Hometown: I was born in Pomona, CA but count Upland, CA more of my hometown. They’re both like 60 miles or so inland from LA.
Current Town: New York, NY
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Finishing up a couple commissions. Am really happy with them, too! One’s loosely based on the old dying god myth (particularly Baldur), and the other is about John Dee--astronomer, mathematician, advisor to Queen Elizabeth I and a frequent converser with angels via his “shewstone.” Lots of fun!
Q: You are the man who wrote one of my favorite plays of all time: Everything Will Be Different or A Brief History of Helen of Troy (available from Dramatists Play Service) But really, the plays I've seen of yours have always impressed me and I'm very sad I missed Gingerbread House at Rattlestick. Can you tell me a little bit about that play? Am I going to hate myself forever for missing it?
A: Thanks for the good word, Adam!
Gingerbread House is concerned with what I think is a very American (and certainly very Bush administration) notion that we can do whatever we want with impunity because we’re good people and somehow deserve good things. We can justify anything--all it takes is slightly redefining our terms or adjusting our worldview. The main character in the play, Stacey, really wants to be a good mom, wants to love her kids, but she finds the going a bit difficult. Her husband helps her to define responsibility to her children out of her conception of what it means to love them--she can be a better mother if she just gives up motherhood. She agrees to get rid of her kids, to sell them off. But as her life begins to become ostensibly better, more and more luxurious, her children haunt her. And she begins to realize that living in the world without going mad with grief or guilt at the knowledge of her complicity with evil involves a high degree of story-telling and self-deception. But being honest with herself about what she’s done becomes less and less of an option just as lying to herself becomes more and more difficult. Ultimately, she’s forced into the position of having to lie in order to live while being painfully conscious of the flimsiness of the lie. The one consolation of that pain, though, is that it’s the last connection she has to her children.
I hope there are some subtly Senecan things going on in the play. Seneca’s major pre-occupation in his work was with the question of justice--does it exist? If it does, is it possible to have a relationship with it? If it doesn’t exist, or if I can’t be in relationship with it, what does life mean? How do I go on in the face of the endless parade of atrocities life lays at my doorstop? And how do I go on in the knowledge that, as Heiner Mueller puts it, someone somewhere is being ripped apart so that I can dwell in my shit? Writing in Nero’s Rome as he did, Seneca’s vision of the world made a lot of sense to me, writing in Bush’s America. In that sense, the question in Gingerbread House is not, “Is selling your kids to what you suspect is a sweatshop-brothel in Albania a bad idea?” It’s taken for granted that it is a bad idea. The question is, “If you sell your kids to a sweatshop-brothel in Albania, if you sell out the future, will anyone really care? Will anyone call you to account?” The answer suggested in the play is: “No. Not really.”
I don’t usually think of myself as much of a pessimist, but…the play’s a bit pessimistic. More than a bit, I guess. And while I’m not completely lacking in hope, I nonetheless find myself feeling that, while the administration has changed in Washington (for the better!), the political realities of what it means to be alive in this country, in this world, at this time remain brutal, Faustian and Spenglerian. What it comes down to, I think, is that for me, hope means something like the will to love through adversity without the expectation of comfort, succor, reciprocation or relief.
Anyway--I was also really conscious when writing the play that I’m afraid I’ll be a bad parent. Very afraid. My partner and I would like to adopt one day. Erich (who honestly really is my better half) would be a great dad. Me I’m not so sure of.
Are you going to hate yourself for missing it? Hrmm. I don’t want you to hate yourself! But I was really proud of the production--the cast, director, designers--everyone was great! I was and am very grateful to everyone.
Q: What do you look for in a director. (You've worked with lots of good ones including one of my favorites, Evan Cabnet.)
A: I LOVE Evan Cabnet. Love him. Love him love him love him. Everyone in the world should love Evan Cabnet. That’s a plain moral imperative.
The rhythm of a play is very important to me--the music of it. Someone who understands how that rhythm works from line to line, scene to scene, how that rhythm informs structure, how that structure contributes to the articulation of a particular emotional gesture and how that gesture suggests or demands a sensual movement that in turn reflects back on the fundamental rhythms of the piece in really important. That understanding is key!
