Jun 2, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 185: Matthew Lopez
Hometown: Panama City, FL
Current Town: Brooklyn, NY
Q: Tell me about the play The Whipping Man.
A: The Whipping Man focuses on the period immediately following the surrender at Appomattox, which ended the Civil War and effectively freed all the rest of the slaves still being held in southern states. I’ve long been fascinated with the idea that history is made up of more than just great, calamitous events; it is also the quiet moments (which, in truth, are never all that quiet) between the big events in which life is allowed to return to normal. There was no event more calamitous in American history than the Civil War and slavery. How can you be a slave all your life and then suddenly be presented with freedom? How do you make that shift? Is it sudden or gradual? What if you were forced to make that shift in the presence of your former master? How do you react to him? Layered on top of these questions is the fact that Passover began the day after the surrender, which means that while American Jews were celebrating this ancient observance of the Exodus from Egypt, a new kind of exodus was happening around them. I imagined a Jewish slave owning family (such families did exist) and their slaves who have, over time, adopted the religion. Hopefully it causes audiences to question the meaning of freedom and personal responsibility, both in their own lives and as citizens.
The play started as a twenty minute one-act about ten years ago. It has since grown and developed over time to the play it is today. I’m very lucky it’s had so many lives over the years. It premiered in 2006 at Luna Stage in Montclair, NJ and has had several productions since. It’s currently being produced at the Old Globe in San Diego and is about to open at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires. On any given night between now and June 13, two very different casts in two very different productions are doing my play for two very different audiences. I'm a very lucky writer.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I was recently named Playwright-in-Residence at the Old Globe which includes a commission so I’m starting to think about what I’m going to write for them. I have a reading of my play Zoey’s Perfect Wedding at Ars Nova in July, directed by Stephen Brackett. In October, I’ll be doing a workshop of my play Tio Pepe for the Globe with Giovanna Sardelli, who directed The Whipping Man.
I’m also starting to work on a couple of musical projects, which is really exciting for me as I am such a musical theatre junkie. It’s like a tweaker getting to work in a meth lab. I can’t wait!
Q: You and I have the same agent. Isn't Seth the bomb?
Seth is not only the best agent in the business, he’s also the tallest, which is good because he can simply crush anyone who gets in your way.
Seriously, though, Seth has been my agent for almost four years and he is the author of so many wonderful opportunities for me. I’ve never had another agent but I cannot imagine one who works harder or cares more about his clients than Seth. (There…that ought to bump me up a few slots in the “favorite client” list. I’m gunning for Rajiv’s spot.)
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I don’t have a type of theatre I prefer over another. I just crave honesty in storytelling and character development. I simply want to believe what I’m being told. Even if it’s a lie, I want to believe it. When you work in the business, it’s often very difficult to turn the critical part of your brain off and simply enjoy the experience as an experience. Annie Baker allows me to do that and I am grateful to her for that. Her worlds are so whole and nourishing.
I also love theatre that is unafraid to be emotional and to illicit an emotional response. I love nothing more than to cry. I’m not talking about manipulation. That, I cannot stand, especially in theatre. But I love to feel as much as I love to think. I feel in some ways we’ve moved too far away from that, as if it were something to be afraid of. As if targeting emotion was a cynical endeavor. I expect theatre to be intelligent. Intelligence is sort of a given. I also want emotion, feeling. That’s difficult to do well, to do honestly. And that’s what excites me.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: When I first moved to New York, I got a copy of the Theatrical Index and I wrote a letter to everyone who was listed in it, offering myself up as an unpaid intern, a barely-paid assistant, whatever. I was willing to sell candy in the lobby if it meant working in theatre. I must have sent close to 150 letters. Only one person responded: Hal Prince. Not only did he respond, he invited me to meet with him in his office. I, of course, leapt at the offer. We met for an hour (!) and he asked me what I wanted to do with my career and gave me a ridiculous amount of sage advice. He then hooked me up with a job assisting Terrence McNally on a two-week workshop of the musical he wrote with Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, A Man of No Importance. I learned more in those two weeks than I had in all my time in New York up until then. In exchange for my services, Terrence agreed to read one of my plays. That was the bargain we struck. I remember hand-delivering it to his doorman down on lower 5th Avenue, very nervous. A few days later, I got a voicemail from him saying, “I read your play. I think it’s quite impressive. Congratulations, Matthew. You are a real writer.” That play eventually became The Whipping Man.
I have a lot of theatrical heroes, most of whom you wouldn’t be surprised to hear on any playwright’s list. But the generosity of time and spirit that Hal Prince, Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty and Joe Mantello showed to me during that period made them my heroes.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Get a copy of the Theatrical Index. Write 150 letters.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: The Whipping Man is currently running at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego (http://www.theoldglobe.org/tickets/production.aspx?PID=7522) and Barrington Stage (http://www.barringtonstageco.org/currentseason/index-detail.php?record=84), both running until June 13.