Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Interview with a Playwright: Walt McGough

Welcome to the 39th Annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival!  It's an exciting time: the plays and artistic teams are confirmed.  Auditions have begun. Event planning is underway.  We hope you will check our website and blog for updates, latest backstage news and added special events throughout the festival. 

We will be posting a series of interviews in the weeks leading up to the festival from this year's talented playwrights. Walt McGough, whose timely Non-Player Character lays bare the darker side of gaming, was the first to sit down with us.

BAPF: What drew you to explore the world of gaming and its culture? 

Walt McGough: I've been a pretty avid gamer for just about my whole life; I'm pretty sure that I can still play Mega Man 2 just by sense memory alone. Games have always been one of the major ways that I unwind in what little down-time I have. I'm a particular fan of open world role-playing and strategy games, which is a problem because I tend to have a pretty addictive personality and so when I start a game with too many things to explore, I'm in constant danger of just disappearing down the rabbit hole completely and never resurfacing. (The closest I've come so far was the year that I spent living by myself in Chicago, with an original Xbox, a copy of the Elder Scrolls game Morrowind, and a cheap Chinese restaurant right across the alleyway from my apartment. It...wasn't pretty.)

As far as gaming culture is concerned, I've always followed it avidly, but from a bit of a tangential position. A combination of personal finance limitations and parents who actually wanted me to see the sun occasionally when I was growing up meant that I never had the most up-to-date gaming consoles or computers, and so I had to spend a lot of time playing games that were a couple years out-of-date. When new ones that I was excited about would come out, I would play them at my friends' houses, or (and I actually did do this) force my friends to describe them to me, at length, with much detail. My inability to play most games when they came out didn't stop me from staying up-to-the-minute on all of the various news and developments and new releases, and that's continued into my adult life even though I still have to be very choosy about the games that I spend my time with. I've spent a lot of time learning and reading about games that I'll never actually get to play, covetously. It's my own special brand of masochism, I guess.

As far as what made me want to address gaming and games culture in a play...I tend to play around a fair amount with genres of all kinds in my plays. I have a comic book-style play, and a spy play, and a post-apocalypse play, etc. It's never a really conscious decision to write things that way, but given my interest base and my desire to play around with what's possible theatrically, it just kind of pans out.

So I'd been thinking for a while about what a play about video games could look like on stage, and then gaming had a sort of cultural flashpoint moment a few years back, with the #gamergate "movement" flaring up and exposing a lot of the massive obstacles that women in the games industry and gaming culture face on a daily basis. It's really not much different at its core than the issues women and minorities face all over in society, but when it happens in the sphere of gaming culture it tends to mostly happen online, which means there's no real filter and there's a lot more...I guess "passion," would be the word? No, wait. Not passion. "Awfulness." That's a better word.

Anyway, when GamerGate was really heating up, I just remember being riveted to my computer, following the whole horrific mess of it all, and feeling like it was finally time to write a play about video games, because I finally knew what the conversation I wanted to have about them was. I wanted to talk to audiences about the very real and pertinent cultural issues that are present in the world of video games, but also show them why so many people from all different walks of life love games to start with, and want to fix them.

BAPF: In gamer parlance, non-player characters can be unknown or an "agent" in the game. Did this "otherness" 

​ resonate for you?

WM: Hoo boy, did it ever. The fascinating thing about games culture is that it's always been viewed (and continues to be viewed, by many) as a sort of monolithic thing: awkward white guys between the ages of 12 and 30, sitting in their mothers' basements and doing nothing but play the newest games.

But that mental picture ignores the fact that, especially in recent years, the field of gaming has become filled with an almost infinite diversity of narrative approaches, styles, and agendas, and there are just as many different people playing video games now as there are games for them to play. That's just about always been true, of course, but the more stereotypical, Platonic ideal of the "gamer" is the demographic that most mainstream games have been pitched to for decades. So for a lot of people who don't fit that mold, whether due to their gender, or their race, or any other number of reasons, there's a sense that you're being forced to look at this thing that you love through a glass window: you're not actually allowed to consider yourself a part of it.

I can't imagine how dispiriting that experience must get sometimes, for someone who loves games but finds themselves not allowed to claim it as a part of their identity. (I mean that literally: I can't imagine it. I'm a straight white guy. Every mainstream thing has been made for me pretty much my whole life, and I can identify with it as I see fit. I'm very much ready for that to stop, because it's boring as hell.)

