Thursday, July 21, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 861: Joshua Kaplan

Joshua Kaplan

Hometown: Bellmore/Merrick, New York. Home of Amy Fisher, Deborah Gibson, and Ben & Jerry. Really, look it up.

Current Town: In transition (DC--->LA)

Q:  Tell me about Visiting Hours.

A:  My mother passed away last year after a long illness. Our relationship was very close and very complex. Over the past year, I've struggled to figure out exactly who I am without the person who served as the anchor, in ways both good and bad, to my life. A friend suggested I use my writing to channel all these conflicting feelings. So I set out to write Visiting Hours, which at its core is about the loss of a matriarch in a conflicted family (what family isn't?). But it would be a mistake to call this an autobiographical, or even semi-autobiographical, play. There are elements of my life, for sure, and reflections of some of my family dynamics (as I see them, at least). But really I hope this story stands on its own and has its own life. I find many autobiographical plays to be one-dimensional and unrelatable. I wanted this story to be about every family and no family.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  Visiting Hours is the second play in a pseudo-comedic trilogy about aging, dying, and death. Funny stuff, right? Actually, Visiting Hours is the most "dramatic" of the three. The first play in the trilogy, So Late, So Soon, is a romantic comedy set in a nursing home that I wrote for the legendary Estelle Parsons. Ms. Parsons is now attached to that play, we have had some terrific readings in NYC and are now shopping it around. The third play, Happy Endings, is a farce set in a funeral home -- Noises Off meets Six Feet Under -- and is still in the drafting stages. I'm also entering USC's MFA Screenwriting program this fall, a new path that I'm excited to begin.

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

A:  Oh, man. That's a playwright-to-playwright question if I ever heard one. I learned the power of the written word -- not just its power to educate but to express a soul-felt truth -- when I was thirteen. My uncle had just passed away, and my entire family was staying in his apartment on the Upper East Side. I could -- and someday might -- write a whole play about that week, it was such a pressure cooker of love, anger, compassion, loss. At some point everyone else went out, maybe for a walk, maybe in search of more Valium. Like all teenagers, I didn't know the value of boundaries, so I started snooping through my uncle's things. I found his diary and flipped to the last page, I had some kind of morbid curiosity about his final entry. There were only four words on it: "My son, I love." Four words. Ten letters. So much meaning in so condensed a form. And that meaning, that feeling, it still exists, because those words are still there, on paper and in my head and my heart. The written word is the closest we can come to immortality.

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

A:  Less readings and workshops, more productions. There's value to the development process, absolutely, but at some point we all want to do what we went into theater to do -- entertain an audience. I understand the seductive attraction of risk aversion, and I understand the economics of what we do. I'm definitely not a head-in-the-clouds idealist, if anything, I could stand to stick my head in the clouds a little more often. But this isn't a matter of idealism versus realism. Theater is theater: it's putting something in front of an audience, warts and all. It seems like too many of us are so afraid an audience will see our warts, we don't let them see anything at all. We need to learn how to say yes more than we say no.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  It depends on how you define hero. I am inspired as a playwright by many of our greatest playwrights -- Edward Albee, Michael Frayn, Tennessee Williams, and so on. But I am inspired as a member of the theater profession (and as a human being) by Estelle. I've never met anyone as courageous, with as steadfast of a commitment to the art of what we do, as Estelle. It doesn't matter who you are or where you've come from -- what matters is the work. I learned from her that ego is the greatest enemy of creation. In fact, she'd probably slap me silly if I ever called her my theatrical hero, which makes her so even more.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I love to laugh one moment and cry the next. I'll be honest, I have a hard time with pure drama, especially drama that is so dark it lacks any humor, levity, or lightness. Sitting through Long Day's Journey Into Night is like my personal long day's journey into night. I can see the artistry in pure drama, the beauty in the darkness. But when there's not even a glimmer of hope or humor or light, I immediately tune out. It's a defense mechanism, of course, this innate need to find the light in darkness. But as far as defense mechanisms go, it's not a bad one, not as bad as, say, an insatiable chocolate chip cookie addiction (which I also have). When theater makes me laugh and cry at the same time, that's when I'm in my happiest place. If I had to choose, though, I would choose laughter before I would choose tears. There are enough tears in the world already.

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

A:  Since I'm relatively new to this whole endeavor, I could probably use more advice than I can give. FWIW (as the kids say), my advice is the same as I give my creative writing students. Find your voice and trust it, but know the difference between voice and craft. A voice is innate, craft is developed. Stay true to your voice while you develop your craft. And remember, not everyone can be a great writer, but a great writer can be anybody. (Ok, that last one was a paraphrase from Ratatouille, but it's apt and that rat is so damn cute.)

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Come see Visiting Hours, at Theaterlab July 28-31!!! We have an amazing cast and creative team, led by the exceedingly talented Dina Vovsi.

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