Interview with Playwright Samuel D. Hunter

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Photo by John M. Baker

Samuel D. Hunter’s plays include The Whale (Drama Desk Award, Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play, GLAAD Media Award, Drama League and Outer Critics Circle nominations for Best Play), A Bright New Boise (Obie Award, Drama Desk nomination for Best Play), The Few, A Great Wilderness, Rest, Pocatello, Lewiston, Clarkston, and most recently, The Healing and The Harvest. He is the recipient of a 2014 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship, a 2012 Whiting Writers Award, the 2013 Otis Guernsey New Voices Award, the 2011 Sky Cooper Prize, the 2008 PONY/Lark Fellowship, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Idaho. His plays have been produced in New York at Playwrights Horizons, Lincoln Center Theater, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Clubbed Thumb and Page 73, and around the country at such theaters as Seattle Rep, South Coast Rep, Victory Gardens, Williamstown Theater Festival, The Old Globe, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Denver Center Theatre Company, the Dallas Theater Center, Long Wharf Theatre, and elsewhere. His work has been developed at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, the Ojai Playwrights Conference, Seven Devils, and PlayPenn. A published anthology of his work, including The Whale and A Bright New Boise, is available from TCG books. He is a member of New Dramatists, an Ensemble Playwright at Victory Gardens, a member of Partial Comfort Productions, and was a 2013 Resident Playwright at Arena Stage. A native of northern Idaho, Sam lives in NYC. He holds degrees in playwriting from NYU, The Iowa Playwrights Workshop, and Juilliard.

Your plays are typically set in banal, nondescript environments and explore themes such as loneliness and human connection. What other common threads pervade your works, and what questions are you interested in exploring with your playwriting?

I think in the beginning these themes in the plays that you identify here were just things I was struggling with myself, more as a human being than a writer. As a young writer, like a lot of people, I was sort of writing beyond the scope of my abilities—taking on way too much, too many big grand themes, too many formal gymnastics. It wasn’t really until I used my writing to explore ideas I was struggling with in my real life that I finally started to find my voice.

I think the other obvious common theme in all of my plays—though it’s really not much of a theme—is that they’re pretty much all set in Idaho, where I grew up. Early on I started writing plays that were primarily set there, but it wasn’t really a conscious decision. But the sort of happy unintended consequence of that is that now, years later, I think I’ve realized that what I’m doing really isn’t about any one play, it’s about a larger body of work made up of all these plays that connect to one another in certain ways.

Aside from that, I guess I don’t really sit down and detail what questions or themes I want to explore before I begin work on a play. I usually begin with a kernel of something—could be a character, or a single line of dialogue, or a setting, and I try to let the play naturally grow out of that idea rather than begin with a thesis statement.

When did you start writing plays? 

I actually first started writing plays when I was a teenager, which is weird because I didn’t really have much of a context for playwriting growing up in a small town in Idaho. I think I didn’t even know that playwrights still existed. I did a little theater in high school and some community theater, but for a long time the most contemporary play I had encountered was Arsenic and Old Lace. But when I was sixteen or so, I fell in love with poetry, and I found a copy of some Amiri Baraka plays in the stacks at the University of Idaho library while looking for an Allen Ginsberg biography. They absolutely blew my mind—I had no idea that plays could do that kind of thing. And then the next year, I saw part one of Angels in America at the university theater, and it changed me forever. Almost immediately I wrote a play called Sixth Armageddon which was almost three hours long and was really, really terrible. But the local community theater gave me $300 to produce it in the middle of the summer with a group of very gracious local actors, and that was it.

In a weird way, I didn’t start writing plays because I thought I’d be a great playwright, it was because I wanted to be a writer but I wasn’t very good at prose. And something about the messiness of the language of playwriting really appealed to me. It wasn’t about constructing beautiful sentences, it was about pulling together a ton of common, every day, messy lines of dialogue and letting them add up to something beautiful, something that exists outside of the language itself. And I didn’t know it at the time, but the collaborative nature of theater really agrees with me—it becomes about something bigger than me, it’s about an entire community of artists coming together to tell a story.

You recently won the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. Has your writing process changed since you won this award? 

I don’t know if it’s changed my process really, but it has definitely changed my outlook. Before I felt like I was running a race and struggling to keep up, worried that at any moment I could trip and fall and that would be that. I don’t know exactly why I felt that way, it was probably rooted in my own anxiety more than anything else. But something about the length of the fellowship—five years—gave me this outlook that seemed so much larger. As a freelance artist, sometimes it’s hard to know what’s going to happen in three months let alone a year, so to have this kind of stability for this length of time really changed how I look at my future. Maybe because for the first time I’ve realized I actually have a future! Also, it gave me the time and space to realize that I don’t have to base everything in my life around my career—and how important it is for me to have a life apart from my writing.

What kind of theatre excites you?

It’s hard for me to pin it down because some of my favorite plays are so wildly different from one another. I think if there’s one thing that consistently excites me, it’s when I feel like the playwright is invisible. So often when I’m watching a play and I get bored, it’s because I see the playwright at work. I hear the jokes as written, I see the scene construction, I understand the plot as just that, a plot. It becomes an experience about the artistic ego of the writer, not the play itself. But when I’m truly sucked into a play, I forget about the artifice of theater and am totally immersed in the world, the surprise, the catharsis. And it’s hard to pin down exactly why that happens with some plays and not with others. It’s something to do with honesty—when a playwright is truly honest about what their writing, meeting their characters on their own terms instead of muscling them into saying the thing you want them to say. When you feel a writer engaging with the material in that honest, open way, it no longer feels like a just piece of writing, it feels larger than that. And that can take any form, from the most wildly experimental play to kitchen sink realism.

You received a BFA from NYU, an MFA from the University of Iowa, and an Artists Diploma from Julliard’s playwrights program. How has your education influenced your writing?

When it’s all listed out like that I feel so embarrassed. How long does it take a person to learn how to write a play?!

