by Martin Denton · January 8, 2016
I know you’ve been involved with theater as an actor, director and playwright for pretty much all your adult life. How did you get interested in theater in the first place?
I started in theater as a very young child. When I first started taking classes, it was simply as a fun after-school activity. One of my mom’s best friends went to college with Mike Nichols, Elaine May, The Pivens, and the group that started Second City; and so my mom’s friend recommended I start taking classes. I began studying Viola Spolin’s theater games and improv when I was one of the youngest students admitted to the Piven Theater training program in Evanston, Il. I had the most inspiring teachers including Byrne and Joyce Piven, Annie Cusack, Jessica Thebus, Paul Quinn, Bernie Beck, Shira Piven, and others too countless to name. At the time, I had no intention of becoming a theater professional; in fact, I turned down some opportunities to become a child-actor because I simply wanted my theater experience to be a fun outlet and not a job. The training at Piven was focused on transformation, invention, freeing your personal expressivity, as well as feeling empowered as an actor-artist to create new work. The Pivens combined exceptionally diverse theatrical traditions because their teachers were all so amazing. So Joyce and Byrne Piven carried on the work as direct descendants in a storied performative lineage: their teachers included Viola Spolin, the creator of theater games; Paul Sills, who combined theater games with acting techniques based in Realism; Mira Rostova, who learned the Method from Bobby Lewis; and Uta Hagen, one of the modern masters of actor training. The Pivens took all these influences and created a style of training for young actors that combined a playfulness, an artistic curiosity, and a search for truth. Young actors that go through their program are always treated as artists rather than with any sort of ageist preconceptions.
When I entered High School I became very serious about becoming a professional theater artist. I went to New Trier High School, which has an unbelievably astounding performing arts department. When I started doing theater there, I felt like I truly found a home. Theater allowed me to question, to probe, and to express the way I experienced the world through my individual lens. My high school teachers were so supportive of my work in the theater and I was so hungry for experience that I took every class and performed in every play that was available to me. By the time I left New Trier I had performed in 15-20 really high quality shows and was absolutely committed to pursuing a life in the theater. When I was a 15 year old Sophomore, I decided to start my own theater company, Sideway Theater. I was inspired by the young students who started Steppenwolf Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, among others. I am very proud to say that 25 years later, I am still producing, acting, directing, and writing with Sideway.
I have always been so fortunate to seek out amazing teachers who have continued to inspire my work. In addition to The Pivens and the teachers at New Trier, I have also studied in academic settings at University of Illinois in Urbana, Performance Studies at Northwestern, and I am currently getting my MFA in Acting at The Theatre School at DePaul. But I have found amazing teachers outside of formal academia as well, who have shaped me tremendously. Although we are all in the same pursuit for truthful and emotionally evocative work, there are so many approaches to the art and the technique. Having worked with teachers at The Public Theater’s Shakespeare Lab, with Austin Pendleton at HB Studios, with The School Of Steppenwolf, and with Uta Hagen, among others, I have been very lucky to have been continually challenged to be bold, fearless, and to continue to constantly grow. I think that inspiration from other artists and encouragement go tremendously far in the life of an artist.
For me, theater has always been a pursuit of individual expressivity within an ensemble setting; even when I am writing plays, I do not consider it a solitary act. Whether I am writing, directing, producing, or acting, I feel that I am always searching for the most pure form of sharing my personal point of view within a family of other artists. And because theater is a live and communal art, the audience becomes another aspect of that familial dialogue.
How do you write your plays? Please talk about both the mechanical aspects (do you write on a computer, with paper and pencil, on little note cards?) and also about the more abstract aspects (where do you seek/find inspiration, do you outline the plays or do the characters just appear to you, etc.?).
My plays manifest in a ton of different ways. After a play is complete, I will often find a scrap of paper where I wrote an original line of dialogue, an idea, or even a whole monologue. I try to capture moments that come to me before they fly out of my head, so I will use any means to get them down. I type on a computer, I write long-hand in notebooks, I scribble, I doodle, I email and text myself lines of dialogue or character ideas. In general, I never really outline the plays and I do not write character analysis before I begin. I try to start in a place of not knowing. When the process begins, I am learning and discovering along with the characters. As the action of the play is unfolding for the characters, it is also unfolding for me as a playwright. I am often just as surprised as the characters are by where the plot shifts, twists, or jags; I am as tickled and shocked when the story is revealing itself and when the characters are exposing emotional truths to one another. Some plays I have written surprisingly intact and require only very minor corrections, but much more often I tend to overwrite a lot and cut a ton. I tend to write in a very stream of conscious style and pour out words on the page, and then have to reduce and distill. My editing process is really rigorous and I am not precious about any of my work. While I am committed to word choice, rhythm, and revelatory transformation in the language, I am not afraid to scrap everything in service of the story at large.
