for Part I.
Well, we’re back for the second part of this three-part online dialogue. We just had the reading for Nosedive’s upcoming play, The Adventures of Nervous Boy, which was a whole lotta fun for me. I’m now really looking forward to getting this put onstage.
Mac, when last we left off, you wrote, “Sometimes, to truly enjoy a piece of art, you need to make an act of surrender. You need to let something defensive inside yourself rest, and give yourself over to the world unfolding in front of you so that you can feel sensations that you couldn’t generate from inside yourself.” This is very true. As I had once said to Scot Williams — Nosedive’s Resident Jesus — that I’ve been trying for the past few years to be as open-minded as humanly possible, while simultaneously strengthening my internal “bullshit meter.” I don’t think I need to tell you this isn’t the easiest thing in the world, especially when (and for now I’ll keep this in the world of viewing art rather than in the world of day-to-day human interactions) most of the Great Works and Great Artists are presenting something that most likely goes against the natural way one sees the world (i.e., goes against the status quo). A really good play will often be telling you something you don’t want to hear.
You closed with, “So there you are. Sometimes you fight, sometimes you surrender. How can you tell when each one is called for? I have no freakin’ idea.” Well, I don’t know the answer to this one, but I think I have an idea (i.e., I have one freakin’ idea), and that is to focus more on thinking rather than feeling when you come across a play as an audience member that causes you to resist. In other words, think to yourself why you’re feeling bad watching the play. Are you uncomfortable? Bored? Why? Is it intentional? If so, what’s the show trying to tell you? Often when I do that I realize the decision to either fight or surrender doesn’t even seem like a decision, it seems about as natural as deciding to not cross the street when a Mack truck is careening by.
Let me put it another way, using the example you used of the romantic comedy you don’t buy into (where the romantic lead ends up with someone you think is wrong for them). If and when that happens, I sometimes do wonder if the writer/director/somebody is intending for the audience to root for another coupling, and then if my brain accepts that as a possibility, I think about why: is this supposed to be a cynical take on romance? Is the writer/director telling the audience you never really get together with the one you truly deserve to be with? All that. If you take away your personal feelings and just let your analytical mind take over, these questions get answered pretty quickly (I’ve found) and you can determine almost instantly whether or not to fight or surrender to a work. A lot of this is pretty instinctive but maybe that just comes from seeing a shitload of plays and movies over the years. I honestly don’t know if this reveals me to being to hard on most plays I see or being too easy on them.
Yes, I know this isn’t exactly a question, other than, “Thoughts?”
Awesome. This question puts me in the mind of the time I went to see Starship Troopers with a friend, and afterwards I was ranting about the cast. “For the money they spent on that movie they couldn’t hire even slightly better actors?” My friend responded, “Dude, Verhoeven picked those actors on purpose. He thinks it’s hilarious that these Melrose 90210 people are being killed by giant bugs.” Which kind of ties in to the stuff to my play Raw Meat that I discussed before as well as the current blogosphere controversy over David Cote’s review of Rabbit Hole, in which he described the sensation of watching a comfortable, middle class Manhattan Theatre Club play and wishing zombies would come in and start eating the cast.
Paul Verhoeven is actually a good filmmaker to bring up in this context, as one often senses that he’s laughing riotously at his films at the same time that he’s funneling tons of gonzo conviction into them. I’ve never attempted this kind of storytelling myself because I’m a bit more straightforward. I like my characters too much to want to make them look ridiculous, but I do enjoy it when others do.
But you’re also talking about something a little bit more subterranean, when artists present a work that in its entirety seems to embody something they disapprove of. At the moment I can’t think of plays that are good examples of this phenomenon, but there are plenty of films and songs that people like to debate along these lines. The Philadelphia Story is probably history’s most egregious example of the romantic comedy-gone-wrong. Jimmy Stewart is a lovely, charming guy who loves Katherine Hepburn just the way she is, and Cary Grant is a snarly prick who wants to rein her in… and we’re supposed to be glad when she picks Grant. But is there a possibility that George Cukor and Waldo Saly knew how objectionable their ending was? Maybe they weren’t fighting it. Maybe they privately thought The Philadelphia Story was a tragedy. (John Hughes presented the same bewildering situation with Pretty In Pink decades later, and then explicitly denounced it by making Some Kind Of Wonderful a few years later, wherein Jimmy Stewart finally triumphed in the form of Mary Stuart Masterson.)
