Tuesday, October 06, 2009
I Interview Playwrights Part 68: Alejandro Morales
Hometown: Hialeah, FL . . . which is really just a carbuncle on the butt of Miami. It's home to the famous Hialeah Race Track, which I have never been to.
Current Town: Brooklyn, NY . . . when I lived in Queens I always used to say New York, NY and remind everyone Queens was part of New York City. Now that I live in Brooklyn, I am very proud of the distinction.
Q: Can you tell me about "marea" Coming up in Dec at Here?
A: marea was a commission from the Public Theater from about six years ago. It's the story of a woman who is obsessed with two classic Italian films from 1960--L'Avventura and Black Sunday--because they help her understand the mystery of her mother's disappearance shortly after giving birth to her. Our heroine is at a point in her life where a lot of things are breaking down for her--her sanity, her relationship with her girlfriend, her purpose in life--and when this mysterious woman wielding a straight razor begins to haunt her apartment she's thrown into this rabbit hole of self discovery and acceptance.
It's a very challenging play for me. For one, because it was a commission, it was the only I play I've written where I never took the time to reconcile my personal reasons for writing the play with the demands of the play itself. I wanted to meet my deadlines and I wrote very quickly. Little did I know that as I wrote the first draft, I was dealing with the onset of a depression that would last for about four years. As a result, I ended up with something that was emotionally true to what I was experiencing psychologically, but I don't know if I had the ability to craft that into a workable play until now. This play takes a lot out of me physically. Every time I've had a workshop of it, I got a physical malady related to it. The characters are obsessed with seeing and the heroine is an asthmatic so I've had two bouts of pink eye and pneumonia while working on rewrites. Drowning figures heavily in the play so I avoided swimming pretty much all summer. It's weird. I've taken to wearing a rosary while working on it. I've never had that happen with a play before.
Packawallop got a grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to work on a theater piece that incorporated video and multi-media and because of the influence of film on this play, we felt that it would be a good project for this grant. What we're doing at HERE in December is the first hour of the play. Our goal is to work on the crazier second half over the course of next year and fundraise for a full production.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: This January I had a small show at the Metropolitan Playhouse called william bell. It's a one act response to Billy Budd by Melville. I've been interested in Melville and the paintings of Turner for a while and the themes of man's vulnerability to nature have been on my mind. I was very proud of william bell and I am writing a companion piece for it called the golden vanity about four men during a hurricane on Fire Island. I'm very excited about it and curious to see what sort of evening the two plays make. They seem to touch on ideas of materialism, self-worth and true human connection in the face of crisis--economic, natural and spiritual.
Q: How old were you when you got into New Dramatists? 12? Can you talk about them and who they are as a support system?
A: I was 26, but I felt 12. I had written two plays and got in. I was very honored especially since I had just completed an internship there and saw what a great place it was. However, many of the writers there at the time were older and a little further along in their careers. I had never even had a production in New York at the time. I felt very intimidated and I wish I had had the courage to own up to that instead of pretending to know more than I did. In the end, however, I felt like I grew up at New Dramatists. I cannot imagine a more appropriate place to learn to be a playwright. One of the best lessons I learned there is that I can take a lot of responsibility for my process. ND places a lot of emphasis on the membership defining the ways the organization works. We were constantly asked to think about what we needed as writers and to articulate that. I've brought that into every aspect of my work. I think about that at my desk or at rehearsal. I've brought it into notes sessions. I feel like I can enter a development process or a production process and really take care of myself and my play . . . and as a result be a better collaborator.
I also think the way New Dramatists works is the gold standard for non-profit arts organizations. I was a development intern there before I was a member, and I have brought a lot of what I learned about how ND works to Packawallop. It's remarkable to me the amount of dedication and love the staff has for the organization and the membership and the alumni. I know a big challenge for ND fundingwise is to quantify what they do to funders since they don't produce. And it is an amazing thing that they are able to stay true to the original paradigm of what a non-profit is supposed to do. They are not a corporation. They are a service organization, a community. I find that to be a rarity these days as non-profits are forced to think like for-profits to survive (sadly, we live in a world that doesn't understand what not-for-profit is. If you can't make money, why bother?). That feeling of community is something Scott and I strive for at Packawallop. I'd love to make a living as a writer, but I also make theater for the feeling of personal satisfaction that gives. Places like New Dramatists remind me that that satisfaction one gets from sharing with a community is just as important.
