Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Meet Will Snider

Whether by accident or design, New York playwrights sometimes find themselves living in places other than New York. Five months after joining Youngblood, Lucy Teitler and Will Snider now temporarily reside far from the bright lights and free beer of EST, but their hearts still burn for new work. From the snowy streets of Cambridge, MA, to the muddy hills of Kisii, Kenya, these are their stories. Will’s turn.

Lucy Teitler: What do you write?

Will Snider: Plays, sometimes short stories.

LT: When do you write?

WS: Mornings and afternoons. Never nights.

LT: Why do you write?

WS: When I was in middle school I wanted to be a film director and spent school breaks shooting backyard zombie films with friends. They were fun, but I had trouble filming other kinds of stories because it takes a lot of effort to write, direct, shoot and edit something on your family’s digital camera and not have it look super unprofessional. This works well with zombie flicks but not much else, so my backyard auteur career kind of stalled. But I was acting in school plays, so I knew about theater, and it hit me one day that there was this amazing storytelling shortcut I could take. With plays there was no distance between conception and execution - you write something, put it up and move on. Plus the whole suspension of disbelief thing allows you to cast your friends in parts they would look silly playing on film. So that’s how playwriting started. But now I write because it’s what I do. Even before I was writing for theater, I was just writing. I would come home from school and complain to my dad about a friend or a teacher, and he would say, “That’s a short story. Write it.” That was his advice about most things, and now it’s how I view the world.

LT: Is your writing ever about you/your family/your ex-lovers?

WS: Sophomore year of college I took a stab at the whole thinly veiled autobiographical play. It didn’t work out well, so I won’t do it again. Just because I’m constantly writing stories in my head and dramatizing my experiences, doesn’t mean I have to share it all. Everyone has family problems and bad breakups, but it takes a more talented writer to make that stuff compelling.

LT: What hardware/software do you use when you write?

WS: Until about two years ago I only used Word but never put much effort into formatting. Now I use Celtx, which provides a simple, workable format. I’ve debated this with Cory Finley because he recently switched back to Word. He swears Celtx shapes your dialogue in ways you might not realize or like and wants the freedom to choose fonts. That’s not my style. Beautiful fonts would give me a false sense of accomplishment.

LT: Who are your influences?

WS: At the start of college I wanted to be Stephen Adly Guirgis or Adam Rapp. All my plays were about teenagers in suburban parking lots drinking cheap beer and cursing like baby Mamets. Then I found Conor McPherson and tried to write these quiet, lyrical ghost stories that never got off the ground. After college I lived in Kenya for two years and learned a lot about the world outside of the rehearsal room, and when I got back I read David Rabe, and everything started to make sense. He has this wild theatrical vocabulary, but unlike a lot of his aesthetic peers, he puts it to use articulating political stories, not melodrama. In his case, it’s tales of the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Reading his work made me realize that even though I have these crazy disparate passions – dramatic writing and African political history – I could use one to try to make sense of the other. I have Rabe to thank for that. Recently I've been digging Lynn Nottage. "Ruined" initially interested me because of the African setting, but its ability to tell an economical story with a big cast is what makes it influential.

LT: What do you wish you could do with your writing?

WS: I wish I could make audiences laugh more than I do.

LT: What do you eat when you are writing?

WS: Nothing.

LT: What do you drink when you finish a play?

WS: Cold beer or water.

LT: Have you ever seen a play of yours performed and absolutely hated the result? What did you do after curtain call?

WS: Yes. Once. In college. The next day the campus gossip blog published a scathing review written by a good friend, parts of which I agreed with, which made it worse. I felt terrible, but my girlfriend bought me a bagel and everything kind of worked out. College is strange.

LT: Does theater have any obligation to the audience?

WS: I used to say absolutely not, at least from the perspective of the dramatist. The dramatist only has an obligation to the drama. I was reading a lot of Mamet and feeling super salty about people not liking my plays, but it’s all bullshit pseudo-academic comfort reading for playwrights who aren’t very good. Theater has an obligation to enthrall. Let’s be honest about that. I don’t mean that it has to be funny or it has to be nice, but it has to enthrall. That is your obligation as a dramatist, to tell a story that enthralls.

LT: If your family/friends hate your play, have you failed?

WS: Depends. Maybe you wanted them to hate it. So far my family has tolerated my plays. I think that’s the most you can ask for. For them my plays haven’t enthralled. Yet.

LT: What's a style of theater you've never written and would like to try?

WS: My brother and I plan to write a musical. We have ideas for one about Haiti and one about palliative care, but we haven’t started them. Recently I read about symphonic outdoor drama, a form created and popularized by Paul Green, a Pulitzer-winner from North Carolina. It’s basically an enormous historical pageant staged outdoors with music and dance, which is completely different from what I’ve done but would be a cool challenge. I’m picturing a cross between Civil War reenactment, Shakespeare in the Park and a haunted hayride. Maybe set it at Andersonville prison or around Antietam Creek.

LT: What do you want to learn next as a writer?

WS: I want to write big – complicated set, many characters. Not symphonic outdoor drama (yet), but something closer to that than what I’ve been writing. All my early plays have small casts and no set. It started as a practical thing – I was friends with about three actors and we were always broke, but somewhere along the line I started to believe that simplicity wasn’t only practical, it was virtuous, and fair enough, for some stories it is, but some stories demand big sets and big casts. I want to learn how to tell those stories.

LT: How does your background as an actor influence your writing?

WS: In general it seems like playwrights who started as actors write juicy monologues and physical fun stuff. I don’t. I acted in one of my plays a few years back and learned just how unfriendly my plays are to performers. They’re full of these single word repetitions, characters saying “yes” and “yeah” and “yep,” and as a playwright, I believe in word-perfect performances. As an actor I don’t have the discipline to do justice to work like that. The actors I write for are the disciplined ones, the word-perfect ones, who understand that my scripts aren’t suggestions. The best ones learn the lines and make them work. I can’t do that. My background as an actor helped me understand how hard it is to be a good actor, but I refuse to write for anyone else.

LT: Do you ever write scenes that you're imagining or hoping might occur in real life?

WS: No.

LT: Can you separate being a writer from who you are as a person? Is it more or a vocation to you or more of an identity? Or is that a really strange dichotomy that I would only draw because I had two beers earlier?

WS: Nice on the beers. I would like to say writing is a vocation, like carpentry, because that sounds like a good answer, but it isn’t true. It’s a calling, and if that sounds absurd, so be it. I recall an interview with Tarell Alvin McCraney when he said he used to imagine what it would be like to be someone other than a dramatist, like a lawyer, but when he thought about being a lawyer, he immediately pictured a courtroom and a high-pressure case, what he would wear and say, and even this act of imagining was an exercise in dramatic writing. He couldn’t escape the duties of a dramatist. That rings true to my experience. I find it hard to live my day without thinking of it in dramatic terms, and in most parts of my life I feel like I’m acting or building a story. To a certain extent all people must feel this way, but dramatists are paralyzed by it until they actually go and write it.

LT: How does being a writer influence what choices you make in life?

WS: I’m a lot poorer than my parents might have hoped. I quit a job I loved. I’ve waited tables. I live in New York most of the time even though it’s not my favorite place in the world. These are a few of the ways it’s influenced my life, but it hasn’t been too bad. It will probably get harder as I get closer to the age where folks start having kids. Right now even the most professional of my friends are still kind of messy, which makes my life seem okay.

LT: In such a film-saturated culture, why have you chosen to write plays?

WS: Theater is honest. You know it’s lying.

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