Hello and welcome back to everyone’s
only favorite unknown playwrights blog!!!!
This week we’ll start off with a question: what does a bleak existential comedy drama set in the Hudson River Valley have to do with a zany comedy set during WW2 in Minnesota?
Possible answers could be they’re both in the States, both are written in English, both mention New York, but the real answer is that the same dude wrote them – and that dude is John Patrick Bray. Let’s jump into our first play, shall we?
Here is a summary of the action of Tracks (courtesy of the author):
“Set in 1998 in the upper Hudson Valley, New York, near the Catskills, Tracks tells the story of pill-popping teen siblings Jennie and Simian; their younger sister Deb; their friend, the straight-laced Dapper Dan; and local Will Flatbeer, who is home from college and helping his dad manage the local mart and gas station. They have a special place they like to go to on the Hudson River coast near the train tracks where they can eat candy out of a mysterious candy machine, get high, and be themselves. Unbeknownst to them, manifestations of Hudson Valley myths – such as the Headless Horseman – are very close. When the misfits learn that AmTrain plans to fence off access to the Hudson in order to keep citizens a safe distance from their proposed bullet trains, they start a letter writing campaign and, later, attempt an act of anarchy that goes disastrously wrong. As the events unfold, we learn that there is little difference between real life and myth for corporate entities and for passengers who look out the windows of a speeding train wondering what it must be like to live under a Catskill moon.”
Let’s boil that down: teens, drugs, sex, trains [no, not THAT kind] and the Headless Horseman.
Sounds like a recipe for success. It also sounds like my old high school would never put it on (they’re still waiting for Our Town to become public domain).
The play does have a lot going for it, namely, its depiction of semirural ennui, awkward teenage romance and incorporation of myth into the narrative. The depiction of a town hedging all its bets on a train stataion that may or may not get built is all-too-familiar.
The play reminds us we’re in 1998 when this topic comes up:
The letter-writing campaign has to do with the new train station – but the oblique observation here is that Jennie is about 20 years ahead of her (mostly male) peers in that she can see what was going on with Lewinsky and Clinton. It seems only now in 2019 with #MeToo has mainstream America begun to catch up with her.
Another exchange captures a common ocurrance then and even more common now:
Society’s ills intertwine with teenage longing. Jennie lacks medication. Dapper Dan seems to have every medication in the book and offers it to Jennie for free…because he likes her.
The water calls to Deb to become her own myth. Thank God it is unsuccessful.
Jennie’s mom Marigold thinks she is shooting up – but discovers something else.
I don’t know what is worse as a teeanger- being caught cutting by your mom or having her tell you to pull your pants up. There’s probably a reason she cuts (hint: it rhymes with BLOM)
Our society tends to portray cutting as a teen thing, but plenty of adults do it too. If you’re in the US and you need help, it is available.
OK so I never knew anyone who died from an IUD. But it can happen.
Here’s a five second trailer for Tracks that had one view when I found it on Youtube:
Jennie sings a song reminding us of famous people and things in the Catskills:
Wa-wa-wait!!! It’s the Headless Horseman!!! Who was probably based on a real decapitated soldier. But who didn’t throw many pumpkins post-decap.
Just like a suburban Applebee’s, here’s a bit to digest here: The Headless Horseman turns into the Headless IBM-man and Johnny Appleseed shows up.
The multiple references to IBM in the play are because IBM played a big part in the local economy – that is until they didn’t.
And the Johnny Appleseed bit is related to American history that became folklore.
And apparently the company is popping pills with the Headless Horseman.
Judgment-free zone here.
And there’s the trope of the teen who wants to go to the fair…and have sex with the guy she likes but she needs her older brother to lie/cover for her – which goes about as well as you can expect when she claims it certainly isn’t her first time:
Put this in the siblings-argue-over-sex play pile.
As stated in the synopsis, the play has a tragic and symbolic ending…minor spoiler alert.
Anyhow – this is a lovable play set on the homefront during WW2. It has a lot of heart, great characterization and is a bit of fun, especially when it is sending up popular genres of yesteryear and today.
What do you think the hardest part of playwriting is? Summarizing the plot. Maybe the director can do that:
If not, the play comes with a study guide.
But since so much of the plot plays off of characterization, let’s look at the characters:
These seem to be the main characters. The Welsh sisters seem to be inspired by the Andrews Sisters. Buck is 4F and wants to kill Nazis and the women in the play are missing some boys overseas in the war. (Buck shouldn’t worry too much as the great Malcolm X was also disqualified for military service during WW2.)
Max Tyrone is a local boy who done good in New York City and is back for a spell. The conflicts come out of the conflict inherent in their stations in life as well as the life and are augmented by being on the homefront during the life and death struggle against Fascism overseas. The balance of the cast follows:
It even comes with a spiffy trailer:
For those who never knew, radio plays were totally a thing and genre and medium unto themselves in the days before the telly.
The play’s strongest asset is its humor. For lack of a better word, the play is full of quips:
What I like about Bray’s writing is his ability to weave in several tropes at once – here’s the hometown boy returning along with the guy who didn’t fight and possible love is in the air. And thinking New York City is special.
Cancer stick Cigarette ads were totally a thing on radio. Here’s one for Chesterfields.
And Lucky Strike!!!
Buck still mopes about his 4F status…..and lack of women status.
Just like Totally not like your dear blogger.
One fun part of the play is the way it spoofs different genres:
It’s like when Superman fought Nazis.
I like that Kaptain Kraut speaks English with a heavy German accent. Duh, it’s radio.
Honestly, there are so many funny back and forths in this, I didn’t want to overdo it. Just trust me on this one.
Another genre that gets parodied is the private dick/noir/pulp genre:
Bray brings an intertextuality to the show because these parody bits – i.e. the “show within a show” was actually performed on the radio in southern Florida.
The play has a happy ending (like many Christmas plays) and I highly recommend it.
I think this is the original director talking:
Before we leave Minnesota, I just want to give a shoutout to my favorite Twin Cities artist, Katie Beumer.
A wee bit about the playwright. These are the impressive first few lines of his bio on the New Play Exchange:
“John Patrick Bray (Ph.D., Theatre, LSU; MFA, Playwriting, Actors Studio Drama School at New School University) has written plays under grants from The National Endowment for the Arts and the Acadiana Center for the Arts, and he has earned commissions from organizations Rachel Klein Productions and re:Directions Theatre in NYC; The Dancing Project, Acadiana Repertory Theatre and The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission in Louisiana; Lyric Arts Theatre in Anoka, Minnesota; and with various schools and colleges in The South. He is a Resident Playwright with Rising Sun Performance Company (NYC/Off-Off Broadway), a member and moderator of…”
I’m going to be upfront about why I chose to profile Mr. Bray – looking at his track record, he’s had a fair amount of productions spanning a couple of decades. Not quite the typical profile one will find here.
However, much like our beloved Martha Patterson, Mr. Bray has run into a bit of a dry spell. For an author in his position, he usually knows eight months to a year in advance if he’s getting a production. He has nothing beyond May.
We all know how hard it is to get productions as beginning playwrights or if we (or our work) don’t match certain demographics, stereotypes, expectations or market trends in American theatre.
We forget sometimes that people who have “made it” also must work day in and day out and Mr. Bray has appeared to have reached a day out recently. I believe for the most part the American theatre system is broken and what’s happening with Mr. Bray’s career as well as every living playwright’s career profiled here so far is somehow connected in a morass of cancer eating American theatre’s soul.
Feel free to disagree.
I asked him several questions about this as well as his work in general and they appear at the end of the blog.
First, I wanted to point out how prolific Mr. Bray is. Last August he took part in 31 Plays in 31 Days. I recommend you do too.
