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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...

Sep 12, 2017

I Interview Playwrights Part 990: Julian Sheppard

Julian Sheppard

Hometown:  I was born in New York City and seem to be unable to leave.

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  My main focus right now is adapting my movie Complete Unknown into a TV pilot. Josh Marston and I wrote the script and he directed and now we’re ripping it apart and trying to put it all back together.

There was a moment when we were writing and we realized, wait, this would actually make a really fun TV series. And we let our brains wander for a bit about that and refocused on what we were supposed to be doing. But then, around the time the movie came out last year, he had a meeting with a company which instantly cottoned to the idea that it would work and we got a chance to dive back in. Which has been both awesome and daunting; any TV show is like an onion, but this idea especially. Every layer that gets peeled back offers up more and more possibilities and problems. I’ve had a weird relationship with TV over the years, and I’m hoping this is the one which tilts that relationship to “Oh yeah!”

I have a screenplay I have spent too long writing and rewriting and hoping I can find one more window of time to do one more pass on. It’s probably my favorite idea of anything I’ve ever done, and I haven’t been able to get it done. It’s frustrating, because I love so much of it, and I know what I want to do. It’s just when.

I’m lucky enough to be part of an amazing group project, produced and conceived by Sasha Eden and Marlo Hunter, in which I’m one of five playwrights, along with Jeff Augustine, Martyna Majok, Daniel Pearle, and Harrison David Rivers. We still don’t have an official name for the play, but it’s called the Theatrical Culinary Project and it will be an evening of plays interspersed set at a restaurant where the incredible Karla Hall is the chef, and where the audience will also get to eat the meal she cooks. It’s not dinner theater, it’s theater about dinner. We’ve had a couple workshops and are looking at taking the next step. The process of collaborating with other playwrights has been remarkable, and satisfying.

My play The Algorithm just had a workshop up at Williamstown, which was amazing and daunting. It’s a play I love that never had more than a cold reading, so I was grateful to get in a room and rip it apart. Which I did. Now I’m looking for time to put it all together.

Finally, I have a play I’ve been working on in fits and starts for a while now called i hate you that I really need to finish a draft of, about the internets and such.

This is what they don’t tell you when you start out: You have less and less time as you go along. You want more and have less.

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’m not sure how old I was, but I was with my mother and we were walking somewhere with some other adults. I’ll say I was 9 or 10. I don’t remember who I was talking to, but he and I were talking about baseball. My mother said something about how I knew all these old stats and so he asked me who the batting champ or MVP or something was for some year, and I knew it. And then he kept asking me, or I just started rattling them off. I don’t know why, but my brain had decided it needed to know when Matty Alou had led the NL in hitting.

That doesn’t really answer the question but also it does.

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

A:  Just one thing? There are a lot of things. The easy, and obvious answer is I’d make it less expensive and more available to people. And that’s definitely something I’d want to change. But there is relatively inexpensive good theater; Signature is 30 bucks. That’s not terrible.

What I want to change is connected to finances and availability but also distinct from it. Theater is so fucking exotic. People who have all the privilege and advantages in the world have no idea how theater works, it’s scary and foreign to them, it seems so far from their daily existence. We need to make theater accessible for all; we also need to make non-Broadway event theater a less remarkable occurrence in people’s lives. I’d like it to not be weird to say I’m a playwright.

In a day and age when everything is a screen, and maybe 5 years away from the screens becoming us, theater is only going to seem more antiquated. And yet even more useful as a way and means to engage in the tangible.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  My writer’s group and everyone who has ever been in it: Jessica Goldberg, Daniel Goldfarb, Joe Kraemer, Deb Laufer, David Lindsay-Abaire, Francine Volpe, Tanya Barfield, Itamar Moses, Greg Kotis, Melissa James Gibson, Madeleine George, Beau Willimon, Sheri Wilner, Cusi Cram, Hilary Bell, Rachel Axler, Rinne Groff, and Karen Hartman.

The people who taught me, Marsha Norman, Chris Durang, Wendy Hammond, Seth Gordon, Harlene Marley, and Wendy MacLeod.

Craig Lucas, August Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein, Tony Kushner. I saw Reckless at Circle Rep and I still remember it. Stephen Adly Guirgis, Lucy Thurber, Adam Rapp. Whoever wrote that short play that I saw at Primary Stages forever ago that had JFK and RFK having a phone conversation and one of them asked if they “fucked with vig-uh”, in that Kennedy accent and it was so funny I still laugh. Reza Abdoh’s Quotations from a Ruined City, and even though, or maybe because it’s the opposite of what I do, has always stayed with me, an angry glistening vision, some 20+ years later.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  The kind that brings me joy and discomfort. I see a lot less theater than I used to – toddlers have a way of cutting into your attendance chances – but two plays I’ve seen in the last year that in many ways couldn’t be more different really stay with me, The Wolves, by Sarah DeLappe, and Anna Ziegler’s Actually. Both force me to listen to every word, to exist with the play completely in the space it inhabited, that made me think about the world in a just slightly different way, that left me with enough uncertainty that I appreciated what I thought I knew.

I love theater that creates questions that I don’t know how to answer and then leads me towards an answer I couldn’t have expected.

I’m also eager to see plays which engage in and challenge us in terms of technology. I was lucky enough to see the production of The Nether at the Royal Court, and what that production achieved technically in how it created the world was so vivid and true it made me think about how I saw technology in plays differently.

The best is when you see something and it surprises you. I was in an evening of one-minute plays, Dominic D’Andrea’s incredible project, and in a sea of plays, one popped out, a play by Chisa Hutchinson. That kind of “What the hell was that?” sensation is what keeps me, and everyone, going back.

But. I mean. If it’s good. I get excited. I want to like everything. If it isn’t, if I don’t like it…. when I see things I don’t like I get angry. Maybe not just at the play, but at the whole enterprise. The whole construct. There’s a lot of ways things can go wrong, and though the playwright always gets blamed, it isn’t always their fault. But I want to be excited. So much.

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

A:  Yeah. I teach a lot, so I feel like I’m forever giving advice. I surprise myself with it sometimes. Sometimes I wonder if I take my own advice. But I have lots and lots of advice. Too much maybe.

Find a day job you don’t hate, which can allow you to eat and pay rent.

Don’t be afraid of wanting to make money.

Do it yourself. Find a home, don’t say no to Lincoln Center. But do it yourself. The routes are even more narrow then they used to be; the Times has even more power than it used to, as the other options disappear. So don’t rely on anyone else to let you ask the questions you are asking.

Don’t be scared to keep asking that question.

Find a group of writers you love and who love you and whose work you can understand and appreciate and who understand and appreciate your work. Don’t lose them.

Find a director you believe in and actors who can talk like you.

Don’t be scared to tell stories far away from you, but you better tell the stories well.

Read and see everyone; write like you.

Write that play with 3 characters and the triangle that forms between them early on to get it out of the way.

Do things that take you away from what you already know.

Don’t leave at intermission unless you’ve got food poisoning or the star casting is just too horrible for words.

Don’t look back. Someone is definitely gaining on you.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  I kept putting off doing this, because I kept wanting the perfect thing to plug. Ah well. I’m teaching a class at the New Group this fall. And I’d love to find a home for The Algorithm, like yesterday.

It’s the beginning of another season of theater in New York. I hope it is wonderful.

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