Jul 2, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 474: John Clancy
Hometown: St. Louis, MO
Current Town: New York City and Dingmans Ferry, PA. That’s not a misprint, folks. Dingmans Ferry. We lovingly refer to it as Dingbat Junction or Dingleberry Falls, feel free to do the same.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: The Apocalyptic Road Show, the LIT Fund and a new piece for Day of the Living Festival in Los Angeles, currently titled When You Join Us. The Road Show plays The Ice Factory at the New Ohio Theater July 25-28th. It’s a profane cabaret celebrating the end of the world, funded by Creative Scotland. We toured Scotland with it last October and now it’s coming to New York. The LIT Fund is a new funding scheme that came out of The League of Independent Theater. We’ve got about seventy independent theater companies and venues committed to donating a nickel per ticket sold this year into a fund that we’ll use to establish and endowment, create an Emergency Fund and provide unrestricted funding to participating members. When You Join Us I shouldn’t talk about much because I’m still writing it.
Q: How did the NY International Fringe Festival come about?
A: Elena always says it was youth and ignorance. You can blame a lot of things on youth and ignorance, I imagine.
Short version of the story:
We had a big hit in 1995, Americana Absurdum by Brian Parks. One of the Present Company members, Leslie Farrell, had been to Edinburgh and said we would kill over there. We talked to a lot of people and they all said we should go. We ran the numbers and with a cast of ten it was going to cost us 30 grand. That was roughly our annual operating budget. So, that wasn’t going to happen, but I kept talking to people and one morning I’m sitting in our old offices in Hell’s Kitchen, drinking coffee and going through this notebook where I had all of these names and numbers and notes from New York artists who went to Edinburgh and it hit me. We’re all here. August is dead. (Remember when August was dead? Man.) So I picked up the phone, called Aaron Beall who ran Nada on Ludlow Street and asked him why there wasn’t a New York Fringe. He didn’t have a good answer, so our unholy alliance began. He knew a guy, Jonathan Harris, who was involved in launching the first American Fringe Festival in Seattle. The three of us met weekly for a while, basically playing chicken with each other, trying to find reasons why it wouldn’t work, but we couldn’t come up with anything compelling. Elena K. Holy, who was the Managing Director of Present Company back then, joined the conversation to give it some level of fiscal and administrative reality and then we were pretty much committed. And what really happened is that roughly one hundred amazing, selfless, inspired people materialized around us down on the Lower East Side in the blazing summer of 1997 and we all carried this impossible weight for twelve days. That summer is as close to the nonviolent anarchist revolution as I’ve ever experienced.
Q: Tell me about the study guide you're creating for NYTE.
A: So cool. Martin Denton, resident genius of the independent theater territory and I have teamed up to fight crime and…sorry. It’s just that we have these costumes Rochelle sewed up for us, so we keep thinking it would be cool if we went out and fought crime, but we’re older now and all of the good crime happens after midnight and seriously, if I’m up at midnight I’m too drunk to go out and fight crime.
What was the question?
I took ten plays from www.indietheaternow.com, one each from 1997-2006 and put them in a historical and generally larger context, wrote an intro to each one, asked the writers to write anything they wanted about the plays and then tried to tie it all together. Martin and I have been talking about this for a while, the fact that the history of this extraordinarily creative period in New York City theater isn’t being documented by us, the people creating it. So, we’re trying to change that.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: This is a good one. I was telling this to some friends I was staying with a couple of nights ago, known them for years, Amy Shore and Sanjay Shirke, Heroes of the Fringe, and I’d never told them this.
When I was in kindergarten, I contacted Guillain-Barre, a very rare neurological virus that basically mimics polio. Gradual paralysis, starting with the extremities and then working in towards the trunk. If you were alone in the woods, you’d die because it gets to your lungs and your heart muscles. If it’s diagnosed, then you just ride the bell curve, it gets worse and worse, they put you on a respirator when it’s at its very worst, then you start getting better and recover fully. My memory is that the whole thing lasted about three to four months, might have been longer.
But here’s the cool thing:
I had just started kindergarten when it hit. So I went from being a kid, meaning being wild and unschooled and essentially a savage, into this very strange and regimented environment. It was only kindergarten, but if you think back you can probably remember the difference between nursery school and kindergarten. Nursery school was barely controlled chaos. People would regularly cry and shit their pants and try to stab each other with scissors and the teachers kind of dealt with it all from above. There were no real rules, no more than the ones you were used to at home.
