Friday, April 25, 2008

Interview with Julia Jarcho

Julia Jarcho, recently profiled in TBA’s Playwrights Issue and PF Resident Playwright, deftly commands language in her upcoming play for the In The Rough (ITR) Reading Series.  The Whole Tree (Electric), inspired by the story of Electra, explores a world like our own, though overshadowed by an apocalyptic prophecy.  The play will first be shown at Stanford University on Monday April 28th, and then at the Magic Theatre the following night on Tuesday April 29th at 7:00pm.

Read More About Julia In The ITR

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In an exclusive interview Ms. Jarcho explained what engaged her about the original story of Electra:

PF:  What was the genesis of The Whole Tree (Electric)?

JJ:  I was reading Sophocles’ Electra and two things really struck me.  First, everyone is constantly telling Electra to shut up.  Even when Orestes and the tutor come back, it's like, "OK, good to see you too, but be quiet now so we can kill mom." It seems like her transgression isn’t loving her father too much, it’s talking too much--or somehow those are the same thing. So I thought that was interesting.  And also, there’s a character in the play who’s named--a friend of Orestes--but who never says a word.  So what’s the space that holds open?  I try to work with both these things in my play, which is of course more about what it’s like to have this particular play in your brain--which we do pretty strongly, I think, for instance in pop psychology--than it is a "retelling" or anything.

PF:  You’ve often directed your own work. Do you approach your own play differently when working on it as a director?

JJ:  A play doesn’t exist on paper, at least for me. In terms of new work, I don’t really understand the traditional division of labor between "playwright" and “director”--it seems to come from a model in which the writer is already dead. That’s not to say I don’t like working with other directors--I think it’s like any other kind of collaboration, you can learn a lot, and when I do this I’m excited to see the piece go in directions it wouldn’t have otherwise. But the problem-solving part of the process doesn’t happen in the writing. The writing is an articulation of a problem.


PF:  While still a teenager, you worked with the "auteur" writer/director Richard Maxwell as an actor. What was that experience like? How did it come about?

JJ:  I was interning at a theater where he was working, and I really liked the pieces he showed there, and so I helped out with the box office on a show he did, and then I got to be in a couple of things.  He works with non-actors, and I’m not an actor, so. It was really exciting and helpful. His confidence in the particular work he was doing, I mean the confidence that there was something to be achieved, and with a rigor and specificity that didn’t really need to be justified along the way--because the end product would justify it--I found that really impressive, and I try to be more like that in my work than I think I’d otherwise be inclined to. Not to put on blinders or anything, but just to “believe in myself,” as the saying goes. But also, Rich but also other people I met through working with him (Aaron Landsman, Tory Vazquez), really influenced my sense of what’s exciting in performance--it has to do with a certain honesty, a liberation from “character” and from a kind of preemptive insistence on meaning.  Not that the meaning isn’t there, but performers--and the text—don’t need to insist on it. Because when they do, a lot gets foreclosed.


PF:  You’re in the PhD program in Rhetoric as a at UC Berkeley.  How does that influence your dramatic work?  Is there a tension between work that is creative versus work that is highly analytical?

JJ:  I think there’s more in common than there is in tension. The tension comes mostly from economics of time and energy. And I feel in academic work that there’s a lot more room to hide. Like any occupation, it has its own special language, and I think my writing likes to feed on special languages--although the academic one isn’t, certainly, the one I find most beautiful, and there’s a danger of anemia if that's your whole diet. But if my theater work is kind of nerdy, I don't think that’s because I'm in academia--if anything it works the other way.


Friday, April 18, 2008

Interview with Katori Hall

Katori Hall, essayist, journalist, and multi-award winner, travels to the Bay Area from New York as part of a partnership with the Lark Theatre to attend a reading of her developing play The Mountaintop in PF’s In The Rough Reading Series. The Mountaintop, which explores the arrival of a mysterious young hotel maid to the room of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the night before his death, will have a reading at Stanford University on Monday April 21st and Brava Theatre Center on the following night, Tuesday April 22nd at 7:30pm. 

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Katori Hall shared with us the startling genesis for The Mountaintop:

PF:  What was the genesis of The Mountaintop?