I think it all had a deep influence on me, but I also don’t really think that there was a particular class or methodology or even teacher that had a singular, profound effect on my writing. There have been a lot of people along the way that have really shaped the way I think about plays—while I was in Iowa, Sherry Kramer taught for a semester and really showed me how plays can be organized in ways other than plot, how structure can exist within image, theme, language, metaphor, etc. And when I was at Juilliard, Marsha Norman really reminded me of the responsibility that I have a writer to my audience—at the time I think my plays had gotten a little self-consciously strange and inaccessible, and she brought me back down to earth. But at the end of the day, I don’t really think I sort of grew into myself as a writer until I was a few years out of school, which is sort of sad given that I spent nine consecutive years as a playwriting student.

What playwrights inspire you?

There are so many! I do think, though, that I’m most inspired by the playwrights I came up with. Eight or so years ago, I was in the Ars Nova Playgroup with all of these incredible writers—Amy Herzog, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Annie Baker, Janine Nabers, Bekah Brunstetter, Zayd Dohrn, Kris Diaz, I’m sure I’m leaving some out. It was such an amazing group, and to see how we’ve all found our paths in this very strange, difficult field has been incredibly inspiring.

I think in general I’ve always been really inspired by writers who have this almost workman-like approach to playwriting—they continued to write and produce even if they fell out of favor with critics or audiences. They just kept hammering away, and now they’ve left behind these incredible bodies of work. It’s like Bach writing music every week for the church service—he wasn’t precious about it, he just worked and worked and worked.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

I actually really struggle with this, in the same way that I struggle when I’m asked to teach playwriting. Because the fact is, often times the best work is made in the least orthodox ways. But if there’s one concrete bit of advice I can give that I’m pretty certain I can stand behind: write ten full-length plays. And more than write them, really work on them. Suffer through readings and talkbacks that make you want to crawl into a hole and die. Get used to being the one person in your writing group who is always met with awkward silence after your pages are shared. Prepare for your first major review to be very mean. Expect early collaborators of yours to leave you behind because they perceive you to be dead weight. All of these things happened to me, and some version of them will likely happen to you. But keep going, write those ten plays, because in all likelihood those first ten plays won’t be all that great, but the eleventh might be doing something interesting. (And yes, I’m speaking from experience. In all honesty, it took me way more than ten plays.)

 

Interview with Playwright Ken Jaworoski

img_2860We interviewed Ken Jaworoski, the third playwright to be published in the upcoming fifth issue of Proscenium, about his new play “Pulse.”

Ken Jaworowski is an editor and critic for The New York Times. His plays “Never Missed a Day,” “Certain Souls” and “Believers” have been produced by the WorkShop Theater Company in Manhattan and elsewhere, and his full-length play “Interchange” has been published by Broadway Play Publishing. His collection of short plays, “Acts of Redemption,” was produced at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Can you tell us about the process of writing your new play, Pulse?

I never seem to have a plan when writing a play. I just find a story and follow it. Two of the plots in “Pulse” had real-life inspirations. One was when a neighbor told me his son was being bullied in school, and wondered aloud if he should teach the boy to fight, i.e., if violence could be the answer. Perhaps it could, perhaps it couldn’t, I didn’t know. So I started on that story to consider what might happen.

Separately, one night at a party a gay friend told me about his coming out, when he was 16 or so. He’d confessed to his parents, and the next day they’d ordered him to leave their house. This horrified me, and I began to think of my own family, which, when I was growing up, was quite conservative. If I had been gay, how would they have reacted? I followed that question and started to write. Later, I added a third piece, and together they became “Pulse.”

What do you want the audience to come away with?

I hope to tell a good story. If I can do that, and give the actors something interesting to work with, my job is done. Some writers secure a theme or a moral, then work backward. I’m the opposite – if I can tell an interesting tale, everything else is secondary. I’d like to foster a big idea, sure. But first and foremost, I’d love for the audience to be wrapped up in the plot, and to get a few laughs out of the deal.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and why you started writing plays?

As a kid I’d write my own short stories, and later, in graduate school, I was told I could submit a creative thesis rather than a research paper. I figured, I’ll write a play. I’m pretty sure that play was terrible – I don’t have the guts to go back and read it! – but it was fun enough to write, so I said, I’m going to try that again. I did, and that next play was produced by the Gallery Theater in Brooklyn. Off I went.

In addition to being a playwright, you are also an editor and theater critic for The New York Times. How does your work as a critic influence your playwriting?

I see a lot of theater. For the past 15 or so years I’ve seen as many as 50 shows a year. The range of shows runs from the banal to the brilliant. The bad ones have me grumbling, ‘My god, I can write better than that!’ The great ones have me thinking, ‘Oh, I wish I could write half as good as that.’

What inspires you?

I’ve had enough of books and plays about upper middle-class people with petty and easy-to-solve problems. I’m inspired by flawed people who have few resources, yet still strive to find dignity and beauty and wonder in their days.

What kind of theatre excites you?

Sorry to beat the same drum again, but I love great stories and monologues. Conor McPherson can put a person onstage, recounting a minor incident in his life, and I’ll feel like the world has shifted. Also, plays like ‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’ and ‘’Night, Mother’ break my heart, no matter how many times I read or see them.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

Everyone seems to give the same advice (‘Write what you know!’ ‘Work hard!’) so I’ll go against the grain and say: See some bad or problematic theater. Think ‘I can write better than that,’ and then go, and write better than that. Also, if you’re working at a job you hate or are stuck in a situation that upsets you, congratulations – you’ve just found the best topic for your next play. David Mamet wrote ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ after some very unfortunate job choices. And Eugene O’Neill’s real-life tragedies fueled his genius.

Lastly, there are no unbreakable rules in theater, but there is one rock-solid guideline: Remember your audience.

What projects are you working on now?

