Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Clark & Conkel: InterBlood Interviews

Introducing... A new series of YoungBlog posts dedicated to YBers interviewing one another... Eliza Clark & Joshua Conkel are kicking it off (Joshua (JC) interviews Eliza (EC), first):

1. JC: Where do you take inspiration from? Your family, childhood, television, pop culture? Where?
EC: To be perfectly honest, I have a lot of anxiety and fear. In my full-length plays, I use a lot of that fear. I'm really interested in the way that people try to order and control the world. I love the expression, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions," though I don't mean it in any kind of religious sense. It's just interesting to me that the steps that people (and governments) take to feel safe, often end up compromising real safety. Right now, that's really on my mind, I guess. I also watch a lot of reality and competition-based television. THE BIGGEST LOSER factors very heavily into my psyche.
2. JC: Some of your plays have had a distinct science fiction element to them (RECALL, EDGEWISE) which is something you don't see very often, at least not in earnest like your plays. Do you feel like the theater in general is science fiction adverse? Do you feel that the theater is behind the times? Why or why not?

EC: I don't really think of my plays as sci-fi so much as alternative realities. I wish I could write a true sci-fi play - I love BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. I think the theater world is probably not that interested in science fiction, because the best science fiction shows use ridiculously cool graphics, and CGI images of aliens, and devices that help you fly and brush your teeth at the same time. Theater doesn't do CGI as well as the Sci-Fi channel does. However, I am interested in creating worlds that look and smell like our own, but feel a little off-kilter. In both RECALL and EDGEWISE, I make a bunch of pop culture references - to Oprah, THE BIGGEST LOSER (see? I told you), Six Flags, etc - that ground them in a world like our own. Then I try to bring in science fiction elements (or even just unrealistic elements that tip the balance of the world).
3. JC: Is there a play that you've wanted to write but haven't yet? Are there any subjects you feel you can't write about?
EC: I'd love to write a play about my family that illustrates how wonderful I think they are, and ends happily. I don't know why my writing has gotten so dark - I guess that's just the way I think about the world right now. But I think it is truly the mark of a great playwright to be able to write a play that is subtle and raw and sad in all the ways that make plays great, but can end with a feeling that everything is going to be okay. Things tend to be pretty bleak at the end of my plays. It might be nice to try and write something where people can leave knowing that everything's going to be alright. I'd like to write a play that Jennifer Aniston might want to be in.
4. JC: You once told me it annoyed you when people make fun of Connecticut in their plays. How does your family/upbringing affect the tone or subject matter of your work? How much does ones background shape their work in general?
EC: I actually really love when people make fun of Connecticut in plays. I make fun of Connecticut too, because there are a lot of things to laugh about when you think about Connecticut. But "Connecticut" in the theater always means one thing -- it's men wearing pink pants with little embroidered whales on them and women with baby orange sweaters tied around their necks. There is a lot more to Connecticut than that, just as there is a lot more to every place. I just don't like it when I say "I'm from Connecticut" and people get this look in their eye that says, "Oh, you must be good at tennis." Because I'm not good at tennis. Suburban towns like the one I grew up in often show up in my plays. Although I write about New Jersey a lot -- maybe because it's like Connecticut, but I feel a little distance from it.
5. JC: Describe your best and worst moments in the theater.
EC: It's always really exciting to work on plays that scare you. At least for me. The process of discovering what is scary about the world of the play, and working with actors and a director to discover that is always the best part for me. But I have this problem where I think I'm writing comedies, and while there may be some laughs, there is also often a moment where people are disgusted or shocked and there have been times when I've been watching a line that I think is funny, but the audience is disturbed. Watching an audience watch your work is exhilarating and totally terrifying. I haven't had that many experiences with that yet, but I can tell that it will probably not get easier.

6. JC: If you could have dinner with any four people, living or dead, who would they be and why?
EC: Joni Mitchell, Philip K. Dick, Wendy Wasserstein, and Michael C. Hall (I'd really like him to switch between his Dexter character and his David Fisher character throughout the evening).

Now, Eliza interviews Joshua...

1. EC: If you had to have any profession outside of theater, what would it be?

JC: I actually have one. I market cable pornography. Seriously... I do.

2. EC: When do you write the best? Describe your writing habits (when do you write? Where do you write? What do you listen to when you write?)

JC: I write all my plays in my walk-in closet/office, which is very much like Harry Potter's cupboard beneath the stairs. It's a tight fit, quite dark, and there are clothes hanging on all sides of me. Obviously, I write under cover of darkness.

