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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Take-charge DIY MFAs discuss 'Room to Live'

Okay, this year’s MFA class is so resourceful and infused with the DIY spirit that they not only have a second set of new plays to present to the world (right on the heels of their work featured in last month’s Ground Floor New Play Series), they interviewed themselves all about it! MJ Halberstadt, Michael S. Parsons, Rick Park, and Jaclyn Villano talk about the Room to Live Plays, opening tonight. Great job with the questions, MP!

Let’s start with the first question: Who are you?  

JV: I am a playwright from New York and Texas, and I’ve lived in many places. I love to travel, which is often reflected in my plays. And I love my family, which is always reflected in my plays. I wrote Shoe Baby.

MJH: I came to Boston from Long Island five years ago to attend Emerson College (BA, Theatre Education, 2010). By day I'm an admissions counselor for my alma mater, but by night a playwright seeking to figure out his voice and where to go post-BU. I wrote Not Jenny.

MP: I’m a playwright from the Midwest -- Ohio, to be precise, where I’ve lived most of my adult life. I’ve come to BU for an MFA in Playwriting. I wrote Homeland

RP: I'm an actor, director, and playwright based in Boston for the past 20+ years. I wrote Scene 8

Nice introductions. Now, tell us, in a couple of sentences, what your play is in the Room to Live series.

JV: Shoe Baby is a play nine months in the making. After her third miscarriage, Zoe Barnes’ dreams of motherhood become an obsession, threatening her marriage, her friendships and her sanity. Her only solace is found in a small stuffed teddy bear named Sheldon…who suddenly isn’t so small. And isn’t so…stuffed. Zoe’s desire to become a mother is so strong that she wills Sheldon to life.  

MJH: My play Not Jenny came from a combination of ideas – a pair of twins named Jenny and Not Jenny, and the conceit of telling a young adult's story through their college application materials. I owe a major debt to my fellow playwrights and Melinda Lopez for encouraging this one along – I really didn't think I had anything at first.
MP: My play, Homeland, tells the story of Reyes, a woman who is a former Marine and Afghanistan veteran. Sick and hurting, Reyes is content to spend her days in a dingy apartment, conversing with her own memories, when a neighborhood girl breaks in. As both women reach out to each other – Ruth willingly, Reyes grudgingly – their pasts creep into their private world and threaten to destroy them both. 

RP: Scene 8 is about sibling rivalry gone very wrong. Mace and Dixon are brother and sister who get cast as a married couple in a play complete with a graphic sex scene and when neither will bow out, things get...weird.

What’s the one thing you’ve observed about your classmates’ writing after being in workshops with them the entire year?

JV:  As a writer, Rick's a chameleon; his plays can be big and bawdy, dark and gritty, or sweet and poignant. All of Rick’s plays are full of humor and heart, and they have a universal reach. MJ is a master of experimentation; even as he tries new voices and forms, his plays all contain essential truths and authentic, relatable characters. Michael’s plays are smart and finely-tuned, the result of his admirable ability to work and rework his writing until he’s satisfied it will sing onstage. 

MJH: Rick loves a good bait-and-switch, on both the large scale (plot twists) and small scale (rewritten show tune lyrics). Michael looks at the bigger picture and works tirelessly to manipulate and defy the audience's expectations. Jaclyn's characters often represent ideals but she colors them with such human qualities that you'd never notice it.

MP: I’ve loved being in class with each of them. MJ is able to blend disparate forms into one great play structure, and he uses this to excellent comedic (and dramatic) effect in his work. I’m really envious of the accuracy of his observations of the human condition. Rick’s work can take you to really dark places, or he can be sweet and heartwarming – or both at the same time. He’s completely fearless and innovative. And Jaclyn – she writes shows with heart, and with truth. Her range is incomparable – she can be lyrical one minute, and terrifyingly stark the next. I’m really blessed to be in league with these three playwriting villains.

RP: MJ's style is very interesting. His plays are often built around the stylings of other theatric forms – Greek tragedy or Russian drama. MJ is very smart in his knowledge of theatre and often tackles the mash-up of a very well-established form with his own unique twist. Michael likes the epic – stories that are big and universal and complex. It's like he writes in knots that keep getting tighter and tighter. Jaclyn's writing style is like a really good drunk – pleasant and innocent enough on the surface, but underneath, it is ugly and unpleasant.

How is this play you’ve written different from your previous play that was read at BPT’s Ground Floor New Play Series in May?

JV: While they seem to be very different plays, Shoe Baby and The Company We Keep are more alike than not. Both are about a family in crisis. Both contain characters who refuse to back down from what they want. I think the main difference between the two plays is in structure and design: Shoe Baby is more complex, with dual worlds and varying shades of reality, whereas The Company We Keep is more straightforward.  

MJH: One of my ambitions is for some undergrad years and years from now to doubt that the same playwright wrote all of my plays – I'm at a point where I'm experimenting with voices and forms in order to find what resonates most for me. And Then Came Tuesday concerns one specific incident and tries to epically encapsulate an entire town, whereas Not Jenny concerns thirteen years of family history but is a much more intimate and subtle portrait of three people. I consider Tuesday a comic tragedy with Greek elements and NJ a dark comedy with Russian elements.

MP: Well, mine’s easy. It’s about 4,000 words smaller, and naked women don’t fall out of the sky like they did the last time. Actually, Homeland is leaner and more claustrophobic – everything takes place in one room – than my last play, Sumner Falls, which told a larger, more sprawling story.

RP: My previous play, Gay Guy/Fat Girl, was much more a rambling comedy with a sweet spot in the middle of the madness. Scene 8 doesn't have the sweet spot.

What do you think you’ve learned from your playwriting workshops here at BU?

JV: I’ve learned the value and the luxury of working with a team of dedicated actors, professors and fellow playwrights from the outset of the development process. Trusting these generous people with my work in its earliest stages – and knowing they are deeply invested in the outcome, always rooting for what’s best for the play – has led to substantial improvements in my writing and in my writing process.  

MJH: Most of the work with a script is done in revision (unless you strike gold like Jaclyn can), so it takes WAY longer to write a play than I ever thought. Plays should mimic dominos being knocked down, in that one event causes the next and so on – it sounds idiotically simple but it's very different to 'know' and 'understand' it.

MP: I think I’ve come a long way in learning how to keep alive the spirit of what I’m trying to write, while not becoming so single-minded that I reject input that could really transform a work into something powerful. I’ve also learned that what separates the good playwright from the great is revision. Lots of people write great first drafts. It’s the tenth draft that you need to listen to.

RP: I have learned that I can write a full-length play, which I never really thought I could. I have learned that characters really do dictate where things go in the play. Writing is like having a new baby that wakes you up in the middle of the night demanding a rewrite.

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