Our next living playwright to be profiled is Greg Hovanesian. Greg is a based in Boston, MA. His plays have been produced and/or developed by Boston Actors Theater, Playwrights’ Platform, Hovey Players, Image Theater, UAE Theater Festival, Jacklyn Thrapp LLC, Generic Theater, Centastage, and Ya Bird? Productions. It looks like he won’t stay unknown for long.
The first play of Greg’s that I read was Monologue for a Woman. The play is only two pages long, so you can read it here:
This is an interesting discourse about honesty, but also about the banalities of life. The unseen interviewer(s) ask questions, but none of them contain any relevance. In fact it is the irrelevance of the unheard questions that provide the play’s relevance (and satire). But the character in the play can see through this irrelevance and calls them out on it in her own way.
The writing is sparse with a well-laced use of repetition in the “Good. Great. Good” progression.
Monologue for a Woman has had readings at Centastage’s Write On! and Playwrights’ Platform, both in the Boston area.
Greg did have a full-length production of a “Tinder meets vampire” play entitled Thirsty in Boston. The entire play is on Youtube. The beginning is here:
Apparently both the evening and matinee shows were recorded. Here is the matinee:
The second play I read was Fat Ugly Pigs on Camera. I read it because it has an awesome title. No, it’s not about my high school reunion. But about the porn industry in an alternate reality, dominated by women. The summary follows:
Sue has some problems. In a world where women, as opposed to men, run the internet porn industry, she’s a successful producer. But that success has bred enemies: the courts, the FBI, and of course, her own son. As her world unravels, and as people who she loves become irrevocably damaged, the cameras continue to roll, capturing scenes of love for millions to see. There may be only one thing that can save her, and everyone else, from the madness…an act of violence, a piece of salvation, for all the world to see….
Now the amazing thing is, this play is not a comedy. The story is universal enough that it transcends the setting – this is a play about someone whose lifetime of bad choices catches up to her.
The scenes involving Jake (a lad in his 20s) are interesting because sometimes they play out like the beginning to a porno:
This pretty much reverses the male/female power trip of the American patriarchy. Sue can be just as creepy as any dirty old man. Is it the beginning of a sex scene? You’ll just have to watch and find out. Hovanesian tempers the drama with humor.
Run, Jake, run! Sue is in her 60s or 70s and tells herself that everyone is “family.” A very dysfunctional, incestuous family. All the people she works with treat Jake pretty much how you’d imagine male pornographers treat young women: as a commodity.
Sue (and the “family”) convinces herself that her company sells love, not sex. Towards the end, as their world closes in around them, Jake decides to turn the tables on Mary, a company gofer in her 40s or 50s.
Some realities suck. This is an interesting play with well-written characters. There are three great roles for female actors here and one for a guy. By flipping the gender dynamics, Fat Ugly Pigs on Camera indicts American society to its core.
Fat Ugly Pigs on Camera had a reading at Playwrights’ Platform this year.
This is normally where I drone on about some dead playwright, but with living playwrights, we have the benefit of talking to them in the here and now. Greg has been kind enough to answer a few questions. Let’s learn about Greg and his craft in his own words:
- How did you start playwriting?
It’s sort of a long and convoluted story, but I guess it goes like this: I’ve always liked to tell stories and write creatively. In high school, I took creative writing classes. And then I just sort of stopped for 15 years or so: I was writing a lot, whether it be academic history papers in college or pseudo-pop culture analysis on my blog, but not stories. In 2015 I pushed myself back into writing. In a way it was to add some meaning to my life: I felt sort of stuck in a rut and needed to fill a void in my life. I wrote a few screenplays because I love movies, but I realized that not being in Hollywood is a huge obstacle to successfully doing that. And there were other things about screenwriting that depressed me. Ultimately, I wanted my stuff to be heard. So I started writing plays. When I wrote my first plays I was going through a very difficult time in my life: my first 4 or 5 plays, and my first full-length, a play called PLATTSBURGH that takes place in a supermarket, were very self-therapeutic to me. My life was a mess, things were out of control, and the only way to make the world feel okay was to write plays. They were my medicine.
- What are your influences?
I think everything in life influences me. Conversations I hear on the street, movies I watch, music I listen to, strange occurrences that I’ve witnessed while I’ve been living on this planet. Music and movies are huge influences: I could go on and on about the bands and directors who have inspired me, the list is too huge. In terms of writers, Michael Crichton was probably the biggest influence on me as a child: when I read Jurassic Park, I learned not only that I love to read, but that I could write. I was a huge Crichton fan as a 10 or 11 year old. More recently, other writers, such as Chuck Klosterman and Bill Simmons, opened my eyes to ways in which to read into the normalness of pop culture in ‘non-normal’ ways. Cormac McCarthy is my favorite novelist ever: his Western stuff, the stuff that takes place in Texas and Mexico, is amazing. Michael Herr’s Dispatches is probably the most jarring book I’ve ever read, and it still influences me today: I read it while living in Vietnam, where I was a teacher for four years. Kafka holds a place near my heart, and I’ve recently started reading some of Joyce’s short stories from Dubliners, and I think they’re amazing. As far as playwrights go, well, just about everyone I’ve read influences me in some way or another, and I’ve tried to read as many playwrights as possible for the last three years or so. I think I’ve read plays by over 100 playwrights at this point. Some of the top influences would be Suzan-Lori Parks, Henrik Ibsen (because he tackled big issues fearlessly), August Wilson (the greatest monologues ever written), David Mamet (people love to hate him these days, but his dialogue in the ‘80s was fire), Annie Baker, Sam Shepard, and others I can’t think of now. But my playwright hero is Harold Pinter. Pinter’s at the top of the mountain for me.
- What is your most memorable production and why?
Probably my first production ever, which is a one-act called WATER. I wrote it in February of 2016: it was at the height of the heinous situation with the water in Flint, which of course is still ongoing: the government says the pipes are clean, but people are still drinking bottled water. There was something so egregious about everything that was happening: to me, it transcended politics. It was about right and wrong, not left and right. So I wrote a play about it. I was very new, so I didn’t know what to do with it. A few months later, I found out that the playwrights group I had just joined, Playwrights’ Platform, had a festival. So I submitted it and it got accepted. The festival is very DIY: it was like, ‘Congrats, you’re in! Now find a director and actors.’ I didn’t really know many people yet: I had no idea how I’d find a director, and then I reached out to some classmates from a screenwriting class I had taken, and lo and behold, someone responded that she was a director. And I was incredibly lucky: I still work with that director today. We’ve been a creative team for over 2 years. Anyway, the whole production was a circus: we couldn’t find actors for the male roles, everyone was out of town on vacation. So one day I just said, “I’ve taken 11 acting classes…I’ll do it!” And she was like, “Yeah?” And I was like, “Yeah.” Then we rounded out the cast with one of my childhood friends, who had never acted but had done a lot of stand-up. We were a rag-tag team and had no idea what we were doing. And it was out of control from day one: everyday it was a new crisis. I was pretty much having a heart attack for an entire month. But we rehearsed the hell out of it, and we got up there on stage and did really well. We won three awards. So I would have to say that was probably a high point.
- What is your least memorable production and why? [you can leave out specifics or names]
I can’t really say that I have a least memorable production of something I’ve written. But there have been two I couldn’t attend: one was a monologue in New York, and the other was a one-minute play in Dubai. I got to see some pictures, but it’s not the same. I wish I could have been there.
- What’s your funniest theatre story?
Probably something that happened in rehearsals. In addition to being a playwright, I’m a pretty active actor and producer, so I’ve been in my share of rehearsals. I don’t know if one thing sticks out: usually someone muffs a line really badly, and it comes out totally horribly, but it ends up being hilarious, and everyone laughs. That might be something some playwrights have nightmares about! It’s usually stuff like that: funny little moments you don’t remember later. But there is actually one thing that comes to mind as a funny moment. The second full-length I ever wrote was a play called THIRSTY. As soon as my director and I had one play under our belt, we were like, “Let’s do a big one!” It was a pretty crazy and ambitious thing to do; we had no idea what we were getting into or how much work it would be. It was an exhausting project. Anyway, THIRSTY was a pretty wild play about vampire-like beings and online dating, and the apps both they and humans use for dating. And so late in the play, there was a fight scene with a dildo. I can’t take credit for the idea: originally, I wrote a golf club as a weapon. And my director was like, “No, too dangerous.” So I rewrote it with a wiffle ball bat…and she was like, “Mmmm…how about a dildo? Since this character, Micah, is a sort of a sex fiend. He’d probably have one.” And I was like, “Yeah!” So I rewrote it, and then during rehearsals, I bought the biggest dildo I could find on Amazon. So one night during rehearsals, the lead actor had the dildo and was sort of playing with it without realizing it: slapping it on his back, swinging it around, that kind of thing, during some downtime while the director was talking. One of the actors took some pics of him and we all kind of laughed because it was pretty hilarious at the time. So yeah….maybe that’s my funniest theatre story…but I don’t know, really.
- What are your writing habits like?
I’m a weekend warrior. I work during the week as an ESL teacher, so I have zero time to write during the week. On Saturdays and Sundays, when I’m writing, I wake up early: 6am is perfect. I make my coffee, eat breakfast, listen to some NPR, drink my coffee, read some news, and then bang! I’m writing. I like to write for a few hours: usually I finish by 11am or so. Sometimes I’ll go past 12. Eventually, I’ll hit a wall, and then I know to stop writing. At that point the quality starts to dip. I just leave and come back the next morning.
- What advice do you have for new playwrights?
First, read plays. Lots and lots of plays by lots and lots of playwrights. Read lots of variety. Go to the Wikipedia page for Pulitzer Prize in Drama, then go to your local library and check some of them out. Read short play anthologies and long plays. Once you feel you’ve read enough plays so that you have a feel for it, start writing. And don’t look back. Write, write, write. Once you have some plays written, find a playwrights’ group and join it. Very important. Plays need to be heard, not just written. They need to be test driven by actors. And actors are the most important people playwrights can meet. Actors know scripts: they know what makes scripts good, and what hurts them. They are your allies. They want to help. Meet actors through playwright groups, and start to create some relationships.
- Who are some other writers you feel should get more attention?
It’s a difficult question to answer, because I think it’s tough to find the writers who are out there and aren’t getting the attention they deserve. You have to work hard and search for them. The main place to look is on the New Play Exchange, known as NPX, which is a sort of social networking site for playwrights. Recently you posted a list of NPX writers on your FB page who you think deserve more attention, which is really cool. Some of the playwrights I’ve read and enjoyed on NPX are Jennifer O’Grady, Jordan Elizabeth Henry, Lee Lawing, and Asher Wyndham, and of course yourself, Bryan Stubbles. I’m hoping to be able to discover more playwrights that I enjoy soon, and maybe, through the process of word-of-mouth and reviews, I can help them to become more recognized.
- What are common themes in your work?
In all honesty, I’m not really sure. It’s funny: before I was writing this stuff, I would watch a lot of movies by the same director, and search for recurring themes. But I don’t really think about themes when I write. That being said, I do think there are recurring themes that I tend to re-visit, somewhat unconsciously. A lot of my plays have a touch of the supernatural: I don’t think life is as normal as most people think it is, and I like to play with that idea, the supernatural just below the surface. I’m not sure if I’d call them ghosts, but ghost-like people show up in my plays from time to time. I’m a huge fan of the films of Guillermo del Toro, in particular The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. I also love The Seventh Seal and the first couple seasons of Six Feet Under. They all have a lot of mixing of those two worlds, the dead and the living, the supernatural and the real, and I like that. I also like to write plays that happen in an alternate universe, a place similar to what we know, but distinctively different. I think those places are interesting worlds to work in. They give you a lot of freedom to go wild and say whatever you want, whether factual or not, while staying on a plane that is easy for people to understand. And I also like to write about technology from time to time: I love The Twilight Zone and the old Black Mirror episodes, the British ones, before they became not as good in the 3rd season. I think it’s almost impossible for technology not to come up in writing these days, at least in the stuff I write: it’s everywhere and it’s always changing. It’s fascinating and scary.
- What is one thing you wished you knew now, that you didn’t know starting out?
I think the point of starting out is that you don’t know much. When I started doing this, I knew zero anything: I had read a book on screenwriting and taken a screenwriting class. That was it. But that made it kind of fun: I just jumped in without knowing anything about anything, and knowing zero people. It’s been fun to learn on the fly.
- In Fat Ugly Pigs on Camera, a lot of dialogue is repeated. Is there any special meaning behind that?
A lot of my plays have repeated dialogue. One playwright in particular, who I respect greatly, has told me a few times at readings that she wishes I wouldn’t do it as much. But I enjoy doing it. And I think I’ve gotten it from a lot of playwrights I’ve read: I love when I’m reading a play, and there’s a lot of this between two people: “Wait.” “Huh.” “But you said.” “Wait.” “Huh.” “Uh-huh.” Things like that, just back and forth with repeated dialogue. It happens a lot in plays by Albee and Mamet. In the early plays of Suzan-Lori Parks, there’s a lot of circling back and forth between repeated words and sentences. There’s a lot of significance there. And then writers like Ionesco and Beckett, back in the ‘50s, they were taking it to the extreme, probably in order to challenge the establishment of what theatre was defined as back then. Anyway, repetition, as a writer, it gives me a little space to set things up, set up a scene, without using a conventional conversation, which can keep an audience on their toes. But it also gives certain words a sort of significance, that otherwise wouldn’t be there. In FAT UGLY PIGS ON CAMERA there are certain words that are repeated, that maybe wouldn’t usually be spoken a lot in ordinary conversation: shark, sushi, action, etc.. If repeated a few too many times, there’s probably a reason for that, something I want the audience to think about. I’ll leave it at that.
- What gave you the idea to write “Fat Ugly Pigs on Camera” and “Monologue for a Woman”?
MONOLOGUE FOR A WOMAN was written first, and it’s a companion piece to a monologue called INTERROGATIONS, which was written for a man. Both monologues are heavily inspired by Pinter: I was reading a lot of him at the time. INTERROGATIONS is more sinister in nature, but I wanted both to sort of unhinge an audience: the actor is talking to an unseen person, but in the process the unseen person becomes the audience. Both have weird turns and are at least a little paranoid in nature.
FAT UGLY PIGS ON CAMERA was something I had wanted to write for a long time, in response to internet porn in general. Porn is a weird thing: it’s something many human beings are drawn to, because at heart we are animals, and our animal instincts are aroused by what we see on camera. But we are also human beings, and so many things in the world of internet porn just trample on everything good about being a good human being. The titles of some videos are horribly de-humamizing and almost always degrading towards women, and that’s where the name of the play comes from. The way I wrote it was the only way I could think of writing something about internet porn that would pack a punch, but also wouldn’t be a lecture or take one side too strongly.
- How do you use humor in these two pieces?
It’s funny with humor: I think I’m a pretty funny guy in person. Or at least some of my childhood friends might say that. But really, none of my plays are ‘comedies.’ That being said, humor leaks into just about all of them. I think dialogue is too deliciously funny not to include some humor. In MONOLOGUE FOR A WOMAN, I think the humor depends a lot on the actor reading it: I’ve seen it read ‘funny’, but I’ve also seen it read dark, with virtually no humor. The humor that’s there rests in her questions and responses: whoever is interviewing her seems to be something of an idiot, at least in her eyes, and some of her statements subtly express that.
As for FAT UGLY PIGS ON CAMERA, when I wrote it, I was really worried that I had written my bleakest play. I stood back and looked at it and shuddered, because really bleak plays make me do that: I respect plays that are really bleak, but they’re not always my favorite. So anyway, that’s what I thought I had: a humorless, bleak play. But when it had a reading, in Spring of 2018, the people in the audience were really, really laughing, in particular during Act I. That may have been because the acting was stellar: every actor who read was fantastic, and the actor who played Jake actually took off his shirt during certain scenes and moved around, despite the fact that this was just an unrehearsed reading without a director. It was amazing to watch. But I was really surprised by the laughter: I didn’t see it coming. People told me afterward it was the funniest play of mine they had heard. I was sort of shocked. So, I guess that the humor just seeped out, especially early in the play, without me really realizing that it was humorous.
- Are there any allegorical elements to “Fat Ugly Pigs on Camera”?
I think there may be. I always like to put things like that in my plays: I learned how to use symbolism, whether allegorical or not, when I read INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison in high school. Ever since that book, I’ve always tried to look at things not for what they are, but for what their meaning is: what do they symbolize? So, to answer: yes, there probably are! And they’re there for a reason…if they’re there.
- What’s a question you’d like to be asked? Go ahead and answer that question.
Question: Do you listen to music when you write? And if so, what kind?
Answer: Sometimes! I love music. It inspires me. I listen to all sorts of music: Arvo Part, The Stooges, J. Cole, Neil Young, Baby Huey, and on and on and on. But when writing, if I’m listening to music, it has to be without lyrics. And it can’t be too complex, no DJ Shadow stuff: if it’s too intricate and wild, I’ll get distracted. There’s a J Dilla playlist that I really like, his stuff is really dreamy but not too out there, it’s perfect. Sometimes Aphex Twin does the trick: one time I listened to Track 3, aka Rhubarb, from his Selected Ambient Works Volume II album, over and over and over again on repeat on my headphones while writing a monologue. Lately, though, I’ve just been going silent while writing. It depends on how I’m feeling on that particular morning. Also: when I need a break, I throw on the headphones and usually listen to a hip-hop song with lyrics: stuff by Raekwon, Jedi Mind Tricks, Kanye, that type of stuff. All those lyrics are good during a break. But I only allow myself one song per break when writing: I’m very strict with myself, and after one song, it’s back to writing, no matter what.
Greg has been very busy lately. In 2016 his one-act play Water won Best Play at the Playwrights’ Platform’s 44th Annual Festival of New Plays. His monologue The Look was published by New World Theatre in 2018 as part of A Solitary Voice: A Collection of Epic Monologues. He self-produced his full-length play, Thirsty, in 2016 with his company, Ya Bird? Productions, and in June 2019 he will again be self-producing a play, this time his one-act play Wilderness at the Players’ Ring Theatre in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Greg is also an actor who was awarded Best Actor at the Playwrights’ Platform’s 44th Festival of New Plays in 2016. He is the President of the Playwrights’ Platform, where he also serves as Director of the Actors-In-Residence (AIR) program, and is a member of StageSource and the Dramatists Guild of America. When he has spare time, he likes to read poetry he’s written at open mics and slam competitions around Boston. On October 26th and 27th his one-act play A BEDTIME STORY will be produced by River’s Edge Arts Alliance in Hudson, MA.
For a link to all our playwrights, please check here.
Here are links to any and all things Greg Hovanesian-related:
His New Play Exchange page.
Staged reading of Wilderness.
Upcoming production of Wilderness.
Production of Thirsty.
Review of Thirsty.
Announcement for a group of shorts, including his.
One minute wonder A Pleasant Evening Out.
48 Hour Film Project