Even when a play is based on preexisting text, whether it is an adaptation of literature or a play based on historical fact, the map of the end result is still completely unknown to me when I start working on the script. Of course, with a novel or a biographical play there appear to be fixed points of the story, but there are endless possibilities in terms of curating the events.
With NO CHAOS, for example, I started only with the idea of unearthing the love story between these two historical figures and I immediately wrote the opening monologue. When I started, however, I knew very little about Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock as historical figures. 15 years before, I had seen the “Pollock” movie with Marcia Gay Harden playing Lee and Ed Harris playing Pollock and I always felt curious and somehow unsatisfied with aspects of the story that the movie chose to tell. And I remember seeing the film and wondering what Lee’s story was— what was her art like, where was she from, how come no one worships her art. Also, while Pollock was clearly a deeply conflicted man, I had a hunch that he was also funny, romantic, and sexy— his paintings certainly reflect that. The questions about Lee and Jackson had been rattling around in my brain as a seed of an idea for a play for all those years, but it was never more than just a kernel. Once I got the idea to write it, I simply dove in. I began writing without knowing what I was writing about. So as I started to work on the script I was concurrently immersing myself in biographies and historical records. I was making discoveries about their lives and immediately exploring those facts in the script. Sometimes I have a strange hunch about something in a play about historical figures, start to write it, and then discover that it is historically accurate; that was the often the case with Krasner and Pollock.
The process for NO CHAOS was thrilling and also unique compared to my usual approach to playwrighting, because I wrote absurdly voluminous amounts of text and then whittled it down. In fact, a few days before we were to start rehearsals, I cut one of the lead characters in the play. Originally, in the script there was a young academic who was coming to Lee to interview her about her life; therefore, originally the play had an outer-frame which was the student/teacher relationship between Lee and this young woman. I realized right before rehearsals started that I should cut the entire framing device, and with it, this lead character. What I discovered was that this character was wonderful because she allowed me to learn about the world and the history and the time-period. The character was simply my surrogate, as she learned about Lee and Jackson for her book, I learned about them for the play.
Once I cut that character, we had the first reading with the cast and the assistant director. And I asked them point-blank… “what do you miss in this latest draft?” That sparked an amazing and heated conversation about the characters, the themes, the arcs, etc. I am so lucky to work with my friends on these shows, and this was an amazing collaboration with the actors and assistant director. I listened to every suggestion that everyone made that first reading and told them that before we met for rehearsal the next day, I would address all their concerns by shifting and tightening the script. And that is what I did. Because I had written so many hundreds of pages in previous drafts, it was actually easier to adjust what they were suggesting that I had missed or had written a part that was confusing. I wanted to go into rehearsals with the script relatively solidified. So after that first rehearsal, I would only change a sentence here or there if it wasn’t working for the actors or the story-telling, but I didn’t want to throw too much new text at them once we started.
A lot of my playwrighting comes from my experience as an actor. A lot of that experience comes from what I have learned as an actor from the teachers I have mentioned earlier. So when I write a play, I have no idea how the actor will say a line and I do not want to know. I have no interest in dictating an actor’s interpretation. What I can offer the actor is that I am writing with knowledge of an actor’s process; so I write characters with clear action and intention, and I am very attuned to the way the weight and rhythm of words affect an actor.
I have been very lucky to write, direct, act, and produce my plays. That only happens if you are either a controlling puppeteer, or if you absolutely release any sense of being precious about your ego and you want to foster a space for risk. I certainly fall into the second camp. When I started Sideway, my goal was to create a safe space for failure. I afford that grace to myself as a writer, director, and actor, which means I have to be unabashedly embracing of change.
I know that you’re currently working on an advanced degree in acting. What made you decide to pursue that? How is it going—what do you enjoy most about the program?
The most amazing part of my program is that I am working on theater seven days a week. I feel really lucky to have been in the theater for a long time and to have this opportunity to continue my training. Acting really stretches me as a person in addition to stretching me as an artist.I told my mom before I started grad school last year that first and foremost I wanted to become a better person through my dedication to my acting training; and so far, I am happy to say, that I am definitely growing exponentially as a person. At the DePaul Theater School there is a rigorous focus on physical and vocal development in addition to technique; and that was a huge draw for me. Although I have been working in the theater for quite some time, I still need to unlock some habitual holding patterns both in my body and voice. The goal is that by freeing myself in that way physically, I am also freeing a part of my artistry and my artistic voice. Also, because I am taking the time to dedicate myself to my art I have a lot more time to do things like write plays, direct, and produce.