The trouble really arises when you factor in that gaming is pretty much the only art form that actually started off as a competitive medium. The only reason that Jumpman is rescuing a princess from a gorilla in Donkey Kong is because the programmers needed a thing for players to look at while they scored points. The stories serve the competition, and the medium is the message, and so for a lot of people who play games, there is no "gaming culture" without a competitive drive. That can translate into a constant need to be THE BEST at everything about a game, from the playing of the game to the consumption of the game ("I'm gonna get the best version of this game and the best system to play it on and I'm gonna buy them all on the day they come out before anybody else and that means that I'm winning!!!!!"). For people with that mindset, the inclusion of more and different types of players and stories can be perceived as an honest-to-God threat, and that can cause some really ugly pushback. That fact was very much on my mind as I started in on writing the play, and it found its way into the title.

BAPF: NPCs are often defined as characters controlled by the game for players to interact with, as opposed to player characters which are controlled by whomever is playing the game.  From a theatrical perspective, 

​how did this inform your approach?

WM: It really shaped the central conflict, I think: Katja (the main character) is an aspiring game designer, and has been deeply in love with gaming her whole life. During the course of the play, however, she finds herself pushed out to the periphery, and continually victimized by others simply for trying to claim an agency and control over her own story. She finds out that a lot of the people she interacts with don't actually view her as anything but a part of their own personal stories, and her struggle to fight back against that and claim her own, central role in her own life is the driving action of the play. Plus, a bunch of it is set inside of a video game, and so we get to see her cast spells and do badass spin-move attacks on fantasy monsters. So that's cool, too!

BAPF: You were quoted as saying "Realism, by and large, doesn’t exist. Nobody actually thinks they’re looking through the invisible wall of a house. This is a good thing, because it means you get to decide how the rules of your world work."

​ What did this mean for NPC specifically, and your work in general?

WM: I personally don't like writing plays that attempt to emulate or be super-true to reality in their style, because I just know that it's never going to work. Nobody thinks it's real, or that the events of a play are actually happening. You're not fooling anyone. The audience has already consciously decided to pretend that they're invisible while they watch your play. They're on board. So, to my mind, if they've already come that far, why not bring them a little bit farther, as well.

I'm a big fan of plays that invite the production team, directors, designers, and everybody else in on the world-building, and provide a lot of opportunities to create something new and fun and exciting that nobody's seen before. The specific style is always going to change to fit the story, because at the end of the day, that's all you're doing: you're telling a story with everybody involved all at once. It was easy to get that kind of imagination and sense of play into NPC, because video games inherently have that to start with, so it was really just a matter of figuring out what's possible and what isn't in a real, physical space. I'm sure that there's plenty of calibration left to do in rehearsal, so that I can really make sure I got the math right.

            BAPF: Walt, thank you so much!  This was fascinating.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Interview with a Playwright: Steve Yockey

The 2016 Season of Rough Readings continues with a fresh set of new plays still in development. The March Rough Readings features Mercury from playwright Steve Yockey. We were fortunate enough to ask him some questions about this delightfully dark comedy:

Rachel Finkelstein: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us! Much of your work, Mercury included, is so surreal -- what draws you to that? 

Steve Yockey: I love when anyone says “surrealism.” It’s sexy. But as alluring as that label sounds, I honestly can’t own it. Sure, the mythic qualities are definitely there, the unexpected punctures in the natural world, but all of my work adheres to a pretty strict internal logic. There are rules; we’re driving towards something. 

Steve Yockey
I guess for all intents and purposes, it’s really just dark realism with some pretty grand theatrical gestures. I’ve always been fascinated by taking these intimate, very human stories and placing them right at the edge of something epic in size or unknown. Seeing the scale of those two things create friction. That’s where most of my plays live. Mercury takes something simple and familiar like failing relationships and casts them against the literally immense and horrifying mechanics of a vengeful universe. It’s fun. Or at least it should be fun. 

RF: Because underneath all of those more “mythic” details, the play really is about some deeply dysfunctional relationships. How do you want the audience so feel about relationships when they come away from the play? 

SY: Amused by the terrible choices? Although I’m betting some people will leave identifying with the terrible choices, which would also be pretty great. It’s essentially a dark comedy and only one character of the seven in the play is anywhere even close to being a “good” person. So it’s tricky. Maybe I’d like the audience to come away hoping these characters will become better people. I want to say it’s never too late for anyone, but the play doesn’t really make that case. 

