Jul 31, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 480: Colby Day
Hometown: Alamo, CA
Current Town: Brooklyn, NY
Q: Tell me about Giant Killer Slugs.
A: Giant Killer Slugs is a creature feature written for the stage, which means there's slime, teenagers, and a lot of really campy 50's slang. It was originally a screenplay that I wrote while at NYU. I converted it into a stage play after seeing a call for "unproducible" theater scripts last year. They didn't want it, I'm assuming because the stage direction "hundreds, thousands, millions of slugs" was too frightening, so I sent it to the Literary Manager of Pipeline Theatre Company, who really loved it, and it found its little slug home.
Slugs essentially became a theater piece because it felt like such an impossibility. As a result, a lot of our conversations in designing the show have been about how to capture the feel of those schlocky 1950's science fiction films, from the special effects and wardrobe down to what it feels like to sit in the theater. There are tons of characters, and so many scenes, because these movies move fast, and hitting exactly what these films feel like, on stage, and in 3-D, is essential to making it fun for an audience.
It's a really crazy comedy, but something I really strive for is characters with grounded, realistic motivations. The saying goes tragedy plus time equals comedy, but I think comedy is always present. The comedy comes simply from the fact that the tragedy we're watching unfold for characters is something that we think should never be taken seriously. When those situations, like giant slugs who eat people, are met with deathly earnestness, that's the comedy this show taps into.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I just finished a feature film script, so that will be what I'm rewriting for the near future. It's a dark, claymation movie set in the North Pole. I'm trying to make it The Dark Knight of Christmas claymation movies, so that's a really fun tone and world to play with.
I have a short piece The Great Molly which Pipeline produced last season that I want to expand into an epic, three act story about a young girl who becomes a world-renowned magician. I've always wanted to say something about the American Dream, and this feels like something that might be large enough to do that, while maintaining room to squeeze in some juggling and/or fire-breathing.
Daniel Johnsen (who has directed all two of my full-length plays) and I are also floating around an idea for an opera with puppets, but I don't want to give too much away. I can say that it also has magic in it. Clearly I like magical things.
I've also got a television pilot in the works, and some web stuff going on hopefully.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: There was only one family with children who lived on our street besides our own, but no matter how hard my parents tried, my brother and I refused to be friends with them. Instead, we stayed at home and filmed our own versions of The X-Files, Indiana Jones, and fake commercials. Thankfully, none of those video cassettes still exist. I hope.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Submissions guidelines. Look, I get it, theater is expensive. Yes, it's hard to produce plays, especially if there are 50 speaking roles. But, do we really need theaters out there demanding that playwrights only write plays with 2-4 characters (ideally with one setting and minimal props/costumes)? I have run into well-respected writing fellowships, grants, and theaters that will not accept work with more than 4 characters. You wouldn't even accept Romeo & Juliet for your staged reading?
I know firsthand that theater costs a lot, and yes, it's a logistical nightmare to schedule rehearsals for a 14 person show, but, do we really need to self-impose even more limitations on what is already a difficult medium struggling to carve out a niche opposite film, television, and online content? Mightn't watching and marveling at how exactly a small theater manages to deal with many characters, location changes, and other logistically creative problems be something theater has to offer that no other medium provides?
It seems to me a lack of imagination, in what is supposed to be the medium most inviting of imagination, to impose practical considerations on the playwrights. If you want to run a theater company, you better be brave, because theater is incredibly risky. You've already set yourself a remarkably foolish challenge, so why not embrace it? It's a shame to, in order to be economically viable, refuse to even consider work of a larger scale than a kitchen sink drama (or comedy), unless your mission as a company strictly prohibits it from an artistic standpoint.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: I think my big three dead playwrights would be Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, and William Shakespeare. Those seem like such a boring three, so I feel like I have to defend my choice. I am the first to admit that I have a hard time reading Shakespeare, but the man had a knack for low-brow comedy that my high school English teachers failed to explain to me until I'd seen productions of his plays. Thornton Wilder captures what it means to fall in love, with people and with life itself, and Our Town will always be a classic for that reason. And Tennessee Williams' Camino Real, while definitely a flawed play, has a sincerity in its fantasy that I owe a great debt to.
As far as contemporary voices go, I think Pipeline Theatre Company might legitimately be my heroes. They've championed my work with passion and diligence, and I have seen nothing but love and determination poured into everything they've ever done. Evan Twohy and Alex Mills are two contemporaries of mine who I am enormously fond of, and who've taught me more than I'd care to admit to their faces. Glenn Hergenhahn, Raven Burnett, Andrew Farmer, James Monaco, Jessica Fleitman, Ruben Carbajal, Carys Edwards and Lauren Gunderson have all written phenomenal things that I wish I'd done first.
I'd also consider every playwright out there who has found a television writing job in the past five years my hero, because hopefully one of them will find me and tell me how to do that for myself.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Anything with guts. Theater is about spectacle, and wonder, so shows with large scopes, or an unusual setting immediately perk my interest by demonstrating that they're going to take some risks. Theater should be an exciting event, not something you sit through feeling like you have to pay attention and take it seriously. Break my heart a little bit, but help me pick up the pieces again too. It's corny, but, theater should inspire audiences to imagine, and explore what it means to live our lives together. If something is funny and sad at the same time, you've nailed it as far as I'm concerned.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: I feel like I'm still starting out, so here's the advice I give myself: Find someone to be your champion. If nobody will, do it yourself. The old guard has never understood what was new, different, and going to be the next big thing, so why would you want them to produce your play anyway? You're a young upstart, find other young upstarts.
Being in Pipeline, I know for a fact that there are tons of young theater companies looking desperately for plays with characters in their age range. Every year a new company graduates from pretty much every drama school in the country. Find them and write plays for 20-somethings to produce.
The best writing advice I ever got, and it took me a long time to appreciate it, was "Write what scares you." If you're worried a scene is too trite, make it the most trite, cliche-riddled scene you've ever written. Work through what you're afraid of on the page. Don't stop yourself from doing it. Also, "re-write" means "write again," not "edit slightly." I'm afraid to do it every time, but words simply are not precious. Words literally spew forth from our mouths and fingers incessantly. Our job is to find precisely the correct combination, which sometimes means starting over from zero.
Go to all the rehearsals, and listen to how directors talk to actors. Your director should be your best friend and you should be able to talk until early morning about what the play is about, and how to make it that way. You'll learn in the room that some things you write aren't actable. Rather than making this a problem for your actors, make this a problem for yourself. How can you write them so they are actable? This is a great learning experience for realizing that the line you thought would be so funny and clever coming from this character, doesn't actually make sense when you think about it from this character's perspective. Let your actors improvise, then you can decide what fits for the character and what doesn't.
As for building comedy, it should be a serious business. The best way to write something funny is to take your characters seriously. Would they really do this, or are they doing it because it's funny to me the playwright? Be a sadist, and hurt your characters. Doing the worst thing you can imagine to them will often give you the best dramatic and comedic outcomes.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: My feature film I Don't Want to Kill Myself screens at The Art of Brooklyn Film Festival August 8th. Tickets are available here.
And please do come see Giant Killer Slugs, running August 22nd - September 2nd at Theater for the New City's Dream Up Festival. Pipeline's website has more info and tickets are available here.
Follow me on Twitter, like my movie & Pipeline on Facebook. My website: www.colbyday.com.