Composition Master Pieces Identity
Is a New York-based playwright and actor. He has directed and/or performed in his plays “Jack,” “The Home Show Pieces,” “2 Samuel 11, Etc. at Home, “Dead Mother, or Shirley Not All in Vain” (NYC Public Theatre), “She Stoops to Comedy,” (Obie Award), “Go Back to Where You Are” (Playwrights Horizons), “The Argument” (Target Margin Theatre – Obie Award), “The Myopia” (The Foundry), “Jonas” (Transport Group), and with songwriter Stephin Merritt “Coraline” (MTC). He has received two performance Obies – one for Terrence McNally’s “Some Men” and Goethe’s “Faust,” one for Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band.” His other appearances include “The Patsy” (Off Broadway Alliance Award nom., Outer Critics Circle Award nom., “Beebo Brinker Chronicles” (Drama League Award nom., Lucille Lortel Award nom., Outer Critics Circle Award nom.), “Punk Rock,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (CSC), and premieres of works by David Adimi, Sarah Ruhl, Todd Almond, Adam Rapp, Michi Barall, William Hoffman, Linda Chapman and Kate Moira Ryan, David Grimm, Kathleen Tolan, Harry Kondoleon, Paul Zimet and Ellen Maddow, José Rivera, Kirk Lynn, Lee MacDougall, Mac Wellman, Richard Foreman, Elizabeth Egloff, and Jefferey M. Jones. He received Guggenheim, and Lortel fellowships, Alpert Award and an Obie for Sustained Achievement. He received the Lamda Literary Award, CalArts/Alpert Awards in the Arts.
I understand your most play, “The Things That Were There,” will be produced at the Bushwick Starr in January, 2017.
It is the most recent play I just finished. It deals with different memories and it kind of was transformed through repetition. It covers many things – there’s a family whose story alters as the play goes on as well as their children. It’s infused with memories of childhood and adolescence. The memories shift, in a sense are rewritten, during the course of the play. In a way, different memories grow. The New Dramatists have a regular event, and people bid for you as a playwright and I was commissioned to write it.
Harold Clurman once remarked we live in an age of amnesia. Do you find audiences have a shorter span of attention and that we remember less and less as we go on?
Go Back to Where You Are
It’s hard for me to answer as I’ve not asked a sampling of my audiences. It’s not true of me because I don’t allow myself to be bombarded by everything going on. But it’s interesting because when I worked on the Gertrude Stein piece, she said that when you’re younger, you may remember one moment or two in a play and you remember them for a while but as you get older, the memories don’t remain as clear. When I’ve seen a play, there are usually a few moments I remember very vividly, unless I’m very familiar with the play and I’ve read it or seen a recent revival. You really have to revisit it to refresh your experience, your understanding, your comprehension. Generally, it’s true, we don’t hold a whole play in our heads for a long period of time. And I see so many people on the subway on their cell phones constantly, and it’s hard not to think that people are more and more distracted, so I can’t imagine it helps with the audience experience in the theater.
You have said as a youngster growing up in Los Angeles you would listen to musicals and plays on the radio. What effect do you think it had on you?
They were my first experience of the theater; my father would record these broadcasts on a reel-to-reel recorder from the radio of “Broadway Showtime,” a weekly radio broadcast. I feel I may not have become a better listener but I developed a real appreciation for the listening experience and that had an impact on me. I’d listen to recordings of musicals, like “The Wizard of Oz,” and “Born Yesterday.” I’d hear Mary Martin in “Peter Pan,” Ethel Merman. I hadn’t yet seen any of the shows yet, but I’d play them over and over.
I think it played an important part in my becoming a playwright, because the theater is as much a listening experience as a viewing experience. Gertrude Stein wrote about sound and sight being coordinated in a theatrical experience. Sometimes theater can be more of a visual experience unless it’s vocabulary predominant, language-driven play, which they generally are, requiring a great deal of listening. We know the impact of a performer, his face, his actions, his behavior can have on the stage, his body language can have an enormous impact.
Who were inspirations for you when you began in the theater?
I hesitate to give you an answer because there were so many that impacted on me in a positive way and I feel if I start naming people I’d certainly leave someone off. I guess there’s no one person except today I actually thinking about Joe Papp. I didn’t encounter him until he had come to see my work. I’d have to say he was a most complex man, but the amount of experience and opportunities he brought to so many people is quite inspiring. So many people were given opportunities to delve into their work and so many audiences had experiences they wouldn’t have had otherwise. He set quite a high bar, he was really quite remarkable.