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” sounds like mindless jingoism until you actually listen to the lyrics. But a much better example is “Every Breath You Take” by the Police. A careful listen reveals the song to be a portrait of a stalker, but it lives on in heavy rotation as a love ballad. I kinda like that “Every Breath You Take” is still out there, satirizing every ballad that uses lyrics so extreme they transmute yearning into scary psychosis.
Harold Bloom wrote something like, A lot of the couplings at the end of Shakespeare’s comedies make us shudder. Shakespeare, I think, was fearless. I have no doubt he knew that Rosalind wouldn’t be able to stand Orlando for more than like a year, or that the Duke in “Measure For Measure” is a tenfold more frightening villain than Angelo, but he knew he didn’t need to hammer those points home. He gently cruised through his conventional storytelling structure, carefully placing all the evidence in plain sight, and then let audiences wonder later why the play made them feel uncomfortable. I have never attempted this kind of storytelling. I’ve subverted popular forms sometimes, but never this subtly.
It’s interesting you mention Paul Verhoeven, who, one on hand, in my mind is one of the Worst. Directors. Ever. But on the other, I can’t get enough of Robocop or Total Recall (Showgirls is in another category altogether; delightfully bad, although far too long and far too unpleasant). Andrew O'Hehir from Salon.com wrote a “Brilliant Careers” column on Mr. Verhoeven, much to the dismay of his colleagues. After reading it, I still don’t think he makes much sense of the guy’s work (since Mr. Verhoeven’s work is so over-the-top with its violence and misogyny), but I do understand Mr. O'Hehir’s desire to write a “think piece” on the guy.
I also shudder at the end of Measure for Measure, one of my favorite “comedies” by Mr. Shakespeare. It’s one of the few plays of his that’s made me go, “Eww.” And to have it come from a comedy is pretty impressive (even for the Bard).
I’m also interested in how much zombies are on the brains of people in the blogosphere of late. What the hell’s up with that? I like to flatter myself that it’s really all because of my Jamespeak entry on “Schlock,” and everyone’s following my lead. But then of course, I’d be deluding myself (then again, what else is new?).
From time to time, I’ve tried to go against the expectations of the audience, the most obvious example of this being Ruins, which appears to be a romantic comedy in the beginning but ends up with the male and female protagonist not living happily ever after (or even coming close). I don’t know if this has anything to do with wanting to mess with the audience or because of my innate distrust of romance (both in art and in real life). Mayonnaise Sandwiches was another; using elements for a potential melodrama or Lifetime Original Movie (a mom who got pregnant when she was 12, a 24 year-old sleeping with a 16 year-old) as well as a satire of mass media, but have those elements be very non-dramatic. We got some flack for that (a few audience members wanted more “drama” in, say, the scene where the family goes to the hospital to visit the dad who’s had a heart attack), but c’est la vie.
At any rate, I’m glad you understood what I was saying there, Mac, since I was deliberately being vague by not singling out certain shows I’ve seen. I was referring mainly to really terrible plays I’ve gone to (no, I won’t mention their names) where I would try to at least come up with something to justify both my watching it and the company/director having the nerve to stage it. I’m happy you came up with a much more pleasant and egalitarian response, rather than fuel a potential vitriolic rant about shitty theatre from me.
Now, going back to the David Cote review and the blogosphere response to it, what do you make of all this? I ask because I’m under the impression you’re much (much MUCH) more attuned to what’s happening in the debating world of New York theatre than I am. Do you think it’s because there’s a shift in what people are looking for in theatre?
Well, it’s a little hard to say, because there are contradictory sets of indicators. On the one hand, one might argue that the response to Cote’s review shows that a lot of people want to break out of a stifling tradition of well-made plays that seem to assemble a set of pre-approved themes, characters, structures, and dramaturgical techniques from a box. On the other hand, the fact that Cote seems to see so many of these plays – that there’s enough of them getting put on that he finally snaps to this degree – would seem to indicate the opposite: more people want to see these plays than want to see the sorts of plays Cote dreams of.
I was disappointed that a lot of the blogosphere debate seemed to center around whether or not Cote should have included a broader rant in his review of a specific play. For my part, I felt that Cote tied his more general discontent back to Rabbit Hole thoroughly enough that he justified its inclusion. But that’s a less interesting, subsidiary debate. The more interesting thing to think about is, can we identify the essential qualities of the kinds of plays Cote was decrying and also identify the essential qualities of the plays he wishes to see instead? And having identified each kind, can we say if we find one preferable to the other?