We’re working on getting my new full-length play, ‘The Patron Saints,’ onstage soon at the WorkShop Theater in Manhattan.

A Conversation with Playwright C.S. Whitcomb

imagesC.S. Whitcomb discusses her new play, “Stoker,” which will be published in the upcoming issue of Proscenium Journal. Audiences adored “Stoker” (previously titled “Dracula’s Father”) in Proscenium Live 2016, and we are so excited to be publishing it in the fifth issue of Proscenium!

C. S. Whitcomb has had thirty full-length scripts produced for primetime national television. She has been nominated for the Emmy, W.G.A., Humanitas, Oregon Book Award, Drammy and Edgar Allan Poe Awards. Her works include Buffalo Girls (miniseries, starring Anjelica Huston, nominated for 11 Emmys.)  I Know My First Name is Stephen (for which she was Emmy nominated.) Mark Twain and Me starring Jason Robards (Emmy, Best Children’s Program.) Whitcomb has created roles for Martin Sheen, Ellen Burstyn, Kevin Spacey, Liev Schreiber,  Linda Lavin, Sam Elliott, Brendan Fraser, and Gena Rowlands. Her 16 plays include Lear’s Follies, The Seven Wonders of Ballyknock and Holidazed (the latter with Marc Acito.)  Her website is cynthiawhitcomb.com

I was born theatre crazy.  I loved plays before

I’d ever seen one.  I was making plays with my cousins summers and Sundays and doing plays at school from third grade on.

I had seen Henry Irving’s statue in London and had heard about Ellen Terry for decades, but I didn’t realize that Bram Stoker was Irving’s assistant theatre manager until my friend, actor Don Stewart Burns told me about a year ago.  My instant reaction was, “There’s a play there.”  I write plays full time for the last ten years, so I know a good idea for a play doesn’t come along all that often.  I am always grateful and excited when it happens.

In April I emailed Michael Mendelson, the co-founder of Portland Shakespeare Project, some pictures of Irving, Terry and Stoker and told him I was planning to write a play about them.  He said he was intrigued and would like to read the play when it was written.

Every April I take a group of 20 or so writers on a Trans-Atlantic cruise where I teach in the mornings, we write all afternoon, and then after dinner, we read aloud in the evenings.  This past spring those 22 writers got to hear the play “Stoker” on the installment plan over those 3 weeks as I wrote it.  The draft I brought home at the end of the trip was 82 pages.  I expanded it to 100 pages over the next weeks and of course, sent it off to Michael Mendelson.  In collaboration with Steve Rathje and Karen Rathje, they invited me to have the play read at the 2016 Proscenium Live New Play Festival in August.

Since I know local actors, I had written all the roles with specific actors in mind.  I heard their voices.  Saw their performances in my imagination.  Of the five roles, I got four of the actors I had hoped for. And four out of five of the actors were Equity.  And all five were fantastic.  Perfect.

I have had quite a few of my plays read for audiences, but this one was the strongest positive reaction I’ve had for a first read.  People were engaged by the true story.  I hope that many of them went home and Googled these people.  It was an exhilarating night.  I have made a few small changes, but this is almost entirely the same play that was read at Artists’ Repertory Theatre on August 18, 2016.

I had a play produced Off Broadway when I was young.  It closed in one night and I was devastated by that.  I went back to California and spent the next years writing television and raising children.  In 2007 I switched back to writing plays full time.

Some of the skills from screenwriting translate to the stage.  How to write a scene actors can dig into.  How to write dialogue.  Develop character and story, structure and subplots for example.  But some things are completely different.  A film shows a story unfolding.  In a play, the challenge is keeping the secrets as long as possible before the underlying truths are revealed to the audience.

I taught myself how to write plays primarily by going to plays and reading plays.  I started with one a day in 2007.  I am not quite keeping up that pace now, but I am nearly to 1,500 plays.  I recommend this method.   It’s possible to learn to write good plays without fully understanding how that’s done.  You can do it intuitively.  I do.  I hope you enjoy “Stoker.” I loved creating it.

Interview with Playwright Simon Fill

headshot-simon-fillWe interviewed Simon Fill, the first playwright to be published in the fifth issue of Proscenium Journal. We are thrilled to be publishing Simon Fill’s play Burning Cities after his play Night Visits was featured in the fourth issue of Proscenium Journal and produced in Proscenium Live 2016.

Simon Fill’s “Night Visits” won the Heideman Award from Actors Theatre of Louisville, where the play premiered in the Wintermezzo Festival. “Night Visits” received its New York premiere at HERE Arts Center, produced by Circle East Theatre Company. Simon was originally a member of the Playwrights Project, a small group of young playwrights nurtured by Circle Repertory Theatre. His plays have been produced in New York City, regionally, and internationally. “The Gift” was recently published by Vintage Books in the anthology Plays For Two. He was an A.S.K. American exchange playwright at the Royal Court Theatre, and his full-length play Post Punk Life received a month-long developmental production by Lincoln Center Theatre Directors Lab.

Simon was awarded a playwriting residency and fellowship by Yaddo, where he began his full-length play Burning Cities. Burning Cities won an international competition, the BETC Generations Award, and Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC) workshopped the play at the Denver Center.  Burning Cities was just named a Panndora’s Box winner and will receive a staged reading at the Tenth Anniversary Panndora’s Box Festival of New Works, produced by Panndora Theatre Company at the Garage Theatre in Long Beach, CA.

Simon has an MFA in Theatre from Sarah Lawrence, and taught playwriting Off-Broadway for years at the Women’s Project Theater, then at The New American Theatre School and the Boulder International Fringe Festival. He is a new member of the PlayGround Writers Pool, a playwright member of Circle East Theatre Company, and a member of the Dramatists Guild.

What was your inspiration for the play?

I began writing Burning Cities during a residency at Yaddo, and it took a little while for me to realize what inspired the play: grappling in my own life with what defines a meaningful family, how we create one, what risks are inherent in that, and how we cope with the deepest kind of loss and find a way to go on.

