Thursday, July 12, 2012

I Interview Playwrights Part 478: Carlos Murillo

Carlos Murillo

Hometown: b. Freeport, NY. Grew up in Levittown, NY, Caracas, Venezuela, Bogota Colombia, and Garden City, NY. Spent my formative years in Brooklyn, NY.

Current Town: Chicago, IL

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  A bunch of stuff - just put the finishing touches on a revision on A THICK DESCRIPTION OF HARRY SMITH, based on a workshop production we just did with P73 - and also actively looking for a place to do a longer run in NYC and elsewhere. In the process of writing/trying to finish a commission for Steppenwolf - which is about a literary hoax. Also beginning work on my first TYA play for Adventure Stage here in Chicago - we're working closely with the community served by the Northwestern Settlement House where the theatre is located. That piece is scheduled for production in April 2013. I am also a teacher - I head the BFA Playwriting Program at The Theatre School of DePaul University, which is an on-going work-in-progress.

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 was a notorious underachiever in grade school. In sixth grade I decided I would only do homework assignments that interested me, everything else I would only put in a half-hearted effort, turn in late, or simply not do at all. The stuff that jazzed me were projects that involved some sort of creative effort - I would put my entire self into them at the expense of everything else. I loved doing things that involved glue, magic markers, clay, cutting out images from magazines, blowing things up.... My 6th grade teacher, Ms. Jural, was kind of evil. I remember she wore her long grey hair in a tight braid, and she peered over her bifocals at the class with unmasked condescension bordering on hatred. It was clear then as it is to me now that teaching 6th grade was a form of condemnation for her.

One day she gave us an assignment to write a short story on any subject. Out of character for her, as most of the work she assigned us triggered in me a feeling of paralysis. This one, though... my mind exploded and I let my imagination run wild every available hour that week (at the expense of all other homework) concocting a crazed tale of a rogue worker at a NYC burger joint who chemically altered a cheeseburger so that it would grow to enormous proportions and wreck havoc on New York City. (I borrowed liberally, if semi-consciously, from Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, which I had just seen for the first time.)

The day the story was due, Ms. Jural had each of the students read their stories. I could not wait to be called on - I reveled in the chance to share this early product of my imagination with my classmates. They ate it up - laughed in all the right places.... their responses grew more vocal, more rowdy in proportion to the outrageousness of the story as it unfolded - by the end, things got a little out of hand... I hadn't intended to, but by the end of the story (which was way longer than the assignment asked - a pattern I have repeated in many of my plays) Ms. Jural had lost control of the classroom.

At the end of each story, Ms. Jural would offer a quick summary evaluation. When the chaos died down after my turn, I waited eagerly for her response, because I thought I had done so well. Her response? One word: "Overkill." When she handed the story back a few days later, a giant letter C graced the title page.

I think that's when I became a writer.

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

A:  I could go on for pages and pages about this. I think the majority of folks would agree that the patient is gravely ill, and unless there is a wholesale rethinking of our current producing models, we're all gonna be in a heap of trouble. For the exception of a few places like NY, Chicago, Minneapolis, LA, DC and a handful of other cities, there aren't a whole lot of places that have self-sustaining, healthy ecospheres for theatre makers and audiences. The original purpose of the regional theater system, at least as I understand it, was to plant seeds in those parts of the country where those ecospeheres were non-existent. Which would suggest that those seed theatres would function as a kind of agora specific to the community it served, where artist and audience would would be in dialogue in a very direct, community- and geography-specific way.... in other words, the regional theatres would embrace regionalism in the very best sense of the term, employing home grown artists and administrators to create work that would speak to their specific audience. Didn't turn out that way - I think the system, and the good intentions that gave rise to it, has devolved to a point where regional theatres have become similar to movie multiplexes - where old chestnuts and the hits from last year's season in NY make their rounds, where there is little to distinguish the programming theatre to theatre throughout the country, and anything that speaks directly to the concerns of the community gets lost in the shuffle. Lost in that is any real commitment to PLACE and all that that entails. And when they do generate work on their own, it's so often with an eye to future life in NY, and not the needs of their particular community. This isn't a very friendly environment for anyone to work in.

My proposal: at the end of every season in NY we can make a pretty good guess which plays will make the "most produced" list the following year in AMERICAN THEATRE. Why not follow the Broadway touring model for those plays? Put together four or five road companies that will bring those plays to all the theatres that want them. Maybe that sounds icky and too commercial - but the reality is that a good incentive to produce those plays - aside from the quality of the works themselves - is the box office cachet that comes from something that comes with the NY Times stamp of approval. I imagine (and this is probably naive on my part, as I really have no business sense) that taking this ready-made approach would free up a lot of local resources that could be channeled into fostering local talent and new work generated by and for the communities that theatres are supposed to serve. Everyone wins - people are employed, theatres sell tickets and space can be created for the unknown.