I discovered Caryl Churchill’s work at the most impressionable time possible: early college, when I was first starting to think seriously about playwriting beyond every young guy’s initial infatuation with the Mamet/Rabe/Korder machowright thing. I was just dazzled. Churchill just doesn’t give a fuck, but she doesn’t give a fuck in a very disciplined manner. You never know where her plays are going to go, not in a plot-twist sense, but more in the sense that you don’t know what will become of the play itself. The stage might be taken over by monsters. Characters might completely change personality. The play might change protagonists partway through. It blew my mind in college to watch Ice Cream and see the protagonist baton passed from the easily identifiable suburban American couple to the terrifying British drifter.
The language might fall apart, the whole universe might fall apart, as in Blue Kettle. I saw Blue Kettle with my whole nuclear family at the Wooly Mammoth in 2000, and my parents and siblings were every bit as exhilarated as I was to watch as Churchill rewound the events on stage again and again, as random children and animals invaded the realistic kitchen set, as every word in the dialogue was eventually replaced by “blue” or “kettle.” The critical factor is that the play wasn’t freewheeling or whimsical; Churchill made unconventional choices within a defined line of inquiry. You can sense at a subterranean level that her plays are ordered, that she’s not wanking, even if they don’t deal in traditional ideas of character or plot structure. With Blue Kettle, Churchill was burrowing into the subconscious of her characters one layer at a time until she found her revelatory moments, like the man telling his visiting daughter, “You are my heart’s desire.”
I understand Cote’s frustration. We talked about my play Raw Meat in our last dialogue, which I wrote after watching one too many plays about twentysomethings talking about their relationships. Those are the plays I see because I can’t afford to regularly see the MTC/Roundabout shows Cote sees all the time. I found myself wanting cannibals to come onstage with a big steaming pot and eat my navel-gazing twentysomethings, not unlike Cote’s desire to see zombies consume stock suburban MTC characters.
There’s a feeling one has watching well-made plays (a feeling I get even more often reading tepid literary fiction), a feeling that what I’m watching was assembled from a kit. I haven’t seen Rabbit Hole, it may be a masterpiece, but I can see from the review where Cote’s coming from. You’ve got your couple. They’re well off, but not rich. They have a flamboyant older relative who barges into their life a lot and is funnier than them. You’ve got the tragedy that’s eroding their marriage, the loss of their child. So of course you know that the kid who accidentally killed their child will figure into the plot, and don’t you know it, the wife will find that she and the kid understand each other in a way that she and her husband never will. It’s all so neat, it’s all so quirky, it creates a vague sense of jolting you without ever actually doing it. (Understand, I’m describing a set of plays the review makes me think of, rather than Rabbit Hole itself.)
An audience is challenged more thoroughly by a play that is surprising in its very fabric rather than merely in its events. But people can resent that. A lot of people didn’t like the second act of Hail Satan because they liked the first act and didn’t care for the way the tone changed. Some people told me, “It felt like it turned into a whole different play in the second act,” to which I could only respond, “Well, yeah.” I could see it being upsetting that the protagonist has changed so profoundly from Act 1 to Act 2, that fatherhood has had a kind of body-snatcher effect on him. The disjunction was deliberate. I wanted to study the similarities between parenthood and religious conversion. You hear people say, “The second I saw my baby everything changed.” I have to say, that statement frightens me a little bit, and I tried to build some of that fear into the structure.
I don’t have Churchill’s bravery. I’m addicted to the neatly turned plot, and my number one weakness as a writer is that I’m too frightened of mystifying the audience. But as a playgoer, yeah, I think I share Cote’s dream. I want to not know where I’m going when I sit down to watch a play.
Tracy Letts’ Bug also does that veering off with its story. I remember reading a blurb about it before going to see it, which described the play as a “sci-fi thriller.” Well, after watching the first act, I convinced myself I must’ve read the wrong blurb for the wrong play. I mean, this is a “trailer-park romance,” there ain’t no sci-fi anywhere! Then that second act shows up and BAM! Yup. Sci-fi thriller all right.
Hell, I’ll admit it: watching Pulp Fiction for the first time gave me a taste for watching a story drastically switch gears. (Yeah, yeah, I know, real armchair thinkers and aspiring pseudo-intellects aren’t supposed to admit they like Tarantino, but fuck it.)
