Friday, October 19, 2012

I Interview Playwrights Part 507: Will Goldberg

Will Goldberg

Hometown: Boston, MA

Current Town: Chicago, IL

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  My current project is called Home Before Dark, and it's about a fifteen-year-old boy, Sean, who's in a sexual relationship with a man in his early thirties. Over the course of the play, Sean starts to come to terms with the true nature of the relationship and whether he can escape.

I originally conceived of the play as an experience that would take place in the "real world," not a theater space, and unfold in real time over a period of several weeks. The audience members would receive text messages or emails that Sean and the man sent to each other to arrange meetings around Chicago, and then observe/eavesdrop on those meetings as they happened. (There would be very small audience groups, and several opportunities to see each scene.) I was interested in dropping audience members inside Sean's situation to show how these crimes happen all around us without our knowledge, and that they're often nothing like the way we imagine them. Because the logistics are so tricky, I've since reworked it into a more traditional format, but I'm still working to keep it intimate and difficult. (I also hope to return it to the original format one day.)

I'm also applying to graduate schools this winter, which is a hilarious and terrifying undertaking. Even if I'm not accepted anywhere, having to articulate my goals and explain my work so many times has already been enormously valuable. I'd still prefer to get in somewhere, though, don't get me wrong.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  When I was a kid, I went to the same overnight camp for several years. We had a few dozen numbered cabins, but there was no Cabin 19. The counselors told us that there was no Cabin 19 because it was the founder's birthdate, but that never seemed like a good explanation, and so camp myths sprang up about where Cabin 19 had gone. I first heard the general story at age eight. It went something like this:

Cabin 19 had been one of the girls' cabins, and housed a camper with red eyes "a really long time ago." (This was also supposed to explain why some years were missing from the collection of all-camp photos dating back to the 1930s. When her eyes showed up red even in black-and-white photos, the camp staff had orchestrated a coverup.) One night, she had burned down Cabin 19 with her cabinmates inside, and the camp hadn't rebuilt it.

Two or three years later, I got the chance to tell the story to several kids in my cabin who hadn't heard it before, and decided to punch it up a bit. It got away from me pretty quickly. The girl from Cabin 19 had showed up the first day of camp with a dirty backpack and a few changes of clothes. Nobody had seen who dropped her off. She was mean to her cabinmates and they were mean in return, spreading rumors that she was a "devil child" and that was why her eyes were red. (To an eleven-year-old, the red eyes were way too awesome to leave out.)

The night she finally snapped, the girl from Cabin 19 set the fire by flicking her thumb like a lighter, because of course she was a devil child, and when the cabin was in flames, she ran inside to die with everybody else. For years afterward, Cabin 19 would reappear at different places around camp -- behind the dining hall, in the middle of the lake -- and burn down again, which apparently I thought was really eerie. And of course it hadn't happened for several years, so we were due.

My retelling scared the shit out of my cabinmates and sparked a jittery debate about which of us were in the most flammable parts of the cabin. Were the kids in the wooden bunks worse off than the kids in the metal ones? Could we knock the screens out of the windows if we needed to escape? We made a bunch of frantic plans, but finally everybody calmed down enough to go to bed. Everybody except me.

I knew that I'd made up most of the story, but it was hard to remember that in the dark. It took several tense hours to fall asleep, and I was jittery for a few nights afterward.

At camp a few years later, I overheard an older kid telling a new camper the story of the girl from Cabin 19, and my additions were in there, which made it all worth it.

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

A:  It would be wonderful to have widespread opportunities to be an "assistant playwright" the way my director friends were able to be assistant directors, like the idea Len and Zak Berkman discuss in this interview.

If I could change two things, I'd really like to stop seeing productions using modern technology (Twitter etc.) just because it's modern. I went to a show once where the audience was encouraged to tweet things to the fictional workplace where the story was set, and then the tweets were on a screen behind the actors. What a douchey thing to do to your actors, encouraging people to not pay attention to them in favor of an idea that added absolutely nothing. There are a ton of fascinating things to do in theater with social networking and other technology, but we should be using them to underscore themes and enhance story, not detract from people's hard work with bells and whistles.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Archibald MacLeish's play J.B. knocked me on my ass when I was sixteen. I had to read it for English class and couldn't get enough of it -- I had to read it out loud to myself, over and over. J.B. was probably the play that did the most for my understanding of rhythm and sound and their enormous power.

When I was at the National Theater Institute in 2006, we went to see Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice at Yale Repertory Theatre, and it was like nothing I had ever seen. There's a lot to love about it, obviously, but one part in particular made my hair stand up: when the dad finishes writing a letter and sticks it to the wall, and you see that the "bathroom tiles" behind him are actually dozens and dozens of letters he's written. I was completely floored by the way that moment did so many things: the way it changed my understanding of a set I had taken at face value, what it says about the metaphysics of the play's world, and the emotional implications for the character who has written so many letters.

And he's not a theatrical hero, but the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro has been a huge influence on me for several years. My favorite book of his is Never Let Me Go, but all his work has such masterful subtlety. Little is said, but the facts pile up around you very softly, and at some point you realize what you've been looking at the whole time. Your subconscious brain does so much work. I've got a long way to go before I'm anywhere close, but it's a good horizon to head toward.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Recently, I've gotten interested in the kind of theater that exploits the shit out of the fact that the audience is physically in the same place as the story. So much of our entertainment is created so far away from us in time and space, and theater's immediacy and concreteness are huge assets for us. When I'm working on my next project, I'm hoping to explore that stuff especially as it relates to non-sight, non-sound senses. What story needs odors to be told? There's a good one out there.

Q:  Anything else?

A:  I'm a little embarrassed that I've used so many adjectives in this. Just pretend they're not there.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  I don't have any work currently in production, but I blog at (Now that I've given out the link, I'll have to update more.)

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