Sunday, May 01, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 829: Anthony P. Pennino



Anthony P. Pennino

Hometown:  Princeton, NJ

Current Town:  Princeton, NJ (I have circled back here after living in NYC, London, and — for a brief stint — Istanbul.)

Q:  Tell me about your upcoming shows.

A:  First up is Iron Tongue of Midnight, which will have its opening night at The Neighborhood Playhouse on May 6. The work is being performed by approximately a third of the graduating class (the other two-thirds are split performing in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot). The play is about a theatre company in Moscow in 1939 trying to mount a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Company members keeping getting purged, so they plug in actual workers to play the Rude Mechanicals. Second up is Drones, which will have its premiere at The 2016 Planet Connections Festivity on June 18. This piece is a very loose adaptation of an incident in The Iliad. The work concerns our seeming inability not to be at war and posits a world where The Trojan War essentially never ended (complete with modern military technology). Third up is a revival of my long one-act Misty Phantoms, which enters into a conversation with William Faulkner over genocide of Native Americans. This work will be a part of the Thespis Theatre Festival in July. Finally, my play Chokehold will be returning on September 15 at the 14th Street Y. This is its second run. It originally premiered in the 2015 Planet Connections Festivity. This piece addresses police violence in African-American communities and concerns five friends who make a very radical choice to call attention to the problem.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I am part of a theatre company — Core Creative Productions — and we are planning on developing a piece about Nelson Mandela’s time on Robben Island. He and the prisoners there had access to the complete works of William Shakespeare, and it served as a lifeline for them.

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

A:  Not quite from childhood, but when I was in college, James Shapiro (The Year of Lear, Shakespeare and the Jews) was my Shakespeare professor. Rather than placing The Bard up on a pedestal, Shapiro dived into the world of Shakespeare’s London, what a production in The Rose or The Globe would have been like, how the plays would have been received and what meaning they would have for the audience. His approach was to strip away the myth, but it made the plays and the man behind them so much more alive and vital. I wanted to be a part of something that entered into the bloodstream of a national culture conversation, reported on but also defined what in a sense was a city that was reconceiving itself in a global context. I wanted to be a part of an art form that could do all of that.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  John Patrick Shanley — I am in awe of his ability to delve into the realm of belief and moral conscience. I still have a clear vision of Cherry Jones at the end of Doubt wracked with doubt. Suzan-Lori Parks — I thought her Father Comes Home from the Wars was audacious and brilliant, truly an American Homeric epic. Tony Kushner — the clarity and urgency of his voice with Angels in America is inspiring. Stephen Adly Guirgis — for his unerring ability to marry dialogue to character. And, of course, August Wilson — he did what Shakespeare did: made theatre national history.  I am still trying to wrap my head around the enormity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s contribution. Among actors: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Cherry Jones, Mark Rylance, Audra McDonald, and Ben Whislaw.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  You know, I really do just love the theater, and I am pretty much prepared to see anything as long as it gets the juices flowing. I love new work and reinterpretations of the classics. I really want to hear the writer’s voice, but also that of the actors and director. For my day job, I am a literature professor, and I frequently teach Shakespeare. What I do not like is someone who presents a “museum” production of Shakespeare (or Moliere or Ibsen or Chekhov or whatever). I want the director, the actors, the designers to engage with the text, wrestle it the ground, and find a way to elide their voices with the original. I hate to see productions that play it safe — what Peter Brook described as deadly theatre.

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

A:  The first audience you have to please is yourself.

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