Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Interview by Followspot
**Photo credit: Sara Gray Photography**
from PCS to The Bullet Round
Followspot – How long ago and why did you get involved in Portland Center Stage?
Megan Kate Ward - I interned for PCS in-between my junior and senior years in college. I was at Goldsmith College, University of London, in London, England, and I had come home and was interning with them, helped out with JAW [PCS's annual playwright's festival] a little bit and then the following year, my senior year, I got an email from Rose [Riordan] saying, “Hey, are you coming back to Portland?” And I said, “Yeah, in fact I’ll be home in two weeks.” She’s like, “Great. Come in and interview for a position.” I just graduated from college with a degree in theatre and I’m coming home to interview for a position at a regional theater. How lucky is that? And she invited me in and I interviewed for the Company Manager position. Dawn Sorgnard got the job and I did not, but Rose was like, “You’re pretty cool. Why don’t you intern again this year with me and you can help with JAW and stuff.” I did that as well, and after JAW some grant money became available to hire me part-time as the Artistic and Literary Assistant to assist both Mead [Hunter] and Rose with casting and scripts, organizing both databases and positions, etcetera, etcetera. So that’s how I started and then right before my third season I was hired full-time for a couple months before I was let go. I just started as an intern and then kept interning, and finally got hired.
FS – When you got your degree in Theatre, what direction had you been hoping to go into?
MW – I always wanted to direct, but this position came along and it was appealing because I got to work with Rose. I loved interning with her and was excited about interning for her again. She’s a female director and she is an Associate Artistic Director of a major theatre and I wanted to learn more about what that entailed and how she got there. I enjoyed working on JAW and learning about the casting side because I always thought I might enjoy that as well; and having that opportunity with her really showed me that I did. I love working with actors.
And then, through staying there longer and also being Mead’s assistant, I fell in love with the literary side of things. He was a huge mentor in teaching me a lot about dramaturgy and scripts and what makes a good script; and it was just really lovely to work with him as well. I was very lucky in my position because I got both sides of the coin. I grew a deep respect for playwrights because playwriting is hard. You really can tell in the first 12 pages where [the playwright’s] going with the script and whether or not it’s something that is right for your theatre. And that was something I learned from Mead - I might like a script but you have to think about whether or not it’s correct for your theatre. You have to think about what your theatre’s mission is and how that script relates to it.
I learned a lot from both of them and I [feel] very fortunate for my time there and, as sad as I was to leave, I also believe that it happened for a reason. It was time for me to work on me. I met a lot of actors in town from being the casting assistant, I met a lot of playwrights through being Mead’s [assistant] and through working on JAW, and it was just time for me work on the directing thing that I really wanted to do. And so it was good timing because I don’t think I would have been able to balance doing JAW and producing Bullet Round and working part-time for something else.
FS – That segues into your current company, The David Mamet School for Boys. I found a blurb that says your mission is “To produce work that challenges conventional playwriting, take bold risks, and expose audience to new ideas.” Does that sound right for your mission?
MW – I find writing missions really hard to articulate. I am interested in the different ways the stories are told. Because I had to read a lot of scripts for JAW, I became very familiar with many playwright’s voices and, ultimately, at the end of the day, a playwright that really has command of their voice is more interesting to read, and I think that’s something that Paula Vogel [has] really taught her students [how to do]. I don’t know what she teaches or what her classes are like, I just know that the scripts I read mess a little bit with form, but they are still true to their voice. I just hear a very distinct voice in all the different playwrights that come out of that program.
FS – Can you give me some examples of playwrights you’re thinking of?
MW – Well, for example, Jordan Harrison and Dan LeFranc both came out of that program. Jordan Harrison did Act a Lady, which [PCS] did, and Dan LeFranc did Bruise Easy for JAW a couple years ago. Completely different styles of writing, very interesting playwrights, but unique to their voice.
FS – How do the two plays you produced recently with your company fit into this mold?
MW – Dutchman and The Bullet Round come from two different eras, and Dutchman is more poetic because [LeRoi Jones] came from a poetry background but [the play is] also very charged because it was something that he was wrestling with, whereas Steven [Drukman]’s also has a message and is very funny, but the form is referencing La Ronde. It’s an homage to that form. It’s a cyclical play and its aim is to always keep us guessing and questioning what we think we know.
FS –What excites you about that? I’m curious why this playing with form interests you versus maybe something older like Arthur Miller or Ibsen.
MW - It’s so interesting because before I started working at PCS I didn’t fully grasp what new playwriting meant, I was like, “Why? There are already all these great plays.” But [new playwriting] is important to support because there are a lot of talented playwrights that are talking about relevant things. I mean there are all those plays that withstand history and still are relevant but there are also plays now that speak more to us and this era. Miller and Ibsen were new playwrights of their day doing completely different styles of playwriting.
FS – How does something like Bullet Round speak to us today?
MW – Well, Bullet Round for example deals a lot with karma and violence and gun violence and whether or not we are part of that or we create it. Whether we’re passive or whether we’re active participants in this violent world. But yet the play is funny and approachable. It has a message but it’s a good story. It’s interesting to watch and you’re vested in these characters and what they have to stay and the world they’re living in.
FS – I also noticed for your first two plays with your theatre company you happened to choose plays dealt with the idea of racial identity. Is that a coincidence or is that something you’re interested in?
MW – Yeah, it might just be a coincidence. I’m interested in it but I can’t say that all of David Mamet’s are going to be focused around the issue. Somebody else brought that up too and I see the connection but I don’t know that I made a conscious decision.
FS – Why was it important to bring those two plays to Portland audiences?
MW – I think they elevate consciousness on two levels. With Bullet Round, there is obviously the violence issue, also our assumptions – a lot of people were shocked at the graveyard scene when he was not his gay lover.
FS – I totally thought that.
MW – Everyone did. And that’s clever. Steven’s a bright playwright because he totally leads you there. And, also, with LeRoi Jones, I wanted to bring [The Dutchman] to life again now because, even though it’s a jewel of that era and we have all studied it within context, it also, still, sadly, has relevance, and [we produced it] before Obama got elected and it brings to light how far we’ve come since the 60’s …. And it’s now 2009.
FS – What’s with the name of your theatre company?
MW – Everybody asks. Well, what do you think? What comes to mind when you think of David Mamet?
FS – Actually, my knowledge of David Mamet is pretty weak, so I tend to think of his style of short, choppy sentences, a lot of swearing, very aggressive and with sharp edges. As you can tell my conception is rather nebulous. So what do you think it means?
MW – I actually think of ideas very similar to what you think. How the name came about is I was talking with my boyfriend [Kristan Seemel] about the plays that I like, and he goes, “That sounds like The David Mamet School for Boys.” And also because I am interested in swearing and getting in your face. I was like, “That is brilliant.” Because you automatically make the draw between a playwright who is known for his dialogue - he tends to focus on how people actually speak - and also, the [artistry] of their speech, like the swearing and all that stuff too. And then if you’re not a theatre person, there’s an in with him with his screenwriting and the movies. Most people think of State and Main and, possibly, Glengarry Glen Ross. I just thought, “What a person to have as an immediate association.” This is the theatre that’s going to do this type of work. Some of the people that asked about it have said, “You should make your website www.fuckyou.com.” [Note: This domain is already taken.] And then I have a sailor’s mouth.
FS – What interpretations have you gotten from your name?
MW – I did have somebody call in and say, “Is this the David ‘Mam-ay’ theatre company?” And I said, “This is The David Mamet School for Boys.” And then the follow up question was, “Well, who comes see these shows because I had a hard time finding information about it.” And was I like, “Well, the general public.” She said, “Is it just the parents of the boys in the school.” And some people have asked, “Who’s David Mamet?” Immediately, they google him.
FS – So it’s kind of like an indirect educational tool. Have these people come after you’ve explained what your company is?
MW – I don’t know. They’re on the list but I don’t know if they came to the show. It’s very interesting. I realized that [the name] was a little misleading. But they’ll catch on. I’m not worried about it.
FS – Will you ever do a play by David Mamet?
MW – For now, no.
FS – What is your next project?
MW – That’s my next question to myself. I’m working on Fool for Love [CoHo Productions] and then the focus is back to David Mamet School for Boys, and you know, creating a website, maybe doing a fundraiser. I’d really like to bring out or workshop a play or do another show. I missed the grant deadline for RACC [Regional Arts and Culture Council] so I guess I’ll have to figure out another way. I could go several other ways but I have a lot of ideas for The David Mamet School for Boys. And sometimes I get ahead of myself so I’m trying to scale it back and ask myself, “But what’s next?”
FS – What will The David Mamet School for Boys bring to Portland that’s currently missing?
