Thursday, July 02, 2009

I Interview Playwrights Part 20: Jason Grote


Jason Grote  
 
Hometown: All over New Jersey (seriously)

Current Town: Brooklyn, NY

Q:  I know you have some more productions of 1001 coming up. Could you tell a little about the play, for those who don't know? Are you going to be able to go see them?

A:  Sure! It's a sort of deconstruction of the Arabian Nights stories, viewed through the lens of Edward Said's Orientalism; Scherezade's tales contain gradually-increasing anachronisms, and we get stories based on Hitchcock's Vertigo, and about Flaubert, Borges, and Alan Dershowitz. One of the stories takes place in a near-future (or alternate-universe) NY, and takes over the play; a love affair between two Americans, one Palestinian and one Jewish, when a dirty bomb attack hits NYC. The bomb also shatters narrative certainties and the alternate realities run together, and things get really crazy. It's a story about the power of narrative, for good or ill -- our reality is shaped by the theories and stories with which we view the world. So far I've only missed two 1001 productions, in Minneapolis and San Diego, and have seen all the others, though I'm no longer directly involved in rehearsals.


Q: You've been on WFMU for a while now. Can you tell me a little about your show and give a link for people who'd like to listen in?

A:  Sure! It's basically a radio play show, but we're sort of reinventing what radio plays can be in the 21st century, more out of necessity than anything else -- the old-time radio play is pretty much defunct, and we have to fill a show every week. In addition to bringing a lot of theater artists or companies onto the radio, we play a lot of stuff that could be classified as performance art, audio art, found audio, home recordings, spoken word, poetry, and ambient, hip-hop, or electronic music. There are often surprising overlaps: for example, the Velvet Underground song "The Gift" is actually a perfect radio play, and performance poet Caroline Bergvall has a following among electronic music artists. People can listen to every show at http://wfmu.org/playlists/am.

Q:  You're teaching now. Can you tell me about that? Are you teaching playwriting? I know you were teaching English courses at Fordham for the past few years.

A:  Actually Rutgers, and I'm still there. The benefits are great. At the moment I'm teaching Radio Playwriting and Advanced Playwriting in the MFA Program at Hollins University in Virginia, and it's really nice to be teaching at the graduate level. During the school year, teaching can get really exhausting -- I have a pretty heavy courseload-- but as day jobs go it's a good one. I get lots of time off, and I don't have to rely on erratic writing income to pay rent. I'm also always learning from my students. If I don't bail and go into comedy writing, I could see myself developing a curriculum a la Paula Vogel or Mac Wellman.

Q:  Can you talk a little about the development support you've had, with Soho Rep and with others? How has it shaped who you are as a theater artist?

A:  Sure -- my feeling about play development is that it's great, except when it's not. No doubt lots of big regional theaters "develop" new plays but only put revivals or hits on stage, but thankfully I haven't had to deal with a lot of this. I still think that the Soho Rep Lab was the best development venue I've ever participated in, for a variety of reasons. I think it shaped me by encouraging me to write smart, challenging work, plays that were only plays and not TV shows on stage. Many other play development venues try to shape a play into something more palatable or "commercial" or whatever, which never works, at least not for me. Interestingly, regional theaters have been much more interested in my Soho Rep plays than they have in plays they've commissioned from me -- a lot of what they assume my "voice" is was probably shaped by my presence in the Lab. I'm trying to figure out how to recapture that, to forget that I'm writing for a regional theater.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Right now I'm mostly interested in "generative" work -- work built by an ensemble or a director working with a team. I tend to think that this is the future of the art form, and feels much more alive to me than the assembly-line method of getting a script, hiring a director, etc. Though I really enjoyed David Adjmi's Stunning at LCT3 and Madeline George's Precious Little at Clubbed Thumb, and both were more traditional in their execution. But usually I like to be challenged, and I'm interested in details. Going to theater, even for free or cheap, is a pain in the ass, so I want it to be worth my time in terms of meaning. If it's only going to be entertainment, then it's got to be really, really entertaining, and frankly comedy and music deliver much more on that front. Most Broadway (and a lot of Off-Broadway) is about as entertaining as a made-for-TV-movie, and I don't want to have to leave my home, slog into Manhattan, and cram into a tiny seat next to some jerk who wants to fight me for the armrest for three hours for that, let alone pay $200 for the privilege. I want something I can't get anywhere else (which is one of the reasons I frequently enjoy musicals).

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

A:  Why do you want to write in this medium? Can it be in any other medium? If it can, it probably should be. If you've thought about it, and it has to be live, on stage, then go for it.

Q:  Plug here for 1001 in DC and elsewhere and any other plugs you might have:

A:  1001 is running at Rorschach Theater until July 3, and will probably be over by the time you read this! But you can get info about that, and the rest of the season (featuring work by Jose Rivera, Sheila Callaghan, and Qui Nguyen) at http://rorschachtheatre.org. Next up for 1001 is DePaul University in Chicago in October 2009, and Montclair State University in NJ in 2010. It's also published by Samuel French. Maria/Stuart will have a staged reading at Dog & Pony in Chicago on August 17. People can also hear The Acousmatic Theater Hour on WFMU Monday nights at 5pm at 91.1FM or anytime/anyplace at wfmu.org.

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