In the 1980’s, you were a playwright-in-residence at HOME for Contemporary Theatre and Art, and then 1990, Joseph Papp hired you, along with George C. Wolfe and Michael Greif, to be Directors-in residence at The Public Theatre. You then directed a season of your plays at the Public Theater, including your epic farce, “Dead Mother, or Shirley Not All in Vain.”' How did these experiences strengthen you, and inform you as a director and an actor/playwright?
The main thing with HOME is that I had opportunity to work nonstop. They were very generous to invite me to participate there and put on my shows, which were all located in one room, along with the other plays I developed there. It was a profoundly helpful opportunity.
Joe came and after seeing my work, invited me in a way. He said to me in a card he sent me: “Watch out – I’m in your future.” You can imagine how thrilling it was but I didn’t know what he meant. In hindsight, I think I was in a little over my head at The Public. Of course, having my plays in production there and being with The Public Theatre, working with the artists there, and with Michael and George. It all led to a cumulative exciting experience.
How did you begin to find out who Harold was when you played him in the revival of “The Boys in the Band?”
In a way it’s hard to recall. I did study Leonard Frey’s performance in particular, preparing for the audition. I always thought I was copying him, but Mart Crowley (the playwright), assured me I was different. I’d often look at tapes of the show, and I was particularly fit and right for the role. It was an intuitive fit, and a great experience working with the cast, and with Ken Elliot. the director.
The character is a reflection of the kind of banter that went on between all of them. A lot of the dialogue was similar to the conversations I’d hear when I was young going on between my aunts and uncles, who would complain a lot. It wasn’t that Harold was complainer, but he had an immediate level of frankness, which I could relate to, based in my case, on familial acquaintances. I felt it was like a family playing Harold, in a sense, ‘just another birthday party with the folks.’
Can you talk about how “Dead Mother,” in which you played a man who impersonated a virtuosic hysterical character, not in drag, but sporting a single strand of pearls – came about.
How did “Dead Mother” start? I think I had an idea of someone haunted by his mother’s death. What would that be like? And it was also partly inspired by my reading of Jeffrey Jones’s work, and Mac Wellman’s work too. I had this idea of a collage. It has been said that the collage was the most important art form of the 20th century; I know that’s a very broad remark. I can’t validate it, but it impressed me. So the piece became, in a way, like a collage. The family was intact, but the setting changed regularly, and during my working on the piece I was inspired by Ulysses and incorporated aspects of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. I’m not a highly literate person, so it was a very short story which was embellished by a lot of different things going on.
Your play, “The Myopia” which you performed in 1998, was an adaptation of Aristotle's Poetics, and also involved the presidency of Warren G. Harding. Where did that take you as a playwright/performer at the time?
I think that emerged because I was working with Gertrude Stein’s lectures and I was trying to arrive at emotional states, working for the appropriate emotional condition and play actions, developing characteristics, in concert with Brian (Mertes), the director, who helped me to just modulate and hone the movement. The characterization was my invention. And Melanie Joseph, the producer, also helped modulate and refine some of the solo pieces. My primary action was trying to make the ideas as clear as possible.
Was it a definite choice you made to direct your own plays? Do you still consider it necessary for you to direct your new plays?
These days I like leaving it in surer hands than my own. I see now the opportunity to let someone else guide my performance and guide the production and its turned out well. There’s really no hard and fast rule when it comes to a playwright directing their own work. Charles Ludlum was so remarkable doing both, and acting in his pieces, and Richard Foreman and Richard Nelson both direct their plays, but they don’t act in them. They both very fine directors. I think there’s no harm in trying if you want to direct your own play if you have a sense of a director’s inclination. With “The Myopia,” I really had to keep the ball in the air on my own; but even in solo work there’s collaboration.
What led you to include Harding in the play?
It was at the time of the Nixon Watergate scandals, and there was a resurgent interest in Harding. A book was published: The Shadow of Blooming Grove, about his presidency which was also rocked by scandals, so that peaked my interest. And my father was always threatening to write a musical about Harding, which allowed me to add a comic and dramatic aspect to “Myopia.”
