Tuesday, September 10, 2013

I Interview Playwrights Part 605: Matt Dellapina

Matt Dellapina

Hometown:  Bronx, NY

Current Town:  Brooklyn, NY

Q:  Tell me about Deacon Of The Bronx.

A:  Deacon Of The Bronx follows the return home of a beloved son, Fab. After a couple of years in the seminary - which is essentially college for those men who wish to become priests - he comes back to his old neighborhood amidst some serious confusion about what he thought was his "calling". I wanted to write the play for a couple reasons: one is that I just haven't seen too many plays in recent years about people who live in the boroughs of new york city - not people who moved there recently to open a high-end coffee roaster in the middle of a leather factory, but the folks who've called it home for more practical purposes for decades now. And strangely, the Bronx has been rather shut out of the whole recent sweep of borough gentrification. It still kind of exists as it did 20-30 years ago. For better and for worse.

I also wanted to take a look at why there'd been such a marked decline in those entering the priesthood in recent years. I'd figured that between the parallel wars we've been fighting and the dragging economic slump, more men would be jumping into spiritual community leadership. Or at least, more men would want to remove themselves from the noise of our current reality, quieting themselves and their surrounding world down. But it's been the reverse. I thought it'd be fun to look at that through the eyes of Fab, his friends and family, and see what keeps a man in the "real" world. And what can drive him from it.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I just competed this residency with the Civilians' R&D Group - where I'm expounding on this musical about Barabbas. Barabbas was the guy who went free (via public vote) when Jesus was condemned to die. I always thought that was such an interesting historical fork-in-the-road. And Barabbas is not really explored much in the Bible - there's only a couple sentences about him. So I'm playing with a "And Then What Happened?" kind of story. With rock songs. It's been fun.

I'm also setting out on a new play about a middle-aged white teacher chauffeuring his black student to protect him from the social wars at school.

Also, in the middle of editing this very fun film project I did with Sean Christopher Lewis. We wrote this movie, shot it on the road on a shoestring budget this summer. Watching that come together has been very exciting.

And with Slant Theatre Project - a company I'm in with Wes Grantom, Adam Knight, and Mat Smart - I've got this ongoing hosting/writing thing called On This Island. It's an NYC Storytelling series, mixing fiction, personal essay, music, play, and film. We've had a standing show at Ars Nova for the last year, release it as a podcast, and have had stellar guests working outside their usual specialties. That whole thing really fills my cup.

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 younger, we couldn't really afford summer camp or anything like that, so my folks would dump me upstate where my grandparents lived for weeks at a time. And my grandparents were (and are, my grandmother Maddalena is still wonderfully alive) spectacular storytellers. They've really led the whole hero's journey - poor beginnings in the hills of northern Italy, where you'd eat things like "moon cheese" - a spot of moonlight on a kitchen table that you could dip your bread into, imagining it was cheese.

And from there, the boat over to New York where some pioneering relatives brought news of actual work. Then, washing dishes and bussing tables at midtown restaurants, sewing fabrics in the West 30s all day, saving some coins and slowly, steadily, building a life together through broken English.

I'd learn all these stories over the long Italian lunches up in the country.

But one thing really comes to mind.

It was late July and I'd been up there for some time. And I was bored and restless. I was a sporty kid with a lot of nervous energy and there's only so much catch you can play with your 55-year old grandmother. I think she had sniffed out the malaise in my my 6-year old heart. I missed my brother, who was back at home. I missed my friends. I missed my parents. So my grandmother, asked, "Hey, how about we go fishing?" I loved fishing and she knew that, so I jumped up and was like, "Yeah!"

We packed a lunch box, put on our fishing caps, got a couple of janky rods and set out.

So we started walking down this country road, cars passing occasionally and I realized that, wait, we'd never gone fishing around here. The only times we went anywhere really, was when my grandfather was up there too with a car. My grandmother could not drive. I asked, "Where do we fish around here?" And she was like, "Oh, I know a place... just a little more walking."

The weather had started to turn. As it darkened, she asked what kind of fish I liked. How we waned to cook it once we caught it. What kinds of bait I was gonna use. We started digging for worms - futilely - on the side of the road.

The sky darkened. It was clear it was gonna pour on us. But still she kept saying, "No I think the pond is somewhere up the road! Come on!" By then, I knew we wouldn't find any pond before the rain took us. And it did. It started thundering and lighting like crazy. I got scared, but my grandmother just started to laugh. It poured on us. This 6 year old kid and his 55 year old grandma on the side of a country road with a tackle box and 2 fishing rods. Just a ridiculous scene. She was laughing really hard. And I did too.

Years later, she told me that she knew there was no fishing pond around, but she felt bad for me and wanted to get me out of the house. So she mocked up a little fishing trip and, though no fishing was to be had, it was the best fishing trip I'd ever been on.

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

A: Actors should have a quote for every play they do in the city. So, if you do your first professional gig in town, you get the Equity minimum for that theater. But for your 2nd pro gig, you'd get the Equity minimum for that theater (even if it's a different one), but you'd get an extra $25 a week, say. For you 3rd pro gig, you'd get the minimum plus $50. For the 4th gig, you'd get minimum plus $75. And so on. This feels fair, establishes a sense of progress, and I don't think it would break the theater's bank. A quote system, basically. This can be done. It has to, because the meager percentage raises we get after Equity negotiations do not keep up with the soaring cost of living in this city.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes:

A:  I'd say that John Patrick Shanley was a great influence on me. The first time I read his plays was the first time I felt grabbed a work of drama. Nicky Silver too. I'd never really laughed so much from reading a play. And I always felt - and still feel - that his work is so sneakily stirring and profound. His "Pterodactyls" was a real special read. A couple others are David Greenspan, whose work seems to find a way to bend time - it's miraculous. His solo show "The Myopia" blew my mind. And John Kelly's work is always mesmerizing. Those are some.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Stuff from the gut. Stuff that feels like it could've been written in one sitting, to be honest. But on the flip side, I've always gone in for the more daring, experimental work produced by the likes of The Foundry, Richard Foreman, and the like. Just unique, unsafe, nearly freaky theatrical voices that play with form.

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

A:  Well I'm only several years into classifying as even a peripheral "playwright". But coming from it as an actor, I will say that nothing has helped my acting more than doing improv and writing plays.

Q:  Plugs:

A:  My play, Deacon Of The Bronx, is part of the 2013 Lark Playwrights' Week. Public reading is Wednesday, 9/25 @ 3pm. And listen & subscribe to Slant Theatre Project's ON THIS ISLAND podcast series on itunes - https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/on-this-island/id580211869 - recorded live at Ars Nova.

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