Interviews

Proscenium Journal interviews playwrights.  Here are interviews with Samuel D. Hunter, Ken Jaworoski, C.S. Whitcomb, Simon Fill, Sarah Ruhl, Christopher Shinn, Yussef El Guindi, James Harmon Brown, Josh Wilder, David Henry Hwang, Dan O’Brien, Tanya Barfield, Sherod Santos, Wei He, Aurin Squire, David E. Tolchinsky, Ellen Margolis, Augusto Amador, James Lantz, Zoe Kamil, Aleks Merilo, David Jacobi, Chris Holbrook, Augusto Frederico Amador, Damon Chua, and Andrea Lepcio

Interview with Playwright Samuel D. Hunter

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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 FewA Great Wilderness, RestPocatello, LewistonClarkston, 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

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We interviewed Ken Jaworoski about his 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

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C.S. Whitcomb discusses her play, “Stoker.”

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 FolliesThe 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

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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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Sarah Ruhl’s plays include Scenes from Court Life, For Peter Pan on her 70th BirthdayThe Oldest Boy, In the Next Room, or the vibrator playThe 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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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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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.

Interview with Playwright James Harmon Brown

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James Harmon Brown is a Emmy-Award-winning writer who began his career on the iconic nighttime soap “Dynasty” before moving on to daytime TV as head writer for such series as “All My Children,” “The Guiding Light,” and “Port Charles.” He also co-created the ABC-TV daytime drama “The City.” As a playwright, Brown’s most recent work “The Groyser” was a winner at the 2014 Ashland New Play Festival which is held each year in Ashland, Oregon.

Prior to his television and playwriting careers, Brown was a staff writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Brown won an Emmy Award as a writer on “The Guiding Light.” He’s also a five-time Emmy nominee and six-time nominee for the Writer’s Guild of America award. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife Doree.

What was your inspiration for this play?

My inspiration for “The Groyser” is my wife and her family. She, like the title character in the play, is the eldest child of Holocaust Survivors.  And though the characters, circumstances and events of the play are entirely fictitious, some of the stories related by the character of Bess did, in fact, happen during my mother-in-law’s time at Bergen-Belson. She, too, had difficulty talking about those experiences to her family…and only later in life agreed to relate some of the horror she and her fellow survivors endured.

What do you want the audience to come away with?

What I want the audience to come away with is empathy and understanding for three generations of people whose lives were framed by the Holocaust. Bess because she endured it; Dinah because she assumed the burden of hope from a lost generation; and Dinah’s son on whom she placed her own dreams and expectations that could never be entirely fulfilled. It is basically a play about a family working very hard to understand–and be understood by–the people they love.

What projects are you working on now?

As for new projects, I’m working on a short film for Netflix entitled “Meridian” which we plan on shooting this year. I have a screenplay, “Fateful Detour,” which is in the process of securing financing with the plan of being shot in early 2017. And a new one-act play, “Searching For Neil Armstrong,” which we’re doing a staged reading of on March 20 at the Moving Arts Theater in Los Angeles.

What writers inspire you?

My writing heroes begin with Paddy Chayefsky who wrote with such heart, humor and prescience (take another look at “Network” and see how close he came to what television turned into). I’m also inspired by the work of August Wilson, Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller because their work still touches, resonates and informs no matter how many years have passed since their plays were first seen. While I’m open to–and excited by—theater’s unique ability to experiment…I’m mostly still moved by the well-told story and the beautiful language these and other great writers have given us.

Why did you start writing plays?

I started writing plays around ten years ago in an effort to find my own creative voice.  Having written for television for many years–mainly in daytime drama–one is usually writing to a formula and for a group of characters who’ve already been established for the most part. I loved the work and enjoyed the process but nonetheless felt a need to tell my own stories in my own way…and that has been a tremendous experience for me. Hearing your lines and watching your characters come to life in front of a live audience is as rewarding as it gets for a writer. There’s really nothing like it anywhere else.

To put it in perspective: I’ve written some very successful television shows, been nominated for and won an Emmy, but I think the biggest thrill of my professional life was watching a group of fine actors and an outstanding director do a staged reading of “The Groyser” in Ashland, Oregon, as part of the Ashland New Play Festival. They played it exactly as I heard it. And the audience responded in all the ways I wanted them to…with laughter, tears and I hope a little compassion.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

In terms of advice to young writers, I’ll give you the same one-word answer I got more than forty years ago: Read. Read everything… books, plays… anything that inspires you. And if you’re writing for the stage, see as much theater as you can. Because even the bad stuff will teach you something… and the good stuff… especially the great stuff… will inspire you.

Interview with Playwright Josh Wilder

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Josh Wilder’s work has been developed at The Fire This Time Festival, Playwrights’ Center, Pillsbury House+Theater, The History Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop, The Drama League, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and The O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. His play Leftovers was a recipient of the 2014 Holland New Voices Playwright Award at The Great Plains Theatre Conference. He is a former Jerome Fellow and Many Voices Fellow at The Playwrights’ Center and has been in residence at The Royal Court Theatre. Josh is a MFA candidate in Playwriting at Yale School of Drama and received a BFA in acting from Carnegie Mellon. 

What was your inspiration for this play?

 So many things inspired me to write LEFTOVERS. I think the pursuit of happiness and the struggle to achieving our dreams is what made me write this play. Growing up in the inner city as a young Black man I felt like my dreams and my environment were at war. Growing up, I’ve witnessed so many smart and talented people become casualties in this pursuit to be their ideal selves. Writing this play helped me understand why people in my neighborhood gave up and it helped me heal the wounds I accumulated in my pursuit of my own dreams and it made me understand why I loved The Cosby Showso much. 

What projects are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on a political comedy called SALT PEPPER KETCHUP. It’s a play about gentrification and food politics set in a Chinese Take-Out in South Philly.

What playwrights inspire you?

August Wilson, Thornton Wilder, Edward Albee, Steven Adly Guirgis, Quiara Hudes, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Anna Deavere Smith, Lynn Nottage, Tracy Letts, Marcus Gardley––that’s just the tip of the iceberg! 

Why did you start writing plays?

While I was at Carnegie Mellon training to be an actor I felt like I had more to offer as an artist. I felt like acting wasn’t the right outlet for my voice. Once I got past the bulk of my training, I wrote my first solo performance and performed it. It all just clicked. From that moment on I knew that my writing was something that I had to pay more attention to. When I got a Jerome Fellowship and moved to Minneapolis to be in residence at The Playwrights’ Center I knew that writing plays was the ultimate calling for me. I became a playwright at The Playwrights’ Center.

What kind of theatre excites you?

My first time seeing a professional play was The Pillowman, by Martin McDonagh at The Wilma Theatre. That play cracked my chest open, took me out of my seat and transported me to some crazy places. I’m always hoping for that kind of experience when I see or read a play. I want to do what McDonagh did to me on that fateful day.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

I think the biggest piece of advice I can offer is to be a radical listener. Language keeps our species alive and there are so many complexities to it, so developing an ear for rhythm and musicality is key. You can hear what’s working in your play and what’s not. My second piece of advice in terms of collaboration is to take an acting class. The playwright has to have an understanding of the acting process because ultimately actors are putting their bodies on the line in rehearsal and performance. Playwrights shouldn’t take actors for granted––they’re magic people. 

Can you tell us about your experience developing this play at the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference? 

The O’Neill was such an amazing development opportunity for this play. I was nervous to even apply because the odds are being invited are so low. When I got there I was immediately immersed in rewrites and that’s where the real writing comes in. The O’Neill provided the perfect environment for me to dig deep into the play and the collaborators I met there pushed me to be my best self. Everyone should apply for it! 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

 Produce this play.

Interview with Playwright David Henry Hwang

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David Henry Hwang is a playwright, librettist, and screenwriter. Some of his works include M. Butterfly (Tony Award for Best Play, Pulitzer Prize nominee), FOB (OBIE award), Golden Child (Tony nomination for Best Play), Yellow Face (OBIE award, Pulitzer Prize nominee), Chinglish, and Kung Fu. He co-wrote the book for Disney’s AIDA, wrote the book for Disney’s Tarzan, and wrote a new version of the book for Rogers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song (Tony nomination for Best Book). He has also written for film, television, and opera, and currently teaches playwriting at Columbia University. 

You attended Stanford University, where you founded the Asian American Theater Project (AATP) and produced your first play in your dorm. What did you learn from your time at Stanford?

I think of that period as the time I became interested in theatre, found my voice, and wrote my first play which would be professionally produced. Which is pretty good for four years.

FOB premiered with AATP at Stanford before it was selected for the Eugene O’Neill Playwriting Conference and produced Off-Broadway at the Public Theater soon after. What was it like to experience this rapid success?

When FOB opened at the Public, I remember making the decision to return to California before the opening. If the notices were bad, I didn’t want to feel worthless; if they were good, I didn’t want to think I was a genius. Putting literal distance between myself and critical success or failure was a good impulse. However, that’s much more difficult to do today in our digitally connected world. I also think early success is hard to properly appreciate, because you don’t know anything else. Only after subsequent flops did I really understand how rare a gift I was given.

What inspires you?

I continue to be fascinated by the relationship between external events and our internal sense of self. This has often led to my writing about how individual identities are shaped by social and political forces. I don’t believe that character is inborn, but largely determined by one’s context. Therefore, when that context changes, our identities can transform into something very different. At the moment, I’m interested in how shifting demographics in this country are redefining the way we see ourselves as Americans, and also in the evolving U.S.-China relationship.

What kind of theatre excites you?

I like theatre that engages both the mind and the emotions. Within that mandate, I’m interested in all sorts of forms — from commercial Broadway jukebox musicals to the experimental and avant-garde. I feel that, as a playwright, I’m much more of a formalist than I’m usually perceived to be, i.e. I like to study diverse forms and apply them to my own work.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

This is not particularly profound, but I believe true: do not worry about commercial or critical acceptance, write what moves you most deeply, what you need to explore. It’s impossible to predict what will or will not be “successful.” A truly successful play is one which enriches the author’s spirit. However, it is also the case that this sort of work is also likely to be the most successful from a career standpoint. Paradoxically, success shouldn’t be your goal. Career success is icing on the cake, not the cake itself.