He was nice enough to provide titles and synopses to quite a number of plays he created at that time:
Hell Hole: A goth kid and someone more straight edge are on a blind date at a county fair, where they spend most of their time waiting in line finding nothing but misery until they discover their mutual love of a Marilyn Manson song. (Produced)
DVD and Chill: A woman shows up on the doorstep of her ex-boyfriend of some years ago (who is now married with kids) soaking wet and holding a soaking wet cherry pie hoping to find answers as to why they couldn’t make things work. (Produced)
Blue Lantern: Two lovers rekindle their flame while negotiating over an antique lantern and its magical glow. (Produced)
Time the Revelator: Two souls discover the power of “thank you” in a Christmas Tree lot on the night that legends are made. (Produced)
Fix: Two recovering addicts try to fix the world’s problems (and each other) after their old pusher shows up at a New Year’s Party. (Produced)
New York Death (or, It Happens All the Time). A business man revisits a bar from his youth hoping to run into a woman he once loved, only to discover the bar is more metaphysical than he had realized, and he is not yet ready to cross over. (Produced)
South Downs: A graduate assistant and his undergraduate student have been trapped in a house during a hurricane; they wrestle with guilt having had an affair while negotiating with a neighbor for borrowed power. (Staged-reading)
The Crimson Avenger: An elderly woman gives her elderly partner an actual biplane as a reminder of their lives as adventuring wing-walkers. (Reading)
Troubles that Bind: An Englishman and Irish Woman head to the U.S. in the hopes of a better life. (Forthcoming production)
Ashes of the Revolution: Having learned about home invasion, two children vow to protect their house from vandals, thieves, and robots by sneaking into the back yard in the middle of the night.
Stress Lizard: Two high school students rummage through a second-hand store; when one of them gets stressed out, they become a lizard as a means of avoidance.
Poppy’s Blues (or, The Magical Thing That Happened Outside the Gas Station): Cadillac Tom recounts the time he watched an airplane disappear from the sky, only to hear that it ended up suspended in time over Lake Michigan.
Baby Einstein on the Beach: Hamlet digs up the past. Hamlet buries the past. An homage to/parody of the children’s program Baby Einstein and the work of Robert Wilson.
Release Date: Friends negotiate their status via video game fandom and the hope for a particular game that will soon be released.
Total: A group of friends remember someone they lost, who may have grabbed onto the moon and disappeared as it shone brilliantly over a parking deck.
Three Squares: three oddballs are in danger of starving to death in a remote cabin while they wait out the zombie revolution.
Edith’s Head: half-siblings discover each other and reminisce about an aunt who kept many family secrets in her attic.
Kiss From a Rose is a Song: Twin brothers discover they both like the same girl while discussing plans for the senior prom.
History of S: A little girl can see her future while creating drawings that come to life.
Head On: a group of misfits remember their bowling buddy, whose coffin they’ve brought to the alley to give them once last time down the lane. There’s also a salad bar.
Falling is Like: A May/December romance could be in bloom, if only Mike wouldn’t fall out the window at the mention of the word love. The air will be sweet with the sound of bird song and an ambulance siren.
Mr. Bray was kind enough to include some seriously in-depth answers to our questions. Hopefully we can all learn a bit more about him, his career and playwriting from it.
How did you start playwriting?
I’ve always love theatre and creating characters (I have to credit Mr. Greenman at Highland High School for that, along with the many hours my twin brother and I played with our various awesome action figures, never by the rules) but I fell into it playwriting quite accidentally. My brother (Gregg, my twin) and I were taking night classes at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie while seniors in high school. We were asked to write a screenplay for an advanced production class. The script we came up with was ambitious and pretty wordy. A number of folks involved told us it would work better as a play. So, we set to rewriting it and with the help of some wonderful community theatre angels and the DCC Programming Board (led at the time by Mike Weida and Robert Suarez) we produced the play in the fall of 1996 at Dutchess Hall Theatre. The play, Foul Feast, was kind of like a cross between Neil Simon and Christopher Durang. I recently revisited the script and there were a few parts I still found really funny. I’m not sure if I’ll revisit it at this point. I had been at DCC to learn how to be a camera man – I thought I would work at a local TV station or maybe be a radio DJ. It hadn’t occurred to me that theatre was something I could do for a living or my life.
