Interview with Playwright David Henry Hwang

David Henry HwangDavid Henry Hwang is a playwright, librettist, and screenwriter. Some of his works include M. Butterfly (Tony Award for Best Play, Pulitzer Prize nominee), FOB (OBIE award), Golden Child (Tony nomination for Best Play), Yellow Face (OBIE award, Pulitzer Prize nominee), Chinglish, and Kung Fu. He co-wrote the book for Disney’s AIDA, wrote the book for Disney’s Tarzan, and wrote a new version of the book for Rogers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song (Tony nomination for Best Book). He has also written for film, television, and opera, and currently teaches playwriting at Columbia University. 

You attended Stanford University, where you founded the Asian American Theater Project (AATP) and produced your first play in your dorm. What did you learn from your time at Stanford?

I think of that period as the time I became interested in theatre, found my voice, and wrote my first play which would be professionally produced. Which is pretty good for four years.

FOB premiered with AATP at Stanford before it was selected for the Eugene O’Neill Playwriting Conference and produced Off-Broadway at the Public Theater soon after. What was it like to experience this rapid success?

When FOB opened at the Public, I remember making the decision to return to California before the opening. If the notices were bad, I didn’t want to feel worthless; if they were good, I didn’t want to think I was a genius. Putting a literal distance between myself and critical success or failure was a good impulse. However, that’s much more difficult to do today in our digitally connected world. I also think early success is hard to properly appreciate because you don’t know anything else. Only after subsequent flops did I really understand how rare a gift I was given.

What inspires you?

I continue to be fascinated by the relationship between external events and our internal sense of self. This has often led to my writing about how individual identities are shaped by social and political forces. I don’t believe that character is inborn, but largely determined by one’s context. Therefore, when that context changes, our identities can transform into something very different. At the moment, I’m interested in how shifting demographics in this country are redefining the way we see ourselves as Americans, and also in the evolving U.S.-China relationship.

What kind of theatre excites you?

I like theatre that engages both the mind and the emotions. Within that mandate, I’m interested in all sorts of forms — from commercial Broadway jukebox musicals to the experimental and avant-garde. I feel that, as a playwright, I’m much more of a formalist than I’m usually perceived to be, i.e. I like to study diverse forms and apply them to my own work.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

This is not particularly profound, but I believe true: do not worry about commercial or critical acceptance, write what moves you most deeply, what you need to explore. It’s impossible to predict what will or will not be “successful.” A truly successful play is one that enriches the author’s spirit. However, it is also the case that this sort of work is also likely to be the most successful from a career standpoint. Paradoxically, success shouldn’t be your goal. Career success is the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.

You have worked in theater, musical theater, television, film, and opera. Can you tell us more about writing across so many genres?

The main question is: who holds the primary creative vision? In each genre, there’s usually someone who holds that vision, and the other artists support him or her. With plays, that’s usually the playwright. In TV, the showrunner; in film, the director; in opera, the composer. Musical theatre is tricky because that usually needs to be a mind-meld between the book-writer, composer, lyricist, and nowadays, often the director and/or producer as well. It also accounts for why musicals are so difficult to create. Going into each of these genres, you have to know the role you’re playing and feel comfortable if you decide to embark on that journey.

You teach playwriting at Columbia University. What are some of the most important things you teach your students? 

I believe, if one wants to have a long career, it’s important to diversity one’s creative portfolio. In other words, learn how to do a lot of things. In the Columbia MFA playwriting program, we offer screenwriting, TV writing, musical theatre courses, and will soon add teaching opportunities, because these are all ways playwrights can make a living. Over the course of a career, there will be times when you go cold in, say, movies, but then hopefully, you can get work in another genre. In order to continue writing our plays, we have to find ways to survive.

Most of your plays center around Asian-American identity and conflicts between the East and West. What are some ongoing challenges and achievements in the representation of Asian Americans in theatre today?

Interestingly, Asian American representation has advanced most dramatically over the past couple of years on television. Suddenly, we have a number of TV shows featuring Asian American lead FRESH OFF THE BOAT, DR. KEN, MASTER OF NONE, etc. The increase in Asian actors on TV (and film, to a lesser degree) is driven partially by the importance of China, which will soon surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest movie market. Hopefully, the success of these shows will encourage theatre producers to realize there’s a domestic audience for Asian American stories as well. Because there’s such a wealth right now of excellent young Asian American playwrights — Lloyd Suh, Jihae Park, A. Rey Pamatmat, Young Jean Lee, Hansol Jung, Susan Stanton, Qui Nguyen, the list goes on and on. So far, only Rajiv Joseph and I have made it to Broadway, but so many more of these writers deserve wider exposure.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a rewrite of my Bruce Lee play, KUNG FU, as well as a new play that I can’t discuss yet, but which will premiere in 2017. In TV, I’m a writer/producer for Showtime’s THE AFFAIR and am developing a new series of my own. In opera, I’ve co-written the libretto for DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER with composer Bright Sheng, which will premiere at San Francisco Opera this fall, and writing a couple of projects with composer Huang Ruo. I’m also developing a new musical, THE FORGOTTEN ARM, with singer/songwriter Aimee Mann.

What is something most people do not know about you?

I like to cook — mostly Asian, but other cuisines too.

What does the future look like for you?

Well, my vision of the future can’t help but be colored by having been stabbed in the neck four weeks ago by a random attacker, who severed one of my arteries. The fact that I’m completely recovered makes me feel simply grateful to be alive, lucky that I get to stay on this earth a bit longer and to make every day count since we never know when it’ll be our time to go.

What do you think about the current state and the future of theatre?

I think those of us who work in theatre are incredibly lucky to have chosen a form that cannot be digitized (at least for the moment). It seems to me that the centers of artistic culture right now are TV and live entertainment. Musicals, at least, are currently closer to pop culture than at any time since the 1950s. So that’s good. The problem is that Broadway pulls the cart and sets the agenda for our entire field, in a way that also hasn’t really been the case since the 1950s. So I think we need to regain a balance — where we place just as much, if not more, importance on work which is never intended to make money, as on pieces which hold the promise of commercial success.

Interview with Playwright Tanya Barfield

Tanya BarfieldProscenium Journal interviews nationally acclaimed playwright Tanya Barfield. Barfield is a recipient of the Lilly Award, the Helen Merrill Award, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her play Blue Door (South Coast Repertory, Playwrights Horizons). Other works include The Call (Playwright’s Horizons, New York Times Critics Pick) and Bright Half Life (Women’s Project Theater, TimeOut Critic’s Pick). She has written for the Starz series The One Percent and writes for The Americans on FX. Tanya Barfield also has an entire season dedicated to her works this upcoming year with Profile Theatre in Portland, OR. We talked with Barfield about her work, the current state of the theatre, and her upcoming season with Profile

You started out as an actor, saying that you “didn’t know there was such a thing as a living playwright.” You studied acting as an undergraduate at N.Y.U. How has your acting training and experience influenced your writing?
As an actor, one is keenly aware of when dialogue does not feel true to life – or when it doesn’t have the pitch, rhythm and ring of poetic expression. I like to blend colloquial speech and indirect poetry. The experience of words when verbalizing feelings, thoughts and ideas is important to me — the ways that language fails as a form of true communication – all this has been influenced by my early acting and solo performance career.

What inspires you?
Often my work is born out of a troubling or complicated feeling. The material that makes me uncomfortable is usually my best work. I’m interested in the gray areas of human interaction. I believe that this is what makes characters complicated and compelling. I don’t seek to portray the people in my plays as 100% likeable. I hope to make them real. Shortcomings and flaws, ethical dilemmas and the possibility of ascension drives my work.

