Sunday, July 08, 2007

Interview - Dan Trujillo

July 9, 2007

Dan Trujillo’s play JINGLE SPREE at CoHo Productions won a 2007 Drammy Award for Original Script. Originally from Oregon, Dan now lives in Brooklyn, NY.

"A production is never how I envision a play. That’s a good thing."

"I believe in the voice of the play, more than the voice of the writer."

"I love language. I love surprise. I love vulnerability."

PDF of the full interview here.

The interview is also pasted in to first comment in thread.

1 comment:

Follow Spot said...

followspot Interview – Dan Trujillo

July 9, 2007

Dan Trujillo’s play JINGLE SPREE at CoHo Productions won a 2007 Drammy Award for Original Script. Originally from Oregon, Dan now lives in Brooklyn, NY. followspot caught up with Dan by email.

FS: Hi, Dan. Congratulations on your Drammy Award.

DT: Thanks. It means a lot to me, to get a nod from my hometown.

FS: Tell us about the development and background of JINGLE SPREE. How long had you been working on it, had you done any workshops, and how did it come to be submitted to CoHo?

DT: JINGLE SPREE is eleven years old now, poor thing. I started it in 1996, as a one act, the first act. When I read it around the table with actors, there was a lot of interest in the parents. So I goofed around with second act ideas (including having the parents played by child actors) until I settled on the double-cast, concurrent acts idea. Those two acts went through a few drafts, and we performed a workshop of the first two acts in 1999 in NYC, directed by another Portland native, Josh Stark.

Meanwhile on a visit to PDX Adrienne Flagg helped me organize a reading of the first act with some of the Portland Theatre Brigade members, because I thought if the language seemed authentic coming out of kids’ mouths, then I was in good shape. Adrienne asked for the whole script, liked it and began to look around for an opportunity to produce it. She did THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND with Coho, and I think that’s how they met the script, and the production finally came about, ten years after I first put pen to paper.

FS: How involved were you in the production at CoHo?

DT: Not as much as I’d wanted, but it was either be at rehearsals or stay in New York and feed my kids. I prefer to be at a majority of the rehearsals for a premiere production. I especially wish I had been in Portland when Tony Sonera came on board as director. He had to take over after rehearsals had started. We had phone and email conversations, but didn’t actually meet until I flew out for the 2nd week of performances.

FS: Did you begin work on JINGLE SPREE with a specific story to tell? Was there any single image, line or moment that motivated you to write this play?

DT: I wanted to write about growing up in Portland. I had already written a play about my brother and me -- TOY PLANET -- but I wanted to write about my social world as a kid. I think anyone who sees the show can guess which character I was most like. As I worked on the piece, I realized that what it was about was how the relationships between these parents and children conspire to make a catastrophe.

FS: From your point of view, how well did the production realize your script? Was this what you were after? What new things you had not envisioned were discovered along the way? For example, the ghostly attic suspended above Act III was a memorable image.

DT: The cast did a fantastic job, so much so that I must proclaim their names again: Eric Reid, Deanna Wells, Adrienne Flagg, Bill Barry, Barb Klansnic, Harold Phillips, and director Tony Sonera.

A production is never how I envision a play. That’s a good thing. It’s like when you imagine the perfect mate: nice to aim for, but it won’t happen, because s/he doesn’t exist. Besides, it’s nice to be surprised. If I were to get exactly the performance I envisioned, I’d feel like the production didn’t take any chances, didn’t listen to their impulses. That’s not to say I won’t turn into PlawrightZilla if I feel the decision is way wrong. Directors and Tokyo be warned.

I loved the ghost attic. That came entirely from the production team. It excites me when my script inspires great ideas that I didn’t think of.

The biggest change was the ending. The ending in the script going into production was not the same as the ending as performed, which is not exactly the same as the ending in the script now. I wish I could have been at more rehearsals for that alone, because it was the sort of issue that needed to be worked out in the rehearsal space.

FS: There’s a terrifying change of tone in Act I when the gun appears. Suddenly everything changes. What has so far been a mostly humorous scene becomes very serious. It might be considered one of the most powerful moments in the play. This was extremely uncomfortable – I had to cover my eyes! Did you anticipate how charged and powerful a moment this simple non verbal event would be?

DT: I knew I was creating a volatile mix. I’m glad when people have that reaction to the gun, because it means they’ve bought into the reality of children on stage, not adults.

FS: A pronounced theme in this play is missing parents. Either the biological parents of the children are no longer present, or the current guardians are present but not paying attention – with fatal consequences. One line sums it up pretty well: “You’re just another stupid adult.” How do you describe the overall mood of JINGLE SPREE?