You have worked in theater, musical theater, television, film, and opera. Can you tell us more about writing across so many genres?

The main question is: who holds the primary creative vision? In each genre, there’s usually someone who holds that vision, and the other artists support him or her. With plays, that’s usually the playwright. In TV, the show runner; in film, the director; in opera, the composer. Musical theatre is tricky, because that usually needs to be a mind-meld between the book-writer, composer, lyricist, and nowadays, often the director and/or producer as well. It also accounts for why musicals are so difficult to create. Going into each of these genres, you have to know the role you’re playing, and feel comfortable if you decide to embark on that journey.

You teach playwriting at Columbia University. What are some of the most important things you teach your students? 

I believe, if one wants to have a long career, it’s important to diversity one’s creative portfolio. In other words, learn how to do a lot of things. In the Columbia MFA playwriting program, we offer screenwriting, TV writing, musical theatre courses, and will soon add teaching opportunities, because these are all ways playwrights can make a living. Over the course of a career, there will be times when you go cold in, say, movies, but then hopefully, you can get work in another genre. In order to continue writing our plays, we have to find ways to survive.

Most of your plays center around Asian-American identity and conflicts between the East and West. What are some ongoing challenges and achievements in the representation of Asian Americans in theatre today?

Interestingly, Asian American representation has advanced most dramatically over the past couple of years in television. Suddenly, we have a number of TV shows featuring Asian American leads: FRESH OFF THE BOAT, DR. KEN, MASTER OF NONE, etc. The increase in Asian actors on TV (and film, to a lesser degree) is driven partially by the importance of China, which will soon surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest movie market. Hopefully, the success of these shows will encourage theatre producers to realize there’s a domestic audience for Asian American stories as well. Because there’s such a wealth right now of excellent young Asian American playwrights — Lloyd Suh, Jihae Park, A. Rey Pamatmat, Young Jean Lee, Hansol Jung, Susan Stanton, Qui Nguyen, the list goes on and on. So far, only Rajiv Joseph and I have made it to Broadway, but so many more of these writers deserve wider exposure.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a rewrite of my Bruce Lee play, KUNG FU, as well as a new play which I can’t discuss yet, but which will premiere in 2017. In TV, I’m a writer/producer for Showtime’s THE AFFAIR, and am developing a new series of my own. In opera, I’ve co-written the libretto for DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER with composer Bright Sheng, which will premiere at San Francisco Opera this fall, and writing a couple of projects with composer Huang Ruo. I’m also developing a new musical, THE FORGOTTEN ARM, with singer/songwriter Aimee Mann.

What is something most people do not know about you?

I like to cook — mostly Asian, but other cuisines too.

What does the future look like for you?

Well, my vision of the future can’t help but be colored by having been stabbed in the neck four weeks ago by a random attacker, who severed one of my arteries. The fact that I’m completely recovered makes me feel simply grateful to be alive, lucky that I get to stay on this earth a bit longer, and to make every day count, since we never know when it’ll be our time to go.

What do you think about the current state and the future of theatre?

I think those of us who work in theatre are incredibly lucky to have chosen a form which cannot be digitized (at least for the moment). It seems to me that the centers of artistic culture right now are TV and live entertainment. Musicals, at least, are currently closer to pop culture than at any time since the 1950’s. So that’s good. The problem is that Broadway pulls the cart and sets the agenda for our entire field, in a way that also hasn’t really been the case since the 1950’s. So I think we need to regain a balance — where we place just as much, if not more, importance on work which is never intended to make money, as on pieces which hold the promise of commercial success.

Interview with Playwright Dan O’Brien

Your recent play, The Body of an American, has achieved enormous success. After premiering at Portland Center Stage, the play went on to win the Horton Foote Prize, the Edward M. Kennedy Prize, and the PEN Center USA Award for Drama. Can you tell us more about the journey of this play?

It’s been a twisty road, as is often (usually?) the case. I was researching and corresponding in a pretty formless way with Paul Watson (the Pulitzer Prize-winning war reporter who is the subject of The Body of an American) for almost two years before I received the McKnight National Residency & Commission from the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, which provided some money and the opportunity for workshops. In-process drafts received grants from Sundance Theatre Lab as well as Theatre Communications Group, both of which allowed me to finally meet Paul Watson in person in Ulukhaktok, in the Canadian High Arctic, in February 2010, where he was covering the “Arctic and aboriginal beat” for the Toronto Star.

As a completed draft, the play entered the phase of readings and workshops at places like the New Harmony Project, Pioneer Theatre in Salt Lake City, and, most importantly, the JAW Festival at Portland Center Stage — important because Portland premiered the play the following season, in 2012, and we were incredibly lucky to find a first-rate director for that first production in Bill Rauch, artistic director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Despite the production’s strongly positive reception, and some of the above-mentioned awards, the keenest interest for a second production came from the UK. The Gate Theatre, in co-production with Royal & Derngate in Northampton, England, gave the play an outstanding second incarnation (with a script a good half-hour shorter). The Wilma Theater produced the play last winter; this winter it’s set to run off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre, following an opening in Hartford, in a co-production between Primary Stages and Hartford Stage, directed by Jo Bonney. Separate productions are planned for Theatre J in Washington DC, and Stage Left in Chicago, both in the spring of 2016.

Throughout this same period, I wrote two collections of poems about Watson, War Reporter (2013) and New Life (2015), both of which found publishers in the US and the UK. I also adapted The Body of an American into a one-act chamber opera with Stanford composer Jonathan Berger, entitled The War Reporter, part of a longer opera called Visitations that premiered at Stanford University, played at the Prototype Festival in New York City in 2014, and will come to Chicago’s Harris Theater in a new production in 2017.

I’m also writing a new play about Watson this year as part of a Guggenheim Fellowship, about his time in Syria and our concurrent, mostly tragicomic attempts to transmute those experiences into Hollywood gold.

Perhaps it’s best to say that I’ve come to accept over many years of writing that you cannot control who likes what you write, if anyone does, and that it usually takes time, often a lot of time, to find those people, or for those people to find you and your work. With The Body of an American I’ve been lucky: Paul’s story seems to have moved a lot of people, as it did—and still does—move and inspire me. 

What inspires you?

Writing inspires me, this gift of a life in which I can endeavor to live an examined life (it’s not often easy), to write about that which is challenging and changing me most. This has always been my goal. I don’t write well for others—that’s mostly why I don’t write TV or screenplays—and, perhaps as a consequence, a lot of what I’ve written remains unproduced and unpublished. But I lose my inspiration quickly if I’m thinking too much about a so-called audience or, heavens forbid, producers.

When I began, writing was as much an escape from life as a wrestling with it. This was certainly true in childhood. I wrote almost unconsciously and was often delighted and terrified by what seemed to arrive on the page. This self-therapy was basically the point. But about ten years ago I began to feel the immense solitude of this endeavor. Perhaps I was also disappointed with the “product” of writing literature, and literary drama, and I began to value even more the opportunity that art can allow for connection with other artists—other people in general who happen to be searching creatively. So I’ve been inspired lately by collaborations, with musicians, composers, painters, and of course with all of the artists whose talents must come to bear in bringing a play to life.

What kind of theatre excites you?

I try to write the kind of play I think I want to see. I doubt I’ve ever achieved that. But I enjoy plays that make me feel confused, provoked, delighted, dealt with honestly, provided with many moments of earned beauty. I want a play to wake me up. I’m thinking mostly about the writing here, but these qualities apply to everything involved in a theatrical experience. My God it’s complicated if not ineffable when it happens. And it’s all hopelessly subjective. I often seem to like theatre that many other people seem to dislike, and I dislike theatre that many people seem to adore. So perhaps I have bad taste.

You are currently working on a commission with Center Theatre Group, in addition to a joint commission with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater about the history of guns in America. Can you tell us more about these two commissions?

The commission for Center Theatre Group is also that Guggenheim Fellowship play I mentioned: about Paul Watson, Syria, the rise of ISIS, the demise of journalism, and “selling war” in Hollywood. While Paul was covering Syria, he and I were developing a cable TV pitch about Western journalists covering Syria, and this play is derived from both Paul’s experiences as well as our fictional ideas. Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions Cycle and the Public Theater recently co-commissioned me to write a play about the history of guns in the US, and I’m still in the research phase of things.  It couldn’t be a more timely yet timeless topic right now, obviously.

I’m also writing something new for Portland Center Stage about Sasquatch, UFOs, and cancer, with my old friend Kid Millions (aka John Colpitts) of the band Oneida, that’s shaping up to be a “percussion-based experimental chamber rock opera.” Or at least that’s what I’ve been calling it.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

 It’s kind of cheeky but I mean it: don’t take advice. Or don’t take much. Art is so much more subjective than we want to believe, and artists can have their hearts broken, or just confused, by everybody’s heartfelt opinion. Most dangerous are the opinions of people you like, love, admire. Try to stay close to that aspect of your art that’s least conscious, to write about that which is most meaningful to you, which is often what you find most frightens you. I don’t know if I believe this entirely, but maybe read less, see less, while writing more. Or read and “see” that which truly instigates a meaningful creative response in you, and avoid all the rest.

What is something most people do not know about you?  

That I used to be funny. My two-year-old daughter thinks I still am. I met my wife, actor and writer Jessica St. Clair, doing improv comedy in our much younger days. My plays are often perceived as heavy or serious, and they are, but you can’t tell a human story without humor. Life is tragic and profound and beautiful and boring, and it’s also absurd and hilarious and silly—I hope my plays convey some of that.

You also write poetry and have written a libretto for an Opera. How does your experience working with other forms of art influence your work as a playwright?

I’m most inspired by work outside the genres in which I’m writing. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s simply reaching one’s forties and feeling jaded about one’s own forms, looking outside for inspiration, but I’ve felt rejuvenated by my recent collaborations with composers like Jonathan Berger and artists like Tom De Freston, who is a Brit creating paintings in response to my new poetry collection, New Life. The plan is then to see how his paintings will influence the composition of my play about Syria and Hollywood.

