Thursday, October 15, 2015

I Interview Playwrights Part 798: David Ian Lee



David Ian Lee

Hometown: Newport, California.

Current Town: Nashville, Tennessee.

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I was away from writing for a few years while I pursued an MFA in Directing from Illinois State University; in what spare time I had, I puttered with small projects and gave slow polishes to my plays The Curing Room and mass. In recent months, however, I have – to borrow a word from Mac Rogers – “unbottled” with a vengeance, diving deep into a new project; I’m interested in a story about a schoolteacher who becomes a national hero after she uses a concealed weapon to neutralize a gunman who attacks her elementary school. The last few months have been about research and incubation; in the last few weeks there have been pages.

I’ve newly Nashvillian and adjusting comfortably to the stomping grounds. I’ve joined the Nashville Repertory Theatre as its Associate Artist in Education, which follows a month that saw me simultaneously performing at the Rep in Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn and co-directing (with Jessika Malone, my friend and a brilliant peer from ISU) your play Hearts Like Fists for Actors Bridge Ensemble. I prefer the moniker “theatremaker” to describe what I do – I write, I act, I teach, I direct – because the word best encapsulates my love for the theatre; any day spent making magic is better than a day not.

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

A:  I visited New York when I was six years old. At that time my uncle was the Production Stage Manager for Cats at the Winter Garden. I sat by his elbow in the booth – I called a cue! – and later went backstage, met the company, and discovered how magic got made; I remember a private ride on the flying tire... It’s ironic, perhaps, that for all my love of Shakespeare and Miller and Ruhl that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s kittens likely play a great part in my affection for theatre that embraces the spectacular; I love plays that wrestle with big ideas and that provide great palates for actors, but I do prefer if there’s a little flash-and-gasp along the way.

Quickly, about me as a person (as opposed to me as a writer, since we all know that writers aren’t people): When I was a toddler I’d run head-long into the ocean. My mother tells me I was fearless. I imagine that’s an ingrained quality that helped me move to New York with a suitcase and a few hundred bucks when I was fresh out of college, or that five years later provoked the way I came to write my first play: I rented a playing space before I’d hit a single keystroke, knowing that it would force me to have something ready in a month’s time.

I worry that I’ve lost some of that fearlessness. Becoming a parent will do that, I suppose, and I’ve also recently lost a parent and survived brushes with illness and graduate school. But I do still love running into the ocean.

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

A:  I wish there were greater opportunities for artists to find theatrical homes. So many theatremakers bounce job-to-job, with very little agency about the trajectory of their own creative expression. I recognize that the “old” repertory system mightn’t seem viable in all markets, but oh, to find a cove in a storm! To be able to create with and for a company!

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Oh, man... Can I just list names?

I’ve had incredibly influential teachers. Terry Knickerbocker, Bill Esper, Jerry Carlson, Deb Alley, and Samantha Wyer go high on that list – as would some folk I learned from outside of the classroom or the studio, including Sean Daniels, Ellen McLaughlin, and Jeff Lee.

There are so many people who came up in New York’s “Indie Theatre” that I first consider friends, but whose work I also deeply, deeply admire: Mac Rogers, Nat Cassidy, Crystal Skillman, Lauren Ferebee, Bill McMahon, James Comtois, August Schulenberg, you – hell, let’s just say anyone involved with Flux Ensemble, Manhattan Theatre Source, or the Playwright’s Continuum over at The Players Club. These are folks that I worked and played with who made me want to be better at what I try to do.

And anyone who knows me knows that this list must also include George Lucas.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Stories well-told, with actors behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances and an embrace of the dynamic intersection of semiotics, spectacle, and design.

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

A:  Two things: Read everything you can about how stuff works. Learn about how people think, about how humans receive and process information. Learn about emotions, about dreams, about faith and the absence of it. And, please, learn about story structure; learn how narratives work. Never stop learning. And be ready to abandon all of it should inspiration strike, because the other thing is this: Tell the story you need to tell, not the story you might necessarily want to tell, because nothing else matters.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  I don’t really care for them, to be honest; I think their scrunchy noses look kinda gross, like someone hit a real dog with a shovel. Oh, and my play The Curing Room is being translated into Afrikaans, French, and at least one of the languages spoken in Norway in anticipation of upcoming international productions.

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