Interview with Aurin Squire, writer of “Defacing Michael Jackson”

me with a tieWe interviewed Aurin Squire about what inspires him, his advice for writing and life, and his play “Defacing Michael Jackson.” Read “Defacing Michael Jackson” in the third issue of Proscenium Journal, to be released September 8.

What was your inspiration for this play?
Long convoluted answer: I was in a workshop led by Rogelio Martinez and he made us write down a list of our childhood rituals. After reading them aloud, our peers voted on what was most interesting. So my ritual was kids coming over and watching Thriller in our house because we were the first family to have a VCR.  Each writer had their own and then we wrote an opening monologue in about two minutes with Character A discussing the ritual. After that we wrote a scene with Characters B and C discussing a threat to the ritual in about 5 minutes. Then we wrote a scene in which Character A is interrupted by Character B, who acts as a messenger informing A on the threat to the ritual, and this took about 3 minutes. Then we wrote a monologue in about two minutes which Character B or C has a monologue about the ritual being destroyed. And then we had a final scene of Character A along with B and/or C has a final blow-up or dissolution. And after about 15 minutes there is a beginning, middle, end of a play: the toughest parts. Rogelio told us that we could go home and fill in the rest of the play as either a full-length or one-act. I thought it was a cool exercise and I put the papers away for a week. I lived in a dorm on 8th Street and 5th avenue. On the last Sunday in June,  the entire Gay Pride Parade pivots on 8th Street and 5th avenue My block. This meant it was a logistical nightmare to get out of the dorm I took out those pages and -to pass the time- I began writing the in between scenes for a one-act play. I was entertaining myself until the crowd died down enough to walk outside. So after a few hours, the crowd was manageable and I had finished the one-act play. Vital Theatre had a one-act festival they ran and a few days later they asked me if I had anything to submit. I sent it in and the play ended up opening as a one-act at Vital. I didn’t show up for most of the rehearsals, tech, or dress rehearsal. I didn’t really think people would get the play and I was a little scared they would hate it so I busied myself with other plays and workshops at school. I got a voicemail from Liz Meriwether one night (creator of New Girl). She was a playwright in the festival who also did the ritual exercise with me. She was screaming ‘where are you?!?! Your play just went up and it was amazing!” I thought she was just being nice. Honestly, I thought it was a play no one would relate to, until I went to a performance. the play went on to win the Samuel French Festival and get published. I put it away for several years and people kept asking me ‘why don’t you expand?’ Finally after hearing it one too many times I sat down -almost in resentment- and said ‘FINE! I’ll write the damn full-length play and then everyone can shut up about it!’ When I sat down to write it, the voices came back immediately. I sent it into Juilliard and it got me into their Lila Acheson Wallace Playwriting Fellowship, got me an agent, won the Lincoln Center One Act Prize, got a workshop showcase at Nuyorican Poets Cafe. It would be nice to see it produced in a full production one day.

What do you want the audience to come away with?
I don’t know. It’s a personal play that I didn’t think anyone would care about or matter. I guess there are a lot of people out there who think their childhood – in some way – was embarrassing and doesn’t matter or deserve a place in any canon. Black kids, poor kids, gay kids, white kids who grow up in minority communities as the loser, girls of color. We’re told again and again that there is a set story that will be accepted by the mainstream. And in some ways I bought into that, which is why I was scared of the story, why I thought Liz was lying to me about the reception, why I didn’t want to expand the play. Despite the positive feedback, the belief system was so strong in my head, that I just thought people were being nice. But these characters, these stories were too strong for even my set beliefs and prejudices. It’s truly mystifying how I am self-professed storyteller who resisted his own voice. I didn’t tell the story. The story told me. Instead of defining the narrative, the narrative ended up defining me. Maybe it will do that for some people.