But kindergarten was serious. It was the beginning of socialization. You had to sit at a desk in a straight row and you had to keep sitting there until you were given permission to leave. The circles of nursery school were gone, everyone sitting on the floor in a circle, the pillows of naptime, all of that was put away and everything was straight lines and discipline. And I remember sitting there thinking how strange it was and at that moment a friend of mine, Tommy, broke. He couldn’t handle it. We were all kind of trembling on the edge, but Tommy was the first to break. Bawling, screaming, on the floor, both arms wrapped around the base of the desk, inconsolable. And we were all fighting it, because that kind of thing is highly contagious. We all just wanted to run out of the room and back to the playground, back to nursery school, back home, back to our backyards, away from this weird, serious, quiet room of straight lines and discipline. And the teacher, instead of being understanding and human, had a job to do. So she was trying to be firm and reasonable, you know, “Now, Tommy, get up and sit back down. Come on, Tommy. It’s all right, just sit back in your chair.” Nothing worked, Tommy’s Mom finally came and picked him up, I think. And the rest of us sat there, kind of stunned, but obedient.
And then I’m gone for three or four months. I’m in the hospital, I can’t move, I’m back home, still can’t move, just lying in bed. For some time there I couldn’t even read, couldn’t hold the book and I loved to read. So I’m just sitting there, eighteen hours a day or so, awake and thinking. And when I go back to the classroom after all of this and I’m weak but I can stand and walk, everyone is really nice to me because I was so sick. And class starts. And all of my friends, everyone I knew, started raising their hands and talking in a weird way to the teacher, just a strange, kind of formal, false tone and everyone was quiet while the teacher talked and no one was fidgeting or looking out the window and it blew my tiny little eight year old mind. They had all been broken. They had all been trained and socialized. And I was a smart kid, so I picked it right up and began to mimic the behavior, but it was just an imitation. I knew I had to camouflage my basic little kid craziness and savagery or I wouldn’t succeed in this weird obedient world. But it was just camouflage. And so, in a way, I never really got broken. Which explains a lot, I think. It’s why I got kicked out of high school and grad school, why I could never really work for anyone else for any length of time. On a base level, I accept society but I was never infected by it as a kid.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Oh, man. I only get one?
I’d wave the wand and it would no longer be Serious and Important and it would be fun and dangerous and sexy. It would be like punk rock or early hip-hop. We’d stop trying to write masterpieces and start writing love letters to each other and ransom notes to our enemies. It would be a lot faster and a little louder. It would be totally cool if your show didn’t actually, in the end, make sense. And every theater would either be a bar or at least have one attached to it
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: The regular rogue’s gallery: Artaud, Brecht, Peter Brook, Judith Malina and Julian Beck, Joseph Chaiken, lots of old and dead men and women. Also Norman Thomas Marshall and Curtiss I’ Cook, Kurt Rhoads and Nance Williamson. Norman has been around forever, he was the lead in The Gorilla Queen, one of the funniest people alive. Curtiss is the first actor I hired in New York, twenty-odd (very odd) years ago. He raised three kids, mostly alone, on an actor’s salary in New York. Kurt and Nance I’ve known since the late 80s and they’re working actors, mostly regional gigs, but they’ve snuck on Broadway once in a while. It’s those working artists that impress me most.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Exciting theater. Not to be a dick, but I’ve been telling my students lately that there are only two kinds of theater: interesting theater and boring theater. There is no meaningful difference between Broadway theater and regional theater and community theater and university theater. There’s interesting theater and boring theater. And interesting theater is interested in me. Me sitting there with other people watching and listening to it. Interesting theater understands that my time is the most precious thing I have and the world is very, very interesting already, so it tries to be more interesting than the street outside.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Just write it down.
I used to have that posted above my writing desk at the old Theatorium. Nothing else. Just that, so when I looked up from the page (I used to write exclusively with a pencil in a yellow legal pad) that’s the only thing I saw.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: The Apocalyptic Road Show, www.sohothinktank.org, July 25-28.
Join LIT, www.litny.org
Join the LIT Fund.