A sense of economy is also nice--I tend to like things a bit stripped down, stark, simple. Less is always more, I think, when it comes to production elements. Simplicity is best. I think suggestion in design and staging feels more conspiratorial, more intimate, more lovely than stating something openly. I’m not really a fan of strict realism in that regard. One of the things that I’m least fond of onstage is working plumbing--you know what I mean? To me, there is nothing particularly theatrical about working plumbing. When I see a sink onstage, the first thing I think is: will it work? And until it does, the dramatic action of the play, to me, is always about whether or not the tap will work.
A sense of humor is also important. And a sense of the absurdity of life.
Also, I’m very very conscious that I’m not a director. Or rather, I’m very very conscious that I’m a really bad director. The last time I tried directing something, it was pretty unwatchable. Really. Gouge-your-eyes-out bad. And it was a long time ago, thank God. I’m really am awful at it. Directors I work with need to understand that I can’t direct my way out of the proverbial paper bag. I know what good directing looks like and where good directing can take a play, but I’m just not able to provide it. Which is to say that the director should take whatever I have to say regarding staging with a huge huge huge grain of salt. A mountain of it, preferably. Literally, I try not to write too too many stage directions in part because I don’t want to infect directors with too too many of my own poisonously bad ideas regarding staging.
I guess what I’m really looking for is someone with whom I can share the play. That may sound touchy-feely, but I’m happiest when I can look at something I’ve written and I can feel that’s not all mine. That it no longer belongs to me alone. That it’s more than just mine.
I’m very grateful that I’ve had a lot of good luck with directors.
Q: You're a bit of a religion scholar. If I wanted to catch up with you, what books would you recommend I read?
A: I’m a very very amateur religion student. But I love studying--mythologies, comparative religion, ritual--I love that stuff!
There are a couple areas, though, that I often find myself looking into for various reasons: esoteric traditions and theodicy, the problem of evil. And there are a couple figures and topics lately that’ve loomed large in my…er…studies in these areas.
Jakob Boehme is one of them--17th century Lutheran mystic. He was a cobbler who had a couple visions tried his best to write them down using alchemical language and symbolism. Great stuff! He had a big impact on lots of folks from Swedenborg to Blake to Hegel. His understanding of God is really quite dramatic and seems to suggest that all things arise out of a kind of struggle in God between movement / expression / expansion and stillness / silence / contraction. The pain of this struggle is nature, the world. The friction this struggle causes creates fire, life. The struggle of life finds rest in the light of the fire. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when creatures attempt to separate the light from the fire. There’s so much to get into with Boehme that I don’t think I could do him justice here --Six Theosophical Points with an introduction by Berdyaev is really good.
Another is the sophiology “controversy” in Eastern Orthodox theology. I put controversy in quotes because whether or not it’s controversial just depends on who you talk to! Anyway, it comes down to whether or not it is possible to speculate regarding the substance of God. In Trinitarian Christianity, God is One Substance in Three Persons and while much has been written about the Persons, little attention has been paid to the Substance (according to the sophiologists). But how do you talk about something that your tradition teaches you is something it is impossible to talk about? Well, Sergei Bulgakov gives it a go by positing that the Substance of God is the non-personal but personalizing Sophia. John Milbank of the University of Nottingham wrote an interesting essay called “Sophiology and Theurgy: The New Theological Horizon” which is quite lovely, and Bulgakov’s most comprehensive work is Sophia, the Wisdom of God.
Both Boehme and Bulgakov deal with the Sophia figure in interesting ways, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Bulgakov was a Boehme admirer--Boehme’s Eternal Nature and Sophia imagery find some lovely parallels in Bulgakov’s distinctions between the created and uncreated Sophia.
Currently, though, I’ve just finished the First Book of Enoch following a brief flirtation with Margaret Barker’s work and am re-reading Rene Girard’s great Violence and the Sacred. I’d like to re-read Robert Thurman’s translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, too, and I really want to find something on the Druze and on the Ismaili in general. I know next to nothing about them! Also, I wouldn’t mind a good book on the history and development of the Sarum Use.
