I recently had the opportunity to interview several PlayGround writers who are currently working on full-length commissions or upcoming co-productions. They shared with me some of their visions, insights, and personal stories relating to their current and past experiences with playwriting and theater. Over the next few months I would like to share their responses with you in hopes that it will shed light on playwriting as a creative process and enrich your own theatrical experiences, both with PlayGround and elsewhere. The foremost question that was burning in my mind was why these particular artists chose playwriting as a means of expression and, on a larger scale, why in general theater as a medium for their work.
Jonathan Luskin (Ecce Homo), Katie May (Manic Pixie Dream Girl or The Lily Chronicles Issue #1) and Mandy Hodge Rizvi (Drive Thru-Open till Midnite or Later) are working on their first PlayGround full-length commissions. Daniel Heath and Evelyn Jean Pine are each currently working on their third PlayGround commission, Siren and Altair, respectively. Ken Slattery is preparing for the world premiere co-production of Truffaldino Says No at Shotgun Players this June and is also under commission for his new play, The Shakespeare Bug. Other upcoming co-productions include Lauren Yee’s Crevice at Impact Theatre in May and Kenn Rabin’s Reunion at SF Playhouse Stage 2 in June. Trevor Allen is currently working on his fourth PlayGround commission, Valley of Sand, a co-commission with San Jose Rep.
Why plays? Why theatre?
Trevor Allen: This is a bit like asking a fish… “Why swimming?” I have been involved with theatre my whole life, from school plays when I was young to high school drama and musicals, then I went on to receive a Bachelor’s degree in Theatre from UCLA and later a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from SFSU with an emphasis on playwriting. It has been a lifelong evolutionary progression.
Ken Slattery: My experiences in school plays and musicals were also the most memorable--and arguably the most positive--experiences I had during my adolescence. We had a great teacher who directed our school shows, and ran our Drama Club, encouraging us to act, write, explore the world of drama for ourselves. All of this set me in the direction of studying Drama in college, and I wasn’t the only one. Ultimately, theatre has been a very positive force in my life, as an audience member and a practitioner, and I believe this is true for almost everyone who is involved in theatre.
Evelyn Jean Pine: As a kid I read and saw plays compulsively. They felt like secret windows into worlds I didn’t know. I wanted to write plays because they seemed both so direct and so elusive. Plays are live, transformative, person-to-person communication. Plays are collaborative. The artists work together to create living stories and images that engage the audience’s imagination.
What is significant about theatre as a form of art/entertainment?
Katie May: There is a magical quality inherent to theater and to live performance that I have not found in any other medium. I think that film, by its nature, is inherently realistic, and so film is more harnessed to linear structure and naturalistic storytelling, and it’s difficult to get outside of that in ways that really work. But in theater, there is this agreement between the storytellers and the audience that it’s okay for a character to break the fourth wall, to leave the stage, for scenes to dissolve and form around a character, and for the character to simultaneously inhabit the world of the theater and the world of play. You can’t really do that with movies, or even with a novel. There’s fluidity that can only be found in theater with its reliance on the live audience as an active participant in the storytelling. As a writer that’s a fantastic resource to draw from.
Lauren Yee: Theater puts a premium on the writer's voice and vision, and as a playwright, I cannot think of a form that is more respectful of collaboration and that is as concerned with the experience as much as the product.
Mandy Hodge Rizvi: There’s something seductive and thrilling about the volatility and the immediacy of theatre. In spite of its rehearsed aspects, it’s an art form in which just about anything can happen. It thrives on connections and exchanges, actions and reactions that live and die in a moment and can’t be reproduced. The mortality of a moment, that’s what it’s all about.
Kenn Rabin: Film and television is not only infinitely repeatable, it must be repeated exactly the same, infinitely. If you see it two weeks later, exactly the same things will happen, with exactly the same nuance, in exactly the same light, with no more or less meaning. It may be a form of immortality, certainly, but it will always lack immediacy and risk. Because in theater, meaning is created fresh each night, and the stakes of mortality exist, same as life. The swords look real – tonight, will Macbeth really be killed by the actor playing MacDuff?
How does the presence of a live audience affect the theatrical experience?
Jonathan Luskin: The most compelling element of live theater is that a performance is a collaboration between the audience and the performers. They need each other to create the whole, and the whole is much bigger than the sum of the parts.
Ken S.: The thrill of seeing shows live onstage had a deep impact on me during my childhood and adolescence. I remember seeing an outdoor performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when I was 14 or 15 years old; it rained during the whole show but the audience stayed, enthralled by the story and the performances. The live communication between performers and the audience is what stuck with me from that day; for me, it’s what distinguishes theatre from other art/entertainment mediums.
Daniel Heath: Before I wrote plays, I spent a significant amount of time writing prose fiction in diligent obscurity. When I made the jump to playwriting, thanks in large part to the PlayGround writers pool, I quickly realized that I had found my medium. Prose fiction writing is inherently solitary, from the writing to the transmission to the appreciation (you can sit behind someone reading your fiction and say "what part did you just laugh at?" but it's really annoying to the reader). Theater is inherently collaborative, from the conversations with the director to the rehearsals with the actor to the performance where the writer can sit in the audience and feel the reaction to his or her work in the room.
Any final thoughts?
Daniel: For me it's not "why plays?" it's "why write anything else?"
Thank you to all our participating playwrights, and please tune in again next month for further discussions with and about these artists and the wonderful work they have been doing!