Thursday, March 15, 2007
An Interview With Jason Grote
Jason Grote's play BOX AMERICANA:A WAL-MART FANTASIA will kick off the 2007 In The Rough Reading Series, with a pair of readings Stanford and San Francisco on March 26th and 27th.
He will also be teaching a three-day playwrighting intensive at PF. Full details for both can be found on the main site www.playwrightsfoundation.org
This will be the first in a series of e-interviews with the writers in our ITR series.
Jonathan Spector: For BOX AMERICANA, you were commissioned to write a play on a specific topic. How did that process differ from other plays you've written?
Jason Grote: I actually pitched the show to the Working Theater, to my ongoing - well, regret is far too strong a word, but it's proven to be one of the more difficult things I've ever written. My original idea was to adapt one of the many recent books about neoliberal economics, like
FAST FOOD NATION or NO LOGO. Perhaps thankfully, the rights for those books proved unavailable, and I had just read Liza Featherstone's SELLING WOMEN SHORT, about the class-action suit against Wal-Mart for systematic discrimination against female employees. The research became voluminous, far beyond that original book, one of the reasons
why the play has been so hard to write.
There are ironies here - I worked in retail for years, and have been working-class most of my life, but as a playwright I'm interested in what I used to call "lifers" - that is, people both in and out of management who had no other options than their retail jobs. So partially, the play is psychically difficult because it's forcing me to return to a place I'd really rather forget; it's also difficult because, even though retail as a job category is ascendant, especially for women, it doesn't pack the dramatic punch that, say, an organizing campaign in a coal mine might. In fact, boredom and stillness are intrinsic parts of the retail experience. This might be an interesting way into an avant-garde performance piece, but I am after all a playwright.
The other challenge has been "writing the Other." The characters that most reflect my upbringing are Danae and Janelle; my formative years were spent on welfare, in a ghetto in New Jersey, while my mom worked a crappy retail job. Of course, there are fundamental differences, one of them being race, another being opportunity; we got out of that situation, mostly because of education, but also because whiteness is worth something in our society, it has a price-tag. And, of course, race in our society, particularly blackness/whiteness, is a fundamental taboo.
JS: You've said that with each play you write, you consciously go in a different direction than the previous play you've written. How does BOX AMERICANA fit into this pattern?
JG: It doesn't, at least not consciously. I tend to look to other plays for structural ideas, but none seemed to apply to BOX. Also, there is the aforementioned racial dynamic. In 1001, I was writing Arab characters, but because the play was about identity and the creation of the "Other," it came more easily, plus the fact that - despite the years of history and the current geopolitical situation - that particular divide is not as loaded as the black/white one is. Of
course, in both cases, I have had really constructive dialogues with actors of color, but in a sort of quiet, non-public way, once trust has been established.
A funny sidebar; I have noticed that sometimes well-intentioned people will try to "protect" me when someone calls me on the self-evident fact that I am a white guy writing non-white characters, as if I'm suddenly under attack by the PC police. I believe that sometimes this
discussion is constructive and sometimes it's just knee-jerk, but it's a conversation I'm actually eager to have, and one that can only help the play. I am far more aggravated by the "dramaturgy police," who want my work to fit into the neat little well-made play box.
JS: Your play 1001 just ended a tremendously successful run at the Denver Center Theater Company, after a series of developmental workshops. How did the play benefit from it's development process? Were there times you were concerned all that development was going to damage the play?
JG: I was never really concerned about it, though I was often annoyed by it. I'm pretty good and sussing out bad advice and refusing it. I would rather lose out on an opportunity and keep my play intact than overdevelop it and put yet another predictable, mediocre play out there (which is not to say that I am infallible, just that I would rather fail on my own terms). But the fact is - and I say this with great respect and appreciation for the places which helped me develop the piece - most of the work was done by the time it emerged from the Soho Rep Lab in 2005. The irony of "play development" is that, the more a play needs work, the fewer places want to develop it; success has a thousand fathers and all that.
