Saturday, May 19, 2012

I Interview Playwrights Part 454: Norman Allen

Norman Allen

Hometown: Corte Madera, California

Current Town: Washington, DC

Q: Tell me about your show in the Source Festival.

A: On the surface, “The House Halfway” is about a bed & breakfast inn on an island in the Caribbean, where people go to commit suicide. But it soon becomes apparent that there’s much more going on than that. Audiences who come thinking they’re going to see an “issue play” about assisted suicide are going to be greatly surprised. I don’t want to say more than that, because I want the play to reveal itself, but folks should come ready to listen, and ready to argue on the way home.

I will add that the play comes from multiple and seemingly incongruous sources. There’s a hint of J. M. Barrie’s mystical Edwardian drama “Dear Brutus” in the structure of the piece, and a touch of Noel Coward in the rhythm of the comedy, but then the themes lying beneath that come from the work of folks like Joseph Campbell and Elaine Pagels, and the Gnostic Gospels themselves. And all with a comic tone.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  At the moment I’m packing for a trip to Slovenia, where my play “Nijinsky’s Last Dance” is part of the Mladinsko Theatre’s Overflight Festival, and where I’ll be leading a two-day playwrights’ workshop on using historic figures to reflect contemporary issues. I’m also in the process of adapting a big-ass Victorian novel, taking 750 pages and making it work for a two-hour performance with eight actors, which has been a blast. And I’m collaborating with a dance company for a piece that uses text and movement to explore Isadora Duncan’s years in post-revolutionary Russia.

Q:  Can you talk a little about writing documentaries? What is that like? How does it compare to writing plays?

A:  I loved working on those PBS projects. Each of them was a biography of a major artist, so I got to dig into the lives of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Cassatt and Sargent. It was a great lesson in structure, taking the mess of a person’s life and fitting it into the three acts that make up an hour of television. And I got to spend my days reading these people’s letters, or stories about them, and calling it “work.” How great is that? The actual paintings were shot in HD after the exhibits had closed for the day. We’d be at the National Gallery in the middle of the night, and I’d manage to stay one room ahead of the crew so I could be alone with these incredible works of art, with no one’s head in the way.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  When I was seven, and my sister was ten, my mother sat us down in front a record player and put on the cast album of “My Fair Lady.” After each song, she lifted the needle and filled in the story, so we got the whole scope of the show. The next day we drove into San Francisco and went to a matinee (with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., playing Higgins!) It was magic, but it was magic because we had been very carefully prepared for the experience. There are still certain images that I remember from that afternoon, specifically the green of Eliza’s dress in the Rain In Spain scene.

From that beginning, everything else unfolded. My parents recognized how important the theatre was to me and were diligent in expanding my horizons. We went to Shakespeare festivals in the summer, to ballet, to bag-lunch opera. At a very young age I saw productions that are now legendary – Peter Brook’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “Cyrano de Bergerac” with Peter Donat and Marsha Mason. All of that shapes who I am as a writer, and as a lover of theatre. But it all comes back to sitting in front of that record player.

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

A:  It needs to be cheaper, plain and simple. Commercial producers, in particular, need to recognize their responsibility to future generations of theatre artists by making their productions accessible to a larger range of people, especially young people. I saw the original “Angels In America” on Broadway by getting one of the cheap tickets made available each day to people willing to wait in line. I was so high in the balcony, I was practically in Jersey, but I got to see that amazing piece of theatre because the producers and author had a sense of responsibility to their audience.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  When I think of theatrical heroes, I think about all the artists whose work I’ll never be able to experience. I would give a lot to see Robert Armin play Feste at the Globe in 1600-something, or to see the premiere of Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in Paris, or Ellen Terry in anything at all. I wish I could thank Rostand for Cyrano. I wish I could thank Arthur Miller for All My Sons.

Q:  What kind of theatre excites you?

A:  I like great story-telling. I especially like when great story-telling converges with the exploration of un-answerable questions, which makes me a huge fan of Tom Stoppard. I feel very lucky to live in Washington, DC, where someone with eclectic tastes has lots of choices. In the last month or so I’ve seen big-house productions of “Strange Interlude” and “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” and an incredibly funny and moving production of Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” in a black-box space. And Capital Fringe is right around the corner.

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

A:  Don’t wait for someone else to tell you that your work is worthy of production – produce it yourself. But make sure you have the tools to make that production a success. I got my start self-producing in a 47-seat house at the Boston Center for the Arts, but I did it with a background in PR & Marketing, and some great press connections. We had word-of-mouth, we got some reviews and, eventually, I got an agent out of the experience. Just make sure you’ve got strong collaborators and supporters before you begin.

Q:  Plugs please:

A:  Come see “The House Halfway” at the Source Theatre Festival starting June 14th! And don’t miss all the other Festival offerings. This is a great opportunity to experience a wide range of new work.

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