I’m a fairly obsessive sort: my subjects tend to get worked out over various projects, in various genres, with the boundaries between these genres inevitably, purposefully blurred. I’ve been told I write poems like a playwright, and plays like a poet, and that’s mostly okay with me.

 You have taught playwriting at Princeton University and a number of other places. How does your work as a teacher influence your work as an artist?  

I have loved teaching—the ambition and optimism of new writers can be a kind of stimulant for a teacher. I’ve always tried to find a balance, however, between my own time to write and my time to teach. I’ve been selfish this way, and luckily I haven’t felt forced, economically speaking, into teaching any more than I’ve wanted to. For the past eight years I’ve only taught for twelve days at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Sewanee, Tennessee. And Sewanee in and of itself has been an enormous influence for me, personally and artistically. Spending time with gifted poets and fiction writers (in addition to playwrights) has only enriched my sense of myself as a writer first and a genre-specific writer second.

It’s obvious, but the writing life can be quite lonely if not at times dispiriting, and, while usually I enjoy the solitude, teaching can balance things out a bit. It’s nice to see other human beings once in a while, other than the Trader Joe’s clerk, the check-in folks at my gym, or my neighbors as they’re walking their dogs, too.

That said, I feel I’ve written better while teaching less. Against my better intentions, over a decade of teaching in the early aughts, I started to feel hemmed in creatively by my own ideas about what a play should or shouldn’t be. I now feel freer to write strangely, idiosyncratically, to take greater risks in style and subject. Leaving New York City in late 2007 coincided with my departure from full-time teaching, and I’ve enjoyed this remove from NYC theatre as well. I love returning for visits, don’t get me wrong, but the distance, the isolation, has been a good thing for me.

What does the future look like for you?

I’ll be busy trying to write the commissions I mentioned, and traveling to take part, as much as I can, with the various productions of The Body of an American.  

And I continue to write poems, as well as a prose memoir of my childhood that maybe in a year, or ten, will feel something close to finished.

Interview with Playwright Tanya Barfield

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Proscenium Journal interviews nationally acclaimed playwright Tanya Barfield. Barfield is a recipient of the Lilly Award, the Helen Merrill Award, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her play Blue Door (South Coast Repertory, Playwrights Horizons). Other works include The Call (Playwright’s Horizons, New York Times Critics Pick) and Bright Half Life (Women’s Project Theater, TimeOut Critic’s Pick). She has written for the Starz series The One Percent and writes for The Americans on FX. Tanya Barfield also has an entire season dedicated to her works this upcoming year with Profile Theatre in Portland, OR. We talked with Barfield about her work, the current state of the theatre, and her upcoming season with Profile

You started out as an actor, saying that you “didn’t know there was such a thing as a living playwright.” You studied acting as an undergraduate at N.Y.U. How has your acting training and experience influenced your writing?
As an actor, one is keenly aware of when dialogue does not feel true to life – or when it doesn’t have the pitch, rhythm and ring of poetic expression. I like to blend colloquial speech and indirect poetry. The experience of words when verbalizing feelings, thoughts and ideas is important to me — the ways that language fails as a form of true communication – all this has been influenced by my early acting and solo performance career.

What inspires you?
Often my work is born out of a troubling or complicated feeling. The material that makes me uncomfortable is usually my best work. I’m interested in the gray areas of human interaction. I believe that this is what makes characters complicated and compelling. I don’t seek to portray the people in my plays as 100% likeable. I hope to make them real. Shortcomings and flaws, ethical dilemmas and the possibility of ascension drives my work.

What kind of theatre excites you?


Plays that mix up my thoughts and feelings so that I don’t know which is which. I appreciate both a well told story and formal experimentation. In other words, both thinking inside and outside the box.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?
Learn a skill and get a day job so you don’t have to worry about money. Once you’ve mastered the basics of survival, shoot for the stars. Write, write, write. Listen, listen, listen. Take everything in. Hold true to yourself and don’t give up.

You’ve taught playwriting (NYU, Barnard, ESPA and private classes) and worked as a literary manager for Juillard. How has your time working with students influenced your writing?
I love teaching. I find students and early career writers to be very inspiring. Anyone can learn craft. But, the pulse of raw talent is more rare and exciting. When you first begin playwriting, anything is possible. As your career rises, you become more keenly aware of things like “what’s producible” or “well made.” Even when coloring outside the lines, the critical voice of experience can emerge, hampering my initial burst of creativity. So, being around new talent shakes me up in a good way. Sometimes, I’ll have a very accomplished writer take one of my classes or workshops when they are grappling with a period of writer’s block. Watching someone that I admire work along side “beginners” is deeply inspiring in a wholly different way.

What projects are you working on now?
Lately, most of my work has been in television. Raising a family requires different financial demands. I also find TV to be an exciting medium because it’s a new form of storytelling for me. That said, I’m looking forward to the day when I have more time and can balance both theater and TV work. I have an overdue commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I’m looking forward to getting started on that script soon.

You have said that a common theme that runs through your plays is the unthreading of time. You are also interested in exploring causality in your works. Can you speak more about this? What other threads run through your work?
I write about people in a state of emotional crisis — people that teeter on the edge of discovery. The plays often contain a micro story that exists within a macro story or an individual within a larger social landscape (as in The Call). In both Blue Door and Bright Half Life, we look at experience from multiple points of view or perspectives; time doubles back and retracts, moments and memories collide.

You have also written for the TV shows “The Americans” and “The One Percent.” How is that experience different from your playwriting experience?
It couldn’t be more different. I love TV writing, but it’s not anything like playwriting. It’s interesting because my latest play, Bright Half Light, has numerous short scenes, and one might speculate that it was influenced by writing for television. But, I actually wrote it before I landed my first TV job. Nowadays, we see a lot of plays with ten page scenes. It starts to feel redundant. The Call opens with a twenty page scene that I’m proud of. After writing The Call, I encouraged my students to get out of the “ten page scene trap” and write a longer scene with multiple levels of conversation. Then, there was another trend I noticed – particularly with younger writers – the scenes got shorter and shorter and completely lacked a discernible event. So, I started griping, “Don’t bring in plays that read like they were written on Twitter.” With all this in mind, Bright Half Life came as a surprise to me because it contains over well over 50 short scenes, none of them exceeding ten pages. I’ve digressed… back to your question about scripts for the stage versus the screen.

In theater, the playwright is the final authority on their script. You figure out the story on your own. No one can change a single word of dialogue without asking your permission. (Sometimes, actors change the language unintentionally when they flub a line, of course). At times, playwriting can be lonely, but it’s ultimately profoundly exhilarating and satisfying.

Television, however, is very collaborative. It employs a team of writers. Scripts are often rewritten dozens of times by multiple people. One can’t be precious about the work in TV. As a staff writer, you’re getting notes from a million people and are ultimately in service of the creator and/or showrunner’s vision. For me, the pleasure comes from the exchange of ideas, breaking a story with other smart people and knowing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

What is something most people do not know about you?
I’m afraid of swimming and driving. But, last summer, I went bungee jumping (here in Oregon) and had a terrifying blast.

You have an entire season at Profile Theater (in your hometown of Portland, OR) dedicated to your works. Can you tell us more about this? 


It’s a dream come true. After almost two decades writing plays, I’ve been produced all over the West Coast — Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego – but no where in Oregon. It’s an honor to be at Profile. I hope to make my mother proud.

 What does the future look like for you?
I’m looking forward to finding out!

What do you think about the current state and the future of theatre?
I think there’s a lot of exciting writers in the American theater right now – both established and emerging. We are in an exciting time.

But, being a playwright contains old and new challenges. It’s very hard to get a play produced. The script can take two years to write and even longer to get in front of an audience. Playwrights rarely – even when successful – make a living wage. As more and more universities hire adjunct faculty, fewer people are able to support themselves as professional writers with teaching jobs. Hand in hand with the skyrocketing cost of living expenses, playwrights are making a mass exodus to Hollywood and we are losing some of our most promising and mid-career talent. But, the good news is that we are starting to see a handful of television writers come back to the theater, successfully balancing a career in both mediums. In this way, television is actually subsidizing theater – by providing income for the writer. Hopefully, the cross-pollination with the TV world will continue without causing the intrinsic artistry of theater to become more like the screen.

I also hope that we find a way to have theater both publically and privately subsidized. Ticket prices need to go down while the financial compensation for artists needs to go up.

Is there anything else you would like to share about your work?
I hope it speaks to you.

Interview with Playwright Sherod Santos

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We talked to Sherod Santos about his play “Between Two Nevermores,” his experimental writing style, and his advice to young writers. 

What was your inspiration for this play?
As a poet I’m of course drawn to what is, in essence, the formative story of poetry and poets. It’s a story that evokes poetry’s deep-seated link to love and death and the erotic and, at the same time, its kinship with secrecy. In poetry as in plays, what isn’t said is always as important as what is. That’s a pretty heady combination of energies, and I was, as you say, inspired by the prospect of re-imagining them.

What do you want the audience to come away with?
First and foremost, I’m only interested in “lived” experience, not in “literature” and “literary traditions.” I think the worst that could happen would be for an audience to feel compelled to interpret the play, or to fix it in some scholarly context–the bone yard of the arts. My hope, in fact, is that that the audience would enjoy the play without knowing anything about the myth itself.

Can you discuss your choice to experiment with traditional play formatting with this script (i.e. leaving out character names)?
I wish I could say that I had even the vaguest sense of what I was doing in the early stages of writing, but I simply struck a small match in a very large cave, and it seemed to take forever to find my way. At times I felt like I was writing a play in verse, at others like I was writing a poem in dramatic form, and in each case I was unhappy with the either/or nature of that relationship. In your example, the conventions for formatting a script kept chopping up the poetry; at the same time, the continuities of a traditional poetic form kept redirecting the discontinuities between characters. What I wanted was a form that accommodated, on equal terms, both of those impulses.

