May 24, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 358: Alex Lewin
Hometown: A couple of suburbs in Bergen County, NJ (my dad commuted across the George Washington Bridge), and then, after the age of 13, various locales in the 310 area code of Los Angeles. I was born in Suffern, NY. All of which means I don’t really think of myself as having a hometown.
Current Town: New York City.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A two-character, one-scene play called The Interview, about a 30-something, gay, aspiring filmmaker — sort of a member of today’s creative class — who is volunteering to be a “big brother” and is going through the screening process. As you might guess, I’ve been through this, and the extensive interview, which I knew was going to be personal and probing, surprised even me. They want to make sure any volunteer is a) psychologically stable, and b) not a child molester, and I was fascinated by the strategies they employ to gauge those things, and also by the interviewer’s agility in departing from the questionnaire when necessary. The play imagines an interview like the one I went through, but with an interviewer who happens to be having the worst day of her life, and an interviewee who happens to have some sexual proclivities that he can’t really hide (and doesn’t feel he should have to hide) from his interlocutor.
I’m also writing a screenplay called The Impostor, which is inspired by the Ghanian journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas, who is something of a chameleon/master of disguise. He goes “undercover” inside weapons smuggling rackets, or corrupt government agencies, and then exposes them in his newspaper — and nobody knows what he really looks like. In my story a journalist like Anas goes inside a high-class Washington, D.C., brothel, masquerading as a (female) prostitute. I jokingly pitch it as All the President’s Men meets Tootsie.
And I’m working with New York Theatre Workshop and Laura Flanders of GRITtv on a piece that will use the language of primary documents of the American Revolutionary period — writings of Madison and Jefferson, the Constitution and formal objections to it, populist agrarian pamphlets — and somehow (we’re in the very early stages) depict a debate or a rally or a polemic that is meant to take back a lot of this language from the lunatic right. (A phrase, by the way, that is becoming more and more a redundancy.) When they reference Jefferson and Republicanism, and when they purport to be “preserving” the Constitution, they’re almost always willfully misinterpreting American history and the thinking of the (so-called) founding fathers. Ask me in a month or two and I’ll be able to tell you more specifically what this piece is going to look like.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: This is your hardest question, Adam. The difficulty for me is that I was generally a cranky, frustrated child. I was an unhappy child who had a happy childhood. And I think that’s probably the answer to this question: I hated being treated like a child, I hated being a child, I couldn’t wait to grow up. (It’s why the Peter Pan mythology has always bored me to tears. Why would anyone want to be a child forever?) I never read children’s books, I read mysteries and spy novels, even though I didn’t always understand what I was reading. I hated the Narnia stuff. When the Nursery Rhymes category comes up on “Jeopardy!” I just throw my hands up in surrender.
I’ll tell you a story the significance of which I can’t possibly name, but for some reason it feels like a right answer to your question. When I was eight years old I went to a sleepaway camp, Camp Watonka, and I remember walking across a big lawn at twilight and stopping to stare at a boy, a year or two older than me, who was wearing a teal t-shirt and blue jeans. The sleeve of his shirt stopped just above his elbow, revealing a hint of upper arm, and the hem of the shirt stopped just barely below his crotch. All I knew was that something I really wanted was being simultaneously called attention to and withheld from me. He snapped me out of my reverie by demanding, “Got a prob?” I hurried on to wherever I was going. To this day a t-shirt and jeans is, to me, the sexiest outfit a man can wear.
Q: If you could change one thing about theatre, what would it be?
A: I would love to see theatres guarantee production to their commissionees. I would love it if theatres said, “Here’s a commission. Whatever you write, we’re gonna do it.” With certain understandings and qualifications of course: if, for instance, the playwright writes a 17-character play, s/he’s got to understand that the theatre won’t be splurging, then, for some elaborate set. Or the converse: If the playwright needs to have a functioning volcano and a waterfall, they’ve got to keep the cast small. Et cetera.