An audience member at the Generations Award staged reading of the play by Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company pressed me to go further back in my inspiration. I recalled how I’d been a volunteer bringing around a book cart to patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Book cart volunteers were really there to give patients someone to talk with. One day a young woman with cancer came to my cart and was effusive about the joy and excitement of reading Dick Francis mysteries. She couldn’t get enough of them. I still remember her face as she spoke. She was incredibly present. Perhaps that memory influenced the character of Elise.

What do you want the audience to come away with?

The feeling they’ve seen something honest, unsentimental, and authentic. Something that shows the world as it is, or at it could be. Of course this doesn’t necessarily tie a play to realism.

I want a play to entertain, too, to make people laugh, to move them. And there’s a deeper idea explored in each play. In Burning Cities it’s family: the faith required to create one, how family isn’t necessarily biological but a deeper bond, the courage needed to nurture this bond through good times and bad. The character of Elise, her honesty and hope, how she changes the lives of the disparate adults who adopt her, her notion of family, what she sees moment to moment—I want the audience to come away with that.

What projects are you working on now?

My agent Susan Schulman and I are beginning to market Burning Cities, which won  the BETC Generations Award, was workshopped by Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC) at the Denver Center, with a staged reading in Chautauqua, and is ready for its world premiere. The workshop with BETC was enormously helpful in developing the play. I cannot praise enough Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (including the director Stephen Weitz and the dramaturg Heather Beasley) and the actors Luke Sorge, Damon Guerrasio, Heather Nicolson Hughes, and Kate Poling. Their public staged reading of Burning Cities received a tremendous, wonderful audience response—it couldn’t have been better. I sat in the last row studying the reactions of the large audience at every moment of the staged reading, and afterwards I did a half hour audience talkback along with director Stephen Weitz, who is also the Producing Ensemble Director of BETC. I’ll always be grateful to BETC. It was a privilege to see the play come to life.

Burning Cities was just named a Panndora’s Box winner and will be given a staged reading by Panndora Productions Theatre Company in the Panndora’s Box 10th Annual New Works Festival. The play will open the festival at 8 PM on Friday, November 4, at the Garage Theatre in Long Beach, California. I’m excited about that.

I’m writing the third draft of another full-length, “Visitations,” which not long ago had an illuminating reading with terrific actors. Experienced actors can be so giving, and are essential to the development process of my plays.

And I recently finished a one-act, “One Good Day,” begun after a recent move to the Bay Area. Again, a couple of terrific actors in a reading—and my spouse, who is encouraging yet unstintingly honest—helped  me see what needed revision.

What playwrights inspire you?

Those who take risks, show artistic and emotional courage, playwrights who push the art form forward, like Caryl Churchill, Tony Kushner, Martin Crimp, Sarah Ruhl, Will Eno. Among earlier playwrights, Williams, Beckett, O’Neill, Chekhov. The list could go on and on.

Why did you start writing plays?

I began writing as a poet, while an undergraduate at Cornell University, studying with wonderful poets there, who taught me a great deal. Then I wrote a novel. When I went to Sarah Lawrence for graduate school in fiction writing, I was required to take two electives and chose playwriting and theatre directing. Those electives changed my life. I realized I had the ability to write dialogue, as well as, from being a poet, heightened language. I could hear characters speaking as I wrote, and I came to understand my storytelling has a dramatic sensibility. I switched in my second semester to a Master of Fine Arts in Theatre, with an emphasis in Playwriting and Directing.

What kind of theatre excites you?

Theatre that is honest, unsentimental, and breaks new ground. All great plays do this, and a part of it is the playwright’s original voice. A directing teacher from graduate school, Paul Austin, told me any groundbreaking play will get mixed reviews initially. This is true for plays as different at The Glass Menagerie, Waiting for Godot, and Plenty.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

Write, write, write. Be honest in your writing. Knock out any sentimentality from it. Sentimentality runs both ways: dishonestly happy or dishonestly bleak. Listen to how different people talk. Read and reread Kenneth Thorpe Rowe’s book, Write That Play, and devour Aristotle’s Poetics. Break or bend dramatic principles only for good reason, and after you know how to use them. Kenneth Thorpe Rowe taught Arthur Miller and Milan Stitt, among others.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

In Eugene O’Neill’s time his plays were national bestsellers. I believe good plays deserve to be widely read as well as produced. Thank you, Proscenium Journal, for continuing this tradition.

Interview with Playwright Sarah Ruhl

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Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Sarah Ruhl’s plays include Scenes from Court Life, For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday, The Oldest Boy, In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, The Clean House, Eurydice, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, A Melancholy Play, OrlandoLate: a cowboy songDear Elizabeth and Stage Kiss.  She is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and a Tony Award nominee. Her plays have been produced on Broadway at the Lyceum by Lincoln Center Theater, off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, Second Stage, and at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater. Her plays have been produced regionally all over the country and have also been produced internationally, and translated into over twelve languages. Ms. Ruhl received her M.F.A. from Brown University where she studied with Paula Vogel. She has received the Susan Smith Blackburn award, the Whiting award, the Lily Award, a PEN award for mid-career playwrights, and the MacArthur “genius” award. Her book of essays 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write was published by Faber and Faber last fall. She teaches at the Yale School of Drama and lives in Brooklyn with her family.

Your dialogue often reads like poetry, filled with poetic lines breaks and metaphors. How did you develop your unique writing style? 

I started out as a poet, became a playwright, and kept going. I think playwriting contains all other genres, including poetry, the essay (or argument), story, song… And it’s one thing that draws me to the form again and again — the way it folds all the other genres in.

Your subject matter is bold, wild, and eclectic, blending fantasy and realism. What draws you to the subjects you write about? 

It’s a little mysterious. Sometimes an image, sometimes an idea, sometimes a feeling I can’t seem to excise.

