Sunday, June 05, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 846: Jonathan Alexandratos


Jonathan Alexandratos

Hometown: Knoxville, TN

Current Town: New York, NY (except at this very moment I'm answering these questions from Strasbourg, France)

Q:  Tell me about Duck and the French production of it.

A:  DUCK is an animal allegory about abuse. It centers around Carl, the one Duck teenager in Sheep's Meadow (everyone else is a - you guessed it - Sheep). Carl's father wants him to embrace his Duck-ness, while Carl just wants to be more like the Sheep and blend in. Ultimately, the characters learn that these identities are masks, and that revelation can have freeing or complicating results. I'm thrilled that the French company PEACE Productions decided to produce this. For one, the play intentionally uses many comic book references that relate to French literary history. It's no subtext that the use of animals and the name of Carl's best friend (Art) connects this play to Art Spiegelman and MAUS. I feel that Spiegelman's work involves France and Germany at a basic level, considering the important roles World War II and his wife, Francoise Mouly, play in the story. Therefore, to have this play go up in Strasbourg, which is on the border between France and Germany (seriously, I bought body wash in Germany today like it was nothing), feels incredibly fitting. The French have also done amazing work in the field of both comics and comix (the underground alternative comics genre) that this play values and tries to carry onto the stage. Of course, I'd love to see the play go up in America (it was, after all, still born in New York City with Mission to (dit)Mars, a Queens-based writers' lab), but it's an adventure to be here, watching my very personal work be interpreted thousands of miles away from where it was written. The play will be presented in English (there is apparently a sizable ex-pat and English-speaking population in Strasbourg) this week (June 7, 8, and 9), and I am so looking forward to it.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I'm working on revising a draft of my play WE SEE WHAT HAPPEN, the story of my grandmother's immigration to the U.S. as told by superhero action figures, for what I hope will be a production in Nashville, TN, where that piece originated. (I was lucky enough to be in Nashville Repertory Theatre's Ingram New Works Lab last year, and this was the play I wrote for them.) I'm also working on a new play about the action figure industry and the many dimensions of its sexism, but more on that is, as Maz Kanata says, "for another time."

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 about 10, my dad and I went to a comic shop that we frequented in Knoxville called Dragon's Lair (later it turned out that the owner of the store was a child molester, so that name turned out to be the literal, unfortunate truth, but that fact was still hidden from us at this time). My father bought me a Captain Jean-Luc Picard action figure. When I took the action figure out of the box (I was never the kind of collector that kept things in packages), I noticed the figure rattled when I shook it. It wasn't supposed to; this wasn't "Captain Picard with Real Rattling Action!" It was a mistake. Clearly a small piece of plastic had broken off inside the figure's hollow torso and just banged around in there. Since you couldn't take the figure apart without breaking it, the playful side of me started to wonder what was really in there, making all that noise. Yes, literally it was surely a piece of plastic, but my imagination said "It's his heart!" (Capt. Picard has a fake, biomechanical heart on *Star Trek: The Next Generation*) or "It's an alien taking over his body!" As I grew up, I thought more and more about this rattling action figure and began to realize that we all "rattle." We all have something inside of us that makes noise, even when it shouldn't. So my writing became a voyage to figure out what that thing is inside me, inside all of us, that makes us rattle. The image of the rattling action figure is used in DUCK for this reason. It's always stuck with me.

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

A:  Its commodification. This doesn't mean I don't think people should be paid. I do. But what I worry about is commodification - meaning the repeated translation of ideas into profit. I'm concerned by this because history has shown that commodification can bring out the worst in humanity. When you commodify the human body, you get slavery. When you commodify ideas, you get theatres that are basically conceived of as ATMs: insert stale revival of musical, take out cash. This leaves little room for writers of color, for women writers, for risky ideas, for so much that the traditional choices have excluded for years. Of course, there are productions now (FUN HOME, HAMILTON, HAND TO GOD) that might show producers that the new and the marginalized are what we need, but I'm afraid that only some New York producers are learning that, and others in the regional theatres still believe that the biggest risk they could take is August Wilson. Like I said, I worked with Nashville Repertory Theatre last season, and they're a great regional theatre that is producing new work (Nate Eppler last season, Doug Wright's new play this coming season), but we have a long way to go as a national community before we shake the idea that profit decides canon (if we can ever shake that concept).

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  I'm continually inspired by Anne Carson, Sarah Ruhl, Tina Howe, Rebecca Gilman, Noah Haidle, Paula Vogel, Sarah Kane, David Henry Hwang, Vern Thiessen, Euripides, [insert obligatory nod to Shakespeare], Christina Masciotti, Lisa Kron, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Nate Eppler, and, frankly and honestly and not at all in a fake ass-kissy way, that cadre of amazing Geek Theatre artists that includes you, Adam, Crystal Skillman, Qui Nguyen, Mac Rogers, et many al., as Geek Theatre is the theatrical genre that I'm hoping to add to. And, on top of this, my hero is also the writer I haven't heard of yet, who went through something she feels is unique, and is just about to pour it out onto a page.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Theatre that's theatrical. I know: that shouldn't even be an answer, right? "Theatre" and "theatrical" sound so much alike that, surely, all theatre is theatrical, no? I don't think so. There's some theatre that I watch and can go, "Ahh, I know what TV show this writer wants to write for," because the play looks just like a TV show or a movie. And then I see other theatre and I go, "This was clearly built for the stage. This has to be a play." Usually I say that because the play contains an aspect of the magical. I get most excited when that moment of magic comes after the breakdown of spoken language, like when a conversation descends into a dance, or when a monologue unfolds into gibberish. That's the type of magic that the stage lets us explore, and I love it when plays take advantage of that.

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

A:  Write the story only you can tell, write it from the heart, and write it honestly. That doesn't mean it has to be a facsimile of events, but that does mean shoot for having the audience break through into the same feelings you felt while thinking about or going through what you're writing. In the process of doing this, don't be afraid to imitate, to experiment, to get it wrong, and to make stuff that is just downright bad. Your play is in there, just don't give up on it.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Come see DUCK in Strasbourg! Seriously just get on a plane right now for lots of money and come. You'd probably still spend more on HAMILTON, right? And that doesn't even come with Strasbourg! But, beyond that, you can check out WE SEE WHAT HAPPEN on YouTube in full (Nashville Rep uploaded one of the performances - with permission!). If you'd like to see a chunk of it live, the first ten minutes of it will be presented on June 20th at 7pm at the Astoria Performing Arts Center (APAC) as part of Mission to (dit)Mars' All Systems Go! series, which showcases the work of the writers' lab. And, coming soon is my play on the action figure industry (which doesn't even have a title yet!).

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