Apr 24, 2013
I Interview Playwrights Part 575: Jonathan Tolins
Hometown: Roslyn, New York
Current Town: Fairfield, Connecticut
Q: Tell me about Buyer & Cellar.
A: Buyer & Cellar is a play that began as a short comic essay I submitted to the New Yorker that got rejected. A friend suggested I write it as a one-man-show and I thought that could be a good idea. The play stems from the fact that Barbra Streisand put out a book in 2010 about her house in Malibu, and in it she revealed that she built a street of shops in her basement to house her various collections and memorabilia. I thought it would be funny if someone had to work down there and "greet the customer" whenever she came down. That silly notion became the play. I did some research and studied the book and tried to make this patently absurd situation as real as possible. It was important to me to write a play, not a sketch. I wanted it to be about the relationship that forms between these two people in vastly different stations in life.
Anyway, I'm incredibly proud of the production at Rattlestick. Michael Urie is giving a remarkable performance and Stephen Brackett and the design team have done a masterful job. The production came together very quickly when another show had to be postponed. We all feel like Fate took a hand and made things happen in the right way.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: Right now I'm working on the books for a few musicals, mostly with my husband, Robert Cary. I also have notes on a new play, and am developing some TV ideas.
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 remember visiting my grandparents in Florida when I was about ten years old. There was a party in the "rec room" of their building and I somehow ended up standing on a table telling everyone a joke. I think it was a joke that I stole from Gabe Kaplan on Welcome Back, Kotter! on TV. The joke was about an old person dying – a risky choice for the assembled – but I got huge laughs. Doing one's best to delight middle-aged Jews is good training for a playwright in New York.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I usually complain about theater criticism, but right now I have a show that has gotten mostly good reviews so I'd better keep my mouth shut. I don't know one thing I would change, per se, but I wish the theater were a more welcoming place and that the economics didn't make getting a new play on so tough. Few people realize that many important non-profit theaters in New York will only consider a new play that has a star and/or brings with it enhancement money from commercial producers. That puts a heavy burden on a playwright and it limits what kind of theater the regular audience of playgoers sees.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: It's a cliché, but Chekhov. I did props for a production of Uncle Vanya at Williamstown in 1984 and I watched the show and cried every night. Peter Shaffer's Amadeus also had a big influence on me. I loved how theatrical it was and how passionate the language was. One more pretentious mention: I love the way Ibsen forces the audience to grapple with impossible questions, leaving them no easy way to turn.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: See my previous answer. Basically, I love theater that feels like a heightened version of life. I like plays where you can feel a lively intelligence in the air, where the audience is totally engaged and waiting for the next line, the next turn of the plot, the next surprise to be revealed. I also think everything should have laughs, because life does.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Write for yourself. Buyer & Cellar looks to be the most successful play I've written and it's because I didn't write it for the marketplace. I wrote it for me, and maybe for my closest friends. People are looking for an authentic voice in the theater, for someone to tell it like it is as they see it. The more you stick to what makes you happy, the better your play will be.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Buyer & Cellar is at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through May 12th. Don't miss it. (And keep an eye out for a possible transfer this summer.)
Books by Adam