Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Q&A with playwright Stephen Gracia

For our first ever barefoot interview, long time barefoot family member, Mark von Sternberg helps us get to know our featured playwright a little better.

Mark von Sternberg: When did you first get involved with Barefoot, was it for Complete Control? (Stephen’s first written and produced play.)
Stephen Gracia: Yes. So, Spring/Summer of 2000
MvS: How did it happen? Were you looking to get stuff produced?
SG: Not at all. I wasn't a playwright then. I was a poetry major in Brooklyn College and was working at the tutoring center, when, unbeknownst to me, John Harlacher (Barefoot company member) started using a poem of mine that had appeared in the school’s undergrad poetry journal as an audition piece. He showed it to Michael LoPorto (Barefoot’s Associate Director), and Michael asked me to write a play for Barefoot.
MvS: So you were commissioned. Lucky bastard.
SG: (Laughing) Yeah. Based off of one short poem. Boy, did Mike take a gamble on me.
MvS: So you just kind of fell into it then.
SG: Absolutely. I had taken an Intro to Playwriting course the semester before only because, in the poetry program, you need to take one writing course outside your discipline, and all the fiction classes were full. I wrote two dialogues and a monologue while there, but I never considered developing them into anything.
MvS: And then after that I guess it's safe to assume you caught the bug.
SG: I'd say so. Poetry is such an isolated genre. There's no collaboration; most poets hate each other; there's no push to get published. It’s not like publishing companies are out hunting for the latest hot young poet, so it’s easier to just write in solitude and stuff it in a drawer. Theater was this entirely different world.
MvS: So obviously you like the collaborative element.
SG: Definitely.
MvS: How much do you pipe up during rehearsals? That's got to be a tough thing for a playwright, losing the level of control.
SG: I'm happy to give it up, actually. I want to see how others approach my work. I often think about eventually trying my hand at acting or directing, but I'd never want to direct or act in one of my plays.
MvS: Why not?
SG: Too insular, if I wanted everything to just be about my vision, I would have stuck to poetry. I've done readings of my poems where everything is shaped by me: my tone, my rhythm...gestures, setting, and being alone up there wasn’t something I wanted to continue. I always wanted to be part of a band, not a solo artist.
MvS: So you're not Woody Allen is what you're saying.
SG: (Laughing) No.
MvS: You're from Brooklyn - right? Born and bred?
SG: Yep. Born in Windsor Terrace, grew up near Marine Park, and lived my adult life in Sheepshead Bay, Cobble Hill, and now Greenwood Heights.
MvS: A lot of your characters are Brooklyn types, kooky Brooklyn personalities... obviously you know the borough pretty well - what is Brooklyn about to you?
SG: Brooklyn is such a diverse and constantly changing place, so many cultures are represented here, and the neighborhoods are constantly in flux. The Brooklyn I live in now bears almost no resemblance to the one I was born into, and that’s just within 34 years.
MvS: Do you think of yourself as a "Brooklyn playwright?"
SG: Yes, absolutely. There's so much here to be inspired by. A Park Slope story is entirely different than a Gerritsen Beach one. Both are valid; both are equally Brooklyn.
MvS: This is sort of a generic writer question, but I feel like we're going there - Where do you get the ideas for plays & stories?
SG: Often the ideas come from music, which is why so many of my plays are named after songs: Complete Control, My Love is in Amerikay, Mohammed’s Radio, etc. Usually a lyric will suggest a character or a setting, and then I build from there, often incorporating situations I’ve been in or things I’ve read, but music is always the through line. If you look at one of my notebooks, you’ll see bits of lyrics or song titles next to character descriptions and dialogue. Sometimes if I’m sitting and writing in a bar, something that comes on the jukebox will completely change the direction of a scene or illuminate a character. Case in point, I was struggling with the relationship between Alice and her daughter Kelly in Mohammed’s Radio, but suddenly, and this may not have happened in a bar since 1994, the woman next to me requested some Mother Love Bone, and things just clicked. Alice wanted to call her daughter “Chloe” because of the MLB song “Chloe Dancer” but compromised on Kelly. Right then, the moment of Kelly’s conception was situated very specifically in time, as were some of Alice’s personality traits.
MvS: So you don't get too cerebral at first, it's all about flow and feel?
