May 20, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 356: Renee Calarco
Hometown: Rochester, NY
Current Town: Washington, DC
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m revising THE RELIGION THING, which is an uncomfortable comedy that’s scheduled for production at Theater J in January 2012. It’s a play I’ve been working on in fits and starts for about six years; there were some terrific development readings at Charter Theater/First Draft Geva Theatre, and Theater J.
Also, I just finished a revision of KEEPERS OF THE WESTERN DOOR , which is another uncomfortable comedy… about Alzheimer’s. (Because nothing says “comedy” like degenerative brain disease, right?)
Q: How would you characterize the DC theater scene?
A: Vibrant, very collegial, and more experimental that people give it credit for being. Also, audiences here are insanely smart and willing to invest their time in seeing new work. I’m an associate artist with Charter Theater/First Draft, and our mission is to develop new plays and the audiences who love them. We hold monthly free staged readings of new plays, and it’s just crazy how many people turn out for them—anywhere from 25 – 50 people on a Tuesday night. Nearly everyone stays for the post-reading discussions. Audiences just want to be heard. They want to connect, they want to engage with artists, they want to watch theater being made. And they will follow artists anywhere if we’re willing to pay attention to them.
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 come from a family that absolutely worships the performing arts; growing up, I had all these relatives who were really talented amateur artists. My maternal grandmother was an actor and singer in local Yiddish theater; my maternal grandfather was a playwright, songwriter, and director; my mom was a jazz singer; my uncle was a director and opera singer. My great-uncle was a vaudeville-style comedian. Everyone worked for a living first, and did their art on the side. It was heartbreaking because we all knew that everyone was kind of dying a little inside---desperately wanting to spend all their time performing and writing—and knowing that economically, it was impossible. My brother Joe was the first person in our family who really made the commitment to make a living doing theater. My cousin Gina is just starting her professional acting career. And I’m still a bit in both worlds: I’m a playwright who has a day job (that’s theater-related).
Anyway, here’s my story. When I was in high school, I was hanging out with my friends in the auditorium; I think we were getting ready for play rehearsal or drama class. As we sat there on the stage, I thought, “This stage is absolutely bare…and anything can happen right now. We can just make something up right now and it would still be like a performance.” It’s kind of a cheesy story, but that feeling eventually led me to doing improv, which then led me to playwriting. And now you know why improv is the gateway drug to playwriting.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: The notion that theaters have to somehow educate audiences about how important theater is. Audiences aren’t dumb. If we don’t want to entertain audiences first, I think that’s a problem. As a playwright friend of mine once said, “Nobody was ever forced to take hockey appreciation class in school.”
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Anything that’s surprising and that tells a great story. Anything that could only happen on stage, rather than on TV or in the movies. I love bare-bones productions and I love over-the-top spectacle. Really, I just like to be surprised.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Take an acting class. Take an improv class. Learn about design and stage management. And spend time with people who aren’t in the theater. This is advice I’m constantly giving to myself, as well. See plays, but also see other forms of art. The best thing about living in DC is all of the free museums!
Q: Plugs, please:
A: THE RELIGION THING opens at Theater J on January 4, 2012: