Monday, January 11, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 811: Casey Llewellyn



Photo by Laura Colella

Casey Llewellyn

Hometown: Boston, MA (specifically Brookline and Jamaica Plain)

Current Town: Brooklyn, NY

Q:  Tell me about O, Earth.

A:  O, Earth is an exploration of what we're doing here living on earth. It started with reckoning with the theatrical and cultural inheritance of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and takes up many of his themes and concerns while incorporating my own. The characters in the play are concerned with happiness, justice, themselves, each other, their and others' place in the world. I am concerned in the play with the being here-ness and being here together-ness of theater and life (the play will also be at HERE!), so in the play very strange combination of iconic characters reckon with this (ghosts and living people, characters and real people). Part of what I'm interested in is how specificity and universality are represented in theater, and the real consequences of representation and visibility. We each experience life from a singular perspective, so O, Earth is a bunch of very different characters’ engagement with the universal experiences we all share: everyday life, love, and death. Something else specific that I am grappling with in the play is this current moment in gay/queer/trans politics and history in which some of us (white, cisgendered, middle class or rich gay or queer people) have been invited to join the mainstream in the form of unprecedented access to privilege (cultural acceptance, marriage, jobs, visibility, etc.), while issues that affect members of the queer/trans/gay community with less privilege disproportionately have been deprioritized in gay politics (trans and gender non-conforming peoples’ rights, racial justice, de-criminalization of sex work, housing for youth, police profiling, etc.). Even though the most marginalized members of our community are responsible for much of the resistance that has allowed us to get here. Vastly different experiences, access, and choices in the “community” have changed our sense of “our” since people fought together under the banner of gay rights in the last century. So I am thinking about that too. And it’s funny.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I’m working on a musical called The Body which is The Town about a little girl in a small town in New England where there’s a prison. We showed an excerpt of that at Prelude in 2014. I’m also working on a play with puppets (and actors) that’s a loose adaptation of Mozart’s opera Zaide, called Zaide! We had a reading of that in the Bushwick Starr Reading Series last year. I’m working with director Mia Rovegno on both of those projects. I’m also in the very beginning stages of adapting a book of essays by an author I love, but it’s still in the very beginning stages.

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

A:  When I was in second grade, I directed and starred in a play for children called Zatig the Observer. I played Zatig, the male lead, opposite my best friend who was a princess, I think. I remember the play as being very long and having to remember a lot of lines. Now, it seems like it was probably pretty boring since the main action hinged on “observing.” Also, I can't really imagine what the direction of a second grader was like for an audience. From the audacity to direct a whole play myself and make myself the lead, to the wanting to dress up as man and play scenes with someone close to me, to the cross-class romance and butch/femme dynamic, to the emphasis on watching and analyzing what is seen, that early passion project represents a lot of who I still am.

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

A:  The relationship between a theater experience and the world stresses me out a lot. That comes up in O, Earth. Theater has so much power to move people, but often, for many reasons, it is presented or experienced as something to be consumed, and it stays in its little box even if it's an amazing piece that transforms. The part of theater that is an actual event is very important to me. I see writing plays as a way to create live events that I need to exist, and I hope that addresses need others’ have as well. How a play meets and engages the world in which it's happening, both in the writing and the production makes or breaks the experience for me. So much of the time I go see a play and leave at the end, and the whole experience of being in the room with other people, with music and text, becomes this thing that is privately consumed rather than feeling like it’s really traveling out into the world. So I try to make it travel.


Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Split Britches, Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver have been heroes of mine for a long time. I keep learning from them all the time! Tammy Whynot’s last show was amazing! Adrienne Kennedy, Maria Irene Fornes, and Caryl Churchill are playwrights I love and go back to again and again to look for clues about form and what’s deeper. A new hero is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. I was so inspired by An Octoroon. It did exactly what I want to do as a theater artist.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I like theater that is surprising, total, connected, and tells a story we need to hear.

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

A:  Get in touch with your impulses and follow them even if you don’t understand them. Go deep and stay connected to your gut. My teacher Erik Ehn told me write into my brokenness. That really helpful because it allows you transform by using your fucked up parts as your healing strength rather than just thinking you are a horrible writer and person. Haha. That reminds me, I recommend being gentle with yourself too because the emotions you go through writing and then seeing it performed can be brutal. And obviously, pretty amazing.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Please come see O, Earth! It runs January 24th-February 20th at HERE. Directed by Dustin Wills, Produced by The Foundry Theatre.

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