Morgan Ludlow, Artistic Director of Wily West, recently had an interview with Stuart Bousel about Stuart's writing and in particular his upcoming world premiere with Wily West, EVERYBODY HERE SAYS HELLO! Here are Stuart's candid answers.
How did you start this play? What or who was the inspiration?
In all honesty, I started this play my senior year of college as a fun writing project on the side while I wrote my very very serious thesis. I was originally challenging myself to write something "mainstream" and in my own bizarre version of reality, that meant writing a gay comedy, I guess. This says a lot about me.
The characters come first. Once I know who I am writing about and how they speak, then the play usually just sort of comes out. In this case I knew I wanted the main characters to be a bunch of guys who played baseball in the park together (I did this a lot with my friends growing up) so I had the added bonus of knowing where the first scene took place and more or less what needed to happen- i.e. a baseball game. The show just kind of took off from there.
What principles of playwriting do you try to follow, or help you the most?
I have no idea what the principals of playwriting are. I'm sure they exist, I probably follow some, but I don't do it consciously. I follow characters and voices and that's pretty much what determines everything.
Is there a writer or other artist that most influenced you as an artist?
I don't know that I can pick one individual because I think of myself as having many influences. I will say I am really heavily influenced by other art forms. Music is super important to me, particularly the music of Tanya Donelly, Kristin Hersh, Melora Creager, the James... and that is often reflected in my work. Film is very important to me too, particularly the films of Hal Hartley and Sally Potter, and is, for instance, why many of my plays are a series of short scenes or vignettes, rather than more traditionally structured (though for the record, most Shakespeare is also short scenes and vignettes, so by traditional I really mean the 20th century American kitchen sink drama most people think of when they think of theater in this country). E.M. Forster sort of gave me a philosophy of life and art that permeates a lot of my work, and Peter S. Beagle wrote my favorite book ever, The Last Unicorn. John Guare has been my favorite playwright since I was 16. His play SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION has probably informed my playwrighting more than any other single dramatic work.
What are your two favorite characters in all theatre and why?
Cinderella in Sondheim and Lapine's INTO THE WOODS. I love the idea of this woman who is actually a pretty intelligent and kind person but also a social pretender desperately seeking validation from a class she actually, in reality, feels entirely unsuited for. I also love how her intense desire to change her life is continuously at battle with both her sense of responsiblity and her own fear of that change, so while she has a lot of volition she also constantly defers to chance and other people to make stuff happen for her. The complexity of the character is just fascinating to me, plus I just relate to her, cause I'm also a guy with a strong value system but all kinds of social pretensions. I also really love Ned Poins in Shakespeare's HENRY IV part 1 and 2 because he's this fuck up noble who doesn't give a crap about anything in the world except getting laid, getting drunk, getting into trouble, and hanging out with his best friend- who he is smart enough to realize isn't really his best friend. There's something profoundly sad about the character that I've always found fascinating, especially as that depth and sadness is conveyed in only a handful of lines, but those lines cut to the quick so deeply its all the more poignant. He's my favorite kind of supporting character: fun, clearly etched, and totally surprising.
You go to see quite a lot of theatre in the Bay Area - how does critical thinking help or hinder your writing?
I don't know that it plays a huge part in it, to be honest. I don't think much about the other theatre I see in the Bay Area when I'm writing something. I do know I try to always write something I haven't seen, because if I have seen someone else write about something in a way where I think they totally nailed it, I rarely feel a need to say something myself about it. Sometimes I do think my work is an answer or comment on someone else's. I think all writers talk to and about other writers through their work, actually.
Any personal aspects of this play that you are willing to share? I notice in a lot of your plays the main character is bi-sexual - what about that topic seems to draw you in as a writer?
I've never actually written a play where the main character is bisexual, though in EDENITES Hugo does have sex with a woman- but that doesn't make him bisexual. He's a gay guy who has been having sex with a woman, which is different. The main character in this play, Bryon, is totally gay- almost painfully, anxiously so. There are a lot of supporting bisexual characters in my plays though, that is true, and sure, it comes from having been bisexual myself, having known many people who are bisexual, but really it's just that attraction fascinates me and I find attraction most fascinating when it's unexpected or unrestricted by conventional ideas of sexuality. I would say that all my plays contain some element of unexpected affinity between people, and frequently that manifests in bisexuality. However, in TROUBLESOME HISTORIE OF JOHANN AND KRANE, for instance, there is a moment when the two main male characters kiss one another, but it's not because they are sexually attracted to one another. It's because they love one another, and sometimes that happens between people who love one another. That's probably a good example of unexpected affinity over bisexuality being a major theme in a lot of my plays.