MW – I would like to bring back new work. I think there are a lot of really good playwrights in this town. There’s a lot of good support for readings, and I think Fertile Ground [Portland's 10-day new play festival] is doing a great job of continuing that and JAW does a great job, but I think there also needs to be someone that takes up [full productions] again. I don’t think it necessarily needs to be world premieres; I think that sometimes gets tricky. I mean it’s perfectly acceptable to do second runs and sometimes plays are dead in the water after they have their world premiere somewhere at a regional and then nobody wants to pick it up. Not always, but often people think, “Well, we didn’t get the world premiere credit,” so they lose interest. Technically, The Bullet Round was a world premiere but you better believe if a regional picks it up and wants to call it a world premiere, they’re going to get that privilege. And that’s fine with me, I understand. I’m just pleased we were able to bring Steven out and he was happy with the production. I want to focus more on playwrights.
FS – Do you have a dream project you’d like to do for David Mamet?
MW – Yes, but I’m going to tell you because I don’t anyone to take it. I’ve given away too many scripts and…. No.
FS – Is there a way people can keep abreast of what’s going on?
MW – Usually my blog, megankateward.blogspot.com.
Next up: Megan talks Fool for Love, Regional Theatre, and the Female Director
FS – For your next show, Fool for Love by Sam Shepard, how did you get involved in that?
MW – Val Landrum and Chris Harder [see Oregonian article] approached me about putting my name as director when they submitted the proposal and they were very excited about working with me. I wasn’t very familiar with the script but as soon as I read it I was like, “This is fantastic” and they’ve cast themselves really well. We actually start rehearsals September 8th and I’m heading to a design meeting right after this - with Tim Stapleton, who’s lovely. He’s also playing the old man. I’m ready to kick his butt and he’s given me permission. My one direction to him now is, “Tim, can you be more invisible?” It’s a fun group. We’ve added Spencer Conway. And I’m just so excited to be in the room with them. They’re awesome people to collaborate with.
FS - What about the play interests you?
MW – The richness of the characters. The story – we’ve all been in that place where you’re in this heartbreakingly twisted love myth. It’s a very human experience and that was very attracting.
FS – What do you think the play’s about?
MW – It’s about abandonment, loneliness, and this trapped and cyclical behavior, insane passion, family. Lots of good things there, things that people are interested in.
FS – Is there a definite spin you’re going to put on it?
MW – I am taking the old man off the porch and putting him in the space.
FS – Is he usually, literally, on a porch?
MW – Yeah, literally outside the room. Outside the hotel room. I am also removing the walls. Sam Shepard writes in the stage directions very specifically about them banging into walls, slamming doors, and the sound that comes with that. And I’ve taken away all the walls and doors because I wanted to feel like there’s this little snow globe in this desert and they’re in this little box that’s totally exposed, and trapped. There’s a science experiment about the fleas. You put these fleas in a jar and they jump and they hit the top and they learn after awhile that’s as high as they can go, and you take off the jar and they don’t go any higher. There are no walls, [the characters] could leave the situation, they could remedy this, but they don’t. They create their own mess and walls. So we’re playing with different variations on that theme.
FS – What’s with the old man being brought into the room?
MW – I wanted him to be more connected to the characters. He is a part of it so I wanted to make sure he was a part of it and not that narrator on the side.
FS – That sounds beautiful the idea of removing those walls. It sounds even scarier.
MW – I have this picture in my mind and I think Tim has it too and I just know that whatever he does is going to be beautiful. And we have Don [Crossley] on lights so its going to be lovely. Annalise Albright is doing the sound and she did the sound for Mimesophobia [Sand and Glass Productions, 2008]. She will be making up the walls with sound. She’s got quite the task. “We took away the doors and the walls, and that’s now you.”
FS – What interests you as a director and what makes a good director?
MW – I find people fascinating and enjoy working with them. And the way that you can tell stories in the genre of theatre, as opposed to TV or movies, the fact that the audience is there as a community, our experience is together, live. And then you have to be willing to listen and be a good collaborator to be a good director. I don’t pretend to know all the answers but I have a good starting off point and then we can go from there.
I bring to the table my vision and then I like to do a lot of table work, too, so we talk that all through so everyone’s on the same page about the timeline and the way the script works and the way a character works within it, kind of taking a dramaturgical background first. Everyone has a voice at the table and I’m really like the eyes and ears from an audience standpoint, but I also need to know from an actor, “Does that work for you? Or does that not work for you?” Because to me it looks great, but if that’s not coming from a genuine place from within you, then we have a problem. It’s this collaboration; it’s everybody works together. It’s not like I’m the big boss and I can say yes or no, whatever. I can, but it’s more interesting to have many voices as opposed to one. Somehow that creates a more unified story when everyone’s working communally on the way they come at it. Somehow, it doesn’t look collage-ish or mishmashy; it all comes together because we’re all on the same page but bringing our own expertise to it.
FS – Why do you do this?
MW – Why I do theatre? ‘Cause I’m crazy. I don’t know why I do theatre. I’ve just never not done theatre. And I can’t stop.
FS – Do you as an artist have something to offer that maybe no one else does?
MW – I’m still figuring that out. And I’d like to figure that out here [in Portland].
FS – Are you interested in doing non script-based theatre?
MW – Yes. I shied away from it in college in England, devised – we call it devised. There were two classes of devised in my year and one of staging dramatic text, and I took the staging dramatic text. I think [devised’s] really hard and so I shied away from it. You as an audience member can tell when they’re bullshitting earlier. It’s difficult, but I would totally love to work on a project like that, I’m just not sure what yet.
FS - Why would you want to do it?
MW – To challenge myself because I think that’s another important way of telling a story. And I see good and bad parts of that but I don’t know how to solve it, you know, it’d be interesting to try it as well for myself.
FS – Would you want to work for a company like Portland Center Stage again?
MW – Meaning a regional theatre?
FS – Yeah.
MW – I don’t know how I feel about the regional theatre at the moment. I don’t know that it’s necessarily serving a specific community anymore. And I’m not talking specifically about PCS. [Regionals] often do the New York hits or the latest Pulitzer Prize winner and I’m not sure that the subscribers are that interested. Or maybe they are. But I think ultimately the buffet style of theatre can present a muddled mission. I think you can do a play that is interesting to the community, like Storm Large for example. [Crazy Enough was] interesting to the community, sold out like crazy. I’m just not sure about the regional theatre model. I feel it might change a bit. I also wonder about a subscriber model too and the benefits and non-benefits of having subscribers. You can’t please everyone and I’m not sure you should try. So maybe you should just say, “Hey I’m doing this type of theatre and if you are interested join us.” Which I guess would make it more like a membership based theatre like Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which may or may not give you more freedom in deciding your season.
Right now in David Mamet’s history I’m trying to figure out whether to go 501(c)(3) or LLC. LLC is a for-profit and you don’t have to have a board, but you’re also ineligible for a lot of grants. It’s interesting to me because I never thought of an LLC but somebody suggested [I] should check that out as well. I don’t know. I think that regional theatres need to explore their city and do stuff that’s important to [their city]. And maybe leave the touring companies to bring in the Broadway hit.
FS – To make it more personal.
MW – Make it an event for the audience. And whether or not it is the latest Pulitzer Prize winner or the newest play by a local writer, [the plays] should have similar weight. I just think the [play] that’s going to matter more to the community is going to be the playwright that they know or the issue that interests them.
FS – Do you think regional theatre’s in danger of estranging its audiences because of its trend right now of grabbing the latest Broadway hit?
MW – I don’t know about actual numbers but I feel that regional theatres that have a strong mission statement tend to do better than ones that have a hodge-podge season. I’m more interested in Steppenwolf or Woolly Mammoth. Ones that have a specific focus on ensemble or new work. They tend to bring something unique as opposed to the collective smorgasbord that’s meant to go out to the masses - I’m not sure who that’s serving, because it’s not specific enough. It has a place but when push comes to shove are you going to be more interested in the buffet or the specific place in a restaurant? I look across the board and more and more theatres are doing the same work. It was published in American Theatre Magazine that the year Doubt came out, Doubt and A Christmas Carol were the most produced play amongst the regional theatres. I wonder what else could have happened. Not that Doubt isn’t a good play. It is. But what else could we have produced? Or did the stars align and everyone had to do this play? I personally think it would have had more of an impact if it had been produced during the height of the Iraqi conflict, because that’s what John Patrick Shanley was writing about.
FS – From what you’re saying, we should give our audiences more credit, that within the masses there actually is some intelligence and … more interest in theatre, and it also sounds like you think that theatre does serve a purpose.
