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1000 Playwright Interviews The first interview I posted was on June 3, 2009.  It was Jimmy Comtois.  I decided I would start interview...

Apr 8, 2015

I Interview Playwrights Part 733: Ben Jolivet

Ben Jolivet

Hometown: Fall River, Massachusetts.

Q:  Tell me about your play next season at Wilbury.

A:  It's called Cain + Abel, and it's sort of this mashup of biblical myth, theatre, and reality TV. I call it a "riff" on the Cain and Abel story, partly because it doesn't owe all that much to any source text. When I got the idea, I went back to the Bible and discovered the story is, like, a paragraph long, and doesn't say anything about anything. Had it been a fuller story, I might not have touched it, but I loved there was so little information and I could make up whatever I wanted. I love doing that. The play actually owes as much to these statues I saw in a Humanities textbook in college. I can't remember what civilization they were from, but it was one of the earliest, and they were these statues of these tall, thin people, with these giant eyes and these gaping mouths, staring up in awe--or horror. I can't remember who they were, from when or where, but I remember realizing in those pictures that the sense of "what-the-hell-is-going-on-in-the-world-why-is-everything-so-terrifying" has been part of human life since the start of human life. So that’s a big part of it. And Lilith is a part of the story, and she's sort of a gollum; God is sort of a wandering artist with a name that can't be said aloud; Abel has a wife we've never heard of... and then there are these brothers who can't find each other. And of course (because why wouldn’t there be), there’s a nod to reality TV-style confessionals, and sex, and, of course, a little bit of gore. It’s going to be a ride, for sure.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I'm working on new drafts of things that have been on my desk for a while. I write first drafts incredibly quickly--generally, within two weeks. But then it takes me a couple years to figure out what to do with the mess I made so gleefully. I'm also about to start grad school at Hollins Playwright's Lab, so I’m getting ready for that to be part of my life.

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 grew up Catholic, and I was pretty devout. But the Judas story always puzzled me. Jesus says to him, something like, "It would have been better for you never to have been born..." And I couldn't wrap my mind around that. If Judas didn't do what he did, Jesus wouldn't have been crucified, and the whole central event of Christianity wouldn't have happened, and then what? So I couldn't fathom how Judas was a bad guy. Yeah, he did something crappy to God--but he kind of had to for the story to unfold. So for him to do that thing that "needed" to be done, and for God to be all, "you're evil" really upset me. And when I tried to express that, nobody got what I was saying. And this was when I was, like, 10 or 11. I was young. But nobody could tell me why Judas was a bad guy. And I think so many of my plays (including Cain + Abel) are about "bad guys" and why they do what they do--how people are driven to it. In a weird way, I'm like a defense attorney. Many of my plays are about people doing the wrong thing, often, and getting audiences to empathize with that at least enough to say, "gee, well, that's effed up, because s/he's not bad..." And then, maybe, maybe, to get themselves to see themselves doing the same things.

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

A:  Nothing is more alive than theatre, and yet so much of what is produced is so dead to modern life—I think. Maybe that’s a cliché. I think we need to honor the classics, yeah; they taught us everything we know, but audiences--the audiences we hope to attract, the young folks--can't draw a line between old, stiff clothes and birch trees and samovars. They don't see a relationship to their lives. So why go? I go because I worship Chekhov, but why would someone who doesn’t come from this world go? Or even care? And why spend the money? It's cheaper to see reflections of your experience in a movie or, hell, on YouTube. somehow theatre needs to CARE about the lives of its audience more. For whatever that is worth.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  When I was a kid: Tennessee Williams and Christopher Durang. As I got older, Paula Vogel, Tony Kushner, and Richard Greenberg. Sarah Ruhl always makes me want to sit down and write. Now, though, it’s also the amazing collaborators and friends I get to work with.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Theatre that surprises me and makes me feel like a kid again. When a piece of theatre can surprise me, God it's exciting! I love to gasp at a play.

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

A:  Talk yourself into a realistic idea of success, and hold on to it. When I decided to take writing seriously, I felt like, "oh, I'll just get into Yale, and then Playwright's Horizons will start doing my plays, and that'll be that." Totally unrealistic. Now, I tell writers who take my workshops that success is getting your work in front of people who want it. To me, that’s success (when I’m clear-headed enough to believe myself). It doesn't have to be that to a writer starting out, but something reasonable needs to be the goal. Also, be, just, a delight to work with. Be an exceptional collaborator. That doesn't mean be a pushover, but be generous. Listen well. Learn to shut up and take feedback and not defend yourself, and divorce yourself from the very human feeling that you are what you write. You aren't. Any feedback, even if it doesn't seem helpful in the moment, will often yield new and better things. Take the feedback, be silent, and then go back to work. It’s OK to throw feedback away, but not if you haven’t wrestled with it a bit. And don’t take yourself too seriously. This isn’t rocket surgery. We’re playing make believe. That should be fun.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Cain + Abel @ The Wilbury Theatre Group, October 2015 www.thewilburygroup.org
Communion staged reading @ The Wilbury Group, April 21 2015.
I’m also leading a playwriting workshop there, starting in early May.  www.benjolivet.com

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