Aug 2, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 371: Ian W. Hill
Ian W. Hill
Hometown: Cos Cob, CT
Current Town: Gravesend, Brooklyn, NY
Q: Tell me about Gone.
A: Gone is really the first serious play I ever started writing, post school-juvenilia level. I began it in 1990, so it’s had a long, long road to the stage from when I first imagined it – of course I finished it in 2005, so it hasn’t been all that long since then . . .
Gone came about when I was acting in a play by Thalia Field, The Celibate, and I was taken with her use of . . . what shall I call it? “Non-standard English” in a dramatic context. The most frequent adjective that is used is “Joycean” which, I suppose, is fine as an easy descriptor, but is also teeth grindingly inaccurate. I had been writing prose in a bizarre, portmantoid style for years, but it wasn’t until I acted in Thalia’s play that I saw the possibilities of using this style in a theatrical context. I had this image of two old women sitting at a café table and discussing their lives (one of my two beloved great-grandmothers had recently died, and I was thinking of her and the other one) and what came out was this torrent of abstracted memories.
I wrote the first 5 pages of the play – it’s 11 pages long and runs 42 minutes – in a massive creative burst that first year, then couldn’t find it again except it bits and pieces for the next 13 years, over which I only wrote another 2 or so pages, line by sluggish line. Eventually, while I was a bored extra sitting around on the set of the horrible remake of The Stepford Wives for 4 months, I got the groove back and plowed through nearly to the end before getting stuck again. Then, finally, in 2005, I looked at it, saw how little there was left to do to finish it, buckled down and did it. In the meantime, of course, I’ve written a number of plays – wholly original and more often collage works – that have been produced, so it’s a strange feeling to suddenly see this play, which feels both like an “early work” and a brand-new one, coming to life in rehearsal, especially since I’ve always wondered if it could actually be performed by human beings! Realizing that something you’ve written requires tour de force performances by your cast to merely work at all is a bit daunting, but luckily I have been blessed with Alyssa Simon and Ivanna Cullinan, who have gone above and beyond in pulling it off.
It’s exactly the play I intended it to be 21 years ago when it came into my head, but it only just occurred to me in rehearsal recently that while the structure and feeling of the discussion and argument between these two women has been the same in all the time I’ve been writing it, I’ve changed so much in my life that I’ve gone from agreeing with the point of view of one of them to the other – which is probably good, as I always planned to give that one the final, convincing argument of the play, and it was easier to write when I agreed with her.
Gone is running on a double bill with another one-act play of mine, Antrobus, and that bill runs in rep with a new two-act play I’m writing, ObJects. Antrobus took a little less time to write than Gone – I conceived and started it in 1999, and am just finishing it now as we rehearse it – all my old computer files of previous versions vanished in a hard drive crash, so I’ve had to rewrite it from scratch. This has turned out to be a very good thing – it was originally written to replace a production of Sam Shepard’s Action when I couldn’t afford the rights to that, so it was a little too indebted to the set, props, and character breakdown of that play at first. It’s a little piece about a “family” attempting to survive in a future Ice Age, with cabin fever becoming the biggest problem they have to face.
ObJects is still being written around the actors as we rehearse (in fact, I’m avoiding some difficult writing right now in responding to this question), and is a science-fiction satire about class and ethics in the USA about 50 years from now. Dense and hard-to-describe, though I hope it’s fleet-of-foot and funny for the audiences. Somewhere between Shaw and Henry Adams and Network and Brazil, I hope.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: Besides the three original plays opening in August, my longer-term plans for next August are for the third installment in my dance-theatre series Invisible Republic. The previous parts were That’s What We’re Here For in 2006 (mostly theatre, some dance), Everything Must Go in 2008 (about even dance/theatre) and this new untitled one for next year (more dance, less theatre). This is a series about how certain behind-the-scenes forces work in the USA (thus far, Propaganda, Advertising, and next, Branding) told through vigorous physicality and stream-of-consciousness monologues. I will also probably write another original play to accompany this, but I won’t know until early next year what that will be. I usually go away to visit family at the start of each year and decompress, and look at the world and think about, “What shows does THIS year seem to require?” until it comes to me, so I have no idea what 2012 will bring until I get there.