MW – Absolutely. There are those people who’re like, “Theatre’s dead!” I’m just like, “Excuse you.” This is the art form of storytelling that’s been around a lot longer than most performance based art forms. Yeah, there is a way to tell specific stories through movies or T.V. but I think that theatre has the biggest impact on a smaller scale. I mean, it’s not going to ever reach as many people but there’s something about bringing a bunch of people in and you’re all sitting in the same theatre together and having this common experience, which is different than all coming into a movie theater and watching it. It’s more disconnected that way, whereas in theatre you’re all laughing together.
FS – You’re interacting with the energy on the stage.
MW – You can feel it. You can watch the actors be affected by that.
FS – To get specific to Portland, who excites you and what theatre company excites you?
MW – I just think that the volume of work that Portland puts out for the size is exciting. There’s a lot of good work and I don’t want to leave anyone out.
FS – Is there a possibility of too much theatre? Because there’s always the question of but what about the quality of all that theatre?
MW – I think that works itself out. As much as we hold New York up on a pedestal that doesn’t necessarily mean that the work is much better there, it just means that there’s more of it, and we have a lot of work here but, per capita, is our percentage higher than New York? Probably. I don’t know.
FS – Should New York be held on that pedestal?
MW – It’s hard because New York is a cool city and it does offer a lot more funding than Portland. A lot of companies, a lot of people will donate and go to the theatre. I remember reading somewhere in a waiting room – Vanity Fair or something – and they were criticizing the Prince’s new girlfriend – Prince William - (I had a lot of time) - and one of the critiques they had was about how ill-suited she is for the Prince because she doesn’t attend the theatre and therefore lacked culture. Here’s the city of London that thinks you are not classy if you don’t go to the theatre. So New York may have some of that as well. And I love that idea - I want that to be universal – that you’re not classy, you’re not cool if you don’t attend the theatre.
Portland is great because a lot of people value [theatre], however, there’s not a lot of corporations in Portland, let alone ones that give to the arts. So it’s difficult to find support in the same way that New York does. Oftentimes the playwrights move there because there’s more work for them, but if we could get all the playwrights in the world to move to Portland, we would be as cool as New York. There’s a lot more support for it over there. That’s why there is so much more.
I understand why a lot of actors, etcetera, move out of Portland but, at the same time, if we could support them and pay Equity wages then we would keep them, because of course they all want to live here. I mean, it’s plain awesome. Heelloooo. Even though they go to the big cities Chicago, New York they all want to come back to Portland, but we’re not making it financially viable for them.
FS – Is there anything you’d like more of, something we could improve?
MW – I’d really like to work on making everything more collaborative. We have the luxury of being such a tight-knit theatre community. I feel like a lot of people know each other, work together, and go see all the same shows. I never feel alone when I go to the theatre because I undoubtedly run into somebody I know and that’s lovely being part of that community, but if we could somehow work together more on space and props and costumes and actors. There are all these writer groups and I’ve often thought there should be an actor group. That’s the other thing about our actors. We have some really good actors in this town but we work differently than a lot of cities [because] we don’t audition our actors as much. They often get cast because I know your work because I’ve seen you in three shows. And if that actor were to move to L.A. or New York for awhile they’d become a better auditioner because they have to do it so many more times a day, weeks, months, whatever. If there’s a way to give more support to the actors in auditioning workshops…or you wanna work on the scene, sort of in that way playwrights groups are founded, where I have a scene that I need to read, will you help me read it? Open source in a way, continuing education, exchanging ideas.
Auditioning is hard. It’s scary. You may be the most prepared person in the world and you get into the room and phht!, all gone. So I like, in my auditions, to make them more lax, more like we’re playing. Often, in the PATA [Portland Area Theatre Alliance] auditions or at PCS auditions where there’s a time limit, you have three minutes, four minutes, and that’s really nerve wracking. I know there are pluses and minuses in the audition process. I think being more familiar with the auditioning process will give them more confidence when they go into the room and will be able to handle the three minutes better. And if they audition regionally, it will help.
FS – Would you like that on a director level?
MW – It’s harder on the director level. I don’t know. People’s processes are different and it’s hard to as a director sit there and say “That’s wrong, because I do it this way.” You do what works for you. Sometimes I do talk to different directors if I’m having a problem. It might work. It might be good.
FS – Who are your influences? We talked about Mead, we talked about Rose.
MW – When I was [in London], Katie Mitchell was the new crazy-cool director to watch, although I don’t think my style is anything like hers, I think she is important to focus on, and she’s actually written a book, and I went out and bought it because I really like the work that she does. Also Nancy Keystone. Again, her work is probably nothing like my work but she has such an artistic eye in all things, and it’s really wonderful how that encompasses everything she works on.
FS – Do you feel very conscious of yourself as a female director? I hate that qualifiier because you are both female and a director.
MW - I’m a woman and I’m a director and I don’t know how to be anything else. But I also realize the complications of being a woman and a director. But I’ve never felt like I’ve not been taken seriously because I am a woman. If anything, I’ve put added pressure on myself to achieve my goals sooner so that I can also have a family. I realize the biology of a woman sometimes alters one’s career goals, both positively and negatively, but I just want to make sure I’ve achieved my personal career goals before having children. Because not having children is not an option for me. I’ve always seen myself as both a career woman and a mother. I’m very stubborn about that. I want to have my cake and eat it too, now I just have to figure out how.
FS – What else would you like to share with the world about your world, about your art, about your dog Joey?
MW – Joey is the best dog in the world. He’s adorable. Just that.
FS – Closing random question: Do you prefer crunchy or smooth peanut butter?
MW – Both.
FS – Ooohh. No definite answer to that one.
MW – I do like them both. I buy smooth organic PB for Joey – he gets his own peanut butter.
Keep track of Megan Kate Ward at megankateward.blogspot.com
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Interview by Followspot
from the Oregon Book Award to Riding a Motorcycle on Wet Pavement
Followspot – The Oregon Book Award. You’ve been nominated a few times and now you’ve won for Lost Wavelengths. What does this mean in the larger picture for you and the play itself? How does it feel to win one, personally and professionally?
Steve Patterson – This is the third time I’ve been a finalist, so it was literally three time’s a charm. And I know everybody says “I didn’t expect it” but I didn’t expect it. And, in fact, when Keith Scales came out with a guitar, I thought it was Francesca Sanders for I Become a Guitar, and then he started doing my lines and I went, “Uh-oh.” You know, it’s funny about the Oregon Book Award. The first one I was nominated for was my second play, which was Bombardment.
FS – And how long ago was that?
SP – 1991, and all of us who were nominated were all from Stark Raving Theatre so it kinda put Stark Raving Theatre on the map. And it gave me an indication, “Oh, this is the way I should go,” as far as writing plays. It was my second shot out the gate and, up to then, I’d been writing fiction and journalism. So this feels like a nice completion of some kind of a journey. The second time I was nominated was for Altered States of America, which was a good production and a great cast and got good reviews, and died because it was Christmas time. And it was very painful, the whole experience itself. Being nominated for that was a good vindication. So this, like I said, [the award has] got kind of its curve, you know.
As far as what [the award] means for the play, I’m hoping that it gives it a little extra pedigree, and that people start to notice it more. I do have it out to a couple places. I don’t want to say where I’ve got it because it’s kinda karma. But I think it opens it up to other theatres, and I’d like to start to take it, since it is a JAW [Just Add Water/West] production, to the regional theatre level; that would be ideal. We’ll see. You gotta be kind of canny about where you go with the premiere.
FS – You only get one world premiere.
SP – Right. I wouldn’t withhold it from somebody who was awesome for that but you kind of want to judge that a little bit. If somebody wanted to premiere it in Portland, though, I’d think about it because it’s a homegrown thing.
FS – Have you had any feelers from anybody in Portland yet?
SP – I’m talking to one theatre.
FS – I desperately want to ask but I will hold back. Have you made revisions since the JAW premiere?
SP – I did a fairly extensive rewrite quickly because I wanted to get it in shape for Humana. And I got it sent it off to Humana and it was graciously declined; but at least I got the rewrite in. I’m sure it would change in rehearsal, because it’s never been through a full rehearsal process, but it feels like a complete play – the story’s complete, the characters are complete, that kind of thing.
FS – And the rewrites just came out of everything you heard during JAW and the workshop process?
SP – You find out where people aren’t understanding things or you find places it feels like it’s spinning its wheels a little bit, where it’s not quite getting traction. It was actually very funny – the first day of JAW, [the cast] reads their plays… and mine had eleven songs in it so my cast was just reciting the songs and it was just like deadness would fill the room and I left going “Oh my play sucks so bad” ‘cause there were these other gloriously constructed plays. We did clean it up during the week but by the time we got the music it was a much different experience.
FS – Did you write the music yourself?
