Hometown: Baldwin, Long Island
Current Town: New Haven, Connecticut
Q: Tell me a little about the play you're bringing to the JAW festival.
A: 99 Ways To Fuck a Swan is a play that I started writing last summer. Paula Vogel had just taken over the playwriting program at Yale and her first order of business was to assign all of the playwrights one of her famous playwriting “bakeoffs” over the summer before the school year began. For those who don’t know, in a bakeoff you get 48 hours to write on an assigned topic and you can’t edit or delete as you go along. The topic for the bakeoff was Leda and The Swan. The ingredients we had to work into the play were: The Leda myth. A feather. Glass. Wind. The sky. An appliance. Entrapment. Two: sexes, races and/or ethnicities, species. So I just began writing and 2 days later, I had these strange 96 pages of writing involving a cast of thousands. Or twenty-four. But it felt like thousands. So then when the end of August rolled around, I panicked because I knew the only thing I’d written over the summer was my swan-fucking play. And I had a production slot for school coming up in the fall. The first thing I remember thinking was: I cannnot invite my family to come see a play called 99 Ways To Fuck a Swan. But then, before I knew it, there were pieces of lavender paper taped up in a charming old Yale building with the words “99 Ways To Fuck a Swan: Rehearsal In Progress.” I ended up having this incredibly eye-opening and productive workshop with an awesome director (and classmate) named Jesse Jou and some unbelievably brilliant and fearless actors. It was the first time I watched a play of mine really take shape collaboratively. It was a totally magical experience. So that’s the birth story of the play. What the play is about is a little trickier. It jumps around time from Ancient Greece to Renaissance Italy to Victorian England to Modern Manhattan. It looks at what it means to be disgusting and damaged. What it means to be beautiful and healed. It also looks at a lot of sexual perversions. There’s this book Psychopathia Sexualis—an amazing book written in the 19th Century by an Austrian-German psychiatrist, Richard von Krafft Ebing chronicling all of these cases of sexual perversion in this totally detached, clinical manner. And this book is just filled with cases of the craziest stuff you’ve ever read. Like, the case of a man who must drink out of his lover’s shoes in order to be aroused. Ok, that’s one of the tamer ones. Oh yeah, the play is also about therapy. Wow, I’m very bad at succinctly talking about this play. I did not tell you a little at all! (Brevity fail.)
Q: How's Yale been going? Do you still have another year left or are you done?
A: Great! I’ve still got another year left. I’m in the class of 2010. I really didn’t know what to expect when I came here. I definitely didn’t have too many expectations. I was just looking for the time and a good place to write. I wanted to get out of New York for a few years too. I just needed some space to figure out what being a writer felt like. So far I’ve definitely gotten everything out of this experience that I initially hoped I would. The bonus has been all of the people. This school is populated with all of these designers, stage managers, actors, directors, dramaturgs, theater managers, technical directors…so many people from all over the country and world who I get to work alongside. And I’ve got these ridiculously talented and cool fellow playwrights who I get to sit in a room with and get feedback from once a week. And sometimes we get free sandwiches or doughnuts. It’s like heaven.
Q; Have you had productions at Yale?
A: Yes, we get a production of sorts every year. The first two years there’s a tiny budget and no designers. But for four weeks we rehearse with actors, a stage manager, a dramaturg and a director culminating in four public performances. Third year we get a somewhat less tiny budget and we get to work with designers. Having a production every year was a big part of why I wanted to go to Yale. I knew I wouldn’t really learn about my writing without being in the rehearsal room, and without seeing my plays performed.
Q: Primarily I know you as the person who was running the Ars Nova Play Group but I knew you were also very much a playwright. The only play of yours I got to see, however, was the very funny fringe show you did that starred Liz Meriwether and Kristen Schaal. Tell me a little, if you will, about some of the other plays you've been working on.
A: Oh hey, I forgot you saw Stanley Hammer! That was in 2005. Back in the day. That play was the first “real” play I wrote. And by “real” I mean that it wasn’t some kind of inside joke or exercise. In the five years between college and graduate school I only wrote two plays. While being Associate Producer of a theater as awesome as Ars Nova was a dream job on the one hand, I also came to realize that because I was so passionate about my work there, I would almost certainly never find time to write plays unless I stepped away from it. It was a really hard decision because in a perfect world I would love to be a producer of new work and also a productive, working playwright at the same time. But I haven’t found any kind of balance there yet. This summer I’m attempting to do both things for the first time as Artistic Director of the Yale Summer Cabaret (www.summercabaret.org). I’m producing a season of shows and I’m also co-writing one of them--an indie rock musical called Fly-By-Night. I have another play I’m working on called Tigers Be Still. It’s about a girl who just got her MFA in art therapy and can barely get a job as a substitute art teacher in a local high school where she has all kinds of connections. This play is hilarious(ly depressing)! I’ve also just gotten really obsessed with the soap opera of the Greeks in general. I’m working on a play about Paris. And I’ve also been working on this adaptation of Iphigenia called Iphamemnon where one actress plays both Iphigenia and Agamemnon. And I’m also working on this Hamlet-inspired play about a guy who’s haunted by all of the Hamlets past. It’s called Every Other Hamlet In The Universe.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Anything that I don’t fall asleep during is good. That’s pretty much the litmus test for me in general. But exciting? Anything that makes me feel hopeful. Anything that makes me re-realize that I’m connected to the world and the people around me—that I am not alone. Anything that leaves me with an image or a character or a thought or a line that I can’t stop thinking about. Anything pretty, funny, strange, scary, grotesque, witty, musical, surprising, sad. Anything that makes me feel something.
Q: What advice would you give to a playwright just starting out?
A: Well from one playwright just starting out to another, don’t give up on writing before you’ve given yourself a fair shot. These things take time and space. Also, see as much as you can manage. Read as much as you can get your hands on. Listen to as much as you can stand. And travel as much as you can afford to. Also, don’t be ashamed of watching abnormal amounts of television. This isn’t advice for playwrights. It’s for anyone. People who say they don’t own a television are either lying or crazy.
Q: Link please to your presentation in Oregon.