What happens when iconoclasm and introspection meet? They take the name of Benjamin Gonzales and write plays.
He is a former Associate Clinical Professor who taught Theatre at Washington State University. Benjamin is a theatre generalist with experience in Lighting Design, Set Design, Sound Design, Technical Direction, Production Management, Direction, as well as Playwriting.
Benjamin is also the current Chair for the Kennedy Center’s National Playwriting Program for Region VII.
The first play we’ll review is possibly the lightest downbeat comedy around.
The set up of Turnabout is a Fair Play is simple, but the payoff immense. It is a one-act play.
According to the almighty Wiktionary the definition of “turnabout is fair play” is as follows:
“It is allowable to retaliate against an enemy’s dirty tricks by using the same ones against them.”
The saying is attributed to “British/Irish 1755.”
This definition, in a way, summarizes the plot.
David and Geoff are playwrights, writing the next subpar Rent and they need money for a production. They owe two months’ rent to their homophobic landlord Mr. Gorski, who assumes they are gay. They decide to act out the part and con some money out of him. What starts out as an (I think) intentionally pedestrian episode of Three’s Company takes a swivel-headed turn at the end, making it a very worthwhile play.
It contains moments familiar to anyone in the arts or anyone who has achieved a goal. Does this scene look familiar?
The scene contains pretty much all the foreshadowing needed in this one-act. Though that 15 months working on one play made me wonder a bit, because…..
These guys are funny since they spent 15 months on a play and “a few months” is too far away. And they’re worried about money. It’s not like these guys were getting paid for this play during the 15 months they spent writing it. I know writers who act just like them. The call goes out to Mr. Gorski…
The situation set-ups and pay-offs are effective. There’s plenty of theatre jokes.
I won’t give away the twist here but it’s foreshadowed in that first bit of dialogue. So here we have a play that takes some good-natured shots at artists and writers but also hits homophobia on the head. You can view the play in it’s entirety here:
Personable Ellie chats up recalcitrant James. She claims to be writing a journal based on conversations with strangers. Getting him to open up is like pulling teeth.
Gonzales’ craftsmanship turns the play into a meta narrative and telegraphs that via the script. Sublime.
This gives the narrative a concise point of view. Characterization has depth. This exchange shows us who James and Ellie (especially) really are.
Our heroine throws a mean contraction. During the interrogation/discourse, Ellie thinks she knew James back in school. What follows is a traumatically funny-sad discourse on masturbation:
Kids, if you only have one takeaway from this blog post, it’s that “masturbation commissioner” is a great job title.
Of course, Ellie gets to the root of James’ dread: an LDS (Mormon) childhood.
Of course such things never, ever happen in real life and these kids never, ever go on Reddit about it (which, BTW also references our previous topic).
One thing in literature that I feel is underestimated, is the characters’ view of themselves. Gonzales makes Ellie such an insightful, albeit slightly egocentric character.
That’s the beauty of theatre. I’ve never heard anyone refer to themselves as tumbleweed before. Very poignant. And towards the end Ellie has some Manic Pixie Dream Girl knowledge to share with James:
Thud. That’s the sound of Ellie dropping knowledge on James. The play doesn’t end here. There’s about a fifth of a page left and that fifth of a page packs more punch than a fifth of vodka – it totally spins everything we’ve seen so far – and thoroughly proves Ellie is no Manic Pixie Dream Girl; She is much, much more.
This is one of the few plays I’d say has an O. Henry-esque ending that isn’t telegraphed with a baseball bat. Gonzales’ craftsmanship really shows through on this play, though both A Bus Stop Home and Turnabout is a Fair Play have twist endings in their own special way.
A Bus Stop Home has references to Idaho and Washington and represents a type of local color that was popular in Bret Harte (California) and Charles W. Chesnutt (the American South) stories as well as Eugene O’Neill (New England) and Tennessee Williams (the American South) plays. It would be nice to see more local color in American theatre.
The play contains a strong role for both characters, especially Ellie, something that American theatre sorely lacks.
The final play we’ll look at is a very meaningful one, entitled Las Memorias (2017). This play was born out of a program run by Mr. Gonzales and Mary Trotter.
“The program focuses on building skills that help students prepare for college, including writing, public speaking, working in teams and setting priorities.” according to this article.
As part of a summer-long process, students from underrepresented university programs (first generation, multicultural, low-income, etc.) share their stories. The process also encourages them to believe a university education is obtainable for them.
Here’s a link to a PBS video about this fascinating program, featuring Mr. Gonzales:
Each summer Gonzales weaves a story based on the teens’ actual words. Plus a touch of magical realism.
Due to the seasonal nature of the program, every Las Memorias is different. Mr. Gonzales was kind enough to share the latest play with us.
Here is Yessica. She’s talking about an object (a framed photo of her as a baby) that is precious to her and the memories involved:
These words are so descriptive – “A picture, that looked and felt rusty.”
And Claudia has a special rosary:
Again, we have such descriptive language here. “It smells old. Like a bookstore.” And she uses the word “tome.” Awesome. The ending… “But…I have my faith…my armor.” So poetic, so true.
If Quetzalcoatl appeared to me in the form of my grandmother, that would be just about the most awesome thing that ever happened. Abuela does guide her…
Next, we have Mari talking about her headphones.
“The strike of lightning, the sudden and persistent shock of being told to pack.”
“My headphones helped me survive the tempests of change.”
There are many, many teens profiled here and I’m just giving you a sampling. Here’s the final example –
This takes the idea of the security blanket beyond Linus and into humanity. Being the only one of anything can be taxing, at best (anyone remember Jodie Landon?). Again, here is a real person’s voice.
The play wraps up with a nice chorus of everyone and how and why they did what they did.
And thus ends Las Memorias (2017). Mr. Gonzales was kind enough to answer some questions:
- How did you start playwriting?
I was very young when I began writing. My first serious play I wrote, however, was never intended to be anything. “Seeing the Obvious” was more of a catharsis for me as I had been struggling to figure out what I was going to do now that I was in college.-The summer after I wrote it, I was working at a store/coffee hut at a state park, and during one of the down times read in the local paper about a playwriting competition. I decided I’d give it a go, and took 2nd place in the Port Townsend Arts Commission One Act Playwriting contest. Nearly simultaneously, my peers at my University wanted to produce it on their Stage as well. By the time I was 19, I had a play being produced on both sides of the state and I was $200 richer for it. With the encouragement that came with it, I thought I found what I was going to do. The second play was harder, and it took an awfully long time to create it. I almost didn’t go back to it. I kept my playwriting bug to my classroom where I was able to dramaturg and mentor young playwrights who I felt might have a better chance. I’ve taught some wonderful playwrights over the years, and I still have some who are still working hard in the craft. It wasn’t until 2012 when I volunteered to write a verbatim script for a group on campus, that I found my voice again. I started a long time ago.
- What are your influences?
This could possibly be a very long response. As far as playwrights go, I have loved Tennessee Williams for as long as I can remember. The personal nature of his plays has always influenced the way I write. Marsha Norman is also amazing. ‘Night Mother and Getting Out are two amazing pieces of literature. I love the stories her characters share. I think Sarah Ruhl is brilliant. She makes me want to stretch what I think would be a “normal” play.
My students, however, have always been influential. As writers often working on their first play, they never seemed to be confined to the box of “proper” playwriting. Their stories, often raw, combine the vulnerabilities of their youth and the imagination of those who have their ideal dreams still intact. Sometimes when I would leave my class, hoping that my students would take the inspiration and enthusiasm of the class and write, I too would race home to spend time with my characters. This is my first year outside of academia (I’m now a stay-at-home dad of twin 3 year olds) and I miss the interactions with my students dearly.
I also draw influence from my own life. I’ve hit some bumps along the way that have made things challenging. For instance, I’m a two time cancer survivor. My latest play “Up Chimacum Creek” is a semi-autobiographical look at that journey I went on.
- What is your most memorable production and why?
All of the productions I’ve had are memorable. Hearing my own words on a stage in front of an audience makes me feel more vulnerable, more naked, than actually being naked. “Seeing the Obvious”, my first play, probably resonates with me still today. It was the first, and I don’t think anyone forgets their first. Laughing with the audience, cringing at those lines I should have edited… It was a roller-coaster of emotions. I remember on one of the nights, after a power outage that afternoon, the lead actor didn’t show. He was asleep, as his alarm didn’t go off to wake him up from his afternoon nap. I was about to go on in his place, as the director said, “You know the lines, right? You wrote ‘em”. I didn’t. But I was going to go on anyway. Fortunately, 10 before curtain he showed up and saved me from what was sure to be my most embarrassing moment on stage.
- What is your least memorable production and why? [you can leave out specifics or names]
Believe it or not, the least memorable might be the commissioned verbatim works. I write them so rapidly, and the stories aren’t necessarily my stories. That sounds horrible, because those plays clearly change lives. I love doing them, and their effect, but I’ve done so many, that sometimes those memories bleed into one another.
- What’s your funniest theatre story?
20 years in theatre, I’m not sure I can filter it down to a single memory, but I’ll at least try to tell you a funny one. I was responding (for the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival) to Much Ado About Nothing at North Idaho College, where a dear friend of mine teaches. In the lobby he asks if I can keep my phone on when the play starts. I of course oblige, knowing he’s probably got some pre-show stunt during the announcement. I felt a little uncomfortable, but knowing it would be turned off after, I was fine to play the foil. He walks up to me 5 minutes before curtain with a dummy phone and the advise to not let his actor grab my real phone. Knowing exactly what the stunt was, I relaxed. The pre-show announcement happened, and no phone. The plays starts. I turn to my wife who was with me, and asked her if I should turn it off. Clearly they didn’t get the timing right. She shrugged. Act 1 scene 1 passes. Still nothing. I looked at her, she shrugged. The next scene passes. Now, clearly they don’t need my phone anymore. Just as the next scene started, and I was fishing out my phone, my phone rings. I almost forgot to hand the guards… yes, the guards in the scene the dummy phone. They broke the dummy in half and made a big to-do. After they go about the scene. Everyone in the audience turned off their phone.
Carrying my phone turned on during a live performance made me so anxious, even though I knew it was a bit. It may have well been a bomb and I would have been that anxious.
- What are your writing habits like?
I am currently reshaping my writing habits around being a father. That is, around naps, and when my wife is home.I am currently getting a 2nd Master’s Degree (in Dramatic Writing) for the F (MFA). I’ve learned a lot about getting myself into the writing focus by working on the commissioned verbatim plays. I can no longer wait for a eureka moment. I’ve got to put myself into my writing environment as much as possible, and accept that I might stare at the blinking cursor of untitled document for as long as I have the time to write. I used to ask my students all the time how much time do they put themselves in their writing environment, how much time do they try to write, and often they say half an hour. That’s all fine and good if you’re properly inspired, but not if you’re trying to produce on a regular basis.
I will often dedicate an entire day to writing now, if I can get it. My wife know that if I make a vapor trail to my desk after a shower, that she’s got the girls that day, or we need to find childcare coverage. I don’t allow myself to pull away from writing if it’s coming out of me. I also know to not accidentally derail a clear train of thought by drinking more than a couple whiskeys.
I have learned to take victory in the days I write not by quantity of lines created, but the quality anything of that moves the story forward. Sometimes that is research. Sometimes that is reading plays. And sometimes that is writing in another medium for a day.
- What advice do you have for new playwrights?
I have lots of advice for beginning writers, some of which might not necessarily be original to me, but things I picked up along the way.
- Know the environment that you write best in. Put yourself there frequently, and don’t let yourself leave until you have accomplished your thought.
- Don’t write just for money. You’ve got to love it.
- Get to know your characters. If you know them well enough, they’ll surprise you.
- Dare to fail gloriously. If you don’t, you’ll never get out a first draft.
That’s just a few. I know I’ve got a whole bunch more, but I’ll leave it here… for now.
- Who are some other writers you feel should get more attention?
I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work with some talented young writers across the Pacific Northwest, whose words may never leave the region.
- Jessica Weaver
- Jesse Shao
- Quinn Hatch
- Ted Tremper
- Rachel Bublitz (Although she’s pretty known on NPX. She’s fantastic at marketing herself)
- Nara Dahlbacka
- Nicole Jost
Again, I know there are more, but I’ve had the pleasure of seeing work from each of these artists, and they’re all very good.
- What are common themes in your work?
I’ve noticed recently, that I have a lot of death and religion in my plays. While I’m not a religious person myself, I had the fortune of going to a lot of different churches growing up. (I played basketball for a year in Junior High with a Mormon Church) My parents wanted me to choose my religious beliefs for myself. I decided pretty early church was not for me. I don’t know why I find myself talking about religion so much, as I feel very much like an outsider looking in.
As for death, I’ve almost died more than a few times. My cancer was pretty bad, and there were a few times with that alone that I almost shuffled off the mortal coil. My dad was an EMT and Firefighter as well, so I ended up seeing plenty of death when I was with him on aid calls.
- What is one thing you wished you knew now, that you didn’t know starting out?
I wish I knew that playwriting isn’t easy. My first play seemed to come out so quick, and I got so much acknowledgement for it, that I assumed plays would just flow out of me as easily as the first did. That is not how it works. It gave me an arrogant attitude, and when the next play didn’t come out for years, I thought I was bad at it. I didn’t learn to work hard at it until I started teaching, and by that time, I was so involved with my students I didn’t allow myself the time to write.
- Where did the idea for Turnabout is a Fair Play come from?
I wrote Turnabout is a Fair Play very quickly after A Bus Stop Home. I wanted to have fun and experience writing fast paced comedy. I also knew that I wanted to Ubu Roi my beginning, as well as show the ending. It started with the three characters, and I just started writing. So I suppose the play is the closest thing to freestyle writing that I’ve done. I let the characters lead me to the ending. I still think I need to tweak the bad musical section. I may get more nervous about this play than the others.
- Why did you choose an LDS/Mormon background for James’ character in A Bus Stop Home?
I truthfully do not recall the specific reason. I’ve always been curious about religion, even though I’ve held it at arm’s length. I guess I’m very critical of the hypocrisies of the church (and not just Mormons). In this case, James’ family chooses religious belief and disengage from their son until he admits the error of his ways. I’ve seen this happen to my LGBTQ students, and those actions, under religious justifications, is hypocritical. I find the theatre does a better job demonstrating what it is to be a good human being. The theatre is my type of congregation because it is open to all.
- What advice do you have for writers who want a strong twist ending?
Justify everything. A twist is only effective if you play by your own rules. The seeds for any twist should be scattered across the pages. A twist as a Deus Ex Machina is lazy.
- What is your writing process for the “Las Memorias” plays?
It starts with the prompts that I send out to the schools. These are typically open ended questions that lead them to write stories about themselves. We’ll select as many as we have money to support, and I’ll read their stories over and over. We’ll bring them in for a theatre training weekend, where I’ll interview them a little bit. I’ll send them home with another prompt, which will leave me with about 3 weeks to write the script. Each one is different, and I’ll search for the connected tissues of the stories to find the themes. The 2017 Memorias script had a lot of items in their stories, so the script ended up having a museum theme to it. I also want them to have an opportunity for direct address for their stories, but to give them an interactive theatrical feel to it as well. That’s why the ‘17 script had a one act in 3 parts tying them all together. The one act took shape from the themes of their stories. We then bring the students in, and they have a week to rehearse before the performance.
- What’s a question you’d like to be asked? Go ahead and answer that question.
Good One! I suppose I’d ask myself if I will delve back into academia, as that is the question I have been asking myself.
I loved being a professor. Not for the title, but for the mentorship relationships that have formed. I am still in contact with many of my former students. I read their work still, I give them advise, and I attend their weddings. I will never be done mentoring, but it may not be in a university setting. The bureaucracy of universities today are combative and not so friendly to the arts. I found myself defending the existence of the theatre more than I should have. I wish I could write, and freelance design and direct on my own terms.
Thank you for sharing your knowledge. Now, to the eternal sadness of all things sacred, Gonzales lost his job last year when The Great Satan known as Washington State University decided to out-Satan all other Satans and cut the performing arts classes. Gonzales gave 15 years to Washington State University. Never mind that he and his wife just won an award from the Kennedy Center, you know, for being great teachers.
No more Las Memorias.
Benjamin is currently a student seeking a MFA in Dramatic Writing from the University of Idaho. He has survived cancer twice, I’m sure he’ll be taking care of this new turn.
His page at the New Play Exchange.
Benjamin talking about kicking cancer’s ass.
Here’s a list of all of our playwrights.