May 19, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 355: E. Hunter Spreen
E. Hunter Spreen
Hometown: I was born in Hartford City, IN. My family moved around a lot, so I lived in Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky.
Current Town: Los Altos Hills, CA
Q: Tell me about your play with Shotgun.
A: Care of Trees is about love and belief and what happens to your relationship when your partner goes somewhere that you can't follow or that you don't understand. The play also tackles some big questions w/r/t our relationship with the planet, but in a deeply personal way - through the vehicle of a love story. When I first started the play, I had this idea that I'd write a stripped down play with two actors and not much else. But I had trouble getting it started and keeping it going, so I brought in this idea that Travis would film his wife, he'd be obsessed with trying to document what he considered symptoms of Georgia's illness and she would resist because she sees her situation in a completely different way. Eventually, that idea evolved into a writing screenplays that would be filmed and which would run within the play. The idea was that these films would be like the spontaneous films we shoot of our lives with our digital cameras and cellphones. They're not made for an audience, they're just ways of capturing moments. It's been amazing watching how the story emerges through the interplay of actors and those films.
The play was commissioned for Shotgun's 20th Anniversary season. Patrick Dooley, the AD, commissioned five new plays to mark the occasion, so a whole season of new work, and I'm honored to have gotten to write this for them.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I'm thinking about my next four plays - Dumb Puppy, The Archive and a couple of others. How that work's going to proceed. The Archive is a devised work that will rely on community involvement to generate the material. It's a large scale project and I need to spend some time figuring out how to structure the generation process logistically and how to do the outreach on the scale that I want to do it. So mostly it's planning and writing out all the steps - from generation to devising to performance. Dumb Puppy is more manageable. I sit down and write it (at least that's what we hope for). I've tried to write it twice before, each time getting a few more pages. The time feels right to take it on again. As for the other two plays, I need to spend time in the Ransom Library in Austin doing research and so those plays require a bit more in terms of resources - ie. money, but also time and research assistance so that I could get through the material more efficiently. Plus having a partner or team would effect the material and take some of the decisions about it out of my hands which I always like.
I'm also working on a community art project that's being devised by Moïse Touré and Frances Viet over the next year. We did the first phase a couple of weeks ago. I went into the studio for a film interview and then Frances created choreography based on my answers. They'll come back to San Francisco a couple more times and then the community they've assembled will perform the piece. So it's still being shaped and discovered. I have no idea at this point what it's going to look like, but the time in the studio was incredibly powerful and moving. I was paired with a film-maker and we were interviewed together. The exciting thing for me is that the project brings together people from all walks of life and presents their perspective both on film and on stage.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: Here's a list. Make of it what you will.
1. As a kid, I liked to watch Batman. I would press my face against the TV screen and look at all the dots in the image and listen to the sound.
2. I loved to read. I would read the covers off of books. I can remember the first book I could read all by myself. When I was in high school, I would bring stacks of books home and read them all over the weekend.
3. I was an obsessive spinner. I would stand in the middle of a room and spin spin spin until I annoyed my grandmother and she would make me stop.
4. When I was a kid, I believed that baptism was real - like when you were immersed you really did die and when you were lifted out of the water you came back to life. So going to church was very disturbing to me. This whole elective drowning thing freaked me out. Equally disturbing - no one else seemed to be as horrified by it as I was. This is an example of why you shouldn't believe everything you think.
5. When I was six I remember I couldn't sleep one night. I was terrified for some reason and so I couldn't get to sleep. I kept going downstairs and trying to get in bed with my mom and dad. I claimed that I smelled smoke. I was lying and my dad knew it. He kept taking me back upstairs and putting me in bed. I got up three or four times. And my dad took me right back upstairs. But the last time he took me up, my bed was on fire. We got out of the house before the whole place burst into flames. Sometimes I feel like that when I write. I think something and then it happens. You know, kind of like Drew Barrymore in Fire Starter.
6. I'm not convinced any of these items explain who I am as a writer.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: We'd get as excited about failure as we do about success. I wish there were places where I could just experiment - you know, hey people, this might not work but I'm going for it. Come watch it and tell me what you think. Sam Shepard had that freedom and there's so much imagination and playfulness in his early plays. They don't all work, but he was just writing and making and figuring it out by having productions go up. It's hard to support that kind of work now. I dream about buying a farm and converting a barn - like how cliché is that? But really, I'd like to create this place where experimentation could take place with the support of the community that surrounds it. I think there are companies doing that already - Double Edge is the first that comes to mind. Alongside the idea of fostering experimentation, I'd like to challenge the idea that an artist's scope and practice has to be limited.