What writers inspire you?
I’m afraid my reading is hopelessly unsystematic, and so far as I can tell it hasn’t over time shown any special loyalty to any particular genre or period set of authors. I’ve always believed that the books we need most find us, not the other way around. Certainly much that has been meaningful to me I’ve discovered largely by accident, stumbling on one book while looking for another. That’s the most compelling reason I can think of for preserving our used bookstores and libraries. In my experience, for what it’s worth, wandering aimlessly along dusty bookshelves shelves can lead to profoundly personal discoveries.

What advice do you have for writers starting out?
Look closely, listen closely, read closely, take it all in. Then work, work, work until you move beyond the difficulty of the work to a love for the difficulty. In my opinion, only then are you truly prepared to turn inspiration into art. Oh, and one other thing: don’t think you’re a genius.

Poet, playwright, and translator, Sherod Santos is the author of six books of poetry, most recently “The Intricated Soul: New and Selected Poems.” In 2005 he published “Greek Lyric Poetry: A New Translation,” for which he received the Umhoefer Prize in Translation. Mr. Santos has received fellowships from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Guggenheim foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1999 he received an Award for Literary Excellence from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Productions of his plays include: 10-minute play, “Star,” Algonquin Theatre, New York City, 2010; one-act play, “Coffee Shop,” The Flint Michigan Play Festival, 2010; full-length play, “Lives of the Pigeons,” The Side Project, Chicago, 2013; two-minute play, “Beginning of the Revolution,” Royal Court Theatre: “Grit,” 2015. His work has also appeared in literary journals and magazines including The Antioch Review, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Nation, Poetry, The Yale Poetry Review, The American Poetry Review, The New York Times Book Review, The Kenyon Review and Parnassus Books. His book, “The Pilot Star Elegies,” was a finalist for the 1999 National Book Award and he is a recipient of the The Pushcart Prize.

Interview with Playwright Wei He

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Wei He talks about the inspiration for her play “My Birthday Party,” her image-driven writing style, and her advice for young writers. 

What was your inspiration for this play?
I got the idea for the story on my twenty-sixth birthday. I was going through a weird phase back then. I was experiencing something strange yet familiar, something that I couldn’t give a name to. So I wrote this play to help me figure out what I was doing with my life, to help me survive youth. I felt very close to the main character. It was like witnessing the life of an imaginary friend through the ten years between age twenty-six to thirty-six.

Also, at that time, I was obsessed with monologues “Thom Pain” by Will Eno, “The Fever” by Wallace Shawn, etc. In a monologue, the entire world is constructed through the lens of the narrator. The narrator’s conceived reality is the only reality audiences have access to. Though the line between the character’s interiority and external world is blurry, the narrator’s impressions of the invisible characters convey distilled images of them that make them present and tangible. Conor McPherson said: “…But with one actor talking only to the audience, what we have in front of us is a guide. He’s telling us about somewhere outside the theatre, not trying to recreate it indoors. The theatre is simply where we meet him. And if it’s good, we’re reminded that we are in the theatre and we like being there.”

What do you want the audience to come away with?
The play received a public reading in Buffalo in August. After the reading, an audience member told me the play made him think about what happened to the person who did not make the current choice that was made. The decisions that were not made would veer back into one’s life. That sounds like a good answer to this question.

What projects are you working on now?
I am working with a composer on an opera right now. Our last collaboration went very well. We’re trying something very different this time. I’m also revising a full-length play about a thief. The story is set in China, but the play is in English.

What playwrights have inspired you?
I’ll just list a few names here: Chekhov, Harold Pinter, Annie Baker, Will Eno, Wallace Shawn, Paula Vogel and two Chinese playwrights, Guo Shixing and Ho Jiping.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?
I consider myself a playwright who just started out. The advice I would give myself at this point is simply to keep trying. No matter what you’re told, go read plays, lots of them, go see productions (when you have money) and keep writing.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
Writing in a foreign language has been quite an adventure for me, fun and challenging. Some people have pointed out that there are a lot of images in my writing. I guess the influence comes from my mother tongue. Mandarin is an image-driven language; each character looks like a picture of stick figures.

Wei He is a bilingual playwright and fiction writer who grew up in Inner Mongolia, China and now lives in Cleveland, Ohio. She holds an MFA degree in Dramatic Writing from Carnegie Mellon University. Her fiction, poetry and plays in English and Mandarin have been published internationally in the United States, Mainland China and Taiwan.  Her screenplay, Paper Dragonfly, will be published by China Film Press next year. And she is proud of her secret recipe of Sand-Wei-ch.

Interview with Playwright Aurin Squire

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We interviewed Aurin Squire about what inspires him, his advice for writing and life, and his play “Defacing Michael Jackson.” 

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! 

Interview with Playwright David E. Tolchinsky

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We talked to David E. Tolchinsky about his new play “Clear,” his advice for young writers, and how teaching informs his writing. 

What was your inspiration for this play?
I was thinking about ambivalence. What is it exactly? To like something and not to like something at the same time. And I was thinking about clarity, that I’d like to be clear in my own life and writing. And I was wanting to write something contained and therefore cheap to produce, with no special effects, no flying demons or giant stadium crowd scenes or implications of child abuse, elements that have led some of my earlier screenplays to attract interest from all kinds of studios, producers, and directors, but at the same time have made them difficult to get produced.

Also, my dad was a psychiatrist and a professor of psychiatry (see my essay and play “Where’s the Rest of Me?” for more about him) so we’d have a lot of psychiatrists hanging around at the house when I was a kid. So while not an inspiration for this particular play, in general psychiatrists tend to show up in my work.

What do you want the audience to come away with?
To quote Maximus (as written by David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson) after he slaughters a bunch of guys in Gladiator: “Are you not entertained?” And after they’ve been entertained, I want audience members to talk about the play, to think about it, to dream about it, for it to burrow into their brains like some kind of hideous parasite. But if they’re just engaged and not bored for 90 minutes, then great, I’m happy.

Much of your play is shrouded in mystery and ambiguity. What was your goal in leaving aspects of this play open-ended? 
We just had a preview screening of The Coming of Age, the screenplay I was commissioned to write for Fork the Man Productions, and someone in the audience asked me the same question. Am I detecting a pattern in my writing?

I intended to write something contained, but I didn’t intend to write something open-ended. I just tried to amuse myself, to write something that would be cool to see, to create interesting twists and turns. Along the way, maybe I left out the boring parts (too little conflict, what I’ve seen before, something stupid and on the nose or what I couldn’t stand to write for whatever reason). And maybe I’m a little more interested in questions than I am in answers. The first half of horror movies is always the part I like best because the first half contains suffering people who think they’re going crazy or dying from a strange medical ailment. The second half contains what is usually a dumb, disappointing answer that we’ve seen before – demonic possession or angry ghost or pissed off house or alien or whatever. (Although a few horror movies do have awesome and unexpected answers.)

Thinking more about your question: Ironically (or maybe not), what I teach mostly at NU is story structure – four-act structure, mythic structure, sequence structure, scene structure, beginning, midpoint, dark moment, and ending. But, the movies  that affect me the most are the ones where the structures do not easily reveal themselves and are similarly open-ended. Mulholland Drive comes to mind and so does Ju OnJu On didn’t really affect me while I was watching it, but it gave me nightmares because on the surface it didn’t make any sense. My brain had to keep rolling it around.

So maybe in some cases it’s better to imply than to state. Leave the audience to fill in/discuss/dream. And Clear is about scraping past the conscious mind and defenses to the unconscious, so it makes sense that the play is open-ended because the unconscious is open-ended. Similarly, in The Coming of Age, a woman is slowly suffering from dementia: does it make sense to have such a movie make too much sense? Shouldn’t the form reflect the content? That is, as the character loses her mind, shouldn’t the movie? So linear becomes non-linear, pieces start to be missing.

As a side note, my colleague Rebecca Gilman read my play and asked: do you know Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman? I didn’t, but luckily Redtwist Theatre – everything I’ve seen at that theatre is great by the way – was running it. I felt like I was . . . home. Interrogations, mysterious characters, memories, dreams, and you’re not quite sure what it all means. But you feel the feeling. And you’re into it until the very last moment. And you’re thinking and talking about it afterward. And even if you can’t articulate it, you know there’s some kind of logic at work. So The Pillowman didn’t influence me since I saw it after I wrote Clear, but it definitely told me it’s okay to leave things open for interpretation.

Anyway, to me, Clear is clear – I understand why everything happens and what it all means, but I understand that to audience members, it may not be completely clear and the play may feel open-ended. And by the way, I should say I think I understand what it all means, but it’s usually someone else – my wise spouse and sometime collaborator Debra Tolchinsky, for example – who tells me what a particular screenplay (and now play) is really about – and usually it’s hard to take because there’s some ugly truth in there I wasn’t aware of.

What projects are you working on now?
Currently, I’m co-creating a film-based installation/performance/lecture series about historical and new radical therapies entitled: Wilhelm Reich: An Attempt to Heal in the Modern World. Dan Silverstein, artist and Associate Director of Collections and Exhibition Management at Northwestern University’s Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art, is responsible for the sculptural aspects, including fabricating an interpretation of an orgone accumulator. Melika Bass is creating a film for the project. Debra Tolchinsky is curating. I’m writing something to perform in the space of the installation – a play? A monologue? Who knows, but it will involve a protagonist suffering from some kind of illness; even though his medical tests are normal, he just doesn’t feel right, he knows that something is terribly, terribly wrong. He finds little help from talking cures or other conventional therapies. Desperate, he encounters psychologist Wilhelm Reich in a dream — there is something compelling about Reich’s claims that all health and illness stem from “orgone energy,” that he is suffering from armoring caused by blocked orgone. But then he encounters Reich’s detractors – Sigmund Freud, a former female patient, and an FDA agent, all who question Reich’s theories, ethics, and sanity. Indeed, according to Reich, orgone is not just in the body but is responsible for movement in petri dishes formerly thought to be bacteria, the blue in the daytime sky, and all matter in the universe! Our protagonist is forced to probe his own beliefs about Reich and his subjective sense of his mental and physical health.

