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1100 Playwright Interviews

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Sep 17, 2009

I Interview Playwrights Part 56: August Schulenburg

August Schulenburg

Hometown: Barnstable, Massachusetts

Current Town: Astoria, New York

Q: Tell me about the play you have coming up, The Lesser Seductions of History. This was written for your company, right?

A: Right. The Lesser Seductions of History follows 11 characters through each of the 1960's. The idea started about a year ago. Obama was running for President and Yes We Could and I wanted to write about that; that shared sense of purpose; that hope our actions really could make the world better. I wanted to write about the intoxicating clarity of a cause; the beauty of belonging to something bigger. And I wanted to write how absolutely dangerous that is; the sacrifice that is inevitably required; the great loss that becomes less important than the greater good. So the 60's were perfect, because they epitomize that double edge; and they were distant enough that I could write about now without being crowded by the present. As I started researching and writing, I realized I didn't want to focus on the Wax Museum of the 1960's, all those icons casting their long shadows: King, Kennedy, Hair, Nixon. I wanted to write about the people who are like I am now; hopeful and afraid, bewildered and determined, certain some great change is at work but probably wrong about what it is and what to do about it. As I've spent more time with the play and the decade, I've come to feel there is some essential thing unfinished from the 60's, something that my generation, the children of the flower children, need to move forward. Something about the arc of moral justice, something about the necessity of compassion, something about history and the work of our own hands. And all the time I have to fight those bigger ideas off and make sure the play stays little and human and silly and sad and dirty and fast and interesting.

Q: Are you excited to be working with Heather Cohn on this?

A: Yes. Working with Heather on Other Bodies was an extraordinary experience. She is relentless and won't rest until every mote shines. She understands how to make complex things simple and heavy things light. She has the fire and the hunger, you know? She can hold the ugly/beauty and wrestle the sad/happy and keep the trains running on time. There are only a few people you can really make a stand with and I'm undeservedly lucky to be standing beside her. And yes, I'm in love with her, and yes, we live together, and yes, it is good. Conflict of interest? Well, I wish theatre felt a lot more like love a lot more often.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about Flux Theater? How did it come about? Have you nailed down your core values/mission?

A: Flux was founded out of the experience of producing my play Rue. A theatre had given us a little money and great space and said we could do what we wanted, and well, things slalomed right quick after that. Adversity and bullshit beset that production in ways that still fire my blood. I felt like I'd brought people I'd respected to a dark place, but they kept moving forward, and the gratitude and love I felt (and feel) were the catalyst of Flux. Three and a half years later and nine shows in, we're just beginning to really clarify our core and aesthetic values. A few weeks ago we held our annual retreat at Little Pond, and banged out some really valuable raw material we hope to smooth over the next half year. With an Ensemble made up of so many strong wills, it would be good to get there soon.

Q: You're a very prolific playwright. What else are you working on right now?

A: A play about a physicist falling apart called Dark Matter that will also be turned into an opera. A play called Stepping about a brother and sister growing up in Harlem with the power to step into alternate worlds. How To Go, about a Hunter Thompson type who holds a contest among his loved ones to design the most spectacular way to kill himself. Angel Juice, about a female Vermont senator taken over by the soul of Napoleon, and her daughter's love affair with the witch that did it. Far Distant Classes, the prequel to my play Good Hope, about the astonishing history of Xhosa people in South Africa. Denny and Lila, a play about two con-artists whose love affair is broken by an encounter with a painting prodigy. The Sea Concerto, a play about a family that disintegrates from greed and grief after their child drowns. I also want to transform the essence, style and bones of To The Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway into some kind of play but I haven't started writing those yet.

Q: What is the purpose of theater?

A: Well, I guess I'll talk about the purpose of theatre by talking about the purpose of sex, because I think they're related. Sex is how we make life, and from evolutionary pressures, sex has become increasingly pleasurable for obvious reasons: if it feels this good, we'll keep doing it, and so life will endure because of the pleasures of sex. Story is to meaning as sex is to life. The brief hard lives of early Homo Sapiens were filled with knowledge essential to pass on to their children. Much of this knowledge needed to be experienced, not simply explained. Story evolved to make sure that experience endured. And the more beautiful and immediate a story was, the more likely the meaning endured. And the more likely the people telling those stories endured. So we evolved to take increasing pleasure in the beauty of stories. So much so that, much like sex, we can enjoy beautiful stories that have no connection to their original purpose of bearing knowledge. These days we can have sex and beauty without bearing babies and meaning and I think that's a good thing. (Sometimes I wonder if music isn't the most evolved form of our genetic drive towards beauty; we can enjoy music that carries no meaning whatsoever but its own beauty). Still, there is a purpose to theatre that goes beyond pure entertainment. Theatre is communal; we are social animals, more so all the time; and as such, theatre is the ideal bearer of the knowledge on how to live together. We do plays so the essential experience of what it means to be human together endures. So hark ye, all theatre artists! Make your plays sex-potent! After all, the fate of our human race lies in your hands! Yeah, I get carried away. I guess that's why you asked that.

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

A: Summers I grew up in a perfect place called Sandy Neck; miles and miles of nothing but dunes and ocean and twenty or so houses propped up against the tide; no electricity, well water, and salt in every cranny of you. My brother and sister and I playing flashlight tag, and roasting marshmallows a perfect golden brown. Well, of course, we lost it, we can't go there anymore, hard things happened. I think a certain kind of exile is good for playwrights. It teaches us longing, which is butter on toast for writing. The feeling that you can't get back to the world you were promised is good training for a life of writing plays.

Q: What kind of theater excites you?

A: I really am crazy about all of it, even the stuff that's kind of lame. Something about bodies moving through time, space and story, I just can't get enough. But to answer your question, Tom, I read recently that the desire part of our brain is more powerful than the pleasure part, so that we are hardwired to prefer desire to fulfillment. We are always seeking. It can never be satisfied, the mind, never. So I like plays that prefer desire to fulfillment. I like plays that seek.

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

A: Be grateful. We live in an astonishing age for theatre. Many people will tell you it's otherwise, but that's because they only see what we're missing. In the past year, I have experienced plays like Sans Merci, Our Town, Ajax in Iraq, Universal Robots, Ruined, Pretty Theft, Rattlers, Lydia, and Viral; 9 extraordinary plays; many more very good plays; and work like this is happening all across our country. Whatever the world makes of your work, be grateful (as I am) to be alive at a time when so many extraordinary artists are making theatre. Don't believe me? Just keep reading these playwright interviews and go see their plays!

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