Interview with Playwright Aleks Merilo

Aleks Merilo

Aleks Merilo discusses his play, Tango Mike

What was your inspiration for this play?

My grandfather. He was an army veteran with a stoic nature, but I learned that towards the end of his life, he scheduled these terse phone calls with a retired navy officer who lived nearby. The brusque nature of these calls seemed to disguise a deep reservoir of compassion between these two men.

What do you want the audience to come away with?

What someone takes away from a play is what they bring to it. I believe we all have quiet but powerful relationships in our lives; my hope is that this may ring true with others’ own relationships.

What playwrights have inspired you?

Most recently, Ernest Joselovitz for his script “Vilna’s Got a Golem.” A story of Russian-Jewish actors, I initially I thought I was watching a comedy. As the play progressed, my expectations were so utterly reversed that I still have not forgotten the chill I got at the show’s conclusion. Absolutely harrowing.

Why did you start writing plays?

I feel that theater is alive in a way other literature is not. It’s the closest thing I can think of to stepping into a painting and becoming part of the imagined world.

What kind of theatre excites you?

Simple stories about complex characters.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

Book a reading, show up, and don’t tell anyone you are the playwright. Best and most honest feedback you will ever get.

One of your works, The Widow of Tom’s Hill, is going to be produced Off-Broadway at 59E59. Can you tell us a little about the process of developing the play and getting it to this stage?

I really thought this play would never be staged. A play about a real life quarantine in 1918 Washington, I felt it was too, too dark, and the staging too limiting.

It turns out that belief was a wonderfully liberating tool; it allowed me to take some creative risks that I would never have taken otherwise, experimenting with theatrical structure, telling a horror story disguised as a fairy tale. At each reading the universal comment from the audience was “more, “and suddenly a 15-minute experiment became a 90-minute full length.

The rest I owe to Rachel Black Spaulding at Luna Stage in New Jersey – She really championed this play.

Is there anything you would like to add? 

There are far too few theaters that devote themselves so passionately to new works. The ones that do deserve enormous recognition – Here are a few companies and professionals that I think all playwrights should be so lucky to know: The Landing Theater in Houston, Texas; The Sanguine in New York City; Trey Nichols at The Moving Arts in Los Angeles; Mike Ricci at North Hennipen, Minnesota. It is my deepest belief that these are the theater professionals that other companies should seek to emulate.

Aleks Merilo is an award-winning and critically acclaimed playwright based in Portland, OR. Merilo’s scripts include “Exit 27? (performed at the Landing Theatre in Houston, Texas, and The Sanguine Theatre Company in New York City) “Blur in the Rear View” (winner of the James Rodgers Playwriting Contest, premiered at the University of Kentucky, Lexington) and “Little Moscow” (winner of the Dubuque Playwriting Contest, performed at the Labute New Play Festival). His plays have been performed and developed at Furious Theatre Company at the Pasadena Playhouse, Old Globe Theater, Fertile Ground Festival of New Works in Portland, OR, Pittsburgh New Works Festival, Ross Valley Players, The Moving Arts Theater, The UCLA New Play Festival, and Portland Readers Theater. Originally from Palo Alto, CA, Aleks holds a BA in Theater and an MFA in playwriting from The UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television. Merilo’s play “The Widow of Tom’s Hill” has recently been slated for a 2015 Off-Broadway production at 59E59 Theaters in New York. Congratulations, Aleks!


Interview with Playwright David Jacobi

David Jacobi

David Jacobi discusses his play, Mai Dang Lao.

What was your inspiration for the play?

I hope this doesn’t spoil the ending.

The play was born from two separate ideas. The incident that occurs in the play is based on true events that occurred in 2004 at a Kentucky McDonalds. A young employee was detained, strip-searched, and raped by people who were given instructions by a man over the phone who claimed to be a police officer.

From 2009 to 2012, I lived in China, working in theatre. During my time there, I learned about a persistent issue. Every city in China has a law enforcement division called “Chengguan.” They’re kind of like traffic cops; enforcing picayune code rather than tackle crime. Some of these officers are extremely violent, hospitalizing, and occasionally beating to death migrant workers for petty infractions. One day, their employee manual was leaked online. It’s some scary, troubling stuff; tips on how to beat someone without leaving marks, philosophical statements that cement an “us vs. them” mentality. I noticed that when translated into English, it doesn’t seem like it’s a government manual from halfway around the world. It could easily be ours.

What do you want the audience to come away with?

I definitely want the audience to leave feeling less safe than they did before. It’s easy to dismiss the real-life event by saying, “Well, of course, something like this happened in Kentucky,” or “It makes sense because they were minimum-wage fast-food workers” as if abuse and subjugation have geographical or socio-economic boundaries.

What was the most challenging part of writing this play?

Adapting the real-life event while not letting it dictate where the play could go. In many drafts, this play came across like a grotesque post-mortem. That’s the last thing I wanted. This event is far from dead; these events are still occurring and in far more subtle and insidious ways.

I tend to lean towards comedic work. While it seems wrong to allow opportunities for an audience to laugh following a horrific scene, I think it was important to keep the absurdity of the world chugging along. After seeing a reading of this play, Constance Congdon referred to it as “Kevin Smith meets Kafka.”

What playwrights have inspired you?

Ionesco, Brecht, Shepard, Thomas Bradshaw, Sarah Kane, Naomi Iizuka, Richard Maxwell, Megan Gogerty, Nick Jones, Gina Gionfriddo, Kathleen Tolan.

Why did you start writing plays?

I think I was always writing plays, as early as the 4th grade. But I was very confused and thought I was writing short stories or poems or love letters. Once mentors started taking me to shows, I realized what I’ve been trying to do.

What projects are you working on now?

This play is actually the first installment of plays about labor politics in the US and in China. I’m currently working on the third and final play, which is about retirement. I’ve just finished my latest draft of Widower, a pro-wrestling play inspired by David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

I’m entering my final year at UC San Diego. My biggest project right now is to find an artistic home once I graduate.

What kind of theatre excites you?

I like the plays that unravel in your head hours after you’ve seen them. The plays that make more sense to you in the first few minutes after waking up, when you’re still shaking out the cobwebs. Polarizing plays. Plays that are either under two hours or over six hours long. I long to see a play that has to end abruptly because a riot broke out in the audience.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

Read. Follow your tastes (especially non-theatre related), and it’ll eventually take you somewhere you want to be. If you’re never fully satisfied, you’re on the right track. Be your strongest advocate. As Naomi Iizuka says, find your tribe.


Interview with Playwright Chris Holbrook

Chris Holbrook

Chris Holbrook discusses his play, Ski Lift.

What was your inspiration for this play?

A ski lift, for me, is the perfect place for great theater. You’re stuck with strangers whom you would never talk to otherwise, and there is no escape. Even better, once you arrive at the top of the mountain, you’ll probably never see them again. I love that too. You spend all this time getting to know them and then you’ve got about two seconds to say goodbye.

I started thinking about this play when I was on a ski lift in France. I was skiing alone, and half the time I would ride with total strangers. The lift was long, and we had plenty of time to small talk, or in some cases, talk about things that I’ve never discussed with anyone since. Now I don’t want to suggest that I had deeply profound discussions with these people. But at the same time, it wasn’t small talk either. The other half of the time, I rode up alone, and, surrounded by a beauty that bordered on the dream-like, I had plenty of time to think about these conversations—as well as Life’s Profound Questions that most of us succeed in blocking out during our daily lives. Somewhere in between these lifts, usually on the way down, “Ski Lift” began to percolate.

What was the most challenging part of writing this play?

As is often the case, it’s the cutting and revising, not the writing, that nearly kills you.

What playwrights have inspired you?

Recently, Joe Orton, Neil Labute, Alan Ayckbourn.

Why did you start writing plays?