Most of the development was very pragmatic and related to production - for example, the first reading was three hours with no intermission, so I had to find places to make internal cuts without altering the structure. I also wanted to find places to introduce visual and textual cues to link the various stories Scheherezade tells (many of which are anachronistic and related by association rather than cause-effect linearity).
In the end, though, there was relatively little interference. Most artistic directors I've encountered will reject a play rather than try to change it, especially at the LORT level. If they took any interest at all in 1001, it means they understood it on some fundamental level.
JS: Prior to 1001, most of your work had produced in small downtown venues. What was the difference in working in an environment with so many resources?
JG: It was great. Contrary to the horror stories one hears about LORT theaters, they were generous, they understood the play, and they knew when to get out of the way but they also made themselves available when needed. I was worried that the play might get overproduced, but certain realities of the space (it was in the round), the set budget, and the play itself prevented this (though much credit is due to the director, Ethan McSweeny). I feel uniquely lucky, as I got to work in a well-funded institution that is in the process of reinventing
itself. I feel like these are the places where the exciting work is happening, as many of our more storied institutions are becoming ossified and predictable. Of course, it can be frustrating - many New Yorkers don't give Denver enough credit (or the rest of America for
that matter), when so much of New York theater has become deadly dull, in part due to the suburbanization of New York, which its own separate discussion.
JS: In addition to being a playwright, you also co-chair the writer the Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab. Has delving into the processes of so many other writers affected the way you work? What do you gain out of writing a play in this environment?
JG: Communities of writers are invaluable, when they're really communities. The Soho Rep Lab has been a huge part of my development as a writer, largely due to the opportunity to watch how other writers work. I've also found community at places like the O'Neill and New
Dramatists. In a nutshell, my approach is what Jonathan Lethem recently called "The Ecstacy of Influence;" rather than try to try and be totally original, I try to have as many, varied influences as possible.
JS: Which older writers have most influenced your work, and who among your contemporaries are you most excited about at the moment?
JG: At the moment, I think we're living in a comedy renaissance - ours might be the funniest generation to come down the pike in a while. The names I give won't surprise anyone; Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, The Onion, The Office, Mr. Show. I like this group Kaspar Hauser a
lot. I've been really into short stories lately, mostly George Saunders and Deborah Eisenberg. I just read a book called DREAM by Stephen Duncombe, which is all about how progressive movements have, mostly in reaction to consumerism and co-optation, become staid and
medicinal and need to embrace laughter, joy, and fantasy. I think this applies to theater as well. I tend to like philosophers on the margins, like Slavoj Zizek, Hakim Bey/Peter Lamborn Wilson, Noam Chomsky, Subcommandante Marcos. The French Marxist and post-Marxist
thinkers like Foucault, Baudrillard, and Guy Debord are out of vogue at the moment, but I still adore them, ditto for Edward Said. I like Hannah Arendt a lot, even though she's sort of neo-classical, and of course Walter Benjamin is great.
I tend to look outside of theater for influences, mostly to film, fiction, and contemporary art, though I am influenced by a lot of my peers' work. I really like Sheila Callaghan, Anne Washburn, Lisa D'Amour, Erin Courtney, Thomas Bradshaw, Young Jean Lee, Stephen Adly Guirgis. Then there is the recent avant-garde: Mac Wellman, Chuck Mee, Erik Ehn. I like a lot of what the Wooster Group does, as well as their progeny, like Elevator Repair Service, Radiohole, and the National Theater of the USA. I think Maria Irene Fornes is one of the most influential artists of the late 20th century and I think her legacy deserves to be remembered.
Then, the classics, of course: Euripides, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht, Beckett, though every playwright should know them as a matter of course. I also like Arthur Miller, in part because he's so uncool.
You can visit Jason online at www.jasongrote.com
(This Spring in the Bay Area you can see work by these writers mentioned above: a reading Sheila Callaghan's brand new play, That Pretty Pretty, also in Playwright Foundation's ITR Series; Anne Washburn's I Have Loved Strangers at Just Theater; Lisa D'Amour's Anna Bella Eema at Crowded Fire; and Stephen Adly Guirgis's Jesus Hopped The 'A' Train, currently running at the SF Playhouse.)