Aug 7, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 235: Chad Beckim
Hometown: Monmouth, Maine
Current Town: Brooklyn
Q: Tell me about Cookie.
A: “Cookie” examines a down-on-his-luck writer (fiction, not playwright!) who enters into a green-card-marriage-for-money via the assistance of his only friend. The piece explores racial and sexual stereotypes, hopefully getting some laughs while challenging audience members to examine their own misconceptions about identity, race and culture.
I wrote half of this play in February over the course of two days, and finished the other half two weeks ago at my grandmother’s cabin in Maine. Last week the cast and director blew the second half apart and I rewrote it into the shape it’s in now, which I hope is a good one. It feels good, anyway.
The first inklings of the play came when I overheard a high school kid utter a really horrible offhand slur to an Asian classmate. The comment stuck with me all day and I wondered if it would have been dismissed as quickly if it had been dished out to someone from another ethnic group. Later, when I reached out to a number of friends of Asian descent for their stories, I was shocked by their experiences with what amounts to blatant racism. I’ve since come to believe – generally, mind you – that racism is more widely tolerated against Asians (any disbelievers watch “Family Guy” or find me ANY movie where the Asian guy kisses the anything-but-Asian woman).
Q: What else are you up to?
A: I have another play in this year’s Fringe, “…a matter of choice.” Originally produced in 2005, it helped serve as a stepping-stone for a few up and coming careers, including Chris Chalk, Jeremy Strong, Nyambi Nyambi and Sarah Nina Hayon. I’m excited to see what another team is going to do with it.
I’m also working on a bunch of writing projects: “Good Winter,” an adaptation of “The Main(e) Play” for Table Ten Films; a pilot script about NYC almost-40-somethings with the writer/director Robert O’Hara; and have been going back and forth with an L.A. based friends about some “Creepshow” style-webisodes.
I also just started tinkering with a new play about a Lindsey Lohan-esque celebutante who shacks up with an average Joe type guy who helps her fix her career. I think it’s going to play with “Access Hollywood” style mixed media (cell phone/flip cam recordings that could be made by anyone in the street), and explore the long-standing idea that fame really does corrupt.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: As a kid I read everything I could get my hands on – I was sickly and always had bronchitis and asthma attacks, and was constantly bedridden. We didn’t get cable until I was 13 and it forced me to read. I think that shaped me tremendously. (Interestingly enough, I still won’t have cable in my home to this day.) My youngest brother, his friend and I used to play this game called “Middle of Midnight,” where we’d be in their rec room, doing normal life things, and suddenly one of us would should out, “Middle of Midnight!” and we’d all race to the sofa and cover our heads with an old blanket. We were writing scary things without even realizing it.
I didn’t start “playwrighting” until I was 30 (I only dared to start calling myself a playwright a couple of years ago). My friend – the writer/director Robert O’Hara – read a short story I’d written and asked me why I didn’t write plays. When I told him I wasn’t sure if I knew how (six plays later and the process is still as mystifying and exhilarating as ever), he put me through a writer’s boot camp, where I started with a monologue, wrote around that until it turned into a scene, then wrote around that until it turned into a play – which turned out to be “…a matter of choice.”
Prior to that, I remember writing a lot, just for me. I didn’t show it or share it with anyone. There’s this poem that I love that talks about loving something in secret, between the shadow and the soul. That was my early writing – something I loved doing in secret.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: The notion that a play lives or dies based on reviews is just unacceptable. Careers can be derailed by bad – or just plain negative – reviews, and the glee with which some of these critics eviscerate plays and playwrights is morally unacceptable.
Earlier this spring, some playwright friends and I were discussing the new offerings of the season, lamenting the fact that we couldn’t afford most of them (the consensus was that $20 was the most we could afford). This is a group of established writers who know the NYC theater landscape who can’t afford to see the work that’s being produced. And if we – real aficionados – can’t go because we can’t afford it, then who’s going?!? Most theater is unaffordable. (And producing theater is increasingly unaffordable, but that would be a third thing to change about theater, and I’m already over my limit.)
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: The first NYC play that I ever saw that made me catch my breath was “Our Lady of 121st Street” by Stephen Adley Guirgis. I remember leaving the theater and living in it for the next couple of weeks… I could NOT stop talking about the play. To this day I teach it in my Brooklyn College English 2 course.
So many…Robert O’Hara…Conor McPherson (I didn’t see “Shining City” or “The Weir” but read them on the same night and didn’t sleep afterwards)… early McDonaugh…Guirgis…Shanley… Edward Bond’s “Saved”…so SO many.
And then there are the newbies: Sam Hunter and Tom Bradshaw and Sheila Callaghan and Kris Diaz and Annie Baker and Brendan Jacobs-Jenkins…there are so many up and comers out there who are bringing it, and it makes me happy to be coming up alongside them now. (I could name names forever; I’m going to submit this interview and remember someone important and curse myself.)
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I like theater with heart and claws – that is, theater that makes you feel and theater that takes a bite out of you. I want to leave the theater feeling like I have a little bit of slime on my hand – you know, like when you shake someone’s hand and there’s something that just doesn’t feel right that you’re not able to immediately wash off? That’s my shit, man – that’s the good stuff.
If I leave a play and immediately forget about it, you know, the whole, “Good play, let’s get some pudding,” thing, then what was the point? I WANT to be moved…I WANT to be affected…I WANT to have a play shake me to my core and make me feel a little different and think a little different and make me question myself or take me back to those halcyon days of youth and my first few years in New York City.
Make me feel something. Make me think something. Love me hate me hurt me break me.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: My Brooklyn College syllabus reads, “Reading and writing begets improved reading and writing.” A lot of writers that I know don’t read, and I don’t get that. Also, you have to be kind to yourself – there’s a legion of people out there - and I’m not even talking about critics – who will gladly tear you down. You have to be kind and patient and take care of yourself.
(When I was an actor I had a teacher tell me, “If there’s anything else in the world that you can do and be happy doing, you should do that instead.” When she said it, I thought, “Who the fuck are you?” But I get it, and it’s something that I tell some of my students to this day. Because in the end, if my miniscule opinion is enough to shake your belief in yourself and your work, this might not be the thing for you.)
More importantly, you have to work harder than everyone else. As strange as it may sound, I get myself to write by imagining that someone else whose work I respect is writing at that very moment and that they’re going to write something brilliant and I’ll be left in the dust. The way I look at it, the actual writing (the work!) – particularly the focus and time commitment – is the one thing in this business that I have control over.
Q: Plugs, please:
www.cookietheplay.com - Entry #1 into this year’s FringeNYC.
www.freedpurplemonkeytheatrics.com - Entry #2 into this year’s FringeNYC.
www.partialcomfort.org - soon presenting the World Premiere of Sam Hunter’s “A Bright New Boise.”
www.tabletenfilms.com - Eventual producer of “Good Winter,” my adaptation of “The Main(e) Play.”
www.adoveonfire.com - This is the Bill Brittelle, a close friend who’s doing some pretty amazing things to the Contemporary-Classical music scene.