Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Amoralists' Derek Ahonen on his play Happy In The Poorhouse and other thangs - part 1

"The natural dialogue in my brain is not necessarily that funny. It’s like FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU, but I understand what they’re really saying. It’s just coming out fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, then that’s where you add in lines like 'baby duck kissing my heart'."

You studied acting at The American Academy, did you study playwriting there as well?

No, I never studied playwriting.

When did you start writing?

In ’03. I always wanted to. I like making theater in general, like all aspects of it, so I started acting, then I started writing, then I started directing two years ago so it’s just a natural progression. The writing took off a lot more than my acting career ever did, so that’s the one I’m definitely sticking to.

Were your first plays for The Amoralists?

No, that was my third play. My first play was done by a theater company that is no longer together called Wooden Eye Productions. They saw there was something about the work that they liked, that it was raw, and I spent about six months rewriting it with them and that got done in the summer of ’03.

I started sending my plays out to the major theaters and I would just either never hear back from them or it would be like a year later, and it seemed hopeless. The guys weren’t where they wanted to be in their acting career so they convinced me to go out to L.A. because they had seen some of their friends go out there and get some minor successes. We went out there and it wasn’t our thing, but we realized that our thing wasn’t really happening in New York either but we all had some good day jobs at the time that really allowed us to hunker down and put down a couple hundred dollars a week in order to start the company so that’s what we did.

How long did it take from the decision to start the company to producing your first play?

We got back in the November of ’06 and our first play was up at the Kraine in May of ’07. I had written a play that summer called While Chasing The Fantastic and they really liked it.

Did you write it with them in mind?

No, because we had no idea that the company was going to get started then. It’s funny because that play, without knowing that it was ever going to get done, is more experimental and with the deadlines that I have now with the company, where one show ends and I’ve got three months to finish the next one before casting, the shows themselves have become more manic. There has been no experimentation form-wise. It’s just lights up and lights down, simple old-school style. I was thinking about that the other day, where if I had all the time in the world to write something, would the style change dramatically or not.

So what are some of the things you guys did to get the company going? Did you have production experience?

Matt and James had worked in production at our old school and had worked with another company, and Matt and I had done a play with a company in Texas where we pretty much had to do everything ourselves, so we knew how to get a show up in seven weeks. The things that were actually difficult were learning about rentals, and spaces, and legal shit, and contracts, and how to get the word out about the show, all the marketing stuff that we had to learn on the fly. We didn’t even know you needed a press rep, we just figured you’re doing a show and everybody finds out somehow. Now we know. There are now five people doing it as opposed to three.

How long was your first run?

Three weeks and then we did the Pied Piper (the first time) for four weeks and that was written specifically for the company with a deadline. The five previous plays have been done with the same formula. When the show ends, I have two months to write it, we have two months to rehearse it, and we run for a month and a half.

So when you write it, do you have reading at all or have people come to your apartment to hear it?

No, I tell them about their characters, like James is playing a cop, he’s got a stutter, his mom left him, he’s insecure so then, when we read the play, everybody knows their characters, but they don’t necessarily know their role. It’s a pain in the ass when you start doing all these readings every ten pages because there are too many cooks, “let’s have it go in this direction”, “I don’t understand what’s going on here” and I don’t necessarily know. They sort of reveal themselves to me as I’m writing it and I can’t sit here and explain arcs and themes until the things already done. Then I can sharpen it and punch it up and make it funny. So it’s pretty much just me doing my own thing.

Do you do rewrites in rehearsal?

Yeah, well not major rewrites, but we punch it up. I always listen to my actors when they want to dirty their characters, if their character seems to clean, how can we make it more interesting, create more problems, and I never listen to them if they want to clean their character up or make them sexier. We have a good system of checks and balances when it comes to egos. We’re always in the business of making it funnier, like in this show, when Matt does that thing with the arm, that’s all him.

I was interviewing Daniel Talbot the other day and I mentioned I was going to see Happy in the Poorhouse and talk to you guys, and he told me about the first scene in The Pied Piper of The Lower East Side where the guy comes out with a huge boner. Would you say you guys have a certain aesthetic that you’re going for?

