Friday, September 30, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 877: Scott Sickles



Scott Sickles

Hometown: Pittsburgh, PA.

Current Town: NYC! Or more specifically, Forest Hills

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  A few things, actually.

I just got done outlining a new full-length play that I'm about to start drafting.

I'm whipping up a 10-minute play for our Out of a Hat series at the WorkShop Theater Company: each playwright is assigned 2-3 actors whose names were picked out of a hat and has to write a 10-20 minute piece for them. I'm writing for the enormously talented duo of Jackie Jenkins and Heather Massie. The play is called The Fallow Garden and I'm experimenting with a new genre for me: American Gothic! It's fun.

I'm working on rewrites to my full-length play Composure in preparation for a spring production on the WorkShop's Main Stage. The play just won the New York Innovative Theatre Award for Outstanding Original Full-Length Script, but it's already changed a great deal since the last production in June 2015.

Now I'm working with my director Fritz Brekeller (who also received an IT Award for his direction of the play) and artistic director Thomas Coté on making the script tighter and going deeper with the characters and their relationships.

I'm also a scriptwriter for General Hospital, so that keeps my busy. (Before anyone asks, YES, it's still on! At least I hope it still is at press 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:  I had a fairly horrifying childhood for the most part, so I think any individual story might be too bleak or simply spawn eye-rolls as it challenged your readers' willing suspension of disbelief. (There are times even I don't believe it.)

I was the elder of two siblings (I still am) growing up with a depressed paranoiac father who also suffered from social anxiety disorder and the joy that is intermittent explosive disorder (it's a thing; it's exactly what it sounds like; and yes, the initials are IED), and a toxic narcissist mother.

In that environment, the adults are constantly either not remembering the troubling things they say and do or they're re-interpreting it. So as a child and especially as a teenager, one has to keep track of What Really Happened because the narrative of one's life is going to be disputed by authority figures.

One also has to explain things like "No, Dad, nobody broke into the house and moved your checkbook. You just left it someplace else on the table." (I'm not exaggerating. This happened constantly. This explanation was utterly implausible to my father. He would NEVER have put it where it visibly ended up. Someone HAD to have sneaked in the house and moved it just to mess with him. May he rest.)

In such circumstances -- mind you, nobody in that house was a drinker or drug user so we didn't even have that pathology going for us -- one remembers exactly (or close to exactly) what people say and how they said it... thereby developing an ear for dialogue, a flair for drama, the ability to immediately picture the worst case scenario and how you can make it even more horrible, and a penchant for escapism.

Bonus Trivia! My father was of German-American descent, my mother is Korean, and they're both racists.

Is that too much? Are you picturing Thanksgivings?
(Actually, our Thanksgivings were relatively peaceful. How's that for weird?)

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

A:  I would encourage professional theaters and producers to take more risks with unknown or not-yet-widely-known writers.

I've seen, dramaturged, and produced so many playwrights with terrific stories that often don't get seen after their Off-Off-Broadway Equity Showcase productions.

There are some brilliant and potentially brilliant writers out there taking risks with genres and subject matter... or even elevating good-old-fashioned stories through their own unique voices. They need support and a venue.

I've seen staged readings of unfinished plays that blew me away even more than some Pulitzer and Tony winners... plays that I can't summarize to other people without laughing out loud or choking up because even in the retelling from my faulty memory, the power of these undiscovered narratives continues to resonate.

(Of course, I've seen some great Pulitzer and Tony winner and some abysmal staged readings of unfinished plays but those aren't what I'm talking about now.)

I also support confiscating and even disposing of people's fucking cell phones if they use them during a performance.

Seriously, take no prisoners!!!

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Tennessee Williams and Tony Kushner, not because I want to write like them (I don't think anyone really can write what they do), but because they always want to make the art better. It doesn't matter how many accolades a play racks up, they revisit their work and rewrite it.

Also, early on I was influenced by John Guare who I did want to write like! (Oh, how I tried!) House of Blue Leaves and especially Six Degrees of Separation became part of my bones right away. In fact, after reading Six Degrees of Separation the first time, I literally threw the book against the wall screaming (in my head, I think) "I'm not worthy!!!"

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Theater with both a strong narrative and a bold theatricality.
I love a well-structured play but I don't think that a good structure is a formula or a cookie cutter. I love it when the story plays with form and style.

Equus (which sadly I've only read) is such a crazy bold play both in its story and in how Shaffer wrote the stage imagery. It sets the imagination on fire right off the page. I read when I was probably too young and slept with the lights on that night.

There are two plays I've seen that stay with me more than any others.

The first is Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, which I saw three times during its last months Off-Broadway. (I'm going again in November.) To tell such a beautiful story in such a... I don't even know how to describe it. Immersive? Post-modern?
I think a great maxim to follow is "Whatever works!" The Great Comet changes styles and devices on a moment's notice, sometimes drastically, and every moment works within itself and contributes to being somehow greater than the sum of its parts.

The other is Robert Lepage and Ex Machina's The Seven Streams of the River Ota which I saw at BAM in the 90's. It's about 8 hours long, told over two nights, and consists of seven interconnected one-act plays, each about an hour in length... oh, and there's a prologue and an epilogue!
Its use of stagecraft -- two-way mirrors, puppets, opera and farce, multiple languages and translators, the utility and versatility of the set which was somehow contained in one pagoda-like structure -- as it explored the 20th Century from 1945-1995 was epic, intimate, indelible and perhaps the most superlatively THEATRICAL thing I've ever seen!

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

A: 
1) Work with people who aren't already your friends.
2) Work with people who are much older than you are because they have craft, technique and, best of all, great stories!
3) Never underestimate the power of human loneliness to motivate your characters and raise the stakes.
4) Playwriting is never truly solitary. First, you have your characters; then you have your collaborators; finally, you have the audience.
5) Don't go to the blocking rehearsals. They have nothing to do with you.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  The WorkShop Theater Company's Main Stage production of the rewrite of Composure is scheduled to happen from April 27 to May 20, 2017.

In Composure, a controversially timed production of Romeo & Juliet leads to a modern-day star-crossed romance between two men whose past tragedies and traumas suddenly encroach upon the present.

Watch General Hospital at 3:00 p.m. weekdays on ABC! (check local listings)
Seriously, try it... you'll like it! 

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