Jun 4, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 187: Steven Levenson
Hometown: Bethesda, Maryland
Current Town: Brooklyn, New York
Q: Tell me about Seven Minutes in Heaven.
A: Seven Minutes In Heaven began a little over a year ago as a conversation between director Adrienne Campbell-Holt and me. Adrienne came to me in the spring of 2009 and asked if I wanted to work on something together. The only ideas she had in mind were that it would somehow involve both dance and the eighties prom classic “Forever Young” by Alphaville, and it would not be a play, strictly speaking. I was in the midst of writing first drafts of two commissions, and I was feeling a bit terrified and overwhelmed by the need to make these Important Plays, Theater with a capital T, that sort of thing; the idea of working on something fun and quick and with minimal pressure sounded like an incredible gift. In figuring out what we wanted to do, and guided by those haunting synths of Alphaville, Adrienne and I soon landed on our shared obsession with adolescence, the dizzying commingling of euphoria and dread that suffuses that strange almost-decade tucked somewhere between 12 and 20. We wanted to make something that would capture the feeling of these years in a way that was kinetic and theatrical and sad and strange.
From these initial conversations, what has since emerged in the last year and change is Seven Minutes In Heaven, which is what I guess you could call a sort-of play. It tells the very loose story of a freshman party in 1995 and, while it happens more or less in real time, it also pushes against the constraints of naturalism and occasionally breaks off into something very different. It has a central narrative, recognizable characters, conflict, and all those good things, but at the same time it sacrifices the sense of completeness and coherence of traditional dramatic structure in favor of more of a snapshot approach. The intention—which hopefully our production achieves—is to get at the core feeling inside the experience of being a teenager, to allow the audience directly into that experience.
For me, what is so compelling about teenagers and stories about teenagers is the fact that the stakes at which they live their lives could not be higher. It’s like life in a foxhole with enemy artillery exploding all around you. Every phone call, every run-in in the hallway can mean life or death. But then at the same time, looking back at our own adolescence, we realize just how low the stakes actually were. In this disconnect between the characters’ feelings and our understanding of their feelings, there’s a lot of room obviously for humor and irony. But there’s also, I think, a tremendous sadness and tenderness and even beauty in the sheer ephemerality of it all—the knowledge that the people we once were, the people we once loved, the feelings we once felt to the deepest core of ourselves—all of it vanishes, time heals everything. And that’s at once incredibly comforting and incredibly painful.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a few commissions, in varying stages of unfinished, for Roundabout, Lincoln Center, and Ars Nova. Also I’ve been teaching intermittently at a private school in Connecticut, Greenwich Academy, where I’ve done some workshops in playwriting. They commissioned me to write a play a few months ago for their students to perform this summer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The play I’ve written is called Retreat, and it’s about the birth of psychoanalysis in turn-of-the-century America. The commission has been a great and unusual opportunity, in that I had to write at least 8 characters, a number usually prohibitively high in New York theater. I have 11 right now. I had a reading of it at MTC for their Seven @ Seven series a few weeks ago, and I have to say it was pretty thrilling to walk into a room of 11 actors. I also just finished my first television pilot, which I co-wrote with Evan Cabnet.
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 twelve I rented the movie The Godfather, which was a coup in and of itself, as I spent an inordinate amount of time in my youth pleading with my parents to let me watch R-rated movies. I became immediately, irrevocably obsessed with all things Mafia-related, and from The Godfather I proceeded to watch every single movie even tangentially connected to Italian-American organized crime. From movies, it went to books, like Sammy “the Bull” Gravano’s memoirs, which I owned in hardcover and may or may not have bought the day it was released. I started to dress like Robert DeNiro in Goodfellas, which is to say I mostly resembled a Florida retiree, with garish floral Hawaiian shirts, open-necked velour zip-ups (I’m sadly not kidding), and a chunky gold Jewish star necklace, which I secretly wished was a crucifix. When my family visited New York, I begged my parents, to no avail, to take my siblings and me to overpriced Spark’s Steakhouse in Midtown, because this was the spot where John Gotti had former Gambino boss Paul Castellano bumped off, natch. I should also add that around this time I wrote a “novella,” more accurately described as a 15-page collection of bad words and machine guns, called Decappa, about—what else?—a mob boss down on his luck and hungry for revenge.
