Monday, February 29, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 817: Matt Herzfeld



Matt Herzfeld

Hometown: Shaker Heights, Ohio (we put the “swing” in swing state)

Current Town: Brooklyn, New York

Q:  Tell me about The Improbable Fall, Rise, & Fall of John Law.

A:  John Law is the stranger-than-fiction historical tale of a real-life 18th century Scottish economist named, you got it, John Law. Calling him an economist may be a bit misleading, however. John was no armchair intellectual. His story moves from the gambling houses of London to the royal courts of France (for a brief, glorious moment, he was the second most powerful domestic politician in the country, quite an achievement for a Scotsman in a notoriously xenophobic nation). There are countless detours along the way - we meet sadistic judges, corrupt nobles, perpetually pregnant French peasants, and terribly eccentric monarchs.

While the play is fast, funny, and irreverent, it’s also truer than you might think. It is also, in its own way, quite relevant to our current national debate about income inequality. The play attempts to peel back several layers in order to reveal the philosophies that laid the groundwork for our modern financial system.

I suppose I should also mention that eight actors play over forty parts, the play spans approximately twenty-five years over fifteen scenes, and it’s only the first part of a six-hundred page trilogy (roughly, the section we’re producing now takes us through the first fall and a bit of the rise). If you like your epics absurd and full of bawdy vaudevillian excess, this is the play for you!

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I don’t like talking too much about plays in progress, but I’ve got a handful of works in various stages of development, from completed first drafts to just a few scattered notes. They’re all quite different in form and subject - briefly, I’ve got an adaptation of The Masque of the Red Death in the works, a post-apocalyptic existential satire with a coterie of Three Stooges-like skeletons, and a play inspired by a notorious Japanese cannibal. That makes it sound like I’m just obsessed with death, which isn’t true (I write about sex a lot, as well).

Anyone interested in reading some of my past work can check out some short plays on my website (www.mattherzfeld.com) or visit my New Play Exchange profile to take a gander at my longer plays.

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

A:  Here’s a small memory that’s related to John Law, one of the first times I can really remember being conscious of class differences. This was when I was maybe 10 or 11 (the waning years of pre-pubescence). For the first time, I went over to play at the house of a school friend. I grew up in a fairly luxuriant middle-class household - four-level home, individual bedrooms, big living room, backyard, family dog, etc. Now, my friend happened to be a member of a very wealthy real estate family, and her house reflected it. A huge, cavernous entryway with white marble columns; a swimming pool inside the house (I didn’t even know this was possible outside of school and gyms); a huge winding staircase. I was impressed by all of this, but chiefly remember one major thought - everything looked so empty.

Sure, there was a lot of space between the floor and ceiling, but there wasn’t anything in it. Just a bunch of nothing; an enclosure of empty air. My friend’s bedroom was similarly big, too big for the small number of toys she had, which were carefully placed into a little chest in one corner of the room.

One might assume that the obvious conclusion of this observation is something about conspicuous consumption and waste. Actually, my 10-year old brain went somewhere quite different. I simply couldn’t fathom why, if someone had so much space, they wouldn’t fill it with comic books and action figures.

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

A:  I’ve read a lot of other answers to this question on the blog and there’s little here I disagree with. Yes, theater is too expensive (both to see and to make); yes, the larger nonprofits and regionals cater to an aging and affluent white audience that doesn’t fairly reflect the potential reach of the medium; yes, there is a distinct lack of racial, cultural, and economic diversity among frequently produced playwrights, including a persistent and pernicious gender gap; and yes, there is a problematic institutional bias that puts money into the hands of administrators instead of artists (this one isn’t called out as much as it should be; mainly, I presume, due to a reluctance on the part of the artists to anger the administrator-class whose approval they so desperately seek).

But since the last thing I want to do is appear to be too much of a grumbler, I will point out that none of these criticisms really have much to do with any of the fundamental building blocks of theater itself, which has been immensely successful for thousands for years in provoking, enlightening, moving, and entertaining audiences. Most of the problems today are systemic, particular to our time and place. As time and place change, which they always seems to do (much as some politicians try to turn back the clock), so too will the circumstances and situations of storytellers, who historically have proven themselves remarkably adept at adapting to the cultural shifts around them. Still, doesn’t hurt to give things a push in the right direction, which I wholeheartedly encourage anyone with the will and passion to do.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Beyond the holy tetralogy of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht, and Beckett, I have a great love for postwar British drama. Some plays that were really important in defining for me what theater was capable of include John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (kitchen sink realism to perfection), Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves (which takes my vote for most heartbreakingly funny play of the later 20th century), David Rabe’s Streamers, August Wilson’s Fences, Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money (the influence of which can definitely be seen in John Law), and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead. I must also mention the B’s, three somewhat neglected (at least in the US) British writers who never cease to amaze me with their imagination and insight - Howard Barker, Edward Bond, and Peter Barnes.

