Jun 19, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 198: Alice Austen
Hometown: I moved around as a kid and spent a lot of time in the Bay Area and the Northern California coast. I went to high school in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, a rural community near Eugene -which happened to be where Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, Jerry Garcia and a lot of the Dead lived. So my first writing teacher was actually Ken Kesey.
Current Town: I’m a Chicago playwright. I live in Milwaukee.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I took a couple years off from playwriting to write a novel that’s generating a lot of excitement. I have four plays in circulation, three are new. There’s a production of DESTRUCTION OF CURVES coming up this fall – a reverse chronology play about four people trapped on a train after a bomb goes off. HER ONLY FAULT, a play about Emilie du Chatelet and Voltaire, has been championed by my SHANGHAI LOW THEATRICALS partner, the inimitable Steve Pickering. BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS – about fathers, sons and war - recently had a staged reading at Route 66 with a superb Stef Tovar in the lead role. And this spring I wrote a ruthless little two-hander called PLAZA HOTEL BALLROOM about media and the collapse of civilization that I’m working on with the talented director Robin Witt.
Q: You graduated from Harvard Law, and you were the first American to receive a fellowship to the Court of Human Rights at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. You lived in France, Belgium and Prague where you worked as a translator, writer and international attorney. I have to ask. Why playwriting?
A: It was a complete accident. I did creative writing at Harvard and wrote fiction. And then later, I was living in Brussels and commuting to Prague. I had a lot of down time in the Frankfurt airport between connections. My friend and colleague, the Irish actor Brian Hartnett, talked me into writing a play where he and another friend could throw things at each other and shout. I did and the play was produced. It was kind of thrilling because I was working for another playwright – Vaclav Havel - at the time.
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 was the second fastest runner in the fourth grade. The fastest was my best friend Jimmy Salvador. We had played football at recess and we were all sweaty and muddy and tired. The bell rang. I remember looking up the slope of the playground and seeing a police officer standing on the edge of the grass with the principal and our teacher. Everything was very still for a second. Then Jimmy took off. The cop started chasing him and we were all shouting at Jimmy to run faster. But really, there was no way the cop was gonna catch Jimmy. And he didn’t. I never saw Jimmy again. The next day our teacher told us that he and his family were illegal – like that was news. And later still I found out that Jimmy's whole family had disappeared. From this I learned that nothing is permanent and things are never as they seem, you can’t trust the people in charge to understand or protect your best interests and it’s important- always - to be the fastest runner.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: The seats are sometimes extremely uncomfortable.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Work that’s truthful and genuinely audacious – NEXT’s recent production of WAR WITH THE NEWTS comes to mind.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Theatre is collaborative – find the people you can work with and mentors who will guide you. I’ve had mentors over the years who have challenged and helped me and I’ll always be grateful to them, from the philosopher/writer Robert Grudin, the poet Michael Blumenthal to Chicago Dramatists Artistic Director Russ Tutterow. After that, follow Michel Houellebecq's advice, Dig into the subjects no one wants to hear about. Truth is scandalous. But without it, there's nothing of value.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: This year, SHANGHAI LOW THEATRICALS acquired the theatric adaptation rights to Alastair Reynolds DIAMOND DOGS -stay tuned.