Tuesday, April 29, 2014

I Interview Playwrights Part 656: David Van Asselt

David Van Asselt

Hometown:  I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, home to the Amish. The fields next to my house were plowed by mules and I was sent often to he neighbor’s farm house for fresh eggs and milk. It was a little bit like growing up in 1880 and when I moved to New York City the contrast between that rural background and Guiliani’s New York City was immense.

Q:  Tell me about Fable.

A:  I wrote a partial first draft of Fable when I started Rattlestick in the mid 90’s. Because I couldn’t solve the ending, I put it aside. It wasn’t until three years ago that I suddenly realized how to end the play and what the missing pieces were – so I went back to it and wrote the version that is being produced by Piece by Piece and Rising Phoenix Rep. When I began writing the play I had been reading and translating Brecht plays (strictly for myself!) and so a kind of Brechtian structure became a starting point for FABLE. But when an angel and devil sort of appeared in the first scene, it became a “fable” that mixed a bunch of genres together in, hopefully, a fun sort of way.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I am presently at work on two plays that (at least in my mind) for a kind of trilogy with FABLE, each of which tries to engage with the world that we are making. There is also a play which is almost finished about a mother returning home after a career spent working for an NGO in a third world country and how she needs to make peace with her family.

Q:  Tell me about Rattlestick.

A:  I started Rattlestick with Gary Bonasorte in the mid-nineties when Circle Rep had just closed its doors and we both felt there were simply too few outlets for new plays. Like me, Gary was a playwright, and at first we were just a group of seven playwrights producing each other’s work. Then we decided to enlarge that to focus on becoming a place where many new playwrights could get their work produced. Gary died in 2000, a victim to the AIDS plague. His death was pretty devastating. Gary was full of the kind of life-affirming joy that one finds rarely on this earth, a joy which I try my best to bring to the theater each day.

Six months after Gary died, the attack on the Twin Towers occurred and we had to cancel the plays we had scheduled for that season. There were two bleak years when I really wondered whether it was meant to be, but I felt I had made promises to playwrights to produce their work, which I felt I needed to somehow honor. There was a year or two when I literally raised the money, production-managed the shows, built the sets and ran the payroll. Then Sandra Coudert came on as Managing Director and we were able to put the theater back on its feet. When Sandra left to start a family, Brian Long became the new managing director and we took another big step forward. Big enough, in fact, that I was finally able to start thinking about writing again.

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

A:  Back in 30s we had a program, the WPA, that included a national theater that was incredibly successful. It was run by Hallie Flanagan, and it provided a way for Americans all over the country to have access to live theater. That program got shut down by right-wing congressmen, but I would so like to create that possibility again – access to live actors performing on stage – and make theater-going a regular part of life.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Eugene O’Neill, Hallie Flanagan, Ellen Stewart, Terrence McNally

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

A:  I wish I had some sort of intelligent advice, but playwriting is so singular and everyone’s journey is so unique there is really no useful advice that I can think of. Maybe, simply, persevere and don’t compare your journey to that of another. To use an example from a different field, the composer Elliott Carter didn’t write his first masterpiece, or, for that matter, find his individual voice, until he was 50 some years old. Playwriting is one of those most difficult forms of art to create – that is why if you look back through history the number of major playwrights is far smaller than the number of poets or novelists. But it is a beautiful and life enhancing experience and one I hope in my small way to keep alive.

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