Wednesday, August 04, 2010

I Interview Playwrights Part 230: Molly Rice

Molly Rice

Hometown: Born in Houston, TX, but Austin is home.

Current Town: New York City

Q:  Tell me about the Saints Tour and Futurity the Musical.

A:  SAINTS TOUR means a lot to me. I wrote the play in 2009 for Ray Rizzo's live arts exchange MOTHERLODGE (a great festival,, to take place in Louisville, KY. The play was a bus tour, led by a "Tour Guide" character who uncovers the secret saints of a local area. I wrote it using Google Maps Street View, never having been to Louisville, and Ray connected me to local musicians willing to be planted around the city for audiences to discover. Actress Emily Hyberger (a Louisville native), director/ writer/ actor Marc Bovino, and I went down and put the thing together in a week. And it was just magical. We had local sax player Mauriece echoing through the Salvation Army's cavernous 1950's gymnasium, and Louisville singer/ songwriter Tyrone Cotton singing about time in a graveyard, showered by white cherry blossoms, and so many other magical Louisville moments. We enlisted the Center of Hope Soup Kitchen, where the tour ended and we all ate a meal together. It was Community Theater, in the deepest sense of the word. I wrote it to be redesign-able for production in different communities, each time using a local actor and musicians, local sites, and a local community service organization-- so this Spring director Rachel Chavkin and I tested its flexibility in the West Village as a walking tour, with Taylor Mac as the Tour Guide and 20 participating artists and musicians (!!!). Totally different-- the Village itself was a character-- but totally interesting to see its translation. I plan to do it in as many cities as I can. The play is a story, but also a sort of frame to showcase these rich little pockets of culture out there that we sometimes lose sight of in New York. And as a writer, the sites just unfold into stories in the most exciting way.

FUTURITY is a beautiful example of a contemporary music/ theater hybrid. It was conceived and developed by the Lisps, a strange, smart Brooklyn band who I'd never heard of. I went and saw a presentation of FUTURITY at Joe's Pub in Spring 2009 because somebody sent me an email about it and it sounded cool, and I was like, this is fascinating-- there is something special here. I was touched by the way it balanced intellectual ideas with the emotional force of music. I felt like its book might need some development and that I might be a good match, so I connected with them and joined the team. The story is about a Civil War soldier and his imaginary relationship with mathemetician/ Lord Byron's daughter Ada Lovelace, which is fascinating enough, but at root the play's about the way science and art talk to each other, push each other forward, from one era to the next. I'm thrilled to be working on it.

I love working on strange music/ theater hybrids like these two. I was into music from early on--singer/ songwriter out of high school, went to Austin for college and promptly quit to play in bands. Music and story cleave to each other in my brain-- they're never fully separate strands of narrative. Even straight plays feel like compositions, and songs and compositions have a shape that feels like story. I'm interested in trying to 'braid' them in new ways, and with these two projects I'm still working it out.

Q:  What else are you up to?

A:  Right now I'm writing a new play about lying. It's a commission from the Tisch Grad Acting program, an ensemble piece for 9 grad actors who are aMAzing. It's an awesome challenge to write a narrative that makes room for the full range of 9 skilled actors like those guys. I'm also working on a final draft of my musical CANARY (with Ray Rizzo and Rachel Chavkin), and Rachel, composer Stephanie Johnstone and I are developing a new piece about James Agee and Walker Evans based on Agee's book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  My family used to watch the Carol Burnett show when I was very little. When I was 3 or 4 my dad asked me why I liked it so much, and I said, "The song and the story." That pretty much sums it up for me.

After my dad died, I found that written on the back of an envelope in his files. That probably explains something about who I am as a person. I'm not sure what.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  It would be interesting to see New York Theater become a little less insular, get more curious about work in other places. Coming out of Austin in the 90's and early 2000's, where 1 out of 4 shows produced were new plays, I knew when I got here that New York did not represent American theater-- New York theater is local, too. There are innovative conversations going on between locally-grown theater and the communities that grow it, and the have a lot to teach us about what American live art really is.

I also wish we could all chill a little. Yes, there is no money. Yes, theater is not the primary performance genre out there today. Yes, audiences are small. But change is constant. Limitations and resources change throughout the course of history, and we are just a page in that history. We can work to change the limitations and resources. But in the meantime, this is our page. We need to keep the focus on making great things; that's what we're here to do. There's always a way to make them. The rest is more likely to come if we focus on that.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Well I LOVE Ruth Margraff's work-- talk about song and story. I think her brain is a national treasure. Sam Shepard was an artistic father figure. Freddy Mercury is my patron saint. My favorite play is the Bacchae.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Let's see...A big turning point came when I stopped asking people to do my work and started doing it, in one form or another. People began to support it, once they could envision it. And that shift really changed the experience of being a theater artist from frustrating to liberating.

When I find people I love to work with, I stick with them. As Paula Vogel says, we rise together.

I find ways to situationally, financially, and personally stabilize my life because we work in a rocky, unpredictable field.

I try to be a good person and to find the good seed in others. I don't work with someone if I can't find it.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  The Tisch show opens in December; Saints Tour will happen again next Spring in New York; and look for a showcase workshop production of CANARY in February 2011! And thank you, Adam, for your interviews!