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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...

Jun 18, 2013

I Interview Playwrights Part 591: Matthew-Lee Erlbach

Matthew-Lee Erlbach
Hometown: Chicago (Rogers Park to be exact)

Current Town: NYC

Q:  Tell me about your upcoming shows.

A:  Two shows, so very opposite:

My play HANDBOOK FOR AN AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY, going up Off-Broadway at GYM at Judson in July is a play I've been working on for a few years. I spent some time traveling around the country meeting and/or being embedded with/ chased by some incredible people: migrant workers, white nationalists, green anarchists, Mennonites, soldiers, lobbyists, and then some. So, the play is inspired by these ordinary citizens in extraordinary circumstances, these Davids vs Goliaths whose battles are reshaping this nation today. Basically, if VICE were to do a play, it would be something like this. And while it might sound political, it's actually very personal. And funny. Also, it's directed by the amazing Tony Speciale who's just a great collaborator. The whole team around this couldn't more hard-working and supportive.

My other play, EAGER TO LOSE, is a burlesque farce in rhyming verse, which opens at Ars Nova in October. It's a sexy, fun, and exciting romp starring Tansy (who if you don't know yet, you'll soon fall in love with) and directed by Wes Grantom and Portia Krieger. It is a very unique theatrical experience about love, lust, and loyalty, that weaves a lot of rich textures from heightened language and rhyming verse to burlesque to some vaudeville to live music to let's see what else we discover before opening. There's incredible talent involved and we're all looking forward to getting it in front of an audience. We've been developing it for the past couple years (man, time flies) at Ars Nova, who have been so smart, generous, just plain awesome throughout our development.

Q:  What else are you working on?

A:  I'm working on some fun new stuff at Nickelodeon; I created a fun retro-techno adult overnight block that will be premiering sometime in the summer or fall. The date keeps getting pushed so I'm hoping it happens soon because it's burning a hole in my pocket right now. Beyond that, I'm developing a half-hour comedy with Locomotive Film, starring Carrie Preston and a one-hour drama with Cineflix, which I'm very excited about. Theatre-wise, I'm revising a new play directed by Michael Berresse and am currently working on a two-part dark comedy verse play called KING GEORGE, III, Parts One and Two. It has some haunting and forgotten African slave music and Mohawk music.

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

A:  When I was in high school--if theatre, music, and being the soft-spoken white member of an African liberation group on the South Side of Chicago weren't already enough--I started an SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) chapter. I learned that Sodexho Marriott, who serviced our cafeteria, was also a major investor in private prisons. I had just learned about the for-profit private prison industry and was pretty shocked that such a thing even existed. So, naturally, we initiated a boycott of the cafeteria and we handed out information on their connection with private prisons. But even more naturally, we carried around watermelons to all our classes. Sure, let me explain--and keep in mind I was in high school: the watermelon symbolized the for-profit prison industry: the striped green skin represented the economic prison bars/ money, the delicious flesh was the prison industry, and the seeds were all the minor offense prisoners stuck inside…yeah, I know. Anyway, the point was to invite conversation about the watermelon, tell our classmates about the issue, and get the offenders out of our school. At the end of our week of action, we served the watermelon to everyone. And there you have the Great Watermelon Rebellion of 2001. I still want the same things. I just don't use watermelons anymore.

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

A:  Access.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Ed Bullins, Chekhov, Moliere, Odets, Shakespeare, Geroge C Wolfe. And separately, Tracey Letts. I grew up watching him as an actor and playwright and it's an understatement to say how much he's influenced me.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Man, I love theatre that grips my heart. I get excited when I'm struck emotionally because now I have to deal with something. Now if that theatre can strike my brain equally as hard, then call it a night, I'm done for. I've only been left speechless a few times in the theatre, Fiona Shaw's MEDEA, Steppenwolf's PILLOWMAN, and the recent NORMAL HEART revival. Also, Jackie Sibblies Drury's amazing play We are Proud to Present…(for short), left you sitting there with all this shit. And it was awesome. And brave. And surprising. And provocative. And that whole experience was all just so well-crafted. I am a big fan of hers and the way she thinks and collaborates. She really excites me.

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

A:  Well, being a playwright just starting out myself, all I can offer is to keep writing, do everything you can that has nothing to do with theatre, and get your work up by any means necessary.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  My friend Isaac Oliver is a brilliant writer working on a new book. He performs his show at Ars Nova and you should find out when and go see it. And then buy his book.

Also, the Amoralists are doing some pretty exciting work this summer, very much worth seeing.

As for me, come see my plays. I'd love to share my work with you.

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