Thursday, May 15, 2014

DIVING INTO THE DEEP END: An Interview with Jonathan Spector

PlayGround Company Member/playwright/actor Steven Westdahl and playwright/director Jonathan Spector discussed ADULT SWIM, Mr. Spector's new full-length play about a pair of teenage lifeguards struggling to unwrap the mysteries of life during a hot, slow summer amongst bratty kids, killer ping pong and lots of whistle-twirling. Two public staged readings of this script will be offered as part of the PlayGround Festival of New Works at the Thick House on May 17 at 3:00pm and May 24 at 1:00pm. 

Steven Westdahl: Some say "write what you know." Did you do any lifeguarding as a teenager?

Jonathan Spector: … No, I never did [lifeguarding] as a teenager. I did have a couple summers in late elementary school/early junior high where my friends and I spent nearly every day at the local swimming pool, so I think I have a feel for the atmosphere I'm drawing on.

At that time, the lifeguards all seemed impossibly older and cooler than we were, but we were also very much on the cusp of social social self-awareness and in this place where you could unselfconsciously be a kid one day and then live in the anxiety-strewn minefield of adolescence the next. 

SW: Coming of age has certainly changed over the years but some of it has stayed the same. We touch upon some major milestones in the story of these kids. Drugs, death, war, sex, authority, surveillance... loving and losing. Is this a play for teens or a play for adults about teens? Is there a difference? 

JS; It's certainly not intended as a play for teens in the theater for young audiences sense, though I would hope that teenagers could enjoy it and that it wouldn't ring false for them.

SW: The formatting of your script is something the audience will likely never see; the poetic line breaks, the lack of punctuation, the capitalization of words for intensification and intent. As an actor myself, I can see and hear the voice of a director in these beats and cues. How was your scriptwriting style developed? Any major influences that you can point to?

JS: The text layout, I think, comes out of the challenge of: when you want to write something that in some way approximates real speech patterns, and then need to find a way to communicate that to your actors on the page, it's pretty clear pretty quickly that a traditionally constructed written sentence is not a very useful tool to do that.

I had directed a play by Melissa James Gibson not long before I wrote my first play. She also has a totally idiosyncratic line-break-and-punctuation-heavy way of writing that I found incredibly helpful and fun to work with as a director, and so I'm sure that informed what I was doing. Though her language tends to a more stylized place. But lots of people write in this way these days, though I think everyone does it differently.

As a reader of plays, I find it a helpful way to clearly hear the writer's voice. And really, don't we all just wish we could be Caryl Churchill, who seems to basically invent a new technique for writing dialogue for each play, depending on its needs?

Probably the way of writing also has to do something with my background as a director. I guess I can't help but wanting to do a little directing of actors in the writing. 

SW: Having a swimming pool onstage as a central set piece is a big ask for a theatre company. What does the magical realism and practical artifice of theatre offer and/or limit for you when you start with a blank page? Do you ever stop to think "this will prevent production" or "this will scare off a producer"? Is the sky the limit? Can theatre do anything/everything you imagine?

JS: In terms of the production challenges of this piece, yes, the swimming pool could be a considerable one. I started writing this as part of the Bake-Off that Peter Nachtrieb organized and part of my thinking was, well this is just a silly play I'm writing in four days, so I may as well have fun and make it totally impossible to produce. But now that I've lived with it more, I'm trying to move it to a place where it could also be done in a super-minimal low-budget way.

There's a spectrum of representing these magical things in a super literal way that would feel more like, say, a magic show. You'd be pushing on the "wow, how did they do that?" But there's also an iteration where the magic is theatrical magic, and we see what's happening in front of us, and the magic is that we're transforming this one object into another one because we're all pretending together.

But yes, I think if this thing gets out into the world, I need to make it absolutely clear that you don't need to actually have a swimming pool onstage to make it work. Though that would be awesome.

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ADULT SWIM will be performed as a script-in-hand staged reading at the PlayGround Festival of New Works at Thick House (1695 18th Street, San Francisco) on Saturday, May 17 at 3pm and again on Saturday, May 24 at 1pm. Admission is free ($15 suggested donation) and reservations are not required though encouraged. For more information on this or any of the other full-length staged readings in this year’s Festival or to reserve your tickets, visit http://playground-sf.org/festival.

Jonathan Spector is the Co-Artistic Director of Just Theater, where he has directed The Internationalist, 1001, Current Nobody, and I Have Loved Strangers. He has also directed and developed work with Muwgumpin, Aurora Theater, and Playwrights Foundation. Also a playwright, he has been a winner of Aurora Theater's Global Age Prize, PlayGround's Emerging Playwright Award, and Theatre Bay Area's TITAN award. His plays have been produced and/or developed with Aurora Theater, PlayGround, Just Theater, Playwrights Foundation, Stanford University, and the Source Theater Festival. He is a Resident Playwright at Playwrights Foundation and his play In From The Cold will premiere this fall at Just Theater.

Steven Westdahl graduated from Emory University with degrees in English and Theatre & Film. While in Atlanta, he co-founded the multi-media production company Collective Works and co-created shows like The Wide Open Beaver Festival and The Invisible College. Since returning home to the Bay Area, he hosts and performs monthly at WRITE CLUB SF at the Make-Out Room and Shipwreck at the Booksmith bookstore. At the beginning of this year, Steven became a founding member of the San Francisco Neo-Futurists (2014 Winner: Best Theater, SF Weekly Readers' Poll). This was Steven's first year in the PlayGround writer's pool and his short play If All the World's a Stage, Where's the Audition? was a Best of PlayGround finalist.


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