I think in college I ended up losing my taste for the neatly turned plot after getting really deep into both arthouse movies and moviemakers (Lynch, Cassavetes and particularly Jarmusch) and modernist novels and novelists (Lawrence, Greene and particularly Joyce). These were works and artists I got completely absorbed in, and they more or less eschewed plot and delved into character study and headspace. It was a weird and fun mental place to be in at the time (i.e., when Lost Highway spoke to me just as much as Ulysses). I loved that. I mean, I LOVED that. I think it was because for some reason, during my sophomore and junior years at BU, I started to get really irritated when (in, say, a book, movie or play) two characters would have a conversation in a living room, and a third character would enter just as the first two characters finished their conversation. I couldn’t shake the thought that stuff like that never happens in real life. Not only that, but everything always seemed so…pat. I mean, sure, I could buy that the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive needed to be repaired by an astro droid and that Sigourney Weaver couldn’t shoot the Alien at close range because it would bleed acid all over her, but my suspension of disbelief could only go so far.
So, a lot of times for fun I would write short plays that had almost no stories or plots at all: they were weird character studies where I’d basically have the main character engaged in a series of banal everyday conversations, but get interrupted by something even more banal (like a telemarketing call). The underlying importance of these banal conversations would be self-evident to one person and one person only: me. Many of these earlier scripts were more or less transcripts of conversations I had (or overheard), just transplanted to slightly bizarre scenarios or locations. True, these scripts (which mercifully no longer exist) were probably about as insufferably pretentious and unwatchable as scripts can get, but I do remember the fun I had in writing them, since I was writing them at a time when I was getting into playwriting, when the “well-made play” was something I had no interest in (as a viewer or as a writer), and when I was really into works that did not follow the “well-made play” (or “well-made novel” or “well-made movie”) model.
This is pretty much how both Monkeys and The Awaited Visit came about: short, abstract and absurdist plays written in college when I was feeling both like a hot young Turk ready to show the world what relevant theatre was all about and at the same time like a complete non-entity who would be thoroughly ignored by any mainstream or artistic attention. Man, I wish I could say I’ve grown up from all of this, but…sigh…it really doesn’t look like I have (or will).
Whenever I did any of that drastic switching of gears or taking the audience downstream it was never so much an example of courage or bravery as it was a case of a weird kid establishing fight scenarios with his toys in a sandbox by himself for his own amusement (and being disinterested in what toys the other kids had in their sandboxes).
Now, I can’t remember. Did you go to school for theatre? I didn’t. I went for English Lit. and took only one course on playwriting my junior year. How did you get on the playwriting/theatre track? I mainly ask because I ended up writing plays by default: I got my taste for scriptwriting in high school after writing comic books (but being unable to get artists to draw the things), then writing screenplays (but realizing the odds of my finished product ever seeing the light of celluloid within the decade being slim and nil), then finally writing plays (where I realized I could have them staged very cheaply and in front of an audience within a year).
There is something delightful about the immediacy of theater, isn’t there? If you know how to write stuff that can be staged sparely and cheaply, you can have the shit up within weeks. Just last week I had a short I wrote about Saddam Hussein’s hunger strike staged less than a week after I wrote it, thanks to Isaac Butler’s Rapid Response Team. I mean, obviously the best, most thoughtful stuff comes later, but I do love the first-responder capability of theater.
To answer your question, I got into theater young. I think my mom noticed I was a hammy kid. I used to recite long poems at school assemblies like “Excelsior” and “The Raven.” My Mom suggested I try out for the Greensboro Children’s Theater, and for the next several years I appeared in plays like “Jack & The Beanstalk” and “It Happened In Hamelin.” At the same time I was writing stories that were pretty close rip-offs of the Doctor Who episodes I was watching on PBS. It made sense that the two activities would eventually merge.
I wrote my first several plays for my church youth group, which was a freaking blessing. I see the early part of any writing career as a process of moving from very large mistakes to smaller, harder-to-spot mistakes. I got to make my huge, embarrassing mistakes as a playwright in front of the infinitely forgiving congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro.
At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, they care way more about basketball than they do about plays, and the great thing about that is that my theater work there was conducted in a very non-conservatory-esque atmosphere. We had an almost entirely student-run theater, The Lab, where we had to do most of the work of putting on our own plays with very little help – but also very little interference – from the faculty. I usually worked on four plays per school-year, and one would be one I wrote. I got to work out the rest of my large mistakes and several of my medium-sized mistakes there.
