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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 Richard Dresser.

 

Kate:  I am intrigued to learn more about the trilogy you wrote about “happiness in America.” Augusta the upper class. You explain, “Someone in each play is trying to escape the class they’re born into.” I find that such an interesting theme to explore. I can understand someone from the working class striving to be a part of the middle class, and I can understand someone from the middle class dreaming of being a part of the upper class. Why do you think the young man in View of the Harbor “dreams of a middle-class future?”

 

Richard:  In VIEW OF THE HARBOR, Nick wants to escape the upper class for several reasons. His domineering father has charted a course for Nick that has nothing to do with who he really is (which is why he renounces the opportunity for inherited wealth in the course of the play). Also, as his sister points out, they lived a very sheltered life in which the same privileged children went to kindergarten and summer camp and prep school and college and dances and vacations together and they never felt a part of the exciting, spontaneous, chaotic world of people who have to find out who they are and make their own way. Nick succeeds in bursting out of the bubble of wealth and privilege for a more authentic existence, but when he comes back home, he realizes he hasn’t escaped at all.

 

Kate:  Your play, Rounding Third, premiered in Chicago before transferring to Off-Broadway. I read it’s also been made into a film. Congrats and kudos! The play is about two little league coaches and their contrasting mindsets of how to play the game. Don wants to “win at all costs,” while Michael is in it just for the love of the game. You said Rounding Third asks the question, “How should we raise our kids?” Again, I love the tough question this play inquires of its audience. In your opinion, what are both the perks and downfalls of raising our kids to “win” and raising our kids to find their joy?

 

Richard:  I wrote ROUNDING THIRD to try to answer that question: “How should we raise our kids?” I had been an assistant coach, urging kids to play for the sheer joy it. And then I became the coach and felt an unsettling need to WIN. Which caused me to start treating the players a bit differently (as my son who was on the team helpfully pointed out). We live in such a competitive society it seems that we need to teach our children how to successfully compete. But childhood is so brief shouldn’t we protect the simple joy of it as long as possible? As you can see, I haven’t resolved the issue. But it made the exchanges between the coaches extremely heartfelt.

 

Kate:   I read your interview from Broadwayworld.com about your play Closure, which premiered at New Jersey Rep. This play seems like psychological thriller as it is about a daughter who mysteriously disappears, and the Detective who steps in to “save the day” but “may have plans of his own.” Closure seems like a bit of a departure from your other works because of the suspense factor. What inspired you to write something more gripping, or did that happen by accident?

 

Richard:  I like to think that everything I write is absolutely new territory for me. But of course there are themes I return to over and over. With CLOSURE I was writing about parents who face the most excruciating nightmare–the disappearance of their child—and what it does to their marriage. Much of the tension in the play is generated by whether the marriage can survive both the disappearance of the daughter and the mysterious agenda of the detective. How we raise and take care of our children seems to be a theme I keep coming back to.

 

Kate:  In that same interview, I discovered the first playwrights you read were Joe Orton, Harold Pinter, and Samuel Beckett. Personally, I am a huge fan of all three writers, and find them to be farcical, absurdist geniuses. Since they were the first 3 playwrights you read, have they impacted your work at all?

 

Richard:  They continue to influence me for different reasons. As a beginning playwright, each of them excited me because they broadened my ideas of what is possible to do on stage. They pushed back the boundaries. And of course the extreme precision of the language had a great effect on how I write.

 

Kate:  Your play in this year’s Soundings Series, “Wolf at the Door,” tells the story of “9 tenants, 1 shady landlord, and a run-down apartment.” Keith is the head of the Tenants Association, which is comprised of a diverse crowd (different ages, ethnicities, classes). In essence, it tells the tale of “neighbors and gentrification.” What compels you to explore and examine the world of class and gentrification in so many of your works?

