Hometown: St. Louis, Missouri
Current Town: Los Angeles, CA
Q: Tell me about COPS.
A: My dad was a police officer for the city of St. Louis for forty-plus years, much of it spent either as a district detective, undercover in Narcotics, or heading up the Street Corner Apprehension Team (S.C.A.T.), a unit that targeted drug dealers and gangs in the city’s worst neighborhoods. So we always had cops coming in and out of the house. A colorful way to grow up. In this particular telling, a stranger, a civilian, walks into a bar on a night dedicated solely to police officers and their friends. Half-priced drinks, three or four dollar pitchers, that sort of thing. Trouble ensues. Cops and Friends of Cops takes place in real-time, so the audience is right there in it with the actors. A true ensemble piece, you could make the case it’s any one of the five characters’ play, a mash-up of genre storytelling: thriller, western, morality play, classic tragedy. Plus it’s visceral. Very visceral. There will be blood. At the end of the day, what I hope most is that it’s a meditation on what it means to be a good man.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I just finished a play called You Must Be Certain of the Devil, but it sucks, so it’s getting shoe-boxed. There’s an old acting truism, “Don’t play a mood.” You’ll hear it, “Mood spelled backwards is doom.” Well, don’t write a mood either. Sometimes, it takes you eighty-three pages to learn what you already knew. I’m about one for three with plays working out. I admire playwrights who write something fantastic, or seem to, every time out, but for me, I’m happy (“happy” being a relative term) with the end product about a third of the time. That’s okay. A lot of them turn into pretty good one-acts. I’m a big fan of the short story writer George Saunders and he talks about intending to write a novel and then somehow two hundred pages winds up as a workable ten or twenty. No problem. Not if you’re committed to the process. Beckett said it best: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” I just started a kind of crabby love story called Nobody Wants A Lonely Heart. Got my fingers crossed it’ll work out.
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 grew up in a pretty diverse neighborhood in North St. Louis County: black, white, burnouts, good ol’ boys, skaters, punks, skinheads, wanna be gangstas -- I kinda floated from group to group, hanging out with everybody. Nobody had a lotta money, or they would’ve probably lived somewhere else, but you couldn’t’ve asked for a better to place to spend your formative years….I was about six. First grade. Had to walk to school. Lusher Elementary. Mile or so from my house. Far enough, you’d never let a six-year old do it by themselves now. Anyway, this third grader D’Ron would wait for me at the intersection, and try to beat me up. Sometimes, he’d catch me in the morning, sometimes the afternoon, but he’d always catch me. Unless he skipped school or something. I’m sure if I could see him now, I’d see D’Ron for what he probably was: this sweet-faced little boy. But he might as well’ve been Ray Lewis or Mike Tyson to my first grade self….Today, I’m going to win. I’d view it as a challenge. Today’ll be different. Why it didn’t occur to me just to take an alternative route, I have no idea. I’m not sure why I didn’t tell my parents either. But everyday we’d battle it out and, gradually, I’d do a little better, the next day a little better maybe. Crowds would gather. A time or two, I swear I almost won. That’s how I choose to remember it….Until…one day…D’Ron had me on the ground, pounding me, and some lady pulls up in her beat-to-shit-Chevette, wearing pink plastic curlers – this is three o’clock in the afternoon – engine running, traffic’s stopped, she gets out, stands on the grassy boulevard, screams, “Get Off Him, You Nigger!” I remember feeling momentary relief. Thank God someone was helping me. Then I looked up and saw D’Ron, crying. His tears falling on my face. Running down my cheeks like they were mine. Had this look, too -- I’ll never forget it – like he’d been scooped out from the inside. D’Ron took off. Bolted. I was devastated. Never saw him again. When I think about that, I consider how much power words have and the concept of communion and how sometimes the same exact moment you get your life saved can also break your heart, and that’s what I’m after, I guess, in my work. That.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Folks bemoan the high cost of ticket prices as being the main reason why people don’t wanna go to the theater, and that’s a big part of it obviously, the economics, but I think the real problem runs deeper. The fact is you see a bad movie, and it’s just not that bad, or rarely that bad, particularly if you exercise any degree of selectivity before you buy your tickets. The editing, the music, the performances, usually they add up to some sort of emotional experience, even if it’s fleeting. You see a bad play, it’s like a piece of your soul has been ripped outta your body wholesale. You’re held hostage in that theater, no way out, and you wanna be polite, supportive, but the whole time you’re dying inside. Too often, even with good productions the experience ends up more of an intellectual one than an emotional one, and it’s emotion that’s at the core of all decent storytelling, all art for that matter. Which brings us to acting. Theater is an actor’s medium, more so even than a playwright’s, and yet, I can’t tell you how many directors, playwrights, artistic directors I know who expect the actors to just fend for themselves, that’s “their” thing. Cast well and you’re done. Worse, they rarely create an environment that’s loving and supportive, where an actor is encouraged to do their best work. Many of them even actively despise actors, or at least distrust them, and if you don’t love actors – I mean, they can frustrate you as individuals, sure, but if you don’t love actors and acting in general -- then do everybody a favor, and get the hell outta theater. I mean it. For a play to be great, I don’t care if it’s a world premiere or a chestnut, the actors hafta be willing to put themselves through the ringer. Fight the good fight. Again and again. I see too many productions where the actors live through it once, and then the next night, the next ten nights, become a representation of that first night, dress rehearsal, whatever. When it worked. An approximation. The actors act the “idea.” They don’t always know it either. If life could be so easy. Rarely, does anybody walk out on stage intending to go through the motions. It’s usually a gradual creep to mediocrity and listlessness and nobody does anything to stop it. Every production needs