The non-conservatory nature of UNC was a big help in coming to New York and putting on shows here. It simply never crossed my mind that anyone else would do it for me. I think some people educated in a more conservatory-like setting initially feel stymied in New York, like if they can’t get cast in or hired for a show produced by a major company, they can’t make theater. (On the downside, I may not have courted established companies as much as I should have because so much of my energy has gone into self-producing.)
The best thing to happen to me as a playwright in recent years has been to merge my two original loves, creating theater and writing pulpy genre stories. For a while I thought my plays all needed to be super-realistic and focus exclusively on emotions and relationships. Nineveh broke me of that, and I’ve never looked back. Now that I allow myself to have robots and cannibals and aliens and the Devil in my shows, I find writing so much more enjoyable and I find that I write about emotions and relationships better when I’m not focusing on them quite so much.
It’s interesting that you came to writing plays from creating dialogue studies. I think that was probably an excellent way to learn. I was kind of a thick-headedly ambitious teenager and college student, and I plunged immediately into three-hour epics without properly learning how to write first. It wasn’t until I got to New York and found out how much easier it is to get produced in short play fests than on your own that I learned the pleasures of working in miniature, in increments of twenty, ten, or even five minutes. It makes your full-length work better when you go back to it, too.
See, now that seems to be my problem, a slight disadvantage to having my own regular theatre company, I think. When Jason Parker Green — another fellow self-producing New York-based playwright — asked if I would submit some short plays (in the 5-10 minute range), I realized I only had about two or three at most, since I’m used to staging plays that typically range from 40 minutes (the shortest) to 3 hours (the longest). The bulk of my 5-10 minute scripts are ostensibly comedy sketches (where monkey puppets hit on the audience or a guy gets dating advice from a talking pizza-box). Since I have my own company, the need for writing really short plays (ideal for festival submissions) wanes, and therefore my plays get little to no exposure outside of Nosedive. I would imagine not being aligned with a company would force you to both write more “submission-friendly” work (submission-friendly as in writing short, tight pieces that run under fifteen minutes) and put yourself out there more.
Too bad I didn’t save all those super-short dialogue studies. On second thought, no, no it isn’t. It’s wonderful I didn’t save those!
Yeah, I had asked because I couldn’t quite remember if you got your schooling in theatre. I definitely grew up liking plays and liking acting in high school (I lost my taste for acting halfway through college), but it wasn’t until college that I realized the gap between the script phase and the presentation phase with theatre was much, much narrower than it was with film and comics.
(Not that I have anything against writing screenplays or comics. If I can ever get someone to convince me that they’ll produce my film or draw and ink my comic, I’ll go back to writing in those media.)
(I’m also assuming that your old Doctor Who knockoff stories were knocking off the Tom Baker episodes, i.e., the ones I grew up with.)
I would agree that a non-conservatory-esque atmosphere would foster better writing, but that’s really based on my own prejudices (especially towards theatre-training in general, which I see fosters a lot of “Emperor’s New Clothes” attitudes, more so than a lot of other fields). At the very least, I’m personally very glad I didn’t “study” playwriting (if only since that would mean having to…ugh…interact with theatre students on a regular basis).
And yes, there is indeed something delightful about the immediacy of theater, which is probably why I’m never particularly helpful on the design end of things with Nosedive (our lighting designer asked me how I envisioned Nervous Boy to look, and I told him it didn’t matter. Getting it in front of audiences and soon is what matters to me. If we have a lot of money, make the stage look like a Tim Burton/Anton Furst New York. If we have no money, a simple bare stage is fine. If we have some money, somewhere in between. Since, in my head, all the stuff described in the script is real [i.e., I picture Nervous Boy walking along the real streets of New York and entering real bars], and since I know that can’t be done on a stage, I’m not the best person to consult for the show’s “look.” I’d like to think this mindset while writing helps the scripts translate easily for both the stage and film, but I don’t know. Since I always prefer to stage shit sooner rather than later and since I want to take advantage of the immediacy of theatre, I’m fine with spare and cheap staging).
But, as always, I digress.
For those reading this out there who have either not seen a show by either of us or only one of us (and shame on you if that’s the case. Shame!), I should point out here that Mac and I have fairly different ways of staging our respective work. I have my own resident company, Nosedive Productions, which has pretty much one director (Pete), with Patrick doing some directorial work here and there (he’s directed a couple one acts, directed the wedding scene in Dying Goldfish and is set to direct another one act once I finally finish the batch that’s set to follow Nervous Boy). Mac works with different directors and different companies (although ostensibly Gideon Productions is his resident company).