DT: When I read the first act with the Theatre Brigade kids, neglect was something they really seemed to identify with in the play, sadly.

FS: Did the three act structure come to you early on? The play feels very economical and lean. It’s pared down to the bare minimum, and things happen at high speed. Did you ever consider telling the story in non-linear order, or changing the order of the existing acts?

DT: Thanks. I tried to keep it lean. As I said, it was first a one-act, then a two-act play. When we workshopped it in ‘99, after every performance, the near-universal response from the audience was, “What happens next?” I thought, “Oh crap, there’s a third act.” So I slogged through a few more drafts with a third act.

At that point, the play didn’t have a single dramatic spine. I considered my options, including the ones you list above, and discarded them for various reasons, the most important of which is that I try to fully realize what a play IS, before I try to make it something it isn’t.

I look at a lot of visual art in my day job. One day I was looking at medieval triptychs. I thought about how they operate, three separate narratives linked by characters but not in dramatic sequence. And it hit me: that’s what JINGLE SPREE is. And I knew that not everybody would go for that structure, and I was at peace with that.

FS: Is the shooting a mistake?

DT: That’s your call.

FS: It’s a shame so few people saw the show. Then again, some of the best shows I have seen in Portland have been in near empty houses for some reason. I had a feeling when I walked in and saw lots of empty seats it was going to be good. Anyway, sorry about that.

DT: Well, I did stand in front of the theater playing freeform atonal jazz. I felt bad for the cast. It’s hard to play for empty houses, but they didn’t let it stop them from doing great work.

FS: Turning to your current work. What plays are in the pipeline?

DT: Recent piping includes:

TALK OF THE WALK-UP: A freestyle verse play about a tyrannical superintendent, a demented runaway, and their bad, bad thing. I just did a workshop showing of this with director Isaac Butler who runs the blog Parabasis (parabasis.typepad.com). We're looking to get it fully produced.

CONFERENCE WITH THE BULL: A businessman at his first conference, who falls in with a mysterious, savage workshop leader.

STOLEN SCREAM: A Twilight Zone-type one-act about the haunted stolen version of Munch’s “The Scream.”

And a few other things I’m still extruding.

FS: In terms of your own career, what is the next step for you? Do you have any big goals for this year?

DT: I’m just trying to get to know as many people at as many theaters as I can. There’s so many exciting companies, all over the country, all over the world.

FS: Describe how you incubate new play ideas. Do you have many projects going at once, just one, it all depends?

DT: I try to let the play discover itself, rather than deciding what it is and ramming that notion through. I believe in the voice of the play, more than the voice of the writer. I know that sounds a bit crunchy, but it actually feels very methodical.

FS: I understand you have been active in a number of workshop programs. What are you doing this summer?

DT: The Utah Shakespearean Festival (www.bard.org) was kind enough to invite me to participate in this summer’s New American Playwrights Project, so I’ll be in Cedar City working on my play EARLY POE. I’ll also be workshopping a new play in Minneapolis at the Playwrights Center, sometime next season.

FS: What’s it like being a playwright in New York? Is it a productive environment? Are there playwrights everywhere?

DT: Every time I’m asked questions like these, I think, I have no idea. Some wreck, others thrive. Some hate HATE, others love LOVE. Some days I love it. Other days I’d rather be in Portland, or Ireland, or Mazatlan. Ultimately I feel that I am responsible for making my space productive, wherever I am.

And yes, there are playwrights everywhere.

FS: Do you have affiliations or working relationships with specific theatres?

DT: Nothing official. Single right now. Hi there!

FS: When you are working on a play, what are your avenues for feedback and commentary from others? Are you in a play group? Do you have trusted friends and playwrights you share your work with?

DT: I was in group with Stuart Spencer, who is one of the best script analysts I know. I also recently finished up my Dramatists Guild fellowship, which involved a writers group. The trusted circle is deliberately small: a few people that I went to school with, and a few I met through blogging.

FS: In the process of researching you and your work, I got sucked into the shadowy underground world of NYC theater blogging. My god – it’s enormous! Everyone seems to have a blog and the quantity of info generated daily is insane. Do you find yourself communicating with a lot of other playwrights via blog? How do you find the time to follow all this stuff?!

DT: It is overwhelming. In 2003 when I started there were only a few of us, and then it exploded. I’m happy to say that that the theatre-blogging scene isn’t limited to NYC, but is a national phenomenon. It’s very rough-and-tumble, a lot of strongly-argued opinions, a lot of conflicting ideas, but that’s drama. The best introductory list is at Theatreforte, out of Columbus OH (http://www.avltheatre.com/forte). We email, we blog, we’ve got listservs. And I can’t keep up with everything. That would be a full-time job.