What do I mean by that?
I often feel like there's a perception in the theater community that if I focus on the formal concerns of playwrighting or theater, then I can't be politically engaged or dealing with the big "issues" we face globally or locally. Or if I'm interested in generating community-based work, then I can't or shouldn't be interested in the formal aspects of theater as an art form. Somehow these things are mutually exclusive and that the audience who might be interested in one wouldn't or couldn't or shouldn't be interested the the other. There's a pigeon-holing that takes place and I'm not sure why that happens. Sure, there's the art as commerce trope, but I'm not convinced that marketing is the only reason for this situation.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: My kids. They're just endless fountains of creativity and inspiration.
These people are influences and sources of inspiration:
Pina Bausch, Tim Etchells, Andy Kaufman, Bill Hicks, Gertrude Stein, Glenn Gould, Jacques LeCoq, Anne Bogart & Siti Company, Mary Overlie, Robert Wilson, Hunter S. Thompson, Zeami, Arianne Mnouchkine, David Foster Wallace, William S. Burroughs, Elevator Repair Service, Superamas, Mike Daisey, Forced Entertainment, William Gibson, Jaques Derrida, Derrick Jensen, Eve Sussman and Rufus Corporation, Dorothy Lemoult, Ming Zhu-Hii, Jeff Wood, Susannah Martin, Brian Eno, Lester Bangs, Tarkovsky, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Ida Rolf.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I like theater that is present and that can mean many things -
it can be about the performers or it can be about the play itself or even better - both at the same time. It starts with an acknowledgement that we're all in the room together or the alley or bathroom or wherever it's happening. That's what's so great about flash mobs or pop-up theater - there's no getting around the fact that this thing is happening right now. Part of that is novelty, but part of that is this great sense of play and willingness to participate fully in life and that theater can be part of that, celebrate that, and not be this thing that happens in a dark room and you have to sit still for. Which kind of contradicts what I said in my what would you change about theater question - maybe.
But it can also happen in the room too. And when it does, it leaves an impression, it's like it rearranges all the cells in my body.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Write. Really. Don't worry about success or failure or outcome. Just write. You don't need permission to do this. Try to write everyday. Read plays. When I first started writing plays I would pick a playwright and read everything they'd ever written and in some cases, everything that had been written about them. I also read every book or play or see any film they might mention (if I haven't already) as being an influence to them. I kind of obsessive like that. Some call it "google stalking," I call it inspiration. See plays and readings. Don't forget to bring a notebook and a pen with you wherever you go.
Allow yourself to make "mistakes" and right terrible first drafts. When I started writing I was horrible and I'm not being modest. I was terrible. If I'd been in grad school, they would have taken me aside and told me to consider another career. School would not have made me better and it would have been embarrassing and frustrating for everyone. I kept at it because occasionally I would get something on the page that was exciting and alive. It took me many years to be able to sustain my voice as a writer, technically, but also physically and emotionally. It took time to build up the stamina to deal with the toll writing takes on me.
Stick it out and keep writing. If you're a writer, you won't have any other choice.
I say this because this is also part of that pigeon-holing thing that happens. There's this idea that if your talent or ability doesn't express itself when you're young - like in your twenties, then you are hosed. When I was in my twenties I could barely feed myself and make it through the day. I was a mess. But there's this idea about success and what that means and what it looks like and how it happens or doesn't and what that means for you and your artistic life if you're going to have one. And even though we don't see or hear as much about the exceptions, they are out there and they are making work. Have you heard about Marta Beckett? She's an actress/ballerina who runs the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction. She's out there in the middle of the desert making theater on her own terms. What she offers may not be your taste, but she has been performing and running that space since 1967. She's in her eighties now and still performing. She is such an inspiration.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Care of Trees opens May 21 and runs through June 19 at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley. http://www.shotgunplayers.org/2011_careoftrees.htm
National Playwrighting Month (NAPLWRIMO) is in November. http://www.naplwrimo.org/ Last year I had my first go at taking the reins for the event and it was tough because I was in the midst of writing my MA thesis and writing Care of Trees, so it was tough trying to juggle everything and keep up with the daily maintenance and support that goes into the event. This year, I can do more planning and can be more involved in directly contributing to the community that emerges during the event. I'd like to expand what we do on the site, to make it an active year round community and then we'd have that marathon month of writing in November.