chemistry. A play isn’t a film. You’re gonna see these people, work closely with them, depend on them every night, for however many nights. It’s not about the “take.” I’m not saying you have to love them, but you have to trust them, know they got your back. Collaboration’s not just a touchy-feely word to throw around until it loses its meaning. Anybody that’s drawn to the theater has been damaged in some profound way, whether they realize it or not, and yet I can’t tell you how many toxic production environments I’ve witnessed over the years. The opposite should be the case. The theater should be a safe haven. A place to experiment. To seek our truest selves. Why do you think some of the best work is being done by small collectives rather than institutions? Clearly, they don’t have a monopoly on the best actors or material or money. Far from it. It’s because they’ve created an environment akin to a fairly functional family, or a championship-contending sports team, where people feel supported, they know their roles, and they can call each other out on their bullshit, driving one another to new heights nightly. They’re invested. 100%. They bleed for their art and all of us can feel it out there in the dark somewhere and it’s awesome.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: I think heroes are important, and I have lots of’em. I mean, I like who everybody else likes: Eugene O’Neill, August Wilson, David Mamet, Sam Shepard, Wallace Shawn, Arthur Miller, David Rabe, Caryl Churchill, Christopher Durang, John Osborne, Kopit, Chekhov, Beckett, Pinter, Strindberg, Ibsen, Odets, Inge, Tennessee Williams, Maria Irene Fornes, etc., etc…all the big dogs….But I’m also inspired by a ton of contemporary playwrights whose new works I look forward to reading the minute I can get my hands on’em: Annie Baker, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Tracy Letts, Adam Rapp, Neil LaBute, Bruce Norris, Theresa Rebeck, Kenneth Lonnergan, Leslye Headland, Rebecca Gilman, Jez Butterworth, Martin McDonagh, John Kolvenbach, Brett Neveu, Bekah Brunstetter, Amy Herzog, Stephen Belber, Will Eno, Itamar Moses, Melissa James Gibson, Sarah Ruhl, Thomas Bradshaw, Suzan Lori-Parks, Sheila Callaghan, Steve Yockey, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, John Pollono, Rajiv Joseph, Blair Singer, Yasmina Reza, etc., etc. By the way, that list includes you, too, Adam….I do most of my work with the Vs. Theatre in Los Angeles, so I’m also indebted to theater companies, past and present, whose work evolved from a committed ensemble -- the Group Theatre, of course, the early days of Steppenwolf, LAByrinth, Naked Angels, Rattlestick, etc. Companies I’ve, unfortunately, had to admire from afar.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I like theater that allows actors to act. What I call the magic of sustained performance. Fewer blackouts. The less interruptions the better. Where I feel like the actors’re out there on a high wire, risking emotional life and limb. A giant master shot. There’s nothing better. The flipside is that on the rough nights, where the acting’s heady or overly crafted, it’s tough to think of a whole lot worse places to be. I’m not a big fan of the prevalence of direct address either. I understand narratively it works, and can work really well, in fact, when used judiciously, I just prefer to have the story happening in front of me rather than recounted. But you do what you want.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Read everything you can get your hands on. Write a lot. Check. Check. But the single most important thing a playwright can do – and this took me a long time to realize -- is find a community. As a Literary Manager, I can tell you your odds of getting pulled off the slush pile are practically nil. You need to create your own opportunities. Seek out people who excite you. Join a playwriting group. Most theaters need help. Especially smaller theaters. Offer to work in the literary department, or as a dramaturg, an assistant director, whatever. Stage manage. If you’re at all handy help build the sets. Get out of your shell. Even if you’re shy, just do it. See where it takes you. Don’t wait for validation from an institution. Create art with your friends. At the same time, don’t rush a production either. I know so many writers who finish a rough draft of a play and then right away wanna schedule a public reading. Remember what Nabokov said, “Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts.” Take the time to get it right. Nabokov again: “My pencils outlast their erasers.” If you don’t take the music of your play seriously, then how can you expect anybody else to, particularly your actors. Write plays that can expand and become something bigger than they are on the page with the help of your collaborators. Learn to write for actors. Do yourself a favor, and assume they’re great actors. Two, three, four Daniel-Day Lewises and Meryl Streeps. Write parts that will challenge them, scare the hell outta them, parts they’ll crawl through fiery broken glass to play, even if it’s for free, and that they’ll still be talking about ten years after your play’s closed. Let your stories spin out of the characters, not the other way around. If you got the cojones, take an acting class. I’m not an actor, but I’ve taken several. It’s no coincidence that some of our best playwrights were actors first. Some of them very good ones. The better you understand the actor’s process, the better you’ll be as a dramatist. Then, when somebody finally blesses you with a production, and you’re invited into the rehearsal room for the first time, shut your mouth. Fight the urge to spout result-oriented, panicked nonsense, understanding that people need to be bad for a while before they can be amazing. After all, nobody was sitting over your shoulder chiming in when you were writing the thing. Allow them the same freedom. Unless the director sucks. Then good luck.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: If you’re in the Los Angeles area, please check out Cops and Friends of Cops at the Vs. Theatre Company. It runs Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm thru June 1st. The plan, then, is to extend it Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm thru June 29th. Tickets available at www.vstheatre.org. Now that Cops is up and running and I got a little more time on my hands, I’m also looking forward to seeing Annapurna by Sharr White at the Odyssey, The North Plan by Jason Wells at the Elephant Theatre, Neil LaBute’s take on Miss Julie over at the Geffen, and The Size of Pike by Lee Wochner at Moving Arts Theatre, all of which I’ve heard wonderful things about.
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