Mar 6, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 322: Victor Lesniewski
Photo credit: Joshua Bright for The New York Times
Hometown: Torrington, CT
Current Town: Brooklyn, NY
Q: Tell me about Where Bison Run.
A: I wanted to write a play exploring the political situation in Belarus. We really only hear about it in our media when there's an election (like in December of 2010) and then it's only in the news cycle a couple of days and everyone here forgets all about it again, for years until the next election. Plus all we get is coverage skewed toward those protesting the restrictions on their civil liberties. Not that this is all bad. The more coverage on a global scale for them the better. But these protestors are a small part of the country's population and this kind of coverage does seem to be lacking in a deeper analysis of what the population as a whole is experiencing in that country. Calling a thinly veiled dictatorship out for what it is is fine, but we must also accept that those people in power are very good at what they do and that the average Belarusian is not veiwing his/her life through the same lense we are. The majority of Belarusians support their government because they've seen improvements in their standard of living compared to what came before. Not even assuming that we have any right to do so, but asking the question anyway, how do we approach a whole country of people who see their lives as improving over time and attempt to convince them that they are actually lacking in certain key civil liberties that may lead to an even better livelihood? Not only this, but when taking into consideration an area of the world where the land itself has been trampled upon by such a variety of people and nations over various extended periods of time, how do we expect one nation to unify itself and prosper? And how could this happen without an extremely strong organized government force? I am in no way defending the crimes committed against the civil liberties of the citizens of Belarus, but simply asking, if we are going to look on with what we feel is justified horror for a couple of days every few years, don't we owe it to ourselves to investigate the real issues at hand in the country everday on a more social, economic, and cultural level? Isn't their more to be gained by trying to understand the country's people than by simply disavowing the country as a whole due to its government?
And if all that sounds really boring, well, the play is also about hockey. I'm a big hockey fan and the sport is huge in Belarus, so it seemed like a natural way in to exploring the politics from a more personal level.
The play just had a reading at Ars Nova which was really tremendous. The cast's wealth of talent was completely unreal. I know Adam and many others out there know this already, but Ars Nova is such a great place to work. In addition to featuring powers that be who are really intelligent and great with new work, the community overall is fantastic. The shows that go up there are in such a wide range of styles. They embrace new and exciting work no matter what it looks like and that really helps build relationships among artists/musicians/performers from all walks of life.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I have another play that had a public reading a few months ago. It's called Cloven Tongues. It's set in a small town in upstate New York and deals with an immigrant woman with an unknown past who gets picked up at the Canadian border for running drugs. A priest and a social worker take her in and try to figure out how best to help her. Like Bison it has a certain global element to it where American characters come into contact with someone from a culture they may not completely understand. In the end though, this play is also about those American characters and for what reasons we in this country sometimes go about trying to help others.
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'm not sure if high school can be considered childhood. I know when I was in high school, I certainly didn't consider it so, but... In high school I was lucky enough to go on a class theatrical outing and see Long Wharf's production of David Rabe's A Question of Mercy. This was when Doug Hughes was there. The production was brilliant and the play really struck a chord with me. It was such a political play yet it was completely personal and heart wrenching. It examined and considered very big questions without lecturing. It was truly powerful and inspiring. At that point I thought, if theatre can do that, that's what I want to do.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Creating more opportunities for playwrights to have their work produced on a professional (not just do-it-yourself) level. There is so much creative talent in NYC when you look at all of the directors and actors both working and not working. I think the city could support even more theatres, productions, etc on a very high level. Of course all this comes back around to the ability to actually produce at that level. So I suppose a variety of things would have to change, we'd be talking about growing younger audiences, finding production dollars, etc. I have an infinite amount of respect for those people who are already taking up these tasks on a day to day basis. Theatre administrators and staffs (not just in NYC, but across the country) have dedicated their lives and livelihoods to fighting a very difficult war and they are truly heroic.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Gorky, Chekhov, Havel, Pirandello.
Rabe, Shinn, Baitz, Sorkin.
Beckett, Artaud, the Italian Futurists.
Dostoevsky, Calvino, Faulkner.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: New plays. Plays that deal directly with where we are right now as people, or as a culture, or as a world. Plays that deal with our humanity on a global scale.
And given the subject matter of Bison I'd be remiss not to add my admiration for the Belarus Free Theater. They make a kind of political theatre that I don't know I would approach myself, but that is very powerful, poignant, and very necessary given the current circumstances under which they operate. With members who have been arrested, beaten, and chased underground (and I'm sure that's only part of the story), it is simply amazing what these people have sacrificed in the name of art and freedom.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Go see new plays. Successful artistic communities have always thrived when contemporary artists are in conversation with one another through their work.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: My girlfriend just happens to be the incredibly gifted playwright Janine Nabers. Her play Annie Bosh Is Missing is going to Sundance this spring. So keep an eye out for that one when it gets back to NYC and anything else with her name on it. For more info on Janine, check out Part 180 of this blog. Yes, that's right, I just plugged the blog from inside the blog...