KH:  My mother grew up one block away from the Lorraine Motel. A 15-year-old mother of two, she had steered clear of Mason Temple on April 3, 1968. Her mother, Big Mama, had warned, “They gone bomb dat chuuch. You know dem folks out to kill him.”  It would be the greatest regret of my mother’s life. The ominous presence of death was hard to ignore. Palpable, it was. Everyone knew it was coming. They just didn’t know when. The question of when presented itself on April 4th at 6:01 p.m. King was killed by an assassin’s bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

My mother’s regret along with the reasoning as to why she did not go that night has always stuck with me. A native Memphian, I grew up with this history only a stone’s throw away. It is my bloody heritage. The Mountaintop follows Dr. Martin Luther King on the night after he gives this great, prophetic speech.

PF:  What are the challenges of re-imagining a moment in the life a real person who is so revered?

KH:  I tried very much to imagine him as a human, not a God. This is the uber-American hero. A Christ-like figure to some. But I was always searching for the King, warts and all.  As Michael Eric Dyson said in his recent book "April 4, 1968", "The wish to worship him into perfection is misled; the desire to deify him tragically misplaced. The scars of his humanity are what makes his achievements all the more remarkable." It's let's us off the hook to deify him. There is greatness in all of us. We all can carry on his dream.

But as a playwright I just had to imagine, "what would a human being do in those given circumstances?" This was a man whose life was constantly under fire, quite literally. His house had been bombed...he had already been stabbed. He knew he was a marked man. He always talked about his pending death, even joked about it sometimes with his advisers. A lot of people are not privy to this, but King was quite depressed those last few months of his life. He had taken up smoking to deal with the mounting stress and responsibilities of leading a movement. He was heavily criticized for leading a garbage strikers march in Memphis that had unfortunately turned violent, a young 16 year old boy named Larry Payne was killed. He was deeply troubled in a way his colleagues had never seen him after that. He came back to Memphis to do it again.  He was in the midst of planning another march on Washington, his Poor People's Campaign and he was there in Memphis for the garbage strike workers because their quest for a living wage paralleled his quest for a living wage for all Americans.

The given circumstances of his life at the time, provided me with rich material to create an entire man...not the I HAVE A DREAM man, but a man dealing with depression, dissension in his organization, and pending death.

PF:  You have a background as both an actor and a playwright. Which came first? How did you make the transition?

KH:  That's the old question, "what came first, the chicken of the egg?" I got my degree in acting first, but I probably started playwriting first, in fact, I've always written. I've been publishing articles in newspapers since I was 14 years old, so I always knew I was a writer. My first foray into journalism cultivated my storytelling and listening skills. Journalists are forever interviewing people, listening to the cadences and rhythms of authentic speech. I always had a good ear for the best quotes and I'm sure that's helped me create characters who have a way with words.

Five years ago when I took my first acting class at Columbia, I went up to my teacher and asked,  “Do you know of any good scenes from plays that occur between two young black women?”  She stood there perplexed. 10 seconds went by…then 20….then 30….a whole minute flew by and she couldn’t come up with one answer. “Gee, Katori, I’m so sorry, but I can’t think of one…I mean, there is a scene in Raisin but the two characters are not young…maybe August Wilson? No…most of his characters are male…I’m sorry, Katori. I just can’t think of one.” She walked away. At that moment I said to myself, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to write some then.” I wrote from an intense need to see myself and my experience reflected honestly onstage. It was quite easy to make the transition.

PF:  Do you ever act in your own work, or write plays with the intention that you would perform them?

KH:  I haven't acted in my work yet...only in the performance poetry bits I've written. I've just started thinking about which of my characters I would love to play.  I could play the hell out of some my female roles! They are all little slivers of me mixed up with other folks I know. I've toyed around with the idea of writing a one woman show, but I like people, too much. I would hate to be up onstage by myself. Plays remind me of the time I would play make-believe with my sister and my friends reimagining the world as children often do. I like that feeling of creating life--new life--with other people.

PF:  What's up next for you?