While your plays explore heavy topics, they are also very comedic, with a whimsical sense of humor that explores the absurdity of life. What role does comedy play in your works? 

I can’t separate comedy and tragedy. I think they are as mutually dependent as the muscle and the bone in terms of getting a leg or a play to move.

Your latest play, “Scenes From Court Life, or the Whipping Boy and His Prince,” will premiere on September 30th at Yale Repertory Theatre. Can you tell us about the process of writing this play? 

It was a wonderfully insane process. It was based on the joint stock model that Caryl Churchill used for plays like Cloud Nine. Mark Wing-Davey, the director, used that model with Caryl in England and now he uses it at NYU. He invites writers to write plays for specific ensembles, and the actors help do the research. In this case, I asked the group to research American political dynasties, sibling rivalry, and whipping boys.

Your plays explore several ideas from earlier times. You have said your plays are “pre-Freudian,” and they explore ideas like melancholia and the humours (“A Melancholy Play”), Victorian hysteria (“In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)”), or Greek Mythology (“Eurydice”). What draws you to these themes? 

I think looking back can help us frame our own historical moment, can help us see what is staring us in the face.

Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel was your playwriting teacher when you attended Brown, and you have continued to have a relationship with Vogel long after your time at Brown. How have teachers like Vogel influenced you? 

Paula quite simply made me a playwright.

You are a teacher of playwriting and theatre and Yale. How has your teaching influenced your writing? 

Teaching has made me, I hope, more forgiving. I don’t know if that quality has made its way into my writing. I think teaching also makes one more objective in the sense that Chekhov speaks about. Chekhov said he began to write more objectively after he did his medical training. I think teaching is similar. I think the word objective can be misconstrued—what I mean is a quality of observation that is more sympathetic and less solipsistic.

What inspires you? 

People who are both humble and brazen. Kindness. Rain. My family.

What kind of theatre excites you?

Theater that surprises me. The most surprising play I’ve seen in the last couple of years was An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Theater that moves me—like Julia Cho’s Aubergine, or Lisa Kron’s Fun Home. And Hamilton surprises me and moves me on a cellular level.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

Read more, walk more, love more.

Would you like to share any projects you are working on now, besides “Scenes From Court Life, or the Whipping Boy and His Prince?”

I’m also working on a musical with Elvis Costello and a new play called How to Transcend a Happy Marriage.

 

 

Interview with playwright Christopher Shinn

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Photo by Maria Baranova.

Christopher Shinn’s plays include Where Do We Live (2005 Obie Award for Playwriting), Dying City (2008 Pulitzer Prize Finalist), An Opening in Time (Hartford Stage), Teddy Ferrara (Goodman Theatre), Picked (Vineyard Theatre), Now or Later (Royal Court), and Four (Royal Court). His plays have also been produced by the Donmar Warehouse, Lincoln Center Theater, Playwrights Horizons, Roundabout Theatre, South Coast Rep, and Manhattan Theatre Club. He is a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship in Playwriting and teaches at the New School for Drama.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and why you started writing plays? 

My mother grew up deprived of culture, and so exposed me to culture from an early age. I loved acting and writing and when I was old enough to understand that the two disciplines in a way come together in playwriting, I started writing plays.

Your first professionally produced play, Four, premiered at the Royal Court Theatre, and many of your plays have premiered  in London before being produced in the United States. What is different about having a play produced in the United States and having one produced in London? 

The biggest difference is the audience. Audiences in London are younger and the energy in the auditorium is much more alive. 

Your plays deal with issues of class, power, sexuality, war, and human psychology, among other things. What draws you to the subjects you write about? 

I’m interested in reality — in what actually happens — and in understanding reality, analyzing it. To do that you need to have lots of ways of looking at it. My plays reflect my general interests, and are informed (but not determined) by the disciplines I’ve studied to try to get a deeper understanding of why things happen as they do.

You teach playwriting at the New School of Drama. How does your work as professor influence your work as a playwright? 

A great thing about being a teacher is that you are forced to articulate what you believe. In doing so you learn the flaws and limitations in your thinking, spurring you to further thought. Also, it is wonderful to be around younger people who have grown up in a somewhat different world. They also challenge me to refine my thinking. But the best thing about being a teacher is how good it feels to help people grow. 

You are a fan a psychoanalysis, and many of your plays are deep explorations of the human psyche. What draws you to psychoanalysis, and how does this interest show up in your works? 

Psychoanalysis is the attempt to understand what is going on at the level of psychic reality. What creates our dreams and why? What do our fantasies mean? How do these deeper layers of our minds inform our actions in everyday life? Psychic reality is in some ways still culturally taboo, yet it is present in almost all great drama from the Greeks onwards. We persist in refusing to come to terms with who we truly are, but at the same time there is a deep desire to know. Art and psychoanalysis at their best offer us the possibility of knowledge, and confrontation too with our inability to fully know ourselves, and the dangers and temptations of believing we can.  

What inspires you? 

I’m inspired by getting to know people, hearing about how they think and feel, learning about their histories and desires. And I’m inspired by great minds who are traveling to unexplored territory in an attempt to further fill out our understanding of reality. Essentially I am inspired by intimacy — sharing, openness, and risk. 

What kind of theatre excites you?

I like theatre that communicates something absolutely unique and honest, and isn’t trying to control or manipulate. Theatre that is unrepressed, generous, and clear.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

To be a playwright, one should write plays, read great literature, study deep thinkers from before our current era, go to psychotherapy, and most importantly, cultivate the skills required for genuine intimacy. 

What projects are you working on now? 

I have various projects at different stages of completion and hope there will be some firm news by the end of the year about at least some of them!

Interview with Playwright Yussef El Guindi

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Ann-Margaret Johnson/Sassafras Photos.