So Mac, this is something you’ve mentioned in SlowLearner and I’ve mentioned in Jamespeak: you have intimacy issues, I have separation anxiety (and don’t like “jumping through hoops”). I’ve seen advantages and disadvantages with both. For example, there are a lot of perks to having your own company with the same director and same group of actors (the most obvious being that you end up being on the same page with your collaborators from the get-go and don’t have to explain bits of quirky dialogue) and a number of disadvantages (the most obvious being that you end up being very sheltered, isolated and complacent, not to mention you start to wonder if your work is any good, since only a small number of people are willing to stage it).
The main reason I started doing Nosedive (Pete had similar reasons but a few different ones) was that when I came to the city, I wanted to get my plays staged. When I started seeing how that would come about, I got what could be best described as obsequious stonewalling. A lot of “dangling carrot” shit that I saw as a complete waste of time (i.e., “Wow, this script is GREAT! Tell ya what. My company is having a contest in seven months, and if you’re selected, we’ll do a reading of this fantastic script.” Uh…why should I wait for you to drag your feet until letting me know you’re not even going to read my play?). Pete and I discovered, through the help of some friends already in the city, that if we didn’t jump through other people’s hoops, we’d get the show staged faster, in the way we wanted and in front of respectable audiences.
I guess for my second-to-last question for Part Two, I’ll do what I did with Part One and ask both if there’s anything you’d like to add and if you think having multiple directors (or being used to having different directors) changes or
effects the way you write?
I know Jason Parker Green! A fine fellow.
First let me respond to the most critical, relevant portion of your post and say that while I began by watching the Tom Baker episodes of Dr. Who, my obsession with the show became so all-encompassing that I sought out all the other episodes featuring all the other Doctors. I’m so psyched for the upcoming new episodes starring Christopher Eccleston I can barely concentrate on my job.
I jumped at the chance to start a theater company with Sean and Jordy because I, like you, like the comfort and safety of a team I trust. I’m partly drawn to Jordana and Sean for their specific artistic talents, but on a deeper level we share a sensibility. We like to put on the Big Show. We’re more product-oriented than process-oriented. We like to deliver a night’s entertainment, hopefully a smart one. Jordana put it best when she explained to someone once, “We try to take the audience’s time seriously.” When someone comes to my show, they chose to do that with their evening instead of doing something else, and as we’re all stuck with finite life spans, I find that choice quite moving and want to do my utmost to honor it. Which means that the three of us have a problem with experimenting in front of an audience.
This is something that quite a lot of my peers who I deeply respect disagree with me about. Quite a number of theater artists regard process - and what is learned in process - as equal or greater in importance to the finished product. And a lot of these artists put on awesome shows, so I have no reason to knock their MO. It’s just not how I think. When I’m at my desk writing, I’m not thinking about the themes I’m exploring. I’m thinking, “How can I make people shit their pants?” I can’t really defend that; it’s just what I do.
In any case, Gideon Productions (my company with Jordy and Sean) had a really difficult year in 2001 (as did most of the world, as I recall), and we took the whole next year off. I took that time to work with other people and other companies. Adam Fitzgerald’s kef productions did a second production of Roll and Boris Kievsky put up Nineveh at HERE. Jordy directed Happening To Your Body, but it was produced by Manhattantheatresource, so we could experience what it was like putting a show up with other people doing the heavy lifting. I liked all of it. I liked meeting new people, engaging new personalities, working out new kinds of partnerships. There were lots of things along the way that I wish had gone differently, and I didn’t always see eye to eye with my collaborators, but it really whetted my appetite for more.
Outside of the exhilaration of working with new artistic collaborators, I found it to be the funnest and most time-efficient method of networking. I got to work on a show while at the same time meeting new theater artists I wanted to work with and making at least a few new people interested in whatever my next play would be. Last year was an all-Gideon year, particularly because of the enormous pre-production Fleet Week required, and if our new musical Air Guitar is accepted by the Fringe it’ll be sort of the same thing in ’06, but I’m still hoping to mix it up a bit. For example, I felt that exhilaration I’m referring to in the Nervous Boy reading a couple weeks ago.
