Your play, Story of an Unknown Man, is adapted from a story by Chekhov. Tell us a little bit about both the play and the story, and what inspired you to adapt it.
Well, the powers that be over at Gorilla Rep at the time wanted to do an adaptation of the novella, so they asked me to take a look at it. I did, and it spoke to me. This was a very different Chekhov from the Uncle Vanya/Three Sisters Chekhov we are all so familiar with. It is very political, and it is urban. And though there are a couple of characters we recognize as distinctly Chekhovian, there is also a great deal of action. This made me start to think about the trajectory of Chekhov the writer. And that very much informed my thinking on the adaptation. First, I created a framing device for the play. We start, believe it or not, in present day Chechnya. An acting troupe stumbles into a village. They are hungry, but they have nothing to barter with. So, they agree to perform a play. That play is The Story of an Unknown Man. I have Chekhov enter the scene as well—stay with me here. He is also inserted into the story. There is an element here of Chekhov escaping from the political to the personal.
I notice that you have three degrees from Columbia University: a Bachelor's, and two Master's. You must have really liked it there.
Yes. And it was in New York. I could study and still pursue my love of theatre.
I see you also have a Ph.D. in Dramatic Literature. Should I call you Dr. Pennino?
What made you first start writing?
Well, my trajectory, I think, is similar to a lot of writers. I started out acting. But that was far from satisfying. I was only telling one part of the story. Then I went to directing. But then I was telling someone else's story. So I moved to playwriting where I was telling the entirety of my story. I think there is something particularly exciting about playwriting over other forms of genre writing. With playwriting, you work in collaboration with a group of other artists to bring this other world to life. You encourage other artists to accept your vision and participate in it and to add to it. I've taken some stabs at prose, but I find this more rewarding.
How did you first become interested in the theatre?
I have to credit my parents for that. They were taking me to see shows since I was a little kid. I've always found it to be a magical place.
You are also a college professor in New Jersey. Where do you work, and what do you teach there?
I work at New Jersey City University. I primarily teach British Literature. I sometimes teach American Literature and Creative Writing.
What are you currently working on?
I have just finished a draft of a new play entitled Of Privilege and Property. I'm very excited about it. It's set in New York City in 1741 during a slave revolt, and it's written in the style of a Restoration Comedy. I'm pounding the pavement trying to get it done.
Interview with Anthony P. Pennino was conducted by Michael Criscuolo November 2006.