What kind of theatre excites you???
Plays that mix up my thoughts and feelings so that I don’t know which is which. I appreciate both a well told story and formal experimentation. In other words, both thinking inside and outside the box.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?
Learn a skill and get a day job so you don’t have to worry about money. Once you’ve mastered the basics of survival, shoot for the stars. Write, write, write. Listen, listen, listen. Take everything in. Hold true to yourself and don’t give up.

You’ve taught playwriting (NYU, Barnard, ESPA and private classes) and worked as a literary manager for Juillard. How has your time working with students influenced your writing?
I love teaching. I find students and early career writers to be very inspiring. Anyone can learn craft. But, the pulse of raw talent is more rare and exciting. When you first begin playwriting, anything is possible. As your career rises, you become more keenly aware of things like “what’s producible” or “well made.” Even when coloring outside the lines, the critical voice of experience can emerge, hampering my initial burst of creativity. So, being around new talent shakes me up in a good way. Sometimes, I’ll have a very accomplished writer take one of my classes or workshops when they are grappling with a period of writer’s block. Watching someone that I admire work along side “beginners” is deeply inspiring in a wholly different way.

What projects are you working on now?
Lately, most of my work has been in television. Raising a family requires different financial demands. I also find TV to be an exciting medium because it’s a new form of storytelling for me. That said, I’m looking forward to the day when I have more time and can balance both theater and TV work. I have an overdue commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I’m looking forward to getting started on that script soon.

You have said that a common theme that runs through your plays is the unthreading of time. You are also interested in exploring causality in your works. Can you speak more about this? What other threads run through your work?
I write about people in a state of emotional crisis — people that teeter on the edge of discovery. The plays often contain a micro story that exists within a macro story or an individual within a larger social landscape (as in The Call). In both Blue Door and Bright Half Life, we look at experience from multiple points of view or perspectives; time doubles back and retracts, moments and memories collide.

You have also written for the TV shows “The Americans” and “The One Percent.” How is that experience different from your playwriting experience?
It couldn’t be more different. I love TV writing, but it’s not anything like playwriting. It’s interesting because my latest play, Bright Half Light, has numerous short scenes, and one might speculate that it was influenced by writing for television. But, I actually wrote it before I landed my first TV job. Nowadays, we see a lot of plays with ten page scenes. It starts to feel redundant. The Call opens with a twenty page scene that I’m proud of. After writing The Call, I encouraged my students to get out of the “ten page scene trap” and write a longer scene with multiple levels of conversation. Then, there was another trend I noticed – particularly with younger writers – the scenes got shorter and shorter and completely lacked a discernible event. So, I started griping, “Don’t bring in plays that read like they were written on Twitter.” With all this in mind, Bright Half Life came as a surprise to me because it contains over well over 50 short scenes, none of them exceeding ten pages. I’ve digressed… back to your question about scripts for the stage versus the screen.

In theater, the playwright is the final authority on their script. You figure out the story on your own. No one can change a single word of dialogue without asking your permission. (Sometimes, actors change the language unintentionally when they flub a line, of course). At times, playwriting can be lonely, but it’s ultimately profoundly exhilarating and satisfying.

Television, however, is very collaborative. It employs a team of writers. Scripts are often rewritten dozens of times by multiple people. One can’t be precious about the work in TV. As a staff writer, you’re getting notes from a million people and are ultimately in service of the creator and/or showrunner’s vision. For me, the pleasure comes from the exchange of ideas, breaking a story with other smart people and knowing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

What is something most people do not know about you?
I’m afraid of swimming and driving. But, last summer, I went bungee jumping (here in Oregon) and had a terrifying blast.

You have an entire season at Profile Theater (in your hometown of Portland, OR) dedicated to your works. Can you tell us more about this? ???It’s a dream come true. After almost two decades writing plays, I’ve been produced all over the West Coast — Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego – but no where in Oregon. It’s an honor to be at Profile. I hope to make my mother proud.

 What does the future look like for you?
I’m looking forward to finding out!

What do you think about the current state and the future of theatre?
I think there’s a lot of exciting writers in the American theater right now – both established and emerging. We are in an exciting time.

But, being a playwright contains old and new challenges. It’s very hard to get a play produced. The script can take two years to write and even longer to get in front of an audience. Playwrights rarely – even when successful – make a living wage. As more and more universities hire adjunct faculty, fewer people are able to support themselves as professional writers with teaching jobs. Hand in hand with the skyrocketing cost of living expenses, playwrights are making a mass exodus to Hollywood and we are losing some of our most promising and mid-career talent. But, the good news is that we are starting to see a handful of television writers come back to the theater, successfully balancing a career in both mediums. In this way, television is actually subsidizing theater – by providing income for the writer. Hopefully, the cross-pollination with the TV world will continue without causing the intrinsic artistry of theater to become more like the screen.

I also hope that we find a way to have theater both publically and privately subsidized. Ticket prices need to go down while the financial compensation for artists needs to go up.

Is there anything else you would like to share about your work?
I hope it speaks to you.


Interview with Playwright Sherod Santos

Sherod Santos

We talked to Sherod Santos about his play “Between Two Nevermores,” his experimental writing style, and his advice to young writers. 

What was your inspiration for this play?
As a poet, I’m of course drawn to what is, in essence, the formative story of poetry and poets. It’s a story that evokes poetry’s deep-seated link to love and death and the erotic and, at the same time, its kinship with secrecy. In poetry as in plays, what isn’t said is always as important as what is. That’s a pretty heady combination of energies, and I was, as you say, inspired by the prospect of reimagining them.

What do you want the audience to come away with?
First and foremost, I’m only interested in “lived” experience, not in “literature” and “literary traditions.” I think the worst that could happen would be for an audience to feel compelled to interpret the play or to fix it in some scholarly context–the boneyard of the arts. My hope, in fact, is that that the audience would enjoy the play without knowing anything about the myth itself.

Can you discuss your choice to experiment with traditional play formatting with this script (i.e. leaving out character names)?
I wish I could say that I had even the vaguest sense of what I was doing in the early stages of writing, but I simply struck a small match in a very large cave, and it seemed to take forever to find my way. At times I felt like I was writing a play in verse, at others like I was writing a poem in dramatic form, and in each case, I was unhappy with the either/or nature of that relationship. In your example, the conventions for formatting a script kept chopping up the poetry; at the same time, the continuities of a traditional poetic form kept redirecting the discontinuities between characters. What I wanted to be a form that accommodated, on equal terms, both of those impulses.

What writers inspire you?
I’m afraid my reading is hopelessly unsystematic, and so far as I can tell it hasn’t over time shown any special loyalty to any particular genre or period set of authors. I’ve always believed that the books we need most find us, not the other way around. Certainly, much that has been meaningful to me I’ve discovered largely by accident, stumbling on one book while looking for another. That’s the most compelling reason I can think of for preserving our used bookstores and libraries. In my experience, for what it’s worth, wandering aimlessly along dusty bookshelves shelves can lead to profoundly personal discoveries.

What advice do you have for writers starting out?
Look closely, listen closely, read closely, take it all in. Then work, work, work until you move beyond the difficulty of the work to a love for the difficulty. In my opinion, only then are you truly prepared to turn inspiration into art. Oh, and one other thing: don’t think you’re a genius.