I’m just realizing that’s not what you asked. You asked how working with different colleagues affects my writing. It’s interesting, I have a sense of whether a script I’m working on is a Gideon script or not. Partly it’s that I try to make Gideon scripts small-scale so we can produce them on our modest means. But partly also I have an awareness of whether something in the script appeals to something in Sean and/or Jordy’s sensibility. With our film-noir spoof The Lucretia Jones Mysteries, I knew they would love the old-school feel of the dialogue and the situations. With Hail Satan I knew they were both interested in religion and child-rearing. With my current solo project that I’m writing, a Western called Cowgirl Revenge, I’m not sure there’s anything in there either of them will be all that crazy about, plus it’ll be bigger production-wise than what we usually do. Which means I’m brainstorming other collaborators for that particular project. (Plus of course I’m always submitting these to big theaters; if one day one of them bites, that’s a whole other set of factors to consider.)
But new collaborators are always a risk. It’s nerve wracking. I’m too commitment-phobic to work with the same people on every single show, so I have to keep taking the risk.
Eh, process, schmocess. I’d actually disagree with your peers who think this, too. But as you’ve noticed, I’ve never been a particularly “touchy-feely” theatre person or one for “the process.” That’s Pete’s problem. I mean, hey, if people need to believe that the rehearsal process is as important as the show itself, that’s fine if the show’s good. Whatever works for them; different strokes for different folks and all that. Like you, I’m much more interested in making sure that the show we do is worth the audience’s while. This is especially true when you consider that there are so many Off-off-Broadway plays that are so not worth an audience’s time, I think it’s infinitely more important to stage a show worth an audience’s attention than it is for the cast and crew getting in touch with their inner theatrical child.
I must say I’ve been pretty impressed with your ability to take on new collaborators with your scripts. After we do Nervous Boy, I’m hoping for Nosedive to do another collection of one-acts, and bring a few different directors on board (Pete obviously gets “first pick” of the scripts, and Patrick gets second pick, and then we may get an outside director or two). What I found interesting when coming up with this project is that I thought the tentative headliner of the plays, a new thing called Captain Moonbeam and Lynchpin, would be right up Pete’s alley for directing. Not that I wrote it for him to direct — in truth, I’ve never done that (I have a good idea of Pete’s strengths and weaknesses as a director, the rules of the game when you have a consistent collaborator for six years, but when I’m writing a play I never think, “What’ll Pete want to direct?” or, “I hope Pete can handle this.”) — but when I finished it, my guess was this would be more “up his alley” in terms of what he’d want to direct (I had written a couple already, and was in the process of mapping out the others). Boy was I surprised when he said he probably wasn’t the best person for the script! I mean, he liked it and all — at least, he’s said he liked it — but he told me he really wasn’t seeing it the way I was seeing it.
I guess it goes to Patrick then. Or someone new.
Despite the nerve-wracking feeling of dealing with a new collaborator, yeah, I would indeed imagine that taking on new collaborators would be the best and most fun form of networking. It really is like killing four birds with one script. I also suspect it’s a good way of disseminating your work more, which leads me back to another perk of theatre.
Another really fun thing about theatre as a medium as opposed to film — besides the immediacy of the medium — is the potential to have multiple productions with multiple interpretations of the same worldview or vision. Although I was sad I could only see one of the three versions of Phaedra that the company One Year Lease staged, that idea is very much “up my alley:” one story with the same director and cast done three ways through three different scripts. This isn’t a money or prestige thing (although I wouldn’t be averse to getting paid many times for the same script), but very much at the heart of why now I prefer to write play scripts as opposed to screenplays: I’d like to see twenty different versions of Ruins and see twenty different ways how twenty different groups get to a certain destination based on my roadmap (i.e., the script), to see how and where they veer off from the way I saw it (or how Pete staged it), how much they veer off, and where and how they are similar (and in some case identical).
If only anything like that was happening with my scripts.
I’ll admit it. My bitterness or sour grapes comes from the times groups or producers or production companies express interest in staging or reading one of my plays, then something invariably falls apart with the project. It becomes doubly frustrating when I can never really tell why: were they just sweet-talking me to prevent hurting my feelings (and never had any interest or intention of staging the play), or are they just truly inept at producing a show (in which case I think with horror, “Jesus, people. If a couple of lazy fuckups like me and Pete can do it, what does it say about you that you can’t?”)? This also ties into my fascination with your method of staging your work (which seems to be reciprocal, a “grass is always greener” kind of attitude), where you have different directors and different companies stage your work, something I don’t do (with very rare exceptions).
Man, you’re absolutely right when you wrote, “Playwrights are absolute diaper-wearing nutjobs.”
