Saturday, November 20, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 286: Tony Adams
Hometown: Rives Jct., MI
Current Town: Chicago, IL.
Q: Tell me about Trickster.
A: Trickster takes place in-between the spirit world and a war ravaged Southwest reminiscent of the dust bowl. The human world of the play is pretty brutal place--a mixture of the old testament, the southwest during the war on Geronimo and Juárez today. The spirit world will use masks and movement, and the characters on earth will be puppets. (Though not actual puppets, they'll be actors playing puppets.) It's bawdy and brutal, beautiful and brokenhearted. There'll be music and sex and fighting and fun. It's a re-imagining of the legends of Don Juan, Coyote tales and the Genesis account of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. In a lot of ways it uses stories from the past as a mask to talk about today.
Part of it is an artistic response to a day when my daughter Charlotte was about a year old. She was standing next to the TV while I was flipping through the channels. A music video came on, I forget which, and I thought "this is a good song". Then I looked at the screen. Looked at Charlotte, and back to the screen. In that moment all the images I'd seen of women growing up, seen but not noticed, exploded in my head when I looked back at Charlotte and connected the dots. I've been trying to figure out that explosion in my head since.
When I had initially conceived of the show, three or four years ago, it was different. I was different. The economy was humming along, Tony Jr. wasn't walking, Charlotte wasn't born yet and Mom hadn't yet gotten sick. Since that point the economy imploded, Tony Jr'.s huge, Charlotte is talking in full sentences and Mom passed away.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: Being the best husband and father I can be; directing Caridad Svich's Iphegenia... (a rave fable); Producing and curating The Alcyone Festival; giving whatever support I can to the amazing artists I'm lucky enough to work with; trying to grow Halcyon to the point where we can pay people more than a pittance; and failing miserably at catching up to the stack of play submissions I've been sent from other writers.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: When I was little, I spent a lot of time on my Granny and Pa's farm. In addition to corn, fruit and vegetables that they sold at a farm market out front, they raised chickens and guinea fowl. We would eat them and sell some to pay for food for the winter. My dad had been laid off from the prison where he worked. (Things were so bad in Michigan around then they were laying off people who were supposed to be guarding convicts.) I didn't realize what poor meant, or that we ate at Granny and Pa's so much because we didn't have much food then--I just knew that's how we were able to eat.
When time came to harvest the birds, everyone would come over and each person had a different job. My brothers and cousins would get the birds out of the coup and carry them to my grandpa, dad and uncles who had a tree stump and hatchet and would chop off their heads. Granny, mom and my aunts would pluck their feathers and clean them. Mom told me that, when I was like four, one of my first jobs was to get the headless chickens from the stump to the women. I'd spend all day chasing chickens with their heads cut off, covered in blood, and taking them up to the women with a huge smile on my face. It was the only thing they could think of to tire me out.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I would make producers stop being cowards without the vision and backbone to put up what they know in their heart can be great. Not good, Great. To stop hiding behind audiences, step out front and put their weight behind something or someone that gets them so fired up they are compelled to share it. And if an AD can no longer find something that revs them up to that point, stop going through the motions, step down and get out of the way so someone else can.
I know a lot of people talk about how great and open European audiences are, but from my experience they aren't any more or less open than American audiences. The big difference I saw when I was there was there were producers with the vision and courage to go beyond the very narrow, homogeneous, stories and writers that get routinely produced here. The world isn't a homogeneous place, but you'd never know if from sitting in most houses.
I firmly believe that there is no challenge facing theatres that leadership, courage and vision can't overcome. But there's only two ways you can get people talking about your organization: inspire them or piss them off. If you can do both at the same time, they're hooked. If you can't inspire people or create an experience that will blow them away, there's very little reason for them to come back.
If you are timid, you lose. We have way too many timid producers, and it shows across the field.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Ariane Mnouchkine, Hélène Cixous, María Irene Fornés, Federico García Lorca
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: In science, I think there's only two ways that we can truly find out more about our universe: point a big telescope up to the heavens and try to figure out the expansiveness of it all, or go in a lab and smash atoms together to see what what forces drive everything around us.
Theatre that can approach either is exciting. King Lear, What of the Night or Caroline or Change on one end and Safe, The Brothers Size and Chad Deity on the other. I'm not as interested in polish as I am in power.
Because I wear so many different hats, producer, writer, director, designer, etc. it takes a lot for me to just forget where I am and fully live in the story the actors are telling. I can enjoy a play immensely but never get fully enveloped by it. It's rare, but on some nights, when every thing is clicking and you can forge a connection among strangers and feel that communal energy when you're taken away to some amazing new place or some new world you hadn't noticed right in front of you, forgetting everything outside the story and just live, just be completely alive in the moment you're sharing with a group of strangers--that's what truly excites me.
I know it probably sounds like some silly thing you're taught in school, but if you've had that experience--whether through theatre or music or sports or politics, whatever--it's addictive. People spend their entire lives trying to recreate and relive those moments.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: When I was studying in Paris, I had applied for an internship working with a Parisian theatre and was turned down by my college because my GPA wasn't high enough. The woman who ran the program on-site asked why I didn't do an internship. I was open and told her I really wanted to but my grades weren't good enough to qualify. She looked at me blankly then furrowed her brow and said, "Who told you you can't do that? A piece of paper? That's stupid. Go do it."
So I did. She helped me and called a friend who was an actor and hooked me up with an internship with a Arguia Theatre, a small theatre doing a show at Théâtre du Chaudron-- who only houses plays directed by women. It was right next to Le Théâtre du Soleil. The first day I was there they asked me what I wanted to learn and I said, "everything." They laughed at that, but because I asked, everyone took the time to help me learn and pass along whatever knowledge they could to offer.
I worked my ass off and learned a lot and then they asked me to stay on for another month or two and help them with a festival they were doing with La Tempête, another theatre in that crazy compound. I didn't know it was 41 plays in rep (with around 275 actors) by a who's who of French theatre. It was an amazing thing to see firsthand. I was very lucky, I was working 30-40 hours a week at what was essentially a poor storefront and at the same time was able to watch and interact with some of the most amazing artists in Paris.
I think everything that has been good in my life since has followed the same pattern. I guess that's a long way to say: be open; don't be afraid to ask; work your ass off; recognize when you're lucky; thank the people who are helping you; and if someone tells you you can't do something--That's stupid. Go do it. And if push comes to shove, don't worry about trying to get your foot in the door--just kick the damn door off it's hinges and go.
Q: Plugs, please:
Trickster opens January 6th, Iphigenia opens February 17th and the Alcyone Festival opens June 9th. All are at the Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave in Chicago (the old Body Politic and Victory Gardens space for folks who haven't been in Chicago in a while.)