I got tired of convincing myself not to write them.

What projects are you working on now?

Too many. The question is, how do I get these projects produced?

What kind of theatre excites you?

Almost anything. The one exception is the skeleton-in-the-closet, family-reunion dramas. But even those, if they’re funny, and if the acting is great, I still enjoy it.


Interview with Playwright Augusto Frederico Amador

Augusto Frederico Amador

Augusto Frederico Amador discusses his play, Kissing Che.

What was your inspiration for this play?

I’m very obsessed with historical events and the impact on human lives that they exact, whether just or unjust. What caught my attention was that the persecution of homosexuals by the Castro regime was not very well known, at least by most Americans. So through my imagination, I found myself compelled to tell the stories of the persecuted. More obsessed than inspired I guess you could say. And in Kissing Che, one of the perspectives was through Reina, a fictional Cuban female impersonator.

What do you want the audience to come away with?

I want the audience to experience what Reina and Tamika experienced — the guilt, the shame, and finally the redemption. As the poet, Rilke would say, “To begin is violent.” And that is particularly true of these two.

What was the most challenging part of writing this play?

Well, I’m not gay, nor have I ever been a drag queen. So, it was important to allow these people to talk like human beings and not get caught up in perceptions. And once I allowed my imagination to roam — that is to let Reina, Tamika, Mirabella, and Derek just speak to each other as people — I knew I could start writing their stories.

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 projects are you working on now?

I just finished a play called the Book of Leonidas which centers around a small-time Dominican-American hustler selling loosies on a block in Queens that his deceased and legendary crime lord father used to rule over in the 1970s. It’s a play that asks if it’s possible for a son to escape the sins of the father. And I’ve begun a new play about a young prison caretaker working in a hospice in San Quentin taking care of the dying inmates while struggling to come to terms with his accepting the consequences of his guilt. Redemption ain’t an easy road.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

Love your solitude.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Yes, special thanks to my family, director Victor Maog, the Latino Theater Alliance, the Public Theater, and my past mentor Diana Castle. As she says, “The work informs your life.”


A Statement from Playwright Damon Chua

Damon Chua

Damon Chua discusses his play, Black Coffee Green Tea.

I am a playwright of color and committed to creating opportunities for artists of all color. To that end, all my plays, full-length and the shorter ones, are ethnically diverse or are designed to allow for color-blind casting. Black Coffee Green Tea is no exception. The piece calls for four actors – three Asian and one black. I think it is a combination that is uncommon. I also think it is needed. Through the juxtaposition of different ethnicities on stage, I hope not only to highlight stereotypical views we often harbor of one another but also to challenge the audience on such thinking.

Of course, I also like to entertain, and Black Coffee Green Tea is clearly a comedy. I believe that if we can laugh about our differences, the more likely we are to see our similarities, and the quicker we will emerge into a post-racial world, where such labels are no longer necessary. I may be considered naïve and too optimistic about this matter, but hope springs eternal. That is why I write.

One of the challenges about writing this play is building up a stereotype and then tearing it down – there is only so much anyone can do in ten minutes, across four characters, while cleaving to a narrative that is compelling from start to finish. However successful I have been on this front, I am proud of this play, for its somewhat subversive transgressions wrapped in an easy-to-swallow candy patina.

I admire plays that are political without being preachy, cutting-edge without being self-conscious. I am currently working on a full-length piece, incidentally titled “Optimism,” on how the social optimism of the 1960s morphed into the capitalistic optimism of the 1980s. Like Black Coffee Green Tea, it is ostensibly funny while dealing with serious issues at its core. I guess that is where I am as a playwright, and truth be told, it is not a bad place to be.


Interview with Playwright Andrea Lepcio

Andrea Lepcio

Andrea Lepcio discusses her play, Looking for the Pony

What was your inspiration for this play?

