May 11, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 351: Gwydion Suilebhan
Hometown: Baltimore, MD. When I was born, it was the seventh-largest city in the country. Throughout most of my childhood, it never fell below about more than a couple of slots. It’s 21st now, which is a whole different ball game, but it’s still just a tiny bit ahead of my current home town: Washington, DC. What’s my point? My point is that just saying “Baltimore was my hometown” might not convey what it meant to have lived there when I lived there. My family lived in the suburbs, mostly, but it felt like we were hovering on the edge of something Huge and Historic and Important all the time… and I doubt those are words that many people associate with Charm City any more (to my great sadness).
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a commission for Theater J—a new play that I’d rather not discuss in specifics lest I ruin the mojo. (They’re doing a reading in February 2012.) I will say this: it feels like the most important story I’ve worked on for quite some time. It feels like the stakes are high. I love the feeling.
Q: So how many playwrights are there in DC?
A: Well, it just so happens I know the answer to that. At last count, there are about 180 playwrights living and writing in the DC metropolitan area. When all is said and done, I believe we’ll get to 200. If you accept the commonly-cited figure that there are 10,000 playwrights in the United States, that gives us 2% of the total right here. Given that “right here” includes only .4% or .5% or so of the country’s population (I’ve included playwrights living in the suburbs in my count), I’d say we’re doing pretty darn well.
How do I know all this? Because not long ago, I posted a list of the playwrights I knew on my blog, then asked others to circulate the list and send me names. In two days the list had grown by more than 100 names. It still keeps growing, in fact. I get another name or two every day.
My original goals were to change the perception that DC isn’t a playwright-friendly town and to re-orient a few local artistic directors to the notion that we have an immense diversity of stories being told in our own city, which means there’s no need to continually import them all from New York and points west. Now I’m starting to think that there are other possibilities worth exploring, from making an email list to getting everybody together to figure out what our shared pain points and opportunities are to just plain hanging out and getting to know each other. Being a playwright can be lonely, after all, and it’s only a rather annoying and false sense of competition that keeps us from learning from and supporting one another. I’d like to be able to do whatever I can to help build community.
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’ve known I was going to be a writer, in one genre or another, since I was about 14 years old… so I need to look even earlier in my life for a story. The first thing that occurs to me isn’t a specific story but the many hours I spent playing with Lego blocks with my best friend David. We would build enormous castles and outrageous vehicles of one sort or another, create characters—idealized adult versions of ourselves, essentially, with different names—and improvise hours-long adventures. At some level, that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
But the story that I think explains who I am as a writer happened in Hebrew School. Although I wouldn’t have said it this way at the time, I was struggling with the fact that I just didn’t believe in God, even at 11 years old. Everyone around me was acting as if they just accepted the fact of God’s existence, and I felt like a sham because I couldn’t. I was worried that everyone would figure out I was only pretending.
And then one day my teacher was telling class about the Jewish holiday of Purim, and all of a sudden I realized: this is a story she’s telling! It’s really just a story, like every other story I’d ever read. The Hardy Boys, A Wrinkle in Time, The Phantom Tollbooth… and the Old Testament. I could think of them all the same way. I could believe in them in the same way, which is to say that I could suspend my disbelief while the story was being told, then happily re-establish it as soon as the last word was spoken. I didn’t have to be credulous to play along.
At the same time, I also began to realize that some stories were more powerful than others. Some could clearly inspire people to do both tremendous and wretched things, and some could give voice to both beautiful and terrible ideas. I wanted to fight on the side of the good guys, which to my mind were (and still are) those who don’t deify stories, who reinvigorate the world’s mind with new narratives, who keep us fresh and alive and connected both reality AND possibility, who keep us moving forward.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: That I only get to change one thing.
But if I couldn’t change THAT, the first thing I’d do is provide clearer means by which playwrights can connect with, listen to, and learn from audiences. I believe we’re woefully estranged from the people for whom we ostensibly make stories. We’re taught not to listen to them, and we only want to talk to them through our work. We alienate ourselves; we write the stories that make us happy, rather than the stories that the members of our communities (however we define them) need and want. We don’t think about theater as service. We’re self-centered. And naturally, as a result, people tend to think of us as withdrawn and superior and elitist, which is a real shame. We’re really not so bad.
Once we crack that nut, the rest of the revolution will, I hope, proceed accordingly.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I like my theater raw, which is to say that I want it to be as different as possible from television and film. Less emphasis on effects and spectacle and more emphasis on honest storytelling. I like my sets and costumes minimal; I’d rather invite audiences to participate in the creation of the work through the imaginative process of filling in the details. I’m also interested in plays that engage science in meaningful and creative ways; not science fiction, mind you—or not only science fiction—but real science, which is strange and wonderful and exciting all on its own.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Become an auto-didact. No one is ever going to teach you the way you need to be taught. Read widely, be curious, don’t be so quick to learn (or follow) the rules, and question very deeply whether tens of thousands of dollars for a graduate degree is a fair deal.
Beyond that: develop a second career you can rely on for economic stability and health insurance. Get really good at something: so good you can earn enough money to live on by doing it about 20-30 hours a week. Love whatever it is, too; don’t resent it for what it isn’t. And let it inspire you. Let it keep you part of the general population of the world. Because you are, whether you like it or not.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: My play LET X is opening for a short run in Chicago this July. I have a reading of BUGGY & TYLER (a new full-length version of a one-act that ran earlier this year) here in DC in September. Beyond that, REALS will also be returning to DC in early 2012.