I am also really enjoying the collaborative process in grad school. I have met some great friends and collaborators who I will work with forever. Three out of four actors in NO CHAOS were DePaul students; and I have written and produced three short plays in the last year which also included my fellow DePaul students. Also, the teachers are out of this world. There are some truly brilliant theater minds at that school and they are also generous, gracious, and kind. So I feel very lucky and fortunate to be in the company of great artists who are encouraging my growth.
In creating NO CHAOS, what sort of research did you do into the lives of Lee Krassner and Jackson Pollock? What made you decide that their story was one that you wanted to explore in a play?
Once I started the writing process I did an immense amount of historical research. I happily dove into the deep end, so to speak; I devoured everything I could without any real idea of how it would pay off in the script. Ultimately, the actual historical facts led me to uncovering the play’s structure and discovering the arc of the characters. Many of the lines of dialogue were actual quotes from the historical figures in the play and the other things I wrote were certainly echoes from their lives. I was striving to utilize the historical facts and quotes in a manner that was honest to the integrity of their lives and also reflecting and refracting themes that were on my mind. I want to be faithful to the history as well as honest about the story I was curious about telling. The greatest compliment and affirmation that I received about synthesizing the historical research was this: after one of the performances of NO CHAOS at FringeNYC an older man approached me; he was a docent at one of the prestigious museums in New York and he specialized in Krasner, Pollock, and the other artists from that period; he was so kind when we talked after the show; he said he had been studying their lives for decades and had never been able to understand their relationship at all until he saw the play. That was the most amazing feedback and he looked so relieved and elated, as if the play had somehow provided him with a key to a mysterious puzzle that had been haunting him for years.
I mentioned some of the reasons I wanted to write about Krasner and Pollock earlier, but mainly it was because I felt that there was a hidden story. I think it is easy for pop culture to romanticize the artistic process or to “exoticize" artists and depict them as the “other”. I wanted to humanize and normalize their lives. I wanted to uncover a portrait that is similar to the artists that I have lived among. I think for many people, because artists live outside the conventional box, it is simple to dismiss their lives as bizarre, label them crazy geniuses, or “fetishize” them. My intention was to explore their lives as if I were creating a portrait of my friends. How would you want someone to paint your portrait and capture your life? And to a large extent, this play is about myself as an artist, a creator, a lover, and a person.
Yes, there is an historical record about these characters’ lives, but the reporting is through such a strong lens. Even once I started to read about these figures in historical records, the bias was very sharp. Lee Krasner was often painted in a very unflattering light; and as I dug deeper I realized that some of that bias was imbedded in the patriarchal and anti-semitic notions of the era: by that, I mean that Lee was not a demure figure and was way ahead of her time in terms of how she comported herself. She was born around the turn of the Century and lived a radical life in terms of rejecting the Orthodox Judaism that she was born into, but also rejected the constraints that women were subjected to at the time. I think because of her gender and her religion she was really diminished in terms of her contributions to the art world. And additionally, their life together is often described in very extreme terms, and yet they lived together happily for so many years but those years of domestic normalcy do not make for very good movies and myths. Pollock was a very good cook, he was a serious gardener, was very well read, and a huge fan of music; yet these details are easy to overlook when history wants to paint him as a brute.
I also think that when I look back at the other plays that I have written, then the Krasner and Pollock story seems like such a natural fit for my interests and aesthetic. I write a lot of plays about gender; and most of my pieces are written from a woman’s perspective. Lee Krasner is a wonderful protagonist and it was important to me that her story was told from a perspective that encompassed her life before and after Pollock, because her life and her art most certainly did not begin and end with him. In wrighting about Lee, I wanted to shine a light on a character that had historically remained in the shadows— her life and her art has been relegated to an asterisk. For me, her journey as a Jewish figure coming of age around the turn of the Century really resonated because that is the same time that my grandparents were growing up as Jewish immigrants. More importantly, Lee’s story from a woman’s perspective is heart-breaking; I assert that it was not her or Pollock’s choice that her career was sublimated to his career, but rather it was a sign of the times. In many of my plays, I write a lot about the unheard, the unseen, and the forgotten.
I have a penchants for writing plays that are socially and politically aware as much as they are entertaining. I try to maintain the balance. I want my scripts to feel a balance of comedy and drama as well as social relevance and entertainment.
