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1000 Playwright Interviews The first interview I posted was on June 3, 2009.  It was Jimmy Comtois.  I decided I would start interview...

Oct 31, 2009

Have you seen this yet?

Sorry to interrupt your playwriting interviews but you should check this out if you haven't yet.   Greg Mosher on the perilous state of arts organizations.

Gregory Mosher at CafeArts from CUarts on Vimeo.

I Interview Playwrights Part 85: Jeremy Kareken

Jeremy Kareken

Hometown:  Rochester, NY - Brighton, but I went to Penfield schools.  Needlessly complicated, but there it is.
Current Town: New York, NY - in the leafy neighborhood of Sunnyside Gardens, Queens 
Q:  What are you working on now?
A:  Finishing up two work-for-hire pieces - one a musical about the funeral of the most foul man who ever lived (or died), and a 3-d Monster Movie my friend Producer Norman Twain hooked me up with. 
Q:  Tell me please a little bit about your two headed challenge play.

A:  It's sort of based on a true story, so I'll start with that.  My collaborator was asked by one of his third year undergraduates if she could pursue a rather strange final project - that she inseminate one of her own eggs with chimp sperm and carry that creature to term, in her own womb.  It started at this little group lecture that EST/Sloan gave as a way to inspire playwrights about science.  And Lee Silver, the scientist and professor in question, told this story (among others).  Afterward I screamed at him "THAT'S YOUR PLAY."  And we became fast friends.  We proposed to Sloan the very play that won the Guthrie competition, and the late, missed Curt Demptster kind of flipped for it.  The people who didn't flip for it were the Sloanies.  One of the people close to the situation told me that the Sloan scientists were actually offended and that our play was anti-science.  Well, then I knew we had something, so I sent it for other grants, first and greatest among them was the Guthrie/Playwrights Center Two-Headed Challenge grant, which offered 10k for a team consisting of a playwright and a non-theater person.  Lee and I applied and won with this Oleanna-esque play about identity as a sex and as a species.   
Q:  What was your time at the Inge Center like?  My wife was there this past year and she had a great time.

A:  I loved it.  Peter Ellenstein is one of the most supportive people in the business, and the community really enjoys our presence.  It's a part of America theater people rarely see - the Red part.  I was actually in something of a free speech controversy there, where the Principal of the high school was miffed that I had a blog and that I used some frank language on that blog.  I was careful while I was there to not mention the blog to my high school class for just such a reason but another teacher had to go and open his/her big fat mo--- oh, it was a lot of fun, actually.  I learned I enjoyed being on the front page of a daily paper making obnoxious comments.   I was there with Carson Becker, from Chicago originally, and I'm so glad I met her - she's one of the people who make me feel better just thinking about her.  I hope she reads this; it's been forever.
Q:  You are Republican.  What's that about?  The reason I've always thought there weren't many Republican playwrights is that as a playwright our job is to see the world through other people's eyes and sympathize with them and in my opinion the defining characteristic of a Republican is the inability to do that.  Would you care to comment?

A:  Adam, you make me laugh.  So you can sympathize with all people except the nearly 50% who vote Republican?  I'm a big "get out of my life" kind of guy when it comes to the government, so I guess that makes me more libertarian than Republican, but I don't own a gun or a bong, so I feel out of place at those cocktail parties.  Some people think it's because I'm just a contrarian, and since I live in NYC there are more liberals for me to argue with.  I suppose there's some truth to that.

It's not an easy time to be a Republican, I know, but I certainly don't see the Democratic Party offering better ideas at the moment.  They seem marginally worse - continuing the same freedom-bashing as the Bush administration while spending an extra 10 *trillion* dollars.  No, I'm not really what one would call "pro-life" but sure I think the state has some say in life-or-death definitions, if not decisions.  And I'm certainly pro-gay-marriage since I value marriage - so why shouldn't everyone benefit from it?  To me the best institutions are the small ones, and I can think of no better institution than the buddy system.  Sure, it's as flawed as people are, but it's certainly better than being alone.  And there's no intelligent reason for denying those benefits to committed gay couples.

Sure, our party has its problems with morons that think that, say, a ghost invented all of mankind 6,000 years ago, but liberals have this moronic ideal that all men and women ARE equal, not that they're created equally under the law.  And what we're learning about genetics and evolution is proving that this just isn't so - that men and women are different, that people have different intelligences, different susceptibilities to disease, different values of human life.  And to me any dogmatic person can't imagine that people would think differently from they, liberal or conservative.  
Q:  Can you talk about your day job?  Is it fun?

A:  I have a few day jobs, one of which thank God is writing.  The others are a lot of fun - I teach writing at NYU and I'm the entire research team for Inside the Actors Studio.  The third day job is the toughest and most rewarding - being a dad.  As the artist in the family I'm the primary caregiver for the kids, so that means I'm making the breakfast and dinner and getting the kids and the wife off to work and school, respectively.   
Q:  Tell me a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  Ooh.  Toughy.  I remember my parents yelling at me about something, when I was about four, and I screamed back "check your calendar!" They were kind of taken aback and asked why? "It's be kind to childrens' day!" They laughed and the trouble was over.  It was my first improv.  And my first acting gig. And my first writing gig.  And it got me off the hook.  The soft, funny answer turneth away wrath.

Then there was this other time - my father, an attorney, was furious at me (hm. trend.) and he demanded I write him a letter of apology.  I gave him one that explained my side of the story, and he sent it back corrected with red marks and I couldn't leave my room until I did it right.  I learned that I could honestly write fiction, the fiction that I was contrite, and I learned that I would never be censored again.  
Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  The kind that plays with the form of theater - How I Learned to Drive was a spectacular way to tell a story, taking advantage of how suggestible an audience can be.  What a thrill ride. And I have a special fondness for Ayckbourn and Stoppard.  They lull you into this middle-class sense of comfort only to rip the rug out from under you.  Dinner with Friends did that... polite and sweet and then - wham!  Chekhov does that well, too.  But I guess that's not very experimental - oh, I just love good shit.

I'll tell you what doesn't excite me - I'm sick of seeing TV After-School-Special theater - you see it on Broadway lately.  Yes, great, you're a minority - or you've been abused - or you're a disabused hippy -  and you've finally made it, or you finally got the respect you deserve, or you got killed by a cold, soulless society, but jeez, isn't there a way to tell the story that's not this vanilla upper-middle class naturalistic scene after naturalistic scene and exclamation of theme at the end?

The internet is changing the way we think.  Biology is changing the way we're BORN.  And we're stuck doing Free to be You and Me and calling it "powerful."  I shouldn't be seeing pledge drives or commercials in the darkness when the scenery is being changed.  And it's especially ironic when I see such amazing TV these days, done by playwrights.  I watch the Wire, and Hung and Friday Night Lights and wonder why and how these giant corporations are taking these chances on amazing playwrights and producers in NY keep producing the Royal Family. 
Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Prepare to be starting out for 25 years.  You never stop just starting out.  And prepare to have homework for the rest of your lives.  
Q:  Plug for your two headed play and any other plugs?

A:  Yes!  This coming July the great literary director (and the great director) Michael Bigelow Dixon is directing The Sweet Sweet Motherhood (the two-headed challenge play) at Here! It stars this amazing new actress who did the piece in Minneapolis, and I think I have a pretty amazing dude as the other actor.

Oct 27, 2009

I Interview Playwrights Part 84: Rob Handel

Rob Handel

Hometown: Poughkeepsie.

Current Town: Pittsburgh.

Q:  You're the head of the Dramatic Writing MFA program at Carnegie Mellon. I want to start out by asking you to plug your program. What can you tell me about it? How is it different from other programs? How long have you been teaching there? How do you approach teaching playwriting?

A:  I’ve been in this position since August 24, 2009. I was charged with recreating the program, which has been intense. I honestly believe the program is ideally positioned to be a juggernaut. First, we’re part of the CMU School of Drama, the oldest degree-granting theatre school in the country. My program is centered on constant collaboration with the astonishingly successful directing and design graduate programs, and the intensely competitive undergraduate acting conservatory. (It feels like you’re simultaneously in Fame, Slings and Arrows, and Wonder Boys.) The MFA writers work with these collaborators in multiple weekly classes as well as the New Works Series.