Anyway, I’m excited to see how it turns out and how the space of the installation adds meaning to what I write and vice versa. And I’m excited to see how it stands on its own, produced at a more traditional venue at a later date. And I’m excited about the questions the overall project is meant to raise for our audience members:  How do I think about my own relative health and illness and what constitutes health and illness in the modern world? Ultimately, how do we examine radical new theories with a critical yet open perspective?

Along the same lines, in the spring, Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre is hosting a night of plays around the idea of health and illness in the modern world as part of their incubator series. I’m cocurating the three-week run with awesome playwright/NU RTF lecturer Brett Neveu. We’re including my play Where’s the Rest of Me?, as well as new plays by Brett, Lisa Dillman, Shannon Pritchard, Grant Varjas, and Marisa Wegrzyn with regards to visions of healing in unexpected ways; strange modern illnesses (mysterious or ignored or illnesses where doctors say there’s nothing wrong); explorations of  alternative, unexpected healing/therapies; unexpected healers; unexpected patients; psychiatrists; suicide; phobias; and movies.

Finally, I’m doing tweaks on my latest horror/thriller feature screenplay, Cassandra (what – the same name as the character in Clear?). I’m going to direct a 10-minute short based on the screenplay and then the feature itself. I’m working step by step as I gather resources. This script is giving me nightmares while I’m working on it. Scary, scary stuff coming out of my brain!

And of course I’m chairing Northwestern University’s Department of Radio-TV-Film and running our MFA in Writing for Screen+Stage. Both fun and challenging.

What playwrights inspire you?
Martin McDonagh. The Pillowman as mentioned above, but before that, I saw The Cripple of Inishmaan performed by the Atlantic and Druid Theater Companies in 2008. It was like I finally understood what all those people who loved theatre were talking about–ironic and hateful and then emotional and sweet, turn after unexpected turn. Up until that point, I was mostly a dedicated movie guy, although in college as a composer, I was also deep into experimental music, the avant-garde, and performance art. And in grad school, I was making films that seemed like documented installations, but I never was into or knew much about what most people think of as theatre.

Colleague Thomas Bradshaw, for being disgustingly playful and making us laugh even when we don’t want to. His play Mary is brilliant. Carlyle even better.

Colleague Zayd Dohrn, for taking us into dark and disturbing worlds, for forcing us to think. His plays Sick and Reborning in particular are profound.

Rebecca Gilman –  Luna Gale should have gotten the Pulitzer. The way Rebecca rotates through scenes, in a theatrical yet hyper-real way. The way she tackles social issues head on, with humor and a heart.

Doug Wright – I Am My Own Wife (which did get a Pulitzer – the world worked as it should) blew me away in the same way that The Pillowman did – what? This is what theatre can be? The author can be a character in his own play? What?

Sarah Kane – Blasted.

Henrik Ibsen.

Kenneth Lonergan.

And somewhere between writing and performance:
Key & Peele – I appreciate the smart way they use comedy to probe race and relationships.
Spalding Gray. A great loss. . .
Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Tina Fey.

And I just re-watched the film Dirty Dancing written by Eleanor Bergstein.  I don’t know Bergstein’s playwriting, but her screenwriting in this film is fascinating, with a lot going on in terms of sexuality, class, Judaism, race (in the background, but there), and of course adolescence. Insightful and tricky. And oh yeah, there’s some great dancing too.

Why did you start writing plays?
Because Rebecca Gilman told me to.  I tend to do what people tell me to do. And maybe I started to write plays because cool playwright Wendy MacLeod, who we had come as a visiting artist to NU many years ago, made me a list of plays to see.  And then Rebecca, Zayd, Thomas and my other colleagues gave me more great plays to read or see and soon I realized theatre, rather than being unbearable torture, could be as fun, disturbing and profound as movies. Anyway, other than the Ibsen plays I had seen in college which were pretty great, most of the theatre I had seen was bad.  I will say though I still hate that I can’t make snarky asides during live theatre, which is hard for a moviegoer like me who likes to offer up annoying commentary along the way. I also hate when actors look at me, talk to me (hey, Bald Guy! Yeah you!) or sit on my lap.  The fourth wall is a pretty good thing.

What kind of theatre excites you?
Theatre-making is all new to me, so recently, directing my own short play Where’s the Rest of Me? excited me. It was like magic – four actors up there on a stage with a movie screen behind; suddenly we were in a different world/different space/some of the audience was laughing and/or crying, and honestly and unexpectedly so was I. It was like a dance and a dream and a personal catharsis. P.S. You should cast my lead Greg Peace in your next play – you won’t be sorry.
 
What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?
Be fearless. Be persistent. Be a nice person in real life, but be a total monster in your writing. Write monsters. Write monstrously. Write the scene you can’t see in real life but it would be great to see. Write a dark wish. Write something that will change the world. Write something that you get up in the middle of the night to reread. And reread and reread. And don’t let the bastards get you down. And I like what Thomas Bradshaw said to me (paraphrasing): “Dave, you just got to get these plays up.  Don’t wait. Just do it yourself if you have to. You’ll learn as you go regardless of the result.” I also like what Rebecca Gilman said: “Dave, be careful; you only have one premiere. Make sure it’s something you’re proud of.” Both are paradoxically right. Writing is built on such dichotomies that you — and your characters — have to negotiate. Conflict, always conflict.

And I’d give young playwrights starting out the same advice I give our MFAs: find a creative community to support you, and think about art. Why are you writing what you’re writing? Why is your writing important? Think about craft and think about business (not a dirty word) including how to talk about you and your work. Learn transportable writing skills like character and conflict and, yes, structure — whatever that means to you — so you can ask interesting questions: am I a playwright? Maybe I’m a TV writer.  Maybe I’m both. The story I’m writing – is it a play? Maybe it’s a pilot? Maybe it’s a screenplay or a radio play or a monologue or videogame or an installation with performance elements. Maybe it starts out as one but depending on creative and business opportunities becomes something else. Be open and be ready.

And I’d tell a playwright who’s starting out, if it feels right: apply to my MFA program. I’m very proud of the faculty we’ve gathered together – the playwrights mentioned above (all of them also TV writers and/or screenwriters; clearly, we practice what we teach) as well as our other cool writers (Bill Bleich, Erik Gernand, Kat Falls, Mia McCullough, Laura Schellhardt, and Zina Camblin), and our cool filmmakers and our cool screen cultures/performance studies/theatre scholars.

And regardless of the outcome (the program is competitive): keep writing, keep pitching, keep applying to as many opportunities as you can (each time you do, you learn to talk about your writing and yourself in a new way), keep knocking at the door, and if one door doesn’t open, find another one that may or ignore the door altogether and just do it yourself, whatever that “it” may be, however you can. This is what I teach. This is what I practice.

You founded Northwestern’s MFA program for Writing for Stage and Screen and are Professor and Chair of the Department of Radio/Television/Film. How has your time as a professor influenced your own writing? 

Because I teach writing, I think a lot about my process and craft and my students tell me things about craft I never would have thought of, so I keep learning more and more. But the more I know and teach the more I don’t want to know, the more I want to forget. I used to plan out my writing with detailed outlines. Now if I just know four structural points or even just the ending, I’m ready to go and write. This thing I’m writing now about psychologist Wilhelm Reich – as I said above, I don’t know if it’s going to be an essay, a monologue, a play or maybe a hybrid movie/play, and that’s OK. Letting it go where it wants to go. Not planning too much, letting my characters and the voice of the piece tell me. The latest draft of my feature, Cassandra, is the best I’ve written because I threw away the outline and just let it go, waited for the scenes to come while I walked, while I dreamed, etc. That’s another piece of advice – writing happens in odd places and times, while walking, taking showers, staring at the wall, or watching a bad movie; the computer is usually not where you get your best ideas.  And while often we work on deadlines (especially when doing writing for hire or when in school), sometimes our best writing happens when we have the time to put drafts away or let the writing come slowly. So I try to balance having some work that needs to be done with a particular deadline in mind, some work I let just percolate.

Less directly answering your question:  I’ve been running this MFA since 2005; at the same time, it’s like I’ve been enrolled in an MFA, being educated in a whole new art form.  So besides being infected with the impulse to write plays, I’m sure my screenwriting has been influenced as well but I really don’t know how. Similarly, I don’t know if my writing is influenced by my students, but I’m definitely inspired by my students (undergrads and grads) and by what they’re achieving now as alums . To name just a few —  Dave Holstein (staff writer, The Brink), Jen Spyra (former writer forThe Onion and now staff writer, Late Night with Stephen Colbert), Eoghan O’Donnell  (creator of The CWs The Messengers), Marisha Mukerjee (staff writer,  Heroes Reborn), Sarah Gubbins (playwright, The Kid Thing), Erik Gernand (playwright, The Beautiful Dark), Andy Miara (former head writer, The Onion News Network; writer, several Comedy Central pilots) and J. Ryan Stradal (author of the New York Times best selling novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest). Two of my students were recently picked by Variety as “film students to watch.” Several of my students have formed a cool theatre company here in Chicago.  Anyway, on and on – too many to talk about here. But inspired by them all.

Finally, I’m so busy with my NU commitments, I’ve had to learn to write whenever, however, wherever. So how I write probably influences what I write.
 
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I’d like to thank Debra Tolchinsky, Raisa Tolchinsky and Zane Tolchinsky, who inspire me with their own artistic creations, who put up with me and my evil little stories, who realize you can write evil stories without being evil, who give me invaluably honest, sometimes painful feedback, who put up with my intense ghostliness when I’m lost in some story and especially when it’s not going well. I also want to thank writers Charles Harmon, Taras Otus, Ron Ward, and David Bradburn (who directed The Coming of Age) for making time to read my screenplays and now plays and for giving me great feedback. And I want to  thank Brett Neveu for arranging a reading of the play at A Red Orchid Theatre; I’ve definitely incorporated feedback that came out of that experience.

