Sunday, November 14, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 283: David J. Loehr
David J. Loehr
Hometown: LaPlata, MD (born), Dundee, FL (grew up)
Current Town: Hanover, IN
Q: What are you working on now?
A: The script I'm currently working on is Follow-the-Lady, a noirish P.I. story that involves physics and a magician whose assistant has vanished. After that is a script named Ex Cathedra, set in a collapsing gothic cathedral. I'm also deep into the research for a script about architecture and design. And I'm working on several short pieces for a 2amt audio project, among other things.
Q: Tell me about 2amt.
A: 2amt began in the middle of the night one night when I sent an email to sound designer Nick Keenan (New Leaf Theater and Side Project Theatre, Chicago). I'd wanted to get his opinion on a couple of ideas. Within a few minutes, we began chatting via Twitter, talking about some of those ideas. More and more people joined in, even though it was late at night by that point. I was there for about five hours' worth, never did sleep that night. The next day, Kris Vire of Time Out Chicago tweeted that he'd missed much of the "great 2am theatre summit." And the name stuck.
That conversation grew to become a community of theatre artists and companies around the world, all centered on the hashtag, #2amt. The reason for the hashtag is to make it easier to search on Twitter to find the threads of conversation and join in. It also makes it easy to archive, which we've been doing from the start. At the same time as adopting the hashtag, I set up the website, 2amtheatre.com, which has blog posts inspired by conversations and questions from the hashtag as well as posts that inspire new conversations.
From there, we've developed a podcast with profiles and interviews, we're working on creative collaborations and an online streaming new play reading series. We've also been attending conferences and developing workshops for things like social media usage, new play development, design work and more. We'll be introducing two of our new projects soon, one that features some short plays and another that uses Twitter to tell a story. Some of the ideas that have already grown out of 2amt include 360 Storytelling and Talkbackr. I created the 360 format and tested it out with my company, Riverrun Theatre, and now it's spreading to other theatre companies around the country like Strawdog in Chicago, Crowded Fire Theatre and Impact Theatre in the San Francisco area, and Glass Mind Theatre in Baltimore. Talkbackr.com is a website and application developed by Brian D. Seitel that came directly from conversations on the hashtag about audience feedback and how to gather honest reactions. There are a few more projects like that in the pipeline as well.
We like to say we're "thinking outside the black box." We know there are no one-size-fits-all ideas, but there are ideas that can scale up and down to fit different theatres at different levels. Those are the kind of ideas we like to develop.
2amt brings together folks from major regional theatres and tiny storefronts, Broadway producers and one-person touring shows, critics and playwrights, designers and journalists, and it encourages them all to mingle and share ideas, ask questions, make connections. Sometimes, the conversation is about art, sometimes marketing, maybe lighting design or play development. It's always engaging and worth dipping into. That the community thrives--that it exists at all--still amazes me.
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 grew up in my grandparents' doll museum with a family of writers and teachers. My earliest memories involve setting up displays that told a story. Following along on tours of the museum, I'd be listening and learning the history behind a certain doll or dollmaker. Often, the story of how a doll found its way into the collection would be the most interesting. By seven, I was giving tours myself, because I'd heard them almost daily and memorized the details. I'd even play with some of the dolls, creating stories of my own. At that age, a building filled with dolls, furniture and toys was a wonderland of imagination.
At the same time, watching my mother, I saw writing as part of everyday life, it's what you did when you weren't reading, cooking or hosting tours. I started to think of the museum tour as a story, then wondered how the individual stories connected. Soon, I was rearranging the order of stories on the tour, building from one to the next.
The museum was in central Florida, just a little south of Disney World; it opened for business a few months before Disney. Almost overnight, attractions sprang up throughout the area. My mother and I would go to them and figure out what stories they were trying to tell. Some worked better than others, but each one had a theme, a plot, characters...
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I would suggest regional theatre companies emulate the slow food movement in terms of supporting artists, designers and playwrights. How? Why? It's something I've been developing for a post at the 2amt site, but the short answer is, focus on your region. Cultivate the work of artists nearby. Not only does it save money in transportation & housing, it creates more interest within your community, your patrons, a sense of a "home team" if you will. If you want world premieres, then feature your own playwrights. Export those plays to other companies, import regional premieres of other shows, take part in rolling world premieres like the National New Play Network presents. It's not just a matter of economy of resources, it's a matter of developing names your audience will know, will get to know and want to know. It embraces another element that's unique about theatre--a film or tv show may come from an anonymous writer or group of writers, but a play can come from right next door. Then, by supporting regional premieres and rolling premieres, you help ensure life for a play beyond a single production.
I'll be elaborating on this at the 2amt site soon...
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Tom Stoppard, because he makes it look so simple.
Joe Papp, for showing what sheer force of will can accomplish.
David Dower, for his optimism and accessibility, his drive to bring everyone to the table.
Tom Evans, for training decades' worth of students to be better, always be better, and helping them discover how to do just that.
I know there are more, but that's the kind of question that makes my brain go blank...
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Good stories, well told.
That's glib, but true. That much is enough to remind me why we do what we do. Myself, I love stories that engage on multiple levels, that challenge me to keep up. I like a show that reaches out, grabs me by the throat and makes me pay attention. I love a show that rewards that attention.
My favorite nights of theatre are a mixed bag...in no particular order...
-- Patrick Stewart and Bill Irwin in The Tempest in Central Park, that was simply magical.
-- Anything Goes at Lincoln Center in 1987, spun sugar magic of another sort.
-- 7(x1) Samurai, a brilliant silent solo piece I've seen in DC and Cincinnati, David Gaines performing the Seven Samurai with only a bare stage, two masks and his imagination.
-- The Neo-Futurists' Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, on tour and in Chicago, which showed me new ways to tell stories.
-- And, if I'm being honest, watching Jim Stark perform Seeing Red, a script of mine about Vincent van Gogh, which is a more personal story than I'd thought when I was writing it. Seeing it transform in Jim's hands, taking that journey with the audience and talking with them afterwards, that's been thrilling.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Find people to read your work. Find more people to read it aloud. Listen to your words in their voices. Make sure you're not writing several characters with the same voice. Refine, rework, revise. Learn the rules so you can break them. When you break them, do it with style. More important, have a better reason for breaking them than "because they're there." Get a table, some chairs and a light, tell a story with those and nothing more. Go to as much live theatre as you can, absorb it, learn from it. With every word you write, every scene you craft, every story you tell, embrace what makes theatre unique and electrify your audience. Make your own luck, but make it count. Tell stories, but make them yours. Tell your stories to whomever will listen. Leave them wanting more.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Well, 2amt, of course, the website being 2amtheatre.com. We've got a lot of exciting projects coming up there.
My own company, Riverrun Theatre in Madison, Indiana, is continuing our 360 Storytelling series each month. Our next production is an import from the Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis, Pure Prine, coming up this month. With that show, we're opening in a new venue, a relatively permanent space (at last) with a storefront in the heart of downtown Madison, so we're looking for folks to bring shows and help keep the space busy. We're right up the Ohio River from Louisville, KY. The website is www.riverruntheatre.org.
And my personal website is www.davidjloehr.com, which has links to some short pieces and a selection of plays in development, among other things. It's also where to find news of shows in production and scripts available for production. The Rough Guide to the Underworld is one show with a couple of tentative productions coming up in the next year--you can check out the site from the 2009 production in Washington D.C., including some video, at www.rg2underworld.com.