Jan 13, 2013
I Interview Playwrights Part 545: David Koteles
Hometown: Chatsworth, California
Current Town: I’m about to move to Hell’s Kitchen, New York City
Q: Tell me about the show you're working on with Jason Jacobs.
A: It’s called “My First Lady,” and it’s a subversive little comedy about our country’s Founding Mothers. To be honest, I didn’t take on this project because I had a burning desire to write about Abigail Adams. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that’s just not what I typically write about. I decided to write this because I wanted to work with Jason again and he had this great opportunity. We’ve collaborated several times now because it’s always a good experience, but this play has honestly been one of the happiest, I have to say. I love going to rehearsals for this piece. As a collaborator, Jason often pushes me out of my comfort zone to surprising results. So I wrote this play for the Metropolitan Playhouse Founders’ Festival, about the first four First Ladies having tea. And THEN Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s slave/mistress, decides she wants a place at the table—literally and figuratively. It raises a lot of questions. However, it's not exactly a jingoistic, rah-rah-rah America play. It's a social satire and a critical look at some of the hypocrisies of our Founding Fathers through the eyes of the women who loved them. And it’s a saucy comedy. We have a brilliant cast. I have never seen any of these actresses before, but they are hilarious and quite remarkable. It should be fun and interesting evening.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I have several irons in the fire right now, which is a very exciting place to be. But of course, you never know in this business…
However, I have a strong affinity for a play I recently wrote in response to Ionesco’s The Chairs and the death of my best friend of 27 years. It’s not a translation of The Chairs, but it does pay homage to it. If you want to call my play Bald Diva! a gay version of The Bald Soprano, I guess you can call After the Chairs a gay version of The Chairs. But please don’t, I don’t want an angry letter from the attorneys of the Ionesco Estate. And I know writing this show puts me in danger of being thought of as the guy who writes gay versions of Ionesco plays, but this piece needed to be written. And now that it has been, I do want to see it performed.
I just returned from a six-year sojourn in Los Angeles, so I’m excited to get my career up and running again. My comedy The Cook’s Tour is still floating around. It’s the play everybody loves but nobody produces. I have high hopes that this might be its year.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: One of my earliest memories as a small child is my favorite uncle wrapping red towels around my waist and head and sending me down the stairs of my grandparents’ house singing along to a record of Hello, Dolly! I was probably all of five, but I knew at that moment I wanted to be in theatre. In some insane way, I think I’m still searching for that approval from people in my life. I mostly write comedies, so for me it’s that risk and thrill of the first read-thru. When I hear something I thought was amusing getting a laugh from the cast and creative team, that is what makes this bullshit I put myself through totally worthwhile. There is little that is as exciting and satisfying as people you respect thinking you’ve written something funny and meaningful.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Ticket prices. without a doubt. I can’t afford to see anything! Also, I think it’s the root of everything not working in today’s theatre. Whether you hate inexperienced TV stars and American Idol runner-ups starring on Broadway or theatre companies not producing new plays by emerging writers, it all goes back to ticket prices. If the theatres were filled and profitable, producers would unquestionably take more chances. But it’s a vicious cycle, because it’s so expensive to buy a ticket, people see painfully little theatre since they’re afraid to waste money on something that might not give them a return on their ticket investment. Who can blame them for thinking, Hey, the play might be forgettable, but at least I’ll get to see Nicole Richie as Rizzo or something? So to sell seats, producers hire from whichever (cess) pool of celebrities they can afford. We need a new business model, but I’m unclear how that could ever manifest. I wasn’t blessed with a business mind. I owned a small theatre on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles many years ago and lost my shirt. I probably should have cast more TV stars.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: I was a classical actor for a few years right out of high school, before I turned to writing. So my heroes are playwrights who write plays actors like to be in. Chekhov, Shakespeare, Shaw, Williams, Sondheim, the Greeks. The rich language and the complexity of the relationships on stage are so delicious for actors to play with, and I guess writing is my way of acting without having to put a foot on stage. I know many directors tend to be drawn to more visual plays, but my work tends to be about the language, and is hopefully character-driven. However, I’m also intensely drawn to Eugene Ionesco, who was an absurdist whose plays are all about language and the failure of language.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: It’s not so much a style as it is quality. If it’s good—if it’s something that moves me or makes me wish I wrote it—I will ball like a baby in my theatre seat. Even if it’s a comedy, if it’s really, really good, I weep. If you ever see me at a production of “Noises Off,” I’ll be the guy crying. Theatre is, or can be, such a visceral experience. When I was younger, I was drawn to musicals. I think that’s because I was able to take the experience home with me. You buy the cast album, sing the songs, and that show lives on. And man-o-man, you put an orphan on stage—like in Annie or Oliver—and I will sob like an old woman.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: I’m the worst person to ask this. I would encourage them to follow their dreams when I should probably give them an intervention and an application to a good business school.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: The World Premiere of “My First Lady,” directed by Jason Jacobs, opens in the Metropolitan Playhouse Founders' Festival (running January 14-27). The Playhouse is located at 220 East 4th Street, NYC. Tickets can be purchased by visiting metropolitanplayhouse.org. In “My First Lady,” a friendly gathering for a cup of tea with the First Ladies takes a funny and unexpected turn towards a battle of race, class, and gender in the new American Republic.
Please join Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and Thomas Jefferson's daughters for tea and pleasantries at the President's House. …All slaves must be left at the door!
Oh, also my stage adaptation of the Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn book, “You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!” is still on national tour. It’s been running since October of 2011 and is on its third cast. I think it’s in Pittsburgh now. It’s directed by the wonderful Darren Katz and produced by Orin Wolf, who also produced “Once” on Broadway.
Books by Adam