Poet, playwright, and translator, Sherod Santos is the author of six books of poetry, most recently “The Intricated Soul: New and Selected Poems.” In 2005 he published “Greek Lyric Poetry: A New Translation,” for which he received the Umhoefer Prize in Translation. Mr. Santos has received fellowships from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1999 he received an Award for Literary Excellence from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Productions of his plays include 10-minute play, “Star,” Algonquin Theatre, New York City, 2010; one-act play, “Coffee Shop,” The Flint Michigan Play Festival, 2010; full-length play, “Lives of the Pigeons,” The Side Project, Chicago, 2013; two-minute play, “Beginning of the Revolution,” Royal Court Theatre: “Grit,” 2015. His work has also appeared in literary journals and magazines including The Antioch Review, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Nation, Poetry, The Yale Poetry Review, The American Poetry Review, The New York Times Book Review, The Kenyon Review, and Parnassus Books. His book, “The Pilot Star Elegies,” was a finalist for the 1999 National Book Award and he is a recipient of The Pushcart Prize.

Interview with Playwright Wei He

Wei HeWei He talks about the inspiration for her play “My Birthday Party,” her image-driven writing style, and her advice for young writers. 

What was your inspiration for this play?
I got the idea for the story on my twenty-sixth birthday. I was going through a weird phase back then. I was experiencing something strange yet familiar, something that I couldn’t give a name to. So I wrote this play to help me figure out what I was doing with my life, to help me survive youth. I felt very close to the main character. It was like witnessing the life of an imaginary friend through the ten years between age twenty-six to thirty-six.

Also, at that time, I was obsessed with monologues “Thom Pain” by Will Eno, “The Fever” by Wallace Shawn, etc. In a monologue, the entire world is constructed through the lens of the narrator. The narrator’s conceived reality is the only reality audiences have access to. Though the line between the character’s interiority and external world is blurry, the narrator’s impressions of the invisible characters convey distilled images of them that make them present and tangible. Conor McPherson said: “…But with one actor talking only to the audience, what we have in front of us is a guide. He’s telling us about somewhere outside the theatre, not trying to recreate it indoors. The theatre is simply where we meet him. And if it’s good, we’re reminded that we are in the theatre and we like being there.”

What do you want the audience to come away with?
The play received a public reading in Buffalo in August. After the reading, an audience member told me the play made him think about what happened to the person who did not make the current choice that was made. The decisions that were not made would veer back into one’s life. That sounds like a good answer to this question.

What projects are you working on now?
I am working with a composer on an opera right now. Our last collaboration went very well. We’re trying something very different this time. I’m also revising a full-length play about a thief. The story is set in China, but the play is in English.

What playwrights have inspired you?
I’ll just list a few names here: Chekhov, Harold Pinter, Annie Baker, Will Eno, Wallace Shawn, Paula Vogel and two Chinese playwrights, Guo Shixing and Ho Jiping.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?
I consider myself a playwright who just started out. The advice I would give myself at this point is simply to keep trying. No matter what you’re told, go read plays, lots of them, go see productions (when you have money) and keep writing.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
Writing in a foreign language has been quite an adventure for me, fun and challenging. Some people have pointed out that there are a lot of images in my writing. I guess the influence comes from my mother tongue. Mandarin is an image-driven language; each character looks like a picture of stick figures.

Wei He is a bilingual playwright and fiction writer who grew up in Inner Mongolia, China and now lives in Cleveland, Ohio. She holds an MFA degree in Dramatic Writing from Carnegie Mellon University. Her fiction, poetry and plays in English and Mandarin have been published internationally in the United States, Mainland China and Taiwan.  Her screenplay, Paper Dragonfly, will be published by China Film Press next year. And she is proud of her secret recipe of Sand-Wei-ch.

Interview with Playwright Aurin Squire

Aurin Squire

We interviewed Aurin Squire about what inspires him, his advice for writing and life, and his play “Defacing Michael Jackson.” 

What was your inspiration for this play?
Long convoluted answer: I was in a workshop led by Rogelio Martinez and he made us write down a list of our childhood rituals. After reading them aloud, our peers voted on what was most interesting. So my ritual was kids coming over and watching Thriller in our house because we were the first family to have a VCR.  Each writer had their own and then we wrote an opening monologue in about two minutes with Character A discussing the ritual. After that, we wrote a scene with Characters B and C discussing a threat to the ritual in about 5 minutes. Then we wrote a scene in which Character A is interrupted by Character B, who acts as a messenger informing A on the threat to the ritual, and this took about 3 minutes. Then we wrote a monologue in about two minutes which Character B or C has a monologue about the ritual being destroyed. And then we had a final scene of Character A along with B and/or C has a final blow-up or dissolution. And after about 15 minutes there is a beginning, middle, end of a play: the toughest parts. Rogelio told us that we could go home and fill in the rest of the play as either a full-length or one-act. I thought it was a cool exercise and I put the papers away for a week. I lived in a dorm on 8th Street and 5th avenue. On the last Sunday in June,  the entire Gay Pride Parade pivots on 8th Street and 5th avenue My block. This meant it was a logistical nightmare to get out of the dorm I took out those pages and -to pass the time- I began writing the in-between scenes for a one-act play. I was entertaining myself until the crowd died down enough to walk outside. So after a few hours, the crowd was manageable and I had finished the one-act play. Vital Theatre had a one-act festival they ran and a few days later they asked me if I had anything to submit. I sent it in and the play ended up opening as a one-act at Vital. I didn’t show up for most of the rehearsals, tech, or dress rehearsal. I didn’t really think people would get the play and I was a little scared they would hate it so I busied myself with other plays and workshops at school. I got a voicemail from Liz Meriwether one night (creator of New Girl). She was a playwright at the festival who also did the ritual exercise with me. She was screaming ‘where are you?!?! Your play just went up and it was amazing!” I thought she was just being nice. Honestly, I thought it was a play no one would relate to until I went to a performance. the play went on to win the Samuel French Festival and get published. I put it away for several years and people kept asking me ‘why don’t you expand?’ Finally, after hearing it one too many times I sat down -almost in resentment- and said ‘FINE! I’ll write the damn full-length play and then everyone can shut up about it!’ When I sat down to write it, the voices came back immediately. I sent it into Juilliard and it got me into their Lila Acheson Wallace Playwriting Fellowship, got me an agent, won the Lincoln Center One-Act Prize, got a workshop showcase at Nuyorican Poets Cafe. It would be nice to see it produced in a full production one day.

What do you want the audience to come away with?
I don’t know. It’s a personal play that I didn’t think anyone would care about or matter. I guess there are a lot of people out there who think their childhood – in some way – was embarrassing and doesn’t matter or deserve a place in any canon. Black kids, poor kids, gay kids, white kids who grow up in minority communities as the loser, girls of color. We’re told again and again that there is a set story that will be accepted by the mainstream. And in some ways, I bought into that, which is why I was scared of the story, why I thought Liz was lying to me about the reception, why I didn’t want to expand the play. Despite the positive feedback, the belief system was so strong in my head, that I just thought people were being nice. But these characters, these stories were too strong for even my set beliefs and prejudices. It’s truly mystifying how I am a self-professed storyteller who resisted his own voice. I didn’t tell the story. The story told me. Instead of defining the narrative, the narrative ended up defining me. Maybe it will do that for some people.

