaging... that we just have to build the infrastructure to have them heard, and more importantly, produced.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  This is a very good question. Typically I feel like playwrights talk about who influenced them and not who their heroes are. I've been influenced by Beckett, Albee, and Miller among others... but who are my heroes...? Thinking...

Spalding Gray is one of my theatrical heroes. His mother's suicide and later his own... when you look at his life and work through the lens of someone fighting so hard against a psychological disorder, but losing to it... it rouses something in me. A strength to fight on, even knowing you may lose. And I've admired the existential empathy he conveys in all his work. Watching one of his monologues has always made me feel less alone in the world.

Yukio Mishima is hero of mine. That dude just did not give. a. fuck. His politics are complicated but his acts of defiance for what he believed in were unyielding. And similar to Spalding, Mishima was validated by genuine brilliance as an artist. I look to him for a personal reminder of what it's like to have totally converged artistic life and private life, and how there is honor and positivity in that. On the other hand, he presents a cautionary tale of how converging private and artistic life too much... to an extreme and inflexible place, can lead to ruin.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Only theater that is uniquely theatrical excites me. We live in an age where there are a lot of mediums for telling a story. I have often seen plays and left asking myself, was this medium best suited for this tale. We have access to the technology to make podcasts, films, televisions shows, webseries, and so on... That's why I believe a theatrical piece should try to strive towards justifying why it belongs on a stage.

Ivo Van Hove's Scenes from a Marriage was a great example, so was Reid Farrington's Tyson Vs. Ali, other examples are Revolt, She Said, Revolt Again, SeaWife, and I could list many others. All of these very diverse stories from diverse artists shared one big thing in common, they could only exist on the stage. (*And I recognize the irony in writing that since Scenes from a Marriage was originally a motion picture, but in adapting it and using the Fefu and her Friends style story structure Van Hove and Emily Mann made something uniquely theatrical.)

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  I'd say remember you'll only ever have yourself and your own ambition to trust, so fight for those things. Fight for yourself and your ambition. Fight to be a better human being. Fight to be a better artist. Fight to be a supportive artist. Fight to be collaborative. Fight for your vision. Fight for a better theater. Fight for better opportunities for marginalized artists. Fight for humility. Fight to be a better skilled playwright if your talent doesn't match your ambition. And most importantly fight for storytelling, and fight for the stories heard that deserve to be heard.

And never stop fighting, because that leads to feeling something passed you by or you missed your chance. Resentment, anger, darkness... lead to nothing good in the arts.
 
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Friday, July 22, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 862: Elenna Stauffer



Elenna Stauffer


Hometown: Scarsdale, NY is where I grew up.

Current Town: New York, NY is where my kids are growing up.

Q:  Tell me about Hysterical.

A:  It's the story of five girls' strange and terrifying year. One by one the girls on the Bandits' cheerleading team succumb to a mysterious illness, upending the traditional pecking order and testing the girls’ relationships with each other. It was inspired by actual news stories about mass hysteria among modern American high schoolers. If there is a theme in my work so far, it is that I tend to be interested in characters who might be written off as trivial, but who are struggling and trying desperately to be heard. In this play in particular, I have tried to focus tightly on the voices of the young women who are afflicted, so there are no mothers, fathers, coaches or teachers onstage. It is just them.

In an early draft, in a class I took at Primary Stages with Stefanie Zadravec, she identified an impulse I hadn't named but was following, about how I use the girls as their own Greek chorus to tell their stories. It gave a name to what I was trying to do, and I worked harder in subsequent drafts to make sure that I followed that instinct. So throughout the play, there are moments when it gets to be too much for the girls, when they break the fourth wall to comment on what is happening to them through fully embodied cheers. It requires an awesome cast able to reveal the delicate inner lives of these fragile young women, and also capable of stomping, shouting and doing stunts and splits. I like to think it is a poignant, cheer-full look at life on the cusp of adulthood.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I have a newish play about the corrosive effects of social media on human interaction, which needs work, and a couple of problematic older plays that I'd really like to get my hands dirty revising. One is about a group of pageant moms (and Sarah Palin makes a nice cameo), and the other is about a new moms' group and is the most naturalistic of all the plays I have written so far. I've also been given small short play assignments by a couple of theatre groups I write with (I'm on the board of a newly formed company called Mason Holdings which is having a launch this fall) so I've got the month of August, when I'm no longer allowed to revise Hysterical, when I'll need to write those.