Second, the faculty is full of working professionals in all disciplines, not a bunch of dusty academics. It’s also in the midst of an infusion of new blood right now, including Marianne Weems, who recently came on as head of the grad directing program.

Third, Carnegie Mellon is an amazing place. We’re surrounded by the CMU computer animation people, the CMU robot people, the CMU digital privacy people, the CMU geoengineering-to-combat-climate-change people... These people are changing the world. It creates pressure to make really good plays.

Having devoted the past seven years to 13P, I’m interested in nurturing leadership. I’m teaching a class called “Envisioning a Theatre,” in which students examine revolutionary movements in theatre; write manifestos of their own; and build a plan for starting a theater company.

Q:  What are you working on now? You have a play in the works?

A:  I’ve been working on a big play called A Maze. (It used to be called Infinite Space, and before that it was called Captivity Narrative.) It’s about a girl recreating her identity after eight years held captive in a suburban basement, a band recovering from addiction and a hit song, and an outsider artist writing a 15,000-page comic book. I’m also working on James Boswell and Elvis Presley. (Those are two different plays. At present.)

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

A:  My parents took me to the 1976 revival of My Fair Lady. The houses along Wimpole Street were painted on a scrim, so at the beginning of every scene in Henry Higgins’s study, you would first see the street, then the study would be lit so you could see Henry and Eliza inside, through the scrim. Then, before the dialogue began, the curtain would be pulled off, all the way across the width of the St. James Theatre stage, with this prolonged, mechanical shower-curtain sound. I was fascinated by the scrim because it created an illusion (The street vanishes! Here’s the indoors!) and then immediately punctured it (It’s a curtain! WHSSSKK!). This phenomenon has never ceased to draw me back to the theatre. It’s not about tricking the audience, but rather inviting us to play along.

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

A:  You really can’t take a step without an MFA from Carnegie Mellon. Other than that:

Send Your Plays Out. Everywhere. All The Time. I’m constantly frustrated when writers tell me they didn’t bother to take advantage of a submission opportunity because only famous writers get produced there, or only boring writers get produced there, or blah blah blah. You must remember that these places all have script readers. Who are script readers? Surly interns. Who are surly interns? Young theatre people. LIKE YOU. Who will love your scripts? PEOPLE LIKE YOU. In the early 90’s, after moving from Chicago back to the East Coast, I got a call from a former reader for a company that had turned down my play. She had kept the script for years, and her boyfriend had been using it for an audition monologue. She had now joined the Lincoln Center Director’s Lab, which was producing projects in a festival at HERE that year. It ended up becoming one of my first NYC credits.

Also, produce your own work. For advice on that, see the “Try This At Home” page at 13p.org.

Q: Anything else we should know about you?

A: My last name is pronounced han-DELL. But I never correct people.

Q:  Any plugs?

A:  13P’s production of Julia Jarcho’s American Treasure starts November 21. In The Next Room. What Once We Felt. The Lily’s Revenge. Creature.

Plays by Rob

Oct 26, 2009

I Interview Playwrights Part 83: Stephen Adly Guirgis

Stephen Adly Guirgis

Hometown: NYC

Current Town: NYC

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I’m living in Adam Rapp land -- where it’s possible to do 85 million things and do them all really fucking well -- except I’m not Adam, so I’m more or less fully expecting my whole world to come crashing down any minute now. But I’m trying. I got a new play for LAByrinth that’s in second draft. Another new play that’s big and crazy that’s at about page 40. A screenplay draft of a boxing film that needs to get turned in to the producers pretty much yesterday. A new play that I’m directing for InViolet Rep called Kiss Me on the Mouth by Melanie Maras that goes into tech this week. I’m one of the new artistic directors of LAByrinth, so I’m helping to run my theater company. I’m also taking care of my dad. And maybe pitching a pilot. And I’m acting in a short film. And trying to get in shape and maybe quit smoking. And I’m rehabbing my back which is a major undertaking that I should be taking more seriously. And I teach sometimes. And I’m learning how to produce. And I have another new play I wanna get started on. Now, if I was Adam Rapp, I could do all that in a weekend plus front a rock and roll band, write a novel, get drunk, end poverty, and make love with my girlfriend. But I got no girlfriend. And I got about 8 brain cells left. I ought to have my head examined. Again. But these are all luxury problems. Other than hanging out on a beach for the rest of my life smoking weed and maybe learning to surf, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. So I guess -- shut up and do it. I admire Adam a great deal, not just for his talent, but for his willingness to give himself to it. There’s a great quote from Shaw in the lobby of New York Theater Workshop. And there are certain artists working today who really seem to embody that quote. There are many. Adam is one of them. Phil Hoffman is another. Tony Kushner. They do the work. 

Q:  You are now one of the three Artistic Directors of LAByrinth.  There aren't many playwrights who are also ADs.  How are you liking it so far?  What are the main challenges?

A:  Yeah. I’m one of the new AD’s at LAByrinth along with Mimi O’Donnell and Yul Vazquez. It’s one of those jobs where you really got no idea how much of yourself has to go into it until you actually start doing it. It’s endless, totally challenging, and very time consuming if you wanna try and do it really well. The LAByrinth is a family, and it’s my family -- so I definitely feel the pressure to wanna serve it as well as I possibly can.  It’s funny, we’re just getting started, and I already and often feel overwhelmed by the scope of the task and the amount of personal responsibility that it entails -- but then I think about Barack Obama and my brain just explodes! Running a non-profit theater company in NYC is like a joke compared to the tremendous, mind blowing, epic, and relentlessly complex and multi-facted responsibilities and pressures that our President is entrusted to manage 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The man came into office resembling a young Sidney Poitier, and I’m pretty sure if he serves 8 years he’s gonna leave looking like Redd Foxx. I admire him so much for even getting out of bed in the morning... I don’t know how it will go trying to be the best writer I can be while also trying to be a capable artistic director. I think it helps to have heroes and models and to aim high. As a writer, Tennessee Williams is a hero to me. I’ll never be Tennessee Williams, but I can aspire to that thing in his work that is sublime and that serves to move and inspire me. As Artistic directors, John Ortiz and Phil Hoffman served our company in ways most company members don’t even know about. They were tremendous and selfless leaders. The Group Theater is an obvious and lofty theatrical model to aspire to. The Public Theater. The Donmar Warehouse. The old Circle Rep. LAByrinth is a kind of constantly evolving entity made up of a family of multi-disciplinary artists. I see the job of Mimi, Yul, and myself as being one of sustaining and maintaining the company’s foundation while also acting as facilitators in the growth and nurturing of new voices, new audiences, and new work. Thankfully, we don’t have to do it alone. We have a 115 members and a great board and audience base to lean on. We’ll need all the help we can get.    

Q:  Can you tell me a little about how you got started with LAByrinth?  Did you write beforehand or did you join as an actor and start writing while there?

A:  I went to college with John Ortiz and Liza Colon-Zayas. I wrote a little, but not seriously. I was an actor and still am. After college, John formed LAB and asked me to audition. I’m not sure I passed the audition, but I think John talked them into it. At some point, John encouraged me to write something. I wrote a little one act that David Zayas and Dave Anzuelo acted in that was directed by Charles Goforth and produced by LAB in any evening of one-acts down on Franklin street. I guess it went well, so guys like John and Dave Deblinger and Charles and Paul Calderon kinda pushed me to keep writing, so I did. Phil Hoffman acted in an early play of mine and we got close. Eventually, Phil directed a play of mine, and Mike Batistick wrote an article about us in Time Out magazine, and a lot of people came to see it. After that, I was more or less branded a writer. The process of accepting that I was a writer continues to be ongoing, daunting -- and I’m embarrassed to say -- sometimes painful.. Acting is a tremendously difficult thing to do really well, but I find the pursuit and the practice to be thrilling. When I’m acting, I know who I am and I’m okay with it. Writing is more difficult, less thrilling, and way lonelier. And in order for me to write, I find I have to engage in behavior that matches up pretty exactly with the symptoms of major depression. And when that’s happening, I don’t think my brain can tell the difference. And that sucks a lot sometimes. The upside of writing is that it is a tremendous outlet for a barrage of feelings, emotions, struggles, and inner debate, and, when it is rendered well, it can be a worthy form of service and occasionally even a source of fleeting moments of satisfaction and joy... I think my take on the whole writing thing is probably intrinsically tied to my early childhood as a first born son and to my religious upbringing as a Catholic. Jesus Christ and John the Baptist are pretty much the coolest guys in the New Testament: a pair of relentlessly selfless idealists -- one of whom got beheaded, the other merely nailed to a cross to save all of mankind. Tough acts to follow. Not much room for improvement. But spacious accommodation for shame and guilt. Somewhere in my journey, I became aware that I was given some aptitude for writing, so I felt and feel an obligation to use it as well as I can until it goes away. And I always fail. Or think I fail. I know this sounds retarded. Someday I’ll learn the distinction between humility and humiliation. I’m guilty and innocent of both. But perhaps this is a subject of real interest only to me... and a qualified professional. Next question, please.
Q:  I know you're in the middle of a whole slew of readings right now at the Public.  You want to plug that?

