Sep 29, 2009
I Interview Playwrights Part 62: J. Holtham
Hometown: Leonia, NJ*
Current Town: New York, NY
Q: Tell me about the play you're having read at EST.
A: Household Name is a big, old-fashioned comedy. For a long while now, I’ve been fascinated by the work of Philip Barry (The Philadelphia Story, and especially Holiday) and I wanted to write a comedy like that. Lots of characters, something about class friction and manners, but with a modern sheen to it. Around the same time, I became similarly fascinated with Martha Stewart. I know, I know. But it’s not like a “Martha Stewart” play. It’s really about her daughter and what it’s like to have a mother who has re-invented herself. I thought it was interesting that Martha Stewart and Hillary Clinton are neighbors in Westchester County and somehow it just came to me. I finished a two-act draft of it last year, but it was missing something. So this version will be three-acts, with a new love interest. And more jokes and slapstick.
Q: This is a gigantic reading series. Can you tell me about it and how it came about?
A: Octoberfest is actually one of my favorite events of the theatrical year. It’s been a staple of EST’s season for more than 20 years (I believe). Basically, for one month, the theatre throws open its doors and lets the membership run roughshod over the staff. There are nearly 100 projects, on two stages for three or four weeks, all member-generated and not curated at all, just scheduled. If you’re a member of EST and get your form in on time, you’ve got a slot, two performances for whatever you want to do. I’ve always used it as a challenge, a deadline to hit. Most of my plays have been finished specifically for an Octoberfest reading.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I’m still in the midst of a big writing jag. I’ve written about it a bit at my blog, http://jholtham.blogspot.com, though the summer slipped away from me. I’m trying to write four new plays this year. I’ve finished two and really want to finish two more by the end of the year. The next play in the hopper, which I’ve started, but gotten stuck on, is called Anarchists: A Comedy. It’s about a widowed suburban woman who invites a bunch of radicals into her home ahead of a G20-type meeting. Then hilarity ensues. I’m determined to finish it this November, once the Octoberfest dust settles.
Q: You've been affiliated with EST for a while. Can you talk about how they have supported you (or you them)?
A: EST has been my artistic home basically as long as I’ve been in New York. It was the first place I worked, the first place that said to me, “We like you, we like your work, here are the keys, do what you want.” They took chances on me, coming to New York from a less than first tier college (SUNY New Paltz in the house! Go Hawks!), and treated me like a full-fledged artist. Youngblood, their emerging playwrights program, was the first place I was in the company of other writers and felt like I belonged. Most of everything I’ve learned about professional theatre, good or bad, I learned there.
They also took a chance on me, even though I was a playwright, as an administrator. Those jobs usually go to directors, but working with the EST/Sloan Project for five years and running Youngblood for two years gave me insights into the development process and the inner workings of a theatre that more people, and especially more playwrights, should get. While it was sometimes frustrating, regularly exhausting and more than occasionally utterly insane, it was never boring and almost always fun.
Q: Are you still working in the lit office at NY Stage and Film? What's that like?
A: I worked for New York Stage and Film for two great summers on the Vassar campus. If EST was the crucible where I was molded as a young theatre professional, SAF was where they dunk you in the cold water and you toughen up or shatter. The work was incredibly intense in a short period of time (the whole season there is about eight weeks) and just plain staggering. But the most amazing things happened there. It slides under the radar, I think, overshadowed by places like the O’Neill as a developmental program and Williamstown as a producing theatre, but it does both things exceptionally well. I watched plays come in, get taken apart and then put back together. The basic philosophy of SAF is so much about the needs of the project that they really put the artists in the driver’s seat and allow them all kinds of latitude. One project we brought up when I was there was a big musical. The creators got together a few days before the cast came up and realized they needed to take the story in a different direction. Now, we’d spent a month casting this thing, brought all of these high-wattage Broadway people up to Poughkeepsie, set up this whole workshop that was being sold to the public as a big deal, but when the creators said we need a couple of days, we sent everyone away, let the writers hole up in a studio with a piano and do what they needed to do. There aren’t a lot of places that take those kind of chance.
Q: Tell me a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a person or as a writer.
A: When I think about my childhood and how I got started on the path of writing, I think about this old Buck Rogers comic book I had. It came out around the time of the old series with Gil Gerard and Erin Gray (one of my first crushes, natch). One Saturday, I was left to my own devices in my dad’s apartment, with only the comic book to amuse me. I’d read it a million times and loved it, but I wanted more from it. So I took my safety scissors and cut out the pictures I liked from the comic book (the fanboy inside of me dies a little bit at the desecration). My dad had this big old Persian rug, and I arranged the pictures on the design on the rug, in a new order, telling a different story. I like to think that way about writing. We all know the old saw: there are only seven stories in the world. We’re all taking bits and pieces of things we love and re-arranging them in some new fashion.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I’m a structure junkie. Really, I’m a sucker for it. You give me a gun in the first act and then some clever way for it go off in the third and I’m happy. It doesn’t all need to wrap up in a tight little bow, but if the ending feels inevitable and shocking at the same time, that’s the holy grail for me. I’m also a sucker for a good joke, well told. I like “actors” plays: a good speech or two, some physical comedy, a well-earned “aw” moment, a good fight, and a lot of drinking. That’s the recipe for a good play, if you ask me.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Two things:
1) Write, a lot, while you still have the energy. Don’t worry about making it perfect. Get it down, get it done and, most importantly, get it up. Find like-minded souls and do shows, productions of first drafts, if you can.
2) Do things other than theatre. It’s really easy, especially now that there are so many undergrad and grad training programs, to do nothing but theatre for most of your adult life. Resist that temptation. Take dull day jobs. Cultivate hobbies and weird friends. Collect stories from outside of our little world. And then bring those stories to the stage. We need more real life in our make-believe.
Q: Link please for your reading at EST:
PS- I actually forgot! I’m doing a new one-act play as part of Octoberfest After Dark, a mini-festival within the festival put together by Lynn Rosen. It’ll be boozy and fun!
Any other plugs?
Check out my blog! I like it when people read and comment!
*Technically, I was born in Brooklyn. I moved to Leonia when I was ten, and my parents have long since moved out, but it still feels like my hometown.
J. on playscripts. http://www.playscripts.com/author.php3?authorid=76