Mar 1, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 125: Gabriel Jason Dean
Gabriel Jason Dean
Hometown: I claim two hometowns: the small one where I was born and raised and generations of my family have resided-- Chatsworth, Georgia; and the big one where I spent my late teens and pretty much all of my twenties--Atlanta, Georgia.
Current Town: Austin, Texas
Q: You won Essential Theater's annual contest. (They did a play of mine last year) Tell me about the play of yours they're doing this year.
A: The Essential Theatre is a champion for emerging writers from Georgia. They chose my play Qualities of Starlight for the 2010 Essential Theatre Prize and it's going up this summer during their festival. It's running in rep with two other plays, Sally and Glen at the Palace by Essential Theatre AD, Peter Hardy and Darker Face of the Earth by Rita Dove.
Here's what happens in the play (no spoilers, I promise):
A young astronomer and his wife travel from California to Appalachia to visit his parents. This is the first time the wife's seen his homestead. Plus, they're bringing good news: after struggling to conceive, they've finally been approved for adoption. When they get there, they discover that his aging parents are both addicted to meth.
The play dwells in disparities—science vs. God, light vs. dark, rural vs. urban, book smarts vs. common sense, barren vs. fertile, the unseen vs. the seen, etc. I began writing this script in 2008 after randomly hearing a recording of comedian, Steven Wright. He made a provocative joke about dead starlight, and even though I can’t remember the specifics of the joke, I couldn’t get the idea— dead starlight traveling light years to meet our small eyes— out of my mind. At the time, I was aware of the cosmological phenomena of dead starlight, but for some reason when these words came out of Steven Wright’s mouth, they hit me in a very different way—a much more organic, spiritual kind of way. Ideas of ghostlight, origins, distance, and the holy concept of grace and how these intangibles put pressure on a modern family dynamic haunted me.
Starlight's a story with a big scope. Expect some cool spectacle (what budgets will allow, of course). There are lizard puppets, Elvis impersonations, grown men in baby diapers. The story's framed by a cosmological theory about the origins of the universe the protagonist's struggling to develop. Ultimately, he realizes that his theory about the macro also applies to the micro. The theory's not mine. I adapted it from Steinhardt and Turok’s “Cyclic Universe Theory” published in 2002. The fundamental question posed in Steinhardt’s and Turok’s theory is the fundamental question that resonates throughout my play: “How did we begin and how does that relate to where we are now?”
Starlight's also a personal play for me. Like the parents in the play, both my parents have had life-long struggles with various addictions. This play's my quest to illuminate and understand what I think is the root of self-abusive behavior: suppressed grief. The loss that we try to shed by ignoring always finds us and ultimately imprisons us. It definitely won't be the last play I write on the subject. It's also not the first.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I'm writing four things at the same time right now. I DON'T recommend doing this. Two is the best. At least for me. It's only out of necessity that I'm writing four. I'm in grad school.
I'm working on a commission for the University of Texas Dept. of Theatre and Dance with choreographer David Justin called Br'er Wood. It's a meta-theatrical piece for kids inspired by the Joel Chandler Harris stories. It's a lot of dance and puppetry and music...hip hop meets country. That sort of thing. It's going on tour in the fall of 2010.
I'm working on another children's play called The Transition of Doodle Pequeno (that's a working title). It's about a third grade boy who wants to wear a tutu with his devil costume on Halloween. It's a pretty political piece, but a comedy nonetheless. I've been workshopping it with some fifth and sixth graders here in Austin.
I'm pretty far into a ghost-story tragedy called Easy With Me. It also takes place in the South and is told from the perspective of mentally-handicapped, dead girl from a lower middle-class family. It's told through poetic synesthesiatic language. It's a mystery that unfolds the complicated path that led to the little girl's grave. It's political and asks us to consider the consequences ignoring the need for nationalized health care.
And lastly, I'm working on my first screenplay. It's a straight up romantic comedy about a stubborn, headstrong 50-something workaholic. It's called Knowing Agnes,
And I'm going to be in Mac Wellman and David Lang's opera, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field at UT-Austin in April and May of this year.
Q: You're studying playwriting at UT Austin right now. What's that like?
A: I guess I kinda answered that in the last question. It's busy. Busy good, though. Not busy bad.
