Apr 17, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 147: Greg Keller
Current Town: Brooklyn
Q: Tell me about the play you have coming up with LAB:
A: It's called Dutch Masters. It's a period piece. 1992 is the period. It's inspired by a true story. Something that happened to a friend of mine in high school. It's about two young men that meet on the subway, and shortly into the conversation, one mentions he's sticking people up. And that's just the first 6 pages!
Q: What else are you up to?
A: I act too, double-threat style. I'm doing the play K2 by Patrick Meyers at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in June. And I'm writing a new play called The Millers. It's kind of groundbreaking in that it's about a family.
Q: How do you find your acting informs your playwriting and vice-versa?:
A: I like to think my plays are enjoyable for actors to perform. I also like to think they're enjoyable for audiences to watch, but perhaps you've heard otherwise. (Rimshot!). I mean I know the lessons I should be learning from being an actor. Things like, plays should be playable. What's fun for an actor is getting to do something onstage. Not just say things, but pursue something with language. But instead I like to write talky, inactive scenes and rationalize them by saying the characters are pursuing something internal.
To answer that less stupidly, an impactful experience for me as an actor was while I was a non-speaking waiter and understudy in a Shaw play (You Never Can Tell) when I first got out of undergrad. As an opening night gift, one of the actors got a leather-bound manuscript version of the play, with Shaw's notes and corrections and bad crossed-out jokes rewritten in the margins. This blew my mind. Up until that point I had a tendency to think those canonical works just sort of descended from the heavens. "You can't cross out lines from a Shaw play, that's a Shaw play." It reminded me that Shaw is just a guy named Bernie who wants his play to be funny. And that plays aren't meant to be worshipped, they're meant to be irreverently brought to life. I think in both my writing and acting I hope to eschew a kind of preciousness. As Robert Bresson once said, "Don't run after poetry, it seeps unaided through the joins" (I know two quotes and that is one of them. The other is Marx: "The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living")
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person:
A: In New York, there are these after-school sports clubs for kids that pick you up in a van and take you to where there's grass. On my van, there were a couple kids, like Josh Shermer and Sebastian, who would talk about having sex with their pillows and giving their stuffed animals blowjobs. We're all about 8 years old, by the way. All I could picture was a hairdryer, and combing out my Leo the Lion's mane. So that night at dinner I asked at the table, "What's a blowjob?" My dad said "Look up 'fellatio' in the dictionary". I excused myself from the table and found the definition. "Oral stimulation of the penis". I came back into the dining room and said, "You mean they talk to it?" I don't know what that means about me as a writer but I think it's a funny story.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?:
A: It would be affordable. Both to do and to see.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I'm pretty peripatetic in my tastes. Sometimes I like theater to excite me, but sometimes I like theater that calms me. I like theater that reveals complexity and makes me feel small and sublimely melancholy, but I also like theater that reflects my understanding of the world, and makes me feel all warm inside. I like laughing and crying and thinking and being surprised. I remember in NTUSA's Chautauqua last year when all of a sudden a 30 person dance number broke out to George Benson's "On Broadway", it made me do all those things at once. I like stuff like that but I also love Harley Granville Barker plays and The Starry Messenger where people sit in chairs and talk for three hours.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Read plays. Go see plays. Get involved with a company that put on a play you really like. Chances are you'll share tastes with those people and there will be people there that you'll end up collaborating with in the future. It's very important in this bumpy artistic career to have a supportive home that can sustain and inspire you. It's easy to feel like you're on the outside in this biz, so cultivate a place where you're on the inside.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Go see Dutch Masters at The Cherry Pit. May 14-30. http://www.labtheater.org/onstage/lsdp.html