"Finish" is such a strong word. I am inclined to say "no". I don't think a play is complete until it is performed. And often after the first performance, you realize it still needs more work. Not every time, but often.
If you look at your body of work as a whole (so far) what do you think are the themes or genres or stories you write the most toward? What subject/s excites you the most to write about?
Claire Rice once told me she thinks all of my plays are coming of age stories and I think this is 95% true. I definitely like to write about the discovery of things, ideas, people. My characters tend to be highly intelligent, high self-monitors, very articulate, and actively engaged learners throwing themselves headlong into life or learning how to do that. There is a lot of tension in my plays around identity, social interaction, intellectual and personal evolution, sex, social class, self-awareness and self-actualization, fear, and death. So I guess I write about all those things but I don't consider myself an issue based writer, though I can get very conceptual, like in BRAINKILL for instance, which is more about exploring an idea, in that case the tensions between morality and materialism. I'm kind of willfully a-political, so it's rare that my work is about like... economics or feminism or something... though I suppose you could argue that is a political statement in and of itself. Mostly I write as an act of compassion actually, it's me trying to understand some aspect of the human condition that I'm personally struggling with, which goes back to every play being a coming of age story.
What most excites you about seeing this play on stage? What do you hope audiences will take from the play?
I've technically been writing this play for 15 years so honestly, just seeing it alive will be exciting. I hope it is very very fast paced and sincere. I hope audiences like the characters, identify with them, run with the structural conceit, which is a touch experimental, and laugh a lot.
I was thinking July is "independence month" and how we should celebrate independent theatre in July. As the big corporate theaters offer less and less opportunities to local artists - independent thetre is blossoming all over the country. Where do you personally think that is going to go? How do you feel about independent theatre in San Francisco?
I think the future of the theater world is the farmer's market mentality, personally. Like, that's what we should look to as our business model- not the Walmart/corporatized model that frankly is what regional theater has turned into and probably always really was. And is clearly, obviously, in trouble. When I talk to people these days about what kind of theater I do, I often say, "Niche." I see myself as a guy growing vegetables in my back yard, and now and then I take them into the big city in a truck and sell them to you in the plaza. And sure, I might never get famous or whatever, but the people who are into what I do know where to find me and think nobody does what I do better than me, and that's not a bad place to be as an artist.
There's a lot of discussion about the Theatre Bay Area Awards and their rating system - do you think plays should have scores (like sports) to tell audiences which ones are "good?"
No. I think plays should have posting boards where people talk about them and audiences should go see plays that sound like they create interesting conversations, or have conversations around them that would be interesting to participate in, and then the audiences should contribute to those conversations themselves. I think as soon as we start grading art numerically or whatever we're missing the point of art in favor of lazy-ass thinking. I do think there is value in recognizing the art that we think works best, because there is value in knowing what we like and what our standards are, and there is value in recognizing hard work and craftsmanship, but the only awards that really matter are ones given between individuals, just as even the best-written review still only reflects the opinion of that one critic. Which is why I support critics and artists (and audience members) who have top ten lists and such, and why I started my own awards, the Stuey's, a few years ago. If you get one you know I think you're the fucking bomb. Which means very little except exactly that, but to me, knowing I got through to someone or they understood and valued what I'm doing matters far more than getting an A or whatever from some panel of people who don't have to defend that opinion and really have no better credentials to pass judgement on what's good than anybody else. In the end, we all basically like what we like, some of us are just better at explaining why or recognizing how something works. The best of us can look past personal taste and appreciate craft and again, there is value to that- but only so much and I think it's exceedingly rare when THAT is what's being awarded an award. Actually, if an award panel had a "We hated this show but god it's well done" award, I would respect the hell out of that.
Stuart Bousel has previously worked with Wily West as a director (Ruth and the Sea, Universe Rex) and as a writer (Juno En Victoria, A Late Lunch, The Vampire Sorority Babes Vs. The Intergalactic Frat Zombies: A Ballet). He most recently directed The Crucible for Custom Made Theatre Co., where he has also directed Prelude To A Kiss, The Merchant of Venice,