Movies have been a prominent theme in your recent work: two of your plays, Death at Film Forum and The Children of Truffaut, evoke specific cinematic oeuvres in their titles alone. What interests you about them? And what is like over there at the intersection of film and theatre?
Unlike theatre-making, movie-making creates a nice, tidy little product one can pretty much consume at will (on demand with Netflix, or with anthological guidance from your local art-house cinema, a la Film Forum). The theatre of Tadeusz Kantor is gone for good — the movies of Godard remain. (I guess this is part of the secret joy and endless sorrow of the theatre — its now-ness.) I think that's my main impetus for using cinema as a reference — it is so much easier to put ones hands on what the masters in that genre are/were doing. What interests me in Truffaut's work or in Andrei Tarkovsky's is the focus on and obsession with the human being. That's what I like about Faulkner, too. It's also — forgive me — what I like about reality TV (and why the "demise of the hour-long drama" means little to me). I like the investigation of the human. And I know that traditional drama supposedly does this through its fictions, but I find the experiments with media, the artful representations, and the quasi-philosophy of art-house cinema (or experimental theatre) so much more stimulating and boundary-destroying, with so much more sensuality and urgency. When memory fractures in a movie by Tarkovsky, or when the hero winks into the camera in a Godard film, I feel like I am witnessing a great mind transgressing, opening up the world, creating and enabling something new.
The intersection of film and theatre is sort of curious I guess. It provides more media in the investigation of people and their limitations and possibilities. It reflects current obsessions and trends. But I am less interested in clever concepts than I am in overwhelming energies. Also, you have to blame The Brick Theater a little bit. We made The Children of Truffaut for The Pretentious Festival they held. Then they came along and held The Film Festival the following year. I had anticipated writing a play called This is What We Do so We Don’t Kill Ourselves. When I found out the festival was going to be called The Film Festival: A Theatre Festival, I wrote Death at Film Forum instead. (Sort of the same thing perhaps… one goes to Film Forum to avoid suicide… not really!… maybe… hrmmm.)
You run your own theatre company, Old Kent Road Theatre. What made you decide to start a company? And what does the name signify?
I went to school for a year in London to study Writing for Performance and received an M.A. degree. While there, I attempted to follow the Yankees in the playoffs by going to a bar in Central London where they showed the games at 2am (I saw Rudy Giuliani there once—it was the only bar showing baseball in the city pretty much). One night, while traveling there through the mean streets of Southeast London by bus, I was mugged by four youths on Old Kent Road, a pretty depressing stretch with a pretty cool name. So I decided to name the company after that, which is either morbid or triumphal. I also like that we're named after a place, because places represent different things to different people, they're very open associatively. I also also like that it's a place in London instead of New York, because that's sort of funny to me. Or it used to be.
We started a company to do work. To do plays. To actually do them. I don't know what else to say. I will say that I love working with the same actors and designers on projects. It is immensely rewarding. It creates a sense of family — with familial loyalty, understanding, bickering, and bonding. For me, if you removed the independence such a venture provides, and the personal relationships it engenders, I'm not sure the whole thing would be worth the trouble. But, as is, it is.
Actor Scott Eckert has appeared in many of your shows over the last couple of years, and has played a big part in the development of Old Kent Road. How did you two first start working together? And what do you like about working with him?
I like everything about working with him. He's a great friend and his talent blows me away. He gets raves after every performance. I'm extremely lucky to work with him — he's an incredibly busy person in many different fields, and he just can't do all the projects he'd like to do, and he's only going to get busier. I got in on the ground floor with him (which is true of my relationship with so many of the actors I work with repeatedly — they are so talented — if you want amazing actors, come to our plays — feel free to love or loathe the play — but chase down the actors, they deliver).
Scott and I founded the Old Kent Road Theatre together, and we've watched each other grow within its framework. I'’m usually the one on podcasts and, as the writer/director, I get a lot of credit for the work. But without Scott there would be no company, full stop.
We met in college, but it was after school that we really got to know one another. He's from the Midwest and I'm from the South (though we're both more so from the 'suburbs'’) which gives us some sort of bond of earnestness, a quasi-chivalric code, and a slight homesickness for Applebee's and backyards. Simultaneously, we're quite different (we fought bitterly over the Democratic primary, a scene that ended with me in tears in Penn Station and with the two of us '‘hugging it out' outside Auntie Annie's near the A/C/E).