I also think the successful big theatres around the country ought to commit to developing young artists in their communities in meaningful ways - Steppenwolf is doing this with great success through their Garage Rep series. Each year they throw the door open for small, young companies (most of which are the spiritual descendants of the "adrenaline, gaffer tape and a dream" model of the original Steppenwolf that started in a church basement) to produce a rotating repertory of shows. It's hugely successful - and mutually beneficial: the small companies get a bump up for being annointed by Steppenwolf and learn a thing or two about producing in the process, and Steppenwolf reaps the benefits of attracting younger audiences into their theatre, and perhaps more philosophically, they do honor to their own historical legacy by paying it forward to the next generation.

Lastly, I think the spate of new, excessive, starchitect designed buildings, complete with bridges to nowhere, that came during the illusory flush years should have sparked community-wide outrage when the world came crashing down in 2008. People rightfully raged at the banks for their gross mismanagement and absurd compensation for CEOs - why isn't there the same anger in the smaller scale world of the theatre? Millions squandered on buildings, six figure salaries for administrators, while compensation for actors, playwrights, directors and designers has remained pretty much flat - sounds to me like the theatre is not much different than latter day capitalist America. Think of the monstrous resources that went into putting those things up - I like to think that it's not the form of the building that makes the institution, but rather the contents within.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  People I learned from directly that changed my life and/or shaped a lot of my thinking about what we do, and who have influenced my role as a mentor to students: Maria Irene Fornes, Morgan Jenness, Robert Woodruff, David Greenspan, Shelby Jiggetts, Eduardo Machado, Luis Alfaro, Anne Bogart, Todd London.

Then there are the historical models - Georg Buchner, Bertolt Brecht, Richard Foreman, Tadeuz Kantor, Sam Shepard, Joe Papp, Frank Wedekind, Eugene O'Neill to name a few.

Then there are non-theatrical folks whose work, to me, is a kind of theatre: David Bowie, Sex Pistols, Pink Floyd, Harry Smith, Italo Calvino, Roberto Bolano, Bob Dylan, Rem Koolhaas, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Wilhelm Reich, Terry Gilliam, Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, Eric Hebborn, Richard Nixon, and so on.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Theatre that makes me feel like I've LIVED through an EXPERIENCE (as opposed to OBSERVING someone else LIVE THROUGH/EXPERIENCE something)... where I feel like some essential part of me/my soul/my mind has been rewired. Where I lose the consciousness that I am watching a made thing - but going through something that forces my mind to travel great distances inward and outward - inward in the sense that my own demons are exposed, and outward in the sense that my consciousness of the impossible complexities and paradoxes of human existence is heightened. So often I watch things and I become all-too-conscious of the parts that make up the whole - the quality of writing, directing, acting, design, etc. I sometimes think that's the curse of making the stuff - it's very difficult to completely give over. Those are only partial experiences, many of which I value a great deal. However, those lived-through experiences versus those partial experiences, which feel more like observation, to me is the difference between a deep tissue massage and a casual back rub. A few examples: the recent production of ICEMAN COMETH at The Goodman Theatre - all 5 glorious, soul-destroying hours of it... Reza Abdoh's QUOTATIONS FROM A RUINED CITY... Andrei Serban's FRAGMENTS OF A GREEK TRILOGY... all of those pieces were traumatic - made me feel like my soul was in danger, that what was taking place before my eyes was like a hand forcing my mouth open, reaching in and rearranging my insides... but having gone through them I became a bigger human being, and possibly a better artist.

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

1) Characters have bodies distinct from your own.
2) Those bodies come in all shapes, sizes, colors. They move through the world in very specific, idiosyncratic ways.
3) Those bodies are decisive in so many ways - they shape thought patterns, speech, the experience of emotion, self-perception, perception of the "other" - the whole concept of need & expression is intimately tied with the body in space.
4) A play, in many ways, is a collection of distinct bodies trapped in a space - your task is to follow the dance that ensues.
5) Your task, in writing the play, is to forget your own body, and to imagine being inside a body not your own, and honoring all the messy complexity that entails.
6) In doing so, you honor the integrity of your characters not as products of your imagination, but as actualities that exist in the world independent of you.
7) If you can honor their autonomy, they might tell you truths you'd never arrive at on your own.
8) Overwrite until your characters have said and done everything they needed to say and do. Then be merciless with yourself.
9) Forgive the brutal honesty, BUT: hundreds and hundreds of plays are written and circulated through literary offices, agencies, contest judges, publishers, grad school selection committees each year. They need another play like they need a hole in their head. Make yours COUNT. Make yours NECESSARY. Make yours something NO ONE ELSE IN THE WORLD COULD POSSIBLY HAVE WRITTEN. Make yours prove that it NEEDS TO EXIST.
10) Lastly - the first image is perfect and hopelessly imperfect. Embrace both.


Brian said...


Eric Pfeffinger said...

The most unexpected element in this or any other playwright interview in the history of the world:

Richard Nixon.

He's right, though: his work was a kind of theater.