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1000 Playwright Interviews The first interview I posted was on June 3, 2009.  It was Jimmy Comtois.  I decided I would start interview...

Oct 14, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 883: Jess Barbagallo

Jess Barbagallo

Hometown: Cato, New York

Current Town: Brooklyn, New York

Q:  Tell me about your upcoming show.

A:  My Old Man (and Other Stories) is a collection of short stories-as-play. The form emerged really organically. I was trying to figure out this notion of beginning-middle-end so that I might be able to look at my work more discretely, as I find it near impossible to end things - artworks, jobs, relationships. Looking at other people's plays was too daunting a model to understand what should be a really simple structure! I get caught up in the bells and whistles of plot intricacy, somebody else's good idea, somebody else's bad idea. But in the short story, which over the last year has so moved and comforted me in my most lonely moments, I could see this attainable form, rooted in language and character. So I started writing individual scenes that I believed could be complete works on their own and these scenes generated characters that became like a roster and then a family. The family in my play is a group of isolated individuals unified loosely by real estate, but really by contrarian spirit, as each one of them is sort of incapable of sustained connection with another human being.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  Well, this play is still running so there is a work that comes with that. A few nights ago I began rewriting this play, My Old Man ..., under the title Nobody's Euphemism (by Dick Foreman). Since we opened last weekend, I've had all this excess energy and have already begun asking the hard "next" questions, like what is my work doing in the world, what am I pushing against, etc. I found myself reading some academic writing on Richard Foreman for a class I was teaching, getting swept up in his specific experiments and the complete originality with which he laid open his mind for others to witness. I mean, I find some of his interpretation of Freud to be simplistic or sort of over-invested in the fetishization of the female form, but on the whole his work has always shown such bravery. I crave that discourse, which in many ways I feel is dead in our field, or at the very least, languishing.

My life is turning more toward acting in December, but I begin work with this new writer's group hosted by Clubbed Thumb in just a couple weeks. It will be nice to have deadlines and a little fire under my ass.

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. I'm sort of terrified of the anecdotal because I think I am actually a very average storyteller, by conventional standards of what makes a good story. (I think I address this in My Old Man, actually.) When I was a kid, I had some intense inclinations toward religiosity, being raised Catholic. After school, my mom would have no idea where I'd run off to because I was in the backyard communing with milkweed or pussy willows. I know I'm naming the plant wrong, but I would sort of set intentions on plants and I believed that those intentions were gifts for God or at the very least sacred communications. I also went through a period of time where I slept on the floor beside my bed as a kind of penance. As a child I was interested in purity and perfection as virtues. I didn't have the attention span to really live up to these aspirations, but they were on my mind. Devotion is on my mind to this day. I love very hard - people and art.

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

A:  Capitalism? The commodification of theater and then the commodifications that ensue are just a big, fat problem. You know, the competition in New York is supposed to make us all better and in certain ways it does. I mean, I might be less rigorous if I had other sensual things compelling me away from the art task. But for me, the product-oriented nature of artmaking is just so yucky. Actors are valued as names and aesthetics become brands. This is very dangerous because it calls for the packaging of beauty and wildness, calcifying these elements into practices that become known quantities. Very little room for risk or growth in this paradigm.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  In high school, the basics: Albee, Williams, Shakespeare. In college: Richard Maxwell, Karen Finley, Mike Leigh, Big Dance Theater, Fleetwood Mac (they are Pure Theater). In my adult life, it is harder for me to use the word hero, but I'll try to make myself a little vulnerable. Taylor Mac's latest work is certainly heroic. Faye Driscoll is deeply talented, Roseanne Spradlin. Ann Liv Young is always exciting, even when dull. The way that Brooke O'Harra and Tina Satter carry themselves as artists in this world, they are role models to me, uncompromising people of vision. Mike Kelley was a theatrical genius. Last summer I worked with Jeff Weiss, creator of the downtown serial And That's How The Rent Gets Paid, a complete inspiration. Elizabeth LeCompte makes stunning stage compositions of great elegance, if I do not always agree with or condone her dramaturgy. It's tricky, the mix of ethics, morality, freedom and vision that come together to form an artist. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was always searching for that elusive freedom - the part of the stew that comes hardest to me - and in my mind, he is the most towering artist of the 20th century.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  A theater of listening. It's surprisingly rare. I think listening is scary because you might not always like what you hear or you might be greeted by silence or your own not knowing. An example of great listening was a music show I saw at The Stone recently featuring Jen Shyu. My friend Katie, a great theater director, laughed at me when I described to her how the musicians listened to each other; her husband is a jazz guitarist so she is a little more jaded around this concept. But there were like six people at this show! And yet the musicians were still so committed to each other, to the audience and to the music. Great focus, great integrity, very powerful.

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

A:  Well, a lot of people think I am just starting out! Even though I've been making original work and sharing it for a decade. I don't have good professional advice to give. Everyone's path is super different and I know from conversations with my peers that I don't want the stuff other playwrights want. But I would say, don't compromise your vision by working with people you don't trust or people who don't inspire passion in you. It's not just about talent, it's about identifying who you want to share intimacy with. I think this goes for every aspect of making theater, from the content of your work to the audience you wish to cultivate. Be specific about your intentions and increase your chances of being satisfied. That's my little art mantra today.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Come see My Old Man (and Other Stories) at Dixon Place on October 14, 15, 21 and 22 at 7:30 PM!


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