Sep 13, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 495: Tom Matthew Wolfe
Tom Matthew Wolfe
Hometown: Hillside, New Jersey
Current Town: New York City
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a new full-length play called THIS IS HOW WE EMERGE. It’s about a mid-career artist who loses an exhibition opportunity to his girlfriend and tries to alter/undermine her plans for it. It was inspired by the Narcissus/Echo myth, but the story doesn’t play out the same way. It’s also about living with day jobs, temp jobs, debts, delusions, loneliness, paternalism, ageism, mortality, grief, and the fear of having no impact—an entire life in obscurity. It’s a little wilder than my other work, more comedic and tense: there are death masks and bad punk songs, sharp reversals, and a protracted discomfort within scenes. I’m excited about it. I can’t wait to hear it at my playwrights group.
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 grew up with a lot of cats. One of them – named Bruce – loved to hang out on the front porch. He scared my friends even though he was quite friendly. He had long black fur and yellow eyes, big fangs that looked like something on a pit viper when he yawned. He liked to sit tall and motionless on the bookcase or spread his body across it so that his paws dangled off the edge. Sometimes he stood up on his hind legs when he was down on the floor and I reached out to pet him. One night I stepped out on the porch. It was dark: the overhead light was broken. I spotted Bruce standing up near the screen door, so I reached down to scratch the back of his neck. The fur was so stiff. I froze—my hand, my whole body. I heard a long, angry hiss. It sounded nothing like Bruce or any cat anywhere. I ran inside. My father was seated on the couch with his bare feet on a coffee table, eating jalapeño cheese. My sister was on a matching love seat. They were watching television.
“I think I just pet a possum,” I said.
They immediately laughed at me. My sister called me an idiot.
“Get the hell outta here,” my father said.
“The fur was all stiff. ”
“You sure it wasn’t the cat?”
“It made this … sound.”
“Alright,” he said, “let’s see your possum.”
So my father stood up and put on his moccasins, got his mag-light and 9mm handgun from a shelf above the bar in the hallway. He was a police officer in Hillside, a lieutenant at the time. There was always a gun in the house, small boxes of bullets. He stuck a clip in the gun (a distinctive sound, no comparisons), stepped out on to the porch and shut the door. After a few minutes of quiet, there was a gunshot. He came back inside, removed the clip, put his gun and mag-light back in the spot above the bar.
“Tommy, do me a favor and clean that up tomorrow, will ya?”
“Uh . . . okay.”
My mother found out about the incident and asked my father to perform cleanup instead. They fought about this, but he gave in and agreed, told me not to worry about it. Next morning, on my way out the door to school, I saw a possum on its back near my weight bench with a bullet wound in its chest, blood all over the floorboards.
I have no idea how this story explains who I am as a person or writer. But it feels like such a part of me. And I miss my father. So there you go.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I wish it were more affordable and diverse, in general.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Chekhov, Fornés, Pinter, Albee, Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Paula Vogel, Tony Kushner, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, August Wilson, John Patrick Shanley, Christopher Plummer, Meryl Streep, Jane Hoffman, Heidi Schreck, Marylouise Burke, Young Jean Lee, Marshall W. Mason, David Adjmi, Kia Corthron, Curt Dempster, Jerry Wayne Roberts, Erma Duricko. I saw a production of A DOLL’S HOUSE by Mabou Mines a few years back and thought it was genius. So I’ll add Mabou Mines. Also, Ensemble Studio Theatre, The Civilians. My wife, Kara Lee Corthron, is such a brilliant writer; her discipline is a guide for me. Karen Hartman is an extraordinary playwright and teacher. There are so many people I’ve worked with personally that deserve to be mentioned. So many amazing actors have taken their time to just to read my stuff, and for no money. Those are my heroes. Also, I like Shakespeare.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I like a lot of different theatre, so long as it’s well crafted and full of life. I love the lyrical naturalism of Lanford Wilson and the way Young Jean Lee experiments with form to puncture the membrane between audience and actors. I like family plays and political theatre. I like vulnerability, humor, fun, a distinct point of view, surprise. I love subverted expectations. I’m interested in a theatre in which humor and great pain are not exclusive to one another. I like when characters have real problems. I’m fascinated by our delusions (I’ve had my share). I love plays that make me uncomfortable, or make me talk for hours—or weeks—after curtain. I love theatre that makes me question my own behavior. I love plays that don’t bore me.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Advice is tough for me to give. I feel like I’m a perpetual student. But I do have my own code as a developing writer. Here it is. Build your craft. Write often. Surprise yourself. Don’t judge a scene while writing it. There’s time for that during revisions. Take classes and/or join a playwrights group. My playwrights group ‘Wright On! is so important to me. It keeps me working and sane. When a teacher asks you to try an exercise, just give into that. Don’t question it. What is there to lose in trying something new? Be kind.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Ach. Unfortunately, I have nothing going on right now, except a private reading of my newest play. But Kara will have two productions this Fall (ALICEGRACEANON, produced by New Georges at The Irondale Center in Brooklyn; HOLLY DOWN IN HEAVEN at Forum Theatre in Washington D.C.). Go check ‘em out!