by Martin Denton · July 1, 2016
We were first introduced to your work by Jeni Mahoney when she was curating the initial Seven Devils Playwrights collection on ITN. What was your experience like working at Seven Devils? Why did you want to become involved with them?
I had heard great things about Seven Devils, which is what prompted me to apply. And I wasn’t disappointed. It was a wonderful and very productive time, with first rate actors, directors, dramaturgs and tech. I was able to make a lot of progress on my play in the rehearsal process, and then got the benefit of a talkback with a very knowledgeable audience on top of that. (Seven Devils has done a lot of work developing an audience that really gets new work and the process.) On top of all that, the Seven Devils folks are a joy to work with and you get to do all this in McCall, Idaho, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.
All three of your plays on ITN focus on people's beliefs and spiritual values. (We can see this just by looking at their titles: FAITH, SALVATION, and COMES A FAERY.) Why do you like to write about this subject?
I think we still live in a post-Viet Nam, post-Watergate world, an age of irony, where people are almost defensively cynical, reluctant to commit too passionately or believe too intensely in anything. But there remains a deep human desire, or at least a proclivity, to believe in something, to perceive or impose an order on the world that explains what otherwise is terrifyingly random. Sometimes it’s manifested in religion, superstitions, folklore or conspiracy theories, that need, and its sequelae, interest me a lot.
Another common theme running through your work is the interplay between parents and children. And two of your plays revolve around young kids who are dealing with manifestations of their spirituality/imagination in surprising ways. What's behind this aspect of your writing? Do you have kids of your own?
I am a parent. That certainly has changed how I look at the world and no doubt has influenced my writing. I think that there’s a vast richness in how children view the world, how they make sense of it. I’m fascinated by what children keep from their parents, what I kept from mine, which often includes terrifying ideas about the world that children seem to need to work out for themselves. These ideas often involve the most profound things like religion, our place in the universe, our mortality. All of that provides opportunities for story-telling and unconventional ways into stories about these profound things.
I was surprised to note that your educational background is in law. (I was expecting you to be a philosophy or religion major!) What drew you to that field? Are you practicing law at this time? And what drew you to become involved with playwriting after you obtained your law degree?
I actually was a playwright before I was a lawyer, sort of as a lark right out of college. I was interested in civil rights and that quickly drew me to law school. But I never stopped writing (although I did stop writing plays) and found that I really wanted to have more time for it, and especially theater. I have an arrangement now where I practice part-time and that gives me an often very flexible schedule that allows me to pursue playwriting. My life is very left-brain, right-brain, and I like going back and forth between the two disciplines.
Who taught you how to write plays? (This could be a teacher, or a playwright, or a theater artist, or in fact anyone at all, living or dead.)
The playwrights whom I’ve read; the actors, directors, and dramaturgs with whom I’ve worked; and the audiences who have seen and responded to my work. I don’t have an MFA, a circumstance that is becoming rather rare, and while I think one can be helpful for many reasons, I don’t think one is essential. Playwriting to me is first and foremost about understanding the truth about people, and more than one path will teach you how to do that.
Your plays demand a lot from audiences--they deal in complicated, deep ideas and don't provide easy answers. Why do you choose the theater as the medium for the explorations you make in your work? What responses have you had from audience members to your plays that have touched you? That surprised you?
When I first started writing, I wrote primarily comedy, and I found that making an audience laugh was intoxicating. While I still include a lot of comedy, my writing has more darkness, more sadness now as well. Making an audience cry, or simply feel something deeply, is likewise intoxicating, at least for me. And it’s a cliché, but plays that makes me do both are the ones I like the best. And that brings me to your question, why this medium? I could address the ideas that I want to address in any other medium, but theater is the only one (along, I suppose, with film) where you get to watch your audience watch you. Novelists don’t get to watch you read their books, TV writers don’t get to watch you watch their shows. But playwrights get to watch you watch their plays, and that’s a great gift for reasons that I can’t fully articulate. Perhaps it’s because the sharing of a moment in a live performance has always struck me as profound, far more so than reading that moment in a book or seeing it on TV by myself.
What's next on your calendar?
A little rest, I hope. In the past few months, I’ve been fortunate enough to premiere two new full-length plays and have the second production of a third play mounted. I’ve also premiered four new one-acts. While that has been a lot of fun and very satisfying, it does make it difficult to write anything new. I’m presently working on two plays about race and class set during the Civil War that have just had readings at the New Repertory Theater in Boston and the Blank Theatre in Los Angeles. They are getting close to production-ready and so I’m hoping to do a lot of work on them this summer, as well as start something completely new.