David E. Tolchinsky is the Chairman of Northwestern University’s Department of Radio-TV-Film and Founder/Director of Northwestern University School of Communication’s MFA in Writing for Screen+Stage. Some of his work centers on teen subcultures, particularly in relation to social decay. He is also interested in horror, mental illness, and psychiatrists. He has been commissioned by such studios as Touchstone/Disney, MGM, and Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Pictures to write screenplays, and his feature film Girl (screenwriter, associate producer) is distributed by Sony. He has designed the sound for interactive computer environments and video installations seen internationally, and was nominated in 2003 for a Motion Picture Sound Editors Guild Golden Reel Award for his sound design for Dolly. He has cocurated gallery exhibits including The Horror Show in 2009 at Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs in New York City which explored horror in film, video, installation, photography, sculpture and painting and which was featured as a “Voice Choice for Art” in The Village Voice and on their blog, and which was accompanied by a 32-page catalog. He co-produced Debra Tolchinsky’s 2011 feature documentary, Fast Talk which investigated the accelerated speed of argumentation in college debate and which is available on iTunes. More recently, he published “Where’s the Rest of Me?” a reflective essay about Spalding Gray and monologue writing in Paraphilia Magazine and cocurated The Presence of Absence sponsored by the Contemporary Arts Council at Hairpin Arts Center, Chicago. Most recently, he was ranked #14 on New City’s Film 50: Chicago’s Screen Gems 2013, was the recipient of a 2014 Illinois Arts Council Artist Fellowship in Literature (Poetry, Prose, Scriptworks) and made his premiere as a playwright and theatrical director at the 2015 Strawberry One-Act Play Festival, Hudson Guild Theatre, New York City, with Where’s the Rest of Me?, an adaptation of his essay. His play was nominated for Best Play and he was named Best Director. He is a graduate of Yale (BA, magna cum laude) and USC School of Cinematic Arts (MFA). Read more at Davidetolchinsky.com.

Interview with Playwright Ellen Margolis

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Ellen Margolis talks about her recent commission with Proscenium, her writing process, and what inspires her. 

When Proscenium approached you with the idea of adapting a Shakespearean work, what made you think of adapting Pericles?
When I saw Pericles for the first time a few years ago, I both loved the play and felt I had unfinished business with it. The premise of unacknowledged incest is just a jumping-off place in Shakespeare, but today of course our understanding is different. When the opportunity came up to work with Proscenium Journal and the Portland Shakespeare Project, I had an electric realization, “Yes, time to dig intoPericles!” And then as I wrote, it became more about the position of someone who witnesses a violation and has to make a decision, and less about the daughter and her abuse–although we hear from her pretty strongly as well.

How did the artists working with you in the Proscenium Live reading influence the development of this work?
Knowing that a play is going somewhere, that someone besides me is interested in seeing it, is a huge gift, so thank you for that! And Michael Mendelson, who is Artistic Director of Portland Shakespeare Project and who directed the reading, was influential in all sorts of sly ways. A lot of his notes came on the fly during our brief couple of rehearsals. He threw a lot of great insights my way. And our actors were wonderfully game and also asked some terrific questions.

You plan on expanding Pericles Wet into a full-length play. Can you tell us more about this?
I’m close to wrapping up the first draft now. This has gone much faster than my usual writing process, which I attribute to the pleasure of hearing the first act with the keen, engaged audiences who joined us for the readings and talkbacks in July. They were so interested and encouraging that I went back to work with the feeling of a good wind at my back!

In terms of content, as I said earlier, it’s about Pericles’s role as a witness. It’s also about how life surprises him and beats him up.

What kind of theatre excites you?
I can be thrilled by all kinds of different work. I see as much as I can, both here in Portland and wherever I travel, and almost always, there is something that delights or excites me!

I could also quote my former student Ted Gold, who works as a designer with Shaking-the-Tree Theatre and Many Hats Collaboration, among other companies in town. One day in class, Ted really nailed it: “I like to leave the theatre Not Done.”

What playwrights have inspired you?
I’m inspired by every artist who keeps showing up at the plate. I have friends who write heroic numbers of drafts and who continue to ride out their careers through decades of ups and downs. I admire them so, and am grateful for their beautiful work.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?
If you’re lucky, you’ll find a couple people who love your writing, and who are also thoughtful and willing to talk with you about what does and doesn’t work. My advice is to be on the lookout for those people, value them, and make the most of their presence in your life.

What are you working on now?
After I send Pericles Wet to a few of my favorite readers, I’ll get back to a play called Crooked Numbers, which I put on hold when I heard from you last spring. Crooked Numbers is a play for four actresses, with family relations in the foreground and baseball in the background. It’s set in upstate New York in 1979, the year Willie Mays was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

I’m also putting the finishing touches on self-publishing a book of my short plays. Available soon on Kindle!

Ellen Margolis is Chair of Theatre & Dance at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. Her plays include “How to Draw Mystical Creatures” (2004 NY Fringe Festival Award for Excellence in Playwriting, 2004 Jane Chambers Finalist, produced by ToyBox Theatre and Theatre Limina of St. Paul); “Trying Not to Stare” (Workshop, Portland Theatre Works through a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council); “Picking Up the Baby” (2006 NY International Fringe Festival); “American Soil” (Produced by Vital Theatre, New York); “A Little Chatter” (Commissioned and produced by Mile Square Theatre, produced by City Theatre, Finalist 2008 National 10-Minute Play Contest, forthcoming Playscripts, Inc.); “When It Stands Still” (produced by ToyBox Theatre); and others that have been produced throughout the United States. Some of her monologues have appeared in the Smith & Kraus Audition Arsenal series, and she is the editor of two recent volumes, Singular Voices: Monologues from the International Centre for Women Playwrights and The Politics of American Actor Training. Ellen is a member of Playwrights West and the Dramatists Guild.

Exclusive Interview with Playwright Augusto Amador

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Augusto Amador discusses his new play The Book of Leonidas.

What was your inspiration for the play?

I started this play thinking about legacy and tradition. These both can be very compelling and positive factors for people. That is, if you accept the legacy and tradition you have been raised to follow. The hard question is: What happens if you don’t want to walk the path that has been laid out for you by your family? If you fear that you will lose your identity in the forced march to duplicate your father’s life?

My goal in telling this story is to show the consequences and damage that can come with breaking free. Pieces of oneself are irrevocably destroyed in this process. At the end, will there be enough of oneself to begin again?

What do you want the audience to come away with?

The Pabon family are haunted and followed by the actions of a dictator that died in another country over fifty years ago. In everyday life, some families are influenced by an event that happened two, three, even four generations ago. The next generation repeats the lives of the previous one, and the one before that and so on, not even aware of why they do. They just do. As one of my character says in another one of my plays, “The dead always affect the living…always.”

What was the most challenging part of writing this play?

The ending for me was the most challenging.  So without giving it away, I believe the ending was the most realistic.

Why did you start writing plays?

It’s safe to say that one could label me as a loner. Solitude has for the most part come easy to me. And well, writing requires solitude, so it’s been a good fit.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

Love your solitude.

About the Playwright: “The Book of Leonidas” is currently a semi-finalist for the 2015 Eugene O’Neill Conference and was recently a part of the Playwright’s Nest Festival at the Los Angeles Theater Center. Augusto was a playwriting fellow with the 2011 Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater in New York. In addition to the Public Theater’s Spotlight Series, his plays have also been presented at the Lark Play Development Center, Terra Nova Collective’s Groundbreaking Series, Repertorio Espanol, Red Room, Queens Theater in The Park, and INTAR Theater. In Los Angeles, his plays have been presented at the Celebration Theatre, Audrey-Skirball Kenis Theater Projects, Playwrights Arena, the Blank Theater, Ricardo Montalban Theater, Imagined Life Theater, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum as part of the Seedlings New Play Series, the John Anson Ford Theater, and the Inkubator new play reading series at the Skylight Theater. He has also served a playwright residency at the Arkansas Repertory Theater in Little Rock, Ark. His plays have been finalists or semi-finalists for the Eugene O’Neill Conference (2011, 2015), the Sundance Theater Lab, INTAR Playwright’s Lab, The Metlife National Latino Playwriting Award, Bay Area Playwrights Foundation, The Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation, Kitchen Dog New Play Festival and the Hormel New Play Festival at the Phoenix Theater. Augusto was named  a finalist for the prestigious 2013 Terrance McNally Award and for the 2013 Clifford Odets Ensemble New Play Commission from the Lee Strasberg Theater & Film Institute. Augusto was a member of 2014 Los Angeles Latino Theater Alliance’s Writers Circle. His play “Kissing Che” was listed in HowlRound’s, “101 Plays by The New Americans, or on Latinidad.”

Interview with Playwright James Lantz

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James Lantz discusses his play, The Bus

What was your inspiration for this play?

A few years ago there was a spate of heartbreaking suicides of gay teens, and some of them had a connection to a church or religion, and the whole thing just made me profoundly sad and angry at the same time. Then this image of a parked bus came to me, and it wouldn’t leave. And that’s where it started. Writing is such a beautiful and mysterious thing.

What playwrights have inspired you?

Instead, can I tell you a filmmaker that I’m inspired by? Alfred Hitchcock has been my cinematic teacher and idol. As a storyteller, he was brilliant. I love how he was constantly experimenting, pushing against boundaries and threw plausibility out the window. His masterpiece, ‘Vertigo,’ is one of the least plausible stories ever — and yet, like a brilliant magician, Hitchcock leaves you spellbound so that you never think how unrealistic it all is. I love his sense of humor and innuendo, his artistry and fearless digging into psychological themes.

What kind of stories excite you?

You can’t Google a feeling. The world is already full of knowledge and it’s right at our fingertips all of the time and there’s something insanely numbing about all this information. But a story that evokes feelings, passion or, what David Foster Wallace once wrote as being ‘an erection of the heart’ — that’s the kind of story that makes me want to be alive and stay alive, and I can’t get enough of.

What projects are you working on now?