Pied Piper is similar to this in that there’s no scene changes, everything happens in the course of one day. We like to mix highs and lows. We like to mix really intelligent comedic writing with base bathroom humor and the drama - there’s a lot of emotion. We want to juggle the dramatic and the comedic at the same time, so literally if something’s funny, funny, funny then right underneath is a dramatic moment.

Did that happen naturally in your writing?

That’s the type of stuff that I always liked in seventies films and there aren’t that many actors that have that comedic eye that understand that it’s absurd and can hit both comedic and dramatic marks at the same time. I don’t know that many people that can do it so having the people that can allows me to really go after moments like that and put them in the show and make them bigger. I feel some of the work that they’re doing here – like the Ring Cycle by Wagner, only like five people on the face of the earth can sing it, so it’s never done, and I feel like some of my actors are like that too. It’s a good synergy right now.

So you have two months to write your plays. Where do you start?

We’re all heavy drinkers, and we’re always at the bars afterward and always having some kind of conversation that sparks something, like if your husband or your boyfriend couldn’t bring themselves to sleep with you. It would just destroy you emotionally because it’s what you don’t know that drives you crazy. If you know you got a womanizing husband, you know you have to keep an eye on him, or control him, or divorce him or vice versa with a woman too, but if he just couldn’t do it, your mind would start racing and you would just be in this manic state.

That was the impetus of this story, and then we decided that we wanted to make it feel like it took place in the fifties. We always like to have things take place now but feel like they’re from a different era, so you got that romantic kind of feel to it. And we started thinking about a story about dreamers, and Coney Island is kind of a carnival with a lot of crazy people, so we wanted to add in these characters where nobody’s quite made it, and then we connected that to kind of like this lost generation in America right now, where everybody’s being told to scale down their expectations, and that got carried into the story with like, maybe paradise is just a happily, married couple with a good sex life. Lower all of your expectations and maybe that’s more beautiful than your dreams were to begin with.

So it sounds like the play came out of conversations you all had and then you sort of took that and started writing.

Basically having an eye for when there’s a story. So when we’re sitting around talking, I’m looking for the thing that’s going to spark the next story. We don’t sit down collectively and write the story, or even draw out the story. It’s just that the story happens. I feel like it happens with all of us, and I’m the one who’s structuring it, and giving it words, and giving it life, and then they have to go live it. All the things that are in the show are things that we talk about anyway.

We’re all coming up on thirty – everyone’s more or less right above or below thirty, and things are a lot different than when you’re twenty-one just getting out of acting school. You think all these breaks are going to happen. You think one and one equals two. We’re not cynical or anything, but it’s been a humbling ten years, and these conversations about dreams and expectations are what we have naturally, in regards to ourselves in New York City, and it’s just basically finding a structure to make all these ideas accessible and entertaining to the audience, because that’s our problem with a lot of theater, actually - so many brilliant theater artists who are in their room, like mad scientists, that when I read it on the page, it’s genius but it doesn’t ever become accessible to an audience. Either it’s not funny enough, or it doesn’t move fast enough, there’s not enough love in it, so at the end of the day, we’re all on the same page that it’s about the audience.

So what’s the next play you’re going to write?

Our next show is Amerissiah which we did a year ago before the company got on the map, so we decided to that again. My next show with this company will be in the spring of next year at the earliest after Amerissiah, and we’re doing Adam Rapp’s play in the fall.

How did that come about?

He came and saw Pied Piper and then I went and saw Nocturne when he did a reading with Dallas Roberts, and we started talking, and he met with the boys and the rest of the company, and we started talking and drinking. We wanted to set up a formula where I did a spring and fall show and then we bring in a different guest writer each year for a summer show, and he was on the top of our list. We didn’t know if he had any material or could even do it so we sent him an email asking what he was up to and he was like, “hell yeah, I want to work with you guys” so that’s how that came about.

What’s your writing schedule like?