RF: Why do you use so much overlapping speech in Mercury

SY: Oh, that’s something I use in all of my plays. In real life we don’t wait for other people to finish speaking, especially in heated exchanges. And it’s also a way of tuning rhythms and builds, like in a piece of music. 

RF: You write for several different forms of media, including for comics and TV -- how does that compare to playwriting? 

SY: Playwriting lets you be a little bit more ambitious with storytelling. I think that’s the best way to say it. In theatre we ask audiences to suspend their disbelief and imagine a lot more. That means we can take bigger swings.

RF: That's the beauty of it. Thanks again for your time!

The Rough Reading Series is Pay What You Can. The 2016 series continues with "Mercury" by Steve Yockey, playing Monday, March 14th, 7:30pm at Roble Hall, Stanford University and Tuesday, March 15th, 2pm at Custom Made Theatre, San Francisco.

Read more about "Mercury", Steve Yockey, and the Rough Reading Series at  Playwrightsfoundation.org

Save a Seat with an RSVP! Email rsvp@playwrightsfoundation.org or call 415.626.2176.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Interview with a Playwright: Kevin Artigue

The 2016 Season of Rough Readings continues with a fresh set of new plays still in development. The Late February Rough Readings features The Most Dangerous Highway in the World from playwright Kevin Artigue. We were fortunate enough to ask him some questions about this work and the Producing Partnership with Golden Thread Productions:

Rachel Finkelstein: It's a pleasure to speak with you! I'd love to hear how you first learned about the Kabul-Jalalabad Highway, and what compelled you to write a play on it?

Kevin Artigue: I can’t exactly remember! I think I first saw a picture in an old library book researching a different play (also set in Afghanistan). But it was a series of articles by the journalist Dexter Filkins that sparked the first images for the play. What stuck with me was the idea that these drivers were purposefully risking their lives, driving way too fast, taking stupid risks - and why? The mystery of their death wish stuck with me. And in the middle of the exhaust and chaos was a charming, hopeful little boy eking out a living. 
Kevin Artigue

The image of a car soaring over his head while he directs traffic – I wanted to see that on stage. 

RF: How did you come to know the characters you feature in the play?

KA: I’m not from Afghanistan so I had lots of homework to do – which continues to this day. The process of getting to know my characters starts with a superficial first draft that slowly gets better, becomes more grounded, moving outside in. But the key to my understanding of my characters and the world of the play is thanks to the faith of Golden Thread. They have provided me with moral and creative support for the last three years, including vital introductions to the Afghan community. These contacts and conversations have enriched and transformed not only my play, but my life. Writing this far outside my experience has been tough, but I believe worth the extra effort.

RF: So, what is your connection to Golden Threads Productions and their New Threads Staged Reading Series? How are you collaborating them to bring your vision to life?

KA: My collaboration with Golden Thread began three years ago with a staged reading of an early draft, and has continued to this day. They have championed this play and supported its development. Together, we took the play to the National New Play Showcase in 2014, and out of that successful week we hatched plans for a production. In preparation for production in May, Golden Thread has provided me with all the dramaturgical love a playwright can ask for, including access to experts and cultural consultants. As the first writer of non-Middle Eastern descent to be produced on their mainstage, I feel honored and humbled.

RF: The play has a beautiful dreamlike repetition to it - what was the driving force behind that use of language?

KA: Some of the characters in the play are caught in a literal limbo, wandering off after their car accidents in a state of amnesia. Slowly, in pieces, they begin to remember what happened. As memories come back to them, the language circles and builds until it clarifies and makes more sense.

RF: And to close up, is there anything you'd like the audience to keep in mind going into the reading?

KA: I’d like them to know something that took me a while to really see: that Afghanistan is more than a war torn “graveyard of empires”. We’re bombarded with depressing images and stories of war, trauma, and suffering. While these images of Afghanistan are mostly accurate, they are biased, and override the simultaneous bigger story of the vast majority of Afghans who manage through hope, perseverance, religion, and humor to create meaning and order in their day-to-day lives. A need for meaning and order we can easily recognize in ourselves. 

RF: Definitely - I look forward to seeing it! Thanks again for speaking with us.

The Rough Reading Series is Pay What You Can. The 2016 series begins with "The Most Dangerous Highway in the World" by Kevin Artigue, playing Sunday, February 21st, 5:00pm at Custom Made Theatre, San Francisco and Monday, February 22nd, 7:30pm at Roble Hall, Stanford University.

