Monday, October 27, 2014

I Interview Playwrights Part 704: Herman Daniel Farrell III

Herman Daniel Farrell III

Hometown: Washington-Heights, New York

Current Town: Midway, Kentucky

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I just finished a new play Cousins Table that's set in a post-war suburban home in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Members of a multicultural family (black, white, latino) who have not gotten together since falling out over 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, re-convene over Thanksgiving weekend in order to visit with a dying relative and determine the distribution of the family estate. The disputes between family members mirror the current divisions in the U.S. The issues of disintegration and secession -- are on the table.

I'm now turning to research and outline work on a piece about Thomas Dixon and W.E.B. DuBois and their confrontation in the first half of the last century. Dixon was the author of the novel The Klansman that was adapted for the screen as Birth of a Nation. The noted scholar and civil rights activist DuBois was also the author of a huge pageant play (cast of 100s) The Star of Ethiopia that was meant to be a counterpoint and response to Dixon's inflammatory work. Johns Hopkins and Columbia University will also factor into the narrative, as centers of intellectual thought (the Dunning School) that reinforced racist interpretations of sociology and history. And Margaret Mitchell will be in there, too, since she modeled Gone With the Wind on Birth of a Nation, sans Klan outfits, but as a child, actually donned (and sewed!) the dreaded hoods when she staged her own adaptation of one of Dixon's Klan-loving novels, in her living room. All true.

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 in the Boy Scouts in the late 1970s and I was exposed to two racist incidents. My dad is black and my mom is white and I look white -- so the racists who were mouthing off (no violence) had no idea that they were talking to anyone other than white people. I came away from those moments with a better understanding of the insidious and hidden nature of racism in contemporary America. As a writer, I am fascinated with moments that transpire behind the scenes, that are not meant for public consumption, but reveal the truth about a particular issue or character. In my play Bedfellows, I took the audience behind the scenes at a local political convention and in the HBO Film Boycott, we revealed the internecine battles that Dr. King had to deal with during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

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

A:  The business model. The not for profit corporation does not work as a sustainable economic model for the vast majority of theater artists, notably, actors, directors, designers and playwrights. That's a plain old undisputed fact. Now, there are two elements at work here: 1) not for profit; 2) corporation. The not for profit element was meant to discourage commercialism but that objective has been jettisoned by most NPC theatre organizations over the past two decades. So why not lose the idea completely and return to a for-profit model that includes profit sharing amongst the artists? It worked for Shakespeare's and Moliere's companies and many theatre producing organizations across the globe well into the 19th century. And the corporate structure should also be rejected in favor of partnerships (it works for doctors and lawyers!) or cooperatives. Again, returning governance and decision-making to artists, working together collectively.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Eugene O'Neill, Hallie Flanagan, Paul Robeson, Lorraine Hansberry, Joe Papp, August Wilson, Lloyd Richards, Max Wilk, Tommy Hollis, Sarah Kane, Howard Stein, Ed Vassallo.

Among the living: Reed Birney, James McDaniel, Kevin Geer, Phyllis Somerville, Lori Tan Chinn, Joe Urla, Amy Saltz, Tom Aberger, Alice Haining, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Doug Wright, Joe DiPietro, Doug Post, Peter Jay Fernandez, Lucy Thurber, Paula Vogel, Chris Durang, Chuck Mee, Catherine Filloux, Arthur French, David Margulies, Kia Corthron, Lynn Cohen, Akili Prince, Willie Reale, Todd London, John Steber, Emily Morse, Joel Ruark, Ron Riley, Casey Childs, Woody King, Jr., Chris Fields, Douglas Turner Ward, Jim Nicola, Jim Simpson, I'm probably missing a dozen more.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Anything I haven't seen already. But also anything old made new again. Most of all, I love moments that can only happen in the theater -- humans on stage connecting to humans in the audience, that moment of grace.

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

A:  Read plays and go to plays. When you like a play you saw, go get a copy of the play and read it to figure it out, on your own, how the playwright constructed the work. You can and should be your best teacher. That in mind: never, no matter how far you come along, think: "I got this." Be ever curious and humble. Every good playwright I've ever met says: "I'm still figuring this out."

Send plays out, but don't wait around for the response, write the next one, self-produce or form a playwrights collective.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Alum Reading of Cousins Table at New Dramatists

on Thursday, December 18 @ 7pm.


The Lesson by Ionesco, directed by Nancy Jones @ Slant Culture Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, November 14, 16 & 21!theatre-farouche/ci0x

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