Friday, November 04, 2011

I Interview Playwrights Part 400: Julia Brownell

Julia Brownell

Hometown:  Ridgewood, NJ. In terms of theater, basically this means I was a 35 minute bus trip away from Port Authority. I'd take the bus in with my friends or my brother, eat at the Olive Garden, and see a Broadway show.

Current Town:  Los Angeles, CA and Hoboken, NJ. For the last two years, I've lived in LA for 7 or 8 months of the year and then shuttled back to Hoboken for the rest of the time. I've lived in sublets in Los Angeles; all my stuff - my clothes, my bed, my cat, my husband - are on the East Coast. It's not ideal.

Q:  What are you working on now:

A:  My play All-American is in previews at the Duke Theater on 42nd Street. It's an LCT3 play, produced by Lincoln Center. It's a play about sports - a retired professional football player, his high school quarterback daughter, her twin brother, and their mom. I'm excited about it because I think these are characters we don't see onstage so often. It's directed by Evan Cabnet, who is a fantastic director and brilliant with new plays, and has an amazing cast. The LCT3 program is amazing, too, because all tickets are only $20, so I don't feel bad asking my friends to come!

Q:  What was it like writing for Hung?

A:  Writing for television is intense; the pace is fast and the hours are very long. I have always really enjoyed sleeping, so it was a bit of an adjustment. But ultimately it's very exciting, and I love going to work everyday and seeing eight other writers. I find playwriting and screenwriting pretty lonely. Before I worked in TV I had a day job and I loved it because of the social interaction part. It's pretty great to come in and have other people doing what I'm doing, feeling what I'm feeling, to collaborate with, to commiserate with, and most of all, to learn from. Our showrunners started out as playwrights in New York so we have a lot of playwrights on the show; it's a pretty cool environment.

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 played sports, particularly soccer and basketball, and almost every day after school when I didn't have practice I'd go outside and kick the soccer ball against the side of our house or shoot hoops and write stories, plays, movies, whatever in my head. I'd stay out there for hours, just kicking the ball and making up characters and dialogue. When I was maybe twelve or thirteen, I wrote an entire musical in my head. Never wrote it down, never performed it, but I still know a bunch of the songs. (Note: it's not good at all. It's pretty bad.) Now, as an adult, I run 8 miles or so every morning before I sit down to write. That's when I think through everything; when I finally sit down to write the words just come out - I've already planned it out. I really can't write without running beforehand.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  I'd give regional theaters more credit. Living in (or just outside) New York I've sometimes felt like there's a bias against anything not produced in New York (with the exception of maybe Chicago). I've spent a lot of time at several regional theatres - Hartford Stage, Trinity Rep, the Alliance - and the work they do is as exciting or more exciting than what happens in New York. Plus, the community support they get is tremendous. At the Alliance I really felt like the community had a real stake in the theater they did; in a sense, they were rooting for it. I love the fact that I can be in New York and have ten different options of exciting stuff to see, but I also wish that regional theaters got a bit more prestige, a bit more recognition.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  My first theatrical hero was Edward Albee - I read Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf the summer before my freshman year of college and I remember thinking, I didn't know a play could could jump off the page like this. It's one of those plays where I remember exactly where I was when I read it and how I felt. After that, Chris Durang, because I didn't know you could make characters talked the way his characters talked.

Connie Congdon taught me playwriting in college and made me believe I could do it. She also taught me to think theatrically in a way I hadn't before. We spent a lot of time just sitting around her office, shooting the shit and making each other laugh. I admired her career - all of a sudden being a playwright seemed feasible. It was a career and a life. After college, as I interned at Hartford Stage and then The Public Theater and then went to NYU for grad school, they flooded in - not just writers but directors and actors and designers and administrators, etc. There's a lot of pretty fantastic and talented people in this world. Jeremy B. Cohen of Hartford Stage (and now the Producing Artistic Director of the Minneapolis Playwright's Center) was an early mentor for me - he's just so passionate about new plays and developing playwrights. I was very lucky to meet him when I was 22.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  I learned this in grad school - I can't remember who said it - and I've found it tremendously important to remember as I try to navigate my career: only writing is writing. Researching your play is not writing. Taking meetings with production companies in LA is not writing. Sending out your work to a festival or contest and writing a cover letter is not writing. Pitching a movie is not writing. To be a writer you have to write. Yes, you have to advocate for yourself and put yourself out there, but I strongly believe that the work is in the writing and the rest will eventually fall into place.

Also in grad school, Janet Neipris told us about peaks and valleys. She would make a hand motion when she did it. Everybody's career takes a different course - peaks and valleys - so there's no use comparing yourself to other people. Your career will be your career, and nobody has the same journey. It's really important to me to not get caught up worrying about who's had what production where and who sold what screenplay or whatever. I just try to get passionate and excited about my own stuff, and other people's stuff that I like, and not get too caught up in the small world pettiness of it all.

Oh yeah, and know who you trust to look at your work. Have one or two or three people whose notes you believe in to look at your writing, and take everyone else's advice with a grain of salt. Listen to notes, but be particular about the notes you take.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Come see All-American at the Duke on 42nd Street - it runs through November 19. We have Monday night shows!

My husband's a founding member of a theater company, Fault Line Theater, which is running a fantastic production of Aristophanes' "The Frogs" at 4th Street Theater which also runs through November 19. This company makes classical theater so fun and so accessible.

Also watch season 3 of "Hung" at 10 pm on HBO on Sundays.

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