KH:  I will be back in the Bay (Yah!) doing the Bay Area Playwrights Festival this summer. I'm quite excited about that. My first play, Hoodoo Love is being published by DPS. Please check it out. I was recently commissioned by the Women's Project with the support of the New York Council of the Arts. I am finishing up an adaptation of Antigone set in post-Katrina New Orleans for Fluid Motion Theater. And I am at Juilliard right now in their playwriting program continuing to grow as a writer, so as you can see I'm busy as all get out!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Interview with Brian Thorstenson

Brian Thorstenson (ITR 2006, BAPF 2003, 2000) unveils his latest work, In the Deep, Not so Deep, in PF’s In The Rough Reading Series.  His reading will travel to Stanford University on Monday April 14th and will play at ACT’s Zeum the following day, Tuesday April 15th at 7:00pm.  Take advantage of this opportunity to see an intriguing playwright’s first stab at a promising new play.

Read More About Brian's Reading in ITR

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To give you a sneak peak at the play before it’s reading, we interviewed Brian briefly about his new work:

PF:  Please talk a little bit about the origins of this play.  Did it have a particular inspiration? What did it grow out of?

BT:  In the Deep started from a collecting of characters. I met a travel writer who told me she thought people shouldn't travel, saw an ad in a newspaper for an intuitive consultant advertising every conceivable new age technique, heard a story from a teacher about a twenty something girl who did a speech in class about how much she hated Michael Moore and didn't want to ever ever be labeled a feminist. They all started to feel like they could inhabit the same world and so I started throwing them together in different configurations.  And I've been wanting to write a comedy and these characters made me laugh.


PF:  You've done a collaboration with the Stephen Pelton Dance Theatre. What was it like to mix the medium of dance and theatre?

BT:  Stephen and I are currently working on a second collaboration and I feel like I'm still figuring out the answer to this question, that it is the question we are constantly working through in the studio. One of the differences with this form is deciding which element is carrying the narrative. Do we want to tell this part of the story with text? or with movement? or with music? or some combination? It's a constant, and fascinating, process of balancing all of the pieces. I often feel like the writing I do with Stephen is much more skeletal, that is carries more porous ness. At first that seemed like a bad thing but I'm discovering that I can bring in a fragment of a scene (and I work much more with fragments in this kind of work) and Stephen will layer in some movement and the scene comes to life.


PF:  You wrote a radio play, adapted from Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here. How was it to adapt a play instead of writing it from scratch?

BT:  It Can't Happen Here was a particular adaptation experience. When I was member of the Z Collective we did an adaptation of the novel. The play was written by Rick Hickman. So for the radio play I was working off of Rick's play, an adaptation of an adaptation. Most of the work was actually doing editing and sharpening of scenes.  I did a complete rewrite of one scene and then added old fashioned radio style introductions to most of the scene. My last play Wakefield; or, Hello Sophia was a different kind of adaptation, working from a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. With that adaptation I picked up where Hawthorne left off, imagining the possibility of the next set of events. One thing you get with adapting is a set of givens: the setting, the characters (and some of their back story), the plot etc. It's different for me in that I have a kind of distance from the characters as opposed to ones that come from my own imagination. It's not a bad distance, in some ways it's very useful, an objective kind of detachment. And you get the plot, which I hate hate hate, so that's always a bit of relief to me.


PF:  As a writer who has explored multiple forms of performance, can we expect In the Deep, Not so Deep to incorporate any of that?

BT:  I think working with Stephen has made me more aware of how a play moves and In the Deep reflects some of that, moving very quickly from one location to another with a kind of theatrical plasticity (thank you Marisela for that wonderful word!).  And their's a trio in the play that sing songs, play all the minor characters and create the soundscape for the play (like foley artists).  I think that comes from working in different forms and an interest I've had recently in opening up the theatrical trunk and playing with all different kinds of strategies and gestures.  I mean some one speaking with a thick french accent is funny right?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Interview with Dominic Orlando

Dominic Orlando (BAPF 2004) has an impressive history with theatre.  His work has earned him numerous residences, a CORE membership in the Playwrights Center of Minneapolis, and he has been nationally and internationally produced, most recently in Japan.

He returns to the New Play Institute this April 19th to teach a short but intensive “New Play Boot Camp,” where his unique perspectives and long experience promises to birth a strong and healthy One-Act Play for each of his students.

Read About Dominic's Class

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In an exclusive PF Interview, Dominic talks about how he formed his ideas about theatre, amongst which are his thoughts on the musicality of playwriting:

PF:  The class you're about to teach for Playwrights Foundation's New Play Institute will draw on the commonalities between symphonies and plays.  When did you start thinking of the two forms as similar, and where do you draw the parallels?

DO:  I'm kind of freak when it comes to theatre, which I say because I just started doing it in 5th Grade--writing, performing, directing--and so my outlook on "the form" has always been a little off—sometimes that gets in my way, but good or bad I'm always balancing The Way Things Are Done with The Way I Invented Them In My Head.  Which is the long way of saying I've always thought of playwriting as musical--sound and rhythm based.  I broadened that idea into symphonies because a symphony is a structural arrangement of sounds, with different themes occurring and re-occurring, bouncing off each other to create a coherent whole.

Ideally, "theme" or "themes" and the way they're developed and executed will be the same in a play.  In some ways I believe if you're not working with theme you're not strictly speaking writing a play.


PF:  Your class also promises to have each student write a One Act Play.  What attracts you to a One Act Play versus a full length and how do you feel about the stigma against short plays?

DO:  I think the play itself tells you what to do when it comes to length and content, and you fight with the play at your own peril.  Obviously, the one-act idea is somewhat influenced by the duration of the class--if we had a whole semester we could easily do a full-length--and in the event, many students come with works in progress and I don't discourage that--we're not in med school, we're artists, and where you happen to be in your process is almost as important as the work itself.  So it's not about The One-Act so much as it is about making sure the students keep writing and that the writing is directed toward the goal of what will eventually be a finished piece.  I worry that the emphasis on exercises and monologues is producing too many people who know how to sprint and not enough marathon runners--song writers vs composers.  To the extent that there's a stigma against short plays, it's probably because of a cultural memory--theatre used to be an all day event, and then it was an all-night event and now it's become basically what you might do before you go for a drink.  There's nothing "wrong" with that, except that we have a secret fear it's really about television and our shrinking attention span more than what we might want or prefer.


PF:  You've had plays developed and produced, locally, nationally and internationally.  How would you compare the larger theatrical spheres with what you find in the Bay Area?

DO:  In many ways the Bay Area is more like NYC than any other place I've worked.  I've puzzled over that for a while, because Chicago certainly has a LOT of theatre, and it's closer to NYC geographically, and they're superficially much more alike.  But there's something to being a coastal city that I think can't be discounted.  I just got back from Japan, and when I was in Kawasaki, which is a suburb of Tokyo, the pictures I took could easily be San Fran.  Same with Edinburgh.

Maybe it's a spiritual thing, a sense of openness and adventure—I don't know.  Otherwise I tend not to think in terms of large and small--it's more about the quality of the work and the "feel" of making work there.  And this a great place to make work.


PF:  You've just returned from a playwright exchange in Japan, what was the Reaction to your work over there? How does the role of the playwright in  Contemporary Japanese theater differ from here?

DO:  Well, the attitude toward writers in most of the dramatic forms can turn anyone into a Marxist since it often seems the person generating the initial impetus for the work is the one given the least amount of power.  That's across the board.  It was even more extreme in Tokyo, though--the director seemed to feel he could impose a completely inappropriate "concept" on the play and not have to worry about my response (my responses, in case you haven't noticed, tend toward the lengthy, so he was a bit surprised).  We had a lot of great work conversations, but there was never any real feeling he was going to change his mind.  I define "inappropriate" as an idea that literally works against the play's ideas, in a way that creates not tension but muck.  Often "collaboration" is presented to the writer as, "please change your play to suit my idea of your play"--that's present in the US, of course, but it was central to my relationship with the director over there.  I've only done the one process, but it also seems they've internalized the idea of the dramaturg as sort of an interpreter between the director and playwright to a far greater extent than we have (and of course in our case she was also the literal interpreter).

Also, I learned you shouldn't put anything called "Chicken With Soft Bones" anywhere near your mouth.


PF:  What was the genesis of the Workhaus Collective? What are you plans for it's future?

DO:  Workhaus came about because both myself and my friend Trista Baldwin had produced a lot of work in NYC and were starting to chafe at being "just" playwrights.  We sat down and had a vigorous discussion (some might call it a "fight") about what a company we co-created might look like.  The idea of the writer calling all the artistic shots was a given from the beginning, though the response to the idea locally and nationally has been gratifyingly intense.

The geeky way to put it would be that the Greeks thought of playwrights not a writers but as "playmakers"--that's the basic principle of Workhaus.  We're writers making plays--not English majors writing scripts to pop in the mail.  Of course we want to grow to a point where sustaining a steady stream of work is no longer a tight-rope work--but just to that point would be fine with me.  As long as our ideas disseminate and eventually take over the world.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Interview with James Price

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Check out In The Rough Reading Series

James Price’s Collision Course will receive a reading on Tuesday, April 8th as part of PF’s In The Rough Reading Series, and will be presented at the Ashby Stage, hosted by the Shotgun Players. 

James has spent the last twenty years building an impressive career as a Broadway and off-Broadway actor and musician, performing in the critically acclaimed Batboy: the Musical, touring internationally with Les Miserables, and producing and writing all the songs for award-winning actress Kaitlin Hopkins’ debut CD, Make Me Sweat, available at

Recently, James decided to become a playwright and talks about this transition in an exclusive interview on our PF Blog:

PF:  You're wife is coming out to the Bay Area to direct your reading.  Have you and your wife worked together before?  What about working with your wife is/will be different than working with a someone less familiar?

JP:  I have been fortunate to work with my wife on a number of occasions.  We actually met working on the original New York production of BAT BOY--THE MUSICAL. We were both actors at the time, but we have worked together many times since then both as actors and in the writer-director relationship. She has a dramaturgical flair as well, and being able to look up from my computer at just about any time during the day and instantly get her feedback on tone, direction--even how individual characters sound, is an amazing gift for a playwright.  When we get into the rehearsal room, she's already way ahead of the game.


PF:  As someone who's had a long professional career on Broadway, what brings you to playwriting?  How do you feel about working in theatre from behind the text?

FP:  I love it. As and actor, I spent a significant part of my career doing workshops and readings of new plays and musicals in New York.  It's a fascinating environment because you get exposure to all the upcoming stuff on and off Broadway before anyone else sees it. I've always been a writer, mostly a songwriter, but as an avocation, not as a profession.  At one point a few years ago, I found myself really under-whelmed with the new projects I was seeing and doing and complaining about them more and more. Bad writing. Weak music. I finally decided to stop complaining and try to write something myself. I found that writing a play or musical was a long and difficult process, much harder than I had ever comprehended it to be as an actor, but one that I absolutely loved as a writer.  Making that transition was the best decision I ever made.


PF:  Your piece in the ITR Reading Series is called Collision Course.  What would you say are the origins of this play?  What about this play is particularly engaging to you?

JP:  This play started out as a series of unconnected monologues. I was exploring different environments in which people have a reason to directly address a group without any interaction with the group. At one point in this exploration, my wife was listening to some of the monologues and she said, "These are all characters in the same play.  It's just not necessarily linear." I thought about that for a while, and Collision Course is what emerged from that dialogue. It's great having a director in the house.


PF:  You've studied economics at the University of Michigan, before you studied at ACT in San Francisco and then went to New York to start your career.  Can you talk a little about how you made the jump between economics and performance?

JP:  Yeah, people are always confused by that. I grew up performing as a musician. I started studying classical guitar at seven and was already performing professionally by the time I was eleven. Not a lot of classical guitar players in Michigan. I started writing songs in my teens, performing them and winning local talent shows, doing club gigs-- anything to be in the spotlight. While at Michigan, I sang with a male octet called THE FRIARS, which was a high visibility close harmony group on campus that was basically a musical comedy act.  I loved the live audience interaction.  I took a year off after graduation (I intended to go back to Michigan to Law School) moved to Chicago and took a couple of acting classes with Jane Brody at the Audition Center.  I was hooked. I started getting cast in shows, and the rest is history. And now I'm a playwright. Who'd a thunk it.