Mar 27, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 437: Alex Lubischer
Hometown: Humphrey, Nebraska
Current Town: Chicago, IL
Q: Tell me about THE Xylophone West.
A: Often, the desire to explore a certain relationship will inspire me to begin a new play. With The Xylophone West, I wanted explore the unbreakable bond between two boys growing up in rural Nebraska- a relationship that, for most of their community, is too close for comfort.
I wasn’t interested in creating a clear-cut relationship; one defined as distinctly ‘a friendship’ or ‘a gay relationship’. They’re 14-year-old-boys. I don’t think they know what to call it themselves; they only know it’s good. And I think there’s a lot of truth in relationships and ideas when we’re younger. There’s more honesty in the world’s lack of definition at that age. It’s only when we get older that we start forcing ourselves into boxes: “I’m this, she’s that. We fit neatly into these categories.” I think life is more nuanced than that and it’s something I explore in my writing.
Halfway into the first draft I discovered a Mark Twain quote– “It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” That fascinated me and informed the rest of my process. I think it rings especially true in today’s world.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: A comedy! I’m fascinated by the Elysian quality of golf courses, their Zen characteristics, but also the bizarre Midsummer-esque feel they take on at night. This new play, which hopefully will come to fruition soon, is essentially a love story between a young man and young woman- both of who are closer to the edge of sanity than most. It’s set in the world of golf.
Q: Tell me about Route 66. Have you read anything there lately that you're excited about?
A: As Literary Manager for Route 66 I have the opportunity to develop the work of other exciting young artists; it’s a job that’s very dear to me. In April, we’ll be launching our outreach program for early career artists through a special collaboration with the National Theater Institute’s Advanced Playwrights program. The emerging playwrights in the program – Haygen Brice Walker and Mike Poe- will each workshop a play over the course of a weekend, culminating in a public reading for Route 66’s patrons. Working with The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s Literary Manager Martin Kettling on this project, as well as Erica Weiss, Route 66’s Associate Artistic Director, has been so rewarding.
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 second grade, I wrote a one-page paper about my greatest hero: Grandpa Ron. Grandpa had been a radio operator and load master/flight attendant in the Air Force in the 50s, 60s, and 70s and continues to lead a truly remarkable life. As a 7-year-old, however, I was not especially cognizant of the facts of Grandpa’s past. Instead, I imagined a story about his years as a fighter pilot, flying deadly missions against the Nazis in World War II.
I think where I’m at now, as a 23-year-old playwright, is akin to that moment in my life. People fascinate me, I admire heroism, and for me, what I’m working toward is finding the authenticity that occurs in everyday life along with the sensationalism. There is a level of romanticism that will always have a place in my storytelling. I’m constantly trying to strike that balance: to find truth through fiction, to tell stories that hurdle the boundaries between romanticism and true life.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: The money, quite frankly. We live in a society where a vast majority of artists cannot earn a living wage making art. As an early career playwright, you have to accept a life of relative poverty in which you’re working two or three jobs to get by, while writing your plays for little to no money. I think we’ve lost a lot of potentially brilliant playwrights to other professions. I want to make art, I love the theater, but at the end of the day I also want to eat, have health care, and be able to afford to have a family someday. So if I could change anything about theater in this nation, it would be to live in an America that supports its artists.
Q: Who are your theatrical heroes?
A: Tennessee Williams and Tom Waits.
Tennessee gave everything for his art. He threw all of his hopes and dreams and demons into it, often with profound results. I admire his devotion to his craft. His plays are at once brutal and sympathetic.
In Tom Waits, I see an artist who utilizes theatricality better than any other storyteller alive today. His songs- his stories, essentially- all submerge you in a unique atmosphere that’s simultaneously otherworldly and American. And in his live performances he makes flesh the theatricality he’s written into every song. He can transport his audience to another world with hat, a megaphone, and a fistful of glitter.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I just saw Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind for the second time in Chicago. That kind of raw authenticity and connection with the audience -that bare-bones kind of theater- thrills me. It’s funny, because that kind of theater also diminishes the role of the playwright as master storyteller.
In terms of more traditional theater, I will always gravitate toward a story that strives for universality. Rarely is it actually achieved, but the effort must be present. It was crucial for me that Xylophone raised the damning consequences of intolerance and hate to where they exist in real life. In a peripheral sort of way, the play ended up tackling anti-gay bullying in America. Now, I’m proud of that and I think that’s an issue we need to have more effective dialogue about.
Cormac McCarthy (who’s probably my favorite novelist and also has a terrific play, The Sunset Limited) once said that the only real literature is that which explores issues of life and death. I apply that same principle to theater. A play may be comedic, it may be about love or any number of themes, but it must transcend a very specific situation to attain universality. The risk of the play’s situation must be every bit as palpable for an audience in rural Nebraska or south-central Los Angeles as it is to an affluent, liberal theatergoer.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: I just read Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams for the first time, and in the forward of my book he tells this anecdote.
My esteemed colleague said to me, “Tennessee, don’t you feel that you are blocked as a writer?”
I didn’t stop to think of an answer; it came immediately off my tongue without any pause for planning. I said, “Oh, yes, I’ve always been blocked as a writer but my desire to write has been so strong that it has always broken down the block and gone past it.”
I think there’s a lot of truth in that. I think you have to have that, and you have to cultivate that drive and work at it, too. I also find- and this is frustrating- that the best things I write, time and time again, are the things that terrify me, that reveal emotional truths in my soul I would rather have kept hidden. I think you have to write stories that you are afraid to write, and to always push yourself, and never settle for good enough. I say these things not because I’ve mastered them, but because I’ve been struggling with them from the very beginning and continue to do so daily. But it’s good work to do.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: The Xylophone West runs March 16 – April 4 at Red Tape Theatre, 621 W. Belmont Ave, Chicago IL
Tickets are available at thefineprinttheatre.org and brownpapertickets.com
For more on Alex Lubischer’s plays, prose, and freelance, visit www.alexlubischer.com