I make my living as a filmmaker so I’ve got a few film projects I’m working on including a couple of documentaries. I’m also writing a new play and am working to adapt part of “The Bus” into a short film. I just finished writing the script and have started sending it out to producers and actors.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

Instead of advice, I have admiration, tons of respect, and two lines from a Robert Frost poem that hang above my desk:

“Here are your waters and your watering place.

Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”

Interview with Playwright Zoe Kamil

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Zoe Kamil discusses her play, Nine Hours.

What was your inspiration for the play?

This play has been a part of my life for just about 2 years (more than that, if we’re counting the period of time where the play existed as a feeling and an idea rather than words), and I’ve been asked this question many times. It never fails to give me pause.

I can count two experiences as being directly responsible for the thematic content of the play: my attendance at a Jewish private school, and my adolescence set against the backdrop of ultra-liberal, ultra-wacky San Francisco. The science-fictiony plot of the play did not, however, come from any sort of personal experience. I knew that I wanted to create a world for these very different characters that could have the potential to trap them or set them free, and a post-apocalyptic wasteland happened to fit that description perfectly.

What do you want the audience to come away with?

With any luck, a sense of hope. In too many ways to list here, I think our world is becoming the sort of environment that my characters find themselves in. Obviously, we are not headed toward any sort of storm-like apocalypse in the foreseeable future, but the stakes are so high at this point in history. Hopefully, when and if we as humans are forced to make that ultimate, base choice, “fight or flight,” we will be able to behave like Faye and Michal, and find some way to reconcile with one another rather than disperse and compartmentalize as a society and a species. I think that, with the proper amount of pressure and intention, any two people or groups of people have the potential to come together.

What was the most challenging part of writing this play?

Writing fantasy is difficult. It takes a very particular combination of creativity and logical thinking to make a story like this one ring true, and establish the rules of an imaginary world with the utmost specificity. It took me a while to find my footing there.

What playwrights have inspired you?

Among countless others: Annie Baker, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Anton Chekhov, Gina Gionfriddo, Katori Hall, Stephen Karam, Chris Durang, Wendy Wasserstein, Henrik Ibsen, Tony Kushner, Sam Shepard, Caryl Churchill, Sarah Ruhl, Paula Vogel.

Why did you start writing plays?

Ostensibly, I started writing plays because I took a class in my sophomore year of high school with a brilliant teacher who went out of her way to mentor and guide me, but probably also because I like to talk, I like to listen, and I like words. I like the idea of what gets said out loud and how it relates to what doesn’t. And I’ve loved performance and theatre of all kinds from a very young age.

What projects are you working on now?

Two full length plays: one that I’ve been working on for about a year and a half now, which is partly a courtroom drama, partly a religious fantasy, and partly an episodic play that travels through time non-chronologically to explore the events surrounding a rape in a public high school, and rape culture in general. Stylistically, I like to think of it as “12 Angry Men” meets “Angels in America” meets “Mean Girls.” Another play that is very research heavy, and not even a full first draft yet, is about a woman with mental illness in the 1960s, among other things.

What kind of theatre excites you?

Different aesthetics speak to me at different times. Recently, I’ve been fascinated with visually epic or stunning theatre. Stories that feel like they were meant to exist on stage – that they could only exist on stage – because they’re so inherently theatrical and present.

You are the associate director of a theatre company, Semicolon Theatre Company, run entirely for and by those under 21. What is it like being both a young theatre artist and theatre leader?

“Theatre leader” sounds so impressive! Really, we’re just doing the best we can, working things out as we go along. I run Semicolon alongside my dearest friend Miranda Cornell, who is an inspirational theatre artist herself. The company was born from a shared feeling of intense frustration with the state of theatre for young people. Why are there so few opportunities for youth to try their hands at more than just the performance aspect of theatre? Why is the content of plays targeted towards youth often so shallow and watered-down? We produced two plays off-off Broadway last year. Watching them come together proved to Miranda and I what we already knew when we founded the company; that tweens and teens experience the world with a distinct perceptiveness and that we have strong, powerful points of view. That being said, as a young artist myself, the mission of Semicolon is incredible vital and personal to me.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

This is an interesting question, in that I myself feel as though I’m a playwright just starting out. To anyone who is sitting down to write his or her very first play though, I will say this: just do it. Start writing words. Write from emotion, write a strong voice that compels you, and worry about plot and structure later.

Interview with Playwright Aleks Merilo

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Aleks Merilo discusses his play, Tango Mike

What was your inspiration for this play?

My grandfather. He was an army veteran with a stoic nature, but I learned that towards the end of his life, he scheduled these terse phone calls with a retired navy officer who lived nearby. The brusque nature of these calls seemed to disguise a deep reservoir of compassion between these two men.

What do you want the audience to come away with?

What someone takes away from a play is what they bring to it. I believe we all have quiet but powerful relationships in our lives; my hope is that this may ring true with others’ own relationships.

What playwrights have inspired you?

Most recently, Ernest Joselovitz for his script “Vilna’s Got a Golem.” A story of Russian-Jewish actors, I initially I thought I was watching a comedy. As the play progressed, my expectations were so utterly reversed that I still have not forgotten the chill I got at the show’s conclusion. Absolutely harrowing.

Why did you start writing plays?

I feel that theater is alive in a way other literature is not. It’s the closest thing I can think of to stepping into a painting and becoming part of the imagined world.

What kind of theatre excites you?

Simple stories about complex characters.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

Book a reading, show up, and don’t tell anyone you are the playwright. Best and most honest feedback you will ever get.

One of your works, The Widow of Tom’s Hill, is going to be produced Off-Broadway at 59E59. Can you tell us a little about the process of developing the play and getting it to this stage?

I really thought this play would never be staged. A play about a real life quarantine in 1918 Washington, I felt it was too, too dark, and the staging too limiting.

It turns out that belief was a wonderfully liberating tool; it allowed me to take some creative risks that I would never have taken otherwise, experimenting with theatrical structure, telling a horror story disguised as a fairy tale. At each reading the universal comment from the audience was “more, “and suddenly a 15-minute experiment became a 90-minute full length.

The rest I owe to Rachel Black Spaulding at Luna Stage in New Jersey – She really championed this play.

Is there anything you would like to add? 

There are far too few theaters that devote themselves so passionately to new works. The ones that do deserve enormous recognition – Here are a few companies and professionals that I think all playwrights should be so lucky to know: The Landing Theater in Houston, Texas; The Sanguine in New York City; Trey Nichols at The Moving Arts in Los Angeles; Mike Ricci at North Hennipen, Minnesota. It is my deepest belief that these are the theater professionals that other companies should seek to emulate.

Aleks Merilo is an award-winning and critically acclaimed playwright based in Portland, OR. Merilo’s scripts include “Exit 27″ (performed at the Landing Theatre in Houston, Texas, and The Sanguine Theatre Company in New York City) “Blur in the Rear View” (winner of the James Rodgers Playwriting Contest, premiered at the University of Kentucky, Lexington) and “Little Moscow” (winner of the Dubuque Playwriting Contest, performed at the Labute New Play Festival). His plays have been performed and developed at Furious Theatre Company at the Pasadena Playhouse, Old Globe Theater, Fertile Ground Festival of New Works in Portland, OR, Pittsburgh New Works Festival, Ross Valley Players, The Moving Arts Theater, The UCLA New Play Festival, and Portland Readers Theater. Originally from Palo Alto, CA, Aleks holds a BA in Theater and an MFA in playwriting from The UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television. Merilo’s play “The Widow of Tom’s Hill” has recently been slated for a 2015 Off-Broadway production at 59E59 Theaters in New York. Congratulations, Aleks!

Watch this blog for more exclusive interviews from Proscenium‘s four other playwrights!

Interview with Playwright David Jacobi

David Jacobi, photo by Patrick Weishampel

David Jacobi discusses his play, Mai Dang Lao.

What was your inspiration for the play?

I hope this doesn’t spoil the ending.

The play was born from two separate ideas. The incident that occurs in the play is based on true events that occurred in 2004 at a Kentucky McDonalds. A young employee was detained, strip searched, and raped by people who were given instructions by a man over the phone who claimed to be a police officer.

From 2009 to 2012, I lived in China, working in theatre. During my time there, I learned about a persistent issue. Every city in China has a law enforcement division called “Chengguan.” They’re kind of like traffic cops; enforcing picayune code rather than tackle crime. Some of these officers are extremely violent, hospitalizing and occasionally beating to death migrant workers for petty infractions. One day, their employee manual was leaked online. It’s some scary, troubling stuff; tips on how to beat someone without leaving marks, philosophical statements that cement an “us vs. them” mentality. I noticed that when translated into English, it doesn’t seem like it’s a government manual from halfway around the world. It could easily be ours.

What do you want the audience to come away with?

I definitely want the audience to leave feeling less safe than they did before. It’s easy to dismiss the real life event by saying, “Well, of course something like this happened in Kentucky,” or “It makes sense because they were minimum wage fast food workers” as if abuse and subjugation have geographical or socio-economic boundaries.

What was the most challenging part of writing this play?

Adapting the real life event while not letting it dictate where the play could go. In many drafts, this play came across like a grotesque post-mortem. That’s the last thing I wanted. This event is far from dead; these events are still occurring, and in far more subtle and insidious ways.

I tend to lean towards comedic work. While it seems wrong to allow opportunities for an audience to laugh following a horrific scene, I think it was important to keep the absurdity of the world chugging along. After seeing a reading of this play, Constance Congdon referred to it as “Kevin Smith meets Kafka.”

What playwrights have inspired you?

Ionesco, Brecht, Shepard, Thomas Bradshaw, Sarah Kane, Naomi Iizuka, Richard Maxwell, Megan Gogerty, Nick Jones, Gina Gionfriddo, Kathleen Tolan.

Why did you start writing plays?

I think I was always writing plays, as early as the 4th grade. But I was very confused, and thought I was writing short stories or poems or love letters. Once mentors started taking me to shows, I realized what I’ve been trying to do.

What projects are you working on now?

This play is actually the first installment of plays about labor politics in the US and in China. I’m currently working on the third and final play, which is about retirement. I’ve just finished my latest draft of Widower, a pro-wrestling play inspired by David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

I’m entering my final year at UC San Diego. My biggest project right now is to find an artistic home once I graduate.