My God, I’m such a geek.
Q: You were the guy who got MCC to start their Playwrights Coalition. Can you talk a little about the Coalition, how it started, what it does, etc?
A: I wasn’t the only guy! Before graduating from Columbia, I did one of my internships at MCC and became friends with Literary Manager Stephen Willems. (I love Stephen very much--he’s become not only a great friend, but a real mentor to me and a keen critic of my work.) After the internship, I was able to stick around for a bit as an interim Assistant Literary Manager. But I had to move on and get a day job. Before I did, though, Stephen and I were talking, and he mentioned that they’d tried developing some sort of support program for playwrights in the past at MCC, but that it never quite stuck. I thought it was a great idea, so we started trying to develop something that would stick. We called it the Coalition because I’m more than a bit of a socialist and the word suggests to me both solidarity and mutuality. This was in late 2000, early 2001.
By the way, I LOVE the writers in the Coalition! I’m incredibly humbled, challenged and amazed to know and work with people of such staggering talent--folks like you(!), David Adjmi, Cusi Cram, Itamar Moses, Daniel Goldfarb, Blair Singer, Crystal Skillman, Annie Baker--all of whom you’ve interviewed here! (Speaking of your interviews, they’re really fantastic! It’s such an incredibly generous thing allowing us all to get to know these artists better--it’s great!)
Anyway, what we try to do in the Coalition is provide resources, an ear, a home-base. We have three major programs: the first is a public reading series which takes place in the Fall and in the Spring; the second is a series of seasonal intensives--a few writers around a table, reading each others’ works-in-progress and giving feedback; and finally the roundtable reading, a private reading with actors which is available to our writers on request. The hope is that the Coalition will be there if needed during whatever part of the process a writer may find themselves, from initial scribblings, scenes and thoughts (intensives), to a first draft and re-writes (roundtables) to knowing how a play sounds in front of an audience (public reading). In the process of doing all this, we hope to build a network/community of writers committed to mutual support.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I like theater that’s brutally honest. Really, truly brutally and/or viscerally honest. I really respond to plays that are unsentimental but emotionally gut-wrenching, that are not easily digestible, that grab me by the throat and won’t let go, that have a certain violence to them akin to Rothko’s definition of sensuality as “a lustful relationship to things that exist.” Plays that are conscious of the overwhelmingly dazzling and awful beauty of what it means to be alive and human. Plays that are not afraid to go to dark and “ugly” places.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: In saying the following, I hope no one believes that I’ve somehow been able to implement all of this myself--these are more personal aspirations, stars and constellations I’ve found helpful to steer by when I can bring myself to look up and remember them!
So here goes:
--Be true to your experience of life and the world. Emerson says that believing what is true for ourselves is true for others is true genius--which is to say, in part, that our experience of what it is to be human is not separate from the whole of the human condition. We should be able to say, with Terence, “I am human, and consider nothing human foreign to me,” or with Tennessee Williams, “Nothing human disgusts me.” If we can be honest about who we are, how we desire, what we desire, then we will discover in ourselves so many points of connection to so many disparate aspects of what it is to be human that no matter what we write about, we will write truth, and we will write it fearlessly, unsentimentally, but compassionately. We will find in ourselves the capacity for every heaven and every hell, every act of beauty and horror of which it is possible to conceive. We will know what it is to wound and to be wounded. And we will find it impossible not to love the world and the people in it so much that we happily break, bleed and suffer for that love.
-- I don’t think it’s healthy to begin writing a play with the expectation that it will be any good. What “good” means is often an external value, but the play has values of its own. You cannot judge whether or not it’s good until you know what those internal, intrinsic values are. Often, failure is the best teacher of what those values are or should be. Being afraid of failure is pointless. So fail often. (And, as Beckett says, “fail better.”)
--Find at least one person who loves you enough to be devastatingly honest about your work, someone you can trust to encourage but not coddle you.
--Do yourself an immense favor and read David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon: The Brutality of Fact. It’s as close to a guidebook to the creative process that I’ve ever seen.
--Finally, you can’t do better than remember this from Lorca: “Life is no dream. Watch out! Watch out! Watch out!”