Thursday, May 20, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 173: Barton Bishop
Hometown: Tampa, FL.
Current Town: Astoria, Queens, NY.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve got a new play going up in the fall here in NYC, via the good and wonderful people at the New York Theatre Experiment. It’s called Up Up Down Down. The title’s a video game thing, a reference to the Konami cheat code from the original Nintendo days, but it’s also a reference to bipolar disorder (well, lookit that, that there works on TWO levels!). It’s about geeks and terrorism and video games and family and paranoia. And it’s a love story. It should be great!
And I recently(ish) finished a play trilogy I was working on for quite some time. That was cathartic in all sorts of ways. I originally thought they were three separate pieces, but, I’ve decided to insist that (and I may be shooting myself in the foot here..) – whatever happens, wherever, whenever, however – the plays receive their world premiere as a whole, as a trilogy, in rep.
With the initial writing of those scripts sort of wrapped up (for now), I’m tinkering away on several new projects. One is a play about a socially impossible Southern blogger, a fanboy of all things geek who finally finds the love of his life only to lose her to a small zombie uprising. So now the uprising is over, the zombies are quarantined on an island, things are back to normal, and our guy’s got her chained up in the basement and he’s trying to keep her a secret and keep her alive, hoping they find a cure. It’s a whole letting go thing, playing with how the inability to move forward after a loss can devour you and those around you. Literally. And – as of now – I’m playing with having it move back and forth between “before” and “after,” so we can see the reality of their relationship contrasted with how he’s romanticizing it now that she’s (sort of) gone, forgetting all the things that weren’t working, etc.
I’m also working on a new play about a hipster high-school music teacher who discovers her existence is an accident in the space-time continuum and that she has to be “deleted” in order to stop the universe from tearing apart. Pardon the pitchtastic way of talking about it, but I’ve been thinking of it as a kind of It’s A Wonderful Life and Our Town meets LOST thing.
So yeah... I’m hoping to have a readable draft of one of these projects wrapped up by the end of the summer.
You know, it’s the ongoing tug-of-war, though, the day jobs, the side gigs, etc, finding that balance, trying to figure out which hands to bet on… I mean – I’ve held down my financial fort for the last 7 years by adapting anime into English. I don’t speak Japanese, I get rough (and usually hysterical) translations and I rework the dialogue / adapt it. Depending on the company and the project, I sometimes end up rewriting the material entirely, tweaking the narratives, characters, backstories, changing stuff around… It’s kinda fun because I have to work with the pre-existing animation so it’s an exercise in working within strict limitations. I often say it feels like doing that New Yorker caption contest at 30 frames per second. The work has actually taught me a lot about dialogue structure. But – you know, this was one of those gigs that I fell into after grad school and I thought, “cool, I’ll do this for a while.” ….and then somehow it’s 7 years later and I’m working on what MIGHT be my 400th episode…
I’m also writing for a video game company right now, which is a geek dream come true, I won’t lie. I’m actually incredibly excited about the gig. I’ve always been passionate about the medium and where it can go. I’ve been a lifelong gamer, owned almost every console since the Atari 2600… In a lot of weird ways, I feel this deep personal connection to gaming, it’s like - We were childhood friends. We took our first baby steps together. We grew up together. We matured together (though both of our maturations are arguable). We had sex with an alien hooker while driving an Ice Cream truck 95 miles an hour against freeway traffic in order to escape the Zombie Pig Cops From Mars together. So many memories.
But – so yes – to try to bring it all back – I sometimes (and I think a lot of writers I know feel this way) find myself trying to figure out what to focus on, how to divide my creative energies, etc… You know – “in this crazy modern world of ours.”
I’ll admit it, the question “what are you working on now?” can actually send me into a neurotic panic, within seconds I’m going “I don’t KNOW! I can’t DECIDE, I don’t know WHO I AM, I don’t know what I should BE DOING!! WAAAAH! GIVE ME BEER AND ICE CREAM”
….But then I calm down and remind myself that I’m one of those people who thinks variety is a good thing. Especially for writers. It’s good to hop around, step away, come back… It’s that whole breathe in / breathe out thing. Everything can inform everything. And there’s no rush.
Did I answer the question?
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 ran away from home once. But I wasn’t allowed to cross the street, so I just wandered around my block until I got hungry. Then I went home.
Wait, no. I’m not sure I like what that says about me.
I’ll tell you another one – In fifth grade, this dickhead in my class walked up to me and said “Hey, did you know that if you put an F in front of your name, it would spell fart!?” And I informed him that, “No, actually, it would spell FBart.” The kids around us laughed. At the dickhead. It was in this moment that I realized the true power of the wit. It was great. And then the dickhead beat the hell out of me.
I had no idea what was cool when I was a kid. Here’s another story – When I was in, like, fourth grade, I committed my first theft. I stole a cassette copy of Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required album from a friend’s dad. I think I was hoping it would have “In The Air Tonight” on it. It didn’t. Either way, I thought it was the best thing ever. I even asked my mom if I could get my hair cut like Phil’s. She informed me that Phil’s “haircut” was called a receding hairline bordering on baldness and that I didn’t want that. I didn’t care, I thought Phil was a badass. He looked so intense and awesome. Fortunately, I soon went on to discover R.E.M. and Zeppelin and New Order and straightened myself out.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I would magically find a way for theatre companies to not have to rely on the failing not-for-profit model.
Oh! - ..and I’d make directors and actors and artistic directors and producers subject to ongoing talkback and feedback sessions in which me and my playwright friends (and an audience, of course, free admission!) can tell them how we think they can fix their work and better do their jobs.
No, no, I’m kidding, I’m kidding, I’m kidding! …Calm down, YOU! It was a joke!
But really – less development crap. Edward Albee once said “The best way to support a young playwright is to produce her first five plays.” That’s as true as it gets. A reading can only get you so far. But I think most plays reach that point – and I think this happens relatively early on in the process – where they need more than a reading. A play needs a director and some designers and some actors, all of whom are coming together and giving the play more than just a few quick hours trying to figure out where to put the music stands and whether or not there’s going to be bottled water. Everyone involved needs to get to know the play as intimately as the playwright knows it, to give it the same respect and consideration, and, really, to have something at stake. Just like the writer has something at stake. The best rewrites I make are the ones I make during rehearsal. Because a trust system starts to form, I don’t know – something kinetic and binding happens during rehearsal that just can’t happen in a reading. The conversation stops being “We might do this play if you make it more like this,” and it becomes “Shit, we’re ALL in this, this thing is happening, let’s do what we can to make it rock.”
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Anyone who made it happen or is making it happen or is gonna make it happen someday.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Live nude theatre!!
You know, I imagine I might’ve – at one point had a list of prerequisites. Rules For Enjoyment. I don’t know anymore, I honestly don’t. It’s on an “I know it when I experience it” basis. I will say that honesty is nice. And I tend to respond to sincerity of heart in whatever form it takes. I’m definitely a heart guy. I don’t really respond to intellectual or aesthetical exercises if there’s no heart beating at the center of it all. I feel like real heart is the one thing you can’t fake. Everything else is wallpaper.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Find a creative home. Find the people who know you and who get you and who get what you’re going for. They can’t be Yes People, though. They have to challenge you. But the most important thing is that they know you and they get you. Don’t bother too much with the people who don’t. If you do and you’re not careful, they’ll turn you into something you’re not.