SP – I wrote the lyrics and Hal Logan wrote the songs. He wrote eleven songs in a week. He’s done a lot of sound design for various theatres. He’s got his own studio. In fact, when we did the show, rather than record the guitar parts and have the actor mime the guitar playing, we put a music stand in front of the actor and then we ran an amp up behind him so when we actually did the show, Hal sat off to the side and played live. And when you were watching it, Casey McFeron, when he was playing it, you couldn’t tell he wasn’t actually playing it; it was a beautiful effect.
FS – So sum up Lost Wavelengths.
SP – Lost Wavelengths is essentially about a guy named Murray who works for a public radio station and has an oddball program where he plays outsider musicians. And there are a number of these outsider musicians around the country, and some of them have got to be well known. There actually was a guy, Irwin Chusid at WFMU in New York, and he had a show called the "Incorrect Listening Hour" where he would play outsider musicians. And he was one of the first guys to break some of these folks.
But the idea was that I took it a step further where Murray is kind of an Alan Lomax - travelling around the country doing field recordings of these people – oddballs – and he’s really on the trail of this one guy who calls himself Enola Guy who doesn’t grant interviews, always uses a pseudonym, and doesn’t play live. Turns out he’s kind of a faceless nobody, but he’s written all this music and won’t own up to it. So the play is about Murray trying to find Tom and Tom trying to connect with Murray but it’s kind of like they’re ships that pass in the night; they don’t quite make it. And they’re also drawn by the complications of the two women in their lives. Claudia is a reporter, a radio reporter who’s tagging along with Murray and….gets involved with him. And Julie is kind of a relative of Tom’s, the actual Enola Guy, and she kind of brings him out of his shell but that doesn’t turn out either. It’s a play about people trying to connect but never quite make it.
FS – You love dark subjects. I was thinking that Lost Wavelengths for you is almost a comedy because, two extreme examples I have [of your previous plays are]: A wife sets up a dinner for her bound and gagged husband and then you have another summary that [reads] “a spiderlike manipulator plays on the insecurities and paranoia of others.”
SP – That was factual. Sorry, it’s the Dick Cheney life story.
Yeah, I am pulled towards the dark, I make no bones about it. But I’ve got two strains. One of them is that I’ve written a number of these very realistic plays about war and, particularly, reporters at war, Waiting on Sean Flynn and Liberation, which was published earlier this year. It was published by Original Works Publishing. It’s an online publisher and they do acting editions. A play which hasn’t been produced yet, in fact it hasn’t even been read - I’m stilling working on it - called Depth of Field [is] about a photographer. Then I have the other side, what I call my dream plays, which are more fantastic or surreal. And they’re really dark too. But I like to work humor into it. I mean, it’ll kill you if you don’t have some humor in it. Liberation is a tough, tough play and awful things happen in it and awful things get talked about but there’s gallows humor that runs through it too.
FS – Tell me briefly what Liberation’s about.
SP – Liberation’s about a newspaper office in Sarajevo. It’s trying to stay going during the siege. And they bring in this Serb deserter who’s going to testify at all these eyewitness atrocities and the Serb army surrounds the building ; they have 24-hours to give him up or they get stormed. It’s a happy go lucky little piece. … Should’ve been a musical really.
FS – Any reason your plays are so dark? You have a few that say you attempted to make it funny or a comedy but it just didn’t work out.
SP – I know when I’m going to write a drama. I have the feeling when I go into a drama what it’s going to be. The things that have been comedies … I just have a weird imagination I guess so I’m drawn to that black kind of humor, surreal gallows humor. Delusion of Darkness - we called it an ultra-violet comedy.
FS – That’s a really good title.
SP – Actually, that’s funny because it was called Illusion of Darkness and Myra Donnelly read it and handed it back to me and said, “You should call it Delusion of Darkness,” which was kind of an homage to William Burroughs. It was very twisted. We had great fun with that. We did that as a late night at the Back Door [Theatre] and we sold out our entire run and everybody loved it, except Steffen Silvis. So that’s batting four hundred.
That play actually went on to Jobsite Theatre in Tampa. They did great with it even though they had to close for a night for a hurricane. And then a little theatre in Christchurch, New Zealand did it at the University of Canterbury and it ended up walking away with a bunch of awards. How strange is that? But it’s kind of fun right now - there’s a theatre in Lawrence, Kansas which is looking at the play, and Lawrence, Kansas is where William Burroughs lived for the last ten years of his life. So I’d have to go to Lawrence.
FS – Did you set out to write an entire cycle of war plays?
SP – Originally I was thinking it was gonna be a trilogy of war plays about reporters at war and then I wrote Next of Kin, kind of not about reporters and out of the sequence. I really feel that with Next of Kin and when I finally finish Depth of Field, which is the photographer play, to my satisfaction, that I’m done with the them, because I know a little too much about war than is maybe healthy. (Laughs) I was corresponding with Carolyn Steinbeck, who was married to John Steinbeck, Jr., John Steinbeck's son. And John Steinbeck, Jr., was a reporter in Vietnam and he died a couple years ago and we were talking about Vietnam and I said, “So do you flinch when a helicopter goes over?” and she goes, “Yeah, post traumatic stress disorder is catching.” And it kinda does come with the territory. You become so filled with the stuff that you read.
FS – Is [reading] where you’re getting most of your background?
SP – I was a journalist for awhile. So what really brought me to it was that point of view of being a journalist, and war is about the most extreme activity you can imagine and, so not to mine it for dramatic potential, but damn it’s human life and everything is important. But to answer your question, I read a lot of books and then I read a stack of Vietnam books two and a half feet tall. I also have talked to a lot of vets and talked to reporters who covered Vietnam, made friends with a couple of them as well. In fact, one of them was Tim Page, Sean Flynn’s best friend during the war. And when we premiered Waiting on Sean Flynn in Chicago, he sent us photographs of Sean Flynn that had never been published and we got to hang those in the lobby. It was great. Tim Page was the inspiration for the Dennis Hopper character in Apocalypse Now. Stoned hippie dude taking pictures of Vietnam.
The single most moving experience I’ve had as a playwright was one night after – Stark Raving Theatre premiered Liberation – and I went down to the show in the middle of the run to see how it was going, that kind of thing, and somebody afterwards said, “I want to introduce you to somebody,” and introduced me to this little tiny blond woman who said she walked out of Srebrenica to Sarajevo. Srebrenica was taken over by the Serbs and the men were massacred. And she walked out with nothing in her possessions except her feet and she thanked me for writing the play. Those are the kind of moments that make all of the hassle and BS of theatre worthwhile. It’s those kind of like gem-like moments.
FS – Tell me what’s the hassle and BS of theatre?
SP – When you are a producer you are everybody’s problem solver. So you know there’s that aspect of you’re about to go on and somebody can’t find a piece of their costume and is flying into panic and everything else stops. You know, just that kind of thing. On the other hand, actors and theatre people are some of the most generous people I’ve ever met. I like ‘em.
FS – That reaction you evoked from that woman is that one thing you aim for, to evoke a really strong response, or do you aim for your work to be political, to send across a message?
SP – Actually, if I had a goal in my writing, and this would be whether I was writing something fantastic or surreal or whether I was writing something hard and gritty, is I want it to feel true. Finding the truth in things is to me what’s important and you know the audience is going to take away from it whatever they’re going to take away from it. I certainly, tend to underwrite. I don’t want to force them into a position of thinking one thing or another. I want to let them figure it out for themselves. Hemingway said good writing was like an iceberg, seventy-five percent of it’s under the surface. Sometimes it makes it tricky because you don’t know whether you’re not giving them enough. So it gets a little dicey and that’s where you work things out in workshops, and readings, and stuff like that. Either that or you figure out what you’re trying to say. (Laughs)
FS – Do you have a muse? And tell me, what the hell is a muse?
SP – It’s a subscription service out of Iowa. I don’t really want to give the address out. Do I have a muse? I don’t know where ideas come from, I’ll put it that way. I do know that music leads me into things. I’ll listen to an album over and over again because it starts putting images in my head. Sometimes it comes to fruition and sometimes it doesn’t. I just stay open to things, find stuff in the newspaper and I clip ideas. [With Next of Kin] I ran across about the same time a story about a guy who was a casualty assistance officer and a then about a guy who was a Marine recruiter, and they weren’t connected at all but I was just going like, “God, that’s so stressful what they do” and it’s important too – I have great admiration for those folks. And then I thought what if they were in the same family? And then it was like BING! So that’s where that comes from. I read omnivorously.
FS – Any particular music that’s inspired you?
