Our 2017-2018 Literary Intern, Kate Schwartz, interviewed several of this year’s Soundings playwrights about their work, both past and present. Here’s a transcript of her interview with Hal Corley.

 

KS:  In researching your impressive body of work, your plays seem extremely character driven. The main characters so often have to undergo some form of emotional transformation. Why are you drawn to writing such character driven pieces about the human experience?

 

HC:  Though I majored in English, I studied playwriting in the academic sense (if informally) after I began writing. When I discovered the obligatory scene – from the French for “the scene that must be done” – I realized that a craft component is fundamental to the way I view character. Marsha Norman famously said, and not in a glib way, that the audience is always “waiting for the moment when they can go home.” To me, that’s the germ of every useful dramatic idea: a character who reaches his or her “obligatory” moment, that emotional instant when elements of a single life coalesce, more often than not around a decision and its consequences. It’s obligatory because it’s necessarily built in, expected if not entirely predictable. My ideas for my plays always work backward from that ultimately compulsory transformation. A mother can’t find her runaway daughter and must face a future without her. An overly protective father finally releases his adult son to the greater world. A tortured adolescent finds agency beyond the narrow parameters of a psychiatric diagnosis. I’m drawn to lives that push on, headlong, those characters determined to reach those unavoidable crossroads or the fork in a personal road.  I don’t start a play unless that moment feels self-evident.  The challenge of course, is how to set it up, where and when to start. The audience has to be told what to wait for, what the cues might look like that trigger what they know must happen. That’s perhaps the hardest part.

 

KS:  The recurring themes throughout so many of your plays include family relationships, class, and characters haunted by a troubling past. These characters are so often forced to be still and face their pasts in the midst of hurricanes, snow storms, and other weather events. Why is it so difficult for people (especially) Americans to be still?

 

HC:  A profound question, worthy of much consideration beyond my work.  Preliminary exploration: Whether a non life-threatening blackout during a summer storm, or eleven days in the cold, dark, and damp while coping with Sandy, people face (and sometimes find) themselves when routine is disrupted. When externals force paralysis. In a culture defined by access, the loss of entrée to information creates a slowdown, often complete cessation of quotidian tasks. Unbidden stillness. It’s a cliché that we are overwhelmed by distractions, but a sobering truth. But before we had even landline phones, playwrights isolated characters, forcing either physical or psychological adventure (a storm shipwrecks twins in Twelfth Night after all, and The Tempest’s impact is self-explanatory). Isolation is a powerful dramatic device.  Makes unique demands and always activates, including forcing contemplation. Either mulling survival strategy, or how-the-hell-did-I-get-here reflection, or a combination. Whole lives are often decided when no other option exists but confronting that forced stillness. In Nichiiwad, I force deliberation in a surprising place: a setting finally stripped of its restrictive walls. Only the total absence of a family home creates the necessary isolation. And: a ticking clock. My bruised heroine cannot camp outdoors in November. In the wind-swept void, a single children’s book and other detritus are all that’s available to distract.  The resulting stillness doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Daylight ebbs, temperatures drop; estranged people must look into one another’s eyes and accept what they see.

 

KS:  You will have a concert reading for your play entitledNichiiwad for our SOUNDINGS series. The play takes place during the aftermath of a destructive late-Fall tornado. The siblings of the main character must coax their sister away from the wreckage and come to terms with her deteriorating mental state. It seems that natural disasters often reflect the mental condition of your characters. Do you set out to write such symbolic work, or does the symbolism happen by accident?