Cut to a year or so later, and I could not care less about the Mafia. My new obsession was, and I cringe when I write this I assure you: Buddhism (and yes, ok, maybe also Beat poetry). And the cycle began once again: I read all the books, watched all the movies, burned incense in my bedroom, meditated on my own mortality, the works. This proclivity to become obsessed with something, the need to accrue an unnecessary, encyclopedic amount of knowledge on a given topic, to overdose on information—this is, I’ve begun to realize, how I write plays as well. I have to fall in love, immoderately, with an idea or an image or a character or preferably all three, and it’s this obsession, this infatuation that fuels the writing.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: It’s tricky because so many of the deficiencies in institutional theater today reflect, I think, much deeper problems in our society as a whole. Starting with the obvious, it’s criminal that artists don’t have health care—but it’s equally criminal for anyone not to have health care in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. We can then go on to lament the fact that so few artists can make a living doing what they do, but again we’re back at the larger problem of a country where wages for the vast majority of people have stagnated or declined in the last forty years. The thing that clearly looms over so many, if not all, issues in American theater today—from audience diversity to scarcity of production opportunities to the question of subsidiary rights—is funding, pure and simple. There’s just not enough money in theater and this reflects a society where the arts are not valued, where everything must be “monetized” to matter, where theaters have become—out of necessity—incredibly risk-averse, petrified of losing funding or subscribers or both. That’s why I can’t really get behind blaming the supposed fecklessness of theater producers, whom I think are actually on the whole far more adventurous and aesthetically ambitious than they’re generally given credit for. I wish I knew how to change all of this, but I will be the first to admit that I don’t. I do believe, though, that what we are looking at are systemic problems, deep-seated societal contradictions, and that we as theater artists need to be engaged with the world beyond us, because that’s where the real fight is going on. When state and local budgets for education, the arts, health care, childcare, etc. are being slashed nationwide, we as artists have a unique role to play in the overdue conversation of just what our society’s priorities are.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Paula Vogel, who took me to coffee my senior year of college, weeks before I was graduating with no idea what to do next, and told me over some Providence chai, “if you want to do this, you can.” Few words have had such an impact on my life. Paula is the most passionate, most determined and tireless advocate for new writers and new plays that I know, besides being a brilliant writer and the Platonic ideal of Teacher. Another hero is Caryl Churchill, who writes with such a simple, elegant theatricality, and whose work is always engaged seriously with the world without ever lapsing into agit-prop, and without ever losing a sense of wonder. Sarah Ruhl, whose plays first made me want to write plays. Also, just in general, I am constantly in awe of actors, who always humble me with their talent, their generosity, and their fearlessness.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I feel like so much media today is about tuning out, withdrawing into yourself. For instance, the idea of watching TV on your phone on the subway is still sort of staggering to me. Or I catch myself when I’m walking down the street and I absently put on my iPod; I’m neither fully listening to music nor fully walking down the street, I’m in this middle place where the only thing I’m really involved in is myself. I’m excited by theater that pulls me out of this tendency and forces me to be there, in this room, with these people around me, experiencing this thing together. You can’t curl up alone with your laptop and fall asleep while watching, say, an Adam Bock play, the way you can with even an excellent 30 Rock episode. There’s a sociologist named Bert States who wrote this phenomenal book about theater called Great Reckonings In Little Rooms, and I feel like that pretty much sums up what theater should be. I know that’s kind of a maddeningly broad definition, but I don’t know how else to encapsulate theater experiences as diverse as David Cromer’s Our Town, everything by Annie Baker, Young Jean Lee, Dan LeFranc, Jordan Harrison, Assassins, Pig Iron, and the list goes on and on.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Write. Keep writing. Build your life so that you have time to write, and value that time. Take every free or cheap ticket offer you get, see as many plays as you can. Read plays. Read everything. Read fiction and poetry and philosophy and the newspaper and the backs of cereal boxes. Be attentive to the world. And be patient. Learn to appreciate the work itself and not the results. Patience, especially with yourself, is probably the hardest thing to learn. It’s something I for one wrestle with every day.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: I can’t wait to see Dot by Kate E. Ryan at Clubbed Thumb this summer. Kim Rosenstock’s Tigers Be Still at Roundabout in the fall is going to be awesome. Amy Herzog’s After The Revolution is an amazing play that’s going to be at Playwrights Horizons next year. If you haven’t seen Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Public yet, you should do yourself a favor and get there. I’m also really excited to finally see Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz at The Public next season, as well as Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism And Socialism With a Key To The Scriptures. A new Tony Kushner play feels about as close to a Major Seismic Event as I can imagine in theater.