Mar 22, 2013
I Interview Playwrights Part 562: Jakob Holder
Hometown: Tricky. I'm not even sure what a "hometown" is. The precise location at which one was born? Learned how to forage and thieve? Where one lives at the moment one answers the question? I was born in a hospital in lower Manhattan, and grew up in Woodside, Queens, but pretended I lived in Jackson Heights, which began literally across the street from my house, because even back in the 80s, when Jackson Heights was by no means cool, that somehow bought more cred than the truth. I moved to Homer, Alaska, when I was 16, essentially on my own. From that point on I've paid rent in Bellingham, WA; Houston, TX; and Jyväskylä, Finland; until I finally moved back, semi- kicking and screaming, to within a 10.3 mile radius of my childhood "hometown". I only know this because I just Google-checked the distance from Woodside to Inwood (uptownest Manhattan), and it's supposedly 10.3 miles. I've lived in every borough other than The Bronx (where my grandparents have lived since I was a playwright in Size-2 diapers, so I suppose I've common-law lived there about half of my life), and have averaged one new address for each of the 12 years since I've been back here. Absolutely none of this mini-biography smacks of "home", though, and only one of the cited locations is small enough to classify as a "town".
Current Town: New York Town. (See supra.)
Q: What are you working on?
A: A play. Maybe three. Maybe five. That's all I can say. If I end up answering the question below about my advice for playwrights just starting out, I'll likely explain why no one should ever, under any circumstances not involving unavoidable coercive force, divulge specifics about anything they're in the middle of writing.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: Well, I once had this cat... (Pause.) Okay, I'll save that monologue for a really meaningful scene in some terrible play. How about asking me this instead:
What was the most memorable theatrical production you saw that made you wish you could somehow participate in live theatre?
Q: What was the most memorable theatrical production you saw that made you wish you could somehow participate in live theatre?
A: There are two, and both were the fault of Lincoln Center. I'll tell them in reverse chronological order. Story the Latter: As far as I understand it, Kabuki Theatre comes to New York City about as often as certain cicadas emerge from the dirt in Staten Island, as often as some East Asian flowers bloom in order to draw crowds of insane anthophilies to witness their imminent wilting, as often as some New York Times critics calmly appreciate new American plays... Anyhow, it's a rare event and I was lucky enough to have a rare enough father who thought it would be a good idea to book a few tickets for his family, inclusive of his then probably-10-year-old son. I was amazed at the wonderful artifice, at how minimal but complete the storytelling was, at how precise the timing, how lustrous the lighting, how transforming the costumes and makeup... (okay, my mind didn't operate with descriptions like that, but I'm sure there was a nascent but full subconscious understanding of how fucking cool all this was). But so, some Japanese guy in a neat costume and a bunch of batshit crazy makeup jumped off the back of the set and two seconds later exploded down a slide, crashed through saloon doors disguised as part of a mountain, during which he had changed into a different costume and emerged as someone completely else. Amazing, life changing, sign me up. Story the Former: I was about 9-years-old, something like that, yeah, fifth grade, and my mother sat me down in the livingroom some seemingly typical schoolnight. My father was adjusting the antennae atop our mono-speakered Sony Trinitron 17" very-round-screen TV; my brother was arranging our handbuilt 1970s-monstrous 62" walnut-cased speakers into some sort of proto-SurroundSound formation; and my mother dialed the stereo receiver to WQXR (NYC's classical music station.) The event for the evening was a simulcast presentation of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, live from Lincoln Center, broadcast on Channel 13 (PBS: home to Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Mr. Rogers, and now Wolfgang Amadeus M.) And at some point the pre-show chatter faded and we began to hear instruments slowly and magnificently yowl into synch, and the curtain rose. About 25,000 hours of magic followed. I was mesmerized. I started falling asleep right around the time something really dramatic was happening (people were hurrying through fire), not because I was bored but because it was just so far past my bedtime my stupid biology couldn't keep up with all the art. But here I was, finally a big kid, earning more cred than my boasts of living in Jackson Heights could ever aspire to. The next day it was all I could do to keep from throwing myself through the school bus doors to loudly boast that I had stayed up past any hour heretofore witnessed by anyone my age or younger. The other kids were severely impressed. And then they asked me why I had been allowed to stay up so late. And I stupidly began sharing the details. And that's when I learned how painful it would be to continue with a life in the theatre....
