Friday, April 30, 2010

I Interview Playwrights Part 160: Craig Pospisil

Craig Pospisil

Hometown: New York

Current Town: New York. I'm a born-and-bred New Yorker and I love it here, through and through.

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I'm working on a commission for a musical comedy called DOT COMET, which is about the Dot Com boom of the late 90s. Mike Ogborn, who wrote BABY CASE and CAFE PUTANESCA, is writing the music and lyrics, and I'm writing the book. Mike's a great composer, and I love his music. It's really varied and smart. He lives here in New York, but he works a lot in Philadelphia, and he just won his second Barrymore award. We just had a reading of the first draft of the show down in DC at the Wooly Mammoth, which good to hear. It really showed us what aspect of the script were going in the right direction, and what areas we need to dive back into and re-work.

I'm also doing some work on a new musical I've had kicking around in my head for a while. This past winter I challenged myself to write a scene a day before going to work, and ended up with a first draft in two weeks. Then I put it aside for a while and now I'm doing some revisions before I show it to one or two composers I have in mind to find someone who wants to come on board. I also recently wrote a short play inspired by a Tennesee Williams poem for Blue Roses Theatre Company. We had a reading of that last month here in New York, and they're looking at a production for all the short plays they comissioned.

Q:  You work for DPS. Has working for a play publisher affected the way you write plays or think about theater?

A:  Yes, absolutely. Working at Dramatists hasn't changed what I write, but understanding the various theater markets is definitely a tool I use when I'm working. It makes me look at the style of the play or the type of story I'm telling, and forces me to ask myself some questions. For instance my play MONTHS ON END has ten characters, making it pretty large by today's standards - especially for professional companies. So I looked long and hard at the play to determine if I really needed all those people. In the end I felt that the story I was telling did need them, but I knew it might limit some options for the play. It premiered at Purple Rose and had a couple of small pro productions, but it's had more than 60 nonprofessional productions in the last six years. There have been other plays where I have deliberately kept things simpler, knowing that it would allow the possibility for a play to be produced with a small budget as well as a larger one.

I see so many plays for work that I'm always analysing them for both artistic merit and how commercial they might be. There are many plays and playwrights, for example, who are well respected and keep getting work here in New York that the rest of the country laregly ignores. Conversely there's a lot of theater going on elsewhere that gets produced by professional and nonprofessional theater groups of all kinds that never finds its way to the city.

Q:  I think I met you through the A Train plays. Is that still happening? Can you explain to my readers what that is?

A:  theAtrainplays is a 24 hour theater project/company that was conceived by Larry Feeney, and further developed by me, David Riedy (a terrific writer), Drew Donavan and Michael Pemberton. What makes it different from other 24 hour groups is that every piece is set in the subway, and all the plays and musicals are written while riding the A train from one end of the line, 207th Street, to the other in Far Rockaway. That's a trip of less than two hours. We'd have six writers, and the production style is bare bones, no lighting or sound cues. Each play starts with the characters entering and ends with them leaving. So for the audience it's like taking a ride on the train and seeing all these different stories.

And on top of that we threw pure chance into the equation. Before getting on the train every playwright pulls a number from a bag, 2 - 4, and that's the number of characters you have in your play. Then you pull that many headshots of actors at random from another bag, and that's your cast. So you can't pre-plan anything. You might have an idea for something, but you're likely to pull a number of characters or actors that make that idea impossible. That happened to me once. I had this idea for a two character piece with a man and woman, and I pulled four actors, three women and one man. And I totally froze for the first several stops of the train, my mind was so fixed on my first idea, despite the fact that I couldn't use it. Until I approached it from completely different angle, and ended up with my play IT'S NOT YOU, which has gone on to be produced almost 70 times now around the US, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Hong Kong, Germany and Samoa, and translated into Mandarin, French and Danish.

theAtrainplays was a real pressure cooker, and the more we did it the harder it got because we were always trying to do something we hadn't done before. There was some really fun and healthy competition between us too, which pushed us all to really shine. And we always tried to change things. The first time was something of a lark, to see if we could do it. The second time we actually produced two separate nights, while the first show was going up, another group was on the train writing something for the following night. The next time we did musicals, writing the book one way on the train, and songs on the trip back. The next time we rode the Staten Island Ferry and did two shows, plays the first night and musicals the second. Then we started to extend the runs, and on like that. After a couple of years, we produced a best of, theAtrain(re)plays, at the Peter Sharp Theatre at Playwrights, and it was really hard to choose between all the plays. As of today, I think we produced close to 150 short plays and musicals. Playscripts Inc. came to one of our early shows and loved it, and they now publish two volumes of theAtrainplays, which have had good sales and productions.

