Nov 17, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 285: christopher oscar peña
christopher oscar peña
Hometown: San Jose, CA
Current Town: New York City by way of Manhattan (Harlem!) - thats for all the brooklynites
Q: What are you working on now?
A: It'd be nice if this were a straight-forward one project answer but it never is! I'm currently in the Catskill Mountains in this ridiculous estate on a ten day retreat with Terra Firma Theater. The company is rehearsing a workshop of an adaptation of Bergmans "Cries and Whispers" and they brought me up as playwright-in-residence to work on whatever. I'm beginning a rough (read: ideas in mind, about to write page one) brand new jazz based musical, set in the 1920's in a brothel in new orleans with composer Jesse Gelber. I'm also in the middle of rewrites on my play Icarus Burns which I have a deadline on very soon, and I also just got a book agent and am in the process of writing my first novel for young adults. So it's a very busy, very exciting time. When I get back to the city in a few days, I'll also continue shooting my web series 80/20 (which i cowrote with Vayu O'Donnell) and am also acting in. We have a RIDICULOUS cast (Shannon Esper, Jennifer Ikeda, Matt Rauch, Michael Izquierdo, Mike Crane, Hannah Cabell, Lucas Near-Verbrughhe, to name a few) and Wendy McLellan is the lead director on it. Everyone's been very generous and is excited about the project so that's amazing obviously. I have a deadline on a musical I'm writing with Parker Ferguson that was commissioned by Carlos Armesto's Theatre C, so that needs to get done. Oh yea, I'm also starting to write song songs, like non-theater songs with Kevin Joaquin Garcia. Kevin's one of my best friends in the world, an extraordinarily talented musician, and on top of collaborating on the web series, we have a variety of projects in the works that we're very excited about. I've always loved music and though I don't know a lot about it practically, Kevin's encouraged me to pursue it, so that's come out via song lyrics. We'll see what happens.
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 knew this question was coming and I could never really put my finger on one story. When I was a kid I remember being precocious and one day wanting to be a firefighter and another wanting to be a doctor. My mom always complained about her back so I always wanted to make her feel better. But I don't know that those were ever things I really wanted to be- you know, for myself. And recently, my dad told me that when I was very young the first "when i grow up I want to be" thing I ever said, was actually a writer. Which was beautiful and stranger since I don't recall it. But it makes sense now. And also, I think as a family, my grandparents and aunts and uncles and stuff, they always talk about how I always had a book in my hand. Or if i went missing at the mall, they knew theyd find me at a bookstore. I wasn't the cool kid when I was little and I think I just grew up with books, with words. I felt safe there. In a way I think I had a very old soul very quickly, and books seemed to be the way to experience this world I always longed for and hoped would someday be real or true.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I'm sure people wont like this, but I wish it were more hip and current. And what I mean by that: look at film, look at music, music is a phenomenal example. You have 14, 15, 16 year olds who are working. Whether you like that or not, those industries really embrace the current. And the theater, I mean its ALWAYS behind. I dont go to the theater to find new ideas. I know theaters are suffering from a lack of money, but a playwright writes something at a certain time because it means something to them at that particular moment, there is an urgency. But by the time things get produced, if they ever do, its two, three, four, five years later. Its already dated when it's new. And Broadway is all hollywood, recycled movies now. And the fact that we're an industry where 45 years olds are considered "emerging" as writers because its taken them that long to get notice. We've all read the reports on new plays and playwrights. I dont know, I do it because I love it, but when I talk to people outside of the theater, theyre not jazzed by it, and its easy to see why. Wow, that was inarticulate.