I transferred to SUNY New Paltz and became a theatre major with a concentration in acting and directing. I took a playwriting class with Larry Carr who is wonderful, and also took an excellent improvisation class with David Cohen. I started writing short plays and vignettes that were blending what I had learned from both the playwriting and improvisation classes. I was trying to create characters that I would want to play in circumstances I would want to see. I wrote a thesis about it which became my statement when I applied for the MFA program at The Actors Studio Drama School at The New School. Jeffrey Sweet, a playwright who is very prominent in the world of improvisation, read my statement and accepted me into the program. My writing was bumpy the first couple of years despite having excellent teachers, but then my third year I had Neal Bell as my playwriting professor, and he became very much a mentor and a friend. He granted me a kind of permission to write the more abstract works I wanted to write and I haven’t looked back since.
What are your influences?
Short answer: everything.
Medium answer: Tom Waits.
Longer answer: my biggest theatrical influence has been the apocryphal bones under the Paris Opera House. When I was in second grade I had a glow-in-the-dark Phantom of the Opera action figure which was meant to look like Lon Chaney from the silent movie. It remains one of my favorite toys (yes, I still have it!). I became obsessed with just about every adaptation, particularly the Andrew Lloyd Webber megamusical. It was the first time I really wanted to be involved in theatre in some way. I recorded myself singing the songs (poorly). Fast forward to 1994, and I buy Tom Waits’s record The Black Rider, which is Waits himself performing the music and songs for the musical/opera he created with William S. Burroughs and Robert Wilson. Here’s how the bones tie together: in an apocryphal tale passed on for a generation or two, there was a male ballet performer, Boismaison, who felt an unrequited love for a co-star, a ballerina named Nanine Dorival, who had a very jealous suitor named M. Mauzurier, himself a sergeant-major, who commanded a post of sixty French guards for the Paris Opera House. One night, M. Mauzrier decided he had had enough of Boismaison giving undue attention to his lady (yes, he was jealous and possessive). After a performance of the German opera, The Marksman, M. Mazrier approached Boismaison and beat him within an inch of his life. He left Boimaison tied to the peristyle of the opera house. Boimaison spent the night exposed to the elements. The combination of the beating and exposure proved too much, and he would die the next day, but not before he bequeathing his remains to the Opéra company so that his bones could be used in any subsequent production of Der Freischütz (The Marksman), or whenever necessary. Even in death, he wanted to be close to the object of his desire. Years later, it was said that his bones were indeed discovered among the props; some say the bones have been placed in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera. Again, the story is completely false but these bones served as the inspiration for Erik in Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. The Black Rider by Burroughs, Waits, and Wilson is an adaptation of The Marksman, and on the record, William S. Burroughs sings “T’aint no sin to take off your skin and dance around in your bones,” a nod to the bones of Boismaison. So, my life in theatre is tied to the myth of the bones of Boismaison.
It might sound like a tangent, but I think the bottom line is all of our arts are somehow tied together. In one of my classes I draw connections between Dragnet, Little Shop of Horrors, Doctor Faustus, Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and Law and Order. (This would be a much longer tangent.) I try to be open to everything I see, hear, touch, taste, and find the interconnectedness of things (I know, that’s a little Douglas Adams).
What is your most memorable production and why?
Of one of my plays? It’s hard to say. I think the memorable productions are the ones where I had this little voice somewhere inside say to me “huh, I was right.” I love when that happens.
What is your least memorable production and why?
Oh, man. I’m not sure I remember it. (rim-shot)
I don’t know if I have one that stands out. I’ve pulled plays when I’ve had to, and those were never easy decisions to make. But least memorable? It’s hard to say.
What’s your funniest theatre story?
Probably when my Dad, Mom, Gregg, and me all performed in a community theatre production of Guys and Dolls back in 1996. I think it’s more of a “it was funny if you were there” situation. The whole cast, crew, and creative team went out almost every night after rehearsal (we had started rehearsing in May and the show closed in August). I think I gained twenty pounds! We were a singing, eating, drinking, rehearsing family, but we also got a lot of work done. It was a terrific experience! My Dad played Big Julie and the rest of us were in the chorus. My favorite night was when my Dad performed with his fly open with his shirt tails coming out of the front of his pants – it looked like a character choice for, uh, Big Julie. During the Salvation Army sequence, Big Julie has a moment where he turns to the audience and says “I’m REAL sorry.” So, there’s my Dad, shirt tails coming out of his fly, fully facing the audience, saying “I’m REAL sorry.” It was a riot! At our closing party we presented Dad with a 21 Zipper Salute.
