Sunday, August 02, 2015

I Interview Playwrights Part 769: Matthew B. Zrebski



Matthew B. Zrebski

Hometown:  Austin, TX

Current Town:  Portland, OR

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I am currently in the initial drafting process for a play, titled Chrysalis. It was commissioned by the Young Professionals Program (YP) at Oregon Children’s Theatre and will premiere in April of 2016. The piece has eight teen characters. It also requires me to compose original music for mostly a cappella singing. I am exploring themes of generational change through a modern myth - the transformation of humans in ways that can either be a result of enlightenment or a dangerous and threatening morphing into savagery. Focus groups have been conducted with various teens to help in highlighting issues that matter to them.

Q:  Can you tell me about Playwrights West?

A:  Playwrights West came out of PlayGroup, a collective of playwrights assembled by the incredible Mead Hunter when he was Literary Director at Portland Center Stage. In 2009, we decided to move into a production model for our company, not unlike 13P - where one writer would receive a full production of their choosing approximately once a year. The first show was in 2012 (Patrick Wohlmut’s Continuum). And it has continued each year with Licking Batteries by Ellen Margolis in 2013, The Sweatermakers by Andrew Wardenaar in 2014, and the upcoming Dear Galileo by Claire Willett in 2015. Membership has changed a lot over the years, but we typically have 8 to 10 members at any given time.

In 2012, we launched our education program called Teen West. Initially this has been a collaboration with Wilson High School Drama, where each year, a Playwrights West member pens a play specifically for teen performers, where every character must be a teenager. The idea is to go from page to stage to publication so as to build richer teen centric works. I serve as the Education Director for Playwrights West and run this program each season, serving as the director/dramaturg for the plays. In year one (2013), we had a festival of one acts called The Warning Label: Water Down by Debbie Lamedman, Arm by Matthew B. Zrebski, and Verge Warnings by Karin Magaldi. Year two (2014) saw the premiere of The Waves by Patrick Wohlmut. And in year three (2015), Ellen Margolis’s Prime was produced and was also featured in The Fertile Ground Festival.

Q:  Can you tell me about Promising Playwrights?

A:  I am currently the Resident Teaching Artist at Portland Center Stage and since 2004, I have been teaching the Visions and Voices program for the organization. We go into six area public high schools during the school year and teach six-week playwriting residencies to drama students. Most years, we teach between 150 and 180 writers. In the spring, 22 are chosen to have their work presented in staged readings at PCS. And from those 22, 6 are chosen as “Promising Playwrights” to participate in JAW: A Playwrights Festival in the summer. This is a commissioning program where the writers pen new, 5 to 8 minute duet plays under my mentorship. In less than two weeks, the pieces are written, developed, and then presented as staged readings during the kick-off to the festival. The playwrights are paid for their work and treated as emerging professionals. It’s an incredible opportunity and many have gone on to pursue playwriting careers.

Q:  What is the Portland theater scene like?

A:  Since moving here in 1997, the scene has gradually and steadily expanded. I would now call Portland a vibrant theatre town, especially given our modest population. There are numerous organizations of varying sizes, many with a large regional presence like Portland Center Stage, Artists Repertory Theatre, Oregon Children’s Theatre, Portland Playhouse, Third Rail Repertory Theatre, Milagro, and Profile Theatre. And then there are extraordinary smaller companies that take incredible risks on new work, devised work, and innovative adaptations. Theatre Vertigo, Post5, defunkt theatre, and Shaking the Tree are just a few. In the winter, Fertile Ground has become an explosive fringe festival where new work is front and center. And then, of course, there is JAW at PCS which serves to anchor our focus on new plays.

What excites me about the future of our scene is we have more and more theatres able to offer AEA contracts. I firmly believe that a town that can support union talent is a town where theatre will thrive. I am also happy to see more and more artists coming here to treat Portland as a destination city, rather than a springboard town. In the past, many came here to build a resume and then move onto bigger markets. Though that certainly still happens, more and more are arriving to call Portland home and are able to sustain a level of creative satisfaction here.

I do desperately wish to see much more cultural diversity (this area is so very Caucasian) - but I’m thrilled that in terms of style, there is a lot of variety.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I want my theatre expressly “theatrical”. And by that, I guess I mean that I believe theatre begs an audience to engage their imaginations in ways that film and television do not. I am a huge lover of cinema and TV - but those art forms happen to you. Theatre happens with you. When I buy a ticket, I am contracting with the artists to play make believe - to suspend disbelief and fill in the world with my own creativity. In this way, I steer away from literal representations and naturalism. I love work that defies genre, challenges ideas and has a muscular thrust of theatrical magic - a full bodied use of stage language. I also love the feeling that I’m being invited to consider something in a new way…or for the first time. That “something” can be political. It can be stylistic. It can be structural. It can be spiritual. But truth be told, I have little interest in sitting and watching another family in a living room work out their issues. I think film and television do this better. I crave a theatre experience that breaks the boundaries of the three-dimensional world I walk around in each day.

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

A:  One: Don’t become a playwright, become a theatre artist who writes plays. Study it all. Know how to tape out a set. Know how to change a lamp. Know how to approach a monologue as an actor. Know how to stage a difficult scene.

Two: Always consider, “What am I asking the audience to consider when the curtain call is over?” Great art asks questions.

Three: Schedule your writing time like it’s critical. Because it is. Yes, your writing time is as important as that wedding you must attend, or going to the “day job”. It must be at the same level or it will get pushed aside.

Four: Write plays you would be first in line at the box office for. You can only predict yourself as an audience - no one else.

Q:  Plugs please

A:  I already mentioned Chrysalis which opens next April. But as a general shout out, I’ll mention that one of my most successful productions has been my musical, Ablaze: an a cappella musical thriller. I wrote the book, music, and lyrics and also directed the premiere. It won several major awards in 2013. The original cast album is unique in that it was produced to give the listener the entire aural experience of sitting in the audience. Every word of the piece has been recorded along with the brilliant sound design by Em Gustason. Producer Brandon Woods did a marvelous job, and I’m so thankful for Woodsway Entertainment for releasing the album. Future productions and publication are now pending. My hope is more and more will come to know this work in the next few years.

The website is at: http://www.ablaze-the-musical.com
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