If plays were generated in such a fashion — as Angels in America was — I believe they would be more audacious. Bigger in every sense. One of the great qualities about the graduate theatre program at UC San Diego, where I got my MFA, is that each writer basically has an open-ended commission. For three seasons. You write a play (a one-act in your first year, full-lengths in years two and three) and somehow, some way, the department finds a way to produce what you write, even on shoestring budgets, during the Baldwin New Play Festival every April. They make it happen. Everyone gets together and finds a way. It’s what gave me the courage to write a three-act, ten-actor play about God and geopolitics and archaeology and the Koran and sex and ghosts, a play unlike anything I’d built before. And then that was the play, The Near East, that got me a lot of attention when I came out of grad school.
If theatres worked that way, how might American playwriting be different? I believe we’d see more political plays, more boundary-busting plays. And, yes, of course, a lot of them would be bad, but they’d be audaciously bad. I think we’d see American plays move away from modest, intermission-less, four-character dramadies with literate, minimalist dialogue. I’d rather see an ambitious travesty than a timid mediocrity. I’m not kidding when I ask: When’s the last time you saw a play with a volcano or a waterfall?
The obvious objection is, “Whoa, wait a second, how could a theatre possibly commit to producing a play that doesn’t even exist? Isn’t that taking too big a chance?” To which I respond: Theatres that do new work, I expect, would like this idea because most of them don’t really program plays, anyway — they program writers. (Which may actually be the real problem.)
Also, I wish the New York Times would publish more than one critic’s review of a given play, as the British papers do, and as the Times sometimes does with books.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Eugene O’Neill, the greatest of American playwrights. Caryl Churchill, the greatest playwright alive. Amy Freed. Larry Kramer. Jon Robin Baitz for writing The Paris Letter. My first theatre teacher, Ted Walch, who, when I was fifteen, put a copy of Glengarry Glen Ross in my hands and changed my life. Suzan-Lori Parks, all of whose plays, good or bad, are audacious. And he may be an unusual suspect, but the late, great film critic Robin Wood wrote about art as a form of protest — an antidote to all the bullshit — in a way that makes me proud to be an artist.
Q: What kind of theatre excites you?
A: Theatre that responds to film. (Consciously, I mean.)
It seems obvious to say I’m excited by theatre that provokes debate, but I also love theatre that depicts debate, and I feel like I don’t see that very often. (David Hare’s A Map of the World is one of my favorite plays.)
I’m excited by “well made,” three-act, naturalistic drama. Very old-fashioned of me, I know, but I believe most theatre audiences and producers are secretly excited by that type of theatre, too. (And not because such plays are safe or conservative or non-threatening. Just the opposite. In our era of theatre, such plays are audacious.)
Also, I love a good dick joke. Not kidding. Theatre should aspire to be lowbrow and highbrow all at the same time. Shakespeare wasn’t above a fart reference or a pussy pun. A lot of plays I see strike me as really, really polite. I can’t resist quoting Anthony Lane’s review of The Bridges of Madison County: “If you added the word ‘Cheerios’ or ‘horny,’ for instance, the whole thing would faint with shock.”
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Don’t mistake intellectualism for intelligence. (Your own and others’.) Don’t worry about being smart, don’t try to be Tony Kushner. Keep figuring out who you are and keep expressing it as best you can. Talent is directly proportional to self-awareness. Also: the people you know to be phony will ultimately end up unhappy, so try not to obsess on them.
I’ll also pass along one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received: “Don’t do business with anybody you would not invite into your home.”
Q: Plugs, please:
A: If you find yourself in the Evansville, Indiana, area on June 4, come see a reading of my play Alexandria at the New Harmony Project, where I’ll be workshopping the play for two weeks.
Also, I co-author, with Aaron Rich, the blog They’ll Love It In Pomona, where Aaron and I review movies and make fun of one another along the way.