As a fellow actor, I tend to write really interesting and challenging characters for actors and all these four roles definitely fit into those categories. That awareness as an actor certainly factors into the way in which I approach writing a play, because I try to write roles that are exciting for the actors. In many plays, there are thankless roles, and I am deeply grateful for the time and effort that actors invest in the process so I try to write “thankful roles”.
Do you want to talk at all about what you have gone through in terms of recovery since your injury?
In 2011 I was living in New York City and I was very badly assaulted in a fluke situation of “wrong place, wrong time”. I moved back to Chicago to recover and be with my family. I was having all sorts of difficulty with my memory and my balance and all sorts of other physical and mental problems, and I truly thought I would never be involved in the theater again, let alone write another play.
So I feel indescribably fortunate on so many levels to be back in the theater and writing more. It is such a joy to be creative and to feel grounded again.
My experience certainly factors into the writing of NO CHAOS. A dominant theme in the play is about how do you deal with a loved one who is suffering. Another is the optimism that art provides. I write a lot of optimistic theater, because that is essentially how I have lived my life. Art has been a major restorative aspect in my life. When I was recovering and I was having difficulties with words and with fine motor skills, I was drawing and painting as a means to get better. I think that part of the process of writing NO CHAOS was a way to get past some of the trauma I had recently experienced. As I mentioned earlier, I wrote thousands of pages of dialogue and often it felt like it was a cathartic experience. Theater for me is as much about process as it is about product. Ultimately, the product is incredibly important because that is what you are sharing with the audience; in addition to that, the process is crucial for growth and exploration and enjoyment. I was so lucky with NO CHAOS because I was working with an incredible team. The actors and the Assistant Director were all friends of mine and we had such a joyful experience exploring the script. I was very open to input throughout the development of the script and I relied heavily on feedback from my friends and family. The conversations that I had surrounding the themes of the script were as fulfilling as writing and working on the production.
Trauma is a very challenging thing for anyone to overcome, and I have had profound support from my family and friends. I still feel residue from those events, whether it is a new hesitancy where previously I would have been fearless or a greater sense of joy where I would have been afraid. I think that the process of working on NO CHAOS was hugely helpful in my ever-evolving steps towards healing.
You made your first appearance in FringeNYC more than a decade ago with HUSTLE. How did your experience with that play compare with your latest experience with NO CHAOS? Why did you decide to come back to FringeNYC with this play?
I moved to NYC in 1999 and I found that some of my friends were under-using their artistic abilities; I suggested that we work on a script and potentially put up a show. My friends rejected every published script that I recommended that we work on. Eventually I said, “I wrote some dialogue that I think could be fun as a scene study, just so we can work on our acting.” That dialogue eventually became my first script, HUSTLE. At that point, I truly had no intention of being a playwright. I simply wanted to make some more theater with my friends. I finished writing the script and we had a casual reading of the play. I asked them right after the reading if they would be interested in doing the show, and when they said yes, I immediately went through the newspaper and started randomly calling theater spaces about rentals. I had only recently arrived in New York and my friends were insistent that theater was not made this way. That first day, I told them that I planned to produce and direct the play and asked if they were game to take the ride with me. I have been making theater with that joyful naive sensibility since I started Sideway Theater as a high school sophomore and that is the same way that I am still approaching making theater. We produced HUSTLE in a loft in the financial district and we used the outdoor roof deck as a playing space. We produced the play in November of 2000 and this deck looked out on the Twin Towers; the whole experience was extraordinarily magical. I submitted the show to the FringeNYC and we had an amazing time there as well as taking the show to a Fringe Festival in Austin, Texas right after 9/11.
I think that FringeNYC is an incredible gift to artists and to the arts community. If not for my first experience in FringeNYC in 2001, I am not certain if I would have written more plays. I did not think of myself as a playwright; I thought of myself as a guy who happened to write one play. But that experience lead to other opportunities and it opened my mind up to the possibility of continuing to write. NO CHAOS was the third show that I produced in FringeNYC and I would happily go back any time. It is such a joyful experience to be surrounded by such a great community of artists. It is sich fun to be able to walk around New York and see as many shows as possible. When I was writing NO CHAOS I was imagining what it would be like to produce it at FringeNYC, so I kept the theater-making very sparse and honest. I knew that we would be traveling with the actors from Chicago, and so I kept the demands of the production very minimalistic. We performed the play in FringeNYC with three chairs, a few costume changes, and a handful of props. Renaissance playwright Lope de Vega once wrote that all you need to make theater is four boards for the stage, two actors, and a passion. FringeNYC certainly encourages artists to embrace that mantra; and it is a belief that I hold very dear. To make theater, all we need is courage, tenacity, and passion. And hope. Always an immense amount of hope.