Thursday, November 04, 2010

I Interview Playwrights Part 276: Michael I. Walker

Michael I. Walker

Hometown: Easton, PA

Current Town: NYC

Q:  Tell me about Letter from Algeria.

A:  Letter from Algeria is a play I started working on in 2007, right after my play Blackout had a run Off Broadway. The play has been developed with Ground UP Productions for the past year. They first selected the show as part of their new works reading series, From The Ground UP. Then they were able to produce a fully staged workshop production at UNC, Chapel Hill this summer, which was a rare and fantastic opportunity to learn about the show outside of New York. It is exciting to complete the circle with Ground UP with this production at the Abingdon, back in NYC.

Letter from Algeria tells the story of three American college students studying abroad in Belgium who meet a wealthy older gentleman and wind up going to his estate in Algeria, where things don’t exactly go well. The show comes from many places, including my love of a lot of literature written in or about Algeria, like Camus’ The Stranger, and André Gide’s The Immoralist. I also love exploring settings where normal social rules don’t apply, and living abroad, even temporarily, resets perceptions for people. We try to start anew in a new location, whether that means reinventing ourselves entirely, or just forging new relationships and bonds at a quicker pace than is normally reasonable. This can be really fun and funny, but also have rather unexpected and sometimes tragic consequences. I hope the play is like that – fun, funny, unexpected, and tragic.

Q:  What else are you working on?

A:  Besides writing plays, I work on musical theater with a composer, Kyle Ewalt. We have a number of projects at the moment, but the next up is Bromance: The Dudesical. It’s rather different from Letter from Algeria. Can you tell from the title? It’s a really fun show about dudes being dudes, and it definitely does not have a tragic ending. We’re doing it next on Wednesday, December 1st at Caroline’s On Broadway. It’s very cool to bring the show to a venue that’s not traditionally seen as a space for theater, even though it’s in the heart of Times Square. But as a comedy club, it is definitely a place that guys go – without even having to be dragged by their girlfriends!

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 a childhood actor. That’s my dirtiest secret, although I tell people all the time, so apparently, I’m not very good at keeping secrets. When I was ten, my parents’ friend worked for an agent who convinced them to let me go to an audition for Annie II, a big sequel heading to Broadway. None of us knew what we were doing, especially my parents, but I was little, had red hair, and thought it all seemed incredibly fun. Somehow that pluckiness got me a role in the show, on my first ever audition. Suddenly, in a matter of weeks, I was rehearsing for a huge Broadway show, which a few weeks after that turned into an infamous Broadway flop. So by ten I was both on Broadway and unemployed – in other words, I had a true theatrical career. But the craziness of it all also cemented my heart in the theater. Over time, that love turned to writing, so I could tell stories I felt were important.

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

A:  The thing that most concerns me for the future of theater is that the financial model for making theater, especially new theater, is broken. Small, wonderful companies like Ground UP (who is producing Letter from Algeria) have such a hard time producing new work because of the high cost. There are lots of reasons for that, but until we figure out new ways of raising money, lowering ticket costs, and most importantly finding new, excited, young, diverse audiences, I don’t know that things will improve. And it’s not really better on a more commercial level – even Broadway. I am most excited for people working in the theater who are willing to take risks and explore new ideas, not just on stage, but also in how to bring good material to the stage.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  I hope these folks don’t seem too obvious, but Tony Kushner, Tom Stoppard, Caryl Churchill, and John Guare have been four of my favorite playwrights since I was a teenager.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I get excited by work that embraces theater as a collective experience. I mean this both for the audience and for the artists creating the work. No play is created in a vacuum. Putting a show up on stage is, by definition, a collaboration, which is a lot of what makes making theater so exciting. And an audience's experience hopefully reflects that communal approach. A community came together to tell this story. Another community is created as people watch and absorb the story at the same time. In its greatest moments, that feeling of commonality is palpable both under the stage lights and out into the darkened seats. I think this can happen most often with theater that is somehow political, socio-political, or at least has an urgent, ardent voice that needs to be heard. I can remember going to the closing night performance of Angels In America on Broadway when I was in high school. My sister and I had no idea it was the last show when we got the tickets, we just wanted to see Perestroika before it was too late. When we arrived, the audience felt electric. The actors passionately delivered gut wrenching final performances. Kushner spoke after the show and asked who hadn’t seen the play before. My sister and I were the only people in the audience to raise their hands. But we understood what a cathartic experience everyone else in the theater had been through, because we felt it too. The act of watching the play, the performance of the play, and the message of the play came together like magic. We all went through something together for several hours, and we all came out differently at the end. When it works, when everyone watching a show senses that synergy, it is the greatest, most transformative artistic experience I know.

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

A:  I think persistence is the number one quality needed to be a successful playwright. Keep writing, and keep plugging away at the business of writing. It’s such a long road, it sometimes feels impossible to get your work in front of an audience, but you never know where an opportunity may come from. And of course, there are things you can learn to help you get there quicker, or at least easier. It’s important to know what size show is producible, what companies are out there producing new work, and what type of theater those companies are interested in. Ultimately, however, you can only control so many things in terms of getting your play produced. But you can always control how much care and craft go into your writing. Be practical to give yourself advantages in getting produced, but be true to your artistic vision and voice in your work. Great writing will find a way to be heard – believe in that, persistently.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  You can find more about Bromance and the Caroline’s concert on our website: You can find more info about Letter from Algeria and how to get tickets on Ground UP’s website: Letter from Algeria is running at the Abingdon Theater until November 20th.

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