What projects are you working on now?
Getting out of the way and letting the stories define me. I’m a freelance journalist and I’ve been fortunate. In the last year I’ve written for The New Republic, Take Part, and Talking Points Memo, while continuing to review plays. I guest host podcast for news and theatre. On the playwriting end, I just graduated from Juilliard, was a US resident playwright at Royal Court in June for “Mercury Parallel,” had my play “Obama-ology” at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts that same month, finished workshop at the Kennedy Center of “A Family Manual for Kwanzaa” (also a one-act I resisted that finally became a full-length) for the National New Play Network. I have residencies at National Black Theatre and Brooklyn Arts Exchange that are going into their second year. For NBT I finished a rough draft of “Zoohouse” in the spring and that’s a dark dystopia comedy set in an asylum for the Black and criminally insane. For BAX I’m continuing to work on “The Gospel According to F#ggots” which is set in a sex-positive queer terrain of transformational spirituality. Both plays are in verse. Original Works Publishing is releasing “To Whom It May Concern” as a book this fall, and I spent a week this summer re-editing and revising a play I wrote 10 years ago. It felt like I was working on a new play because it had been so long since I’ve looked at the script.

What playwrights have inspired you?
There is the list of people I have never met, the list of people who helped me or taught me in some direct way, and then there are peers I have had class with or worked with in some way. For the first list: Maria Irene Fornes, August Wilson, Dario Fo, Sarah Ruhl, Suzan Lori-Parks. For the list of teachers there is obviously Chris Durang and Marsha Norman at Juilliard who have been great. And there’s Laura Maria Censabella at New School as well as Rebecca Gilman at Northwestern, Rogelio Martinez, Lucy Kirkwood at Royal Court, Michael Weller. As far as peers I would say almost everyone in the Juilliard fellowship and there are too many to name, But these were like the Jedi Knights of playwriting with their own voice and philosophy. You could pluck any one of those writers out and start a theatre company focusing on their work for a whole season. When I was at New School and Actors Studio (when the two were cojoined) I would say Carla Ching and Matthew Paul Olmos. Then at the Kennedy Center there were so many great writers and I really liked Will Snider (from UCSD) Eleana Belyea (National Theatre School of Canada). Elena then introduced me to her classmate, Cliff Cardinal who is a innovative storyteller focusing on First Nation people in Canada I guess the unifying threads running through all these artists are innovators in structure and storytelling with a purpose. I think there are theatre shaman in the world who are just channeling in these stories and voices from another reality. When you look and listen to Chris Durang in a class for two years and then you read his plays, you realize there is something else going on that can’t be explained logically and isn’t connected to the obvious psychological links. We love to do psychology 101 on writers and figure out how their dog dying influenced their great masterpiece and most of that is bullshit. The usual things that really inspire great writers and great works almost comes out sideways from places they don’t even understand, but are receptive enough to know they don’t NEED to understand. They just need to surrender to it.

Why did you start writing plays?
I had to take a playwriting class to finish my creative writing in the media minor at Northwestern. I wrote my first play there, got great feedback from Susan Booth, wrote my second play over the summer and submitted it to a small theatre on the south side of Chicago. They did a staged reading of my play and tape recorded it for me, which was just unbelievable. I’m not very smart when it comes to picking up on certain clues and I didn’t know the artistic director was flirting with me and intriguing on my ‘willingness.’ Can I say that? Well whatever. In my college student mind I just passed it off as ‘eccentric, touchy-feely middle aged man who likes to talk to me.’ I wasn’t shocked or horrified by it. But it’s funny because the first person outside of school who took an interest in my work was trying to sleep with me and I didn’t realize it until he came out and pretty much said that. I guess it’s comedy because nothing happened. If something did, then it would be tragedy. But thanks to that initial ‘enthusiasm’ I kept writing.

