Hometown: Chicago, IL
Current Town: Lafayette, CA
Q: You're headed to Minneapolis in July to present a play. Can you tell me about how this came about and a little bit about your play?
A: The play “Beyond the Owing” is about two people trying to figure out how to get married and have a life despite the financial – and emotional – debts they owe to others.
I got the idea for it in early 2005 when everyone was buying houses at exorbitant prices. I couldn’t figure out how they were doing it. All I could see was debt without any way to pay it back. I had also graduated from Columbia only the year before where (rightly or wrongly) debt was a huge and very real part of the commitment to the arts (it was even the subject of our commencement speaker’s keynote address). In a sense, this grad school debt was my exorbitantly priced house. But the burden of owning it was also starting to affect, even distort, my relationship with the dream that had inspired me to go for it in the first place. I figured I wasn’t alone. And artists wouldn’t be the only ones having money trouble in the near future.
I finished the first draft in the spring of 2005 and sent it around, knowing it had problems but thinking it was timely enough that someone would help. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival did a reading in the spring of 2006, followed by a Clubbed Thumb Workshop in December at Playwrights Horizons. The PCPA Theatre Fest in California followed in 2007. Interest dried up. Then I won a lottery slot in a reading series at the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis. I couldn’t attend, but I asked a friend living in MPLS - Genevieve Bennett who’d read an early draft and was a believer - if she’d direct it. Afterwards, she said she wanted to do it. She found a great bunch of actors and workshopped it over the next year or so, sending me notes and cut suggestions – almost all of which were excellent and I took.
Obviously, the play has only become more relevant since its early versions. Hopefully, people will find it more resonant as well.
Q: I had a great time working with Genevieve earlier this year. Is this the first time you two have worked together since Columbia? (Malachy and I got our MFAs at Columbia together along with Genevieve in 2004.)
A: We did the short musical “BLAM! I’m Lee Harvey Oswald!” at Dixon Place in NY sometime in early 2005. Though I like the Bay Area where we live now, I do wish I lived closer to Genevieve. She’s an incredibly talented and generous collaborator who directs for - and in - the moment. Musical, human, but also unafraid to search the dark corners in a play and work them. Finding people like her is hard. But it’s the kind of relationship I really live for and that I’ve always wanted to build theatre on.
Q: You have a new kid and a day job in advertising. When do you find time to work on plays?
A: I try to write in the mornings, before all the outside voices drown out the inside voices. Since my son has lately decided that 5 am is a good time to get up, this has been getting more difficult.
Q: Your wife is an actress (and a wonderful human being). Would you like to make an argument for playwrights and actresses coupling up?
A: The great thing about being with someone in the arts is that you understand each other. You “get” it. So, when your significant other says, “Yes, I’ll marry you, but I have to go away for a year to do the Oregon Shakespeare Festival” as mine did, you don’t freak out. You also have someone who can look at what you’re doing and respond appropriately to things that may be quite embryonic and need nurturing rather than immediate critical precision – though that comes later, too. In my case, I’ll add that Heather’s been amazingly good for helping me get over the fear of never having enough money. Being the child of a fairly well-off middle class life, I’ve spent a lot of energy worrying over the next pay check. As an actor, Heather’s kept me focused on what I’m doing NOW – rather than a worst case scenario fear about things that may or may not happen tomorrow.
Q: You used to be my roommate. Do you have any advice for my wife about living with me?
A: Don’t leave the sponge in the sink.
Q: If I came to San Francisco right now, what plays would you recommend that I go see or what theater companies should I check out?
A: Since everyone knows the Magic is here, I don’t think I need to mention them. Same goes for the Mime Troupe – still great after all these years. However, there are some less broadly known companies that I’d recommend to anyone, anytime: Encore (which just did Steven Yockey’s SKIN), The Shotgun Players, Impact, the Marin Theatre Company, Crowded Fire, FoolsFURY and Playground (which introduces the Bay Area to writers with a season of monthly 10 minute playwriting contests). Charlie Varon’s solo work at the Marsh shouldn’t be missed either (Rabbi Sam starts in October). Also, check out anything by Mark Jackson (his FAUST: Part 1 runs until the end of June with Shotgun) and anything at the EXIT – a place run by Christina Augello who has helped a ton of artists get stuff up with her annual SF Fringe. (If it weren’t for her….)
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I like gripping, visceral theatre. It’s gotta stick with me emotionally. It can be weird or funny or brutal – even unlikeable and hateful – but if it comes off when I get up from my seat, well, that’s not what I’m most hungry for. Generally, that’s meant emotionally dangerous and vulnerable work in plays that end on questions rather than statements. It’s not a bad thing necessarily for me to be leaving a show asking, “What the fuck just happened to me in there?” In New York, I looked for that kind of work at SPF, Clubbed Thumb, LAByrinth and Soho Rep.
Q: What advice do you have for other playwrights?
A: Find people you like, then work with them and hold on to them for dear life. If you give up, everyone else will too. Never confuse a budget for a play. Be good to your actors – always. Don’t worry about what the institutions are doing - ever. Listen to your characters before anyone else. Write every day for as long as you can. Write longhand whenever possible. Writing isn't a competitive sport, despite what the competitions and memberships and production credits suggest: Other writers are your friends, not people you're trying to demolish. Coffee is good, liquor is not. Ask for help. Get a day job (I don’t care what David Mamet says) and keep it until it's impossible not to. And, my favorite, from Anne Bogart: Don’t wait.
Q: Is there a link up for people to buy tickets to your show at the Red Eye?
A: We have a “trailer” at www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFdQegUWWes
Our website is www.beyondtheowing.com