Saturday, July 12, 2014

I Interview Playwrights Part 676: Ry Herman

Ry Herman

Hometown:  All over the place, really.

Current Town:  Edinburgh, Scotland

Q:  Tell me about Alice in Chinatown.

A:  It's a project that began in 2010 ... I was living in Honolulu then, and the local burlesque troupe, Cherry Blossom Cabaret, wanted to put on a full theatrical show -- that is to say, one with a plot, recurring characters, and significant dialogue, instead of the variety-style shows that are more common in the genre. They decided they wanted to loosely adapt Alice in Wonderland, but make it about the burgeoning arts scene of Honolulu's Chinatown. I was brought in to work on the script, which I ended up co-writing with a member of the troupe named Mabsy. I've now worked on four shows with them total, either as author or co-author, and this year Mabsy and I wrote a sequel, Alice in Chinatown: Through the Looking Glass.

One of the most eye-opening experiences for me as a playwright has been how great it is to write parts for a specific group of people, instead of writing a play in isolation and sending it off to strangers. Especially this group of people, since they're all amazing and creative and multi-talented. The troupe includes not only amazing striptease artists, but also professional or professional level singers, actors, dancers, choreographers, aerialists, contortionists ... one of the ways I start out each time is by basically asking, OK, anything special you want to do in the show? This year, the answers included two fencers who wanted to have a sword fight, a hand juggler, four singers, an aerialist who wanted to do a lyra piece, and someone who wanted to do a striptease in the dark in a costume made of electroluminescent wire, among other things.

When I first started working with them, I discovered to my surprise that instead of being constraining, trying to fit all of these things into a coherent narrative is remarkably freeing. Instead of being a limit ("you must include this thing in the show") it feels like anything is on the table ("you can even include this thing in the show!") I've never felt like I've had the problem of sacrificing thematic or narrative richness in the service of using someone's talents; instead, I feel like I get to use everyone's talents to add to the themes and narrative. AIC: Through the Looking Glass was primarily about identity, belonging, and finding your place in the world as you find out who you are. And also a love story between Alice and the White Rabbit.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  At the moment, I'm working on a science fiction novel, which Mabsy is actually going to illustrate. In terms of the stage, I've just started the planning stages for a show -- it's so early on that the basic idea for it could still change -- that I'm hoping to have written in time for next year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival. (I've just moved to Edinburgh recently, and I'm looking forward to the Fringe; this year, my goal is not to bankrupt myself at it.)

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

A:  I was mostly raised and socialized by my family's cats. However, they gave up on me when they realized that no matter how hard they tried, I was never going to hunt mice well. Since the mousing career path was closed to me as a result of my incompetence, I turned to writing instead.

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

A:  I'd want theater ticket prices that are comparable to, say, movie ticket prices, and at the same time everyone in the theater paid what their time and effort is worth. (Also world peace and a unicorn ...)

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Tom Stoppard, who used theater and language to examine theater and language, and made it fun and meaningful. Stephen Sondheim, who redefined what a musical could be as an art form. Jeff Daniels, for building the Purple Rose Theater.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  The theatrical piece I've seen that excited me the most during the last few years was Sleep No More. Probably because it was both innovative, entertaining, provocative, and amazingly well done. So, I'd say those are the things that excite me.

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

A:  There is no one right way of writing a play. If there's a play at the end of it, you did it right.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  A number of Ry Herman's plays are available from Samuel French (Voices In My Head, The Monster) and United Stages (Man On Dog, in the collection EATfest: Best of Fest). Excerpts from Ry's plays (Vamp, Voices in My Head) are available in the Meriwether collections Scenes and Monologues from the Best New Plays II and Women's Issues Volume II.

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