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: I will always think Angels In America is the greatest play of all time, and you can't convince me otherwise. So Kushner certainly is my biggest. I will always think of Naomi Iizuka as my artistic mother. I'll always credit her as the first person to show me that theater can be more than this boring dead thing I grew up feeling it was. Paula Vogel, Suzan Lori-Parks, Sarah Kane, Sarah Ruhl, Luis Alfaro, Chay Yew, Les Waters, Williams, Miller, Caryl Churchill, Ruben Polendo, Miguel Piñero, Lisa Portes, Carlos Murillo, Brecht, Joanne Akalaitis, Doug Wright, Adam Rapp, Anne Garcia-Romero, Ivo van Hove, Sam Shepard, Michael John Garces have all left an artistic footprint on my work in one way or another. All those people have been deeply influential to me in one way or another and I certainly think theyre the reason I love theater. I got my MFA from NYU and a large reason I went there was because of people who had gone or taught there: Rinne Groff, Julia Cho, Daniel Goldfarb, and Itamar Moses. I knew there work before I went to grad school, so I credit them for a lot too.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: dangerous. unconventional. surprising. weird. stuff that feels rock and roll. things that terrify me. things that confuse me. my theatrical heroes ARE the theater that excites me. but along with them, the joke has always been that I dont love things that were created before the year 2000. And in a way thats true. I am MOST excited by the work of many of my peers and contemporaries. so ill tell you some of them (including more than just writers): dan lefranc, greg moss, david adjmi, krista knight, sharif abu-hamdeh, lauren yee, bekah brunstetter, mattie brickman, stefanie zadravec, tea alagic, mike donahue, maria dizzia, the civilians, michael esper, daniel aukin, leigh silverman, quincy tyler bernsine, lou moreno, davis mccallum, evan cabnet, rolin jones, anne kauffman, matt roi berger, lauren gunderson, emily schwend, daniel tallbot, bill heck, sanjit de silva, jihan crowther, david murray, elevator repair service, aaron landsman, peter gill-sheridan, daniel alexander jones, peter sinn-nachtrieb, daniel zimmerman. anytime those artists work: GO! im always excited to read, or see what these people are doing. if i were to teach a class, they would be my syllabus. if i were 14 and in the middle of nowhere, i wouldnt want to be taught hamlet for the tenth time, i'd want to know what all these people were doing.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: its hard of course. but you have to be your best advocate. make sure you have a few good plays under your belt, and make sure until you feel they're ready, and only them, share them with people. but it has to be when you know theyre ready, because a lot of time people won't come back. know everything. that's impossible of course, but one of the greatest pieces of advice, that i think is incredibly important, is that you want to know as much as possible about the profession youre in. read everything you can get your hands on. watch as much as you can. know the work that is out there. be well read. i find it problematic when people say they want to work and live in the theater and then you ask them certain things, and you realize that they dont know much about whats out there. the more eager and sincere you are about knowing as much as possible, i think the further it'll get you. this is key. dont burn bridges. dont bad mouth people- the theater is an insanely small community and youd be surprised who hears what. support your colleagues.
i think the most valuable thing ive learned so far: is build a community. naomi used to say to me : "find your tribe."
this is one of the most underrated, important things i know to be true. find those people that you find brilliant, that you would work on anything with, that you would cry to. find the people that you want to spend the rest of your life with and support them. champion them and youll find theyll be there for you, doing the same thing. and this is about the work, but its also about the bad days when you need to go see an embarrassing chick flick. or those nights you have to have a drink. find your family. ive been lucky to have some amazing collaborators and friends. theyre the people i write for, theyre the people i recommend, theyre the people i hang out with. to that end im going to plug them: kevin garcia, shannon esper, josh barrett, vanessa wasche, vayu o'donnell, steve stout, dominic spillane, jennifer ikeda, lucas near-verbrugghe, patrick heusinger, demin borges, vonia arslanian, adam folk, mike donahue. they're talented, theyre charming, and im lucky to have them.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: I'm currently a writing fellow with the Playwrights Realm so there will be a reading of my play "Icarus Burns" sometime in the new year
Also, at some point very soon, I'll be having a reading of my play "maelstrom" which I've been working on with Chay Yew at NYTW
Terra Firma will be having a workshop of "Cries and Whispers" and I'm lucky to call them home and continue developing my work with them, so you should definitely check them out
stay tuned for our upcoming webseries: 80/20
ive just secretly launched my website which ill be keeping up to date so you can find me here, see whats coming up, get in touch, all that jazz! : http://cpinthenyc.wordpress.com/