May 10, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 166: Johnna Adams
Hometown: Austin, TX
Current Town: Astoria, NY
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have several plays jockeying around in my head, vying for attention. The one that is actually getting written at the moment is a two-person 90 minute play that I am tentatively calling Nurture. It is my first boy-meets-girl kind of script, although my boy and my girl are so seriously screwed up, it is also a satire and black comedy—not at all a (shudder) romance. In addition to that I have an ambitious idea for another verse play (a companion piece to my rhyming verse play Lickspittles, Buttonholers and Damned Pernicious Go-Betweens) taking place in England over the course of a wacky Regency-area house party. Seven women all trying marry one man. A sex-farce in rhyme. I also have three prequel play to the Angel Eaters trilogy in my head, a West Texas tragedy set in the 1950s, and a tentative plan to develop a script about the eighteenth century Bluestocking Circle with my friend, dramaturg Kay Mitchell.
Q: You moved from LA to NYC not too long ago. How is the theater different there on the West Coast?
A: Surprisingly, the companies I worked with (mainly in Orange County) are similar to off-off New York companies in quality of work. There are some wonderful storefront theaters that I was privileged to work with back there. The main difference is that there are a lot more small companies in New York. No theaters out in LA are formed by playwrights looking to produce their own plays, either. They are almost exclusively formed by actors looking to showcase for industry, or just in it for the love of theater. The 99 seat contract that the LA theaters work under is more generous to producers than the showcase contracts. While actors are looking to use theater as a spring board to film and TV industry success, playwrights don’t have any real expectations of their plays moving on to bigger productions any where. Some playwrights hope to have things optioned for film—but not moved on to New York. Having even a really small off-off production of a ten minute play in New York is considered a very big deal by most playwrights in California. Most playwrights send their plays out to contests and query large theaters, something that I don’t see most New York playwrights doing.
Q: Isn't Flux great? Can you tell me about the trilogy of yours they did in rep?
A: Flux is beyond great. Flux is the most generous, open-hearted and supportive group of people on the planet. The trilogy was a once-in-a-lifetime, beyond my wildest dreams adventure. I am still amazed that they tackled the project and pulled it off so beautifully. It was a miracle to me. I am still, however, apologizing to everyone I meet for the third play, 8 Little Antichrists. I still think it had some great ideas in it that I am proud of, but it was a hot mess. I am so happy that Gus got nominated for an IT award for his fantastic work as Ezekiel in that play, though. That made it all feel worth it. I loved getting to write in such an epic scope and hope to write more plays in what I am consider a cycle instead of a trilogy now.
Q: How many trilogies of plays have you written? Do you set out to write a trilogy or does one play just lead to the next?
A: I have written three trilogies, Angel Eaters probably holds us the best. My plays Cockfighters, Tumblewings and Godsbreath are all part of a trilogy I call The Cockfighters Trilogy. That had a reading in Los Angeles a few years ago by Bootleg Theater, but production plans were scrapped because, again, the third play was a hot mess. In that trilogy, Cockfighters and Tumblewings are two unrelated plays that are linked together by the third play. It is very much a precursor to Angel Eaters and deals with same themes. And I have a trilogy that is so old, the first play was written on a Brothers electric typewriter in the early nineties and I no longer have a copy of it. It was a family saga about a family dealing with murder and alien invasion. In a departure from the later trilogies, the third play was the only producible play, The Miracle of Mary Mack’s Baby—which has been produced twice by STAGEStheatre in Fullerton, CA.
Q; Tell me a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: Just like in my play Rattlers, the undertaker who prepared my mother’s body for burial was in love with her when they were children. And I really do have a second cousin named Snake who takes visitors on tours of rattlesnake nests and participates in rattlesnake rodeos. I visited him when I was 16 and got to touch rattlesnakes. He gave me a box of rattles he had cut off the snakes to take home. The entire cab of his pickup truck was lined with snake skin. He used to throw a live rattlesnake into his pickup when he parked It somewhere and called it his car alarm. Recently someone he took out on a tour got bitten and died (I think of a heart attack). Rattlers, scarily enough, is actually my most autobiographical play.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Theater that makes me laugh a lot and then unexpectedly cry. Theater where you can feel the air leave the room for a minute as the audience holds their breath.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Think quantity over quality. Too many playwrights get bogged down trying to make their early plays wonderful plays. My first six plays (not even including the two lousy full length screenplays I wrote early on) were complete crap. That is eight full length works that were learning scripts. I know that is completely disheartening for a new playwright. But they can take some comfort in the fact that I was a really slow learner and they can undoubtedly improve on that learning curve. However, you have to take an honest look at your early plays and not be disheartened if they disappoint you. Move on. It takes time to get your playwriting to come from your subconscious and for your fingertips to understand your plays as well as your imaginations. Your imagination is inert, but your fingers are agile little workers. Fingers actually do things, fantasies don’t. Your plays live there, not in your head.
Q: Any plugs?
A: I am acting in Gus Schulenburg’s Jacob’s House. A beautiful, rich, biblically-scoped retelling of the story of Jacob. I play patriarch Isaac on his deathbed and young Tamar cleaning a toilet. Gus is a playwright everybody should pay full attention to. Go see it (http://www.fluxtheatre.org/). And I am starting grad school in August, studying with Tina Howe at Hunters College toward an MFA in playwriting. That is going to be a dream come true. I have loved her writing for years. And she is unbelievably kind and nurturing. I had dinner with her and my future MFA classmates (Holly Hepp-Galvan, Chris Weikel and Callie Kimball) last night and she has a brilliant theatrical aesthetic, amazing life experience, and a warm, caring heart. I can’t wait.