A:  Why, yes! Barn Series and Live Nude plays at the Public Theater thru November 5th. Free! Www.labtheater.org

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

A:  My mother always told me she didn’t care if I grew up to be a garbage man or the President -- as long as I was a loving and decent person. I found her words to be genuine and beautifully well intentioned -- but who knew that being a loving and decent person would take so much work!

Another time, I had to go to my survival job and I didn’t want to go, and I was having real trouble forcing myself into going, so I called my mom because I knew she would be able to talk sense into me and get me to go in to work. I told her what was going on, she paused, and then said; “Honey, quit that damn job and follow your star”. So I did. And I have never worked a straight job since.
Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I favor tremendous heart over tremendous skill -- though it’s preferable to have both. True heart, true risk, and true commitment reduces me to tears, and inspires the hell out of me when I see it on a stage. I think that to do anything well, it should cost you something. It’s like that James Brown song; “Paid the Cost to be the Boss”. Great actors, great writers, great artists -- the great ones -- one way or the other, they paid the cost to be the boss. And maybe they don’t get to be boss for a life time, but on that night, or that one show, or when they wrote that play, they were the boss. On any given night in NYC, there are actors and playwrights paying the cost to be boss. There are too many examples to cite, and plenty we don’t even know of cuz we weren’t there. And it’s easy to tell who paid the cost from who’s out there trying to ride for free -- or at a discount. Or who’s pretending to pay the cost. When we go to the theater we are always paying full price because we, as audience, are giving away two hours of our lives that we are never, ever, going to get back. So when we are engaged in our work as practitioners, then what cost is the fair one to pay other than the full one? Straight play, comedy, “experimental”, musical, tragedy, puppet show, farce -- it’s all the same thing. Try to do it great. Pay the cost. It’s important. And the world will thank you. 

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

A:  Work begets work.... Put it up in your living room if you have to... Schedule actors and a reading, and then write some scenes or the play. If you know they’re showing up no matter what, then you’ll feel like an idiot if you got nothing for them to read... You can be as fucked up, self-doubting, self-hating, and self-deprecating as you want, BUT IF THERE’S NOT SOMETHING inside of you that honestly believes in yourself as a writer -- however small that something may be -- if it not there, then, it’s gonna be tough -- and maybe tougher for your audience than it is for you....What else?... Sit down. Stay down. If you do those two things, something will happen.... Lastly, Believe. Because why the fuck not?
Q:  Any other plugs?

A:  LAByrinth’s 18 Appeal. Donate 18 bucks to LAB. Please.

LAByrinth’s Annual Benefit. Celebrity Charades. 12/7/09. Www.labtheater.org

Kiss Me On the Mouth
by Melanie Angelina Maras
Directed by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Performances: Nov 5th - Nov 21st
InViolet Rep @ Center Stage NY
48 West 21st St, 4th Floor
or call (212)-352-3101

I got a new play I’m working on, and it may have a couple of public readings in December during Play Time at New Dramatists.

New Dramatists
424 west 44th
(212) 757 6960

Oct 24, 2009

I Interview Playwrights Part 82: Kara Manning

Kara Manning

Hometown: Philadelphia, PA and a spell in Milwaukee, WI

Current Town: New York, NY

Q: Tell me about the readings at MCC and the Rattlestick.

A: Earlier this month, I had a reading of Killing Swans at Rattlestick as part of the literary department's October series. Denis Butkus, Daniel Talbott and Julie Kline have been incredibly supportive and I'm very grateful. I've been ferociously working on rewrites of the play. It had a workshop in June via one of LAByrinth Theater's intensive retreats at Bard College, and it was a great gift to take the play to its next step at Rattlestick. It's the most challenging, vexing thing I've written thus far, given its political genesis: Tony Blair's incomprehensible trust of George W. Bush and their relationship. My tendency is to write character-driven plays that roll around in the mud of betrayals, disdain and disappointments. Carnage of the heart. It's a tricky balance, this political/personal pas de deux, which I'm still trying to untangle with this piece. Ethan McSweeny, whose work I deeply admire, directed - his inventive production of Jason Grote's 1001 utterly blew my mind several years ago. The cast was comprised of fiercely gifted actors who constantly inspire me: Martha Plimpton, Samantha Soule, Peter Gerety, Adam Rothenberg and Brennan Brown. It was truly the most terrifying and rewarding reading I've ever had. And I finally know what in the hell to do with the play. I think.

Coming up on November 9th as part of MCC Theater's Playlabs at Baruch College, there is a reading of my extremely new play Sleeping Rough which the fabulous Wendy McClellan is directing. It's the first that I've worked actively with a structured monologue form along with dialogue, yet I didn't want a monolithic slab across a page. So I've structured them so they almost resemble lyrics; brisk, elongated, active. There was a workshop of the play's first 20 minutes last November at Hampstead Theatre which was dreamy. London feels like home. Last fall I spent nearly a month there thanks to dear friends who lent me their flat. My intense love for the city, the chance to be a flâneur again, traipsing down Cork Street or the Fulham Road, began to inform the character of Joanna. I arrived in the U.K. just two days after Barack Obama won the presidential election so it was surreal to experience the aftermath through British eyes. At the same time, they were marking the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day and I was deeply moved by the coverage of that event as well as the media's more focused attention on British Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Q: Can you talk about your day job? Does it contribute to or get in the way of your playwriting?

A: Oh, how long did it take me to get this questionnaire back to you? Ages. Yes, the demands of my day jobs are a continuing source of anxiety where my playwriting is concerned. I have so little time and it kills me. I'm lucky to have jobs I like at companies I admire, especially in this dismal economic climate. This summer I became a web editor/on air interviewer at WFUV/The Alternate Side and it's uplifting to work with such a terrific group of people. My background has mostly been in the music "industry" - Rolling Stone, MTV, a trio of radio stations. Plus I'm the literary manager of the Irish Rep - a superb theatre with a unique identity - which enables me to champion playwrights and actors. I have an array of other jobs, ranging from talent booking to freelance writing. But it's an exhausting schedule and I'm juggling a lot. So I'm determined that my weekends are devoted to writing, though I never have a quiet stretch of time to let a play stew and chatter in my head. The writing of a play doesn't only take place at the MacBook, but in those walkabouts you take, your discoveries, the scribbling you do in your head. The space between the words. I wish I could spend a day at MoMA.

Q: What else are you working on?

A: After I finish rewrites on Killing Swans and Sleeping Rough, I have a TV spec script to complete. And a new play to begin which feels too embryonic to discuss.

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

A: My parents used to listen to the cast album of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris quite a lot, so by the time I was five, I'd memorized the bleakest, most politically outraged and romantically fucked-up lyrics - all written by a brilliant, likely alcoholic, Belgian chainsmoker. I believe I learned the word "fuck" from the song "Timid Frieda." I've no idea where my infatuation with the U.K. began. Perhaps with The Beatles or seeing "To Sir with Love" or reruns of "The Avengers" on television, but it's always been, oddly, my spiritual home and hopefully, one day, my real home. When I was in third grade, my mother was called into a school conference because I insisted on spelling words as if I were some Mancunian urchin - "colour," "grey," "theatre," "favourite" - and I'd vigorously argue when my teacher would mark them as misspellings. On the plus side of third grade, I vividly remember the confluence of music and writing for me. We were asked in an art class to write or draw whatever came to mind whilst listening to Aaron Copland's "Billy the Kid Suite." To this day, that first impression of freely galloping across a page with a pen, unrestricted, still lingers ... as does the importance of music in the conjuring of those words. All of my plays are born within a particular piece of music - e.g. Mind the Gap is Underworld's Second Toughest in the Infants and dubnobasswithmyheadman and afterdark is Miles Davis. I can't write without music.