 

HC:  I’ve been focused on more imagery-fueled storytelling, a seeming contradiction in a dialog-driven genre. In the case of Nichiiwad, the character felt tethered to the circumstance-specific image: the surgical precision of tornado strikes, the way some houses are completely erased while others stand untouched mere feet away. And that bleak aftermath: a foundation, swept of all belongings, exposed, revealed yet emptied. It probably dates to “Three Little Pigs.” As children, we’re told a frightening tale of “huffing and puffing and blowing your house down” is a viable threat to family unity; a genuinely terrifying possibility to plant in young minds. Here, I’m dramatizing a woman who has been unable to be coerced or cajoled to leave, for decades. The storm produces a (once-in-a) life-altering change. Nothing remains. I was intrigued by the idea of years of unresolved regret and resentment played out on this bomb site-like turf.  Since my protagonist has a scientific mind, the meteorological elements and lexicon fold in naturally. I tend to think in scenes, to view plays as a series of organic tableaux vivants anchored by characters making hard choices. This potent image – the moment of return to the wiped-clean site – provided a layered opportunity.  Any symbolism (though I now see its presence) is inadvertent. It’s that confluence of events, setting, and specific moment for a character that aligned when I began this play.

 

KS:  You write a wide range of plays about different topics. You also write in a variety of forms (10-minute plays, one-act plays, full-lengths). I have often heard a 10-minute play is the most difficult to write. Do you find that to be true or untrue? Why or why not?

 

HC:  I started writing 10-minute plays in 2010.  At first, I found them freeing, the small canvas allows a kind of tip of the iceberg approach, backstory kept under the surface. But that’s the irony: you need to know almost everything about what’s beneath the water to find the ten minutes that break, exposed to air and audiences.  To work, they really must be ten-page, three-act plays, the same rules strictly applied. Every single word must count. Knowing how late to start a story, how fast you must propel action toward a climax, and how little time (if any) you have for resolution makes the form challenging. Clearly set forth stakes are vital, because contention, easily understandable friction among characters is paramount. Some writers create ruminative, elegiac pieces, but in my experience, the plays that have an effortless immediacy are built on heightened conflict.

 

KS:  Who are your biggest theatrical inspirations? Who are some of your favorite playwrights and why?

 

HC:  When I saw the film of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at 13, I had a moment of recognition: seeing whole lives upended forever after one innocuous faculty meet-n’greet on a college campus. Edward Albee taught me to frame, see drama everywhere, circumstance as dramatic crucible. As an adult, I’ve been drawn to playwrights that make the personal political. David Hare’s Plenty, first at the Public in 1980s, the epic story of one complex woman serving as a construct for post-war England, knocked me out. I’m awed by Hare’s prolificacy, and two of his later plays, Amy’s View and Stuff Happens shaped mine. (Stuff Happened inspired a large, 12-character play I memorably worked on here with  John Pietrowski, Eight Fourteen, about the northeast blackout.) I had a similar response four years ago to Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, audacious and intrepid, fully exposing the comfort zones both of the playwright and his community. That play and his The Who and the What drove me away from tackling strictly adversarial politics. I wanted to write stories that looked under the rocks of my own tribe (political left) rather than demonize those I disagreed with, which can merely reflect/remind an audience what they already believe. (John guided me through one two years ago, Atop Illyria.) I also love scripts only “political” with a small “p” Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw is probably one of my favorites, ever. It’s witty, blisteringly funny, and spares no one. Yet she has great humanity. Like Hare, Gionfriddo’s body of work is eclectic; she never repeats herself, a worthy goal.

 

KS:  What advice would you give to a new playwright?

 

HC:  See plays on the stage. Spend your last dollar to do so. If you love playwriting, make sure you love theater. Not facile advice, since in my experience the two do not always go hand in hand.  Commit to learning as much from directors as from writers. Both those you work with who explicate and bring to life your work, and those who stage others’.  In recent years, I’ve learned much about storytelling from musical theater directors. They work in an imagery-driven shorthand. I tell playwrights, study musicals especially if you do not  like them: they are craft-driven, they stylize emotional expression, and again, they plant images and develop them before our eyes. Paula Vogel’s Indecent springs to mind: a straight (if hybrid) play, staged as a musical, even employing a choreographer to illuminate the core of its story with movement.  But a bigger point: study plays that aren’t your preferred genre. Read some romantic two-handers if, say, Mother Courage is your passion. I learn from trying to understand what makes “plays I don’t get” work.