Yussef‘s play “Threesome” was recently produced at Portland Center Stage, ACT, and Off-Broadway with 59E59. His new play, “The Talented Ones,” was recently commissioned by Artists Repertory Theatre’s Table|Room|Stage Project and will premiere during Artists Rep’s 2016/2017 Season. Yussef‘s other productions include “The Ramayana” (co-adaptor with Stephanie Timm) at ACT; “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World” (winner of the Steinberg/American Theater Critics Association’s New Play Award in 2012; Gregory Award 2011; Seattle Times’ “Footlight Award” for Best World Premiere Play, 2011) also at ACT, and at Center Repertory Company (Walnut Creek, CA) 2013; and Language Rooms (Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award, as well as ACT’s New Play Award), co-produced by Golden Thread Productions and the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco. His plays, “Back of the Throat” (winner of L.A. Weekly’s Excellence in Playwriting Award for 2006), as well as “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World”, “Jihad Jones and The Kalashnikov Babes”, “Such a Beautiful Voice is Sayeda’s” and “Karima’s City,” have been published by Dramatists Play Service. The latter one-acts have also been included in The Best American Short Plays: 2004-2005, published by Applause Books. “Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith” (winner of Chicago’s “After Dark/John W. Schmid Award” for Best New Play in 2006) is included in “Salaam/ Peace: An Anthology of Middle-Eastern American Playwrights,” published by TCG, 2009. “Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat” is included in the anthology “Four Arab American Plays” published by McFarland Books. “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World” was included in the September, 2012 issue of American Theatre Magazine. And “Language Rooms” was published in Rain City Projects’ anthology Manifesto Series Volume 3. Yussef is the recipient of the 2010 Middle East America Distinguished Playwright Award. He holds an MFA from Carnegie-Mellon University and was playwright-in-residence at Duke University.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and why you started writing plays? 

Quick edits of my life so far: born in Egypt, raised in London, college/university in Paris and Cairo, graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon University, stints at a couple of theaters in San Francisco (the Magic and Eureka), playwright-in-residence at Duke University, currently a playwright residing in Seattle.

Originally, I wanted to be an actor. I got hooked at 15 when someone dropped out of a school play and I was asked (being well known as a ham in class) if I wanted to step in. I did. Loved it. Wanted to be an actor from then on, much to the consternation of my parents (even though my mother’s family had worked in the theater). In fact, I didn’t really stop thinking of myself as an actor first and a writer second until late in my 30’s. But eventually — for whatever reason — I suddenly became too self-conscious to lose myself in a role. I became too much the observer of my own character’s actions, and of what was happening on stage around me. The joy of entering a world via the nerve-ends of one particular character evaporated, and the pleasures found in creating a world and characters from scratch took its place.

I should add that in conjunction with acting, my other passion was literature. My undergraduate degree was in “English and Comparative Literature.” I wrote poetry. I tried my hand at a couple of plays. I ended up studying playwriting when I couldn’t get into the acting schools I’d applied for. I taught playwriting at Duke University. So while I still thought of myself as an actor, the writing thing was always there. And when the acting bug finally left me, I started to think of myself, finally (at the ripe old age of 40), as a playwright.

That’s when my writing adventures really started to take off.

Your play Threesome received an Off-Broadway Production with 59E59 Theaters and a production at Seattle’s ACT Theatre after premiering at Portland Center Stage. Can you tell us more about your journey with this play?

The play, begun as a response to the Arab Spring, received a workshop at JAW at Portland Center Stage. I had a wonderful bunch of actors and a very skilled director who helped me thrash the piece into something resembling a play… A first workshop of a brand new play is always a mild shock. You’ve been holed up alone with these characters for months. Just you and their drama. Suddenly you have a whole team of actors and a director cramming into this imagined world of yours. It is a very odd sensation. Almost like you’re a bride and groom meeting for the very first time on your wedding day. And here you are finally alone together in the bedroom. It’s something you want to have happen but now you feel totally vulnerable and exposed. It’s rare where I don’t feel slightly humiliated after a first read through. Not always, but often. For me that is usually because I have overwritten the play (which I give myself permission to do in a first draft). And because it is overwritten the play feels interminable. A play really lives in the rhythm and pacing of its dramatic arc (set-up, delivery, punch-lines, beats: all that stuff), and it’s rare that I’ve nailed the correct pacing in a first draft. I first have to hear the play before I know for sure where I need to cut.

JAW helped me get a better idea of that pacing issue and — with this play especially — with the play’s unique tonal shifts. Meetings with the director, Chris Coleman, and subsequent rehearsals for the production, further clarified and helped me get to the play’s internal rhythms/ pacing.

Your play The Talented Ones was commissioned by Artists Repertory Theatre as part of its Table|Room|Stage Project, and will receive its World Premiere this season at Artists Repertory Theatre. Can you tell us about the process of developing this play?

The play began, as often my plays will, with a character’s simple declaration about something. As it so happened, that declaration turned out to be the play’s primary engine and overall thematic thrust. I’ve always found it strange how an innocuous comment or exchange between characters (whom I don’t yet fully know) will light up my imagination and drive a play to completion, whereas well-thought-out plots with theatrical potential may simply not register with whatever part of me (the unconscious, I guess) from which my plays emerge. It’s rather frustrating that the engineer in me that can structure a play can’t move forward unless the unconscious swamp is also engaged. Which is to say, I have to feel the nerve-ends of my characters before I know what they’re doing there, what they want, and how they’ll act.

The other thing about The Talented Ones: I had previously gone through a 2-year phase where I had been writing what I hoped were crowd-pleasing comedies. None of which went anywhere. A dangerous thing to do: pander to what you think an audience might like. Then, starting with Threesome, and especially with The Talented Ones, I decided to go all out and write at the “top of my lungs” so to speak, and not care how the play might come across. Which is ideally how one should always write: honestly, and without worrying how a play might be received. At least in the first draft. Once you have the heart and soul of a play down on paper (hopefully), then you can start working on the craft elements.