Q:   Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  Well, in terms of ambition and a love of writing, it would have to be my impulse at age five to declare to anyone who would listen that I planned to be a novelist (pronounced NO!-velist). That was also when I would give impassioned introductions at imaginary conventions, jumping on my parents' bed, shouting "Ladies and Gentlemen! President Jimmy Carter!!" I'm still a fan of his, so as origin stories go, those two impulses still feel like honest seeds of the person and writer I hoped to be.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  Hm. I have to say that I'm heartened every time I see a play that changes my perception of the world and as far as diversity of voices goes, there may be some hopeful signs, but I think there's still much room for improvement. I also think that as much as I'd realized that making a career as a playwright would be no easier than making a career as an actor (in both cases, it's voiceover work that's paid my bills), I don't think I realized how difficult and isolating it can be to find community, which is so necessary (even more so!) as a writer. Coming at this after years as an actor, I have actor friends I can call on when I need to hear material read aloud, but there should be more institutional support for nascent playwrights to get to hear their scenes aloud. I've loved taking classes at Primary Stages. In addition to having excellent, working teachers, it's a place where they have opportunities for readings or just to borrow space and actors to hear things in a conference room, and without that I'm not sure how I would have developed. But classes are expensive and without that or the support of a graduate program, I'm not sure how an early career playwright gets that room to try and fail and stretch, so I think that there are barriers to entry that go beyond just programming decisions at big theaters. So I think there’s room for improvement there.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  I'm going to answer this in a more personal way- I didn't start out as a playwright. I took a playwriting seminar at Yale and then a wonderful class in graduate school with Ellen McLaughlin, but I didn't really attempt to BE a playwright until after I'd already had my first baby. And it's been a reality for me, as it is for a lot of women, that it can be very hard to have children and still have artistic and personal ambitions, and so my heroes are all the women who have demonstrated that this can be possible (or, at least that I'm not nuts to try). So my heroes are women like Stefanie Zadravec and Brooke Berman, Sarah Ruhl (whom I've never met, but who wrote a series of essays that inspire me), and your wife, Kristen Palmer, among many.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I've always said that my favorite theatre is theatre that is fun and/or beautiful (which can be a terrifying kind of beauty). I came at this from having been a musical theatre girl. In that world, there's often a right and a wrong answer to the question "Webber or Sondheim," but I honestly was very split. I've come to love Sondheim, but I will still always pick Webber at the karaoke bar.

I worked as a stage manager on a production of Angels in America when I first moved to NY after college. I had no skills and didn't get paid, but I just really, really wanted to be near that script because that play is... obviously unbelievable. Working on it was a formative experience- the cast was wonderful and I just loved that feeling of working on something meaningful with people I genuinely loved.

As a spectator, I may never have another night at the theatre that makes me want to stop time just to keep thinking about what I saw the way I did when I saw Gem of the Ocean. And going back to the previous question about heroes? August Wilson. Definitely. His plays showed worlds I knew nothing about, and made me think about the world I lived in. Wendy Wasserstein is the playwright who made me wonder if I could write plays- seeing the Heidi Chronicles in high school was eye opening because it was one of the first plays where I saw someone confronting things that felt familiar to me. Because I came at this from having been an actor, I'm very aware that it's not just the playscript that makes a successful production. There are directors, like Simon McBurney, whose work would make me drop everything to search for tickets (as a side note, having been lucky enough to find Deborah Wolfson to direct this production of Hysterical! I've seen firsthand the positive impact a director can have- she manages not only to realize what I've written, but also to see what I've TRIED to write, and to make sure that that also is revealed). As for actors, I saw an understudy, Jerome Preston Bates, step in for Keith David in Seven Guitars, and he blew me away (and made me realize how many brilliant people are just waiting for their shot in this crazy talented city!). Michael Cerveris in Tommy. Sir Ian McKellen and Geraldine McEwan. Phyllicia Rashad. Lisa Gay Hamilton. This could take all day.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Find really generous people to be around. I remember a classmate giving me the name of her voice teacher when I was a new-to-the-city actor. It stuck out because these kinds of acts of kindness seemed rare. In this industry, there are people who will be human beings and people who treat this as a cutthroat sport.

Having defined myself for so many years as an actor, it's taken me some time to be comfortable calling myself a writer, especially in the company of obviously talented writers who have started earlier and who have had more successes. That writing class I took at Yale was a class of ten. It included Itamar Moses and Quiara Hudes. So I have good reason to feel inferior. But when I first started writing, Itamar gave me one of the most generous, thorough and thoughtful reads of an early draft (when I really, really didn't know what I was doing.) I took it out recently to see if it was salvageable and it was TERRIBLE. But he took it seriously, which allowed me to take myself seriously and to keep at this. All the teachers and writers who have similarly shared their thoughts and dramaturgical instincts with me as I worked to find my own- I'm deeply grateful for them. And, of course, one of my first giggles post grad school was being listed in the credits of your Mask play playscript as having originated the role. So when you asked me to do an interview, I'll be honest, I was really touched. So, I guess I hope that I can be as nurturing as you all have been. And my advice to playwrights, to get back to that, is that while it's true there are only so many "slots" for productions, etc. etc, and that it's true that there is a lot still to be done to achieve gender and all other parity, that doesn't mean you have to be part of the shit show. Allow yourself to be a cheerleader and supporter for other writers, because there are many, many people itching to do the same for you.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  I hope if you're reading this before August 24th that you'll come and see the NYC Fringe production of Hysterical! Tickets are available through www.fringenyc.org or you can check out our website: www.hystericalplay.com As our marketing materials say, "there may be tears; there WILL be cheers."

