Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lights Up on LAB Member, Padraic Lillis' New Play

LAByrinth Theater Company will be producing a 29-hour workshop of Padraic Lillis' new play, Lights Up On The Fade Out, culminating in a staged reading April 7th, directed by Stephen Adley Guirguis at The Cherry Lane Theater. Having seen a reading of the play in October as part of LAB's Barn Series, I was excited to talk to Padraic about this relevant and touching new work.

What was the inspiration for the play?

It's about how hard it is to hold onto a perfect moment. The idea that once something happens that's amazing, you're going to go down from there. Like in the movies, boy gets girl and lights fade out, but then boy and girl who have no ability to have a relationship - at least the two hours prior to that, are now going to have to deal with one another. So it's about how hard it is to stay in a perfect moment and also, how hard it is to hold onto the one thing that you love. It feels like - I don't think it's a fact, but it feels like you have to let go of something else that you love.

So it was a feeling, a feeling of two things. One - my first play got produced and it felt great (Two Thirds Home, produced by Broken Watch,) and it felt like the culminating event of my theatrical career, and such an achievement, and then I realized, 'Oh, I'm gonna have to do that again', and the only other way to do that again is to write another play, and writing a play is hard. I don't know anyone that says writing a play is easy, so I think it's very hard and all of a sudden, it's that feeling that you should just be able to say, 'I just wrote a play and it got produced and I'm done' and take all the fame and then, when people ask what are you doing with your life, you can just say, 'I wrote a play'. (laughing) That's plenty, and then finding you have to keep doing it. That feeling of like, 'oh shit, I have to do that again,' just to sustain yourself as a creative person, and I think the other one was - and now I'm just going to be honest, the other one is this feeling or this idea of loneliness that I tapped into. I think I write a lot about that.

I got nominated for the I.T. award for directing Michael Puzzo's The Dirty Talk, and it was one of those things where it really was an honor to be nominated. I didn't win, but I left feeling very full and if there's not somebody to carry that feeling with, not to share that feeling with - which I think is a feeling of pride - although I'm not quite sure what the feeling is, it becomes almost overwhelming, and I think the play started to be about that feeling of like, how do you sustain that? How do you carry that? So it's those two things, and I have that feeling a lot- like on opening nights- I feel very good, very proud. I feel satisfied. I feel full and then that feeling is going to dissipate. It's going to go down and I think I'd just rather feel full and have it sit there, be full all the time. Why do I have to have a different feeling and change? So that was the inspiration and then I sat down to write that play and I think that's how I write.

So talk a little about that process.

I sat down to write the play and it's interesting because - you saw it, there's a filmmaker, the girl and the brother and the first draft is 50 pages of characters just talking and it wasn't really a play. Just naturalistic talking, and it went all over the map, and the girl was twenty years younger than the guy, and there were things that weren't right about it. I was trying to write a love story, which I'm trying to write again, and I'm finding that I'm not very good at it (laughs), but I had the two brothers, and then while writing it, I discovered the father had dementia and it's about those relationships.

That's what I was going to say. It is a love story. It's just not a love story between a man and a woman. It's a love story between him and his father and his brother and how complicated that can be.

Yeah, that's exactly it and the person who was going to direct it for the LAB Intensive said,'it's just people talking' and she was right, and then I went running, and running, and running, because that's what I do, and I meditate while running, and this idea came about 'Lights Up On The Fade Out', which was the title all along, and it's about a movie, and a movie about every romantic comedy, and it's about boy gets girl- you know- somebody's about to get married and they're always about to marry the wrong person. They're either should have married the love of their life twenty years ago, or they should marry the person they met two minutes ago, because they really understand them. It's just this absurd idea of romance. So that gave me the opening.

I brought it up to the Lab Intensive and I only had thirty pages, and I just went into a private room. They have readings where you share with the whole company and I just wanted a room with actors to work on it. I knew what the play was about, but I didn't know where it was going, and I heard it, and we worked on it, and the very first thing I realized is what you said. It's a love story between these three guys and I realized this woman's drama is all off stage. She's vital to this play, but not as a major force that I thought she was going to be. I found out it's about the two brothers and the one brother, James, who's been taking care of the father - and it's obvious that he loves his father, but it's interesting to see that he loves his brother, too. I think the other brother, the filmmaker, Steven, is not aware that his family loves him, that he has a love relationship with his father and that's what he's discovering.

So you had these pages of dialogue, a bunch of actors, and a room. What then?