It’s a free for all. I’ve got my notebook on me 24/7 and it’s often five minutes on the subway, twenty minutes in the bar, when my girlfriend takes a shower and something hits me. It’s completely random. If I get a chance to go into the theater that I know we’re doing it in and just sit there and I can start to see the show happening in front of me as I’m writing, that helps. It’s never an office space. It needs to be dirty and the energy has to be high. It can’t be too calm. I need to grab it, grab the five pages of dialogue.

Has it always been that way?

It’s always how I’ve done it. I don’t have the attention span to sit for two hours
to do anything except to watch a play or a movie. I think that’s why the plays move so well is because they’re written in two minute increments, and I got to grab the next two minutes.

Do you go back?

I go back and there’s a lot of, like especially the stuff that’s really heightened, like the natural dialogue in my brain is not necessarily that funny. It’s like FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU, but I understand what they’re really saying. It’s just coming out fuck you, fuck you, fuck you then that’s where you add in lines like “baby duck kissing my heart”. You add the poetry and the humor later but on top of that fuck you energy, the emotional truth is there. We’re always looking for a funnier way to say something.

And how do you have time for a day job or is that something you have to do at this point?

Oh, well right now I guess I’m going to start looking for something. I had a job at a comedy club working on the staff and the whole thing went under, so I’m kind of looking for a job. There’s starting to be some money with this so…

Do you pay yourself as a playwright? How do you work that out?

The last two shows have been financially successful so there’s been money at the end for everyone to get a little taste. It would be enough for everyone to live on if we did seven shows a year with all the same people but as it is, it’s only three shows with some people only doing one show a year. So right now everyone’s pretty much still gotta work. But hopefully – I know that a lot of the actors are meeting with industry now and big agents.

Do you have an agent?

I have a manager and a few agents have come down over the past week and I have meetings with them over the next ten days so we’ll see what happens. I guess the best possible thing that can happen for me, you know if I don’t want to write a jingle or something like that, is to get the plays in the colleges.

What about TV?

TV, yeah…my manager doesn’t know theater as much as he knows television so he’s trying to get me on some shows that he’s connected with as a staff writer, but that’s a completely different type of writing too. It’s five people all in a room, just doing it together. Here it’s me, and then everybody tries to make it funnier, but at the end of the day, it’s this thing that I wrote alone. I can’t imagine what five people just plugging away at ten episodes together every day for eight hours would be like.

What about film?

I wrote a screenplay one time but I don’t think it’s very good. This is like cocaine for me because every time a show is over, I’m going to be clean and I’m going to focus on my career, and I’m going to write that golden movie and then it’s like yeah, I could do that for two months, or I could write a show that I can guarantee will be up on stage three months from now. There’s not a lot of money, and sometimes there’s no money or god forbid we owe money if we have a flop or something, but I can’t walk away from it. I can’t get away from it.

Two years ago if you had told me about all the press, and all the attention these shows would get, or even sitting here talking to you right now, doing an interview about the company, I woulda shit myself. I woulda been like, “that would be the greatest thing ever! I don’t give a fuck about money! Who cares about any of that shit!” and I’m still like that to a certain extent, but now, it’s scary because I thought you just do your job well in life and the money comes. Jimi Hendrix didn’t want to be Jimi Hendrix, he just wanted to play rock and roll and that made him Jimi Hendrix. That brought him all the money. So it’s kinda weird to see that we’re doing exactly what we want to do, and people are liking it, but there’s still no financial anything. I’m out here trying to do this dream, and a whole generation of my family has died off over the last ten years in Chicago, and you don’t get to go back for all the holidays and actively be part of the life. Seven or eight great aunts and uncles have kicked it that I was close to when I was a kid in the eighties and nineties and stuff, and I don’t feel like I was there for the end of it, and I just say thems the rules when you follow your dreams.

Happy In The Poorhouse, is enjoying an extended run at Theater 80 through April 26th.

This is part one of a two part interview on The Amoralists. The next installment is an interview with producing partner and actress Meghan Ritchie.

1 comment:

  1. wow. that last comment about living the dream as an artist really sums the bittersweet reality for all of us. we have to live and make money but if jimi hendrix were "trying" to be huge, it never would have worked. sigh.