The play was developed at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s “Launch Pad” program, run by Risa Brainin, where it received a workshop production. Under her wonderful direction I managed to hack away at a lot of the verbiage and settle on a decent structure. Then Luan Schooler and Damaso Rodriguez at Artist Repertory Theatre approached me and asked if I was working on a new play. I mentioned I was still trying to further develop and find a home for this new, weird play. They read it, liked it, brought me and the play on board and, with the additional help and guidance of Jane Unger, they helped me further develop and refine the play. Now, hopefully, I’m within shouting distance of presenting a stageable play.

Your body of work frequently touches upon ideas about the immigrant experience and the American Dream. What do these themes mean to you, and how do you incorporate them in your plays?

I left Egypt when I was three. So the immigrant experience is part of the gristle of who I am. Even when I returned to Egypt for my undergraduate degree, I returned an immigrant — if not quite foreign, somewhat removed now, and not quite plugged in. When I continued on to America, I continued that immigrant journey. So that odyssey of the traveler, of someone who comes in from the outside to try and make a new home in a foreign place is central to my identity. It’s not something I even think about when I write, it just sort of comes pouring out.

Then again, given the unanchored patterns of most people’s lives, where people rarely stay in one place but travel to multiple places for work, the immigrant experience is one shared by many. Including native born Americans who may travel from state to state in search of employment. (Doesn’t the surprise come when we find someone born, raised and continues to live in one place?)

Regarding the American Dream: the ideals it represents, in spite of its fraught history, is very seductive for someone in search of not just a physical home, but a soul home that one can embrace and identify with. We are nothing if not social creatures trying to find our tribes. I felt extraordinarily deracinated and adrift most of my life. Coming to a country that was built, and continues to be built on the backs of immigrants — that says it welcomes such outsiders (again, lots of qualifiers and fraught history one could interject here, but) — was a great salve to that part of me that wanted to feel like I belonged somewhere. The American Dream is also about reinventing yourself, however you choose to do that. There’s some risk to doing that, of course. You may end up losing those connections to your past that make you who you are and, in the process, you may end up feeling even more alienated and adrift then you felt before — especially if your attempt at reinvention fails. But it is also very liberating. It’s a rush to feel you can start again, turn the page, face new challenges and go for something better. No shackles yet. Just a bunch of possibilities.At least theoretically/ideally. There’s of course no real getting away from the history that led you to the moment where you can now start again. The actions that define you remain the actions that define you. Plus, things will happen (news events out of your control) that can superimpose an identity on you. While you’re busy trying to reinvent yourself, others may have already defined you (“Arab” “Muslim, “person-of-color”). For better, or worse (especially when those labels are turned into negatives).

Again, as with the immigrant experience, I do feel this experience is shared by many. A lot of us (most of us?) are engaged in the push-and-pull of self-realization in an environment that is sometimes hostile to that attempt.

These, and related concerns find their way into my plays, includingThe Talented Ones.

Many of your plays are very comedic, while at the same time touching on dark subjects. What role does comedy play in your writing?

I think comedy is often a defense to manage hostility/ instability, and find shelter when you feel exposed and vulnerable. It’s a means to defuse danger, to let the air out of a tense moment, or, in plays, to lighten a scene that might otherwise feel unbearable. It’s also a weapon that helps you cope with that instability and hostility. You may not have the muscle, but perhaps you have the wit to fight back.

Comedy is also a way to get people on your side if you feel outnumbered. It lets people know you’re not a threat while at the same time empowering you. It lowers people’s defenses and becomes a soft way to skewer the people who you may feel are pushing you up against a wall.

Comedy shows up in my plays because something is usually terribly wrong. It shows up precisely because the situation may not be a laughing matter at all.

What inspires you?

I wish I knew. I have no idea what triggers a play. It could be an overheard snippet of conversation I hear on a bus or in a restaurant; or some innocuous line that pops into my head from a yet-unknown character in a vaguely sensed situation. I do know that if the play comes to me with all its issues sorted out then what’s the point of writing it? A play for me has to be an investigation of sorts. An exploration of a territory I sort of know in my bones but have yet to identify. And that might even remain somewhat of a mystery by the end of it. Yes, the play sort of needs to address the issues it raises and — regardless of your view of what constitutes a well structured play —  you do have to be aware of the dramatic arc you’re creating and craft that in a satisfactory way. Even Becket dealt with dramatic arcs. But the unknown part of writing, that thing which prompts me to want to find out more, that might well remain a mystery by the end of the piece. But then that might also become the trigger for the next play.

What kind of theatre excites you?

All kinds. Plays that present a good argument/ moral dilemma (Bernard Shaw). Or a theatrical spectacle (Robert Wilson). Or both (Tom Stoppard). Sometimes I like quite, lyrical pieces (Horton Foote); other times something a little more brash (Joe Orton). Many different plays, playwrights and styles.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

It’s the standard advice: keep practicing your craft. Then gather friends and listen to what you’ve written. Or submit plays to workshops. You need to hear what’s working and what’s not. Then rewrite. I can’t say writing has gotten easier over the years. It hasn’t. But what I’ve learned is not to panic when I don’t know how to move forward. You may need to step away for a day or two; or weeks, even months, before you get the new perspective you need to carry on with the play. That’s why I always try to have at least a couple of projects going.

The other thing I’d say: instinct is learned with practice. It took me a long time to trust my instincts. People will give you advice with the best of intentions. Your collaborators do want to help you, but they may inadvertently misidentify a problem and lead you to undermine your play. The advice must organically make sense to you before you make the changes. If it doesn’t make sense to you, wait. The merits of that advice may make sense later, or it may not. But don’t let yourself be browbeaten into making changes you’re not yet sure of.

Also, beware of audience feedback sessions. For the reasons outlined above.

Proscenium Live 2016

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All photos by David Kinder. 