What projects are you working on now?
Getting out of the way and letting the stories define me. I’m a freelance journalist and I’ve been fortunate. In the last year I’ve written for The New Republic, Take Part, and Talking Points Memo, while continuing to review plays. I guest host podcast for news and theatre. On the playwriting end, I just graduated from Juilliard, was a US resident playwright at Royal Court in June for “Mercury Parallel,” had my play “Obama-ology” at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts that same month, finished workshop at the Kennedy Center of “A Family Manual for Kwanzaa” (also a one-act I resisted that finally became a full-length) for the National New Play Network. I have residencies at the National Black Theatre and Brooklyn Arts Exchange that are going into their second year. For NBT I finished a rough draft of “Zoohouse” in the spring and that’s a dark dystopian comedy set in an asylum for the Black and criminally insane. For BAX I’m continuing to work on “The Gospel According to F#ggots” which is set in a sex-positive queer terrain of transformational spirituality. Both plays are in verse. Original Works Publishing is releasing “To Whom It May Concern” as a book this fall, and I spent a week this summer re-editing and revising a play I wrote 10 years ago. It felt like I was working on a new play because it had been so long since I’ve looked at the script.

What playwrights have inspired you?
There is the list of people I have never met, the list of people who helped me, or taught me in some direct way, and then there are peers I have had a class with or worked with in some way. For the first list: Maria Irene Fornes, August Wilson, Dario Fo, Sarah Ruhl, Suzan Lori-Parks. For the list of teachers, there is obviously Chris Durang and Marsha Norman at Juilliard who have been great. And there’s Laura Maria Censabella at New School as well as Rebecca Gilman at Northwestern, Rogelio Martinez, Lucy Kirkwood at Royal Court, Michael Weller. As far as peers I would say almost everyone in the Juilliard fellowship and there are too many to name, But these were like the Jedi Knights of playwriting with their own voice and philosophy. You could pluck any one of those writers out and start a theatre company focusing on their work for a whole season. When I was at New School and Actors Studio (when the two were conjoined) I would say, Carla Ching and Matthew Paul Olmos. Then at the Kennedy Center, there were so many great writers and I really liked Will Snider (from UCSD) Eleana Belyea (National Theatre School of Canada). Elena then introduced me to her classmate, Cliff Cardinal who is an innovative storyteller focusing on First Nation people in Canada I guess the unifying threads running through all these artists are innovators in structure and storytelling with a purpose. I think there are theatre shamans in the world who are just channeling in these stories and voices from another reality. When you look and listen to Chris Durang in a class for two years and then you read his plays, you realize there is something else going on that can’t be explained logically and isn’t connected to the obvious psychological links. We love to do psychology 101 on writers and figure out how their dog dying influenced their great masterpiece and most of that is bullshit. The usual things that really inspire great writers and great works almost come out sideways from places they don’t even understand but are receptive enough to know they don’t NEED to understand. They just need to surrender to it.

Why did you start writing plays?
I had to take a playwriting class to finish my creative writing in the media minor at Northwestern. I wrote my first play there, got great feedback from Susan Booth, wrote my second play over the summer, and submitted it to a small theatre on the south side of Chicago. They did a staged reading of my play and tape-recorded it for me, which was just unbelievable. I’m not very smart when it comes to picking up on certain clues and I didn’t know the artistic director was flirting with me and intriguing on my ‘willingness.’ Can I say that? Well, whatever. In my college student mind, I just passed it off as ‘eccentric, touchy-feely middle-aged man who likes to talk to me.’ I wasn’t shocked or horrified by it. But it’s funny because the first person outside of school who took an interest in my work was trying to sleep with me and I didn’t realize it until he came out and pretty much said that. I guess it’s a comedy because nothing happened. If something did, then it would be a tragedy. But thanks to that initial ‘enthusiasm’ I kept writing.

What kind of theatre excites you?
It seems like such a cliche to say ‘dangerous’ theatre. Ohhh, scary. The theatre isn’t dangerous. Coal mining is dangerous. Reporting from war is dangerous. But theatre can be freeing and vulnerable. Theatre can make people storm out in a fury or reduce someone to a sniveling wreck. I am all in favor of that cathartic fury or intestinal unraveling. When “Bootycandy” was at Playwrights Horizon people walked out. I found the play not only hilarious but observing the temperature of the room wonderful when it exposes odd contradictions. I bet some of these same people will clap and bounce in their seats when Rambo decapitates an entire platoon but will storm out when someone makes an anal sex joke. I find that hilarious, freeing, vulnerable.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?
Read the book “Drive” by Daniel Pink. He explains the different motivations that drive people and the strongest being intrinsic motivation. This is the innate motivation people have to fix things, solve puzzles, edit Wikipedia, do code for free systems like Linux. This is the “Sherlock Holmes” drive that almost seems to carry the human being along, despite their character defects and flaws. And most things in society are built to destroy that intrinsic drive and reroute us to ‘fear drives’ of external motivations of material comforts or internal drives of accolades and approval amongst our respective tribes. Resist the drought of fear, replenish, and rain the intrinsic rivers. You don’t have to build the streams and deltas. They flow naturally. You just have to let it not be walled up and rerouted. Whatever you can do, let that intrinsic river flow. It will lead you to your passions, it will tell you what issues make you “Sherlock Holmes” and want to get in there and figure it out. The things that motivate you might be a social issue, it might be global warming, it might be relationships between rich WASPs in the Hamptons (Lord hammercy!), it might be anything. It might be the things your mind is running from because you think no one will care.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
Read plays, see plays, talk about plays. Read poetry and every year write something that scares you. Get involved in community building, listen to anything you find repugnant, and question yourself. Don’t be polite. Stop being polite. Write from a vigorous place of conflict, and not a whimsical need to be thought of as smart or a wordsmith. Stop reacting in Pavlovian outrage over Tweets and status updates. Start being outraged at real injustice. Save your power for things you have a say in and not celebrity beef online. We are more powerful than we know. Meditate, contemplate, go to that quiet place. This is what these stories have taught me.

Aurin Squire is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and reporter. He is a two-time recipient of the 2014 Lecomte du Nouy Prize from Lincoln Center and a recent graduate of The Juilliard School and its Lila Acheson Wallace Playwright Fellowship. In 2014-2015 he has fellowships at The Dramatists Guild of America, National Black Theatre, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and the Royal Court Theatre’s US Writers’ Residency in London. Squire is the winner of the 2014 Act One Writing Prize Lincoln Center Theatre. He graduated with honors from Northwestern University and has been a reporter for the Miami Herald, The New Republic, Talking Points Memo, ESPN, and Brooklyn Rail. Squire’s enjoys long-term collaboration and new challenges. There’s not enough room to include everything, but several of his projects have received multiple development and productions around the world. His comedy “Obama-ology” was developed at Juilliard New Play Festival in September 2014, before receiving a critically acclaimed European premiere at London’s Finborough Theatre in December 2014, and being remounted in May 2015 at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. “To Whom It May Concern,” a dark comedy won LGBT awards for best play and best playwriting at Fresh Fruit Festival before being optioned and remounted off-Broadway at Arclight Theatre. “Freefalling” was first produced at Barrington Stage, earning a Fiat Lux Award with the Catholic Church in New York, was published at Dramatist Play Service, and won the grand prize in InspiraTO Theatre’s International Play Festival in Toronto. Defacing Michael Jackson won Samuel French International Play Contest, was published as a one-act, expanded into a full-length play that was workshopped at Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and earned an Act One Prize from Lincoln Center in 2014. His play “African Americana” started at Brooklyn Arts Exchange before being produced at Theatre 503 in London. In the fields of film and multimedia, Squire adapted the novel ‘Velocity’ into a screenplay for Moxie Pictures, and has served as a writer/producer for numerous web and multimedia projects. Squire wrote “Dreams of Freedom,” the installation video about Jewish immigrants in the 20th century for the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. “Dreams” won 3 national museum awards and is currently in the permanent exhibit at NMAJH. Squire’s plays, movies, and multimedia art has been produced across Europe, the United States, Great Britain, and Canada. His plays have been developed and produced at venues like Ars Nova, Abingdon Theatre, Cherry Lane, Lincoln Center Lab, National Hispanic Cultural Center. He lives in New York City. Welcome Back, Aurin!

