Friday, March 18, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 820: Tom Horan

Tom Horan

Hometown:  I’ve gathered a few Hometowns over the years: Northern California, Chicago, San Diego, and Austin

Current Town: Indianapolis

Q:  Tell me about your upcoming shows.

A:  I have two projects this season at The Phoenix Theater in Indianapolis, where I am the Playwright-in-Residence. The first is Leyenda, which I’m creating in collaboration with the Producing Artistic Director Bryan Fonseca. We began by interviewing local latina/os about the folk stories they heard growing up, and then weaved the stories into a fantastical all ages show. The second is Acid Dolphin Experiment, about the real life of neuroscientist Dr. John C. Lilly, who invented the sensory deprivation chamber, tried to teach dolphins to speak, and ingested epic amounts of psychedelic drugs.

Outside of the Phoenix, I will be premiering my play Static at the Source Festival in D.C. this summer. It’s a looping ghost story about a woman named Emma who discovers her neighbors boarded-up house is chock-full of objects they hoarded - and she finds, among the jars of buttons and tubs of forks, a box full of cassette tapes filled with secrets. The play moves back and forth through time and uses the tapes as a bridge. I do sound design as well as write and this play came out of an obsession with sound and place.

Lastly, I have a workshop production a play called Elsie & Frances & Fairies at Earlham College where I teach. It tells the story of the Cottingley Fairy Hoax, where two young cousins in 1917 borrowed a camera to take photographs of themselves with cut-out paper fairies. These photos were taken as proof of the existence of fairies by the British spiritualist community, including Sir Arthur Conon Doyle.

I’ve been working on all these projects for years, and they all seem to be coming together in the same handful of months.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I have a couple plays about Indiana history that I’ve been mulling over since I came to Indianapolis three years ago.

I would love to create a play about the Terre Haute folk hero Eugene Debbs, who went from union leader to Socialist candidate running for President from jail. I would like to focus on his efforts during the Pullman Strike, that shifted his ideology. I want the play to be in the style of Arthur Miller or August Wilson, but it’s outside my comfort zone, so I’m going to need to become a better writer to finish this play.

I’ve also written three complete different versions of a play about Diana of the Dunes. A legend about a woman whose ghost has been seen at the Indiana Dunes, swimming naked in Lake Michigan, reliving her happiest memories. In real life, Diana had came to the Dunes to leave society which she felt was limiting to woman and used the newspapers fascination with her and her skinny dipping to gain attention for ecological efforts at the lakeshore.

I’ve developed selections of each of these as part of Indiana Repertory Theater’s bicentennial celebration of Indiana’s founding.

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 was a lego kid, a doodler, a story writer, a crayon and paper kid, the kind of kid who would take apart a toy to see how it worked and then see if I could make something new out of it. I’ve always been driven to make things, but for a long time I was all potential energy. Had my Art teacher been as inspiring as my Drama teacher and my Creative Writing teacher, I might be making found object sculptures instead of plays.

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

A:  In the last few years the efforts around making our theaters feel welcome and include everyone have been a good start. But I want it to go farther, faster. I’m constantly thinking about who I am making theater for, and what other artists I bring in the room with me. And every day I feel I can do better.

If I could bestow a gift on the general public, it would be my love of new work. Let us keep a reverence for the past, but clear some room for where we might go. Let new plays not be seen as a risk, but as a necessary part of our cultures and our lives. When I think back to all the theater experiences that have stuck with me, all have been wildly different, but all have them have been new work.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  My theater world was rocked at age 15, when a fellow actor took me to a book store and helped me pick out new plays to read. I got used copies of Zoo Story and Sam Shepherd’s early work. It was so radically different from Shakespeare and Arsenic and Old Lace. Since then, I’ve collected heroes. I’m fascinated by how Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns and Jenifer Haley’s The Nether put Sci-Fi on stage. And I’m enamored how Lisa D’Amour approaches history and place in Cataract. And the aggressive storytelling of Martin McDonough and Tracy Letts. And the language of Steven Dietz, José Rivera and Oscar Wilde. And the wild experimentation of companies like the Rude Mechs and Mabou Mines and whatever Young Jean Lee is doing. And I keep coming back to Chuck Mee’s thoughts on theater and inclusion. And I’m re-reading Sarah Ruhl’s new book of essays. And the whole generation of regional theater artistic directors who have changed the entire culture of American Theater with risk after risk, like Jack Rueler and his radical hospitality, and like my buddy Bryan Fonseca, who for over 30 years has produced 10 shows a season, because he believes that his community deserves to see that much new work every year.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I like theater where people are working on the edge of their ability.

If on one side of the spectrum is theater you can do in your sleep and on the other side is theater where you wouldn’t even know where to begin, I look for theater where the artists are trying something just beyond what they’ve tried before. That is where the real risk is, when the artists are making discoveries in front of an audience.

I certainly can feel when this is happening in theater I’m making, but I think I can also sense it as an audience member – the kind of excitement that so permeates a rehearsal room it can’t help but be reflected on stage.

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

A:  Keep insisting you are a playwright for long enough and other people will believe you. That’s how it worked for me. Meanwhile, I kept working on my craft, just trying to make one thing better than it was yesterday. Being a successful artist seems to be a matter of sticking around until luck finds you. It may come sooner for some, later for others. But eventually you will find someone who understands where you are coming from. Hang onto those people as long as you can.

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