What are your writing habits like?
It depends on where we are in the academic year. If I have an idea for a play it’s usually when I’m way too busy to write it, but I go ahead and write it anyway. I usually have a first draft in seventy-two hours and spend a few weeks tinkering with it before I bring it to our workshop here in Athens (Athens Playwrights’ Workshop meets on alternating Mondays during the academic year and is open to everyone). During 31Days/31Plays I do make sure I have something new every day. I try to write something that is at least ten minutes in length. A few times I fell behind and wrote only a monologue, but it was still something.
What advice do you have for new playwrights?
If you’re in college: take acting classes, take lighting design, costume design, improvisation, sound design; grab a hammer and build a flat. Be there for load-in and strike. Stage manage a show. Learn everything you can about building and taking down a show. While you’re doing that, read plays, go to as many plays as you can, see out of the way black box stuff, see student productions, just be a sponge. At the same time, don’t forget to do other things. Chances are, if you’re in college, you’ll have to work. I was a mascot for a radio station, I gutted fish at Korean supermarket (that lasted one weekend, I had no idea what I was doing), I baked bagels for over six years, I was a car swap driver for Volvo dealerships doing title-for-title trades, and I worked a local “roadie for hire” gig via Rhino staging in Louisiana (when I was in grad school part two). I had to work – my parents were really not in a place to send my brother and I to college – so I had to do what I had to do to stay afloat. But these jobs were also instrumental in terms of life lessons. I really believe if you’re an artist you need to be a total human being – being a writer is only one thing that you do. Playwright Catherine Trieschmann talked to my Dramatic Writing class and she suggested we all figure out where art should be in our lives. Art can only give us so much and do so much for us; it’s important to see a larger picture.
If you’re not in college, same advice: join a local theatre and help build the show, help strike it, be a stage-hand, volunteer in any and every way possible. Become a person of the theatre and figure out where art should be in your life.
For both: self-produce a play in a festival or at a community theatre or in some loft or art space. You’ll have a real clear sense of what works better on the page and what works better on stage by being actively involved in a production of your own material. It’s an education unto itself.
Know that no one is waiting for your brilliant script. That doesn’t mean send plays out whenever you see a call and have something that matches, but that’s only one part of the equation. You have to be ready to do it yourself.
Who are some other writers you feel should get more attention?
Some are in the process of getting attention, which is great: Darcy Parker Bruce is colossal; Keelay Gipson, Gwydion Suilebhan, Audrey Cefaly, Kato McNickle, William Coleman, Taylor Gruneloh, Erin Lane, Dusty Wilson, EJC Calvert, Angela Hall, they’re all fantastic writers. William Yellow Robe has been around for a while – I’d love to see his plays get picked up by regional theatres; he’s a national treasure. Daniel Guyton and Kate Guyton are a married couple and they’re also really solid writers. I’m working with a student right now, Avery Bufkin, and they are the real deal. I’m looking forward to seeing what they bring to the table. There are a bunch of students at UGA: Jake Hunsbusher, Matt Suwalski, Shanon Weaver, Abraham Johnson, Rachael Simpson; I have a hunch you’ll be seeing some of these names on marques in the near future.
What are common themes in your work?