 

Richard:  I think we like to feel that we are a class-free country and we have the founding documents to prove it. But in fact I believe we are as defined by class as England, although without the labels. Statistically, the upper middle class (roughly the top fifth of the country) enjoys an extraordinary amount of privilege and also goes to extraordinary lengths to hold onto it, whether liberal or conservative. Where you live largely defines the quality of your education, which in turn has a great deal to do with where you go to college. And through legacy admissions, internships, and the professional connections that go along with all that, the upper middle class does an excellent job maintaining its privilege. It’s easy to demonize the top one percent, but the income divide is more complicated and insular than that.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’ll get down from this soapbox and tell you that “Wolf at the Door” is a flat-out comedy, it’s not an “eat your vegetables” night.at the theater. It attempts to shine a light on the lunacy of these strange days, and if it makes you a better person I had nothing to do with it.

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 Pia Wilson.

 

Kate:  You were selected for the prestigious and competitive Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater in 2008. What an honor and an opportunity for you! Tell me about your experience at the Public, and how it helped to shape you as a playwright?

 

Pia:  It was — and still is — an honor to be a member of the EWG. It changed my life. The program wasn’t like school for playwriting. The Public was investing in me as a person and as writer. They helped me explore who I was as a writer at that time, which is different from how I am as a writer now. The best thing to happen to me as a member of the EWG was the connection I made with the other writer on the group. Some of my closest friends in life came from that group and the years after.

 

Kate:  We definitely need more female voices and female stories in the world of theatre now more than ever, especially in response to the Women’s March on Washington and the #MeToo movement. Who are some of your favorite female playwrights, or female artists?

 

Pia:  That’s a great question! I love so many women writers. Suzan-Lori Parks, who is an influence on my own work. She always seems to pushing some boundary, which I admire. Lynn Nottage, who is brilliant as well, in a very different way. Her work gets to the heart of the matter for me — like she’s trying to change your life right there.

The women of the Emerging Writers Group, past and present, are so different and so powerful and so wonderfully creative as artists. So, I would recommend their work. Then you have Katori Hall, who really did some beautiful work a few years ago with Our Lady of Kibeho. I walked out of the theater truly inspired and touched after seeing it. Beautiful, masterful work. I could go on and on, so I will add three friends who I think are also incredibly talented who light up a stage: Ngozi  Anyanwu, Hilary Bettis, and Chisa Hutchinson.

 

Kate:  Your plays like Turning the Glass Aroundand Return to Real both center on themes such as identity, race, The American Dream, and acceptance. What stimulates your passion to write about these recurring themes?

 

Pia:  Even before I was writing plays, when I was writing fiction and later film, I have always written about race and its impact on our identities. The fact that my school was desegregated by the courts when I was going into the 7th grade probably had a big influence on me. I’ve also always been interested in other cultures — my mom used to call me her little U.N. I’ve noticed throughout the years how my friends of Asian descent were “othered” in a way that was offensive and strange to me. My friends with Hispanic heritage too. So, I try to express my thoughts on this in my work. I explore the nature of the American identity — who gets to call themselves American, what does being American even mean, what defines an “American,” etc.

 

Kate:  Your play, Like Saltwater, will be featured in this year’s SOUNDINGS reading series. It is about a bipolar, African-American woman (Ailyn) who is locked in a room with her husband’s friend who is also a Priest. Meanwhile, Ailyn’s husband is dying in their bedroom. What inspired this unique story-line?

 

Pia:  I’ve written and rewritten this play for years. I have had a lot of personal losses in my life — my father died within my first couple of months in the EWG — so I’m always going write about grief and ghosts and death. It’s a part of life, and I don’t know that we talk about it enough. I also don’t think we talk about mental illness enough as a society. There’s a lot of shame around it for the people who have it and their families, as if it’s someone’s fault.

 

Kate:  When do you do your best writing? Do you have structured writing time, or do you write when inspiration hits you?

 

Pia:  My best writing happens on Sundays. I can unplug for hours, without anyone bothering me. I also don’t have to go to my job. That’s my structured writing time. Waiting for inspiration means I would never write. That’s like waiting for a play to structure itself!

 

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.

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