Q: What kind of theater excites you?

A: I decided to quit my job at Rolling Stone and study with Anne Bogart at Columbia University when I saw the SITI Company's The Medium at NYTW. It was a watershed moment for me. Her direction, writing and insights continue to invigorate me daily. She's been a mentor and my most inspiring teacher. I'm most attracted to the darker, more menacing, emotionally brutal and often political palette of writers like Harold Pinter, Caryl Churchill, Enda Walsh, Martin McDonagh, Samuel Beckett, Tony Kushner, Bug-era Tracy Letts and friends Mark Schultz, Gary Duggan and Stella Feehily. The richly-drawn, flawed, luscious characters conceived by Tennessee Williams, AIan Ayckbourn, Sharman MacDonald and David Hare and friends like Stephen Belber, Kara Lee Corthron, Roy Williams, Laura Wade, Courtney Baron, Gary Sunshine, Neal Bell, Rebecca Cohen, Stephen Guirgis and Brooke Berman. I'm forgetting dozens of other fabulous people and apologize. I relish watching gifted ensembles at work on good scripts, like the recent Broadway run of the Old Vic's brilliant production of Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests, Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation or Lucy Thurber's Killers And Other Family.

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

A: Avoid journalism as a day job choice. Winter Miller will back me up on this! While it seems to make sense, you're a writer writing, it's draining. It guts you creatively. And the job market is grim. Find a gig that might inspire an angle of your writing that can serve as a catalyst ... or you can forget about at 6p.

Don't be afraid to survive in an unconventional way. Travel as much as you can. Study acting. Actors will teach you about your own writing in ways you've never imagined, but in turn, it's essential to understand their process. Learn what it takes to stand in front of others and do a scene or improvisation, the way words that are not your own feel they tumble from your mouth. Learn to move. Harold Pinter and Shakespeare were actors. That should be reason enough to take a scene study class.

Rewriting is as important as the writing of the first draft. Rip apart and reevaluate. I wasn't pleased with Columbia's playwriting department for many reasons, but I did learn the valuable adage "kill your darlings" from Romulus Linney, who left in my second year. You know that line that you love to death because it's so clever - but it never quite works in the scene? Cut it.

Q: info for reading, please:

A: The reading of Sleeping Rough will be on Monday, November 9th at 7p as part of MCC Theater's Playlabs series at Baruch College, 25th Street between Third and Lex.


Q: Any other plugs?

A: The Irish Rep's production of O'Neill's Emperor Jones - Ciarán O'Reilly bravely took on a very difficult, controversial play with a sterling cast. I'm very excited about the SITI Company's production of Antigone at Dance Theatre Workshop next week. I've not seen it yet, but I know Liz Duffy Adams Or, at Women's Project, directed by Wendy McClellan, will make me very happy. As well as the spring WP production of Sheila Callaghan's terrific Lascivious Something. Very curious see MCC Theater's import of Alexi Kaye Campbell's The Pride which goes into previews in late January. And the Druid's production of Enda Walsh's New Electric Ballroom which I did a reading of at the Irish Rep back in 2006. If you don't know Enda's writing you must; Disco Pigs at the Traverse in 1997 and the Irish Rep's Bedbound in 2003 were two of the best productions I've ever seen. His manipulation of language is violent, visceral and masterful. He reminds me to try harder.

Oct 23, 2009

I Interview Playwrights Part 81: Libby Emmons

Libby Emmons

Grew up in the Boston suburbs, NYC summers and winter breaks, and Philadelphia, PA.

Current Town:
Brooklyn, NY

Q:  You just won the Clubbed Thumb Biennial Commission. Congrats! Please tell me a little about the play you're writing for it.

A:  It's to be a play called Zeropia about Marta, an urban planner, and her trusty assistant Amy. They decide to plant a zero-emissions, zero-carbon footprint utopic eco-town. Alot of things can go wrong with that scenario, and I'm sure they will. Hopefully it will also be funny. Mostly I'm having fun with the research so far.

Q:  What else have you been working on?

A:  I'm working on a short film project with collaborator and friend Jacquetta Szathmari called Malcolm & Margerie, starring David Marcus, Dame Cuchifrita, Jody Christopherson and Greg Zenon. Also working on a play for that I'd like Blue Box to produce, working title Ashling & Enora, and of course Sticky.

Q:  Can you talk a little about Sticky?

A:  Sticky is just about the most fun I've ever had in theater. It's 10 minute bar plays, staged in bars, and music. People seem to really like it too, from artists to audience, so that's pretty gratifying. When David Marcus, husband and collaborator, and I started the project with Dave Scholnick at Bar Noir in Philly in 2000, it was for the sole purpose of doing theater frequently, inexpensively, and with the people we liked to work with, like Amanda Schoonover and Jeremy Chacon. It's still mostly about that, but now there's a hell of alot more people, and we don't have to rehearse in our apartment. Sticky would not exist if it weren't for the artists who keep wanting to do it.

Q:  How did you like MFAing it at good old Columbia?

A:  I liked grad school. I probably wouldn't have gone to Columbia if it hadn't been for the encouragement of Eduardo Machado, who was great to study with. I liked having time off from working full time to write full time, and learned alot. At Columbia I was also able to take courses in producing and management, so that was useful. And I liked my classmates quite a bit.

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

A:  In middle school my dad and step-mom decided I wasn't allowed to write anymore. They had their reasons, and I spent alot of time in my fantasies instead of in my actual life, but among these reasons was that an idle mind is the devil's playground. After that I spent alot of time feeling like a rebel, writing short stories and poems in secret, and when I walked home after dark from my friend's house across the street I always thought the devil was chasing me.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Lately I'm really into theater of immersion, which Sticky is, and which I find really engaging. As an audience member, I'm tired of sitting in my chair and keeping quiet.

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

A:  Write what you want to see, produce your own work, submit everywhere, create and seek out the community of artists you want to work with.

Q:  Any plugs?

A:  Sticky. November 13th & 20th, Bowery Poetry Club, 7 pm. Also live webcast of same at www.bowerypoetry.com. And Stage Blood Is Not Enough, which I have a little play in and is otherwise terrific as well, produced by Junta Juliel and RKP, 2 nights only at The Duplex, October 22 & 29, 9:30 pm

Oct 22, 2009

I Interview Playwrights Part 80: Adam Bock

Adam Bock

Hometown:  Montreal

Current Town:  NYC

Q:  Can you tell me about your play The Flowers now running at About Face?

A:  Here's the marketing blurb (I find it  VERY hard to write the synopsis of a play) - "The gay couple that runs The Flowers acting company is as star-crossed s the forty year old actors they have playing Romeo and Juliet. For one of them, the world has become too small. The other can't imagine another life." and on and on.

Q:  You've worked with Trip Cullman a few times now.  How did that collaboration come about and what do you like most about him?

A:  Trip and I were introduced before I moved from San Francisco to NYC, but really met properly in the Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab, where I wrote The Thugs. He and I weren't paired up - but I remember thinking - ooooh I want to work with him. We did a bunch of readings and then finally got to do our first play together at Second Stage Uptown - Swimming in the Shallows.

Q:  What else are you working on?

A:  I'm working on a musical with Todd Almond - based on Shirley Jackson novel - We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I am writing a new play.

Q:  The Receptionist was just done in LA with Megan Mullally?  How was that?

A:  It's still going - it extended. I love that production - the directing and the acting is excellent and truthful.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I just saw Lip Sync by Robert Lepage at BAM - stunning. I love anything by Caryl Churchill. I am very excited to see Bruce Norris' new play and to see Annie Baker's play. I love Anne Washburn's work, and Young Jean Lee's, and am jazzed to see what Adam Rapp comes up with next. I love Kroetz. I am excited always to see Trip's work, and Anne Kauffman's and Ken Russ Schmoll's and Daniel Aukin's directing.

