Oct 18, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 506: Robert Plowman
Hometown: Halifax, Canada
Current Town: Toronto, Canada
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now I’m writing a solo show called My Sex Rays Will Cover The Earth. It’s inspired by the story of a man named Wilhelm Reich, who was a disciple of Freud’s in Austria in the 1920s and seemed destined to be a major figure in the development of psychoanalysis. But Reich’s research became more and more unorthodox as he focused on the orgasm as the defining diagnostic feature of a person’s psychological health. In time, Reich discovered what he believed to be the fundamental energy of the cosmos — something he called Orgone energy — which passes through all of creation, and is manifest in the healthy person through orgasm. By contrast, Reich argued, blockages of Orgone energy result in cancer and disease. It’s a classic mad scientist story that unfolded in mid-century America. There is the Utopian dream, and there are the fools! the fools! who stand in the scientist’s way. In this case, the fools were the Food and Drug Administration who jailed Reich in the early ’50s for fraud. And eight tons of the man’s books, journal articles and private papers were burned at Reich’s own expense in a New York state incinerator. That he survived Nazi-occupied Europe only to be subjected to this massive book burning in the U.S. of A. is particularly heartbreaking. Even if the man’s science was entirely gobbledygook. It’s like Brecht’s Galileo, if Galileo was wrong. This will be my thesis play in my graduate program, the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: This winter I’ll write the final draft of The Muse Factory, my beatnik play. It takes unpardonable liberties with the lives of Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac, et al. to tell a story that could best be described as: red-hot smut. Pure filth. The Muse Factory looks at the true nature of obscenity and the notion of “dirty words”.
Also, I’m writing The Mnemonist for Lohifi Productions, a Canadian company whose work is based in found-object puppetry and performance in non-traditional theatre spaces. The Mnemonist is a Canadian Cold War spy story, set in that hotbed of espionage, Ottawa. The play is Hitchcock by way of Kafka, and is concerned with the question of identity in a world where everyone is a foreigner, an immigrant, a person in search of a home.
Q: How would you characterize the Canadian theater scene?
A: The answer I usually give when people ask me about Canadian theatre is that we’re pitched between the British and the American traditions: where the British tends to be more concerned with ideas and the American with the emotional journey of the individual. That’s a huge generalization, of course, but playwriting in Canada is very young and for a long time Canadian theatre was entirely in the shadow of the US and the UK. Before 1968 there was scarcely any history of Canadian theatres producing original Canadian plays; looked at another way, this means that most Canadian playwrights who’ve ever produced are still alive. I think there’s something hopeful in this.
For a long time I thought the most exciting theatre being made in this country was coming from devising companies. And I’ve spent a lot of time collaborating with ensembles that usually work without a writer and seeing what happens when, y’know, I put my proverbial chocolate in their peanut butter, and vise versa. As a playwright I keep looking for a home: a theatre or theatres where, if only for a little while, I can belong; where I’ll find co-conspirators for my mad plans — to offset the long, lonely, boozy hours of staring at the computer screen by myself.
So the real answer to the question about Canadian theatre? I’m living in Toronto and enjoy living here, but I still struggle to find a place in this country where my work makes sense, to find the people I want to work with. This was part of what sent me back to grad school at the Playwright’s Lab in Virginia. And I think it’s a lifelong challenge: finding the people you want to live your creative life with.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: In high school I went to a national debating tournament in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Among the cultural activities planned for the young debaters was being bused to a lonely outcropping of cliff surrounded by fog and being told, Now you are standing on the eastern-most point of North America. I couldn’t see anything at all. Next, we were bused to a high school, seated in those standard high school desks under standard fluorescent lighting and told we were going to see a lecture. A rumpled man started writing on the board in chalk, lecturing us about science. As it seemed to me the whole purpose of being at this tournament was not to be in school, well, this was all far too school-like. I fell asleep. And when I woke up the lecture on science was something else entirely. It wasn’t a lecture, I realized, but a play. And though I’d slept too long to have any sense of what was happening in front of me I was totally entranced. I still have no idea who that performer was, but he blew my mind. And I think that’s still what I look for in theatre: that moment when everything you think you know turns inside out in front of you.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Chekhov. Barker. Churchill. Stoppard. Webster. The Wooster Group. Anne Bogart. The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. Greg Moss. 13P. Number 11 Theatre, which no longer exists but made the most amazing play I’ve ever seen. All my teachers, especially, most recently, Carl Hancock Rux, who’s my thesis advisor and knocks my socks off. 53rd State Press.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Theatre that is fearless.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: I’d say, see all the theatre you can. Read all the novels you can, and newspapers and books of poetry too. Go to the art gallery every chance you get. See live music. Forget what theatre is supposed to be and then start writing. Diane Arbus said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret; the more it tells you, the less you know.” Someone once asked Allen Ginsberg how you get to be a prophet; his reply was, Tell your secrets. Write photographs and concerts and paintings and poems. Tell your secrets. Keep writing.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: On November 3, I’m contributing a 10-minute play to the Red-Eye 24-Hour Play Festival, which is happening coast to coast with a host theatre in each time zone: at The Spot, Arroyo Grande CA; University of Great Falls Theatre, Great Falls MO; the Lincoln Loft, Chicago IL; and the Hamner Theatre, Crozet VA. The festival was started by one of my friends in the Playwright’s Lab and, at least for this first year, it exclusively features writers from my MFA program. I’m excited for it to showcase the crazy diversity of playwrights coming out of my school. Go team!
On November 18, there’ll be a staged reading of my play A Girl Called Nothing in the Discovery Reading Series, in Roanoke VA. The play is my adaptation of Congreve’s Way of the World: set in the 1980s, it’s one half Wall Street, one half Repo Man.
And in February 2013, my play The Matador is going up at Mill Mountain Theatre, in Roanoke. It’s a love triangle that takes place in the bullfighting ring — a darkly silly comedy, full of song and dance, inspired by the untranslatable Spanish word duende.