I had two days and I told them a little bit about the play. They were great. Sidney Williams, who you saw read it, read it. Richie Petrocelli, who played the father, was the same. Cusi Cram, who is a playwright, read the part that Daphne Rubin-Vega read in the Barn Series, and Charles Goforth read the filmmaker, Steven. It was interesting because I knew what I was trying to do and then they talked about what they connected with. They were all very generous. Cusi was very generous and supportive as a playwright - about what was in there that was good. Richie very generously shared his experience with dementia, and people that he knows and what he liked. Because I'm writing about a feeling and putting it into a context, it was great having them talk about what they related to, what they loved, what was honest, and what was speaking to them. So we had this conversation, and I went home that night, and actually did a lot more writing than I thought, and I filled out the rest of the act and the beginning of the next scene, and we read it.

I didn't know what the second scene was, but I kept wanting it to be about the girl, and Marieke Gaboury, the director, said, 'I think it's about him waiting for the brother who doesn't come back before his award ceremony', and that realization was really helpful. The love story became secondary. It also gave me the idea of thinking about what the ten hours were like for this guy alone with his father that I don't need to show. Nobody needs to watch ten hours of frustration, but it gave me a place to start. That's why I came in with the second scene because I knew what the frustration was, and I knew what I was pushing towards, but it came out of that conversation on the first day.

The best thing about LAByrinth and the Intensive is that you're not showing it to the public yet, just to people who are encouraging. People keep asking, 'how's the play going?' What are you working on? I really think you're on to something.' And then I finished another draft later and grabbed four actors- different actors, Richie was the same, but everyone else was different.

Is it helpful having different people read? Do you recommend it?

I do recommend it, although I want three out of four of these people to stay in the next reading that I'm doing, but I do recommend it. In my first play, I kept using the same people, because they were great and dedicated and they were generous- not just in their talent, but also in how they related to the story, but I found myself stuck when it was time to get produced, and I could only think of these three actors in the play and one wasn't available. For this particular play, it was great to have Richie again because he was sharing so generously of his experience but the other actors I wanted to hear, because things that I knew could work - like Sidney, I wrote the part of the younger brother for Sidney - I knew he could do what I was writing, but I needed to hear it in somebody else's mouth, just to hear if the play was doing what I needed it to do. I think it's really good to have different people. It really helped me.

When I went back to the Lab Intensive the next summer, I had a whole draft and really had worked it. I kept rewriting the last scene, how to get to this moment that I knew was coming, and I kept finding that less is more each time. Every time I cut, cut, cut because I kept trying to add complexity and like, the relationships are pretty complex. They're fine.

I feel that the play is very close. It's an interesting thing when you put on your play and people are moved by it, because they don't give very good feedback (laughing). They're moved, and that's what you want, so that's effective, but I'm sitting there knowing that there's something not quite complete for the main character, Steven, who's on stage the whole time. It's not about the actor. It's something missing for me. I'm worried to add anything, to expand anything, to open it up, but I don't think it's big. Perhaps it's making it clearer on how the main character is changing from the events of the day.

One of the things I liked about the play is that it taps into how, for a lot of people who make art, when their art is, in a sense, their life- their love relationships, their family relationships and all those things can become secondary and you get to see that, and the feelings that go with that, and I think you show that really wonderfully. It is a sacrifice.

Yeah, and I think he has this deep need for family, this deep need for love, but whatever is lacking in this area is also what's driving him to create, and he's never going to get the relationship - I'm not sure about the love relationship - but he's never going to get the relationship from his family that he wants, because they're different from who he wants them to be, and also, he's different than they're ever going to understand, so I'm hoping that he understands that they are who they are and somehow he can still feel good about creating and being alone.

It's about being reconciled with not feeling OK all the time. Steven accepting that lack in his family.

That's very funny. I went to therapy for five years and I'd say, 'I want to feel good' and my therapist would say 'why?'. You don't feel good all the time.' The reconciliation is that you're not going to feel good so if I can get that feeling of the misery. (laughs)

Yeah like, not all food tastes delicious when you eat it, but you develop a taste for it. Like, 'oh, this is the taste I'm not so crazy about, but I appreciate it's qualities, whatever that is'. That's what his experience is like, him saying, 'I want to have these people in my life but it's an acquired taste, or an acquired experience.' He's growing up.

Yeah, and I think that's what he's doing. I mean, if you were to say, 'what's the play about?' - which I hated to admit because I was like, it's about a feeling that I'm having, but ultimately it's about growing up and realizing that your picture of the world is not the way the world works, and other people have roles in it and their own picture of it, so I do think the play is about growing up. Maybe that's why I'm finding it slightly unsatisfying at the end because he's beginning to grow up and it's like, 'oh, shit'.