SP – One of these days I‘m gonna write that play from Leonard Cohen’s first album but it hasn’t happened yet. I’m blanking on it. I might come back to it, if I can think of something specific. But I do know that certain pieces of music that we’ve used in plays have become so emblematic that I can’t listen to the music without thinking of the play. We did a play of mine called Malaria, Lorraine Bahr directed it, and she chose Sarah McLachlan’s "Possession" as the pre-show music so that song was the last song playing as the lights went down, and I hear that song in a café and suddenly I’m back in the theatre and the lights are going down. And the same thing with Jimi Hendrix’s "Hey Joe" for Sean Flynn and it’s like I hear the song – it has a whole different meaning.
I was just thinking about Marc Acito [who] just had his play [Holidazed] open, and I was thinking about the experience of when you have a play really open and there’s that moment when everybody’s in there and you know the stage manager’s closed the house, the lights start to go down, and there’s like this panic moment going “There’s no way out now.” And it’s so fun but it’s so hair-raising at the same time. It’s like riding a motorcycle on wet pavement. It’s a kick.
[Later via email Steve wrote: At one point, you asked about music as an inspiration, and I kind of drew a blank. I later remembered that there's one kind of hair-raising scene in Waiting on Sean Flynn (it ends up with one character getting a gun barrel shoved in their mouth, though nobody gets killed) that I wrote while listening to the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" over and over again. I was so shaken when I finished it--having essentially lived through it with my characters--that I had to go for a long walk to calm myself down.]
FS – You have a favorite play?
SP – Probably Waiting on Sean Flynn.
FS – Any reason it’s your favorite?
SP – I just loved being in that play. I loved writing it. And [in] all the productions of it, I loved bonding. It’s like the characters in it bonded as if they were soldiers. You know, there are a bunch of reporters who were following the fall of Saigon and trying to decide whether to stay or leave, and when we did it here in Portland we’d go close the bar down every night. And everybody was swearing like sailors. It was just great. There’s just something about that play that I like I lot. I’m very fond of Lost Wavelengths though. I’m really looking forward to seeing a production of it with all the pieces together. I think it’s got a nice bittersweet quality to it.
FS – What are you really proud of as a playwright? What do you feel your strengths are? What do you have to bring to the stage that is yours, that you feel maybe no one else brings to the stage? In short, why do you write?
SP – I write because I can’t not write. That’s the real honest answer. There’s moments that happen in theatre where … all the pieces are coming together and the audience is with you, and the actors are cooking, everything comes together [and] there are these moments of supernatural lucidity that are so rewarding, and you really can’t plan for them. But when they hit, you feel like you’ve really accomplished something. And you can - after awhile of working - you can feel it when the audience is with you - it sounds like the air gets sucked out of the room, and I remember somebody once said it felt like it happened in his living room. To me, in a way, that’s the goal. I mean I love to tell a good story. Comedy is hard, you know, because…it’s very rewarding to hear people laugh, because when they don’t laugh it sucks. And also when you write something that you feel like is giving somebody a powerful experience, you can tell when the lights come up, you can see it on their faces if they’ve been on a ride with you. I think that’s about the most you can hope for, is that your audience goes on a ride you’ve made for them. I don’t know what I bring to it particularly. I think I got a decent ear for speech and I have fun making pictures on the stage, but past that….?
FS – Anything you feel you would like to accomplish as a playwright? Ideas? Technique? Have you written your great play?
SP – I don’t know. I’ve written a couple of good plays. And the old cliché is you’re only as good as your next album, you’re only as good as your next play…. I think my goals have always been try and find something new and not repeat myself too much. One of the reasons I want to get done with war is because I don’t want to be the “war guy.” I always loved how Picasso would do all these different forms. He would paint and then he’d decide, Oh, I’m gonna sculpt, and then he’d go I’m gonna move to the South of France and make pottery. And it was all great and it was all Picasso - you’d look at it and go “That’s Picasso.’ That continually experimenting and trying new stuff, I think that’s a great model to look for. Not on…personal relationships, you know.
FS – And basic question: Do you have some favorite playwrights?
SP - Shepard; big influence on me. I think I got over Shepard by about my third play. Actually, I wrote this one play that was read once and it was huge and too long and I think it was just me taking all my Shepard and blaug [barfing sound], and then I was done with it. I love Beckett. Ionesco. Stanislaw Witkiewicz. I love Albee. I’ll be honest. A lot of the kind of kitchen sink [plays] don’t do a lot for me, though Death of a Salesman’s like the best frikkin’ play ever, man. So it just depends on the play. I love, without reservation, [Waiting for] Godot.
FS – Are you presenting something for Fertile Ground?
SP – I have a piece in PlayGroup. PlayGroup’s doing something. It’s a pretty fun project. We got at random a place in Portland and wrote about it. So everything is like set in Portland. I don’t want to say much more about it. We just read all the plays the other night and they were really cool.
FS – You want to divulge your place?
SP – (Coy) No.
[Later via email:
FS – Do you handwrite or use a typewriter or computer? All three?
SP - I write first drafts in longhand, then revise them as I type them up on a computer, then make successive revisions in handwriting on printed copies. The only problem with such a system is, if you hit a hot streak, sometimes you end up with plays waiting to be typed up. I currently have a couple one-acts languishing in notebooks.]
Next up! Steve talks Dramatists Guild, Obama, and new work new work new work
Interview by Followspot (cont'd)
(**Photo credit: Steve Patterson, Angels and Demons)
from Pavement Productions to Dramatists Guild to Barack Obama
FS – Pavement [Productions] lasted 18 years? You produced new work, and then you also did staged readings of new work, and then you worked a lot with Stark Raving Theatre. Do you have plans for any type of production company after that?
SP – Not at the moment. I said I retired and I don’t know… I retired Pavement. It’s kind of a never-say-never kind of thing . I might change my mind. But if I do do something, I see it more as doing staged readings or concert readings. I really don’t want to be a full-fledged producer again. The last play I produced fully was Dead of Winter earlier this year. Those were the ghost plays I wrote and I did that with the Bluestockings. It was a blast. But, you know, there was somewhere in there when I was setting up the box office and I went, “I’m just not having as much fun as I used to.” But I’m very proud of that part of Pavement’s whole thing was to do new plays and we never did, in 18 years, a play that was established.
FS – How many plays do you think you brought to the stage?
SP – Maybe 30, something like that. We used to do anthology shows, 5 shorts plays built around a theme. The best anthology show we ever did was Life and Death on the American Road. It’s all about road trips, and we actually turned that into a full production. We had a play by Lorraine Bahr, Scott Coopwood was in the cast . It was a kick.
FS – Did you just feel [Pavement Productions] had gone its way?
SP – Lisa Abbott, who was the director I worked with for like 10 years, since ’95, she got a tenured teaching position in Savannah and moved down there and I just didn’t want to carry it on by myself. We were co-artistic directors and she was our resident director and I had built up a rapport and the way it kind of turned into would be like we’d take six-months off and somebody’d get an itch and go, “Hey look at this. Wanna do this?” and then we’d do something. We were a gypsy company. At that point [I didn’t] want to break in a bunch of new people and set up a new crew, and her husband was my technical director as well. I just felt it was time to move on and to focus more on writing, so I can achieve world domination. If you wanna achieve world domination, what the hell would you do with it? It’s all kind of downhill from there.
FS – What is the Dramatists Guild and why should I join it as a playwright?
SP – It looks really cool on your resume. I’m co-rep for Portland. Andrea Stolowitz is the other co-rep. I became a member of the Dramatists Guild in 1993. I had a play done in Los Angeles and, at that time, there were entry requirements [for the Dramatists Guild] so that got me into the Guild.
The Dramatists Guild does a number of things. For one thing you have access to market reports, what theatres are doing. They publish a guide to theatres and opportunities and contests and festivals. It’s more detailed and up-to-date than Dramatist’s Sourcebook. They also have a business and legal staff that you can turn to. They have sample contracts that you can look at and if you’ve got somebody offering you a contract and you go, “I don’t know, this looks funny, they want to own my dog,” you, literally, as a Dramatists Guild member can call up the Guild, and you can go, “I have to give up my dog. I mean, what’s the story here?”
They have some other things – emergency funds for playwrights. They have some facilities in New York a room you can have readings at, and I believe they have some discounts on hotels and stuff like that. So there’s some cool stuff, but the really important thing the Dramatists Guild does is when theatres of a certain level begin doing your plays, when you start getting LORT theatres, Broadway, and all that good stuff, the Dramatists Guild has got contracts that have been negotiated ahead of time. As a Dramatists Guild member they [the theatres] have to abide by those contracts. You can go outside of those contracts but it’s really not kosher. It’s in your favor anyway. It gives you a certain level of pay, and it gives you some power over – [the theatre] can’t cast without your okay, they can’t change a word without your okay, and that kind of thing. Of course, it gives us playwrights some really important stuff like never sell your copyright, you always own the copyright, you’re just renting the use of the play to a theatre and, obviously, you never give away subsidiary rights like film. I mean it’s really good business stuff and they have a number of very good publications too. When I was first starting, I’d like to [remember] the woman’s name - she used to be their business manager - and I had a question and I left a message and she called me back, and we talked for like an hour. It was pretty incredible. And I was nobody, nobody - think I’d written three plays, but I was in the Guild.
What Andrea and I is – the Guild has a magazine called The Dramatist that comes out every two months so we’re writing reports about Portland, what’s going on. Like Andrea wrote an “Introduction to Portland” piece, and then I wrote a piece about the Fertile Ground Dramatists Guild meeting that Andrew [Golla, Portland Theatre Works] did. And for Fertile Ground we’re gonna bring Gary Garrison out, Dramatists Guild Executive Director, have a Town Hall meeting, which is open to anybody. But mostly you know, as far as for Dramatists Guild members or other interested playwrights [the meeting is about] what the Dramatists Guild is about from the guy who runs it. And we’re also, this is kind of in formation right now - we’re still working on the details - but we want to have a forum afterwards about playwriting and how to make it work better in Portland, what new work needs, what people would like to see. So we’re gonna try to put a panel together.
FS – Ideas about who might be on the panel?
SP – I know that Lue Douthit is going come up from Oregon Shakespeare and beyond that I’m not sure right now. I don’t know. I don’t want to say anyone else because I’m not sure that they’re committed. That’s the only person I know of. But we’d love to get Mead [Hunter, Literary Director, Portland Center Stage] and other people. Andrew would be great. He’s such an easy-going guy. But I think it would be great to bring in somebody like James Moore [co-Artistic Director, defunkt theatre] too. Somebody who’s out producing something too as a playwright.
FS – That pretty much covered the Dramatist’s Guild unless there’s something else you want to share that hasn’t really been covered?
SP – The only thing I can really think of is what I felt personally about joining the Guild and ponying out my money. What it gave to me was a feeling that I was a professional playwright. Suddenly I belonged to this organization that had Edward Albee on the Board, and [it] felt more like the big time and it gave me self-confidence and it made me take things more seriously in a way. [It] also felt like I had my back covered as far as legal stuff. And, to tell you the truth, I’ve never had recourse to turn to the Guild to resolve anything but I also learned enough from the Guild contracts and things like that and information. Now they have a website – back then they didn’t have a website. In fact you can download contracts directly from the website. But I learned enough that I find my way around. Dana Singer was the woman that talked to me for awhile. She wrote a book, I believe it’s The Stagewriter’s Handbook, like THE book to get because it’s got all the legal stuff in it. It’s great.
FS – Do you have any hopes what [Barack Obama] might do for the arts under the new administration?
SP – One question we’re going to all wait to hear on come January is what kind of budget we’re gonna have given the economic situation. I do know that one of the people he has on his transition committee is Bill Ivey and that’s promising because Bill is one of those people who bring people together. He kind of soothed the culture wars during the 90’s at the time when the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] was being demonized by Jesse Helms. I think he’s a good guy. I don’t know that he’ll become NEA head, but I think he’s a good guy to guide transition. Back when Obama was running I went and checked out his arts platform and it’s pretty good, he’s got some good stuff in there. I don’t expect him to come out and say “I’m gonna restore grants for individual artists,” but he might. But I don’t expect him to say that because that would be stupid. (Laughs) I know he’s very big on bringing arts into the schools, [he] thinks that’s very important. I think that’s very important too because these poor kids who aren’t math whizzes - they’re dreamers and stuff like that – we should let them dream. They dream some cool stuff. One of the things he wants to do is resolve some visa issues for example that have kept some artists out of the country like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for one. So that’s positive. Also, he wants to send US artists abroad as ambassadors. Other countries do do that. That would be great because we’re not very well liked right now but the one thing that we are still liked about is our culture. They like our music and our movies. One would hope they like our plays.
FS – Imagine choosing the ambassador of culture.
SP – That would be an awesome responsibility to do that. To be the representative of the United States as an artist. I don’t think they’ll be picking me any time soon….Mr. Patterson has a little bit too much violence and drugs in his plays. I don’t know…Buenos Aires, maybe.
I think those are sort of the positive things and [Obama] had a couple of other planks that I forgot. There’s was nothing that blew me away, but they were all good ideas. I think that’s going to be down the list when they’re trying to keep the country from spiraling down the drain. I like him. He’s making smart choices. We’ll see. I can’t really remember feeling this excited about a candidate, and that was actually during the election too. He just reminded me a bit of Bobby Kennedy, not quite as fierce but he was kind of like the guy I’ve been waiting for for a long time. He’s got a lot of potential to live up to. He’s got a lot of challenges ahead of him. The mistakes he makes won’t be as bad as the things that Bush did on purpose everyday.
FS – To wrap things up: What theatre companies in Portland do you find exciting?
SP – Obviously I find PCS exciting because it’s kind of the flagship and I’m involved with them as a playwright, so I’m biased right there. I think ART’s been doing some fun stuff, some interesting things. Third Rail’s always a kick. And Vertigo’s fun, I like Vertigo, and defunkt. Milagro is consistently interesting. And there’s lots of funny little gypsy companies out there that are endearing.
FS – So it sounds like you think Portland is pretty thriving.
SP – Yeah, I mean every year there’s always interesting stuff happening. And we’ve had a few years where I was, “eh?” I wasn’t as interested in what was going on as others, and other people liked it, but that’s just my taste. I just saw The Receptionist and that was a damn good show. I hope to see more out of that team. I think that pretty much covers it. There isn’t a single theatre in town that I will go see everything they do, and it’s just because I’m too busy. I’ll go see something every couple of weeks. I finally caught Action/Adventure – I had missed all that stuff and it was just wonderful. Wonderful talent. Great stories. They’re funny and endearing and honest. I love a theatre troupe that is not afraid to be awkward. If it’s a true awkward, you know what I mean? Because sometimes I think we all try and make it a little too slick. You know one of the really cool things is when you’re watching a play, actually, it’s when you notice it’s not right - you can tell one of the actors is waiting for their line instead of being in the moment with the other actor. And you go, “It’s either been overproduced or they’re tired or the actor’s got problems.” But when that organic thing is happening, that’s really exciting.
FS –You have a photography exhibit going on. You want to talk about that a little bit?
SP – Actually my pictures right now are only up at Urbaca, if people want to take a look at them. I’ve been working on a new series and some time I’m hoping to put that up. It’s called Angels and Demons and I’ve shot about a dozen pictures. Janet Price, who does make-up, has been working with me and she’s really great. I’ve been working with actors who I [tell to] pick an angel or a demon and bring your concept and they’re all different. And all the angels seem to be a little roughed up and all the demons seem to have something cool about them. There’s a blurring of those identities in there. Eventually I hope to have a show out of that.
FS – What’s the one going on at Urbaca?
SP – The one at Urbaca is Theatre of Dreams, which is the one I worked on for about five years. It hung at CoHo for awhile and then it was at Common Grounds for awhile. I sold a few pieces out of it. I took a lot of pictures when I was a teenager into my twenties and then I kind of put it aside for writing. And then a number of years my brother-in-law gave me a great camera and just kind of gave it to me and I said, “This is such a wonderful camera I should get back into it.” So I did. It’s been fun. I do some stuff for theatres and things too. It’s nice to help out your friends. [PR Photography] is a drag to set up as a producer. It helps to get a good color picture in the paper; it brings people in.
FS – Anything else you want to share about yourself?
SP - I gotta say there’s a lot of really good playwrights in this town. It feels like a good place to be as a writer. There’s a writer behind every stump. I think some of it’s the rain, coffee shops.
FS – They are conducive to writing?
SP – They are. I hope that. You know, I really miss Stark Raving Theatre because when you went there, you knew you were gonna see something new, that hadn’t been done before. If there’s anything that I hope the Fertile Ground festival does is that I hope it gives theatres permission to take a chance [with new plays] because I know that it’s hard for them to roll the dice, because you can lose. You can get a play and it may not work, or may get bad reviews and people won’t go see it because they haven’t heard of it. Doing original work is tricky and risky but it’s also incredibly rewarding and I hope that the theatres in town will catch the spirit.
I just finished a new play.
FS – Want to divulge any details?
SP – It’s at a stage where I’m going to have it read at PlayGroup and I’ll do a rewrite. It’s called Bluer Than Midnight and it’s about the blues, the Civil Rights Movement, and the afterlife. Part of the research lead me to buy a Fender Stratocaster.
FS – So you play okay then?
SP – Uh, no. I’m working on it. I can play a 12-bar glitch. (Laughs)
And on that note of laughter, the interview ended.
