Eumenides is adapted from the classic Greek text by Aeschylus. What drew you to this story, and what makes it pertinent in today's age?
Actually, Kevin Newbury, a director who I’ve worked with a lot, brought the project to me three years ago. He was working with a group that was doing a full evening Oresteia, with different adaptations for each of the three parts. He got me a commission to do Eumenides. The guys from Blue Coyote saw the evening, and said that if I adapted the other two parts, they would be interested in producing it. I went to the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and asked for a grant to take some time off so I could finish it.
It was definitely something that the deeper I dug, the more interested I got. I read obsessively for months—I’m kind of obsessive when something really grabs me—lots of other adaptations of Aeschylus, other Greek writers’ takes on the story, like Euripides’ Orestes and his Iphigenia plays, Strindberg’s The Father, O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneiad, Hesiod, Edith Hamilton, Bullfinch, Jung, Joseph Campbell. I even watched that awful Katharine Hepburn Trojan Women. Wow is that bad.
What drew me to it were the contradictions—you can’t solve these people, you can’t explain them—you can only embrace their paradoxes. Aeschylus was just great. He knew how to write a play. He didn’t trust answers. He was all about questions. Is war worth it? Is it ever OK to murder? What does it mean to love your family?
The more I read him, the more I wish I could have hung out with him. Which is not how I feel about Henry James.
You work frequently with Blue Coyote Theater Group. How did you first hook up with them? And what do you like about working with them?
I love those guys. I first hooked up with them when Carter Jackson, an actor who I knew from the Neighborhood Playhouse, took them my one-act, Leaving Tangier. Then, it turned out Jane Casserly, another actor friend of mine, worked with them a lot, and Jonna McElrath, who’s directed my one-acts and done a bunch of my plays, went to college with Stephen Speights. They wanted to do Busted Jesus, and I thought, you’re crazy. No one wants to do this play. I don’t know you! Why the hell should I let you do this play! You’re crazy! But they were persistent and patient with my skittishness, so I finally succumbed and lost my full NYC production virginity to Blue Coyote.
We work well together. None of us likes to talk things to death. No one gets bent out of shape when their own idea doesn’t fly. No one brings their ego into the room. None of them are screamers, door slammers or table bangers. (It’s hard for me to work with those types.) It’s all about what’s best for the play. And those guys work like slaves to get it done. And they’re very, very smart.
There are four of them, you know—Bob, Gary, Kyle, Stephen. All of them very interesting, very different people. And group dynamics say four shouldn’t work when it comes to making decisions. Someone needs to make the call. They sort of defy all conventional wisdom on how a group makes decisions. They switch roles—directing, producing, acting, doing the paperwork, painting the lobby, fundraising, writing the songs—they do what needs to get done.
You also trained as an actor. For you, how does acting inform your own writing, and vice versa?
I wouldn’t be a playwright if I hadn’t been an actor. No way. If you’re an actor, you’re gonna do a lot of bad plays. And I always think, could I stand onstage and say this? And if you get to do good plays as an actor—and I got to do a few—you can feel what works, what an audience responds to, what’s exciting to work on, rather than something you just desperately flog at and pray no one notices how lousy it is.
I tend to work with a lot of the same actors over and over—like Vince Gatton, for one. Nell Gwynn. Jonna McElrath. Brian Fuqua. I like writing for actors I know. I fall in love with an actor who gets what’s on the page, and then shows me something that never occurred to me.
An old friend came to a show of mine recently. She’s a lawyer and she sees all my stuff. She loves the theatre—she’s in the theatre five nights a week. And she asked me after the show, how involved are you in casting? And I said, very. She said, you always use actors with really distinctive, expressive voices. Which I never realized. But it makes sense because I’m so keyed into how the play sounds.
You're a longtime member of Charles Maryan's Playwrights/Directors Workshop. Tell us a little more about him and the workshop.
Actually—circles within circles within circles—Chuck was directing two of my one-acts in student productions at the Neighborhood Playhouse several years ago. And one of the student actors was Carter Jackson. Who was then in one of the first Blue Coyote shows about a year later. And then took them the plays of mine he’d worked on at the Playhouse.
Everything I’ve ever had produced started in Chuck’s workshop. It’s a very smart bunch of playwrights—Ed Musto is in there, who first put me in touch with Martin. Whatever I’m working on, I take in there in whatever shape it’s in, and listen to what everyone has to say. It’s a closed workshop, not open to the public. So you can try anything. Low pressure. And it’s not a catty bunch. Everyone is dealing with the same issues in getting their work done, so people just listen and tell you what they heard. And Chuck is invaluable, because he offers a director’s point of view. How would you put this onstage? What are the traps? Is a producer gonna pay for that guy who comes in and has five lines?
I came into the workshop over ten years ago, and I didn’t really take myself seriously as a writer. I just thought of myself as an actor who dabbled. And Chuck said, look you can do this, and you should have some respect for that.
Chuck made me take myself seriously as a writer. I owe him a lot. He’s a good
In college, you majored in Theatre, but minored in Psychology. What made you choose that particular field? And does your interest in Psychology continue today?
I would have double-majored except then I would have had to shock a rat. So I got a minor instead. I was just very interested in psychology—still am. And yet, I seem to always write scenes in my plays where I make fun of shrinks.
Your bio states that you can't remember a time when you didn't want to be involved in the theatre. Do you remember what first sparked your interest in it?
I used to stand on the coffee table when I was a kid and act out commercials at my parents’ parties. I was a weird kid. I was glued to the TV or had my nose in a comic book. My father was an academic—he taught business, and a close friend of his was named Tom Holloway. Tom taught theatre. He and his wife Phyllis were my godparents. And when I was an adolescent, Tom cast me as the kid roles in his plays at the college. I was in Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, I was the little kid carrying the nurse’s fan in Romeo and Juliet. I loved it. It was more fun than anything in the world. Tom’s gone now. He passed away in the early nineties. I wish he could have gotten to see one of my plays, but he would probably bitch about something in the second act. Tom liked to bitch. I think my father still holds him responsible for me not majoring in business.
Interview with David Johnston was conducted by Michael Criscuolo September 2006.