Q: Tell me about your theater company (and film company), Packawallop Productions. Well, actually, I know all about Packawallop but my readers may not. How did the company come about and what have you done and what are you doing next?
A: Packawallop was founded in 1995 by a bunch of us former NYU/Tisch folks (I was actually the only current student among the founders . . . everyone else had just graduated). We've been through a lot of changes structurally and aesthetically since then, but we've always been a company that has been interested in exploring sexual/cultural/gender identity in stylistically elegant and sophisticated productions. We're very focused on collaboration and community and strive to create a company of writers, directors, actors and designers who share similar values . . . as well as establishing a strong rapport with our audience. We like to envision every event as an extended cocktail party. The audience are very much our guests and we like to make them feel welcome (that and I think we just like cocktail parties a lot!)
Since 2002, Scott Ebersold and I have been co-helming the company. We're sort of a two-headed monster. I don't know where I end and Scott begins. We have a core group--Susan Louise O'Connor, Polly Lee, Marc Solomon and Julian Stetkevych--who work with us on the running of the company.
Right now we're gearing up for Marea at HERE, we're submitting The Moment (the film we worked on with you) to festivals, we're running our brand new monthly salon The Pack for our community of artists and lastly we're planning our 2010 Lounge Series of work in progress presentations.
Q: Isn't Susan Louise O'Connor the bomb?
A: I worked with Susan for 3 years or so on the silent concerto. It was an unusual project because it was my very first play (from when I was 20) and Scott and I brought it back mostly for Susan. It ended up being a big challenge for me as a writer because sometimes the plays you write when you're 20 are hard to revisit 10 years later ... but every time I watched the show (and I think I've seen like 40 performances of it including readings and workshops), I felt immensely honored to have an actor as on the money as Susan in it. It's interesting to watch her work because it's like seeing someone do embroidery. She really knows how to piece together these very complex emotional moments. I also know that when I work with Susan, I need to be very very very on top of my game. She asks a lot of questions and is very thorough about her moment to moment work. She's really helped me to understand character arcs and beat work in a new way working with her for all those years.
I'm actually very lucky to have three actors I like to work with a lot involved with Packawallop--Susan, Polly Lee and Julian Stetkevych (They can probably do a great SNL style satire of my work by now). It's really helpful to have actors to write for. There's an amazing symbiotic relationship there. And an amazing level of trust. These three actors have repeatedly taken crazy leaps with me and have been wonderful companions on the journey to discovering a play.
Q: Isn't Scott Ebersold amazing?
A: A couple years ago, when Fred Ebb of Kander and Ebb died, Scott sent me this article from The New York Times about how John Kander was dealing with the death of this longtime collaborator. I know it sounds morbid talking about my very much alive friend and collaborator this way, but when I read that article, I knew I'd feel exactly as John Kander did if I were to ever lose Scott.
We always joke that what we have is like a marriage, but really that's exactly what it is. We've been friends and collaborators for 17 years now. It's the longest relationship I've had with anyone save my family. Like all long term relationships, it has its ups and downs, but we're in it for the long haul. He's believed in my work from the very very beginning. I'm talking like the "18 year old read my emo poetry" beginning. That kind of sustained and unwavering belief is invaluable. Thinking about it now, I feel really floored by that.
I think one of the things our longstanding relationship helps us do is be very flexible while working together. We just can pretty much tell what the other is doing and we can easily blur the lines of playwright and director as a result--he'll suggest a fix for a problematic scene that is pretty much what I've been trying to find or he'll ask me to deal with a sound cue in tech while he's working out a light cue because we're pretty much always on the same page with these things.
We did something unusual for william bell. We decided to (with the exception of some sound design) to put together the entire production ourselves. We came up with the idea together and then we pretty much designed the whole show. I loved that we went to Ikea and bought the set together. I was very proud of that production. It was a very pure distillation of our aesthetic . . . and as simple as it was, it looked like a million bucks.
Q: Tell me a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a person or as a writer.