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 actually remember coming in to Kindergarten the day after seeing Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and forcing all the other kids, whether they had seen in or not, to reenact the film with me – with me in the role of Willy Wonka, of course (as well as “directing”). It was only last year, as I was creating my wedding as a piece of theatre at The Brick, that it struck me that I’ve been trying to become Willy Wonka ever since, but with my plays as my treats instead of chocolate.
Of course, after I mentioned this in the wedding-play, my friend Tim Cusack – a great actor/director – corrected me, saying I wasn’t trying to give everyone delicious new chocolates with my work, but odd new combinations of strange extant flavors that make people go “Ewww” when they see them, but then they try them, and they love them. Yeah, that sounds more accurate.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Less fear. The atmosphere of terror sometimes amazes me. On a grand scale, the constant debate and concern over Theatre’s “place” in the country, or world, or in the Arts, or in Society, or what have you, is tiresome, pointless, self-indulgent, and makes us all look like scared rabbits. But in general, every action by so many people in the Theatre seems to be dictated by fear – fear of “failure” (whatever that is; your definition may vary) paralyzes so many people in our community from taking true steps forward and big risks all the damned time, that what the Work needs – the most important thing – seems to get lost in the shuffle of what everyone else is thinking that everything else “needs.”
Of course, I’m rather a lucky person in a kind of ivory tower situation, so it’s very very easy for me to talk about not having fear – failure in my work will not remove a roof from my head nor food from my table. Still, I feel so much of the community constantly looking at everything around the Work we should be doing more than the actual Work, as if it were merely an adjunct to a life-supporting system we all need rather than the cause for that system to exist in the first place.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson are at the top, no doubt, in terms of artists whose work I’ve been able to see and enjoy for years as it happens. From the past, Shakespeare and Beckett are my favorites and no one else comes near. At one time, now that I think of it, Peter Barnes was very important to me, and while his work doesn’t touch me the way it once did, I can still access those feelings easily with great pleasure (and I feel like I see his influence showing up more and more). At one time, when I despaired of finding any new playwriting interesting, finding Mac Wellman and Len Jenkin and Jeffrey M. Jones did a lot to excite me again. And Sarah Kane, though not as strong on many re-readings, gave me a serious kick in the pants when I finally read her collected work.
Spending most of my life wanting to make movies means that most of my creative heroes have been filmmakers, so I should mention Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Jean-Luc Godard, David Lynch, Nicolas Roeg, Peter Greenaway, Ken Russell, and Powell & Pressburger, whose filmic styles have made me search for theatrical equivalents. And from literature, yes, Joyce, Nabokov, Hammett, Sontag, John Berger, William S. Burroughs, and a slew of others (currently, the spirit of the very-much-alive Samuel R. Delany is hanging around over my shoulder as I write the new plays . . .).
My real theatrical heroes, however, are the people who have been working in the Indie Theatre community of NYC with great devotion for years and years. We all know where the real work is happening.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Something I haven’t seen before that could only possibly work as a piece of theatre – moving it into any other art form, or even just trying to describe it, would be so reductive of the work as to be completely ridiculous. And seeing someone pull off the seemingly impossible in casually miraculous manner is an especial joy when it happens
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Learn everything you can about all aspects of the form – but this is what I say to anyone interested in anything to do with Theatre. Learn all you can about acting, directing, all forms of design – all of it will make you a better writer within the form. And learn all the supposed rules but don’t allow yourself to be hampered by them, especially if it means losing any part of your own distinctive voice. And see lots and lots of theatre, with kindly eyes. Even in the horrifying, look for what works. You’ll have a use for it.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: THE COLLISIONWORKS 2011: At The Ends (3 Terminal Plays/3 Ultimate Plays), which consists of the two-act play ObJects running in rep with the double-bill of one-acts Antrobus & Gone, will be opening on August 11 at The Brick and running through August 28. Information on the shows and tickets is available at The Brick’s website, www.bricktheater.com, and also on the Facebook pages for each show: