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1000 Playwright Interviews The first interview I posted was on June 3, 2009.  It was Jimmy Comtois.  I decided I would start interview...

May 24, 2013

I Interview Playwrights Part 586: Hal Corley

Hal Corley

Hometown: Falls Church, Virginia, a Washington, DC suburb.

Current Town: Summit, NJ, after living in NYC for 24 years.

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I just finished a working draft of a new two-character comedy I'll be developing via a week's workshop at the Adirondack Theatre Festival in July. It's called The Bailey's Crossroads Opportunity School, and set in December 1959. A couple is teaching their first night school class on household finance as various calamities ensue. It's a challenge, not only because stylistically the material is almost all presentational, addressed to unseen students. But atypical of my work, it's gentle in tone, with a marriage at its center that has issues but isn't the usual proto-feminist Doll's House model, i.e. a husband threatened by a wife's intellect or prowess. I wanted to write about happy (enough) people, and like most period pieces I tackle, the script uses another era as a prism to look at some origins of current phenomena. The wife, the focus, is a kind of driven, entirely self-educated Suze Orman/Martha Stewart before her time, and for a change the husband is the supportive man behind the woman rather than the reverse.

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

A:  Though I'd like to conjure up an anecdote with humor and suspense, a specific snapshot is more defining. A vivid one, with me seemingly the observer. When I was maybe 8, my father took me to the barbershop on a spring Saturday for a pre-Easter trim. Waiting my turn in the crowd, I watched a mentally handicapped teenager there with his dad. The young man seemed to be getting his first adult haircut, the back of his neck coated with thick shaving cream, the barber suddenly brandishing a traditional straight razor. The boy gripped the armrests and froze. I remember how the hyper-protective father tried hard not to be excessively vigilant or instruct the barber. Of course he couldn't resist, and fretted visibly that his son might be terrified to feel the cold, sharp blade. He couldn't stop himself from reaching out, grabbing his son's hand. Yet within seconds, the boy demonstrated the opposite of the father's fear: rather than wince, still holding his dad's hand tightly, he blushed with pride; his whole face lit up. I couldn't stop watching what was a turning point, an overdue rite of passage exacerbated by the father's anxiety that his son couldn't handle a new experience. Yet it ended up a personal triumph for both men. On the sidelines, I was flooded with a powerful sense of heightened perception, but also an ineffable sadness, maybe for the first time hit with the knowledge that growing up would be about detaching, finding my own way some day. When I got home, I burst into tears, and sobbing, hid under my bed until my mother coaxed me out to learn what had so upset me. All through Easter the next day, a favorite holiday, I was unable to explain to baffled parents why a positive ritual observed between total strangers had so shaken me. If memory serves, I finally said "because they looked like poor people." Perhaps a quantifiable chasm between haves and have-nots seemed more tears-inspiring than an acute awareness of a subtle shift in a family dynamic. A couple of decades later, I smugly recalled this incident as a yardstick of my emotional IQ, empathetic antennae revealed at an early age. Look how I picked up all those vibes in other people! Now, I know better. The playwright in me is ultimately not interested in the unknown father and son. The story is the boy who had to hide under his bed. In my writing (and indeed my life) I've repeatedly, though at times unconsciously, explored that impulse -- what it means to be overwhelmed by unbidden emotion, sometimes burdened by it, and then to retreat from the weight of feelings. It's probably not only what I write but also why I write.

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

A:  I wish we practitioners would give up some of our cynicism about the audience. We parse material for its expected commercial vs. artistic appeal, pitched to "tourists" vs. these odd Others, learned aficionados who will "get" scripts because they're more savvy. In truth, many plays attract a diverse demographic. (Full disclosure: I recall a bus emptying on 45th Street, and after rudely assuming that that its riders were Lion King bound, watched them march eagerly into Other Desert Cities.) I was taught early on that "the audience is always right." I'm not sure I completely agree with that adage, but I have learned it's never always wrong. We too readily judge its members, and their supposedly homogeneous taste in a given venue. In the end they're entitled consumers. They want to embrace what they buy, whether on TDF the night before or a premium seat purchased months ahead. And we playwrights who've been through years of script development and weathered countless talkbacks can grow defensive. Yet we must never see those we seek to entertain as the enemy. I've made theater friends angry, but I say, if you don't trust and like the audience, don't try to write, act, design or direct for them.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Two writers spring to mind who have zero in common, never discussed in the same paragraph: William Inge and David Hare. Inge because he's a singular post-war American voice, a man unafraid to find drama in circumstances I once heard described as "the quotidian awfulness of things." He could draw powerful, loving portraits of people overwhelmed by that awfulness. A kitchen sink naturalist, he's usually maligned these days (though a brilliant director of the moment, David Cromer, made a persuasive case for deconstructing Inge's world in Chicago); yet I always feel his influence. And David Hare just inspires awe. He's fearless, scarily prolific, and writes about sociopolitical issues without sacrificing character and storytelling or reverting to agitprop, in plays operatic and epic in shape and scope. I remember seeing Plenty, stunned by the troubled woman's journey without initially understanding some of the stops along the way. His work nails the tangibles of history yet is filled with mystery about human responses to them. And the Stuff Happens production at the Public was to me a masterful staging of an under appreciated play, one that I hope is revived periodically over the next century to remind us what the hell happened in the early days of this decade.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Wildly different types, as my choosing Inge and Hare might suggest.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Don't be afraid to dig deeply into your own experiences, to excavate them fully. Not so much to write autobiographically, but to learn exactly how you respond to things. A Virginia Woolf quote comes to mind: “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”

Q: Plugs, please

A:   June 6 - 15, Dolor, Flush Ink, Asphalt Jungle Shorts IX, Waterloo, Ontario
June 12 - 23, Deflating, Stageworks/Hudson Play-by-Play, Hudson, NY
June 13 - 23, Stalking Pollyanna, Theatre Artists Studio Summer Shorts, Phoenix, AZ
June 20 - 22, The D Word, Theatre Madness, NYC
July 28-29, The Bailey's Crossroads Opportunity School, Workshop, Adirondack Theatre Festival, Glens Falls, NY

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