Read more about "The Most Dangerous Highway in the World", Kevin Artigue, and the Rough Reading Series at  Playwrightsfoundation.org

Save a Seat with an RSVP! Email rsvp@playwrightsfoundation.org or call 415.626.2176.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Interview with a Playwright: Christina Gorman

The 2016 Season of Rough Readings is beginning, and with it a fresh set of new plays still in development. The Early February Rough Readings features Fidelis, a brilliant new work by playwright Christina Gorman. We were able to speak with her about her work and process, and she's shared some wonderful insight below:

Rachel Finkelstein: Thanks for your time, let's get started! So much of the play is dedicated to getting to know the main character, Nick. The audience clearly sees him an honorable man who has dedicated his life to the Marines. Why was it so important for you to emphasize this to the audience?

Christina Gorman
Christina Gorman: Growing up, the Marine Corps was revered in my household.  My father served in Vietnam, so he experienced the absolute worst of what it means to serve.  He would also say he experienced the best: the discipline, the camaraderie, the self-confidence.  His time as a Marine was a double edged sword for him, and I wanted to capture that by showing the positive effects being in the armed forces can have on one's character.

RF: How did you get to know this character so intimately?

CG: I'm glad it feels that way.  In constructing the play, I wanted to keep the audience as close to Nick's journey as possible.  I wanted to keep us inside his head, so we experience the world through his eyes and experience the emotions he feels.  So I did a lot of research.  And, as I said, I'm the daughter of a former Marine.

RF: The play jumps around in time - why did you choose that method of storytelling?

CG: Nick's past and present are so closely tied together, it's almost all one moment, so I chose to have the play unfold in a way that, at least on a subconscious level, reflects that.  The play spills out the way our thoughts do when we are at a critical point in our lives and we ask ourselves, "How the hell did I get here?"

RF: Is there anything you would want audience members to keep in mind before they see the play?

CG: Though the play takes place in the 1960s-70s, I hope audience members will see the strong parallels to what's happening today.

RF: Will do! Thanks again for speaking with us.

The Rough Reading Series is Pay What You Can. The 2016 series begins with "Fidelis" by Christina Gorman, playing Monday, February 1st, 7:30pm at Roble Hall, Stanford University and Tuesday, February 2nd, 1:30pm at Custom Made Theatre in San Francisco. 

Read more about "Fidelis", Christina Gorman, and the Rough Reading Series at  Playwrightsfoundation.orgSave a Seat with an RSVP! Email rsvp@playwrightsfoundation.org or call 415.626.2176.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Interview with a Playwright: Dipika Guha

The Rough Readings Series is wrapping up for the year with Lifted by Dipika GuhaWe had the chance to interview Dipika Guha on her process, motivation, and experience as a Resident Playwright at PF.

You can view the entire interview on Vimeo, but here's just a sampling of some of her remarkably insightful thoughts:

Dipika Guha
"As a playwright, we have the opportunity to begin the world again when we write plays, and my plays tend to be set in imagined worlds that draw very real resonances from history, but they're always slightly askew...I think there's an attempt in that to foster a kind of imaginative space."

"I think tragicomedy in particular strikes me ... of life being both things simultaneously, that speaks to me as being true...There something in that multi-genre device that is thorny and poses the question rather than a simple solution."

"I think point of view can be embodied in a very direct way...where you are forced to take another perspective. And I think the more perspectives we can take on the world right now, the better it is. We do live in a globalized world, but it's also a world of such iniquity."

"There's a sort of pressure to devote ourselves from imagination and from play, and I think I'm drawn to everything that preserves that in the writing of my play worlds."

"There is such a diversity of aesthetic and voice in this room it's truly thrilling to be part of the [Resident Playwrights] Initiative."

Dipika Guha's Interview

The Rough Reading Series is Pay What You Can, and is closing out the year with "Lifted" by Dipika Guha, playing Tuesday, November 17th at 2:30pm at Custom Made Theatre in San Francisco and Wednesday, November 18th at 7:30pm at Roble Hall in Stanford University. 

Read more about "Lifted", Dipika Guha, and the Rough Reading Series at  Playwrightsfoundation.org.

Save a Seat with an RSVP! Email rsvp@playwrightsfoundation.org or call 415.626.2176.

* Member of Actors' Equity Association