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1100 Playwright Interviews

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Jan 13, 2014

I Interview Playwrights Part 630: Chris Van Strander

Chris Van Strander

Hometown:  West Catasauqua, PA

Current Town:  New York City, NY

Q:  Tell me about Edison's Elephant.

A:  Edison’s Elephant is a play, co-written by David Koteles and myself, about the January 4th, 1903 public execution (by electrocution) of Topsy, a former circus elephant, on Coney Island. The electrocution was engineered by Thomas Edison, and filmed by his Edison Studios. The play examines this event from several viewpoints: that of Edison himself; Whitey, Topsy’s keeper; and various spectators (including a young boy). The play moves around in time, detailing the events leading up to the electrocution, as well as its future ramifications.

David and I had chatted about the Topsy story over brunch last summer (he thought there was a play in it). Soon after, David asked if I had anything to pitch to Metropolitan Playhouse for their Gilded Stage Festival. I said no, and asked him if he was pitching anything; he said no. So I suggested we collaborate. We decided to write about Topsy. I staked out the portions of the story which I most connected with, and David did the same. We eventually wedded our material into Edison’s Elephant.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  This summer I’m going to Minneapolis to workshop Retrospective, a play about the art world. In it, a curator dismantles the shack of a reclusive outsider artist, then reassembles it for display inside her museum.

I’m also working on another play I can’t talk about. It’s called The Revenger’s Tragedy.

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

A:  The Swiss Family Robinson was a story from my childhood which deeply affected me. This section in particular explains a lot about who I am as a writer and as a person:

“The ship had sailed for the purpose of supplying a young colony, she had therefore on board every conceivable article we could desire in our present situation; our only difficulty, indeed, was to make a wise selection. A large quantity of powder and shot we first secured, and as Fritz considered that we could not have too many weapons, we added three excellent guns, and a whole armful of swords, daggers, and knives. We remembered that knives and forks were necessary, we therefore laid in a large stock of them, and kitchen utensils of all sorts. Exploring the captain's cabin, we discovered a service of silver plate and a cellaret of good old wine; we then went over the stores, and supplied ourselves with potted meats, portable soups, Westphalian hams, sausages, a bag of maize and wheat, and a quantity of other seeds and vegetables. I then added a barrel of sulphur for matches, and as much cordage as I could find. All this—with nails, tools, and agricultural implements—completed our cargo, and sank our boat so low that I should have been obliged to lighten her had not the sea been calm.”

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

A:  It would pay its artists a living wage.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Playwrights I admire and learn from include: Caryl Churchill, Chuck Mee, Irene Fornes, Mac Wellman, Jeff Jones, August Wilson, Naomi Wallace, Franz Xavier Kroetz, William Shakespeare, Edward Bond, Eric Overmyer, W. David Hancock, Witkacy, Thornton Wilder, and Samuel Beckett.

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

A:  Cut.

Don’t write what you know. Expand what you know.

Be the most ruthless critic of your own work.

Submit everywhere—but never before the play’s ready.

Great actors are gold; hang tight to them: I’ve been waiting to write a role for a certain actor in Edison’s Elephant for 15 years.

Be a genuinely nice person—not false-nice, party-nice. If you talk shit about someone/their play behind their back, it WILL get back to them. Then they’ll know you’re just a big fake.

Others’ advice which has helped me:

Jose Rivera’s Assumption 6: “Each line of dialogue is like a piece of DNA, potentially containing the entire play and its thesis.”

Fornes: “The presence of the Author violates the life of the Character. Your characters need autonomy; let them do and say what they wish. Manipulate them ONLY once they have life.”

Fornes again: “The meandering, ‘useless’ place has great value. It’s better to explore too much than to be too rigid.”

Wellman: “Avoid at all costs the horrible Swamp of the Already Known.”

Lynn Nottage: “Don't waste your time; get to the real thing. Sure, what's ‘real?’ Still, try to get to it.”

Bill Withers: “On your way to wonderful, you're gonna hafta pass through all right.”

Q:  Plugs, please:

EDISON’S ELEPHANT by Chris Van Strander & David Koteles
Directed by: David Elliott
Performances: January 16th-25th, as part of Metropolitan Playhouse's Gilded Stage Festival
Tickets: http://metropolitanplayhouse.org/edisonselephanttickets

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