Thursday, June 19, 2014

I Interview Playwrights Part 668: Ross Howard

Ross Howard

Hometown: Wigan, Lancashire (UK)

Current Town: London

Q:  Tell me about Picture Ourselves in Latvia.

A:  Well, it’s billed as a contemporary comedy on contemporary England. Where “Desires are suppressed and aspirations muddled for both the staff and patients of a psychiatric ward. Rank and rule clash with what the heart and mind want in this environment of division and distraction”. And that pretty much nails it. People should still go though because I haven’t given too much away there. I always liked how Lorca depicted Spain in THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA. That’s not all he achieves in that play, but I remember his example, in particular, and the aspect of an environment with a sort of metaphorical framework having a lasting impression on me. So that was my starting point or seed if you like. It’s about some men and some women living among one another and all the inner and outer noise and physical and mental confines that come with that. And if we’re going to be even broader about it, it’s about England. Maybe the New York audiences will think “And America too probably”. And I could see that, having spent some time there. Anyway, that’s my play. You’ll have to see what the relevance of Latvia is. I’ve also been told it’s very funny. I should mention that. It’ll be my third collaboration with the brilliant Sarah Norris. Sarah directed the New York production of my play ARTHUR AND ESTHER back in 2007 and last year with the company she co-founded, New Light Theater Project, she directed my short play FRISKY & THE PANDA MAN at the Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival. We were fortunate enough to be named one of the five winning finalists with that. So we’re looking forward to this a lot and we hope people like it.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  Two things. A slightly surrealist family drama about a Latin American immigrant family in the US called HYENAS IN THE BACKYARD. All about narrative and owning memory, family, identity and all that kind of thing. Perhaps you'd call it "postcolonial".  I saw that definition the other day and it sort of fits with what I've been doing. Also the characters are predominantly female. So that’s interesting for me. The play’s been knocking about in my head for a couple of years, so it was about time I got going on it. And then I’m also working on a solo piece about a female life coach just starting out and that's entitled LET’S GET DIFFERENT (WITH TINA WINDERMERE). I'm enthused about both plays and I'm optimistic they’ll both be ready by the end of the year

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

A:  It’s not a story per se, but growing up in England, where by comparison people don’t directly say what they really want to say, means you’re sort of born into the task of trying to figure out what the hell it is people want you to do, or not do, or you are trying to decipher what they want for themselves. It’s a pretty good grounding for writing for the stage, I think. I should also add that moving to the US in my 20s and living among Americans, as I did for a time, gave me the pathological optimism you need to make playwriting some sort of vocation, despite all its obstacles. That might not be quite what you're after but I think that combination explains why I’m a playwright today.

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

A:  It’s a shame it’s too expensive to put on plays. On the whole, theatre needs considerable funding, and then on a certain level, the need for funding perhaps influences the content of the work that would attract funding. And then we get into this business of social initiative-led work (not as a whole a bad thing) or where a play’s topic seems a little more important than the quality of the work. I’m assuming that’s the reason behind a lot of poorer stuff we see anyway. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt here. But we've all got to find ways around this and I'm sure the smart people out there will find them.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  I admire a lot of playwrights, and I have to say most are American, so congratulations on that front. But if you’re going to use the word “heroes”, then Chekhov and Arthur Miller in particular stand out. They both wrote with a great conscience and compassion but neither one of them were afraid of throwing their characters under a bus when it came time to. I think those are good principles to write plays by.

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

A:  Be patient. Take an interest in everyone you meet. You should anyway, let's face it. But write as much as you can and in different ways. Stretch yourself. Read and watch a lot of plays. Get to know and listen to actors. Write a play while always bearing in mind that the reader is in no way obligated to finish it, so you have to make them want to. Then more broadly, imagine what your ideal body of work will say about you and be specific about what you want it to look like and proceed with that in mind and take responsibility for it. It is true that collaborations and connections are important, and you need opportunities and breaks and favours from others, but to have something that you’re solely responsible for will keep you focused and independent and it will always be something to come back to and to gain confidence and move forward from. And you’ll probably find through doing that, you’re going to attract other people, collaborators and opportunities to you anyway. From there, as you were: Be patient, take an interest in everyone you meet and repeat. Those are my main things.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  PICTURE OURSELVES IN LATVIA is presented by New Light Theater Project and runs at the Access Theater, New York from July 10 through to August 9. Also NO ONE LOVES US HERE, ARTHUR AND ESTHER and my collection of short plays OUR WALK THROUGH THE WORLD are now available and published by Samuel French.

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