A: When I was about 12, my mother took me to the doctor for a checkup. Puberty was beginning and of course there was much discussion about my changing body. My mother asked my doctor about how tall I would end up being. He said I probably wouldn't grow much more. I had hit my growth spurt already and that was that. My mother had this incredibly crushed and disappointed look on her face. I never understood her disappointment because there are no tall people in my family . . . but disappointed she was. I don't know exactly what my mother was thinking and asking her doesn't help because she's great with selective memory, but she did take me to several other doctors for a 2nd opinion. Perhaps she just wanted to make sure she did everything she can to ensure I'd be happy and free of problems, but when you're entering puberty and you get the impression you're somehow defective and not good enough just as you are, it really sticks with you. For better or for worse, this idea of smallness has permeated me entirely.
Anyone who knows my work knows, there is not a capital letter to be found anywhere. It's probably the only bit of youthful pretension I've held on to all these years, but I've always felt like a lowercase letter in a world of capitals and what I write, what comes out of a true and honest place in me is only made up of lowercase letters. I want to make beautiful things from that feeling and concept of smallness and I feel like omitting capital letters from the scripts it somehow infuses the work with that idea. I even named my blog lowercaseletter; it's something I'm very much invested in.
I've since been pushing the concept of smallness by embracing shorter forms. william bell was the first one act I've ever written and I really liked the format. I like the economy. In the past, I was so eager to impress my audience I'd try to wow them with all these concepts and metaphors and literary allusions. I think my new play and the plays coming after that will be striving towards making one simple gesture. I'm also not interested in writing a two act play at the moment. I'm striving for 70-90 minutes with this new one. Short and sweet.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I recently saw a video of Mary Zimmerman's controversial production of La Sonnambula at the Met. Zimmerman's concept was to set this opera about young lovers thwarted by the heroine's sleepwalking problem in a rehearsal studio as we were watching an opera company basically rehearsing the opera and seeing how some of the plotlines bled into their "real" lives. Maybe this says something about why I'm not on Broadway, but this supposedly REVILED production had me in tears. One thing I respected about it was the it's particular style of storytelling. There were very mundane props in the production that took on a different meaning when placed alongside the music and the emotions of the characters. A blackboard became a love letter, on opera score ripped to shreds became a breaking heart, the orchestra pit became an abyss of despair the sleepwalking heroine was about to fall into as she sang about her heartbreak on the edge of a plank hovering above the musicians. There was always a sense of discovery going on in that production that kept me delighted and engaged.
I really like theater that does extraordinary things in a simple way. I remember there was a time a few years ago I would see all these plays with working kitchens. Other than Eduardo Machado's The Cook, which doesn't work without a practical kitchen . . . I didn't understand why all this work went into making a set where there was running water and a working stove. It makes me feel like the artists involved don't want to engage me, they don't want me to use my imagination to co-create the stage picture with them. Theater is collaborative in every sense of the word. In performance the audience HAS to collaborate with the play to make it work. I'm not interested in a realism that shuts me out of that collaboration. To me it lacks the magic and poetry that I expect from the theater. A theatrical experience becomes special when I have put a little bit of myself in it. The story, the characters, the language become parts of me by the time the houselights come up.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: 1. Write every day. Even if it's for ten minutes a day. The real world will crush your creative spirit if you don't make an effort to make writing a part of your every day life. It's got to be. 2. Do everything you can to be produced. Even if you have to do it yourself in your living room. You cannot learn if your plays work via staged readings. The most valuable lessons I have learned from my work have been from production experiences. 3. Don't be alone. Find other writers or theater artists. Make a community. I cannot stress this enough. Theater is about getting together with other people in a room. I think theater folk generally love to be together and there is an amazing amount of support out there. I can't name the number of times little exchanges at parties have led to plays, or casting decisions, or workshops, or collaborations. I think our most valuable resource in the theater are our colleagues.
Q: Plugs please:
A: I have a book of three of my plays out on NoPassport Press. It's called Alejandro Morales collected plays and you can get it on Amazon or Lulu.com. It's got expat/inferno, sebastian and an earlier version of marea. I appear regularly with NoPassport's Hibernating Rattlesnakes at Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Marea opens December 3 and runs four performances at HERE. Packawallop's Lounge Series kicks off in January 2010. More details to come. Visit my blog at lowercaseletter.wordpress.com and visit Packawallop at www.packawallop.org.