I woke up writing the play in the middle of the night about six months after my sister died. It is a true story and suddenly I felt moved to try to capture the extraordinary experience that was cancer. I wrote a 20-minute play that went on to be done by several festivals and got published. The second director and cast asked me to write a full-length version. I said, “She’s dead, what do you want from me.” But with their encouragement, I went back to writing. The core of this supportive group was Michelle Hurd, Adrienne Hurd (yes, sisters), and Barbara Gulan. I wrote and tossed out pages. We would get together to hear it. I was resisting much of what the play wanted to be. Finally, my mentor, who is Big Writer in the play, said why don’t you tell the story chronologically. I sat down and it started to feel right — hard and painful — but right. Different notions of the play caused the original group to disperse and I found new colleagues as I moved toward production. That was also sad, but sometimes that can happen as work finds its life.

What do you want the audience to come away with?

I love sharing my sister with audiences. So first that they have to joy of coming to know this wonderful person. I want them, of course, to have a catharsis, but it is very important to me that they are released by the end of the play. J. Smith Cameron who originated the role of Oisie really helped me with this. It was her idea to bring their familiar mantra in as the closing line of the play. I always loved how she delivered that line because I think she gave audiences what they needed. Release from the pain back to the fullness of life which is, of course, what had to happen for Oisie to be able to go on. And for me.

What was the most challenging part of writing this play?

That I was writing to me. I wanted to write to my sister. I was less interested in writing to me. I found my story much less compelling. I had to dig in to allow myself to write the fullness of our relationship. She was helping me give birth to my new life as she was fighting for her own life.

What playwrights have inspired you?

So many, truly. I had the great joy of studying with Irene Fornes, Tina Howe, and Milan Stitt (Big Writer). Beckett is a beacon. Williams is an invitation. Current writers, I go to school on include Lisa Kron, Janine Nabers, Kimber Lee, Will Eno, and more. I think we are in a very rich time for playwriting.

Why did you start writing plays?

I wanted to be an actor when I was little but got derailed by conservative parents. When I came back to acting as an adult, I got involved with a new theater that became the Mint Theater. At the time, they were offering classes and one was playwriting. I took it…for fun. It was like meeting myself. It had never previously occurred to me to be a writer, but that class was life-changing. Does that answer the question? Suddenly I had stories I wanted to tell and I fell in love, specifically, with dialogue as a way to tell stories. I got teased a lot as a kid for talking too much, and I guess it is true that I love what people say and that we say things to get what we want, to figure life out, to make connections. I also feel once I discovered writing, I found it to be a great way to think about the world. It allows me to ask questions and ponder all the things about life that I don’t understand. So much! It is a way to reach for….truth.

What projects are you working on now?

I am kind of insane. I write multiple projects at once. The lead project of the moment is a climate change play specifically about the ozone agreement (Montreal Protocol) and the contrast between the success of that agreement and the failure to date of the climate agreement (Kyoto Protocol). It is a big fat research dependent play about extraordinary people doing good work. I’ve got a new rock musical with Ariel Aparicio called Lf&Tms. And I’ll be doing a workshop this fall with a dance-theater piece Me You Us Them with director Jo Cattell.

What kind of theatre excites you?

I like theater that is intimate with the audience (as opposed to distancing). I like wild and theatrical. I like to see things I’ve never seen before. I have to have diverse casts. All white theater bores me.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

Write every day. Tina Howe told me to do that about 15 years ago. She said that way I can write poorly for… And she paused. I thought she would say a day or at most a week. She said for four months. That struck fear in my heart. She said I can write poorly for four months because I know I’m going to write every day and eventually I will start writing better again. I’ve written every day ever since.

Andrea Lepcio is best known for Looking for the Pony, finalist for the Dramatists Guild Hull-Warriner Award, and for the NEA Outstanding New American Play Award. It was presented in a “Rolling World Premiere” Off-Broadway at Vital Theatre Company in New York and Synchronicity Performance Group in Atlanta and had several subsequent productions. Plays and musicals under development include World Avoided, Strait of Gibraltar, Central Avenue Breakdown, Room 16, and Lf&Tms. Andrea is the Dramatists Guild Fellows Program Director. M.F.A. Dramatic Writing, Carnegie Mellon University. B.A. Human Ecology, College of the Atlantic. Andrea lives in Harlem, New York, and Seal Cove, Maine.