Playwright Jim Ryan once said to me “every play is either a killing or a healing.” I think mine are a bit of both. The backdrop has to do with absence: someone is missing, someone is gone, something is being taken away. And the characters all kind of deal with insurmountable obstacles using humor and magic. Humor is key. A few of my closest friends have had a really rough time in their lives, and when we get together (which is not as often as I’d like since I live so far away) we kind of sit, have a drink, and laugh and laugh. My twin brother and our friend Chris Laube are two of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my life. So, if my characters are stuck in a corner, I think “What would Gregg say?” “What would Laube say?” Friends are ever-present in my plays. So, in Friendly’s Fire, for example, we have a veteran of The Gulf War who has become a shut-in. He’s going through a divorce and is reliving his brother’s death in service. Enter a good friend, and the two of them take a journey through Guy Friendly’s mind (I like odd names) to see if there’s a way to bring Guy back to earth. The friend sticks with him through all of the weird and harrowing things that happen during that long, dark night of the soul. And they laugh along the way. In Tracks, a group of teen are about to lose their hang-out spot, and they try to figure out a way to hold onto it. They have plenty of reasons to despair: the local economy has tanked, friends and loved ones have died, but they’re still trying to make their little piece of the world work. They keep their sense of humor. I don’t mean to suggest that my plays are comedies or that the characters laugh at each other’s misery. It goes back to something my teacher Andreas Manolikakis said when I was in grad school. 9/11 had just happened, and a bunch of us were there to witness it. I had just made it to town and saw the smoke coming out of the towers from an MTA window at 125th St. To make a long story short, I got right back out of NYC and returned to school about a week later. Our first day back in our classroom there were drawings hung up on the wall by elementary school students who had seen the building collapse (the whole building had been used for community events for a few days after the towers fell). We were sitting there looking at these drawings, feeling the weight of the loss, and Andreas looked at us and said “don’t lose your sense of humor.” We then walked around and looked at some of the drawings and then we got to work. Our first day together Andreas had us read the poem “Ithaka” by C.P. Cavafy (I can’t remember which translation). So, for me, it was an adventure as part of the journey to Ithaka. Not every episode will be uplifting, not every encounter will be kind. The characters that inhabit the worlds of my plays are experiencing their own journey to Ithaka, not every adventure is pleasant, not every encounter is kind, but they never lose their sense of humor. Our sense of humor is our humanity. Our humanity helps us heal.
What is one thing you wished you knew now, that you didn’t know starting out?
When I was finishing up grad school I had a drink with playwright Susan Kim. We were at The White Horse Tavern where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death, which seemed strangely fitting yet foreboding. She and I were introduced via the Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Mentor Program, which was a program where an established playwright would meet with an exiting grad student, share a drink, and basically share the bad news. I asked her “what do we do for money?” and she responded “You get a job, and you figure out your best time to write – either early morning or evenings.” She told me that time would shrink a bit if I decided to get married or have kids. I then asked her conspiratorially “yeah, but what do we do for money.” And she said “John. You get a job.”
I was really fortunate because I had fallen in love with teaching and the academy in general, so I had these two passions and I was certain I would find a way to bring them together. I had a bunch of help along the way from professors, colleagues, friends, and here I am.
Being a playwright is like the great “should we have kids?” debate: in the end, there’s never enough money and it’s never the right time, but if it’s something you want, regardless of whether or not you enter the mainstream world (whatever that is) then figure out a way to do it.
It might have been helpful to realize that I’m not going to take the US Theatre by storm, but I could find a way to carve out a little piece of the world and enjoy it. Somewhere in grad school a number of us forgot Stanislavski’s mantra to love the art in self and not the self in art. If I were starting out again I might get that tattooed on my back just so I wouldn’t forget it.
Can you please tell us about the development of both Tracks and Christmas in the Airwaves?
I received a phone call from director Daniel Ellis one day. Daniel was a year ahead of me at The New School and we’ve stayed in touch via email and social media. He knew I was still writing plays and he asked if I would be willing to write a play for the Lyric Arts Main Street Theatre in Anoka, Minnesota. They had been hoping to secure the rights to a big Christmas musical – I think it was White Christmas? – and had hit a snag. Daniel suggested they commission a new work. I was asked to write a play set in a radio station during the Second World War. The characters would perform vignettes and songs and there’d be banter in between. We didn’t have the rights to some of the more popular vignettes, so I wrote them. The theatre licensed all of the songs. As I wrote, the banter became less “in between” stuff and the characters grew. With time, the characters in the play became much more foregrounded and the songs and vignettes were secondary. Daniel was a great developmental director and encouraged me every step of the way. Daniel wasn’t able to direct the production, in the end, because he landed a full-time job elsewhere which was fantastic for him. Lyric Arts hired Craig Johnson to direct, and we had a sensational time writing back-and-forth. I didn’t see the final production live, but they recorded it for me, and it was really, really good.
