Nov 10, 2009
I Interview Playwrights Part 91: Rajiv Joseph
Hometown: Cleveland, Ohio
Current Town: Brooklyn, NY
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I tend to work on a few things at once. I’m working on one play about sports book gambling, another one about gangsters in New Delhi, and then a couple other plays that, at this point, are too soft and unformed to describe in any coherent way.
Q: You are one of the writers who won the Whiting award this year. Congrats! Can you tell me about that?
A: A huge honor, and totally crazy. I actually had never even heard of the award before, and I got a call telling me I’d won it. I thought it was some friends messing with me. Basically someone nominates you for it, and you don’t even know it until you win. It’s an incredible award that will literally buy me more time to write.
Q: Can you tell me about your play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo?
A: It started out as a 10 minute play that I wrote at NYU and that nobody really liked, so it sat in my desk drawer for 2 years. Then I brought it to the Lark Playwrights Workshop and spent the next 3 years developing it through the Lark, which got it to a point where Center Theatre Group in LA wanted to to do it at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. They’re now going to remount it at the Mark Taper Forum in April.
The play takes place in Bahdad during the war. But it also takes place in a ghost world that is wedged into that reality. The ghost of a Bengal tiger roams the streets looking for God, a dead Marine haunts his best friend, and the ghost of Uday Hussein torments his former gardener. So it’s a ghost story, and a war story, and a story about translation and topiary and gold-plated weapons and lepers. I had the great fortune to have Moisés Kaufman direct the play. And we had this genius, brilliant cast.
Q: You and I have the same agent. Isn't Seth great!
A: Seth is the LeBron James of agents. He’s got a wicked handle, he sees the court like no one else, he will kill you from downtown, or he will post up and overpower you inside. Sometimes I have nightmares about him. He is that awesome.
Q: Tell me a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: I liked to play in the mud.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I guess I want a play to take me into a dream state. I’m excited by any theatre that does that, and that doesn’t wake me until the end.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: I struggle when I try to write what I think a “play” is supposed to be. So my advice is, just write what you think would be cool. And go easy on the stage directions.