Thursday, August 27, 2015

I Interview Playwrights Part 782: John Longenbaugh

John Longenbaugh

Hometown: Sitka, Alaska

Current Town: Seattle

Q:  Tell me about your show coming up at the Schmee.

A:  "Oh My Azaleas!" is the theatrical premiere of probably the craziest and certainly the largest artistic project I've ever tackled called BRASS. Set in an alternate 1885, it's a Steampunk adventure serial focusing on a family of Victorian geniuses--the father an inventor, the mother a Sherlock Holmes-level detective, the daughter a mistress of disguise and con artist, and the son a martial artist savant.

The live stage show picks up immediately where the radio series leaves off, with two of our heroes trapped in an out-of-control Steam Hearse, a consequence of their feud with a villain named the Graveyard King. After they've escaped from this deathtrap, they're immediately plunged into another mystery as a body falls into their garden. As they progress to unraveling a mystery involving a courtesan, a missing gem and some gurkhas, we follow the simultaneous journey of two rogues, Henry Hall and Joddy Burke, trying to scheme some extra gold out of a dangerous mission.

This of course is all ridiculous.

I'm co-writing the stage plays with a playwright named Louis Broome. Louis wrote a straight-out beautiful play a few years ago called "Texarkana Waltz" that has had productions all over the place, including quite a great one over at the late lamented Empty Space. I'm honored to be working with a writer who has such a combination of crazy imagination and poetic lyricism.

The first season of the radio show will be available for listening through quite a range of commercial and public radio stations through some partnerships with local and national producers, as well as over the internet.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I'm in another draft of a musical that I've written the book for with music and lyrics by Bruce Monroe. It's called "Anybody Can Do Anything," and adapted from a hilarious memoir by local Seattle writer Betty Macdonald, detailing her adventures living through the Great Depression with her loving and eccentric family in a big house up in Ravenna.

I've just finished rewrites on my thriller "The Sound in the Next Room," thanks to a great reading run by the good folks at Akropolis Theatre, and have started sending that out again. It's a four woman, one set play about three friends sharing a pair of hotel rooms in Seattle as part of a "Murder Mystery Weekend," who get involved with a real murder. That was the play's fourth reading and I think it's time to get it up on its feet.

I'm writing Season 2 of BRASS: The Audio Series, making notes with Louis about our next live stage show ("Fatal Footlights," opening in January) and inching forward with a new novel while I'm looking to sell the first, and I've just agreed to write on commission the book for another new musical.

So yes. Lots of plate spinning!

Q:  How would you describe the Seattle theater scene?

A:  We're in the middle of another big change, the sort that happen every 10 years in this town, but this is the first one that I'm actually a little anxious about. The reason that Seattle has a significant theater scene has traditionally been because it had a rich ecosystem, leading from quality fringe productions all the way up to the professional companies like the Rep, ACT the 5th Avenue and Seattle Children's. In the last 20 years a lot of that has been winnowed--the Fringe Festival's death in 2003, the death of most of our mid-sized scene (The Group, the Empty Space, The Bathhouse among others), and most recently, the near-death and transformation of Intiman into a seasonal play festival. Some of this is probably okay, and there are some fantastic companies doing great work in town--even new partnerships among these groups in spaces like 12th Avenue Arts.

But what has me the most concerned are the community issues that are tough on everyone but can mean death for live theater, like terrible traffic and parking, vast rental increases and a creeping "monoculture" from the new influx of Amazon and other tech people into the heart of the city.

And if that wasn't enough of a problem, live theater is seeing smaller audiences nationwide in every category except musicals.

For the first time I'm starting to worry that this new Seattle isn't someplace I'll be able to afford to live as an artist, and that the new Seattleites aren't necessarily all that interested in theater anyway.

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 remember my first encounter with a typewriter, an old portable Smith-Corona of my mother's. One morning when I was four years old, she helped me roll the paper under the bar, and then I typed out my name in all caps. When I did, I felt a new and somewhat overwhelming happiness. I don't often get that feeling, but it happens often enough for me to keep at it.

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

A:  I want to excite both artists and audiences about what theater actually is. It seems like the most successful productions right now are the ones that try to sidestep the word "theater," or at least instead dress it up with snazzy new phrases like "immersive" or "experiential." The fact is, it's all still theater, and sharing the air with the people on the stage is its own astonishing experience. I feel like people need to be reminded of that, particularly as we all spend less face time with other people.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Playwrights. I truly believe that since most of the time we work alone, our work is also less fun than almost anyone else involved. I hate the manner in which playwrights in professional theatre are often sort of sequestered away from the actors and the director.

I also truly have a soft spot for theater critics. I was a critic myself for about five years, writing for The Seattle Weekly, Backstage and Backstage West. It's a tremendously tough job and now that we're losing professional critics (with the papers that paid their salary), it's a lot harder to draw a discerning audience to interesting work.

Individually, my current heroes are George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, both of whom I'm researching for the new play. Two astonishing Irishmen who invaded the English theater, beat it up, and dragged it into the 20th century.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I'm pretty inclusive in my tastes. I enjoy black box productions, large-scale musicals, and just about anything in between. I get really excited when I see a show attempt to interact with its audience in a new manner. The most recent Cirque du Soliel Show, "Kurios," had a few moments that did that--generally through the clowns. So did Julia Nardin's "Dumpsite" at Immersive Theatre, which did some amazing things in the way that it used the audience. Then I just saw the touring production of "Pippin," which was the first perfect marriage I've seen of circus acts and musical theater--and plus when it came for the finale, they lit a pyre so big that I swear you could feel the heat from the balcony. Though I'm a little jaded, all of this still gives me more thrills per square minute than any other art form.

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

A:  Take every opportunity you can to work in a theater. Don't just write plays, try everything--act, direct, paint scenery, design lighting plots, take tickets. (I've done everything at one time or another except stage manage, a profession I hold in an almost mystical regard.) Understand what it means to not only do the jobs, but how they interact. It's helpful to see a play from a lot of different angles. You'll probably make a few friends, and that's good too.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A  BRASS: Oh My Azaleas! Opening as a late-night at Theater Schmeater on September 25th and running till October 10th.

BRASS: Audio Season One. Playing somewhere near you (and probably on the internet). Check for current details.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol: playing here, there and elsewhere this holiday. This year the closest production to Seattle is going to be at Renton Civic Theatre this December.


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