You teach, you have your own business, you have a pretty full life. Do you have a regular writing schedule or do you just do it as it goes?

I teach a couple of classes, and I consult, and I direct which I'm doing now up at Geva in Rochester. I always think when I'm directing that I'll write at night, but it never happens because I'm obsessing on the play. I do write daily - I want to say daily. It's not playwriting always, but I do write daily. I feel like the saying that writing is one percent inspiration, and 99 percent perspiration doesn't give inspiration the credit that it's due, because it's a lot of sitting in the chair to do it but when I start writing a play, I'll sit down every night for like three weeks and while I'm doing that the first time, I'm learning about these people, learning about the play, like, 'oh, he has kids. I didn't know that. That's good', and then I'll put it away for a little bit and think about it and again, I'm writing other stuff like an essay or an article or something, but it's not that discipline where like every night at this time or every morning at this time. But then I'll come back to it after a month when I really have clarity, and I'll sit down, and write every day because I'm not thinking about anything else, and that's when I'll get people to come hear it, and I'll think about the changes, so if someone asks, 'how long did it take to write the play', I'm like, 'how long did I write? Three months. How long did it take? It took this play a year and a half.' Three months of writing and a lot of thinking and a lot of gelling and a lot of the 99 percent perspiration part, sitting in the chair, but you can't force it. You can't make the scene happen if you don't know what the person is feeling. Most of the time, it's not that I don't understand what they're feelings. It's that I can't get them beyond, to take the action. As a director, you're always asking, 'what do they want? what drives the scene?' and I'm sitting here thinking, I'm not sure what the person wants beyond that moment so I'm stuck, and I sit there and I wait, but that writing when you're sitting there writing, in the chair, at the desk, that's writing. When I'm writing every day, I'm writing from midnight until four a.m., because I can't sit down to write until everything's done. Not because I can't write, but because if I sit down to write before then, I'm not going to do anything else. I get a little obsessive.

So when do you sleep?

From four to eight.

You can do your life on four hours sleep?

I want to say yes. There are days that I don't have to do anything and I can make up for it. At the end of the week maybe. I'll try not to beat myself up for sleeping a lot, because you do need to catch up but the hours that I'm writing- for me, I'm not exhausted the next day. It's like adrenalin. I feel cleansed. Now, I don't do it for a month with no sleep. I mean, yeah, some day, I'll get my twelve hours to make up for it. But I can probably do five of those in a row, and it feels good. It's like a good workout. You're not tired. Your body is awake for it. And also, when I go to sleep, it is sound. But it's better then when I'm not writing or not directing, because then I can't go to bed at all. Then I'm just wishing the Yankees were playing.

What's inspiring you right now?

Plays inspire me, talking to people inspire me. A friend of mine connected to me through Facebook - a friend from twenty years ago, and from one email exchange to another it's progressed to this really thorough, deep conversation about being an artist. She is somebody who is an emerging artist and it really felt like Letters to a Young Poet in this exchange. She wants to be a writer, and I asked about it, and I talked about my experiences, and I realized that by being honest with this person, really honest, that person was really honest with me, and it was really inspiring. So now I'm watching this person write and share their work. It was about two weeks of intense correspondence.

There are times to go and protect myself when I'm working on something, but when you're really open - and it's something that I've learning from being around artists in LAByrinth and stuff like that, you can't be self-conscious talking about the art at a level that's true to you, and if you're talking to somebody that doesn't respond to that, then you're probably not having that conversation with them, but when they do, it's just trying to stay at that level of honesty. So that inspired me because when I sit down to work, I want to remain that honest, and that specific, because the discourse that comes between those two people, or the audience, or the work, excites me, and if I'm not doing that, I'm protecting myself for whatever reason, and the work is not going to be as good. And it surprised me. It's just somebody saying, 'how are you? I haven't talked to you in twenty years.' You don't know where it's going to go, or where it's going to come from. I could have just hit 'we'll be friends' with no real response.

Why do you write?

I write because I have to, because I have something - a feeling that is overwhelming, that I'm really ready to throw on the table, and look at, and move past and I hope that when I finish writing a play that, that feeling feels complete.