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

A:  Get it put up. Anywhere at first. As often as possible. I keep learning by doing basically. And stay cool. It is more fun to work with people who are generous than geniuses.

Get yourself some Bock over here.

Oct 21, 2009

I Interview Playwrights Part 79: Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Hometown: New Yooooooooork (sung a la Alicia Keys in "Empire State of Mind.")

Current Town: Same.

Q:  In the Heights is on tour now.  Was it a tough decision to decide not to be in the touring cast?  What is the schedule of the tour?

A:  It wasn't a tough decision. I left the stage in February 2008, and as much I go and check in with Heights on Broadway, I really enjoy having my nights back. What has been really exciting is getting back into a rehearsal room with a new batch of actors and putting the show up again. Rehearsals, Band rehearsals, tech, discovering things in the room--these are my favorite parts of the process. The tour starts in Tampa next week and zigzags across the US for a year. There's a schedule on intheheightsthemusical.com.  
Q:  I remember seeing an early staged reading of In The Heights that had a different plot.  Can you talk at all about how the show was developed from what you created in undergrad to what it is now?

A:  It had a lot of different plots! Its first incarnation was an 80-minute, one-act musical that I wrote sophomore year at Wesleyan University. Seeing that original production is like seeing the Simpsons shorts, back when The Simpsons were a part of the Tracy Ullman show. Homer and Bart weren't defined yet, but there was something there, know what I mean? Our original plot still featured a love story between Nina and Benny, Usnavi and Vanessa were there, and Nina's parents figured prominently as well. And the mix of latin music and hip-hop was there, but much more rudimentary. Then I sat on it for two years and finished college. I met Tommy Kail the week after I graduated. He'd heard the CD and read the script, and had all these ideas. And for the next few years, we took those characters, and that mix of musical styles, and tried to figure out the most compelling and musical story to tell with them.
Q:  You went to Wesleyan which is 20 min from where I grew up.  Is that a good theater school?  How did you like it?

A:Wesleyan is a great school if you KIND OF know what you want to do with your life. I knew I loved theater, and I knew I loved film, and Wesleyan has great resources in both departments, enough so that you can say, "Spending my time here is going to be really important for me." I was so hyper-aware of the steep price tag my parents were paying, that I knew I wanted to leave college with more than a diploma under my arm. So I wrote A LOT. I wrote two full length musicals and two one acts, and assorted other songs. 
Q:  What else are you working on now?
A:  I'm going halvsies on a musical adaptation of Bring It On, that will be a touring musical. I'm splitting songwriting duties with Tom Kitt and Amanda Green, which has been really fun. I'm also writing a score for an animated film for dreamworks, and co-producing the Heights movie adaptation.

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

A:  My mom did a good job with me. She saw me making up songs and writing stories and making flip books from a very young age, and realized that I was always filtering the world, in some way. And she keyed into that tendency to get me to do things I didn't want to do. If it was a chore, or a crappy job, or even something tragic, she would say, "Just think of the story you're going to get out of this. You could write a song about it." And it gave me perspective, at a very young age. Even in my earliest memories, I remember thinking of my brain as this tape recorder. I have a really distinct memory of staring into the mirror at age 7, being really short, and saying, "MEMORIZE this, cuz it's all going to change."

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Well, anything really. I was a theater major, so I feel like there's something to be learned from any theater experience, whether it's amazing or dreadful. To me, musicals at their best can transport you outside of yourself. Those moments are few and far between: The act one ending of Dreamgirls, "To Life," in Fiddler. But they're so good, they're worth striving towards.
Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights, book writers or lyricists just starting out?

A:  Write write write. No one can hire you based on your potential, or what you WANT or INTEND to do. You have to have something to point at or hand in, and say, this is an example of my work. You'd be amazed at how many insanely talented people I know, from high school and college and beyond, that simply didn't do the work to develop the talents they had. Sometimes it's lack of interest, sometimes it's fear of failing, but they just procrastinate their way towards a different life. You can't do anything if you don't show up. WRITE.

Q:  Any plugs?

A:  I'm going to plug Tom Kitt's Next To Normal, because I think it's an amazing score. I hardly ever see anything more than once, and I've seen it three times. I can count on one hand the number of new musicals I've gone back to see more than once. A Light In The Piazza, Hedwig And The Angry Inch Off-Broadway, Tick, Tick Boom . . . yeah, that's it. So go see Next To Normal. And In The Heights too, if you haven't seen it yet.

Oct 19, 2009

I Interview Playwrights Part 78: Liz Duffy Adams

Liz Duffy Adams

Various small towns in northeastern Massachusetts. Went to high school in Ipswich.

Current Town:
East Village, New York, NY

Q:  You have a show coming up about Aphra Behn. Can you tell me a bit about the play and the upcoming production. How did you come to write about her?

A:  A few years ago I read her collected works and biography and I found her fascinating. She seems to have had a genius for reinventing the world around her instead of adapting herself to it. I thought it would be fun to write about her. But I didn’t want to write a straightforward bio-play/period piece and I didn’t see my way in yet so it was on my backburner for years.

Eventually two things occurred to me. One was the setting. I always start with a sense of landscape (this is one of my few plays that takes place indoors). Between the plague, the Great Fire, and the war with the Dutch, London in the late 1660s was a desperately ravaged place. Almost post-apocalyptic. That is the sort of setting that works for me. The other thing was that the Restoration period was humming with a kind of aesthetic/ideology that reminded me of the late 1960s, at least within a certain bohemian/artistic/aristocratic subculture: a back-to-the-garden pastoral lyricism, a post-repression explosion of freedom and radical new ideas about how to live and love, a golden-age utopianism, all reflected in art and fashion. I’m attracted to a cyclical view of history, and this resonance made me able to see the play.

It’s very different from the rest of my work, except that it turns out to be, like all my work, about how to reinvent civilization in an emergency.

In the end after all those years of mulling I wrote it startlingly quickly (for me) in about two weeks, mostly during a New Dramatists Playtime workshop, less than two years ago. Women’s Project is premiering it, with Wendy McClellan directing and a gorgeous cast: Maggie Siff, Andy Paris and Kelly Hutchinson.

Q:  You're working on a commission for the Children's Theater in Minneapolis. I was there and was very impressed with them and with their shows. Can you talk about what you're writing for them?

A:  Sure, it’s far enough along to talk about. It’s called The Buccaneer, and it’s a musical about a Victorian-era girl who runs away and is captured by a totalitarian pirate king, whose entire crew is made up of kidnapped children and teenagers. Our heroine after many obstacles outwits and defeats him, and becomes the new captain of the pirate ship, now under a democratic rather than despotic system. The wonderful music is by playwright/composer Ellen Maddow and is inspired by sea shanties and world music. It’s being aimed at their 2010/2011 season, I believe. And I agree — CTC is impressive; a beautiful facility and a great mission of real theater for kids. They urged me at every step to go as dark and tough as the story wanted.

Q:  What else are you working on?

A:  I’ve got a new play just started that I can’t talk about yet. I’ve started a music/text project with west coast composer David Rhodes called 5 Places, still in its early stages. I’ve got a alt-rock post-apocalyptic musical (with composer John Hodian) for which I’m seeking a production, called The Listener of Junk City, adapted from my play The Listener. And I’m working on a spec TV pilot — Wendy McClellan and I have developed and written a treatment — a virtual-life sci-fi drama about a librarian/cyber-warrior.

Q:  A lot of your work has been done in San Francisco. What is the theater scene like there?

A:  In my experience, there’s a wealth of small theaters doing new work there; it’s a fantastic place for new plays. I’ve worked with a handful — Crowded Fire, Shotgun, Cutting Ball — and there are many more. And Playwrights Foundation is tremendously supportive of local and visiting playwrights. I love the Bay Area, I’ve had nothing but wonderful experiences there. The audiences are marvelously smart, receptive and un-jaded.

