Apr 24, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 446: Adriano Shaplin
photo by Duska Radosavljevic
Hometown: Burlington, Vermont
Current Town: Jersey City & Philadelphia
Q: Tell me about Sophie Gets the Horns.
A: It’s about a group of young artists attending a liberal arts college in the ‘90s. Just as I was starting to work on the piece, I saw an amazing student production of The Glass Menagerie, so I was thinking about memory plays. I was also reading a lot of Sylvia Plath, mainly her diaries as well as The Bell Jar and reading a bit about her relationship with Ted Hughes. I was drawn to something in these stories, something about the way they used their pasts, and that started me writing about young artist in the 90’s, attending an elite school, and I started to want to measure the distance between then and now. The Riot Group was formed when we were all freshman at Sarah Lawrence College, and a lot of shit went down there; a lot of great shit, but also some really scary shit. Those experiences absolutely shaped who we are as individuals and who we are together. As of last month, we’ve been collaborating for 15 years, and something felt right about reaching back and telling a story inspired by our collective past. Of course, that was only the beginnings--a few pages of ideas and prompts. Soon after that, all the other artists join the project and bring their own associations and desires to the piece, and the story grows from there.
Q: Can you describe the process by which you create work with The Riot Group?
A: Yeah, it always starts with some seed of a desire to express something that isn’t easily expressed. I make some notes and sketch some voices and just basically throw some darts at the wall. I write some disembodied soliloquies and fragments of dialogue. And long, long before there is anything that resembles a script we all begin working together, the cast and director and designers, to create the show. As the writer, I usually bring in new pages, but everybody writes, everyone generates proposals, and we throw tons of shit away, and start over many times. We build the physical language of the piece alongside the text, brick by brick. Text isn’t always the mover of what’s happening. I’m really inspired by actors. Each actor is a given in the piece before anything has been worked out about their “character”. I like to tailor and shape the role for the actor and collaborate with them in creating it. We stalk the story for a long time before we find it. Every piece is a new collaboration of some kind, with new performers or designers or a director working alongside the long-standing ensemble members, so the new encounters are also always feeding the piece.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: Well, I’m also acting in Sophie Gets the Horns, so I’m working on my choreography and memorizing lines while also finessing the script and generally getting ready to perform the piece, and rehearsing everyday. This is our first time working with Rebecca Wright, which has been incredible: she is the ultimate collaborative director, but her rehearsals are also very physically demanding. I’ll just speak for myself and say that it is kicking my ass, but I’m loving it, and can’t wait to do it again.
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 liked to draw as a child. That was what I was into. If I remembered a dream, I would draw it. I had a little army of characters I would draw and some of them were from movies or TV and some of them were from my dreams. Then I would draw pictures of these characters racing into battle with each other.
Also, I remember taking an after-school drama class when I was very young, like elementary school. And we were improvising, and I figured out that if I put a wooden block underneath my shirt and hit that part of my shirt with my fist, it would help me create the illusion that I was Frankenstein. I don’t think I actually knew who Frankenstein was—I guess I thought he was a robot or something, and wood was the closest I could come to metal—but I remember that moment, and being excited by the potential for conjuration and transformation.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I would kill all the blurbs before they kill us. No. I don’t know. I spent a lot of my youth concerned with the state of theater in general and what I thought needed to change about it (hence the name Riot Group) but I’m not so certain about those things these days. I think it would be cool if there were more artistic directors who were actors, writers, or designers. I also think it would be great if artists could make a living wage while also letting audiences see the work for free.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: I would say that Hulk Hogan and Meredith Monk were my theatrical heroes in terms of early influence and that today it is Vegard Vinge and Ida Muller, no question. They have shaken me to the core. I was there when their 12-hour production of John Gabriel Borkman was shut down in Berlin, and it definitely changed the way I think about what I’m doing. They are unafraid to pursue their obsessions all the way to the end. Their work is totally uncompromising, totally personal, and totally epic, all at once.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I like sacrifice and transgression. I like to be scared. I’m looking for that feeling where you float a little bit outside of your body, like when you’re just starting to go to sleep and your dream life is taking over. I want to see artists putting themselves on the line. I also like things that are mysterious. I’m excited by performers who create their own work and designers who perform. I love Sibyl Kempson’s plays and Jim Findlay’s work. I’m way into Sheila Callaghan and Young Jean Lee, and I’m obsessed with Applied Mechanics and, of course, Vegard and Ida.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Make friends. Form a gang. Don’t go into it alone. Identify the people around who are inspiring and find a way to work with them. Act. Work in three dimensions; don’t live on the page. Don’t write everyday