In the first three years we did probably 15 separate volumes of the show, and that was a really fantastic time. We had a really strong company of writers, actors and directors. I met some amazing people, and we all still work together of each others shows all the time. It got really expensive to produce, though, and so we had to scale back and so in the last few years the shows have all been done as benefits. We did three of them at New World Stages for the Off-Broadway Brainstormers. The last show we did was a little over a year ago, and it was in Los Angeles actually! Larry had moved out there, and I picked five other writers and the six of us rode the train and did our writing, and then we emailed the scripts to Los Angeles, where they were done the next night. I'm sure there will be another one eventually - especially since Larry just moved back to New York. So if you see someone hunched over a pad of paper or a laptop on the A train, sweating and furiously writing . . . give them some space.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  The funny thing is that both of my parents are writers, but I never thought about doing it myself. I grew up wanting to act. Literally from the time I was in kindergarten that's what I wanted to do. And I acted all through high school and college, and didn't really do any creative writing until my senior year at Wesleyan when I wrote and directed a play as my thesis project. And that was a great experience and the play really poured out of me, but I didn't see it as a turning point. I came back to New York after college and started doing showcases, and spent a while finding an actor teacher I really liked, but when he went on vaction for the summer I decided to take a scene writing class at HB Studios. There I had to write something new every week, and I was literally walking home one day when the thought popped into my head "I'm a storyteller." And I turned all my attention to writing, and went to New York University's Dramatic Writing Department for my masters, and I've never looked back. (Although I do still act from time to time, and I think acting was one of the most important learning tools that a playwright can have.)

There's one story, though, from when I was very young. Virginia Hamilton, a pretty well known young adult fiction writer, lived in my building, and her daughter was my age and we played together a lot. She took us to the park one day and I apparently told her about this broken piece of sidewalk along the street, and how you could stand on it and rock back and forth, and I showed it to her when we got there. When my mother collected me later, Hamilton told her that she thought I would grow up to be a writer because of how observant I was of details like that and the way I told her about the broken sidewalk.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Most of the writers whose work I really admire are completely different from my own work, which is mostly comedic. Eugene O'Neill, for example. I find his attention to detail amazing. And there was a ten year period where I re-read WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? every year because it always took me on such a journey. I think David Ives is brilliant. Richard Greenberg's THREE DAYS OF RAIN is an amazing play. And this last season I really liked Annie Baker's CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION. I think Tom Stoppard is one of the smartest playwrights I've ever seen or read. He was one of my best celebrity sightings ever in New York. I was seeing PROOF, and at intermission Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick were at the back of the house, and everyone was staring and pointing, and I did my best New-York-seen-it-all attitude, but when I got back to my seat I turned around and virutally lost it because I saw Stoppard just ten feet away. And no one else knew who he was.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I'm pretty simple about this: I like a good story that's well told. It's not any one style of theater - I like absurdist plays, naturalism, farce, musicals, whatever - but want a story and characters that I get to see develop, a stuggle for something that gets fleshed out. A play that fully inhabits its own world and rules. I really don't care about theater that's trying to be shocking. I find that to be pretty boring, but I very much want to be surprised. I love a story that seems to be going in one direction, but then turns another way and makes you really sit up and pay attention.

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

A:  Be stubborn. Unless you are tremendously lucky early on, you will have to provide a lot of your own motivation and affirmation. You will get plays back in the mail. You may not get that fellowship, etc. But be stubborn and keep writing, because it's a big world and you will find people who respond to your work, and it can grow from there.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  I would put in a plug for my play SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN, which is scheduled to open the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Alaska next month, but I just got an email from the director saying the lead actor has come down with shingles and the lead actress has never had chicken pox, and could be infected by any skin-to-skin contact. It's pretty hard to have a romantic comedy where your leads can't touch, much less kiss. So, I have no idea how we're going to get around that. Ah, the theater!

A new collection of my short plays, CHOOSING SIDES, came out last fall, and the plays in that are getting done. Plus I edited two new collections of monologues books, OUTSTANDING MEN'S and OUTSTANDING WOMEN'S MONOLOGUES, Vol. II, that just got published by DPS this month.

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