SG: Yes. I'm really bad at outlining or setting up an arc. I just start with a character or situation and let it develop from there.
MvS: You mentioned writing at bars... how many can you swing back before you can't read your own notes?
SG: (Laughing) Three would be my absolute limit. Once you hit three, you're just drinking.
MvS: Where do you write usually? Wherever you can?
SG: For a while, it was only at home, and only on my computer, but now I find I focus a bit better if I’m in a cafe or a bar. I hate turning into one of those “hey, watch me write!” guys, but it’s just easier to devote two hours to writing if you aren’t distracted by email, laundry, making dinner, etc.
MvS: Do you think of any sort of central theme or commonality in your plays?
SG: That's hard...I've been thinking about it a lot lately... Let me turn the tables here.
MvS: uh-oh
SG: As someone who's seen most of what I've done, do you think there's a thread?
SG: MWah-ha-ha! I win the interview!
MvS: (Laughing) Checkmate. You got me. Okay, here goes...
I notice two things: First: you like to make character parallels, like characters that are coming from the same place in their minds but in terms of the physical and tangible, total different places. Although that’s more as a device than an actual "theme"
SG: Hmm... I can definitely see that.
MvS: Second thing, and this is probably way too vague to make any sense, but there's like a "dirty mysticism" in your plays.
SG: "Dirty Mysticism"?! I love that!
MvS: Like the characters have filthy, vulgar mouths, but they are super introspective. Like they want to be in the shit, and they love the shit because they want to figure stuff out, but at the same time: they are in shit.
SG: Hmmm, interesting... I like characters that are born into an awful situation but maintain some nobility despite their experiences and characters who become savage in similar situations...finding the human in the monster...the sacred in the vulgar I guess. Israel Horovitz once said something wonderful about writers whose “fathers were given to violence and whose mothers sang at the sink while doing dishes” and that’s the situation I came from; Israel said that he’s written plays for his father (the dark ones) and ones for his mother (the lighter ones). I haven’t written one for my mother yet, but I expect that someday I will. Something less filthy, perhaps.
MvS: how did you become Literary Manager of Barefoot
SG: Francisco (Barefoot’s Producing Artistic Director) invited me into the company in 2005. My professional background is in education: teaching college English classes, teaching playwriting to High School kids through an outreach program, and, now, guiding students through the prestigious scholarship process at Brooklyn College. So, I was eager to get involved in a situation where I would be reading and workshoping plays by emerging writers.
MvS: And what do you look for in scripts?
SG: I look for something that moves me, and what moves me is a play that desperately needs to communicate something important: be it a personal experience or a universal truth. A Barefoot play needs to be something that is barely contained on the page. It demands your attention. Every play we’ve ever produced was done because the company member who read it said: “I couldn’t put it down.” As a company, I don’t think we have a voice as much as we have an attitude. I want to be changed by what I read. It’s the way we grow as a company. If it doesn’t inspire, challenge, and emotionally affect us, then it’s not for us.
MvS:....and what makes Barefoot Theatre Company a prominent force in the theatre community...
SG: We’ve been at this for ten years, which is not at all typical, and we’ve gotten sharper as we’ve grown. I am constantly awed by our actors and directors, and it’s a very nurturing environment for young playwrights. We’re not in theater as stepping stone to other careers; we’re here because we are dedicated to the art form.
MvS: Last question: What do you want to see more of in theater scene, if anything?
SG: More honest work that makes better use of the avant-garde. What I mean is, there has to be ways to create a narrative that connects with an audience but is still non-linear and creative. When I go to see something that has Avant-garde tropes, I’m impressed, floored even, but too often I don’t care about the characters. I don't leave the theater changed in anyway. Seeing a play should be a transformative experience, so somewhere between pure entertainment and intellectual exercises is where the great work is.
(Stephen Gracia's upcoming work in progress will next be featured at our bareNaked Reading Series on Tues, March 10th; von Sternberg will also been seen in the 70/70 Horovitz Project. )

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