Mar 11, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 323: Josh Tobiessen
Hometown: Schenectady, NY
Current Town: Brooklyn, NY
Q: Tell me about your show at Alliance.
A: ‘Spoon Lake Blues’ is a comedy about two brothers living in a small lake town in the mountains, two white guys, who start robbing their wealthy summer neighbors to try to save the house that they grew up in. One of the brothers falls in love with the daughter of an African American family that they’ve robbed and tries to start up a relationship with her and things get a little wacky from there.
I started writing this play a few years ago when I was living alone in a cabin in the woods for a few months. The town that I was living in had a mix of locals and summer residents and I found the differences between these two groups really interesting. This was also the summer of Obama’s presidential run and the collapse of the economy so all these things affected what I was writing. Including the fact that the plumbing in the cabin started backing up.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I’m working on a large cast comedy called ‘Crashing the Party’, which is about a family business that’s going belly up. As the family tries to throw a birthday party for the father, he’s trying to escape the country before the cops show up. I was really interested in exploring our country’s financial collapse in a way that didn’t let anyone off the hook. All kinds of chaos ensues but I think it has a lot of heart too. I’m doing my best to channel the zany vibe of the Kaufman and Hart comedies while keeping the subject matter current.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: Once when I was kid my family and a friend’s family went on a camping trip together somewhere in the Adirondacks. Near our campsite my friend and I found an entrance to a Gnome house. We were smart enough to know that this hole in the ground was a Gnome residence because I had recently read the book “Gnomes” by Wil Nuygen, which had pages of helpful illustrations about how Gnomes lived. So my friend and I spent the day making a crude barn for the Gnomes out of sticks from the forest and covered the roof with fern leaves. Then, to secure our position as leading Gnome benefactors we collected a small pile of acorns and left them as a gift outside the entrance to their humble residence. The next morning the pile of acorns had disappeared (obviously removed to their underground food pantry) and the Gnomes had left for us two tiny wooden swords to show their appreciation for out generosity. We were absolutely thrilled. We played with those swords all morning until my friend got a little over zealous and tried to cut through one of the ropes holding up the rain tarp. The sword broke. He was crushed. Fortunately (and this was how cool my dad was) my dad was able to quickly whittle a pretty good approximation of a Gnome sword to replace the real one that my friend had broke. It was actually amazing how closely it resembled an actual Gnome sword. But still, it was just a replica, and I had the real thing.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: All playwrights would get a six-figure salary and a unicorn.
There are a ton of things that people talk about changing in theater but I don’t know how many of them are realistic. Playwrights don’t get enough money because there are so many playwrights out there dying for a production (in a neighborhood full of middle school kids you can’t make much money mowing lawns). The normal rules of capitalism don’t apply because we do something that not enough people care about. Most professional theater in this country happens thanks to a small number of generous individuals who pay a lot of their own money to make it happen. I guess if I were going to change one thing about theater it would be that I would convince our benefactors to focus more on supporting the art rather than the architecture of theater. We get these massive architectural spaces with people’s names on them, but if they are just filled with dusty old plays then what are we really contributing to our nation’s theatrical future? Maybe we keep the old theater space but you get to put your name on a decent size play commission? Or a new play festival. Or a residency. This is happening in a few places, but I think that theater companies need to continue getting creative when someone comes to them with a big check.
That felt more like half of a thing I would change so here’s something else. I think we need figure out how to make theater cool for more people. This is hard because theatre people aren’t used to being cool except around other theatre people. You hear complaints (maybe once or twice from me) that no one wants to leave their homes anymore what with computers and televisions, but they leave their homes for music concerts and sporting events. Why? Because they like being in a crowd but also they have a pretty good idea that they’re going to like what they see. I think that theatres need to do a better job of branding themselves and creating a distinct aesthetic vision rather then trying to keep everyone happy. You go and buy the new Radiohead album (imagine for a second that you’re a Radiohead fan) if you liked what they’ve done before and you trust that their next album is also going run in a similar aesthetic vein. This isn’t saying that theatres need to do the same thing over and over again, and it isn’t saying that audiences need to go to the same theatre all the time. But audiences need a theatre that they can trust, that they can become fans of, that they can confidently tell their friends about, and that produces plays that they can’t wait to see. Theaters need to generate that kind of deserved loyalty from a core group of passionate audience members and stop worrying about making everyone sort of happy some of the time. Passionate audience members will attract new audience members with their passion, which is what we all want. Some places are already good at doing this and they’re usually the theatres that people get really excited about.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Stage managers.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I need to be surprised somehow, which sometimes means swinging on cables over an audience (I’m sorry haters, but there were some very exciting moments in Spider-man) and sometimes means making me laugh out loud. But it’s not all death defiance and punch lines, plays can also be intellectually or philosophically surprising (as long as they don’t beat me over the head with their superior world view). If I’m watching a play and I know where it’s going, or if I don’t care where it’s going, then I just feel bad for all those people in the audience who paid full price for tickets. An exciting play keeps me on my toes and activates me as an audience member.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Every playwright has taken a completely different route to get where they are today so stop comparing yourself to other writers. Just keep writing, keep making meaningful connections with directors and people who produce plays, and try to write plays that aren’t boring.
Q: Plugs, please:
Spoon Lake Blues at the Alliance Theatre, Atlanta. Previews start April 1st. Davis McCallum is directing, we have a great cast and it’s going to be a fun show.