Supported by a generous grant awarded by the Donald A. Strauss Foundation, Proscenium Journal partnered with Portland Shakespeare Project to hold the second annual Proscenium Live Festival of New Works. This four-night, free festival featured staged readings of six new plays by playwrights Amy Freed, Ellen Margolis, C.S. Whitcomb, Wei He, and Simon Fill, performed by 20 local actors. Over 600 people attended this festival, and several participated in post-show discussions with the playwrights, which were held after every performance.

Performances: 

Day One, August 18Dracula’s Father by C.S. Whitcomb

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Day Two, August 19: An Evening of New One-Acts
Feauturing Shrew! by Amy Freed, Night Visits by Simon Fill, and My Birthday 

Shrew! by Amy Freed
Directed by Michael Mendelson

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Night Visits by Simon Fill
Directed by Adrienne Flagg

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My Birthday Party by Wei He
Directed by Addriene Flagg

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Day Three, August 20Them That Are Perfect by Amy Freed
Directed by Jon Kretzu**

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Day Four, August 21
Pericles Wet by Ellen Margolis
Directed by Matthew Zrebski

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Cast:
Tobias Anderson*
Orion J. Bradshaw*
Joe Costa*
Robert Hamm*
Gavin Hoffman*
Chris Karczmar*
Michael Mendelson*
Ben Newman*
Ariel Puls*
Amanda Soden*
Ryan Tresser*
Lolly Ward*
Danielle Weathers*
Don Burns
Shannon Mastel
Lucy Paschall
Rebecca James Ridenour
Helena Fisher-Welsh
Crystal Ann Muñoz

*Member of Actors’ Equity Association

**Member, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society

Interview with playwright Simon Fill

10644357_575331782636222_3411076116833066251_oProscenium interviews Simon Fill, writer of “Night Visits,” the third play to be published in the fourth issue of Proscenium Journal

“Night Visits” won the Heideman Award from Actors Theatre of Louisville, where the play premiered in the Wintermezzo Festival. “Night Visits” received its New York premiere at HERE Arts Center, produced by Circle East Theatre Company. Simon was originally a member of the Playwrights Project, a small group of young playwrights nurtured by Circle Repertory Theatre. His plays have been produced in New York City, regionally, and internationally. “The Gift” was recently published by Vintage Books in the anthology Plays For Two. He was an A.S.K. American exchange playwright at the Royal Court Theatre, and his full-length play Post Punk Life received a month-long developmental production by Lincoln Center Theatre Directors Lab. He was awarded a playwriting residency and fellowship by Yaddo, where he began his full-length play Burning Cities. Burning Cities won an international competition, the BETC Generations Award, in 2015, and Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC) workshopped the play at the Denver Center.

Simon has an MFA in Theatre from Sarah Lawrence, and taught playwriting Off-Broadway for years at the Women’s Project Theater, then at The New American Theatre School and the Boulder International Fringe Festival. He is a playwright member of Circle East Theatre Company, and a member of the Dramatists Guild.

 

What was your inspiration for the play?

I completed a year of medical school, then left to become a playwright—I had to make a choice between the two careers because my full-length play Post Punk Life was offered a month long developmental production by Lincoln Center Theatre Directors Lab, and there would have been no way for me to participate while in medical school. The doctor in “Night Visits,” Tom, was inspired by doctors and doctors-in-training I knew and admired, and the grief I experienced losing family members, something that started to happen at the time I wrote the play.

What do you want the audience to come away with?

I want the audience and readers to come away from “Night Visits” with an honest sense of hope in the midst of tragedy. The hope doesn’t erase the tragedy, but gives a way to go on. The character of Emily embodies that hope.

What projects are you working on now?

My agent Susan Schulman and I are beginning to market my new full-length play Burning Cities, which recently won an international competition, the BETC Generations Award, was workshopped by Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC) at the Denver Center, and is ready for its world premiere. The workshop with BETC was enormously helpful in developing the play. I cannot praise them and the actors enough. Their public staged reading of Burning Cities received a tremendous, wonderful audience response—it couldn’t have been better. I sat in the last row studying the reactions of the large audience at every moment of the staged reading, and afterwards I did a half hour audience talkback along with the director and head of the company, Stephen Weitz. I’ll always be grateful to BETC. It was a privilege to see the play come to life.

I’m writing the second draft of another full-length, Visitations, which just had an illuminating reading with terrific actors. Experienced actors can be so giving, and are essential to the development process of my plays.

What playwrights inspire you?

Those who take risks, show artistic and emotional courage, playwrights who push the art form forward, like Caryl Churchill, Tony Kushner, Martin Crimp, Sarah Ruhl, Will Eno. Among earlier playwrights, O’Neill, Williams, Beckett. The list could go on and on.

Why did you start writing plays?

I began writing as a poet, while an undergraduate at Cornell University, studying with wonderful poets there, who taught me a great deal. Then I wrote a novel. When I went to Sarah Lawrence for graduate school in fiction writing, I was required to take two electives and chose playwriting and theatre directing. Those electives changed my life. I realized I had the ability to write dialogue, as well as, from being a poet, heightened language. I could hear characters speaking as I wrote, and I came to understand my storytelling has a dramatic sensibility. I switched in my second semester to a Master of Fine Arts in Theatre.

What kind of theatre excites you?

Theatre that is honest, unsentimental, and breaks new ground. All great plays do this, and a part of it is the playwright’s original voice. A directing teacher from graduate school, Paul Austin, told me any groundbreaking play will get mixed reviews initially. This is true for plays as different as The Glass Menagerie, Waiting for Godot, and Plenty.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

Write, write, write. Be honest in your writing. Read and reread Kenneth Thorpe Rowe’s book, Write That Play, and devour Aristotle’s Poetics. Break or bend dramatic principles only for good reason, and after you know how to use them. Kenneth Thorpe Rowe taught Arthur Miller and Milan Stitt, among others.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

In O’Neill’s time his plays were national bestsellers. I believe good plays deserve to be widely read as well as produced. Thank you, Proscenium Journal, for continuing this tradition.