What kind of theatre excites you?
It seems like such a cliche to say ‘dangerous’ theatre. Ohhh, scary. Theatre isn’t dangerous. Coal mining is dangerous. Reporting from a war is dangerous. But theatre can be freeing and vulnerable. Theatre can make people storm out in a fury or reduce someone to a sniveling wreck. I am all in favor of that cathartic fury or intestinal unraveling. When “Bootycandy” was at Playwrights Horizon people walked out. I found the play not only hilarious, but observing the temperature of the room wonderful when it exposes odd contradictions. I bet some of these same people will clap and bounce in their seats when Rambo decapitates an entire platoon, but will storm out when someone makes an anal sex joke. I find that hilarious, freeing, vulnerable.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?
Read the book “Drive” by Daniel Pink. He explains the different motivations that drive people and the strongest being intrinsic motivation. This is the innate motivation people have to fix things, solve puzzles, edit Wikipedia, do code for free systems like Linux. This is the “Sherlock Holmes” drive that almost seems to carry the human being along, despite their character defects and flaws. And most things in society are built to destroy that intrinsic drive and reroute us to ‘fear drives’ of external motivations of material comforts or internal drives of accolades and approval amongst our respective tribes. Resist the drought of fear, replenish and rain the intrinsic rivers. You don’t have to build the streams and deltas. They flow naturally. You just have to let it not be walled up and rerouted. Whatever you can do, let that intrinsic river flow. It will lead you to your passions, it will tell you what issues make you “Sherlock Holmes” and want to get in their and figure it out. The things that motivate you might be a social issue, it might be global warming, it might be relationships between rich WASPs in the Hamptons (Lord hammercy!), it might be anything. It might be the things your mind is running from because you think no one will care.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
Read plays, see plays, talk about plays. Read poetry and every year write something that scares you. Get involved in community building, listen to anything you find repugnant and question yourself. Don’t be polite. Stop being polite. Write from a vigorous place of conflict, and not a whimsical need to be thought of as smart or a wordsmith. Stop reacting in Pavlovian outrage over Tweets and status updates. Start being outraged at real injustice. Save your power for things you have a say in and not celebrity beef online. We are more powerful than we know. Meditate, contemplate, go to that quiet place. This is what these stories have taught me.

Aurin Squire is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and reporter. He is a two-time recipient of the 2014 Lecomte du Nouy Prize from Lincoln Center and a recent graduate of The Juilliard School and its Lila Acheson Wallace Playwright Fellowship. In 2014-2015 he has fellowships at The Dramatists Guild of America, National Black Theatre, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and the Royal Court Theatre’s US Writers’ Residency in London. Squire is the winner of the 2014 Act One Writing Prize Lincoln Center Theatre. He graduated with honors from Northwestern University and has been a reporter for the Miami Herald, The New Republic, Talking Points Memo, ESPN, and Brooklyn Rail. Squire’s enjoys long-term collaboration and new challenges. There’s not enough room to include everything, but several of his projects have received multiple development and productions around the world. His comedy “Obama-ology” was developed at Juilliard New Play Festival in September 2014, before receiving a critically acclaimed European premiere at London’s Finborough Theatre in December 2014, and being remounted in May 2015 at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. “To Whom It May Concern,” a dark comedy won LGBT awards for best play and best playwriting at Fresh Fruit Festival before being optioned and remounted off-Broadway at Arclight Theatre. “Freefalling” was first produced at Barrington Stage, earning a Fiat Lux Award with the Catholic Church in New York, was published at Dramatist Play Service, and won the grand prize in InspiraTO Theatre’s International Play Festival in Toronto. Defacing Michael Jackson won Samuel French International Play Contest, was published as a one-act, expanded into a full-length play that was workshopped at Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and earned an Act One Prize from Lincoln Center in 2014. His play “African Americana” started at Brooklyn Arts Exchange before being produced at Theatre 503 in London. In the fields of film and multimedia, Squire adapted the novel ‘Velocity’ into a screenplay for Moxie Pictures, and has served as a writer/producer for numerous web and multimedia projects. Squire wrote “Dreams of Freedom,” the installation video about Jewish immigrants in the 20th century for the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. “Dreams” won 3 national museum awards and is currently in the permanent exhibit at NMAJH. Squire’s plays, movies, and multimedia art has been produced across Europe, the United States, Great Britain, and Canada. His plays have been developed and produced at venues like Ars Nova, Abingdon Theatre, Cherry Lane, Lincoln Center Lab, National Hispanic Cultural Center. He lives in New York City. Welcome Back, Aurin! 

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