Kind of a side note: Daniel reached out to me because he saw my social media posts about a production of my play Erik: A Play About a Puppet which the Rising Sun Performance Company was producing as part of FRIGID NY at The Kraine Theatre. In Erik, the central character was performed by a stick puppet with a phallus. It was bawdy, theatrical, way over the top. We had a small cult following and very mixed reviews (one critic wanted to blow up the theatre rather than watch the last ten minutes). When Daniel called me said he had seen my posts about Erik, and thought it was great I was still writing, etc., and would I be willing to write a play for Lyric Arts? I asked if he wanted to read Erik before asking Lyric Arts to offer me the commission just to make sure I was the right guy for the job. He said he trusted that I would be able to pull it off given our similar education, and I said, “okay, let’s do it!” So. I earned that commission thanks to puppet sex on fourth street.
Tracks came about because of my wife, Danielle, and because of Nick Piper at the Barter Theatre. Barter Theatre produced my play Friendly’s Fire in 2017. It was a terrific experience! Nick wrote to me last summer and asked if I would consider writing a play about the opioid crisis. I responded that I don’t do really well writing plays that focus on a social issues – some of my playwriting friends are really gifted and can do that without sounding preachy, but I don’t have the knack. He responded saying that he didn’t want a play dealing with an issue, he wanted to see if I could come up with a “Bray play” where opioids were present. I told him that that was something I could try. Now, to be clear, it was more of an intellectual challenge than a “Barter wants another play.” He was curious, and I became curious, and I wanted to satisfy that curiosity.
Danielle and I both grew up in the Hudson Valley. In the 1990s opioids were very much on the rise. We both had friends die from drug-related complications. So, Tracks draws from some of Danielle’s friends, some of my own, some of the stories Danielle told me, some others have told me, and it all just came together. I wrote the play in three days. The APW hosted a staged-reading of the play with the Classic City Fringe Festival in October and Circle Ensemble Theatre hosted a reading of the play in Winterville, Georgia as part of their 2nd Sunday Series. So, we’re in the rewriting process. My hope is it’ll find a home with a developmental opportunity or a production opportunity where we can use the rehearsal process to develop the play further (which is what usually happens).
For playwrights who’ve never had a commission, how does one go about finding commissions?
I’ve been really, really lucky. I might need to answer every question by saying “I’ve been really, really lucky.” Commissions have sort of found me! If you spend enough time doing one thing sooner or later someone will notice and see if you can help them do something new, something that’ll hopefully be remarkable.
Sometimes, they work really well, as with Christmas in the Airwaves. The process was excellent and I’m really happy with the end result. Sometimes the end result doesn’t come out so well, despite the process and how good the intentions were of all parties involved. Maybe it’s not the right fit. Maybe it’s not the right time for the story. Maybe everyone is too nice and we all say “yes” to everything. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and, according to Stephen King, adverbs.
I think if you do a thing long enough sooner or later someone will say “have you thought of writing about such and such?” and if they’re serious they’ll pay you. A more valuable lesson for me has been know which opportunities fit the kind of work you do and which opportunities don’t. Playwrights aren’t a “one-size-fits-all,” and that’s wonderful. I think that’s why there’s so many of us – there are lots of stories to tell and they’re worth experiencing.
You’re not the typical playwright that has been featured on our blog [one playwright has had a grand total of two productions in her hometown and no publications or commissions, for example]. You really have an impressive track record with academia, productions, publications and commissions, but recently things have slowed down for you. What is going on with American theatre that someone with your resume, skill and knowledge seems to be struggling with the rest of us? And how can that change?
Thank you so much!
I actually don’t know if I can fully answer the question because I am really, really grateful to be where I am. I have a friend on Facebook who is able to list every one of their full length productions on the horizon along with what number production it is for each one of the plays. I have nothing like that on my resume, but I do have a few artistic homes that I’ve built over the years. It’s kind of hard to measure when things are slow versus when they’re productive. The The fear is when we start hitting our stride that suddenly we’ll come to a full stop. I haven’t hit that stop yet, but I’m really not sure what will happen after May. There’s a helluvalot of uncertainty in our world. Jeffrey Sweet recently wrote a blog where he talks about how a number of playwrights have despaired over getting their annual rejection from the O’Neill. He reminds writers that we need to do away with the myth that we’re waiting to be discovered and to go back and get involved with self-production. It’s a great piece of advice and something I should listen to – I haven’t self-produced in quite some time and I always learn something valuable when producing a play vs. just writing and hoping somebody picks it up somewhere. It also gives me a sense that I’m steering the ship rather than allowing myself to be at the mercy of the waves. The lesson here is don’t wait for adventure to find you – be the active hero in your own story and create your own theatre. And while you’re at it, get together with other writers, form a Playwrights Collective, and find a way to produce each other. Look at 13P, The Workhaus, and The Welders for inspiration.
