Monday, August 26, 2013

Playwright Jonathan Caren on the Complexities of Privilege and Male Friendship

"I don't like perfect plays.  I want to see seams.  I like ALMOST perfect plays, but I still like when I can still see the hand behind the curtain."
-Jonathan Caren

What is The Recommendation about?

The Recommendation is about a friendship between a 1st generation Ethiopian American and his privileged new college roommate.  The friendship is equally intoxicating and corrupting.  When our main character finds out his friend made an empty promise, he goes out of his way to right his friend's wrong and it all backfires.

What was its inspiration?

I met a public defender at a dinner party who was working pro bono on Staten Island at the time. He shared some stories with me about some of people who were in and out of the system and how hard it was to reconcile the world he was a part of by day and the one he went home to at night.  I could identify, growing up with friends from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, but by no means to his extent, especially given his ethnic background. 

I was already interested in exploring the complexity of male friendship as well as invisible class boundaries, not necessarily through the lens of race, but the character I crafted ended up being of mixed race.  I would never have written this without my friend. There's a lot of dialogue in the play born directly out of our correspondences.   I dedicate the play to him. 

What was it's development process?

I had a first draft in early 2011 and a production at The Old Globe in January 2012.  It was a rare, incredibly fast process.   In the 10 months leading up to the production, I did a reading of it in MTC's 7@7 series, a closed reading at The Lark and a staged reading at The Berkshire Playwrights Lab.  All gave me a chance to clock audience reactions and further craft a complex story.

Development is a tricky thing.  I don't like perfect plays.  I want to see seams.  I like ALMOST perfect plays, but I still like when I can still see the hand behind the curtain. To me that is endearing. So in a way, I tried not to change my original impulses. With that said,   I changed the end of this after the Old Globe production and this will be the first time I see it with the new ending. There's nothing like a production to keep on developing. 

Director Kel Haney with Barron B. Bass and James J. Fouhey
How do you like to work with a director in and outside of the room?

I like directors who create a relaxed open environment but are steering the ship from underneath.  I also like directors who have a strong point of view.  As long as they are passionate about it, I don't mind if it differs from my own.  Ironically, I've had good experiences bumping up against directors from time to time. It's upsetting, but a contentious relationship lets you know what you stand for and what actually matters.  My worst experiences have been listening to a someone who tells me what is wrong with my play when I'm vulnerable and seizes the vision.  That's happened before, but  I have a big ole' gut now so I'm trusting it. 

How did you come to playwriting and theater in general?

Man.  I fell in love with theater at an early age.   I was a jock. Loved hoops, still do.  In junior high, I watched my sister perform in Nicholas Nickleby.  Little did I know by my junior year I'd be on a stage (I used to act. Wish I still did more of it!).  In college, I fell in love with writers like David Lindsay-Abaire, Steven Adly Guirgis and Jon Robin Baitz, but I didn't formally study theater. I  thought I'd be a therapist or something.  But I kept at it and I was doing theater in LA for a good while. I had my own little company and was producing one-act evenings until I moved back to New York.  It was my favorite way of socializing -- to create something from nothing.   Hey, still is!

What is your writing schedule?

Morning, noon and night!  When I'm mentally in it, I'm in it to win it. When I'm not -- it's pulling teeth to feel anything but hungry.

Salty or sweet?

Sweet.   All the way. It's a problem.

When you get stuck, what do you do?

I turn to friends who are writers.  What writer doesn't want to take a break from writing to complain about it?  I've learned to pick up a book.  Any book. And try to find anything in that book that sparks something.
Most importantly, I try to pay attention to the moment.  Whatever is happening to me in that very moment-- it will inform what I'm working on.  A walk down the street?  You'll see something if you keep your eyes open.   If I feel stuck, then there's something in a character that probably feels stuck too.  Sometimes I free write how I'm feeling…Feels pretty redundant sometimes, but then eventually I start to understand something about my characters or the plot that I didn't understand prior.  

Jonathan Caren with one of his inspirations, his Uncle Steve
What inspires you?

Um lets see.  The Rattlestick, Clubbed Thumb, Colt Coer, Lesser America, Partial Comfort.  Downtown theater.  As well as E.S.T and Ars Nova, I like people who are willing to put things out there and risk the humiliation. That takes guts.  I'm not saying I like everything that is produced downtown. But it's like my spidey-sense can tell when something is born out of a collective inspiration -- like a story that everyone feels so passionate about they're willing to just DO IT.  Or when it's more a vanity project, then it's harder to enjoy.  I don't mind theater that is simply there to make you have a good time.  Not everything has to have some incredible meaning.  The ability to entertain is no small feat, so I admire the hell out of something that is witty and fun.  But when something examines a topic I want to know more about, or I see a character I've never met before on stage and then know that much more about the world because of it -- that's inspiring.  

What's next?

I head to the MacDowel to finish up work on a new 3 hander called SCREENS.  THE RECOMMENDATION will premiere in LA this winter with the LA based I.A.M.A company, directed by Laura Savia.  

The Recommendation is written by Jonathan Caren, directed by Kel Haney and features The Bats: Barron Bass, James Fouhey, Alex J. Gould, Donaldo Prescod, Orlando Rivera, and Austin Trow.  It runs now through September 22nd at the Flea Theatre in NYC. Theaterspeak recommends you get your tix asap here.

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