Importantly (with the exception of Rosencrantz, which I saw first as a film), I discovered all of these works as texts before I ever saw them. I’m a huge advocate of treating plays as literature in addition to performance texts, and I believe strongly that one can have as emotional and moving an experience reading a play as one can have seeing a production (sometimes more, if it’s a crap production). It’s a shame that so few people read contemporary plays for enjoyment (seems sometimes that modern plays only get read by directors looking for projects and actors looking for audition material, which is better than no one reading plays at all but still leaves something to be desired for the playwright who wants his/her work to speak to a larger segment of the populace than the slim slice that work in the theatrical world themselves).

Finally, before I take my leave of this question, I can’t neglect my teachers and peers at The New School for Drama, who had such a vital impact on how I approach everything I write. I owe eternal debts of gratitude to Chris Shinn, Laura Maria Censabella, Robbie Baitz, Stephen Karam, Michael Weller, Frank Pugliese, Nicole Burette (in whose class I wrote John Law), Sam Byron, Molly Haas-Hooven, and Dan Kitrosser.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I have pretty varied tastes, though generally I prefer narrative-based works. My favorite thing is when a playwright finds the perfect structure or form to tell their story, the right “box” for the story to fit inside that feels inseparable from the content.

I like plays that have physical boundaries but limitless ideas - plays like Annie Baker’s The Flick, which tears open the hearts of its characters without leaving its single, meticulously detailed setting, or Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, which inventively co-opts the form of an evangelical service to tell a story about faith, doubt, and compromise; Hnath’s pastor hearkens back to Arthur Miller’s morally conflicted protagonists, but he tells his story in a way I don’t think ever would have occurred to Miller. There’s a lot of other examples of these “box plays” - Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj, which is the most expansive-feeling two-hander I have ever seen (I’m in awe as to how he made a two-person play feel like an entire world), or my New School teacher Stephen Karam’s mesmerizing new play, The Humans, which begins as a fairly conventional family drama and slyly transitions into a place of raw, existential terror. Going back a bit further, two plays I admire very much are Arnold Wesker’s workplace play The Kitchen, which uses the setting of a crowded, busy West End restaurant for a story about how work changes us (without ever getting preachy or obnoxiously Marxist), and David Storey’s The Changing Room, which examines the lives of a number of Northern working class Britons through their interactions in the changing room of an amateur rugby game. At lot of these works roughly adhere to the Aristotelian unities, even while playing around at the borders of them (especially in relation to time, although they share this in common with their Greek ancestors, few of which actually adhered to the unities themselves). Another term we might give plays like this is the “microcosmic” play - big in its concerns, but confined in the scope of its dramaturgy. For me, one essential component of box plays is that their unified setting serves a metaphoric function (the movie theater in The Flick, the church in The Christians, the kitchen in The Kitchen, etc).

Maybe my current obsession with and desire to write box or microcosmic plays is to some extent a reaction against John Law, which is anything but a box play. It extends out in many different directions, jumping from place to place and character to character. Seems only natural that after spending so long on an epic, one might want to try something more confined…

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

A:  Well, I’m not that far along myself, so take this with a grain of salt, but I’ve found you can never go wrong if you’re truly writing out of a desire for honest expression. That way, even if no one every produces your play, even if you have trouble merely getting people to read it, even if it’s (when you’re being honest) not very good in an objective literary sense, it was still worthwhile for you to write it because you had something to say and you got it out of your system, which is just a generally healthy thing for people to do.

Even a play like John Law which, on the surface, might not seem to be a very personal work, comes from deep questions and passionate concerns I have about our economy, from my desire to probe and deepen my understanding of the origins of the entrenched financial systems that have a very real, everyday impact on how I and billions of others live our lives. If this component wasn’t there, it wouldn’t have been worth it to write the play.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A: Dreamscape Theatre’s production of The Improbable Fall, Rise, and Fall of John Law plays as part of the IRT 3B Development Series from March 9th-26th at the IRT Theater (154 Christopher Street). Tickets and more info available here: http://irttheater.org/3b-development-series/the-improbable-fall-rise-fall-of-john-law-part1-a-new-play-about-money/

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