Feb 22, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 429: Joe Tracz
Hometown: Northville, Michigan
Current Town: Brooklyn, NYC
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Two musicals. One is with composer Craig Carnelia, and it's based on a recent true event. The other, with Joe Iconis, is an adaptation of a young adult sci-fi novel called Be More Chill. Weirdly, both touch on the same concern -- the way we use technology to build an identity, and what happens when that technology betrays us. I don't recommend writing two musicals at the same time, but it seems to be working out: where one story is tragic and true, the other is poppy and genre-riffy, so it's like using the same DNA to build two very different monsters. Uh, children. Did I say monsters? I meant children.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: In middle school, I entered a competition sponsored by the Henry Ford Museum where you had to present a diorama of a futuristic city. My writer brain devised a future where overpopulation was solved by zapping cities with a shrink ray and launching them into space. I convinced my team (hardcore science kids, all) that we should wear flightsuits and pretend to be astronauts who discovered one of these cities in, like, a wormhole or something. The brilliant part -- or so I thought -- was that we could claim our diorama wasn't a scale model, it was the ACTUAL CITY ITSELF!! Also, there were puppets.
When we showed up at the museum, I realized I'd gotten it horribly, horribly wrong. The judges wanted science, not science fiction. They wanted a factual discussion of urban planning and we were giving them Farscape. I was devastated, I felt like I'd let my team down. Of course New Lilliput lost. But my teammates forgave me when the camera crew showed up and went straight for our table. It turns out puppets and flightsuits make great visuals for the evening news.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Beyond the usual wishlist -- expanded audience base, lower ticket prices, fewer plays set in upper middle class living rooms -- I'd love to see greater national cross-pollination. While I heart localized theatre, as a New York writer I feel disconnected from what's happening in Chicago, or Atlanta, or California. Not to mention internationally. We live in the age of instant networks; we should be creating locally but sharing on a bigger scale.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: From Kushner, I learned to be unafraid of going big and risking messy (a lesson I maybe learned too well), and from Churchill I learned the power of letting content dictate form. Also, I just picked up the book Eminent Outlaws, which traces the LGBT progress of the 20th century back to writers, many of them playwrights, who challenged conventional notions on what stories could be told. So that's all in there. But regular shots of inspiration come from the writers I interact with -- the Ars Nova Play Group gang, my classmates from NYU, and, right now, the Sons of Tennessee, which is a group some friends and I just formed inspired by this gay poets' salon we read about in the Times. I get to grab a beer with my heroes on a regular basis. How many people in other professions can say that?
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Looking at all the remakes and sequels in movies and on TV, it sometimes feels like theatre is one of the last safe homes for truly original stories. I'd rather see a new play by a playwright I've never heard of and know nothing about, than another really solid production of The Seagull. I love sitting in the audience and having no idea what kind of experience I'm in for. And think about it: a play has never been ruined because they showed all the good parts in the trailer.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A; Learn to take criticism well, and smartly. Even if a note seems wrong, don't dismiss it out of hand. Try to figure out what's really being asked, and how to incorporate it in a way that still honors your intentions. I watch shows like Chopped and Project Runway, and I scream at the TV because half the time, the contestants are too defensive to realize the judges genuinely want their work to get better. Then I realize I could take that to heart myself. So that's my advice: watch more Food Network. (But seriously, you can learn a lot about your own work from watching creative people in other fields.)
Q: Plugs, please:
A: In March, I'm having a reading of my play UP NORTH with the awesome people at Playwrights Realm. Also, my day job is with Blue Sky Studios, the feature animation house at 20th Century Fox, writing on an action fantasy film called LEAFMEN. Our first teaser trailer should be coming soon to a big-screen near you. I'm a lifelong animation geek; my twelve-year old self couldn't be more psyched.