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Friday, April 29, 2011

On the Ground Floor With...John Greiner-Ferris

Playwright John Greiner-Ferris

On May 1-4, work by this year’s MFA class – Peter Floyd, John Greiner-Ferris, and Heather Houston -- will be featured in our annual Ground Floor New Play Series, along with Reginald Edmund’s Southbridge. Southbridge was the winner of the 2011 Southern Playwrights’ Competition, and is part of the Sister City Playwrights Exchange.


But first, we celebrate these exciting writers on the blog by offering an inside look at them and their plays.

Tell us a little about your thesis play.
Highland Center, Indiana is a story about a man who is searching for his identity and his real father. That sounds awfully boring when I write that. Maybe it will sound more interesting when I say that it contains all my favorite things to write about: guns, whiskey, incest, betrayal, death, rape, dysfunctional families, and mole traps. Highland Center, Indiana is a very real place. You can look it up on Google Maps. (Shakespeare never could have said that even about Denmark.) My mother was born and raised there, I spent many days there. My mother’s name was Alice Anne and my father’s was JP. I had an Uncle Henry. To know exactly which are the autobiographical elements and which are pure fantasy, you’ll have to come to the reading. Even then you might not be able to figure it out.

What makes you passionate about this idea?
It is said that all writers have a bone they pick, and I think identity is my bone. Identity is a very real American issue. It’s a classic American story to hear that someone would leave their current home and life and start a new life, fabricating an entirely new life and persona somewhere else, completely divorced from their past life. Think Gatsby. But then there are those who do the opposite. They reach into and search their past to learn their true selves. The first way is smoke and mirrors, like advertising, the business Billy works in. The other way is more arduous, and it’s the way Hank chooses.

We all feel that we take after one parent or another, or maybe a combination of both. And as we get older, many of us worry that we might be taking on a less favorable trait of one of our parents. We think, that’s my father’s temper, or that’s my mother’s compulsiveness. My parents died when I was relatively young, and so now I really don’t know which parent I’m more like. I don’t have that reference, of how to act, or if I act a certain way I’m never sure if I’m imitating one parent or the other, or it’s completely me. In Highland Center, Indiana, Hank is trying to figure that out, and I think in the process he acts with devastating consequences.

Does your thesis play align with your original vision for this work, or did it take shape as you went along?
If the play hadn’t taken on a different shape as I went through the program and the creative process I would have been very disappointed. I think it was about the second week of class last fall, Ronan Noone told me, “John, my job is to break your heart every week.” Every week he posed questions to me about the structure of my original drafts. The first act changed over and over. I never did get to the second act in the fall. The current first scene was originally maybe scene four—I’m not even sure anymore because things changed so much. By spring semester I was ready to tackle the second act with Melinda Lopez, and while I knew by then where the play had to go, again it was rewrite after rewrite as Melinda posed questions about very real issues that made up these characters’ lives. You can’t be enamored with your work. A lot of really good scenes and words were cut from Highland Center, Indiana, but that’s okay. I think that is one of the most valuable things Melinda taught me about the workshop structure of the program: You have to be open to the possibilities the play and the characters present.

How would you describe your writing to people who are unfamiliar with your work?
First I hope they recognize it right off as storytelling. I tend to write about people who are displaced in one way or another—either displaced from there own identity (again, people who are not comfortable in their own skin) or displaced from society in one way or another. I write about family and home a lot. Most of my work is set in the Midwest, or somewhere “out there” in America’s heartland. My characters are not sophisticated, urbane people; I write about farmers, factory workers, donut shop waitresses, and single moms but it’s what I know and like and want to understand better. Writing for me is simply me trying to learn more about the world and myself, and to make sense out of this reality we call life.

What is the least likely thing you've gained inspiration from?
A potato, and it still hasn’t happened. But I’m not giving up. Seriously, everything is fodder for the cannon. I don’t think there’s something that couldn’t jar your imagination. You just have to have faith that your subconscious is working while you’re standing at the sink washing the dishes.

What’s next for you?
I definitely want to get my work out to the paying public. You don’t go into this line of work without a real desire to reach out to people with your art. That means continuing to network and work with people in Boston who I know and have similar artistic sensibilities. Obviously I want to finish my degree and continue to hone my craft. Ilana Brownstein’s Contemporary Drama class has been an eye-opener for me, exposing me to work that opened up the horizons, not only about what’s possible on stage, but the topics other playwrights are tackling. During the summer I’ll be taking her class, The Playwright/Dramaturg Relationship. There is a strong movement in the theater in Boston that revolves around collaboration, and BU is very much on board with that. And of course I’ll continue writing, as I do everyday. That’s what writers do.

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