Friday, April 16, 2010

I Interview Playwrights Part 146: Les Hunter


Les Hunter

Hometown: Tucson, Arizona.

Current Town: Jackson Heights, in Queens, New York.

Q:  Tell me about 167 tongues. How did this collaboration work?

A:  Ari Laura Kreith, our director, wanted to have an open developmental process on a new piece about her neighborhood, Jackson Heights, which is the most diverse neighborhood in the world. The name 167 TONGUES is taken from the number of languages spoken here.
 
Ari got together a group of 11 exciting playwrights (including Jenny Lyn Bader, Jennifer Gibbs, Rehana Mirza, Jeffrey Solomon, and Stefanie Zadravec, among others) that represent a broad range of voices. Some of us, like me, live in the area, while others were new to it. All of us went through a kind of crash course in Jackson Heights: we walked around, we talked to locals, and we were given a historical presentation by our dramaturg, Angie Balsamo. Then we drew a large map of the neighborhood and imagined characters that would inhabit this world. For me, this was easy, I know the characters that inhabit Jackson Heights. I told them about my neighbors: like the head of the co-op board in my building who only will let you live here if you profess a love for animals and compliment her Chihuahua, and the Eastern-European bookseller who lives in his van. With Ari and Angie’s help, we writers came up with a long list of other characters, then we went home and wrote scenes about them.
 
Later we came back and to workshop the scenes, and started to find interesting points of connection. If two people used the same character, we discovered which scenes would go first, and why. Then we rewrote. Then we came back together, talked, and rewrote again. Later, when actors started showing up, we did more rewrites based on their feedback. The result is something very collaborative and, I think, quite original. The final piece will involve interwoven continuous narratives with street scenes, movement, and found sounds.

Q:  What else are you working on?

A:  I’m working on a musical for the first time. It’s been exciting because I’m working with the composer Ben Morss who is a great musician just full of ideas, though it’s been a steep learning curve trying to understand the way musicals work.
 
Q:  Tell me about Brooklyn Playwrights Collective.

A:  BPC is a Brooklyn-based, playwright-centered project that some friends and I started five years ago to workshop, develop, and occasionally produce new plays. The group has an open format, anyone can come and workshop their play. It’s kind of like the AYSO of playwriting (“everyone plays”). Not everyone, however, gets to produce work with BPC. There’s a little bit of a socialist model at work here: the more work you put in to the group the more production you get out of it.
 
For the last few years, BPC’s major production event has been an annual festival of new plays that each year responds to a different theater practitioner. The person that we write new works in response to is picked in alphabetical order. So the first year we wrote new short plays responding to Artaud, and we called it “Cruel and Unusual.” The next year we produced “Beyond Brecht,” followed by “Confronting Chekhov.” This year BPC’s festival was called “Dramatizing Dante,” which I unfortunately didn’t get to take part in.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
 
A:  When I was a sixteen I went to go see Angels in America at Centennial Hall, the performing arts center at the University of Arizona. I was mesmerized; I loved it. I walked out a different person. I wanted more. Unfortunately, tickets were sold out for the only performance of part two the next day. Desperate, I managed to sneak my way in by assertively walking past the ticket taker—I tried to look like I belonged there—and it worked.
 
Not only was the experience of seeing Angels my “ah ha!” theater moment, when I decided I wanted to work in the theater, but the act of weaseling my way in served as one of my first lessons in the theater. My first few years of writing no one would produce my work, so I did it myself. I still do lots of leg work for my own shows. I’ve had to follow the model I established by sneaking into Angels when I was sixteen: if I can’t get in the old fashioned way, I take matters into my own hands.
 
Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
 
A:  The single biggest issue in theater is its slow, general decline in popularity as an art form. For example, it’s terrible that The Ohio Theatre is closing, that’s an important playhouse that supports amazing new work. I don’t know what’s to be done about the decline that we’ve seen. So much of it has to do with new technologies and shifts in the way people take in information. I’m excited by a lot of the ways that people use technology in theater, but I think we need to remember what makes theater theater: the immediacy of the actor in the presence of the audience.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you

A:  I love words and language, so heighted language plays are exciting for me. I also like theater that’s aware of it’s own theatricality. It’s important to me that a piece has a reason to be theater, and not television or some other genre. Will Eno’s work, for instance, amazes me.

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

A:  Read your blog’s tips on “Advice for Playwrights Starting Out.” Subscribe to “The Loop.” Find some friends who will help you put up your work. You may have to put up their work too, in the process.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  I’m really excited to see Erin Browne’s TRYING at Bushwick Starr and Gary Winter’s COOLER at The Chocolate Factory.

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