I directed a play that Scott Hudson wrote called Sweet Storm, and one of the things that came up, is what it is to be an artist. And I find myself still getting self-conscious about it, but what he said was when you're truly an artist - and other people have said it to- you risk. You can only talk about the work and behave about the work at the level that you participate in it, and you end up risking losing things. You end up risking seeming odd. You end up where you can't just talk cocktail conversation about what you do, because it's so important to you. And when people are going to parties and you have to go home because you have to work, or in this particular play, Sweet Storm, he said, 'your friends are going to hear a band play and you're going to go hear this southern baptist minister preach to a congregation of ten people, not because you want people to see you do that, but because you have to do that for your role', and just that willingness to commit. It becomes second nature after awhile, but it's a risk of people thinking that you're different than they are, and you take the risk of letting go of some things, and you have to, but you're not doing these things because you want people to see you a certain way, you're doing them because you do your work a certain way.

Right, and then people say, 'you need a community to make that more tolerable', but you're probably not going to get your friends to go see the southern baptist minister. You have to go by yourself. And so do they.

Your friends are the ones who understand when you don't go to their birthday party because you're off doing something that you have to do, or you're writing or immersed in a world.

And it can be isolating.

It is. That's what writing is. It's isolating but you have to go there. You have to be willing to be isolated.

In talking about your work, it's like, when do you give the soundbite and when do you give the real process? I had a friend who applied to the graduate directing program at Yale and she sent, as part of application package, some collages that show her process and she said, now- two years later, she wouldn't do that because she felt it was too personal. That it was her process that she didn't need to share with them. I think it can be hard to negotiate that kind of decision.

I didn't understand that there was a community in which I could talk about the work at the level that I wanted to talk about it, because I was often intimidated to be in the circle of what I thought were real artists and think that I could have that conversation. And yet, I was always uncomfortable about being around people who didn't talk about it seriously, so, for awhile, I used it as a crutch, but then I started realizing that it is personal and you have to find your community where it's right.

The play that I'm directing right now is a one-character play. I didn't have to tell the whole cast what it was about, but I talked to a whole theater company, and the level at which we talked about the play, you know- they were excited to hear it. But two days ago, I was invited to talk at the board meeting, and I started to talk about the work at that level, and I saw that they didn't want to hear that. They're not ready to hear that, and so we went back to things that make the play good, that make the play exciting to an audience, but they didn't want to hear about personal exploration and spiritual crisis. Their eyes glazed over, and they got scared so yes, it's about finding that right audience.

The thing about grad school- and I teach at a grad school - the hardest thing about it is that they're teaching you so much craft that there is almost no time in those three years to be an artist. That what it takes to be an artist is tearing yourself inside and out, and looking at yourself and doing all that, and I know in the playwriting department at NYU, you can do all that, but for your TV class you need twenty pages, and for your playwriting class, you need thirty pages, and you need this all by tomorrow, and some weeks, sure, you can generate that when you're writing from craft, but when you're writing from inside of you, maybe its coming and maybe it's not.

So I hope, I hope that your friend would still send a collage. There are other things to communicate, but in there, they're really gonna see who they're getting, and who they're going to get to know, and I would find it sad if she were to think it wasn't a good idea, and I even think as artists, you start to feel like it's a business and there's a way I have to protect myself, and I have found recently, meaning the last two or three years, that I'm a lot better off if I'm presenting myself honestly to people, because then I know when I get a job, or I get accepted into a company, or teaching, that they want me, and not anyone else that could have done X,Y and Z. But it took me, and I've been working pretty solidly most of my post-college life- but it took me until about three years ago, to go 'Oh, I want the job where it's me, not anyone who can talk about writing or directing, but what do I bring to the table. That's what they want. That's an ownership thing, and you have to come to terms with the fact that some people don't want you.

It may have nothing to do with you.

It might be you. It might not be you. There might be four other people that have better collages, right? You don't know, and you can't control that. You can talk about understanding text. You can communicate that they can trust you to deliver the product at the end of the process, but how you got there is you. Again, it's like auditioning for a play. Actors are always like, if I only did this, or if I only did that, and there's like a million reasons why you didn't get cast, or there's only one reason why somebody else did, but if you didn't present the best you that you could present - because I'd hate to be in four or five weeks of rehearsal with somebody and find out that that wasn't them in the audition.

I think that's what inspired me about the origins of LAByrinth is that they created this space where you could go balls to the wall without losing the ability to do that in the grind of daily auditions, or what have you- that you could still be fearless, that you had a place to work that fearless muscle and I thought, wow, those people really knew how to take care of themselves as artists.

To answer the question of what inspires me, it's the people in LAB. Arthur Miller inspires me but the next five people are the people in that company who are constantly showing up as fully engaged artists and have that courage, and some are genius talents, and some are insane, but they are all balls to the wall showing what they got. That's the inspiration, where it's like, oh, I better do that.

For information about the reading, go to LAByrinth Theater Company.

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