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

A:  Early in first grade, the teacher handed out sheets of paper with arithmetic problems on them. It was 2 + blank = 4, that sort of thing. Only instead of blanks or underscores, there were shapes. Triangles, circles, squares. I’d never seen a math problem before. I had no idea what was being asked of me. So I got out my crayons and colored in the shapes. I did some stripes and dots as well. I was quite pleased with it.

When the teacher collected my sheet it was instantly clear to me from her face how far off I’d been, and it was also quickly clear that every other kid in the room had known what to do. That sort of thing happened all the time — I was always wondering how did they know? I felt like sort of a failure at the time but later I saw that there are worse things that making up your own game when you don’t know the rules. And I think that says something about my work: structure with surprises.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Surprising, expansive theater. I’m not aesthetically ideological anymore — mostly I just want to feel alive in a theater — I want to be woken up and amazed. Isn’t that the whole point?

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

A:  This is just my opinion obviously and probably bad advice but don’t worry about a career.  Put the work first and when the work deserves good things, good things will come. Work with your friends, work obsessively, self-produce in odd cheap spaces, take risks in your art and your life, be reckless, be arrogant. Know you’ve got to write a lot of bad stuff first (or messy, anyway, which has of course its own virtue) so have a ball doing that. Most of all do not let ANYONE tell you how to write your play. Make your own mistakes and learn from them — it’s so boring to make other people’s mistakes and all you learn from that is to not do that.

Q:  Plug for your play and any other plugs:

A:  Or, previews start October 29th at the Julia Miles Theater on W.55th St: http://www.womensproject.org/on_our_stage.htm

And the wonderful MOXIE Theater in San Diego is currently reviving their 2005 production of my play Dog Act: http://www.moxietheatre.com/node/2

Oct 18, 2009

I Interview Playwrights Part 77: Winter Miller

Winter Miller

Split screen, I grew up in a small town in Western Massachusetts called Greenfield until I was 12 and then moved with my mom to a series of smallish towns in Pennsylvania. I ended up at Quaker boarding school in PA.

Current Town:
I'm currently a nomad. I couldn't decide where I wanted to live and how I wanted to live in the world so I packed up all my things, put them in my dad's attic and bought a car. Actually I bought my dad's car. He's now walking everywhere. No, he has his own car. But it was a good deal. In any case, I'm hopping from town to town and boro to boro. Since last January I've been in Silver Lake, LA, Santa Monica, CA, Greenfield, MA, Lexington, VA, Clinton Hill Brooklyn, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a beach house in Rhode Island that I can't remember the name of, Hell's Kitchen NYC, and at the moment I'm writing this, I'm one day into Red Hook, Brooklyn. It's interesting for me, because I've always been very tied to home. As a child of divorce who moved an average of once a year throughout college, when I finally moved to New York I got an apartment and lived in it for almost ten years. So I'm going where it's least secure and reinventing my notion of home, for the moment. I bet this response is too long. Sorry. This is the unexpurgated version.

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I'm working on a comedy. I'm working on a sort of apocalyptic dark story. These are not related and it's weird to have written two plays within a month of each other and try to revise and rewrite them both when the worlds are opposite. Normally I rarely write plays. I have so little to say that would fill a play. But the apoco one is so dark that it's kind of a relief to go to the other absurd world on occasion. The really exciting thing for me is that I'm working with a group of gay youth in NYC with a company called Theatre Askew and I'm writing a play with and for them to perform. We've had auditions and our first meeting and these youth blow my mind.

Q:  Your play In Darfur is coming up at Theatre J in DC in April. Can you tell me about that play and how it came about? That was a two-headed challenge, right? Where has it been developed?

A:  Yeah I'm super excited that we're doing In Darfur in the nation's capital. I'd like to get an Obama in. Maybe Malia or Sasha. Kidding. I mean the adult Obamas. I'm really hoping to coordinate with groups like Enough! and Genocide Intervention Network and potentially others to really try to draw in legislators to see this play. It's one thing to read a news story or an op-ed about the suffering of people in Darfur and I think it's another to know these people as human beings. But also, the play makes everyone accountable, reporters, aid workers and Darfuris, so I think it poses some compelling questions about sacrifice and betrayal and in whose name.

The play was a Two-Headed Challenge, which is a commission offered jointly by The Guthrie and The Playwrights Center in MN. My mentor, was my former boss at the New York Times, Op-Ed columnist Nick Kristof. And if I can just put some plugs in here for some completely amazing folks any writer should know: I will forever be indebted to the hugely awesome Polly Carl for the work she did with me on this script--she is truly a phenomenal dramaturg and she knows how to put a play first and everyone's ego second. Another shout out to the director who was with me throughout the development of the piece, Joanna Settle, who is an extremely smart and specific director and with whom any writer, actor is designer is fortunate to collaborate with. But in addition some really great people got behind the play and were helpful in the development of it: Michael Dixon at the Guthrie, Mandy Hackett, Liz Frankel and Oskar Eustis at the Public and Marge Betley at Geva Hibernatus. The really great thing was that everyone involved recognized that this is a topical play and that it offers a way to spread awareness about something happening that if enough people were up in arms about and contacting their elected officials, we could force the UN /Security Council to stop the genocide immediately. So it was developed at those places above and then produced really quickly as a lab by the Public. All of that was in less than a year after the play was written. I was still writing the play while we were doing it at the Public which is why we closed it from reviewers. It was a beautiful production, I admire all the people involved. Then they did a very cool thing, they did a staged reading after the run at the Delacorte in Central Park, something they pretty much reserve for their productions of Shakespeare et al. Sitting al fresco with a bright night sky, the sound of planes occasionally buzzing above, that incredible cast and crew and 1800 people in the audience I'll take to the grave. And after the play, my heroes in the anti-genocide movement, people like Samantha Power, Kristof, John Prendergast, Mia Farrow, Omer Israel and Mark Hanis all spoke about Darfur.

Darfur is in really bad shape. It's not written about that much because it's sort of assumed the public is weary of hearing about it, but it's just gotten worse and worse there as aid workers are prevented from helping by president bashir and virtually all programs related to gender based violence are banned--so there are all these rapes in the camps that go unreported and that leave women without care for very violent situations. My friend Bec Hamilton who is an excellent writer and investigator just wrote a great article about it in the New Republic. You can find it here: http://bechamilton.com/?p=1419
If you are reading this and interested in Darfur, check out Enough! and Genocide Intervention Network for how to get involved here:

Q:  Can you talk about 13P? What's up next?

A:  I can talk about 13P, although much has already been said. I think it's an amazing producing model and I am grateful I was invited to join, even without a credit to my name. 13P was my first production, Josh Hecht directed my play called The Penetration Play. Josh is a fiendishly good director of new plays, it should be stated. (It may be that people frown on plays with lesbian sex and aggressive behavior because it's never been produced since. Or it's boring or terrible). But it got produced by 13P because the playwright is allowed to pick the play s/he wants to do, and in some cases, that may be our play we don't think anyone else will do. The next play is Julia Jarcho's American Treasure. Jarcho's so beyond cool that she's directing it herself and she's unafraid to name a play after a popular movie staring Nicholas Cage. There's info about it here:

Q:  What is your day job?

A:  I don't have one at the moment. I was a reporter for Variety which wasn't really me and although I had a sweet gig writing freelance for the New York Times, as the economy and the financial resources of that paper (and others) have tanked, I got squeezed out. Unfortunately, the ugliest part was that there was an editor there who resorted to taking my story pitches and then re-assigning them to staffers. Which is about the sleaziest unethical thing to do to a freelancer. So I called it a day. It turns out I make a great nanny. My developmental age is probably somewhere between 4 and 7, so I have a really good time watching other people's kids. I'm serious. I'd like to go to Africa and do theater work with communities that are in the midst of conflict--I was brought to Uganda to do something of that nature and it was an amazing experience. So I'd like to go to Burundi, Congo, CAR, Somalia etc and do work there. Which will require me lining up some grants for that kind of work, so that will sort of be a day job, finding loose change in the pockets of foundations. Here's the link to the Uganda thing, it's part of an upcoming feature documentary,

Talk about falling in love with a group of youths... these kids were amazing. We are still pen pals.

And I have fantasies about becoming a Bikram teacher. I'm all over the map. I'm really open to doing whatever for money that puts me in a position of working with people I respect and admire and I don't have specificities about what that specific field is. Generally if people offer me work I say Yes and then ask questions later.

