Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I Interview Playwrights Part 63: Gary Winter

(It's the photo he gave me)

Gary Winter

Hometown: Sheepshead Bay NY (Home Town of Vince Lombardi)

Current Town: Clinton Hill, NY

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My aunt was an aerospace engineer through the Mid-1950’s through the early 90’s, so this piece has started out to be about a woman working in the aerospace industry (in L.A.) in the 50’s, but we’ll see what it turns out to be. When you read about the early days of rocket science it’s kind of incredible to find out how seat-of-the-pants the experimentation was. Like, in order to test fuel mixtures these guys would literally go out to the desert, light a rocket’s fuse then dive behind sandbags. I don’t think the play is going to be about that, but the research is fascinating.

Q: Can you talk about the Pataphysics workshops? I've done three: with Paula Vogel, Lee Breuer and Chuck Mee and I learned a ton each time. Can you talk about what they are and who is up next?

A: Anne Washburn founded Pataphysics in 2001 and the Flea has hosted and supported the program, which is run at cost. The goal is to give theater artists an opportunity to sit down with master playwrights whom they ordinarily wouldn’t have access to. I’d say the main thing for me has been to understand the intellectual groundwork of playwrights whose work I had known (like Mac Wellman), or was just getting to know (like Jeff Jones or Erik Ehn). So understanding their ideas, literary and philosophical influences, and the rigor and curiosity with which they approach playwriting has been an eye-opening, expansive and joyful education. It also helps to hear how people talk about their work, and realize that’s something we need to get good at. I suck at it but that’s no excuse.

Jeff Jones teaches a workshop about “building assemblies” at the end of November.

Q: Can you describe the Erich Ehn Pataphysics retreat you were just on?

A: It’s a silent playwriting retreat in the Catskills. One thing about being silent for three straight days is that your mind and body take on a whole new rhythm; that is, you have the time and space to sustain the writing by finding a steady rhythm, which of course is difficult to do in our day-to-day lives. Because I remained focused inwardly without having to think about social niceties or anything like that, I was surprised how much stamina I had. Erik meets with us as a group about 3 times a day and does physical as well as writing exercises, and then talks about what we might process for the next writing period.

Q: For years you were the Lit Mgr at the Flea. How was that? What did you learn from that experience?

A: Lit Manager at the Flea: A fabulous ten years. When I interned at the Flea I was just completing NYU, and the Artistic Director, Jim Simpson, said he wanted a playwright as Lit Manager (a volunteer position). Naturally I was terrified but excited to be part of a really cool theater. Also I didn’t have a theater background, so I was really keen to learn the nuts and bolts of how theater is made. I kind of love process, and being able to sit in on rehearsals and production and design meetings has been invaluable. I’ve met people who have become colleagues and friends-not to mention getting to know an army of talented actors who’ve come through the Flea.

Once you’re in the mix of things-getting to know writers and their work-I think the best thing you can do is be in a position to put that person on the theater’s radar. (and I’m only referring to my experiences at the Flea; I’m sure lit manager’s jobs and influence vary widely). I’d be nuts to think the Flea should produce every play I’m in love with, and that’s the way it should be. But you can call attention to writers, and at least by providing access (ie-readings) you might be able to get other theaters interested in the writer. Of course it’s exciting when all the pieces fall into place. When Joe Goodrich sent me SMOKE and MIRRORS, I loved the play, we did a reading and the Flea produced it. Score! At the same time I didn’t understand Alice Tuan’s AJAX, but Jim did and it became one of our most successful shows. That was sort of a humbling experience, and I realized I will be dead wrong at times, and I won’t always “get” a play by reading it. Also talking to the writer about his/her work is often necessary, particularly if you feel there’s something drawing you in, but you’re still not clear about the writer’s intentions. I had a few such conversations with Tom Bradshaw a few years ago because I didn’t understand why he started one narrative thread and seemed to drop it midway through. His answers were really concise and it’s helped me appreciate what he’s up to ever since.

Q: Tell me a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a person or as a writer.

A: My uncle was a fishing boat captain, so we went fishing a ton and I spent a lot of time staring at the horizon, daydreaming, and what else is writing but daydreaming?

Q: What kind of theater excites you?

A: I love stumbling upon plays like you might a new and strange kind of animal. Then I’m like, oh wow, I didn’t know you could do this in theater. In recent years that’s happened with TR Warszawa’s KRUM (at BAM). It was 2:45 of talk and un-flashy but fabulous staging, totally engaging. Irene Fornes MUD (the production she directed at Intar in the mid-90’s) was also like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I didn’t really understand it, but fortunately Irene was teaching at NYU at the time, so the class had a good discussion with her about the play. One thing she said, which I’ll never forget, is that when people tell her they didn’t understand MUD but they had a powerful experience, she responds that it is this “experience” that’s important.

Other performances were Mac Wellman’s FNU LNU at SOHO Rep (I’m still singing the song from that show: “Why the Q in Q-tip”), Susan-Lori Parks’ AMERICAN PLAY and VENUS (The Public), and Len Jenkin’s DARK RIDE (SOHO Rep). I think it’s as much about where I am in life, as anything else that defines what I’ve responded to. I would also add that I admire plays that find an elegant image or gesture that ripples with meaning, such as Ionesco’s RHINOCEROS or Frish’s FIREBUGS, both about fascism of course. I thought Susan-Lori’s AMERICAN PLAY did that wonderfully.

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

A: No secret: Have a fucked up childhood and call me in the morning.

Q: Any plugs?

A: It would be a conflict of interest to plug my play COOLER at the Chocolate Factory in April, or Julia Jarcho’s (13P #9) play AMERICAN TREASURE at the Paradise Theater in November, so I’ll recuse myself from plugging them. But I would like to plug Heidi Schreck’s CREATURE in October and Emily Devoti’s MILK next spring.


Malachy Walsh said...

Gary is a great guy.

And the stuff in this interview about being a lit dept manager with some real influence is terrific. And appropriately humbling.

I also love the Fornes insight about theatre.

Thank you. Wonderful stuff.

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