I think the other part of the equation is to go where you’re loved! Spend some time building relationships and earn trust, both in your work and in you as a contributing artist, and stick with those people. I’ve been with Rising Sun Performance Company since 2004 and we have stuck with each other through thick and thin. I hope all writers can find some artistic home where you’re allowed to take risks, fail, and try again. Go where you’re loved.
Both Tracks and Christmas in the Airwaves speak with a “local voice” which I love. When would you choose to set something in a very specific time and place vs. a more general setting like “suburbia” or “any big city”?
I find that a lot of works that I admire have a universal appeal (the academic in me is going to shake my head at the word “universal”) because there is something specific or singular about the story. Tracks in particular resonates with me because it’s based in the Hudson Valley where my wife and I grew up. The voices of the characters in that play are very much the voices of our friends – some of whom passed away much too young. I run into trouble if I try to say “a generic bar” or “a typical town” because in theatre nothing should be generic or typical. It kind of goes back to Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky who once said that the job of the artist is to take the familiar and make it unfamiliar, that when a painter paints a stone they need to make it seem more stony (that’s not quite the quote, but it’s close). So, I’m taking a bunch of folks I knew, some folks Danielle knew, mixing them up with a bit of myth, throwing in a few deeply held concerns we had way back when which, in hindsight, weren’t as troubling as the concerns that we were ignoring, and kind of stirring them together in a soup. We ladle it out, and there’s the play.
With Christmas in the Airwaves I spent a lot of time reading my Mother-in-Law’s father’s letters he had written to my Mother-in-Law’s mother while serving in the Navy during World War II. I did my best to capture the feel of the dialogue. I read some of the letters out loud to find the rhythm of speech. I was also listening to folks in Minnesota and how they spoke and I was trying to find a middle-ground between Minnesota speech and early-to-mid twentieth century speech. I think our word choice really tells us where a character is from.
Tom Waits has this recipe for writing songs: when you write a song you need people in case you get lonely, locations in case you get lost, and food in case you might get hungry. So, people, places, and food are all really important in my plays. Some figure more prominently than others, but they’re all in there.
What’s a question you’d like to be asked? Go ahead and answer that question.
Jeremy Brett is still my favorite Sherlock Holmes. Second favorite? I’m going to surprise myself and say Jonny Lee Miller. Elementary is a great show, and much more faithful to the spirit of Doyle’s work than the other popular modern adaptation. Peter Cushing is high on the list, too. Don’t get me wrong, Rathbone is solid, but at the end of the day I want to see Jeremy Brett (with either of his Watsons, I love them both) or Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu.
Everything bagel with lox, cream cheese, capers, and red onion.
Chocolate chip. Unless White Chocolate Macadamia are available.
Claret, but only on occasion.
I only use the cane when the arthritis acts up.
I only know what it’s like being a twin and don’t know what it’s like not being a twin, so I really can’t answer the question “what’s it like being a twin?” unless I say “status quo.” (I get asked this a lot.)
Louis Jordan, Frank Langella, and Bela Lugosi are all Dracula. There’s room in my heart for all.
It’s a toss-up between The Heart of Saturday Night and Rain Dogs, but if hard pressed, I’d say the soundboard bootleg of his concert in Australia from 1979.
As a child I did indeed believe Guy Smiley (the Sesame Street Muppet) was God. I’ve yet to see evidence to the contrary.
Thanks John for the thoughts and the randomness!!!!
Here are links to:
His page at the New Play Exchange.
A google search for news about John. Good jumping off point for researching his productions.
For all our other playwrights, please check here.
Unknown Playwrights shall return with Monologue Monday and next week we’ll profile a Gothic Brazilian playwright.