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

A:  My parents divorced before I was two. One day, I was probably about 6 or 7 and my mom and dad were sitting at my dad's dining room table. There was a partially eaten danish on the table. I think we had all eaten already breakfast, but the danish remained on the table. I went off to play matchboxes or something in the living room, aware that my parents were still at the table, discussing me or something related to me. I found myself wanting a second helping of the danish. I occasionally looked in, to see that the danish was still sitting there. But I didn't go in and get it. I don't know why. Waiting for an invitation? I think I secretly hoped they'd come into the other room and offer me more danish? They did not. In fact, I distinctly recall that I circled around and hovered, conscious that my dad was eating the last of the danish. It was gone. Then, only then, did I walk into the dining room, right up to them and ask for more danish.

The danish represents to me wanting to be loved, wanting to be noticed. I don't even really like danish, I prefer things made of chocolate. But I wanted to let my parents know that I was in sort of an ongoing distress mode. Only I didn't know how to tell them that and really, I wanted them to know it and do something about it.

So I think I write because in some way I've always felt on the outside of things, I've always wanted to feel like I have a place at the table. It was assumed that I had nothing to say for myself and they would talk about me while I played. So I write plays hoping that people will listen to these characters and their moral dilemmas and see their mistakes and in whatever ways see some portion of themselves in these people. And I hope that by being able to have empathy for the characters, by seeing pieces of ourselves in others that there's a chance to stretch our empathic capabilities. I'm not ashamed to say that I think our culture could do with a lot more compassion and a lot more love for our neighbors, ourselves, etc. I don't think this has much to do with the danish, I was just sort of doing product placement and hoping that if I said chocolate someone would read that and send me a chocolate bar like how it works on television when Jon Stewart says he likes Krispy Kreme on air, he gets donuts galore dropped off at the office. I shudder to think what arrives at the offices of Oprah. She probably gets children and pets mailed to her. Anyway, I kind of agree with Anne Frank, or what she's credited as saying: I still believe, in spite of everything that people are really good at heart. I'm exploring that goodness and occasionally, that badness.

Q:  What is the purpose of theater?

A:  Oh I think I may have touched on that in my earlier response. I didn't read these questions all the way through. I'm terrible at reading directions. I really should work on that.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I like theater where it feels like there's a genuine discovery happening onstage. Even if the play is deeply flawed but there's just one monologue that has something so true that it breaks my heart in that moment--then that's the kind of theater I want to see. I like plays that explore the human condition. As long as it can provoke a genuine reaction in me--laughter, tears, surprise, total shock, or it illuminates a world I know nothing about, that's the kind of stuff I'm really into. One of my favorite theater experiences was/were the Checkov plays that Melissa Kievman and Brian Mertes produced at their house which is out in the country somewhere outside NYC (I'm terrible with geography). The plays would happen outdoors--they would use their actual house and everything around--the pond by the house, the trees in the yard, the upstairs window would have someone pop out to say a line and the staging would be sometimes messy and the scenic design would be phenomenal in its artistry even though it would just be household objects, and all this work, by everyone involved would be for just one performance. And in the middle of the play, after an act break would be a giant picnic. The audience would bring potluck and it would all get laid out and everyone, strangers and friends would get together and eat a giant meal. You could jump in the lake for a swim. You could hold someone's crying baby and walk out of the audience space and bobble the baby up and down til it was soothed and then return and nobody looked at you like you'd stabbed them in the eye with your program. And there was no charge, but you could donate money to whatever great cause they'd researched. It was basically ideal. You're outdoors. It's summer. It's good theater. You're being fed from a buffet. Girls are wearing loose dresses. Boys are wearing open shirts. You can sit in a chair or sit on the ground. You can kiss your date and/or hang out with old and new friends. It's everything that much of the theater I go to is not. It's the intersection of life onstage with the lives watching the stage. It's made with love, you feel it. They didn't do it this past summer but I'm hoping they see your blog and realize how much it meant to so many people and they should put their whole lives on hold just to please an unruly group of people who love what they created.

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

A:  Hmmm. Find a really good dramaturg, someone you can trust to read your work and give you honest feedback that propels you forward. I recommend Josh Hecht because he's so smart and so good at giving insight. But it's about finding the person who you connect with and who knows how to give feedback. Also, one time when I was trying to write a play that would be "commercial" enough for what I saw in the marketplace and I was not writing anything, I sent an email to one of my professors from grad school, Anne Bogart and asked if she'd have coffee with me to discuss something or other. She was like, look, you have to write the play you want to write, there's no other option. And I'm not going to sit and have coffee with you to tell you that. You know what you need to do so do it. At first I was sort of taken aback, like whoa, where's that totally nurturing director from grad school...? And then I was like, she's right, what a favor to tell me to stop talking to other people about what's not working with what I'm trying to write or my process and just write. (I call this unhelpful part of my process procrastiwriting) And to not bother writing what I think the market will bear. Those who can write what the market wants are probably able to do that at least in part because it's in fact what they want to be writing. Or they wrote what they wanted and that it was scooped up by producers came as something of a surprise. I'm totally making this up, I have no idea what I'm talking about. It's a little like asking me about how to hang a heavy picture frame on the wall, I've done it plenty of times but I'm no expert. First find the studs in the wall. I don't know, knock on the wall, they're like sixteen inches a part and sooner or later you'll find one. Use a level, when the bubble is in the middle, you're golden.

Q:  Links for upcoming workshops etc and any other plugs?

A:  plugs! :

Oct 17, 2009

I Interview Playwrights Part 76: Jenny Schwartz

Jenny Schwartz

Scarborough, NY and then New York, NY

Current Town:
New York, NY

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  A play called Somewhere Fun.
A play about Fantasy Football.
I’m also collecting exchanges I have with my two year old daughter, Phoebe, who already has a zest for words, language, and stories - especially seemingly mundane ones. It’s thrilling (and hilarious) to watch her as she tries out new words and phrases every day. I’ll list a couple of things she's said that have woken me up, in a way, to the poetry and absurdity in every day speech. I’m hoping to construct something out of these exchanges.  Maybe just a scrapbook of sorts.

I like grape medicine.  
You like grape medicine?  
You like it a little or a lot? 
I like it a lot sometimes.

We sometimes call him Daddy.
We sometimes call him him.

Q:  Can you talk a little about your writing process?  Is it true that you start over from the beginning each time without looking at what you wrote the previous time?

A:  Yes, it’s true.  I imagine that when composers or songwriters write new songs, they aren’t able to start from the end when they sit down to work; this is true for me too.  I find it helpful to experience the entire piece in order to continue on with it and to find holes and spaces in it. For some reason, reading it over, even aloud, isn’t enough. Typing the whole thing from memory helps me get out of my head and into the world of the play and to seamlessly, unconsciously develop and expand it.  I’m also able to experience the rhythm and momentum of the piece, and writing becomes a physical act. It’s not often that I add to the end of what I’m writing because I always get caught up in the body of the text; something will need fine-tuning which will lead me on a tangent that I couldn’t anticipate. It’s also, in a way, like ironing, where you start with a small part of the fabric and you keep going back over it until you smooth out the whole thing. That said, I don’t do this ALL the time. If I’m working on a particular scene, I’ll sometimes start only that scene from the beginning, and not the entire play. As you can probably guess, I'm a voracious typer. 

Q:  How did you like Juilliard?

A:  Juilliard was great, and I’m grateful they took me and let me stick around for two years. It was a rare privilege to have Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman responding to my work.  Before Juilliard, I studied directing with Robert Woodruff and Anne Bogart at Columbia. My years at Columbia were perhaps more formative than my years at Juilliard. It was in Robert Woodruff's directing class that I tried my hand at playwriting. Robert encouraged me to keep writing, even though my first plays were five minutes long and consisted mostly of one actor saying the same thing over and over again. (I'm still drawn to repetition, but I tend to create more expansive palettes now.) I'll be forever indebted to Robert and Anne for encouraging me to experiment, to ask questions, to think outside the box. They opened doors for me I had no idea existed. 

Q:  God's Ear is being done around quite a bit.  Are there shows coming up you can tell us about?