Interview with Playwright David E. Tolchinsky

David E. Tolchinsky

We talked to David E. Tolchinsky about his new play “Clear,” his advice for young writers, and how teaching informs his writing. 

What was your inspiration for this play?
I was thinking about ambivalence. What is it exactly? To like something and not to like something at the same time. And I was thinking about clarity, that I’d like to be clear in my own life and writing. And I was wanting to write something contained and therefore cheap to produce, with no special effects, no flying demons or giant stadium crowd scenes or implications of child abuse, elements that have led some of my earlier screenplays to attract interest from all kinds of studios, producers, and directors, but at the same time have made them difficult to get produced.

Also, my dad was a psychiatrist and a professor of psychiatry (see my essay and play “Where’s the Rest of Me?” for more about him) so we’d have a lot of psychiatrists hanging around at the house when I was a kid. So while not an inspiration for this particular play, in general psychiatrists tend to show up in my work.

What do you want the audience to come away with?
To quote Maximus (as written by David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson) after he slaughters a bunch of guys in Gladiator: “Are you not entertained?” And after they’ve been entertained, I want audience members to talk about the play, to think about it, to dream about it, for it to burrow into their brains like some kind of hideous parasite. But if they’re just engaged and not bored for 90 minutes, then great, I’m happy.

Much of your play is shrouded in mystery and ambiguity. What was your goal in leaving aspects of this play open-ended? 
We just had a preview screening of The Coming of Age, the screenplay I was commissioned to write for Fork the Man Productions, and someone in the audience asked me the same question. Am I detecting a pattern in my writing?

I intended to write something contained, but I didn’t intend to write something open-ended. I just tried to amuse myself, to write something that would be cool to see, to create interesting twists and turns. Along the way, maybe I left out the boring parts (too little conflict, what I’ve seen before, something stupid and on the nose or what I couldn’t stand to write for whatever reason). And maybe I’m a little more interested in questions than I am in answers. The first half of horror movies is always the part I like best because the first half contains suffering people who think they’re going crazy or dying from a strange medical ailment. The second half contains what is usually a dumb, disappointing answer that we’ve seen before – demonic possession or angry ghost or pissed off the house or alien or whatever. (Although a few horror movies do have awesome and unexpected answers.)

Thinking more about your question: Ironically (or maybe not), what I teach mostly at NU is story structure – four-act structure, mythic structure, sequence structure, scene structure, beginning, midpoint, dark moment, and ending. But, the movies that affect me the most are the ones where the structures do not easily reveal themselves and are similarly open-ended. Mulholland Drive comes to mind and so does Ju OnJu On didn’t really affect me while I was watching it, but it gave me nightmares because on the surface it didn’t make any sense. My brain had to keep rolling it around.

So maybe in some cases it’s better to imply than to state. Leave the audience to fill in/discuss/dream. And Clear is about scraping past the conscious mind and defenses to the unconscious, so it makes sense that the play is open-ended because the unconscious is open-ended. Similarly, in The Coming of Age, a woman is slowly suffering from dementia: does it make sense to have such a movie make too much sense? Shouldn’t the form reflect the content? That is, as the character loses her mind, shouldn’t the movie? So linear becomes non-linear, pieces start to be missing.

As a side note, my colleague Rebecca Gilman read my play and asked: do you know Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman? I didn’t, but luckily Redtwist Theatre – everything I’ve seen at that theatre is great by the way – was running it. I felt like I was . . . home. Interrogations, mysterious characters, memories, dreams, and you’re not quite sure what it all means. But you feel the feeling. And you’re into it until the very last moment. And you’re thinking and talking about it afterward. And even if you can’t articulate it, you know there’s some kind of logic at work. So The Pillowman didn’t influence me since I saw it after I wrote Clear, but it definitely told me it’s okay to leave things open for interpretation.

Anyway, to me, Clear is clear – I understand why everything happens and what it all means, but I understand that to audience members, it may not be completely clear and the play may feel open-ended. And by the way, I should say I think I understand what it all means, but it’s usually someone else – my wise spouse and sometime collaborator Debra Tolchinsky, for example – who tells me what a particular screenplay (and now play) is really about – and usually, it’s hard to take because there’s some ugly truth in there I wasn’t aware of.

What projects are you working on now?
Currently, I’m co-creating a film-based installation/performance/lecture series about historical and new radical therapies entitled: Wilhelm Reich: An Attempt to Heal in the Modern World. Dan Silverstein, artist and Associate Director of Collections and Exhibition Management at Northwestern University’s Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art, is responsible for the sculptural aspects, including fabricating an interpretation of an orgone accumulator. Melika Bass is creating a film for the project. Debra Tolchinsky is curating. I’m writing something to perform in the space of the installation – a play? A monologue? Who knows, but it will involve a protagonist suffering from some kind of illness; even though his medical tests are normal, he just doesn’t feel right, he knows that something is terribly, terribly wrong. He finds little help from talking cures or other conventional therapies. Desperate, he encounters psychologist Wilhelm Reich in a dream — there is something compelling about Reich’s claims that all health and illness stem from “orgone energy,” that he is suffering from armoring caused by blocked orgone. But then he encounters Reich’s detractors – Sigmund Freud, a former female patient, and an FDA agent, all who question Reich’s theories, ethics, and sanity. Indeed, according to Reich, orgone is not just in the body but is responsible for movement in Petri dishes formerly thought to be bacteria, the blue in the daytime sky, and all matter in the universe! Our protagonist is forced to probe his own beliefs about Reich and his subjective sense of his mental and physical health.

Anyway, I’m excited to see how it turns out and how the space of the installation adds meaning to what I write and vice versa. And I’m excited to see how it stands on its own, produced at a more traditional venue at a later date. And I’m excited about the questions the overall project is meant to raise for our audience members:  How do I think about my own relative health and illness and what constitutes health and illness in the modern world? Ultimately, how do we examine radical new theories with a critical yet open perspective?

Along the same lines, in the spring, Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre is hosting a night of plays around the idea of health and illness in the modern world as part of their incubator series. I’m cocurating the three-week run with awesome playwright/NU RTF lecturer Brett Neveu. We’re including my play Where’s the Rest of Me?, as well as new plays by Brett, Lisa Dillman, Shannon Pritchard, Grant Varjas, and Marisa Wegrzyn with regards to visions of healing in unexpected ways; strange modern illnesses (mysterious or ignored or illnesses where doctors say there’s nothing wrong); explorations of alternative, unexpected healing/therapies; unexpected healers; unexpected patients; psychiatrists; suicide; phobias; and movies.

Finally, I’m doing tweaks on my latest horror/thriller feature screenplay, Cassandra (what – the same name as the character in Clear?). I’m going to direct a 10-minute short based on the screenplay and then the feature itself. I’m working step by step as I gather resources. This script is giving me nightmares while I’m working on it. Scary, scary stuff coming out of my brain!

And of course, I’m chairing Northwestern University’s Department of Radio-TV-Film and running our MFA in Writing for Screen+Stage. Both fun and challenging.

