Saturday, September 03, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 873: Nelle Tankus


Nelle Tankus

Hometown:  Seattle.

Current Town:  Seattle.

Q:  Tell me about The Untitled Play About Art School:

A:  First of all, thanks to Copious Love Productions for producing this show. They've been so patient through my many edits, and I'm really excited to work with them. It's a dark comedy about flesh-eating monsters, how capitalism destroys people and art and yet how how the art world and academia is so closely linked to it. Also about how two people try to heal each other from trauma when they're both traumatized. It's half greek tragedy and half dark comedy that collapses on itself halfway through. Here's the summary on the audition (they're happening in a couple weeks, aaaaah): Anarchy! Revenge! Flesh-eating monsters! When Amy's failure to show up for her thesis presentation is blamed on her depression/anxiety, she is threatened with expulsion from Whetmore's College of Performing Arts. Meanwhile, in Ancient Greece, a carnivorous beast has escaped Echo's watchful eye and is hungry for blood. As Echo and Amy's friends continue to betray them and bystanders are devoured, they must decide whether to give up on theater while they still can, or burn everything to the fucking ground and start over. The Untitled Play About Art School is a very harsh comedy following an unbreakable friendship that tries to find a way to heal when all hope seems lost.

I started the play two years ago wanting to make fun of art school... of course that was too easy, but I naively thought it would be interesting. I had just graduated from my alma mater and was frustrated with the administration due to some shit we went through together my senior year, and the general privileged culture of private art school. Of course I was implicated in this but at the time my self-reflection wasn't so great, so every time I put pen to paper nothing came up, and if it did it was so hollow and trite. I put it to bed for about a year, and then picked it up again after taking some personal journeys and reading an article talking about students that were expelled from Ivy League schools because they told the school therapist they were suicidal. This led to a research and writing spiral that turned into what the play is today.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I'm working on a new play with Parley Productions called Gemini Season. It's about Mia, a transfeminine person who recently changed her name. Her sister Janine organizes a funeral mourning her past identity (even though she's not dead), and then Mia receives a letter from a Britney Spears asking both of them to visit her at a diner in rural Idaho. Meanwhile, her best friend Dream builds a house with a childhood hero.

It's the second in a series of plays I'm writing that feature parallel worlds. I don't know how far it's going, but I want to keep pursuing it.

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

A:  Being at the Lambda Literary Emerging Writer's Retreat was pretty significant. I had the privilege of working with Cherrie Moraga and 11 other queer/trans playwrights on plays we were working on/hadn't started but wanted to. I learned so much about simplicity while there, not complicating the work because I think it's cool, instead making it complex. Really challenging me to justify every single thing I was saying. I got my ass kicked because it was the first time I had been in a professional environment where people were creating theater for their lives, or it felt that way, the hunger to always do better, to go deeper and deeper and deeper. It shattered my world. Not that I was a lazy writer before, but I think I let things skate by using the justification of "it felt right" or "I wrote from impulse" instead of knowing the work inside and out, backwards and forwards. I learned to be a student, always. I also made so many friends from that experience... it was a summer camp for weirdo radical queerdo playwrights. I found my community.

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

A:  Accountability. To other artists, to the rehearsal process, to humility, to rage, to the local and global community, to social justice, to practicing what we preach, to failing better, to being more kind, to levering whatever privileges we have, to holding space for people, to supporting queer and trans spaces, especially those for queer and trans people of color.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  My favorite plays are Fefu and Her Friends and Mother Courage. Maria Irene Fornes and Brecht are always always always and forever inspirations. Whenever I feel lost I go to their plays and I'm inspired. Young Jean Lee is a pretty close second, how she breaks her worlds wide open, risks looking stupid in order to create something new. Adrienne Kennedy, Suzan-Lori Parks, Chekhov, Ibsen, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Deborah Stein, Naomi Wallace, Mallery Avidon, Jean Genet, Caridad Svich too. I'm also pretty obsessed with Azure D. Osborne-Lee and MJ Kaufman's work, and Seattle theater-maker Sara Porkalob.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  See two above questions. Also, I read a review of Young Jean Lee's Lear and something the reviewer said struck me. "We don't have a language to describe plays that behave badly." I like those kinds of plays: that behave badly. Even if I don't necessarily like it it excites me. There's a Seattle company called The Satori Group that did a show called ReWilding a few years ago, and though I had no idea what was happening, it was spectacular visually and shrouded in mystery and I was strangely moved, though it didn't really follow the rules of dramatic structure or character. I'm still thinking about it years later, so clearly it did something right. I'm also a sucker for family dramas, like almost camp-level melodrama. If I wasn't broke all the time, I would see August: Osage County and The Seagull ten times in a row. The Seagull is totally camp. Fight me about it.

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

A:  1. Write as much as you can (I try to every day) but seriously if you don't want to, don't. Take distance from it.
2. Read. Everything. Read shitty plays too. Watch shitty plays. If you can afford it, go see plays. If you cant, find ways to get in for free or go see free shit. If you can't, read them. I know the Seattle Central Library has a huge play section, and most Half Price Books have a decent drama section. Pick a random title and take a couple hours and read it.
3. Self-produce if you can. If you don't want to/have capacity to, have reading parties. Buy a twelve pack of PBR and get your friends together to read your play and get feedback from them, even if they don't know anything about theater.
4. Make friends who aren't theater people.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  The Untitled Play About Art School, directed by L. Nicol Cabe

December 1-21st at 12th Avenue Arts


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