3. EC: What, if anything, do your plays have in common? Are there certain themes you are most interested in exploring? Are there certain things you don't want to talk about?
JC: I never think of writing about certain subjects specifically, and yet they always come up: poverty, gender roles, futility, cruelty, religion, mortality. That said, I hope they're funny. I like to think of my plays as comedies, but more often than not the lives of the characters sort of derail and everything ends horribly. For that reason, I try and write about the things I don't want to talk about the most. If the subject matter in my writing humiliates me, sickens me, depresses me... chances are I'm onto something. That said, just like you, I'd really like to write a play with a hopeful ending. Also, Jennifer Aniston is so under rated and I hate Angelina Jolie's puffy old face. Home wrecker!

4. EC: What is your favorite play of all time? And why? What is your favorite song and movie too, while we’re at it?

JC: I adore anything by Charles Ludlam of the Ridiculous Theater Company. I wish I was alive to see his work. He wrote all these crazy queer plays in the seventies performed by drunks and punks and miscreants. Talk about a business model! I also read THE BOYS IN THE BAND recently, which I flipped out over. It's so painful and funny and true, I honestly can't believe its so uncool amongst modern gays. Maybe it's just a product of knee-jerk liberalism? Anyway, I think it's a stunning play. My favorite song is "Ceremony" by New Order, which was the curtain call to my play, THE CHALK BOY. It's a really simple pop song, but it makes you feel sad and happy and alive all at once. My favorite movies are, in no particular order: HAROLD AND MAUDE, FEMALE TROUBLE, HAPPINESS, THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, THE RYOAL TENEMBAUMS.

5. EC: You also happen to be a great director. How does being a director aid in your writing and vice versa?

JC: Thank you very much! Before I got into Youngblood I always directed my own plays, in most cases because I had no other options. At this point they're two sides of the same coin. If you read one of my plays, it's pretty much directed in the script. So-and-so moves here. So-and-so does this. It's a habit I'm trying to break out of. On the reverse, my writing is always trying to achieve a very specific aesthetic. I'm obsessed with the way characters move through space, what they're wearing, and so on. My plays are a lot more aesthetic and a lot less literary than other writers'. Wait... can a play not be "literary"?

6. EC: You recently sent me a link to a very disturbing article about people who snatch babies from pregnant women’s wombs. I believe this new phenomenon will play a role in your May brunch piece. Your unbelievably fabulous play THE CHALK BOY is a hilariously dark comedy about high school girls living in a town where a boy has gone missing (and is presumed dead). I also happen to know that you are a horror film aficionado. Can you talk a little bit about the conversation that humor and horror/darkness have in your plays? What about this combination interests you?

JC: I've always loved horror films. The stakes are so high, they're rarely pretentious, and you get an adrenaline rush when they're good. When they're not good, they can often be unintentionally hilarious, which is just as entertaining really. I'm very interested in walking the line between so-called "high art" and that which many theater buffs would consider trash. I like writing about things that hurt me or frighten me as a human being, but I guess I just don't think it's very fun to see them played out onstage as they really exist. For me, it's more cathartic if we can laugh about them a little. It doesn't always work, I guess. It's funny you bring up THE CHALK BOY because in response to that play the LA Times wrote that I'm abusive to my characters for "abuse's sake" and The New York Times inferred that I must not have "warm feelings for small town America." I tried to write the most sincere characters I could and be as honest as possible about their lives while still writing a play that was funny. Ultimately though, it's a play that's about cruelty. Imagine what they would have said if I'd written a straight drama! It was a really good lesson though: I have to figure out how can I write about cruelty without being a total dick and alienating everybody.
7. EC: What is the most frustrating thing about theater, in your opinion?

JC: Without question, the most irritating thing about theater is how boring and elitist it is. As Americans, we like to pretend that we live in a meritocracy, where raw talent and hard work can get you anywhere. This is certainly not the case. The truth is that privilege begins in the cradle and crawls it's way into every aspect of our culture. The rich have everything and in the theater, you can multiply that by five. Only the richest people with MFAs from the top schools get produced and that's that. In turn you get many, many plays about rich white people being neurotic in their living rooms and an audience full of rich white people who go home after the play to be neurotic in their living rooms. The theater has ignored everybody but the rich, both as artists and audience members, for as long as I've been aware of it. It sucks and it's a bore.8. What makes you keep doing it? Beats me. I like to say that I keep knocking on the American theater's door and the American theater keeps saying "no thanks." Still, as self-denigrating and critical of myself as I can be, I really believe in my work. I'm willing to fight for it. Plus, I like making theater for my immediate community. Even if have to spend my whole life making plays for my friends and family for no money: I'll still do it.


Anonymous said...

Joshua, I agree with you, and I RUN a theatre!

joshcon80 said...

Thanks, Anonymous!

I keep hoping, for my own sake, that what I wrote isn't true and that there's room for all kinds in the theater.

Fingers crossed!