Jun 10, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 192: Jon Tuttle
Hometown: Salt Lake City, Utah. Go Utes.
Current town: Florence, SC.
Q: Tell me please about Holy Ghost now at Theater of Note in LA.
A: A very strong production--which actually just closed. It's about German (some Nazi) prisoners of war kept in a camp in SC--which actually happened. It's about the varous camps into which we separate ourselves according to nationality, race, religion and language, and how we are therefore not a melting pot at all. It's about the idea of "volk." It's about the limits of democracy. Structurally, it's a tricky piece because it has two protagonists, two plotlines, two separate resolutions. But NOTE pulled it off very, very well.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: My dead cat play: THE SWEET ABYSS, which is a woman’s spiral into debilitation grief following the death of her cat. It’s had one production at Trustus, my home theatre, and I was very pleased by the response, which was typically something like “my God, let me tell you about my Yorkie who died last March.”
Q: Tell me about Trustus Theater. How long have you been involved with them?
A: Trustus is a TCG theatre in Columbia. They’ve produced four of my plays, beginning with THE HAMMERSTONE back in 1994, after which I became Playwright in Residence and then Literary Manager. It’s been a terrific collaboration—really a dream come true for someone in my position, which was an unaffiliated playwright-wanna-be looking for an artistic home. The theatre’s about 25 years old now and still going strong. And it has a bar.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: Here’s one: a friend of mine, Jim, would spend all day under the hood of his Dodge Charger working on the engine, or working on the suspension, or adding headers or whatever. I mean, he’d spend all damned DAY under there. And I’d say, “man, it’s just a CAR.” So one day he comes over and finds me staring at my blank spiral notebook, because we didn’t have word processing back then. And he says, “man, it’s just a NOTEBOOK.” After that I shut my mouth about his car. Who knows why things call to you? We are all stories, trying to tell ourselves. He told his with his car. It’s who he was.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I’m pretty old fashioned. I’m rooted in STORY. I’m a structural guy. A lot of new plays are like tone-poems or “experiences,” and frequently I just don’t GET them. There’s no THERE there. They are amorphous and inchoate and don’t get elbow-deep into anything. They just float there, like pretty balloons. And I ask myself: is that enough?
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Arthur Miller. See? I’m a structuralist. Give me layers. David Mamet. Our Lord. But Adam Rapp’s use of language is irresistible, and so is Wendy Wasserstein’s wit. I once rejected Itamar Moses—but he took it well, wrote a nice letter back. I really do love his stuff, but it wasn’t “right for us” at Trustus.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Layers. Give me layers. Make me shut up all the long way home. Ambiguity. Give me some work to do. Don’t solve the problem for me. Show me the problem. Show me its complexities. Suggest an answer but don’t insist on it.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Best two pieces of advice about writing I ever heard: Ethan Canin: “nobody ever writes a novel (or play). It’s too big. You can’t do it. You write a page, or a paragraph, then another, then another, or a chapter, or a scene, then a page—and you keep going until you say: ‘oh. This is what this means.’ Also: when it comes to marketing your stuff: it’s a smaller world than you think. Always always always be gracious and grateful. If an AD or Lit Man knows you’re an asshole, he won’t pay much attention to your stuff. And that’s fair.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Trustus. Theatre of NOTE. Reverie Productions in NYC. Good jumping off points for new playwrights. My wife Cheryl. Great woman. And join the Dramatists Guild, for God’s sake.