I was fortunate to receive a James A Michener fellowship to study for three years at the Michener Center for Writers at UT-Austin. I'll have an MFA when I'm done. I'm in my first year. The fellowship is amazing and I am going to leave this place spoiled rotten! The Michener Center brings in the world's best writers to teach. I'm in class with poets, fiction writers, fellow playwrights and screenwriters. It's a very interdisciplinary program. The playwriting program is headed up by Suzan Zeder. Steven Dietz and Kirk Lynn are on faculty here. There are ample production opportunities at UT. Next week, my play For Closure is being mounted by a student group on campus. And aside from all that, Austin, Texas is kick ass. SXSW is here, the Austin film festival, the live music scene is amazing (so I hear...I don't get out much when writing four plays at once). The vibe in this city is infectious. The one downside to being in Texas--my partner and the love of my life, actress and director, Jessie Dean, is getting her MFA in acting at Illinois State University. 17 hours away. Thank god for Skype. Her dad's a retiree from Delta Airlines, so we're lucky that air travel's a lot cheaper for us than most.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: I loved magicians as a little boy. At about four years old, I truly believed in magic. I had no ideas about slight of hand or the trickery involved in stage acts. I simply believed that if you possessed the magic power, then you could make anything happen. One day, I had a cup and a marble and I was playing on my grandma's front porch. I don't know where I'd seen the cup/marble trick done--probably television--but I knew its choreography back and forth. Place the cup over the marble. Utter the Abracadabra Hocus Pocus and lift the cup to reveal the marble had disappeared. I practiced over and over and of course, it didn't work. I didn't know the secret information. I decided that what I was missing was an audience. So I summoned my grandma forth. She obliged my every whim, so this was a delight for her. I placed the cup over the marble, uttered the magic words and absolutely believed in my tiny heart that the marble would be gone once I lifted the cup. I slowly lifted the cup. The marble was gone. Vanished into thin air. Man, did I feel powerful! My grandma applauded feverishly, thinking I was going to be the next David Copperfield. She told people that story for years. I HAVE NO IDEA WHERE THE MARBLE WENT!!!! I looked everywhere for it. I never found it.
So, that's my little allegory for playwriting: the only thing you need to make magic occur is an audience. That's way oversimplified, but it has a good ring to it, doesn't it? Now, I know things about my craft. I employ tools and tricks to get the results I want. But I still haven't lost that child's belief that magic can occur when you share a story or idea with a room full of people.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: The answer to this question is always changing. My aesthetic is growing.
The easy answer is: I'm excited by responsibly provocative storytelling--writing that's aware it's being absorbed in the theatre and that unashamedly embraces that fact, writing that leaves space for the audience, that challenges us to ask questions.
The most interesting answer I can give you maybe comes out of my journal from a couple weeks back.
February 12, 2010
This is what I should ask myself after I've seen a play:
"What comes forth?"
I’m not interested in being comfortable in the theatre.
The audience is the final piece of the puzzle in our creative process. Push it a step further. The conversations, those silent rides home or affable coffees consumed afterward (the artists rarely witnesses these) are the final piece of the puzzle.
Theatre is not a place for passivity.
Art is meant for the individual within the mass. It’s not meant to be passively consumed—which is the fate of all things nowadays—and disregarded like a manufactured plastic container to finding its way to sea, floating vaguely and uselessly for centuries. It’s meant to transform the individual, to get under the skin and gnaw at your bones, to ache you and to astonish the miraculous (and maybe bored) synapses firing in your brain.
Some people are offended by what isn’t easily understood. Entitlement to a legacy of questionable morality locks brainfolds and hardens hearts. This rigidity is the enemy of art. Good viable theatre keeps even the rigid folks in their seats to the end—it mixes their offense with enough intrigue so that a perfect chemical concoction explodes like 4th of July firecrackers. Observing explosions is dangerous. You could ignite. In a good play those fires are internal and last a lot longer. If someone spontaneously combusted while seeing a play, then I don’t think that writer should ever write again. Both for the safety of the consumer and also because, well…really, there’s no point thereafter.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: -First of all, I consider myself to be a writer just starting out. Everyday, new worlds open with new words, right? I think maybe I'll try to keep that perspective my whole life.
-Writing is re-writing. I have plays I wrote ten years ago that I'm still revising.
-Learn to be your best editor. I have plays that were once 98 pages long that I cut down to the quintessential, smolderingly good 10 pages that really yearned to be heard in the first place. But write the 98 page play first.
-Surround yourself with talent. Good actors, good directors, good editors, good emotionally intuitive interpreters.
-Patience with yourself is the key to your success as a writer. Writing is a lifelong pursuit. Just keep doing it everyday and take pride in every word you write. I meticulously rewrite my emails.
-I keep a a little card taped to the wall near my writing desk. It says "Impress or Empower?" It reminds me to strive to write powerful theatrical moments that will empower an audience for a lifetime, not impress them for a few minutes.
-Keep a file of your rejection letters and bad reviews. Read them once a year. Write a paragraph about how much you've learned in the past year and put it back in the folder. Have a drink afterward with a group of friends.
-Keep your body healthy. Writing is a physical endeavor, especially writing for theatre.
-Don't read plays before you experience them if you can help it. Do you read song lyrics before you listen to a new tune by your favorite musician? Theatre lives in the body. Let it be the first to experience it.
-Approach other people's plays with questions, not answers.
-Follow the advice you give to others. This one's the hardest for me.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: I think I managed to plug everything in the other responses. One day soon, I will finish my website: www.GabrielJasonDean.com