Monday, August 18, 2008
August 18, 2008
Interview by Followspot
From the Beginning: Winnie-the-Pooh to the Winningstad
Followspot – How did it all begin? How did the Jen Raynak enter into the theatre community?
Jen – Even as a kid, I liked to play with sound. I would concoct devices that would amplify sound waves visually. Like long wires hanging off of tables with paper cups at the end of them that would bounce up and down when you yelled at the table. So then the vibrations at the table would get amplified at the end of the long wires and the cup would move up and down. I was fascinated by the invisible sound waves and trying to make that visible.
FS – How old was that?
J – Fifth and sixth grade I remember doing it. I’ve been playing music since I was a tiny child. When I was four I started taking piano lessons. And then, as I got into high school and college, the opportunities for home electronic music began to grow so I made a lot of four-track recordings by jerry-rigging a tape recorder at my house and figuring out how to record tracks on one side and then the other side, etc., etc. Then in college I got some actual equipment that did that on purpose and played a lot with that. And I also got into sound for theatre there. At my high school, girls were not allowed to do tech.
FS – There was a ban.
J – Yes. There was a person who was in charge of all the technical theatre who did not allow girls to participate. We could do makeup and costume but not do lighting or sound or any kind of construction, carpentry, anything like that.
FS – And this was okay?
J – It was the way it was. I graduated in 1987. It was protested by people like me, but it was the way it was.
FS – Were you able still to pick up anything from guys who worked in the [theatre]?
J – Not really. I didn’t know really what went on up there. I liked the idea of it but we weren’t allowed to look at it. My dad is very much into electronics so I was doing a bunch of electronic work at home, just ordering parts out of the back of magazines and putting them together into various concoctions. I was probably around 13 when I learned how to solder. So when I got to college – I went to a women’s college – and girls, it turned out, were allowed to do everything.
FS – So wait, back to high school. Is that when you did get into theatre?
J – I did some performing and it terrified me – and it still does. I’m done with that. I don’t have to do it anymore.
FS – What did you perform in and as what?
J – In seventh grade I was Winnie-the-Pooh. And then after that I got mostly the fat, brown-haired girl parts. So the skinny blond girls got the lead and ingénue parts, and then I got the other parts.
FS – Wow. That must have been a wonder for personal self-esteem.
J – Yeah, that was really superb. I have I feeling I was not a terrific actor also which probably didn’t help with my casting. [laughing] You know, I don’t feel bad about that.
FS – So college - that’s when you got into tech.
J – Yeah, I really had the opportunity to do a bunch of tech in college. I was a chemistry major for two and a half years, and then I realized I didn’t want to be a chemistry major. I was doing it because my parents wanted me to be a chemistry major. So I think they cried a lot of little tears silently without telling me, but I switched my major to theatre. Music for theatre and dance actually. I created my own major. It was a very small school.
FS – What school was this?
J – Wells College, in upstate New York.
FS – When did you also get into composition? Had you always also been into composing your own music?
J – I had done some of it. Again, everything was so informal – I was just doing it in my living room. We lived in such a rural area and my college was so tiny that I’ve never had classes in any of this.
FS – Self-taught.
J – Yes. Because I enjoy it. And I sort of make up how it’s supposed to go, unfortunately. Sometimes that works out well, sometimes not so much.
FS – And that’s how you still work today?
J – Yeah, I haven’t really trained in any of this. So, yes, I’m self-made.
My first paid gig was the summer after I graduated from college. I had moved down to Ithaca, New York. I was working at the Hangar Theatre. I volunteered for the first show of the season…and by the fifth show, they had hired me as their sound designer. So I just started out as a volunteer and I went and I helped and I sat with the sound designer and I went to his studio and I learned what he was doing; ingratiated myself I guess. And it turned out that Chuck was unable to design the fifth show, so they hired me to do it.
FS – And what was that like? Your first show, independently designing it?
J – It was fantastic. It was Major Barbara and it was a little bit of an abstract production of that, and I had access to the Cornell sound design studio through Chuck Hatcher, who was the designer for the other four shows.
FS – And I take it that must be a really good thing to have access to.
J – Yeah. It was a huge bank of midi equipment and a bunch of other recording gear. So this is 1991, and the show was run on reel-to-reel. Of course. Quarter-inch two-track I think. And maybe two decks. The booth was very tiny and we had to climb a ladder through a hatch to get in there. It was superb. The Hangar is still a haven for a lot of New York performers to get out of the city in the summertime. It was a very professional setting and some great people to work with.
FS – You came to Portland in 1995, and what brought you over here?
J – It was pretty. I was living in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, being a ski-bum, and my brother was in graduate school in Seattle. And I came through Portland on my way to Seattle, and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Flowers, grass, trees. So the following January I packed up everything I owned into my pickup truck and I moved to Portland.
FS – How did you get into the theatre scene? Did you jump right into it?
J – I took some classes at PSU [Portland State University].
FS – Sound design classes?
J – Lighting design and a scenic design classes actually, and I had to convince them I could come in at a graduate level. I had zero technical credits on my transcript but I tested out of all of their undergraduate technical classes. I think they had a three hour testing period - in two hours I had finished all of the exams for all of their undergraduates, and that sort of convinced them I could come in at a higher level. So I got to know some people through that, and my first gigs in Portland were with The Musical Theatre Company in the Newmark. I also volunteered for Tygres Heart as an usher, so I’d been already in PCPA [Portland Center for the Performing Arts] with the first theatre I came into.
FS – That’s a really good space to start out in.
J – Yeah. It was great. And some of my first gigs in town were with Tygres Heart. So in the Winni – that was one of the first theatres I ever went into in this city. And now it's my job.
FS – Where did you go from there? Did you make any connections you still have right now?
J – By working for The Musical Theatre Company, absolutely. And that was Demetri Pavlatos on those gigs, Don Crossley, Andy Berry, Clair Callaway, Meghan Newton, Jessica Flores worked for that company. Jason Winslow worked for that company. Lars Larsen. It really was a cauldron for young technicians at that time. We all came in and learned from each other, and told stories of our youth, and laughed a lot, and made really good technical theatre happen. It forged a lot of great relationships, working for $300 a run in the Newmark, doing insane things. And there was enough of a union crew there also – we were close to that, in a really good way. The rules made sense and they were enforced appropriately, and it made us all understand why it’s good to take a break once in a while. The phrase “sharing is caring” – Don’t lift that thing up that’s too heavy for you to lift. Find a buddy, and the two of you carry it somewhere. Sharing is caring. Then no one gets hurt, nothing gets broken. It takes just a tiny bit longer but then you don’t have to do it twice, or send someone to the hospital.
FS –It sounds like you started out with some really good opportunities. Did it just keep snowballing from there?
J – Yeah. My first year in Portland, I worked for Manpower temp agency and that’s how I paid my bills. $300 for a three-week run does not pay the rent. But within a year I was done with Manpower and I was making all my money doing theatre. I was painting at Portland Center Stage, that was my first in with them. I was designing some at Tygres Heart. I was kinda working all over the place, just freelancing, like everybody does now. Run a show here, you know, help build a show there, etc., etc. And that all happened within one year of moving here, of knowing nobody. So it turned out okay.
FS – I was gonna say you were impressive from the beginning but that just sounds weird.
J – Just maybe aggressive, for getting in, that’s sort of the story of how I did sound for PCS [Portland Center Stage] also. Creon Thorne was the production manager at the time, and I would come in and volunteer my time on the sound calls during tech and just get to know the designers, watch how they worked, help where I could, and then I got – after, you know, a year or two of that - I got paid to be an assistant to the sound designer.
FS – And what year was that?
J – I don’t remember. ’98 maybe? Somewhere in there? I kept bugging Creon – ‘Will you let me design? Gimme a design. Please. Let me design something.’ I designed two shows at the end of the season for PCS and it went quite well, I thought. So come summertime I asked Creon if I could design again. And he said yes, and I said which shows, and he said, all of them. So that’s how I became the resident sound designer at PCS. He decided to hire me for everything. It was awesome.
FS – So you did that for a very long period of time.
J – I think…7 years?
FS – ‘Cause you went freelance in…
J - Right when [PCS] moved to the Armory .
The Creative Process: “What’s the sound of monkeys flinging poo?”
FS – How do you approach a show? It sounds like a lot of what you do is just play around. Give me two different shows where you’ve approached them in different ways.
J – I have two great examples. One is O Lovely Glowworm at Portland Center Stage. The script is pretty dense with sound requirements to begin with, and the playwright was there, both times we did it – the workshop and the production, and then I actually worked on a production in Indiana since then. Three times, and Glen [Berger] has been there all three times. And he has veerrryy specific desires about the sound effects and I think we hit close to 200 sound cues.
