Sep 27, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 385: Mickey Birnbaum
Hometown: Los Angeles.
Current Town: Los Angeles.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A play about backyard wrestling, and another one about the American Revolution that's kind of a cross between "The Romans in Britain" and "Our Town." I'm also starting up as an MFA student this month to earn a writing degree and hopefully embrace the life of an academic in my non-existent free time.
Q: How does your film work inform your playwriting and vice versa?
A: The world keeps getting more visual every day, so we better speak its language. When I started writing plays I purposely used movie rhythms -- short scenes, impossibly epic settings -- especially because I am usually trying to write for a relatively young audience that would just as soon be watching movies on their iPhones. Then for a while I got ornery and wrote things that looked marginally more like standard plays, with some unity of time and space. Now, I'm ready to go back to exploding time and space. As far as the film work goes, I'm trying to migrate into more of a TV sensibility, where story flows from character, and language trumps visual.
Q: How would you describe the LA theater scene?
A: The most talented people I've ever come across, and some of the most generous and supportive. This being such a big city, full of nooks and crannies, it's sometimes hard to find or just reach some of the best companies doing the most ground-breaking work. Like, it's weird to find a stellar production in a well-equipped waiver theater in a mini-mall on the eastern stretch of Anaheim, but so it goes. Sometimes I think if the community were more centralized, it would thrive more, but who really knows? In any case, theater artists who persevere in the face of a failing economy, public apathy, and lack of institutional support are heroes, as far as I'm concerned. Or maybe that's just the definition of an artist in America, unfortunately.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: One of my earliest memories is being four years old and standing outside the LA County Courthouse, and my mom telling me I had a new name. She had fled cross-country out of spite to prevent my dad from having visitation after their divorce. She wouldn't talk about him thereafter. It took me 35 years to find him. He was a great guy. A couple years after that name change, my mom and her date (who became my step-dad) took me to see Bob Barker's Marionette Theater. Those are kind of like the north & south poles of my life.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Realistically, I'd like to see the larger, more successful institutions nurturing smaller companies and writers with promise. Unrealistically, I'd like to see new plays in every theater in the country, playing to packed houses.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: The usual thugs, Miller, Pinter, Beckett, Thornton Wilder above all. More recently, Franz Xaver Kroetz, Howard Brenton, Philip Ridley, Martin McDonagh, John Steppling, and about a million others. All my colleagues are better writers than I, and thank god I have the opportunity to learn from them. At the risk of playing favorites, Jacqueline Wright's the most fearless playwright I know, and an amazing actress as well. I've worked with her a lot, lucky me.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Where narrative & non-linear collide. Where there is deep, deep feeling. Where realism and surrealism mesh. Where I don't know where the stage ends and I begin.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Read Shakespeare. Find a playwright/teacher to learn from, someone whose lineage you want to follow. Think of them as a Shaolin monk, and you the apprentice. Renounce the world, it will not reward you for wanting to be a playwright, and embrace the art. Raise a family, Dig in the ground. Recognize you are mortal. Do not try to write for film or television until you are in your forties and have a voice that is unassailable by the influence of idiots. Be original. If you want to be a genre writer, go immediately to film or television, do not pass go, do not collect the two hundred dollars you would get for your play. If you can't go on, go on. Kick against the pricks. Fail, as often as possible. Be vulnerable. Eat well and exercise. Learn to rest in contradictions. Negative capability is your friend.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Find me among more illustrious company at www.dogear.org.