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Thursday, July 21, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 861: Joshua Kaplan



Joshua Kaplan

Hometown: Bellmore/Merrick, New York. Home of Amy Fisher, Deborah Gibson, and Ben & Jerry. Really, look it up.

Current Town: In transition (DC--->LA)

Q:  Tell me about Visiting Hours.

A:  My mother passed away last year after a long illness. Our relationship was very close and very complex. Over the past year, I've struggled to figure out exactly who I am without the person who served as the anchor, in ways both good and bad, to my life. A friend suggested I use my writing to channel all these conflicting feelings. So I set out to write Visiting Hours, which at its core is about the loss of a matriarch in a conflicted family (what family isn't?). But it would be a mistake to call this an autobiographical, or even semi-autobiographical, play. There are elements of my life, for sure, and reflections of some of my family dynamics (as I see them, at least). But really I hope this story stands on its own and has its own life. I find many autobiographical plays to be one-dimensional and unrelatable. I wanted this story to be about every family and no family.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  Visiting Hours is the second play in a pseudo-comedic trilogy about aging, dying, and death. Funny stuff, right? Actually, Visiting Hours is the most "dramatic" of the three. The first play in the trilogy, So Late, So Soon, is a romantic comedy set in a nursing home that I wrote for the legendary Estelle Parsons. Ms. Parsons is now attached to that play, we have had some terrific readings in NYC and are now shopping it around. The third play, Happy Endings, is a farce set in a funeral home -- Noises Off meets Six Feet Under -- and is still in the drafting stages. I'm also entering USC's MFA Screenwriting program this fall, a new path that I'm excited to begin.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  Oh, man. That's a playwright-to-playwright question if I ever heard one. I learned the power of the written word -- not just its power to educate but to express a soul-felt truth -- when I was thirteen. My uncle had just passed away, and my entire family was staying in his apartment on the Upper East Side. I could -- and someday might -- write a whole play about that week, it was such a pressure cooker of love, anger, compassion, loss. At some point everyone else went out, maybe for a walk, maybe in search of more Valium. Like all teenagers, I didn't know the value of boundaries, so I started snooping through my uncle's things. I found his diary and flipped to the last page, I had some kind of morbid curiosity about his final entry. There were only four words on it: "My son, I love." Four words. Ten letters. So much meaning in so condensed a form. And that meaning, that feeling, it still exists, because those words are still there, on paper and in my head and my heart. The written word is the closest we can come to immortality.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  Less readings and workshops, more productions. There's value to the development process, absolutely, but at some point we all want to do what we went into theater to do -- entertain an audience. I understand the seductive attraction of risk aversion, and I understand the economics of what we do. I'm definitely not a head-in-the-clouds idealist, if anything, I could stand to stick my head in the clouds a little more often. But this isn't a matter of idealism versus realism. Theater is theater: it's putting something in front of an audience, warts and all. It seems like too many of us are so afraid an audience will see our warts, we don't let them see anything at all. We need to learn how to say yes more than we say no.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  It depends on how you define hero. I am inspired as a playwright by many of our greatest playwrights -- Edward Albee, Michael Frayn, Tennessee Williams, and so on. But I am inspired as a member of the theater profession (and as a human being) by Estelle. I've never met anyone as courageous, with as steadfast of a commitment to the art of what we do, as Estelle. It doesn't matter who you are or where you've come from -- what matters is the work. I learned from her that ego is the greatest enemy of creation. In fact, she'd probably slap me silly if I ever called her my theatrical hero, which makes her so even more.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I love to laugh one moment and cry the next. I'll be honest, I have a hard time with pure drama, especially drama that is so dark it lacks any humor, levity, or lightness. Sitting through Long Day's Journey Into Night is like my personal long day's journey into night. I can see the artistry in pure drama, the beauty in the darkness. But when there's not even a glimmer of hope or humor or light, I immediately tune out. It's a defense mechanism, of course, this innate need to find the light in darkness. But as far as defense mechanisms go, it's not a bad one, not as bad as, say, an insatiable chocolate chip cookie addiction (which I also have). When theater makes me laugh and cry at the same time, that's when I'm in my happiest place. If I had to choose, though, I would choose laughter before I would choose tears. There are enough tears in the world already.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Since I'm relatively new to this whole endeavor, I could probably use more advice than I can give. FWIW (as the kids say), my advice is the same as I give my creative writing students. Find your voice and trust it, but know the difference between voice and craft. A voice is innate, craft is developed. Stay true to your voice while you develop your craft. And remember, not everyone can be a great writer, but a great writer can be anybody. (Ok, that last one was a paraphrase from Ratatouille, but it's apt and that rat is so damn cute.)

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Come see Visiting Hours, at Theaterlab July 28-31!!! We have an amazing cast and creative team, led by the exceedingly talented Dina Vovsi. www.visitinghourstheplay.com

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