What playwrights inspire you?
Martin McDonagh. The Pillowman as mentioned above, but before that, I saw The Cripple of Inishmaan performed by the Atlantic and Druid Theater Companies in 2008. It was like I finally understood what all those people who loved theatre were talking about–ironic and hateful and then emotional and sweet, turn after unexpected turn. Up until that point, I was mostly a dedicated movie guy, although in college as a composer, I was also deep into experimental music, avant-garde, and performance art. And in grad school, I was making films that seemed like documented installations, but I never was into or knew much about what most people think of as theatre.

Colleague Thomas Bradshaw, for being disgustingly playful and making us laugh even when we don’t want to. His play Mary is brilliant. Carlyle was even better.

Colleague Zayd Dohrn, for taking us into dark and disturbing worlds, for forcing us to think. His plays Sick and Reborning in particular are profound.

Rebecca Gilman –  Luna Gale should have gotten the Pulitzer. The way Rebecca rotates through scenes, in a theatrical yet hyper-real way. The way she tackles social issues head-on, with humor and a heart.

Doug Wright – I Am My Own Wife (which did get a Pulitzer – the world worked as it should) blew me away in the same way that The Pillowman did – what? This is what theatre can be? The author can be a character in his own play? What?

Sarah Kane – Blasted.

Henrik Ibsen.

Kenneth Lonergan.

And somewhere between writing and performance:
Key & Peele – I appreciate the smart way they use comedy to probe race and relationships.
Spalding Gray. A great loss. . .
Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Tina Fey.

And I just re-watched the film Dirty Dancing written by Eleanor Bergstein.  I don’t know Bergstein’s playwriting, but her screenwriting in this film is fascinating, with a lot going on in terms of sexuality, class, Judaism, race (in the background, but there) and of course adolescence. Insightful and tricky. And oh yeah, there’s some great dancing too.

Why did you start writing plays?
Because Rebecca Gilman told me to.  I tend to do what people tell me to do. And maybe I started to write plays because cool playwright Wendy MacLeod, who we had come as a visiting artist to NU many years ago, made me a list of plays to see.  And then Rebecca, Zayd, Thomas, and my other colleagues gave me more great plays to read or see and soon I realized theatre, rather than being unbearable torture, could be as fun, disturbing, and profound as movies. Anyway, other than the Ibsen plays I had seen in college which were pretty great, most of the theatre I had seen was bad.  I will say though I still hate that I can’t make snarky asides during live theatre, which is hard for a moviegoer like me who likes to offer up annoying commentary along the way. I also hate when actors look at me, talk to me (hey, Bald Guy! Yeah you!) or sit on my lap.  The fourth wall is a pretty good thing.

What kind of theatre excites you?
Theatre-making is all new to me, so recently, directing my own short play Where’s the Rest of Me? excited me. It was like magic – four actors up there on a stage with a movie screen behind; suddenly we were in a different world/different space/some of the audience was laughing and/or crying, and honestly and unexpectedly so was I. It was like a dance and a dream and a personal catharsis. P.S. You should cast my lead Greg Peace in your next play – you won’t be sorry.
What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?
Be fearless. Be persistent. Be a nice person in real life, but be a total monster in your writing. Write monsters. Write monstrously. Write the scene you can’t see in real life but it would be great to see. Write a dark wish. Write something that will change the world. Write something that you get up in the middle of the night to reread. And reread and reread. And don’t let the bastards get you down. And I like what Thomas Bradshaw said to me (paraphrasing): “Dave, you just got to get these plays up.  Don’t wait. Just do it yourself if you have to. You’ll learn as you go regardless of the result.” I also like what Rebecca Gilman said: “Dave, be careful; you only have one premiere. Make sure it’s something you’re proud of.” Both are paradoxically right. Writing is built on such dichotomies that you — and your characters — have to negotiate. Conflict always conflicts.

And I’d give young playwrights starting out the same advice I give our MFAs: find a creative community to support you and think about art. Why are you writing what you’re writing? Why is your writing important? Think about craft and think about business (not a dirty word) including how to talk about you and your work. Learn transportable writing skills like character and conflict and, yes, structure — whatever that means to you — so you can ask interesting questions: am I a playwright? Maybe I’m a TV writer.  Maybe I’m both. The story I’m writing – is it a play? Maybe it’s a pilot? Maybe it’s a screenplay or a radio play or a monologue or videogame or an installation with performance elements. Maybe it starts out as one but depending on creative and business opportunities becomes something else. Be open and be ready.

And I’d tell a playwright who’s starting out, if it feels right: apply to my MFA program. I’m very proud of the faculty we’ve gathered together – the playwrights mentioned above (all of them also TV writers and/or screenwriters; clearly, we practice what we teach) as well as our other cool writers (Bill Bleich, Erik Gernand, Kat Falls, Mia McCullough, Laura Schellhardt, and Zina Camblin), and our cool filmmakers and our cool screen cultures/performance studies/theatre scholars.

And regardless of the outcome (the program is competitive): keep writing, keep pitching, keep applying to as many opportunities as you can (each time you do, you learn to talk about your writing and yourself in a new way), keep knocking at the door, and if one door doesn’t open, find another one that may or ignore the door altogether and just do it yourself, whatever that “it” may be, however you can. This is what I teach. This is what I practice.

You founded Northwestern’s MFA program for Writing for Stage and Screen and are Professor and Chair of the Department of Radio/Television/Film. How has your time as a professor influenced your own writing? 

Because I teach writing, I think a lot about my process and craft and my students tell me things about the craft I never would have thought of, so I keep learning more and more. But the more I know and teach the more I don’t want to know, the more I want to forget. I used to plan out my writing with detailed outlines. Now if I just know four structural points or even just the ending, I’m ready to go and write. This thing I’m writing now about psychologist Wilhelm Reich – as I said above, I don’t know if it’s going to be an essay, a monologue, a play, or maybe a hybrid movie/play, and that’s OK. Letting it go where it wants to go. Not planning too much, letting my characters and the voice of the piece tell me. The latest draft of my feature, Cassandra, is the best I’ve written because I threw away the outline and just let it go, waited for the scenes to come while I walked, while I dreamed, etc. That’s another piece of advice – writing happens in odd places and times while walking, taking showers, staring at the wall, or watching a bad movie; the computer is usually not where you get your best ideas.  And while often we work on deadlines (especially when doing writing for hire or when in school), sometimes our best writing happens when we have the time to put drafts away or let the writing come slowly. So I try to balance having some work that needs to be done with a particular deadline in mind, some work I let just percolate.

Less directly answering your question:  I’ve been running this MFA since 2005; at the same time, it’s like I’ve been enrolled in an MFA, being educated in a whole new art form.  So besides being infected with the impulse to write plays, I’m sure my screenwriting has been influenced as well but I really don’t know-how. Similarly, I don’t know if my writing is influenced by my students, but I’m definitely inspired by my students (undergrads and grads) and by what they’re achieving now as alums. To name just a few —  Dave Holstein (staff writer, The Brink), Jen Spyra (former writer for The Onion and now staff writer, Late Night with Stephen Colbert), Eoghan O’Donnell  (creator of The CW’s The Messengers), Marisha Mukerjee (staff writer,  Heroes Reborn), Sarah Gubbins (playwright, The Kid Thing), Erik Gernand (playwright, The Beautiful Dark), Andy Miara (former head writer, The Onion News Network; writer, several Comedy Central pilots) and J. Ryan Stradal (author of the New York Times best-selling novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest). Two of my students were recently picked by Variety as “film students to watch.” Several of my students have formed a cool theatre company here in Chicago.  Anyway, on and on – too many to talk about here. But inspired by them all.