FS – And did you have to do it differently each locale?
J – Yeah, there were some differences in each one. Some of the stuff remained the same. Obviously this is what the mermaid music is, The Aquarium from Carnival of the Animals, so that had to be what it is. But what’s the sound of monkeys flinging poo? You know, that changes a little bit as my interpretation of what’s going on onstage changes. Or snow falling, or all the various other sound effects. And what the room, what the equipment can handle - how much am I limited by the technology?
FS – You worked with Glen [Berger], one-on-one with [the sound cues].
J – Right, and with Randy White, the director. So the three of us met and talked a lot and tried to interpret Glen’s requests, and figure out what the heck he was talking about, ‘cause he’s kind of a strange cat. He’s a beautiful and strange cat. And he will say things that are so poetic and then I have to translate them into a sound. I wish I had some notes from that show. So for that one, the process was very integrated, very collaborative. That the three of us were in constant communication – how the flow of the show was going to happen when there were specific motivational cues, like gunshots or explosions, or monkeys flinging poo, or the start of a horse race, you know, what that bell sounds like at the horse races, and trying six or seven different things and really really piling up sound cues on top of each other to achieve this really dense world that that play happened in.
Another example of a more recent [show] was Grace. [Produced by Third Rail Repertory.]
Two sound clips from Grace: One Two
(Jen asked me to point out that the "glitches" are on purpse.)
FS – For which you won a Drammy.
J – [Grace] was much more solitary as it turns out. I read the script and read the script and read the script, and we had a lot of meetings about how the heck this was going to work because it moved forward and backward in time, and where there were going to be sound cues. And it felt fairly standard of [the playwright’s] sound transitions. Craig Wright had written in “the music swells” but not sort of any indication of what he needed, except that it needed to have some sort of emotional underscoring. That one actually, we were into rehearsals, and I had nothing.
FS – Any particular reason you had nothing?
J – I couldn’t figure out what the heck it was. So I’m reading the script, I’m sitting in watching rehearsals, trying to figure out what the heck is this? ‘Cause the only thing that is mentioned in the play musically is that Amy Grant song, “In a little while/We’ll be with the father….” Whatever the dumb song is. And it can’t be like Christian rock. You can’t make a show out of that. It can’t be of the characters. It can’t be sort of this Florida beat music, which is where they are. It can’t be Jesus music. So it took me a veeerry long time to figure out what the heck it was. And when I did, it was more like a switch switching on, that it was just, in my head, Oh! That’s what it sounds like.
FS – Like you just woke up one night and you just had it.
J – And I knew what it sounded like. It was just - it took my brain a long time to process, to push out, you know, what it had been working on, obviously, for a long time. So once that switch clicked on, it probably was only four or five days later that I had all the cues built.
FS – How long were you in the rehearsal process before the click happened?
J – Maybe…six or eight rehearsals before moving into the theatre. We were close. It was getting down to it.
FS – So were people around you freaking out?
J – No no. Because they had a lot to work on too. I mean, nobody had seen the lighting cues yet, so nobody was nervous about it. I was just like, ‘I don’t know what it is yet, but when it comes, it will be right. Don’t worry about it, we’ll get there.’
FS – [Third Rail Repertory’s] your company. I mean, you’re resident sound designer. Any other company you’ve worked with where that might have been a more dangerous situation?
J – I think it might have been had there been more underscoring anticipated beforehand but early on the idea was that there would be music in transitions and underscoring that first scene, which is backwards. And it wasn’t going to change the direction, it wasn’t going to impact actors, they didn’t have to dance around my sound cues so it wasn’t gonna make a big difference to them as far as what they were doing onstage, I mean, hopefully it helped them get where the director wanted them to go but doesn’t have to change their timing, it doesn’t have to change their blocking, or anything like that.
FS – And that might have affected more like … O Lovely Glowworm?
J – Absolutely. But this one, we ended doing quite a bit more underscoring because once I figured out what the heck it was, which was a lot of static, a lot of glitching, some kind of music here and there, but mostly long, low pads. Pads: it’s a synthesized tone. Long low stuff that was oscillating. Then all this glitchy shit on top of it, various things from AM radio recordings, a little bit of music recordings. There were 20- 25 layers in every cue. But I knew where I was going so I got there really quickly, once I figured out what the heck it was. And then very little changed from those cues that I built in isolation to the finished product.
FS - Very different processes.
J – Absolutely.
FS – Do you prefer one over the other?
J – Nope.
FS – What challenges you in design?
J – The collaboration, I think, is the most exciting for me. Anyone can sit in a class and make up something that they like and say, ‘I made this. I like it. It is perfect.’ But then once you get everybody else’s voices into the conversation, that’s the challenge - to do something that has artistic integrity for yourself yet that also fits the needs of the director. That, I think, is the best challenge of all, is doing this not in a vacuum.
FS – Because theatre is a collaborative process after all.
J – It is and you know, I believe that never, ever was a show written about a sound cue. My job never is to make something that exists in isolation. It has to bring the audience to where the director wants them to go. If it doesn’t do that, it needs to go. If it pulls them in some other direction, it needs to go. If it stalls the play and everyone has to stop to hear your beautiful sound cue, it has to go. It has to be part of that whole in order to be a valid sound design. I think that’s the biggest challenge, that I embrace.
FS – It sounds like a lot of it is toning down your ego.
J – When I’ve taught, I’ve told my students over and over again, 'You may work for six days on a cue and think it’s absolutely brilliant and you’ve finally got it sculpted exactly the way you want it and everything’s at the perfect volume, and moves around the room perfectly, and if the director cocks their head a little bit and goes ehh? Throw it out.' It can’t be about your work. It can’t be about I spent so much time on this! If it doesn’t work for the play, put it in your portfolio, put it on your website. Let people listen to it in isolation but it’s not part of a show anymore.
FS - And what challenges do you feel you haven’t taken on yet and you would like to?
J – I’m actually gonna do a little bit more of this this year – working with a composer. So for James and the Giant Peach at Oregon Children’s Theatre, Elias Foley is going to be the composer for that show and I’m gonna be the sound designer. I’ve seen that collaboration work really well in the past and I want to be good at that. I want to work with a composer. Elias and I have worked together. We worked together on defunkt’s In Apparati.
FS – As a sound designer working with a composer, how is that different?
J – What I’ve watched other pairs do and my one experience doing it, the sound designer expresses to the composer, 'Here are the tools that I think I’m gonna need for the show.' And then the composer goes and makes the arty part and then that collaboration happens almost in isolation for a long time – of ‘Okay, look, can I get something a little more up tempo, or something with a little more of a percussive feel to it, or something with more high end to it?’ And being able to just create those tools. We’re gonna make a CD of the soundtrack and then I’m gonna take those parts, just like I would if we were using some prerecorded music. I’m gonna take out the bridge from this. This tune will work great for this transition. So Elias works to build a whole and then I pick it back apart and use the parts for the various transitions.
There’s a different way that can work which is going to the composer to make, 'Oh I need a 15-second transition, medium tempo, with a tuba.' I like the other way better, personally. But it’s a new challenge for me, to actually work in two different languages. I’m working the tech/director language on one side and then working the music/composer language on the other side and to be sort of a Rosetta Stone in-between those two. And then also be the artist in the middle of that and produce the sound design.
FS – It’s like a giant puzzle.
Basically it’s you and Rody [Rodolfo Ortega].
Since 2003, Jen has won four and Rody, three, Drammys for Outstanding Sound Design.
J – There’s a bunch more sound designers.
FS – I know, I mean, do you ever feel like you’re in competition with Rody?
J – No no. I would love to work with him someday. We both do the same job. We have gotten to work together, because I’m [steward for] the Winny now. So he has come through there, and I’m looking forward to that happening some more. Directors, designers – there’s only one of each of those people in every show. The actors get to work with other actors, see what their practice is like. If you’re a stitcher, if you’re a carpenter. Designers and directors - directors never get to see other directors work unless they sit in on a rehearsal, or they act in a show, or they’re a designer for another director. So I would love the chance to work more with other sound designers but who can afford – no one can pay two sound designers.
FS – I never even thought about that – you guys are always working solo.
J – There’s not a good cross-pollination but it’s certainly not a competition. In fact, he’ll call me for things that he needs for shows and I’ll call him for things that I need for shows. And the same for all of us – all the sound designers. ‘Hey, does anybody know where a phone ringing machine is?’ ‘Yeah, well I have one or yeah, I think Rody built one time. You should call him to see if he still has it.’
FS – I’m assuming for now you plan to stay in Portland.
J – Oh yeah.
FS – You feel challenged by the work that’s going on here.
J – Yep.
Next Up! PATA & Bits of Color