Michael Nehring’s Thoughts About the Theatre

Hmmmmm….. having just finished teaching a weekend intensive for the Portland Shakespeare Project I find myself needing to add to this blog. The intensive combined Meisner acting techniques with Shakepeare. It was a revelation to me. The Meisner “mechanical reading” exercise (reading the script with a measured tempo and no inflection) allowed the actors to simply say those glorious words to each other without the usual actor desire to “rise to the Shakespearean occasion” and DO something with the language. Michael Mendelson visited class a few times and we both kept looking at each other and shaking our heads due to the power and clarity of the language and to the obvious joy displayed by the actors. I write this because the weekend, full of theatrical integrity, was profound. We DO need more vision, and we need lively, theatrical environments for artists to bravely meet the language without pre-conception and baggage. The participants in the workshop were moved by the work as we rehearsed the scenes one final time. They weren’t doing Shakespeare, he was doing them. As Meisner suggests, we cannot make the audience believe we are those characters up there- the audience is not insane, they know we are performing- but we can invite the audience to share our experience as we act truthfully under those startling imaginary circumstances provided by Mr. Shakespeare. With all due respect to the NEA this county needs MORE opportunities that allow Americans to experience profound moments in community. That is how culture is shaped, through shared experience. I can tell you that the culture formed this past weekend at the Portland Shakespeare Project sponsored class reeked of inquiry, joy, celebration, tears, and deep self discovery. Film can do alot of that, but only in the theatre can we EXPERIENCE each other living larger in the shared moment. Theatre is a church and a hospital, and this weekend it inspired and healed. Thank you Mr. Meisner, Mr. Shakespeare, and The Portland Shakespeare Project for providing. And thank you NEA for provoking. Theatre people tend to do well when provoked, gets us out of our heads and into ACTION.

What We Need Is More Vision, Not Fewer Theatres

Last week, the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Rocco Landesman, commented that “it is time to think about decreasing [the] supply” of theatres, since theatre audiences are growing smaller while the number of theatres in this country is growing larger. (New York Times, Arts, Feb 4, 2011). Many people have stood up resolutely to defend theatres against Mr. Landesman’s inopportune remark, and I thought it was appropriate to begin active blogging here by adding a few thoughts of my own about the purpose of theatre and why we started Portland Shakespeare Project now. I invite you to join in the discussion, and I hope that my comments start a dialogue about theatre in general and what we are doing as a theatre organization in particular. Read More

As You Like It Cast

I am thrilled to announce the cast for As You Like It. We culled through over 175 headshots and resumes to see just over 100 actors: everyone was terrific, making the decision extremely difficult.

I want to say thank you to each person who took the time and trouble to come and audition. I believe that we have found a wonderful cast for this show. Darius Pierce will play the part of Touchstone, who is one of Shakespeare’s greatest fools. Cristi Miles will be Rosalind, one of Shakespeare’s most recognizable and complex heroines, and the female character with the greatest number of lines in all of Shakespeare’s plays. Read More

Welcome to Portland Shakespeare Project

Hello, and thank you for visiting Portland Shakespeare Project’s new website. I will be writing here from time to time, as will other members of our Artistic Council, to let you know what we are doing and thinking. I hope you will feel free to communicate with us and let us know what you are thinking. We are building a theatre company from the ground up and we want your feedback and your participation.

I believe that classical theatre is a rich and vital source of entertainment, education and inspiration, particularly when it is performed by actors who have been immersed in classical theatre training. As a long-standing, active member of Portland’s wonderful theatre community, I also believe that Portland needs a strong and vibrant classical theatre company, and I am committed to building such a company: Portland Shakespeare Project. Read More