Well, okay. I’ve been rambling for a little while here and admittedly dragging my feet to get to the final question here. And you’ve been an absolute trooper. So, okay, as I promised, here’s the final question for Part II (which I guess the theme is “Writerly Origins”): Do you think that there’s hope in having a career as a playwright? Or is this already it (i.e., do you think is this “as good as it gets”)? I remember reading an article in the Boston Phoenix (Boston’s equivalent of The Village Voice) years ago that said that Arthur Miller and Tony Kushner were the only two people making a living off of their playwriting, and even they were writing screenplays or optioning off their plays for film. Do you see playwriting as a stepping-stone for film or television work? (I realize I’m asking pretty much the same question several different ways but you can really use any angle you’d like.)
After you answer this we’re done with Part II and two-thirds of the way through.
Just try to stay calm, and remember to breathe.
I knew this was going to happen.
We’ve been talking around this subject for a while now, but maybe it’s time to face our fears head-on. I knew we were going to conduct an in-depth interview here, covering a wide range of topics pertaining to theater, and if you cast your net wide enough, you risk catching a shark. The time has come, to mix zoological metaphors, to talk about the elephant in the room.
It’s time to talk about Tyler Perry.
When Diary of a Mad Black Woman came out last year, I remember seeing some tiny little article about it somewhere that mentioned it was based on one of Tyler Perry’s plays.
I Googled Tyler Perry and found a long article about him that had originally been published in Essence Magazine. Tyler Perry was basically living on the streets when he started writing plays for the “chitlin’ circuit,” the community of African American theaters around the United States, predominantly in the South, serving churchgoing audiences. Perry wrote, directed, starred in, and made the costumes for his plays. He usually played a large, matronly black woman named Madea. Between the Madea plays and a few others, Tyler Perry had accrued a fortune of fifty million dollars.
Fifty million dollars.
Before making one single film.
And I can sneer at him all I want for Diary of a Mad Black Woman or Madea Goes To Jail or whatever, but this guy has got to be just about the most successful playwright who ever lived. His plays are on DVD, for god’s sake. Not just the ones they made into movies. You can go to a video store and rent a recording of one of his plays.
I guess what I’m trying to say, in answer to your question, is that you can only make a living writing plays if your plays draw an audience. A big audience. And what makes for the biggest audiences? The underserved. The people who don’t see their lives reflected in any other media. That’s why gay shows draw large audiences. Gay and lesbian theatergoers haven’t yet learned the habit of laziness because they can’t turn on the TV or punch up the Netflix queue and see their lives. That’s starting to change for gays and lesbians, because they tend to be urban people and vigorous consumers, not unlike teenagers, so advertisers are realizing they want to reach them.
But churchgoing African Americans fly below the media radar. They don’t buy the things that flashy advertisers know how to sell. They share almost no concerns with secular urbanites. The people who make TV and movies just don’t know them. So everyone was shocked when the films of Diary and Madea made so much money. Who were these people?
For you and I, this is not quite as good as it gets, but it’s close. You and I write for an overserved audience, i.e. confused young urbanite intellectuals trying to make sense of a dangerous, godless world. Everyone’s trying to write our Big Chill. We’re all trying to be the most shocking, the most daring, the one who confronts the audience with the most searing, uncomfortable questions, an audience, by the way, that has grown used to scalding exposes of its own emptiness. They don’t even react to scalding exposes any more, they’ve seen so many of them. But what else can we do? We write about what we need to write about. Neither one of us is likely to take after Tyler Perry in the foreseeable future. Them’s the breaks. He has an audience. We don’t. They wait all year for him to come to town, then pay $50 a pop. If we stopped putting on shows and died, our families would probably eventually find out.
I see I’ve written myself into a depressing place, and at the end of Part 2 at that. I’m sorry for that. Maybe I’m being over the top in my language to make a point. But whenever the “living” issue comes up, I think of Tyler Perry and get like this.
A shorter answer to your question would be, I expect to have to write for television or film to make money. Either one would be my dream day job. I understand that in either case, the people paying me could make me rewrite everything in any way they wanted, but that’s fine because I know that ahead of time. You don’t write for film and television to achieve artistic satisfaction. For that you write plays. There’s no money, but you get to do it your way.
Next: After we both come out of our respective catatonic stupors, we have our third and final part of this dialogue, wrap up some odds-n’-ends and close with some happy fun thoughts.