Jul 24, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 219: Joshua Allen
Hometown: Chicago, IL
Current Town: New York, NY
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My two current projects couldn't be more different. I'm revising a play I wrote called THE LAST PAIR OF EARLIES, which is inspired by the Great Migration of black Southerners that took place in the '20s, '30s, and '40s. Also, I'm working on a more contemporary play that's loosely inspired by an obscure Henry James novel entitled "The Other House."
Q: Tell me about your experience working on a play at the Kennedy Center this summer.
A: A play I wrote this past year at Juilliard, called THE LAST PAIR OF EARLIES, is going to be workshopped during the last week of July. I'll be working with a director and dramaturg from theatres in the National New Play Network, which is pretty cool. Also, they're putting me up in an apartment that's apparently within walking distance from a Trader Joe's, which is a major bonus.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: Before I begin this story, I just want to say that I realize how pathetically sad, nerdy, and embarrassing this story is. But I'm telling it anyway. I've always been a big history geek, a tendency that was only further encouraged when my mother, who used to work for Encyclopedia Britannica, came home one day with a full set of leather-bound encyclopedias. Inspired by what I read in those volumes about colonial America, I spent the summer after I turned 12 writing a novella in my grandmother's basement. It ended up being 126 pages long. It was intended to be the first in a trilogy, but wisely I abandoned the project when I quickly realized that the novella was ATROCIOUSLY BAD. However, I never lost my interest in re-imagining history through fictional eyes, which is something that's certainly influenced my last couple of plays.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I would bring back rep companies. Having an artistic home is so invaluable to anybody working in theater, especially playwrights. I don't think it's a coincidence that Shakespeare wrote his greatest roles with specific actors in mind. More importantly, having an artistic home gives you the safety to fail, which is indescribably important.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: I have way too many. Aside from my fellow Juilliard playwrights, who inspire and encourage me pretty much daily, I look up to Eugene O'Neill for his ambition and commitment to his art, and to William Inge for his willingness to write simple, closely observed plays that explore loneliness so bravely.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Theater always excites me most when it engages the mind and the heart simultaneously. There's really nobody better than Shakespeare when it comes to this. Read any soliloquy of Hamlet's, or Juliet's, or Lear's, and you can see the messiness and hugeness of their emotions butting up against the limitations of their language, and how they negotiate that. So cool.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: This is a tough one because in many respects, I feel like I'm just starting out, too. I would tell anyone who's starting out to go see as much theater as possible, and write your plays primarily to please yourself. Also, the old adage "write what you know" is helpful, but don't follow it too literally. Your imagination is the most exciting place to explore, and writing from your imagination is what's going to keep theatre alive.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Um...come see the awesome actors of Group 40 in the Playwrights' Festival at Juilliard, Sept. 9-12. Put that in your calendars 'cuz you're gonna wanna be there. And it's free! Also, go see NOTICE ME at the Wild Project, directed by my friend Sofia Alvarez. You've only got until August 1st!