Jan 27, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 110: Clay McLeod Chapman
Clay McLeod Chapman
Hometown: Richmond, Virginia
Current Town: Brooklyn, New York
Q: Tell me about your play Teaser Cow that's up right now. How did this come about?
A: teaser cow came about as a commissioned work from the company One Year Lease. They split their year between New York and the mountains of Greece, which isn't such a bad way to live -- and they invited me to craft a script around their acting ensemble, picking a myth that tickled my fancy and catering it to their crew. I'd been reading Fast Food Nation at the time, total fluke -- only to start thinking about the Minotaur as a possible starting point for the project. The two elements just adhered themselves together in my head until I couldn't separate them. Chalk it up to fortuitous timing, but reading through Schlosser's book was all it took. It was fun drawing parallels between ancient Greece and our modern day beef industry... And surprisingly simple.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: 2009 was the year of saying yes to everything. Anything that came my way, I took it. Writer-for-hire gigs, commissioned gigs, you name it. From there, it's up to me to try and find myself in these projects. See if there's a way to subtly instill my own sense of storytelling into work where I'm not the genesis-point. I've been juggling a bunch of different projects, either my own or others -- and it's been a blast so far. Challenging, but fun. I've been writing the book for a new musical with soft rocker Bruce Hornsby, so my mom's really happy with that one. We've been developing it for a few years now and we're finally moving onto the regional theatre phase, hoping to bring it back to New York in 2011. Fingers crossed. I've been developing this one-man musical with this band called the Venn Diagrams, titled JULIAN. We just got a residency at Dixon Place, which has been a great help furthering it along. Dixon Place is downright amazing. I've also been on the creative team for this mondo-crazy project called The Ride -- which is essentially is us taking a fleet of tour buses here in New York and renovating them into these theatres on wheels. Literally -- a theatre on wheels. Basically, it's going to be a musical that takes place on a tour bus through Manhattan, with all the action taking place on the streets. Crazy.
Q: Can you talk a little about the Pumpkin Pie Show, what it is and how it came to be?
A: The Pumpkin Pie Show is my baby. It's my protective blanket, it's my stamp collection. Whenever someone asks what's it about, I always tell people it's a rigorous storytelling session -- which makes it kind of sound like a bunch of ol' bubbas sitting on the front porch spinning yarns, but it's really an opportunity for me and my friends to connect with an audience on a level that a lot of fourth-wall theatre doesn't allow us to do. When I'm performing in something, I want to really see the whites of the audiences eyes. I want to achieve a level of intimacy and personal connectivity that the fourth wall tends to shut down. So the Pumpkin Pie Show is a series of short stories that I've written, all within the first person narrative -- handed over to a group of actors, namely me and my best friend (and amazing performer) Hanna Cheek. Rather than disregard the audience, we go through these stories as if they were direct-address monologues, performing a set-list of however many pieces each night based on a certain theme or whatnot. It's more like going to a rock concert, in my mind -- where the band interacts with the audience as they go through their set-list of songs. Bands, some bands, the bands I like, don't shirk off the audience. They tend to play to the audience, which was always something I wished theatre did more of -- so that's what we try to do with the Pumpkin Pie Show. Every year we have a new one, complete with new stories. We've been performing for over ten years now and I really hope I can keep doing it until the day I die. It's a super-small endeavor, where we're performing to thirty or fifty people a night. That intimacy is something we've grown dependent on. That's the value of the show. This isn't Broadway bound because the performance is contingent upon a personal connection between the audience and the performer. All we need is that link and the evening feels like something special. Something singular in its experience. Theatrical snow-flakes, you know?
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 this story about myself when I was about two. I was just learning to walk, saddled up into one of those walker-stroller thingies. It's like a plastic donut on wheels with a diaper harnessed directly in the center. You slip your kid in and the diaper holds them up enough that their feet are just touching the floor, allowing them to walk along on their own while they're being wheeled around by this protective barrier. Or so I've been told. Well -- when I was two, we lived in this house where the door to our basement was situated inside our kitchen. Mom's doing the dishes while I'm strolling around in my walker. She's got her back to me, doing her thing while I'm doing mine. Somehow, the door to the basement was open. Just a crack. I'm rolling around -- only to make a bee-line for the basement door. My walker pushes up against it, opening it up even further -- and I take a header down fifteen or twenty wooden steps, taking the tumble while I'm still straddling this plastic doughnut. I land, walker included, on the concrete floor of our basement. Fractured my skull. My mom turns, hear's me screaming -- runs down the steps, finds me bleeding all along the basement floor. She panics. Must've gone crazy in that moment. She scoops me up with her hands, cradling my body in one hand and my head in the other -- and rushes out the door. She runs straight out into the street, screaming her head off. The first car the drives by stops and mom gets right in and demands they take her and me to the hospital. Turns out there's nothing to be done in regards to setting bone, considering it was my skull. I think I had to wear some kind of radar-dish like a dog wears whenever they're not allowed to nibble on themselves, just to keep me from scratching at my own fractured skull. The story would've ended there had it not been for the fact that when I was five -- I fractured my head all over again. This time at the county fair. Mom took me -- and here I am, running through the crowd, all fives years of myself going nutty because we're at the fair having fun. I'm not looking where I'm going, only to get clothes-lined by this young couple holding hands. I totally try to red-rover them, their linked-hands hooking me in the chin and sending me over backwards. I landed on a tent spike. The tent spike cracks open my skull. Again -- mom freaks. We're off to the hospital. Same story. And now -- now there's this ridge along the back slope of my skull. You can totally take your finger and run it down the length of my head and feel the indentation there. It's probably about three inches long and a half-inch wide. No lie.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I might sound like a bit of a broken record here, but I really do get into theatre that makes me feel valuable as an audience member. When I go see a show, I want to believe I'm not watching a movie or a television show. I want to be engaged in such a way that I know in my heart this experience will never be replicated ever again. No matter how many times the actors performer the exact same text, this given performance, our performance, will never ever be duplicated -- and that's because the audience changes. That gives value to them. I don't like it when theatre disregards what's beyond the fourth wall. It's not that I need actors jumping into my lap or anything, but I just want to feel like we're all regarding the sacred-qualities to theatre, which is two disparate elements (the audience and the performers) coming together in this one particular instance and forging a dynamic between each other, communicating with each other in very subtle ways. So, when I leave the theatre, I as an audience member feel special because I now know that this experience I had in the theatre will never ever be conjured up again -- at least not in the same way -- because tomorrow night it'll be a different group of audience members who will bring something altogether different than what I did.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Produce your own work. Do as much of the behind-the-scenes stuff yourself. Make it a labor of love more than anything else. The best way, I believe, to get your work out there is to just do it yourself.
Q: Plugs, please:
The Pumpkin Pie Show! www.pumpkinpieshow.com
Teaser Cow! www.oneyearlease.org
Bruce Hornsby! http://www.playbill.com/news/article/136184-Bruce-Hornsby-Musical-Will-Premiere-in-Virginia-in-January-2011