Finally, I’m so busy with my NU commitments, I’ve had to learn to write whenever, however, wherever. So how I write probably influences what I write.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I’d like to thank Debra Tolchinsky, Raisa Tolchinsky and Zane Tolchinsky, who inspire me with their own artistic creations, who put up with me and my evil little stories, who realize you can write evil stories without being evil, who give me invaluably honest, sometimes painful feedback, who put up with my intense ghostliness when I’m lost in some story and especially when it’s not going well. I also want to thank writers Charles Harmon, Taras Otus, Ron Ward, and David Bradburn (who directed The Coming of Age) for making time to read my screenplays and now plays and for giving me great feedback. And I want to thank Brett Neveu for arranging a reading of the play at A Red Orchid Theatre; I’ve definitely incorporated the feedback that came out of that experience.

David E. Tolchinsky is the Chairman of Northwestern University’s Department of Radio-TV-Film and Founder/Director of Northwestern University School of Communication’s MFA in Writing for Screen+Stage. Some of his work centers on teen subcultures, particularly in relation to social decay. He is also interested in horror, mental illness, and psychiatrists. He has been commissioned by such studios as Touchstone/Disney, MGM, and Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Pictures to write screenplays, and his feature film Girl (screenwriter, associate producer) is distributed by Sony. He has designed the sound for interactive computer environments and video installations seen internationally and was nominated in 2003 for a Motion Picture Sound Editors Guild Golden Reel Award for his sound design for Dolly. He has co-curated gallery exhibits including The Horror Show in 2009 at Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs in New York City which explored horror in film, video, installation, photography, sculpture, and painting and which was featured as a “Voice Choice for Art” in The Village Voice and on their blog, and which was accompanied by a 32-page catalog. He co-produced Debra Tolchinsky’s 2011 feature documentary, Fast Talk which investigated the accelerated speed of argumentation in college debate and which is available on iTunes. More recently, he published “Where’s the Rest of Me?” a reflective essay about Spalding Gray and monologue writing in Paraphilia Magazine and cocurated The Presence of Absence sponsored by the Contemporary Arts Council at Hairpin Arts Center, Chicago. Most recently, he was ranked #14 on New City’s Film 50: Chicago’s Screen Gems 2013, was the recipient of a 2014 Illinois Arts Council Artist Fellowship in Literature (Poetry, Prose, Scriptworks) and made his premiere as a playwright and theatrical director at the 2015 Strawberry One-Act Play Festival, Hudson Guild Theatre, New York City, with Where’s the Rest of Me?, an adaptation of his essay. His play was nominated for Best Play and he was named Best Director. He is a graduate of Yale (BA, magna cum laude) and USC School of Cinematic Arts (MFA). Read more at

Interview with Playwright Ellen Margolis

Ellen MargolisEllen Margolis talks about her recent commission with Proscenium, her writing process, and what inspires her. 

When Proscenium approached you with the idea of adapting a Shakespearean work, what made you think of adapting Pericles?
When I saw Pericles for the first time a few years ago, I both loved the play and felt I had unfinished business with it. The premise of unacknowledged incest is just a jumping-off place in Shakespeare, but today of course our understanding is different. When the opportunity came up to work with Proscenium Journal and the Portland Shakespeare Project, I had an electric realization, “Yes, time to dig intoPericles!” And then as I wrote, it became more about the position of someone who witnesses a violation and has to make a decision, and less about the daughter and her abuse–although we hear from her pretty strongly as well.

How did the artists working with you in the Proscenium Live reading influence the development of this work?
Knowing that a play is going somewhere, that someone besides me is interested in seeing it, is a huge gift, so thank you for that! And Michael Mendelson, who is Artistic Director of Portland Shakespeare Project and who directed the reading, was influential in all sorts of sly ways. A lot of his notes came on the fly during our brief couple of rehearsals. He threw a lot of great insights into my way. And our actors were wonderfully game and also asked some terrific questions.

You plan on expanding Pericles Wet into a full-length play. Can you tell us more about this?
I’m close to wrapping up the first draft now. This has gone much faster than my usual writing process, which I attribute to the pleasure of hearing the first act with the keen, engaged audiences who joined us for the readings and talkbacks in July. They were so interested and encouraging that I went back to work with the feeling of a good wind at my back!

In terms of content, as I said earlier, it’s about Pericles’s role as a witness. It’s also about how life surprises him and beats him up.

What kind of theatre excites you?
I can be thrilled by all kinds of different work. I see as much as I can, both here in Portland and wherever I travel, and almost always, there is something that delights or excites me!

I could also quote my former student Ted Gold, who works as a designer with Shaking-the-Tree Theatre and Many Hats Collaboration, among other companies in town. One day in class, Ted really nailed it: “I like to leave the theatre Not Done.”

What playwrights have inspired you?
I’m inspired by every artist who keeps showing up at the plate. I have friends who write heroic numbers of drafts and who continue to ride out their careers through decades of ups and downs. I admire them so and am grateful for their beautiful work.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?
If you’re lucky, you’ll find a couple of people who love your writing, and who are also thoughtful and willing to talk with you about what does and doesn’t work. My advice is to be on the lookout for those people, value them, and make the most of their presence in your life.

What are you working on now?
After I send Pericles Wet to a few of my favorite readers, I’ll get back to a play called Crooked Numbers, which I put on hold when I heard from you last spring. Crooked Numbers is a play for four actresses, with family relations in the foreground and baseball in the background. It’s set in upstate New York in 1979, the year Willie Mays was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

I’m also putting the finishing touches on self-publishing a book of my short plays. Available soon on Kindle!

Ellen Margolis is Chair of Theatre & Dance at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. Her plays include “How to Draw Mystical Creatures” (2004 NY Fringe Festival Award for Excellence in Playwriting, 2004 Jane Chambers Finalist, produced by ToyBox Theatre and Theatre Limina of St. Paul); “Trying Not to Stare” (Workshop, Portland Theatre Works through a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council); “Picking Up the Baby” (2006 NY International Fringe Festival); “American Soil” (Produced by Vital Theatre, New York); “A Little Chatter” (Commissioned and produced by Mile Square Theatre, produced by City Theatre, Finalist 2008 National 10-Minute Play Contest, forthcoming Playscripts, Inc.); “When It Stands Still” (produced by ToyBox Theatre); and others that have been produced throughout the United States. Some of her monologues have appeared in the Smith & Kraus Audition Arsenal series, and she is the editor of two recent volumes, Singular Voices: Monologues from the International Centre for Women Playwrights and The Politics of American Actor Training. Ellen is a member of Playwrights West and the Dramatists Guild.

Exclusive Interview with Playwright Augusto Amador

Augusto Amador

Augusto Amador discusses his new play The Book of Leonidas.

What was your inspiration for the play?

I started this play thinking about legacy and tradition. These both can be very compelling and positive factors for people. That is if you accept the legacy and tradition you have been raised to follow. The hard question is: What happens if you don’t want to walk the path that has been laid out for you by your family? If you fear that you will lose your identity in the forced march to duplicate your father’s life?

My goal in telling this story is to show the consequences and damage that can come with breaking free. Pieces of oneself are irrevocably destroyed in this process. In the end, will there be enough of oneself to begin again?

What do you want the audience to come away with?

The Pabon family is haunted and followed by the actions of a dictator that died in another country over fifty years ago. In everyday life, some families are influenced by an event that happened two, three, even four generations ago. The next generation repeats the lives of the previous one, and the one before that and so on, not even aware of why they do. They just do. As one of my characters says in another one of my plays, “The dead always affect the living…always.”

What was the most challenging part of writing this play?

The ending for me was the most challenging.  So without giving it away, I believe the ending was the most realistic.