A:  I don’t actually know what’s coming up, but I will tell you that I went to Portugal a couple of weeks ago to see a production of God’s Ear in Portuguese.  For the most part, I couldn’t follow it word-for-word or line-for-line, but right away, I was struck by the acting, which was clearly intense and impassioned.  It was a moving experience for me - to feel so completely absent and present at the same time – to view myself as a catalyst for these talented artists having a meaningful experience doing their work so well. I’ve felt similar about productions I’ve heard about around the country (I've only seen one, a wonderful production directed by Ken Rus Schmoll at Cornell University. Ken and I were classmates at Columbia and are close friends and collaborators, so I was somewhat involved in that one.) Anyway, it's been amazing and humbling to connect with strangers in this way - very unexpectedly rewarding.

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

A:  Hmmm… I was obsessed with Helen Keller and the Miracle Worker, and I used to stare up at the sun to try make myself blind; fortunately, I was not successful. I don't know if this explains who I am as a writer or an artist (I hope not), but I thought I'd mention it because Helen Keller tends to make her way into my work. What else?  I remember telling my first lie when I accidentally lost my Kindergarten class’s pet Guinea Pig.  This was eye-opening for me because I realized that in real life, you don't always have to get caught, like on the Brady Bunch, and you can have a secret inner life that no one has to know about. 

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I space out very easily, so I’d have to say I’m most excited by theatre that doesn’t bore me, which can come in any and all forms, and found anywhere. I do appreciate poetry, both visual and aural, and I like to have a good laugh. 

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

A:  *Don't type out your play over and over again. Total waste of time.
*Try to get yourself in situations where you can actually make theatre and put it in front of an audience. (I’m not talking about readings.)
*Take everyone's advice and no one's advice and don't let anyone's advice make you feel stupid or wrong because what you really want to do is find your own unique and mutable way. (Or not.) I tend to be suspicious anyone who claims to know anything, but come to think of it, I'm probably just jealous. 
*Don't sell yourself short.

Q:  Any plugs?

A:  Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker.
Creature by Heidi Schreck.

You can get God's Ear here and places other fine books are sold.

Oct 16, 2009

I Interview Playwrights Part 75: Kristen Palmer

Kristen Palmer

Hometown:  Born in St. Louis, Missouri, but grew up in Stafford County, Virginia

Current Town:  Atlanta, temporarily.

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  A play about a family coping with a death - lots of steady, daily drinking, sudden accusations, and grasping for something under the surface to be revealed.  There are no bells or whistles really, just writing these characters during three slices of time.  It's set in the Tidewater region of Virginia, on the James River at a home I visited once.

And revising THE HEART IN YOUR CHEST, which has been a major project over the past year.  It’s a play set in a dystopian near future, populated by characters operating under one set of assumptions which is undone by their own desires and the actions of the least obviously powerful among them.  There’s a lot of action, there are fights and I’m in love with the characters.  I’ve been able to collaborate with the same director, Paul Willis, and had some excellent ensembles come together for workshops in NYC, Independence, KS and LA.  Still doing some tinkering and looking for a more in depth, on-the feet type of workshop – or for somebody to get behind it and go for it.  Which I think would be an excellent idea.

Q:  What do you think is the thread that links your plays?  What do you write about? 

A:  I've written seven full-lengths and they each feel very different to me, in subject and construction.  A few readers have said that if my name weren't on the cover they wouldn't know it was the same writer.  If I were to pull out some threads though  -  a sense of loss and longing, the way language is used obliquely - communicating as much as it covers up, and funny in a way where there aren't really any jokes.

My starting point for most plays are places, people or moments that resonate with me and I think the motor that drives me is the desire to talk back to the world.  I am a person that gets overwhelmed by reading the newspaper, wants to call up our leaders and talk to them - ask them what they are thinking - why are they doing what they're doing. -- and I want an actual human response, canned PR speak doesn’t help anyone but the salesman.  Writing plays is one of the ways I do something with this impulse and avoid getting overwhelmed by the world.  Teaching is another.
Q:  How was your Jerome year last year?

A:  It was amazing to be able to put writing first, to say for these 12 months my job is to write plays and be a playwright.  In the year before the Jerome I was teaching full-time in Brooklyn, I'd had my first four productions - two in NYC  - and was planning a wedding (with you) it was kind of a full year.  Then moving to Minneapolis, was a huge change of pace - a very welcome one.  (It is true that if you get enough sleep you don't really get sick).  The Playwrights' Center there is a great place and it was dreamy to have a home for a year - especially one with a photocopier and postage machine.  Plus there are lots of other playwrights based in Minneapolis - and on the Jerome year too - so it’s like an instant community.

For me the job of 'being a playwright' included working as a dramaturg, teaching writing workshops with young people, reading many, many plays and being able to travel for workshops and readings - as well as writing.  I did find that my writing output did not increase substantially with the amount of time I had available.  In my imagination I would write non-stop, all day, late into the night, but in reality I still wrote about the same amount - though I was able to put a lot more time into revisions and applications.

I also discovered that I like the extreme winter there.  It's beautiful.  Oh, and I landed a job waitressing at Nye's Polanaise Room.  If you’re ever in the Twin Cities and have occasion for a boozy lunch, desire a piano bar or a polka lounge – I highly recommend Nye’s - and sit at the bar that Phil has worked at since 1968.
Q:  Can you talk about being a teaching artist and how you use theater to teach?

A:  That is where I started from undergrad - devising programs to teach through drama - structuring workshops using theater games, opportunities for creating and performing, and reflecting on the experience.  The goals for workshops can vary from the general ones like collaboration and communication, to literacy, to issues such as safe sex, bullying, prejudice  - the basic idea is to engage participants with their bodies and hearts and the process is the point - not the product.  Everywhere I have lived I have found opportunities to teach this way, either in schools, with theaters or arts agencies - or making my own programs.  I did my undergrad in England where there is an established field of this type of work.  When I moved back to the states it was less obvious where or how to do this, but mostly people just used different terminology.

Basically teaching, to me, is about creating an experience and connecting with students.  Being open to the moment, working with what's in front of you and keeping people's interest are all qualities that theater demands and are the qualities that I find most important in teaching.  Supporting people to express their experience of the world and to engage with and understand the experience of others should be a goal of education - whatever the subject - and theatre as a medium offers a myriad of ways to act, reflect, question and challenge.

Q:  You're married to me.  How's that going?

A:  Very well. You are wonderful person to be married with.

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

A:  When I was in middle school I organized a haunted house with kids on my street.  You’d go in and be told the story of a girl whose mother was burned as a witch, who was plagued by visions, tormented by the townspeople and eventually hung herself.  I think I was the tour guide, my brother was bobbing for apples in blood, there were real cow brains (the idea that spaghetti would represent cow brains escaped me), heads were strung from the clothesline, we hung a life sized stuffed doll as the girl – and as the finale this older girl from another neighborhood wearing a long white dress came out of nowhere on roller skates wailing for revenge and chasing everyone screaming out of the garage.  Then we’d give them candy.

At some point parents demanded that we be shut down for terrorizing children and we were forbidden from ever making a haunted house again.  Something about the recklessness and enterprise of all the kids involved in putting it together coupled with the explosion of response when it was unveiled really got to me.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I love theatre that feels rough around the edges, virtuosic  - and that over-used word – authentic in some way.  I love plays that feature ensembles of actors and create worlds that you can witness, or step into.  I am excited when a production allows the audience in – is porous and open to interpretation and a variety of responses.  I love writing that plays with language and theatre that embraces the complexities and unknowability of human experience. 

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

A:  Follow your obsessions.  When you’re tired, rest your head.   Go see things and talk with people and when you see things and talk with people that you like or can’t get out of your head keep seeing their work and talking to them and work with them.  Love is really important. 
Q:  any plugs?

A:  I am reading plays and writing about them here:  www.playswithothers.blogspot.com  My goal is to make this a daily thing and use it as a way to talk about writing plays now.

and sometimes I post poems here:  quarantinedpoesy.blogspot.com  I used to do this daily, now it is far more occasional.

And go see CREATURE in NYC opens in late October and runs through November.  Written by the effervesent Heidi Schreck and produced by two great companies - New Georges & P73.