What kind of theatre excites you?

I like the plays that unravel in your head hours after you’ve seen them. The plays that make more sense to you in the first few minutes after waking up, when you’re still shaking out the cobwebs. Polarizing plays. Plays that are either under two hours or over six hours long. I long to see a play that has to end abruptly because a riot broke out in the audience.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

Read. Follow your tastes (especially non-theatre related), and it’ll eventually take you somewhere you want to be. If you’re never fully satisfied, you’re on the right track. Be your strongest advocate. As Naomi Iizuka says, find your tribe.

Interview with Playwright Chris Holbrook

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Chris Holbrook discusses his play, Ski Lift.

What was your inspiration for this play?

A ski lift, for me, is the perfect place for great theater. You’re stuck with strangers whom you would never talk to otherwise, and there is no escape. Even better, once you arrive at the top of the mountain, you’ll probably never see them again. I love that too. You spend all this time getting to know them and then you’ve got about two seconds to say goodbye.

I started thinking about this play when I was on a ski lift in France. I was skiing alone, and half the time I would ride with total strangers. The lift was long, and we had plenty of time to small talk, or in some cases, talk about things that I’ve never discussed with anyone since. Now I don’t want to suggest that I had deeply profound discussions with these people. But at the same time, it wasn’t small talk either. The other half of the time, I rode up alone, and, surrounded by a beauty that bordered on the dream-like, I had plenty of time to think about these conversations—as well as Life’s Profound Questions that most of us succeed in blocking out during our daily lives. Somewhere in between these lifts, usually on the way down, “Ski Lift” began to percolate.

What was the most challenging part of writing this play?

As is often the case, it’s the cutting and revising, not the writing, that nearly kills you.

What playwrights have inspired you?

Recently, Joe Orton, Neil Labute, Alan Ayckbourn.

Why did you start writing plays?

I got tired of convincing myself not to write them.

What projects are you working on now?

Too many. The question is, how do I get these projects produced?

What kind of theatre excites you?

Almost anything. The one exception is the skeleton-in-the-closet, family-reunion dramas. But even those, if they’re funny, and if the acting is great, I still enjoy.

Interview with Playwright Augusto Frederico Amador

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Augusto Frederico Amador discusses his play, Kissing Che.

What was your inspiration for this play?

I’m very obsessed with historical events and the impact on human lives that they exact, whether just or unjust. What caught my attention was that the persecution of homosexuals by the Castro regime was not very well known, at least by most Americans. So through my imagination, I found myself compelled to tell the stories of the persecuted. More obsessed than inspired I guess you could say. And in Kissing Che, one of the perspectives was through Reina, a fictional Cuban female impersonator.

What do you want the audience to come away with?

I want the audience to experience what Reina and Tamika experienced — the guilt, the shame and finally the redemption. As the poet Rilke would say, “To begin is violent.” And that is particularly true of these two.

What was the most challenging part of writing this play?

Well, I’m not gay, nor have I have I ever been a drag queen. So, it was important to allow these people to talk as human beings and not get caught up in perceptions. And once I allowed my imagination to roam — that is let Reina, Tamika, Mirabella and Derek just speak to each other as people — I knew I could start writing their stories.

Why did you start writing plays?

It’s safe to say that one could label me as a loner. Solitude has for the most part come easy to me. And well, writing requires solitude, so it’s been a good fit.

What projects are you working on now?

I just finished a play called the Book of Leonidas which centers around a small time Dominican-American hustler selling loosies on a block in Queens that his deceased and legendary crime lord father used to rule over in the 1970s. It’s a play that asks if it’s possible for a son to escape the sins of the father. And I’ve begun a new play about a young prison caretaker working in a hospice in San Quentin taking care of the dying inmates while struggling to come to terms with his accepting the consequences of his guilt. Redemption ain’t an easy road.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

Love your solitude.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Yes, special thanks to my family, director Victor Maog, the Latino Theater Alliance, the Public Theater and my past mentor Diana Castle. As she says, “The work informs your life.”

A Statement from Playwright Damon Chua

Damon Chua, photo by Win Lubin

Damon Chua discusses his play, Black Coffee Green Tea.

I am a playwright of color and committed to creating opportunities for artists of all color. To that end, all my plays, full-length and the shorter ones, are ethnically diverse or are designed to allow for color-blind casting. Black Coffee Green Tea is no exception. The piece calls for four actors – three Asian and one black. I think it is a combination that is uncommon. I also think it is needed. Through the juxtaposition of different ethnicities on stage, I hope not only to highlight stereotypical views we often harbor of one another, but also to challenge the audience on such thinking.

Of course, I also like to entertain, and Black Coffee Green Tea is clearly a comedy. I believe that if we can laugh about our differences, the more likely we are to see our similarities, and the quicker we will emerge into a post-racial world, where such labels are no longer necessary. I may be considered naïve and too optimistic about this matter, but hope springs eternal. That is why I write.

One of the challenges about writing this play is building up a stereotype and then tearing it down – there is only so much anyone can do in ten minutes, across four characters, while cleaving to a narrative that is compelling from start to finish. However successful I have been on this front, I am proud of this play, for its somewhat subversive transgressions wrapped in an easy-to-swallow candy patina.

I admire plays that are political without being preachy, cutting-edge without being self-conscious. I am currently working on a full-length piece, incidentally titled “Optimism,” on how the social optimism of the 1960s morphed into the capitalistic optimism of the 1980s. Like Black Coffee Green Tea, it is ostensibly funny while dealing with serious issues at its core. I guess that is where I am as a playwright, and truth be told, it is not a bad place to be.

Interview with Playwright Andrea Lepcio

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Andrea Lepcio discusses her play, Looking for the Pony

What was your inspiration for this play?

I woke up writing the play in the middle of the night about six months after my sister died. It is a true story and suddenly I felt moved to try to capture the extraordinary experience that was cancer. I wrote a 20-minute play that went on to be done by several festivals and got published. The second director and cast asked me to write a full length version. I said “She’s dead, what do you want from me.” But with their encouragement, I went back to writing. The core of this supportive group was Michelle Hurd, Adrienne Hurd (yes, sisters) and Barbara Gulan. I wrote and tossed out pages. We would get together to hear it. I was resisting much of what the play wanted to be. Finally, my mentor, who is Big Writer in the play, said why don’t you tell the story chronologically. I sat down and it started to feel right — hard and painful — but right. Different notions of the play caused the original group to disperse and I found new colleagues as I moved toward production. That was also sad, but sometimes that can happen as a work finds its life.

What do you want the audience to come away with?

I love sharing my sister with audiences. So first that they have to joy of coming to know this wonderful person. I want them, of course, to have a catharsis, but it is very important to me that they are released by the end of the play. J. Smith Cameron who originated the role of Oisie really helped me with this. It was her idea to bring their familiar mantra in as the closing line of the play. I always loved how she delivered that line because I think she gave audiences what they needed. Release from the pain back to the fullness of life which is, of course, what had to happen for Oisie to be able to go on. And for me.

What was the most challenging part of writing this play?

That I was writing me. I wanted to write my sister. I was less interested in writing me. I found my story much less compelling. I had to dig in to allow myself to write the fullness of our relationship. She was helping me give birth to my new life as she was fighting for her own life.

What playwrights have inspired you?

So many, truly. I had the great joy of studying with Irene Fornes, Tina Howe and Milan Stitt (Big Writer). Beckett is a beacon. Williams is an invitation. Current writers I go to school on include Lisa Kron, Janine Nabers, Kimber Lee, Will Eno, and more. I think we are in a very rich time for playwriting.

Why did you start writing plays?

I wanted to be an actor when I was little, but got derailed by conservative parents. When I came back to acting as an adult, I got involved with a new theater that became the Mint Theater. At the time, they were offering classes and one was playwriting. I took it…for fun. It was like meeting myself. It had never previously occurred to me to be a writer, but that class was life changing. Does that answer the question? Suddenly I had stories I wanted to tell and I fell in love, specifically, with dialogue as a way to tell stories. I got teased a lot as a kid for talking too much, and I guess it is true that I love what people say and that we say things to get what we want, to figure life out, to make connections. I also feel once I discovered writing, I found it to be a great way to think about the world. It allows me to ask questions and ponder all the things about life that I don’t understand. So much! It is a way to reach for….truth.

What projects are you working on now?

I am kind of insane. I write multiple projects at once. The lead project of the moment is a climate change play specifically about the ozone agreement (Montreal Protocol) and the contrast between the success of that agreement and the failure to date of the climate agreement (Kyoto Protocol). It is a big fat research dependent play about extraordinary people doing the good work. I’ve got a new rock musical with Ariel Aparicio called Lf&Tms. And I’ll be doing a workshop this fall with a dance theater piece Me You Us Them with director Jo Cattell.

What kind of theatre excites you?

I like theater that is intimate with the audience (as opposed to distancing). I like wild and theatrical. I like to see things I’ve never seen before. I have to have diverse casts. All white theater bores me.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

Write every day. Tina Howe told me to do that about 15 years ago. She said that way I can write poorly for… And she paused. I thought she would say a day or at most a week. She said for four months. That struck fear in my heart. She said, I can write poorly for four months because I know I’m going to write every day and eventually I will start writing better again. I’ve written every day ever since.

Andrea Lepcio is best known for Looking for the Pony, finalist for the Dramatists Guild Hull-Warriner Award and for the NEA Outstanding New American Play Award. It was presented in a “Rolling World Premiere” Off-Broadway at Vital Theatre Company in New York and Synchronicity Performance Group in Atlanta and had several subsequent productions. Plays and musicals under development include World Avoided, Strait of Gibraltar, Central Avenue Breakdown, Room 16 and Lf&Tms. Andrea is the Dramatists Guild Fellows Program Director. M.F.A. Dramatic Writing, Carnegie Mellon University. B.A. Human Ecology, College of the Atlantic. Andrea lives in Harlem, New York and Seal Cove, Maine.

 

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