Why did you start writing plays?

It’s safe to say that one could label me as a loner. Solitude has for the most part come easy to me. And well, writing requires solitude, so it’s been a good fit.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

Love your solitude.

About the Playwright: “The Book of Leonidas” is currently a semi-finalist for the 2015 Eugene O’Neill Conference and was recently a part of the Playwright’s Nest Festival at the Los Angeles Theater Center. Augusto was a playwriting fellow with the 2011 Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater in New York. In addition to the Public Theater’s Spotlight Series, his plays have also been presented at the Lark Play Development Center, Terra Nova Collective’s Groundbreaking Series, Repertorio Espanol, Red Room, Queens Theater in The Park, and INTAR Theater. In Los Angeles, his plays have been presented at the Celebration Theatre, Audrey-Skirball Kenis Theater Projects, Playwrights Arena, the Blank Theater, Ricardo Montalban Theater, Imagined Life Theater, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum as part of the Seedlings New Play Series, the John Anson Ford Theater, and the Inkubator new play reading series at the Skylight Theater. He has also served a playwright residency at the Arkansas Repertory Theater in Little Rock, Ark. His plays have been finalists or semi-finalists for the Eugene O’Neill Conference (2011, 2015), the Sundance Theater Lab, INTAR Playwright’s Lab, The Metlife National Latino Playwriting Award, Bay Area Playwrights Foundation, The Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation, Kitchen Dog New Play Festival and the Hormel New Play Festival at the Phoenix Theater. Augusto was named a finalist for the prestigious 2013 Terrance McNally Award and for the 2013 Clifford Odets Ensemble New Play Commission from the Lee Strasberg Theater & Film Institute. Augusto was a member of the 2014 Los Angeles Latino Theater Alliance’s Writers Circle. His play “Kissing Che” was listed in HowlRound’s, “101 Plays by The New Americans, or on Latinidad.”

Interview with Playwright James Lantz

James Lantz

James Lantz discusses his play, The Bus

What was your inspiration for this play?

A few years ago there was a spate of heartbreaking suicides of gay teens, and some of them had a connection to a church or religion, and the whole thing just made me profoundly sad and angry at the same time. Then this image of a parked bus came to me, and it wouldn’t leave. And that’s where it started. Writing is such a beautiful and mysterious thing.

What playwrights have inspired you?

Instead, can I tell you a filmmaker that I’m inspired by? Alfred Hitchcock has been my cinematic teacher and idol. As a storyteller, he was brilliant. I love how he was constantly experimenting, pushing against boundaries, and threw plausibility out the window. His masterpiece, ‘Vertigo,’ is one of the least plausible stories ever — and yet, like a brilliant magician, Hitchcock leaves you spellbound so that you never think how unrealistic it all is. I love his sense of humor and innuendo, his artistry, and fearless digging into psychological themes.

What kind of stories excite you?

You can’t Google a feeling. The world is already full of knowledge and it’s right at our fingertips all of the time and there’s something insanely numbing about all this information. But a story that evokes feelings, passion or, what David Foster Wallace once wrote as being ‘an erection of the heart’ — that’s the kind of story that makes me want to be alive and stay alive, and I can’t get enough of.

What projects are you working on now?

I make my living as a filmmaker so I’ve got a few film projects I’m working on including a couple of documentaries. I’m also writing a new play and am working to adapt part of “The Bus” into a short film. I just finished writing the script and have started sending it out to producers and actors.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

Instead of advice, I have admiration, tons of respect, and two lines from a Robert Frost poem that hang above my desk:

“Here are your waters and your watering place.

Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”


Interview with Playwright Zoe Kamil

Zoe Kamil

Zoe Kamil discusses her play, Nine Hours.

What was your inspiration for the play?

This play has been a part of my life for just about 2 years (more than that, if we’re counting the period of time where the play existed as a feeling and an idea rather than words), and I’ve been asked this question many times. It never fails to give me pause.

I can count two experiences as being directly responsible for the thematic content of the play: my attendance at a Jewish private school, and my adolescence set against the backdrop of ultra-liberal, ultra-wacky San Francisco. The science-fictiony plot of the play did not, however, come from any sort of personal experience. I knew that I wanted to create a world for these very different characters that could have the potential to trap them or set them free, and a post-apocalyptic wasteland happened to fit that description perfectly.

What do you want the audience to come away with?

With any luck, a sense of hope. In too many ways to list here, I think our world is becoming the sort of environment that my characters find themselves in. Obviously, we are not headed toward any sort of storm-like apocalypse in the foreseeable future, but the stakes are so high at this point in history. Hopefully, when and if we as humans are forced to make that ultimate, base choice, “fight or flight,” we will be able to behave like Faye and Michal, and find some way to reconcile with one another rather than disperse and compartmentalize as a society and a species. I think that, with the proper amount of pressure and intention, any two people or groups of people have the potential to come together.

What was the most challenging part of writing this play?

Writing fantasy is difficult. It takes a very particular combination of creativity and logical thinking to make a story like this one ring true, and establish the rules of an imaginary world with the utmost specificity. It took me a while to find my footing there.

What playwrights have inspired you?

Among countless others: Annie Baker, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Anton Chekhov, Gina Gionfriddo, Katori Hall, Stephen Karam, Chris Durang, Wendy Wasserstein, Henrik Ibsen, Tony Kushner, Sam Shepard, Caryl Churchill, Sarah Ruhl, Paula Vogel.

Why did you start writing plays?

Ostensibly, I started writing plays because I took a class in my sophomore year of high school with a brilliant teacher who went out of her way to mentor and guide me, but probably also because I like to talk, I like to listen, and I like words. I like the idea of what gets said out loud and how it relates to what doesn’t. And I’ve loved the performance and theatre of all kinds from a very young age.

What projects are you working on now?

Two full length plays one that I’ve been working on for about a year and a half now, which is partly a courtroom drama, partly a religious fantasy, and partly an episodic play that travels through time non-chronologically to explore the events surrounding rape in a public high school, and rape culture in general. Stylistically, I like to think of it as “12 Angry Men” meets “Angels in America” meets “Mean Girls.” Another play that is very research-heavy, and not even a full first draft yet, is about a woman with mental illness in the 1960s, among other things.

What kind of theatre excites you?

Different aesthetics speak to me at different times. Recently, I’ve been fascinated with visually epic or stunning theatre. Stories that feel like they were meant to exist on stage – that they could only exist on stage – because they’re so inherently theatrical and present.

You are the associate director of a theatre company, Semicolon Theatre Company, run entirely for and by those under 21. What is it like being both a young theatre artist and theatre leader?

“Theatre leader” sounds so impressive! Really, we’re just doing the best we can, working things out as we go along. I run Semicolon alongside my dearest friend Miranda Cornell, who is an inspirational theatre artist herself. The company was born from a shared feeling of intense frustration with the state of theatre for young people. Why are there so few opportunities for youth to try their hands at more than just the performance aspect of theatre? Why is the content of plays targeted towards youth often so shallow and watered-down? We produced two plays off-off-Broadway last year. Watching them come together proved to Miranda and me what we already knew when we founded the company; that tweens and teens experience the world with a distinct perceptiveness and that we have strong, powerful points of view. That being said, as a young artist myself, the mission of Semicolon is incredibly vital and personal to me.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

This is an interesting question, in that I myself feel as though I’m a playwright just starting out. To anyone who is sitting down to write his or her very first playthrough, I will say this: just do it. Start writing words. Write from emotion, write a strong voice that compels you, and worry about plot and structure later.