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: The unsustainable and unnecessary dependence upon the MFA degree as title and deed to the right to be a working playwright. Listen, I'm no trust-fund-baby. I know it's hard-to-impossible to make a living writing plays; I know if you don't get an MFA you can't teach; I know that this means maybe having to work in a coffee shop or as some ogre's factotum or as a staff writer for a second-rate TV show, or being really clever on the subway. But it's evil to get sucked into a game of perpetuating a system where we playwrights make more teachers of ourselves than there are playwrights willing to learn, or stages willing to produce our work. At some point this imbalance will really hit home, so why is everyone so eager to rush up against that point? If you're a serious playwright, write your serious plays and struggle like we all do, whether monetarily or artistically speaking. Serious playwrights have no good reason to fall hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt by immersing themselves in three years of postgraduate dogma, and no good reason to help getting the next group ready for the same. You want solid education and bankruptcy in the same salad? Just attend five Broadway productions at full cost - you'll learn twice as much about the realities of theatre for about the same price.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: I wrote something in a journal I kept back around 2009 when I had a hard time managing the voices in my head while riding buses and subways and airplanes (I still ride those with some difficulty, but I no longer keep journals.) I wrote it in all caps, spread over two pages, so I'm going to reproduce it as closely as possible: NO MORE HEROES. Slight expansion, what I was telling myself was: don't fetishize other artists, especially if they're still alive. If you simply must have a hero or two, pick dead ones. Learn from all artists - both the living and the dead, both the sublime and the mediocre - but learn primarily from their work, not so much from their persons. Their biographies are likely even more fictional than their writing ever was, and no one is infallible. Whatever you do: don't create a Hall of Heroes in your mind. You'll spend too much time in that wing of the museum, fretting and fawning, when you should be outside in the sun, or at your desk writing something in your own voice, becoming someone else's hero - someone that someone like me can eventually warn someone else against.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Any straight play that makes me glad to be a part of this insane and frustrating sport called playwriting. I never see a shitty play and think: "Yeah, awesome, I can write a better one than that, look out world!" In those cases I leave the theatre feeling numb and wishing I was a prize-winning cabinet-builder. But when I see something alive in the way only live theatre can be - I never feel jealous ("Why couldn't I write something like that???") - only glad that good stuff sometimes gets to go on, too.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: I think I hid most of my advice within the answers to all the other questions. If I answer a question actually asking for advice someone will just end up accusing me of a more subtler pedantry. Except that I guess I promised to say something about not talking about writing when you should be writing about something. So here goes, semi-solicited advice. Playwright, think of yourself as a pressure cooker. Only let the steam out when the meal is cooked to its full and ready to serve. You need all the steam and pressure you can maintain to make sure the meal is done. You let the steam out too soon and all you'll have on your hands is a mess of sloppy ingredients even the dog won't touch. End of metaphor. Don't talk too much about what you're writing. In the best case scenario, someone will steal your idea and you'll realize you're a better audience member than dramatist. In the worst case scenario, the person you're talking to will just glaze over and you'll realize you're just as tired of hearing about it as she is and have nothing worthwhile left to put on paper. I say this friendlily: Shut up and write. And for godssake don't worry about writing every day. Firefighters don't fight fires everyday, but they prepare themselves for any blaze; ship captains spend time on land, too, but they always know what the weather's like; babies need to sleep in between growing teeth and learning how to discern warm from too hot. But think like a playwright every day, every moment of every day. Experience every waking moment with a playwright's mind, and store your dreams with the same intensity. Keep your filter working, in other words. And join the Dramatists Guild right away. And wear a hat when it's cold. And remember to drink a glass of water for every glass of something with a lower pH level. And most importantly: don't take advice from strangers on the internet.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: I've learned the hard way not to plug planned productions as plans can become unplugged with embarrassing speed. But my play Housebreaking was published by Dramatists Play Service last month (my first in serious print). It's about 8 bucks a copy at the time of this writing and I think that's a pretty decent investment on the per-page unit-pricing scale. Even if you don't buy my play, buy someone else's. Read more plays - don't just see productions you can get comps for. No one knows how much longer the play publishing phenomenon will exist, but without people buying copies it won't be much longer.
Books by Adam