May 28, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 181: Rob Ackerman
Hometown: Columbus, Ohio.
Current Town: Upper West Side, Manhattan
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A short play called RAW HEAT, a new musical called VOLLEYGIRLS, and a dramatic memoir called THROWING GUMBALLS. Just finished a new draft of CALL ME WALDO, a play about an electrician who becomes possessed by the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Q: Can you talk about dropping gumballs on Luke Wilson?
A: It's one of things I had to do at work this year. I earn a living as a union prop master, a film craftsman, and I devote many hours to TV commercials. It’s a good job. I like the crew people, and the work is intense yet sporadic, so it allows me time to write. This year AT&T made a whole series of commercials, and for one of them, my colleague Paul Kineke and I had to drop hundreds of big red gumballs onto Luke Wilson, again and again. We do that sort of thing all the time, but this job grew into a play. Plays are just transmuted pain.
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 four years old, all I wanted for my birthday was a Flintstones lunchbox, and I insisted that I wanted that and only that, nothing else, just the lunchbox. I was too young to go to school, so the Flintstones lunchbox would serve no purpose whatsoever. I knew the classic stamped steel container would include a little themos for beverages tucked beneath a spring-loaded clip. That was cool.
When my birthday came and there was only one gift, it turned out to be a Flintstones lunchbox, and I was astonished. Couldn't believe it. Hadn't thought it was possible. My mom made a sandwich and poured milk into the thermos, and I took the lunchbox into the dining room, sat on the floor, and feasted alone beneath the table, studying cartoon artwork. I was impossibly happy.
For me, having a career in theatre is like getting that lunchbox. I really hoped it was possible, but never thought I could be so lucky. I’m still amazed and grateful.
Q; Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: The first great stage production I saw was Shakespeare's AS YOU LIKE IT in Stratford, Ontario, with Maggie Smith and Brian Bedford. I had no idea theatre could be that good. My first acting opportunity was in A THURBER CARNIVAL. I had no idea writing could be that good.
I played Tobias in A DELICATE BALANCE, which taught me the wonder of Albee. Helped build sets for Steven Sondhiem’s COMPANY and learned every crystalline lyric and melodic line. Got to play the boy opposite Amanda Plummer in THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED by Tennessee Williams, an indelible experience. Directed THE LEARNED LADIES, which proved to me that Moliere ranks among the greatest dramatic craftsmen ever, along with Noel Coward, who took a few pages from his playbook. Staged THE GONDOLIERS, a lucky way to appreciate the art of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Then, when I saw A.R. Gurney's THE DINING ROOM, it felt like it had been written specifically for and about me. Pete Gurney later became my mentor and friend, and that’s a blessing I still can hardly fathom. When I first heard a snippet of Theresa Rebeck's THE WATER'S EDGE in a workshop at the Lark, I had that same feeling of falling in love. Theresa’s generosity has helped keep me afloat for years. I have a lot of heroes.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I'm thrilled by the ineffable-- Lindsay Kemp, Andre Gregory, Mary Zimmerman, Simon McBurney, Julie Taymor. They’ve all created works of genius that I'll never forget. The production of LONG DAY’S JOURNEY with Robert Sean Leonard. THE SEAGULL with Kristin Scott Thomas, HEDDA GABLER with Kate Burton in the wake of 9/11. Lois Smith in A TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL. Lin Manuel Miranda in IN THE HEIGHTS. When theatre is at its best, there’s nothing better.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Love and you shall be loved. Emerson said that. He was right. You have to be willing to give yourself over to plays if you want people to do the same for you. Go to plays, and read plays, lots of plays. The other day, I heard Bill Clinton give a speech to graduating seniors. He told them that critics mauled Washington and Lincoln in their times, and nobody remembers the naysayers. They remember builders, people who took risks and dared to do difficult things. Nothing's more difficult than writing a play. You're gonna crash and burn again and again. Might as well get started.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Flux Theatre Ensemble. That's where I first met you, Adam. Your writing blew me away. And you didn't want to hear how moved I was by your words, but I freaking forced you to listen. Flux Artistic Director, Gus Schulenberg, is a god on earth. He's also a great curator of new work. That's why he picked your play, PRETTY THEFT. Gus and Flux rescued me from the scrap heap. I'm forever in their debt.
The Lark Play Development Center. John Eisner and his beautiful company have supported me, year after year, play after play, regardless of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
The Working Theater. Mark Plesent has the perfect surname-- he's a great gentleman of theater-- and he and Robert Arcaro and Connie Grappo have pursued a noble mission for 25 years. Love them all.
Craig Slaight and ACT in San Francisco-- the only theatre that's given me a paid commission, and it meant the world.
Hal Prince, my first boss in NYC. The man is still a beacon.