When I saw your play, “Coraline,” in 2009, which was a collaboration between you and Stephin Merritt, directed by Leigh Silverman, from Neil Gaiman’s book, the stage was filled toy pianos, piano parts and battered doors. When I had interviewed Jayne Houdyshell, who played the lead role in the show, she talked about how much she admired your work and how everything on stage was used to bring the piece alive. Were you pleased with how that took off?
There were some wonderful aspects about it, it was very challenging to make it work well. If it were to be done again, there are things I’d like to improve. I’m not a great re-writer, and it was always my goal to be very faithful to the novel. Some felt too faithful, but I’m not a great adapter. I admired Stephin’s music and the songs were very fruitful. I admired Jayne, everyone in the cast. I had worked at MCC before and since. There were many happy and memorable moments, and it was great being back at the Lortel Theatre – that was where I had done “The Boys in the Band.
She Stoops to Comedy
What made your comedy, “She Stoops to Comedy,” come off so well? You had directed it, and you also had wonderful cast including yourself, T. Ryder Smith, E. Katherine Kerr, and Marissa Copeland.
That was at the time I was directing all my own plays. I think it worked so well because we all just jumped in to have a good time; there was no angst. I just sort of stood there and said move there, where do you want to go…it was that that kind of thing. I would sometimes feel somewhat silly holding up my hand pretending to be a woman dressed as a man, but everyone entered into the production with this great spirit.
You’ve said that with “I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees,” you had written into the play that the two men who owned the theatre where Helen was performing “A Streetcar Named Desire” were lovers, that you had used some of the writing of a woman who had been an apprentice in that summer stock production, and had made her a character in my show. As it turned out, one of the actresses who had worked with Keith Nobbs (who was in the show), knew that woman, and you ended up speaking to that woman, and she told you that the two men who actually owned the summer stock theatre were lovers. And you had written that without having any idea they were.
I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees
They were; it was just an amazing moment! I was so thrilled to find that out when I spoke with her. I think it was just chance; a happy mistake. I had seen the photos of the production at the stock theater, and it wasn’t a matter of putting two and two, I think it was just a remarkable coincidence, just my imagination, an invention.
In what way did Gertrude Stein’s work influence you in writing the play?
When I was writing the scenes over, there was an influence by Stein – the scenes would come out a little differently each time. She was on my mind; there was this circularity in each re-visit and that would make it different each time. I don’t think it was a conscious attempt to make it different, but it came out differently.
It’s kind of a profound idea what Gertrude Stein said at one point. She was talking about the work she had done, and that none of it had been her intention, but that it was inevitable. I like to think about it as an enigmatic thing. In a way, some things are a given – who you are, where you’re raised, the circumstances we find ourselves. Do we have a choice? Do we make our choices? There are social, cultural, political, familial forces at operation that create inevitable situations that in turn occur, and we then we have to make choices.
Can you talk about your interest in the ephemeral? It plays a part in your play, “The Patsy,” and you’ve talked about your feeling that most people in the theatre, particularly performers, will not be remembered – that you’re interested in the people that aren’t well remembered. You’ve said: “I believe that’s true of every person – and that idea inspired a line in your play, “Helen Twelvetrees” about the dead, “…rising in memory until the last shadow that remembers them fades as well.”
It has become more important for me as I’ve gotten older. I share a personal connection with many people and when I think about the possibility of just the change in my apartment, and I that I may have to install some railings at some point, because of how I’ll be aging. I hope I’ll live a long time but as you get older, things pass, people pass. We live in a time where so many people have left us for many reasons, the AIDS epidemic, here in New York City, and around the country.
I find I’m working with younger and younger people, and I often find that my experience and age often makes me the senior member of the acting company; it’s interesting. I think partly, it’s about one’s attitude towards life that keeps you going.
What do you love the most about creating for the theater?
Well, I like collaborating with people. I like playwriting and acting. Writing a play is a very intimate enterprise because it’s fully engaging your imagination. Again if you’re giving a committed performance as a solo performer, your imagination is fully engaged but you’re in collaboration with a director and a playwright’s vision. Ideally, they’re both equally rewarding activities for me. I like them all other aspects, beyond the simple social aspect of being in a play. I just did a show with eleven other guys in the dressing room, and it made it possible to feel like we’re all just one big happy family.