When you do more than ten productions together over the course of three or four years you become family. Scott knows how to calm me down, how to provide leadership, and how to get things done, creatively and functionally. In downtown theatre, having someone who will spend thirteen hours in a row with you in a theatre spray-painting, hanging scenery, waxing floors, and haggling over the price of carpeting means everything. Then you go out for beers and burritos with the guy, you're exhausted, and suddenly you're like, "I'm really enjoying my life; I'm lucky." Scott is one of the funniest, smartest, and most caring human beings I know. I'm probably not answering your question very well, but perhaps you get the essence of what he means to me — I'm interested in human beings and Scott is an amazing one.
You've said before that you stumbled into theatre by accident, that you didn't choose it and it didn't choose you. Could you tell us some more about that?
I'm interested in art and the artistic process more than I am interested in theatre per se. Theatre is the medium that works best for me, I guess, in pursuing that process. Watching the History of Broadway on PBS is something that excites me less than watching a documentary on Andy Warhol, for instance. I'd rather read about Hannah Arendt in the New Yorker than a review of the latest show in England. Of course, I'm fascinated when it all intersects, as it does in the world of Richard Maxwell or Grotowski or The Wooster Group or August Strindberg or whatever.
For the most part, I entered the world of the theatre because the Princeton University Triangle Club (an ancient musical/sketch comedy group) seemed like a fun thing to join in college. They'd let me write silly things. That institution was incredibly nurturing, and so I continued with it, learning many different things, experiencing stages and audiences in a sink-or-swim environment.
Theatre does work for me for a couple reasons. Dialogue offers one a get-out-of-jail-free card. You can be expressive and philosophical and sloppy and overwrought and blame it all on the character. You don't need to be as precise as a novelist or as thorough as a philosopher, but you can enter the worlds of literature and philosophy at will. Theatre also offers an immediate, sensual relationship — that which unfolds between the play and its audience. It's a quick romance that can go sour or go ecstatic, depending on the night.
I understand your dad has been a big influence on you as a writer. How so?
He has. Thank you for asking. My dad, who passed away three years ago, was a writer/communicator who penned crazy, idiosyncratic stuff that people found weird and original and disorienting, and I’m sure he suffered the pros and cons of that. He was the Director of Communications for the teachers' union in Virginia. In addition to a love for language and a propensity for strangeness, I also learned a love for alone-ness from him. He was always there for our family, but he'’d also haunt the local Friendly's or Waffle House, pen and pad in hand, and write for hours as his cup of coffee trickled away like an hourglass, passing time with his thoughts and feelings. My dad was the kind of person who told his children that they were very special, while simultaneously informing them that they were no more special than anyone else. In this, I think, he was a supreme humanist. He was a gentleman and a scholar, curious and brave. And he liked jazz and hot peppers.
You are one of a growing number of Plays and Playwrights alumni who used to play sports, either professionally or in school. Is there any connection, for you, between athletics and the arts? And do you still play any sports?
I spent three seasons playing professional baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ever heard of ’em? That is a lie. In high school I was the bullpen catcher for our baseball team (we were very good, though, I'll have you know, and I was a perennial All-Star back in Little League, I promise).
There is a connection — all of the sports I grew up on were team sports. There was a lot of team practice and then the nerve-wracking event (the game) where the team came together to fight, after which the team would celebrate or rally around itself. The discipline, preparation, pressure… all of this, yes, is something I find in the theatre, which I would not find so much if I were writing novels or poetry. Yes, I do love it.
There's also an underlying music in each — coordination and reflexes demanded of the body, mental focus and zoning, a rhythmic interplay between performer and audience.
I run and exercise these days for some torturous reason (self-discipline, a form of asceticism). I'd love to get back into baseball/softball.
I know you've got a new play called The Protestants up and running right now. What's it about and what inspired it?
Off our post-card: The Protestants uses the framework of a Methodist church service to chart a tragicomic year in the life of four weird brothers: one is a puppet, one wears a mask, one is a girl, and one grew a moustache. One part Royal Tenenbaums, one part
Faulkner, this evocative, free-wheeling play penetrates the rural, central Virginian landscape with characters of big desire, big personality, and big problem in an atmosphere where the need and the notion of God lurks throughout to illuminate things forgiven, things forsaken.
It’s at The Brick in Williamsburg and runs until February 14th; check out www.bricktheatre.com for details.
It's a story that's been in my head for a long time. It's about the South and church and family. It's about the contradictions of being human, of love and death — how things can be beautiful despite the ending we all know is coming — or how empty we can feel even when we've got it all figured out. It's a happy story overall, to me: a story of protesting. I hope it's also pretty funny and original. Ryan Holsopple called my last play "touching." That meant a tremendous amount to me.
Interview with Eric Bland was conducted by Michael Criscuolo January 2009.