FS: Do you see much theatre in New York? If so, what are your inside tips for visiting Oregonians? What important current work should we know about?

DT: Gosh, I have a lot of friends to plug. But you can go to my site for that (www.dantrujillo.com). With kids, I don’t get to see as much as I’d like to, but I see some. The wonderful/intimidating thing about New York theatre is that you could go see a show every day and still not see everything. I recommend NYTheatre.com for anyone coming here. It gives lots of space to smaller companies that are doing exciting work.

FS: And now – the Oregon connection. You are originally from Oregon. Do I have that right?

DT: My family lived in a couple of places before settling in Portland when I was seven. But when I think “home,” I think Portland.

FS: How does the Portland theatre scene look to you from across the continent? What aspects about it interest you, what are you following? What do New Yorkers know about Ore-gone, if anything?

DT: My defining moment of PDX theatre scene: After we had the first reading of JINGLE SPREE, we were all sitting with the director in the basement of Adrienne’s house, and the director was talking about homework for the next few weeks. And there was such focus and devotion in that room. I wish I could bottle that, and release it into the next rehearsal hall where I encounter jaded cynical snarkiness. It’s the difference between “I’m happy to do theatre” and “theatre’s lucky to have me.”

It’s hard for me to know what’s going on in Portland, because I’m only there once a year right now. I try to see something whenever I’m there. I want to check out Third Rail next time I go.

Whatever they think about Oregon, I make them pronounce “Oregon” correctly. And if they get snippy, I remind them of how they make people pronounce “Houston” (HOW-ston).

FS: Would you ever move back to the rainy left coast?

DT: I love Portland, and jump at every opportunity to come home. But the only way it could happen is if there was a really good job waiting for me. I fell in love with and married a New Yorker, and she’s very close to her family.

FS: Tell us about your own theatre background.

DT: Theatre saved my life. I was a small, ultra-geeky kid with a fistful of neuroses. I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and then in sixth grade I found theatre, and it pushed me right over that edge. But I’m a better man for it. I think.

I was in the touring acting ensemble at Jefferson H.S., and the Student Production Company at IFCC. That was great, because I was able to meet a lot of girls that I was too shy to ask out.

Then I got my degree from Boston University in Drunken Arrogance. After that I was in a small theatre company on the Lower East Side, doing crazy plays and having a lot of fun, and that’s where I met my wife. After we got married and had a kid, we realized that if I was going to continue in theatre, I’d have to get serious about pursuing it as a career. Without her support, I could never have gone to NYU to get my Masters, and that experience was crucial for my development as a writer. So it’s basically a happy story.

FS: Which dead playwrights inspire you?

DT: I should say something cool and obscure, like Capek. But, Shakespeare. Geek=me.

FS: Which live ones?

DT: Every one I meet. I mean that. I get jealous like anybody else, but I’m also inspired by the people who choose to do this thing I love.

FS: If you had to come up with some new terms to describe the different schools of theatre prevalent in America today, what would they be and where would your work fit in?

DT: I’m a lousy theoretician, so I don’t think I could come up with terms that would be worth the calories it takes to type them. I love language. I love surprise. I love vulnerability. I believe in letting the play discover its school, or if there is none, inventing it.

FS: Do you have a story about a moment as an audience member when everything really clicked for you? How often does that happen?

DT: I saw Rex Rabold in Pirandello’s ENRICO QUATRO at OSF. The play’s about a modern guy who is living an imaginary life, where he’s Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire, complete with castle and servants. You’re trying to figure out if he’s insane or not, and what the reality is of the play. At the end, after he’s sealed himself within his illusion, the walls of the stage fell backwards and revealed the crew working behind the set. It blew my adolescent mind, in terms of what is possible and special in stagecraft.

FS: If you encountered an alien from another planet and had to explain as simply and succinctly as possible why you are involved in the theatre, what would you say?

DT: Greetings alien. Thanks for the pop tarts and the disintegrator pistol. About my theatre thing: You know how a lot of people on this planet go to these big buildings and perform these strange rituals in an attempt to come closer to a central, universal presence? It’s like that, but with sodomy.

FS: What (and where) is the next opportunity we will have to see your work on stage?

DT: I’m writing a short piece for the IFCC’s 25th anniversary party. I hope that I’ll have another play in Portland soon.

FS: Thanks for your time, Dan. Best of luck to you!

DT: Thank you.