Interview with Tim Sanford, Artistic Director of Playwrights Horizons, November, 2003
T: I think I started reading your stuff before you even graduated from Yale. When did you graduate?
T: Where did you go as an undergrad?
W: I went to Kenyon College where I now teach.
T: Were you interested in theater then?
W: I was. I acted in college and for my senior thesis I directed a play that I wrote about Jack Kerouac.
T: Can the audience know that you act in this play?
W: They can. I am very proud of my credit. I play Tiffany. It's a genius, genius performance.
T: Yes, and the audience will probably be relieved to hear that you sound nothing like her. Were you interested in theater before you went to college?
W: Yes, all my life. I did plays with stuffed animals for my little sister in the back seat of the car on long car trips.
W: It was the only time we got along. This was the rare moment of generosity for me in my sibling relationship. And I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I didn't know that I wanted to be a playwright. Even in college I was writing short fiction. At the time I applied to grad school, I applied to both playwriting programs and fiction programs.
T: Whom were your favorite playwrights growing up?
W: I don't know that I was all that aware of playwrights growing up. I mean, Sam Shepard was the first one that really registered for me because he was sort of "happening" when I was in high school. I have to say that I was mostly influenced by fiction writers, I think. I was reading an interview with Richard Greenberg where he was talking about discovering F. Scott Fitzgerald at age twelve. Fitzgerald was really an early passion for me as well. I remember talking to college interviewers about it.
T: When did you start writing?
W: In high school. My senior year of high school I wrote a one-act play, which was pretentiously called A Virgin to the Grave, about a friend of mine who committed suicide by hanging himself.
T: How did you find your voice as a playwright? Were you aware of developing a personal style?
W: I think a style comes out of you. I don't know how much choice you have in it. For example, people have described my work as black comedy, but for me that was not something I was entirely in control of. I think it was the way I saw the world. What's interesting is that my background is Irish and Scottish, and when I started reading Irish and Scottish writers like Frank McCourt and Alistair MacLeod, I suddenly went, "Oh, that's what I'm doing. That's the whole black comedy thing."
T: When did people start saying you wrote black comedy?
W: It must have been with The House of Yes. While I was in grad school I was considered a comic bard of suburbia. I was told that I wrote the equivalent of 1930's screwball-comedy. Apocalyptic Butterflies is kind of like that. They were a little bit more merry and light-hearted than what I eventually came to write.
T: Apocalyptic Butterflies was the first play of yours I read. I remember writing a recommendation for you, largely based on that play, where I said you had an uncanny ability to write both credible Ralph Kramden-esque, working class American characters and much more eccentric, absurdist creations.
W: I think those two strains are still going.
T: It was certainly true of your last play here, The Water Children. But it was also true of The House of Yes, too. Actually, I think it might have been your second play, The My House Play that kind of brought the "Bard of Suburbia" and the "Black Comedy" styles together.
W: That might be true.
T: I saw most of your early stuff performed. Wasn't Apocalyptic Butterflies done right on Theater Row?
W: It was. Featuring Greg Germann, of television fame, in the role of Hank Tater. It was also done earlier at Yale Rep.
T: I know I went up to Yale to see The My House Play. Didn't Evan [Yionolous] direct it?
W: She did.
T: And what was the name of the director who did it at the WPA?
W: Rob Greenberg, who is now an Emmy award-winning television writer.
T: Oh, for what?
T: And you've been writing steadily ever since. Let's see after The My House Play was The House of Yes, then...
W: Then Sin, The Water Children, Things Being What They Are, Schoolgirl Figure, Juvenilia, and Birnham Woods, which hasn't seen the light of day yet.
T: Those are just the produced plays, right? Because there was also Barbeque at Twenty-Nine Palms, which we commissioned, and that play about motherhood-
W: Machines Cry Wolf.
T: There didn't seem to ever be much drop off in your writing, either when you started teaching or when you had children.
W: The funny thing about having kids is that nobody told me it was all right to take some time off, so I had it in my mind that however it was in the first six months of motherhood would be how it would be forever. I was determined to keep writing, and so I never stopped. I think this summer was the first summer I decided consciously to take off. I didn't have to write a play. I could just be with my children and go to the lake in New Hampshire. Knock wood-I'm not afflicted with writer's block. I have a lot of ideas, and I look forward to writing them. The trouble is I am juggling a teaching job and a family and the writing. There are cycles in the academic year where the play writing definitely takes a backseat.
T: How long have you been teaching?
W: I have been teaching since 1990, at least at Kenyon College. Even before then, I taught different places. I taught a class at New Dramatists. I think I even taught at the Playwrights Horizons School.
T: So you resisted writing a play about college students for the thirteen years you've been teaching at Kenyon. What led you to write Juvenilia?
W: I always expected to write a college play, but I thought it would be a much broader canvas. I thought it would be faculty, students, administration-I thought I would cover the whole world, but in fact I zeroed in on the students. It grew out of this particular exercise from an Introduction to the Theater class I taught where the students go and eavesdrop on conversations and record them, which is illegal, by the way. And they bring the stuff in as raw material. I was always interested in the fact that they would bring in this incredible, fabulous material that they overheard, but they could never figure out how to fictionalize it. They just didn't know how to write a play from it. But the exercise the students were doing gave me this wonderful window on what was going on-the shoplifting at the bookstore, somebody sleeping with their cousin.... I read a lot of interesting things.
T: You had them record conversations?
W: Yes, they would record conversations then transcribe them. We try to remind them that what is interesting isn't necessarily the subject matter but the way things are being said, to make sure they are tuned into the fact that people are saying "like" and getting adages wrong and making ungrammatical and incomplete sentences-that kind of thing. That's one of the ways I kept up with 'how the kids are talking.'
T: Did a particular exercise pique your inspiration for the play or was it the wealth of this dialogue that you heard?
W: I think it was the wealth of the dialogue. I wanted to figure out how to write a play that was contemporary, but I also wanted to write a play that captured my college experience, twenty years ago, as well as the current college experience.
T: What is the similarity?
W: My writing students often turn in a writer's journal to me. And what I see is this careening from confidence to the point of cockiness to massive self-esteem problems and self-doubt. They are on a constant seesaw between those two extremes. I think that's a sign of the age group. I think another sign of the age group is that their primary concern is their love and sex lives. I don't find that laughable. It was my primary concern at that age. Where you are on the attractiveness scale determines the level of your happiness.
T: What do you think is different?
W: What is different is something that I think comes up in the play. The rise of internet porn makes porn a part of their everyday lives in a way that was never a part of mine. I also think the drinking can get a little bit scary. I've had students with alcohol problems. One student I actually talked to about it, and it wasn't easy and it didn't go well.
T: What about their general outlook?
W: What I see about their general outlook is that they don't imagine that they will be able to do what they want to do. They will say, "If I could be an actor..." or "If I could be a writer...." Nobody ever told them that actually your career is your decision. The world doesn't decide it for you. Nobody lets you be an actor. If you commit to it, you might have to pay your dues for ten or fifteen years, but you'll probably find a niche. There's a strain of political activism, but it isn't wide spread. The term "hook up" is kind of a new term. As is the idea of "fuck buddies," the idea of sleeping with someone as a mutually agreed upon convenience. Divorce is a much bigger part of their lives.
T: How typical or atypical would Brodie and Meredith be as exemplars of their genders, in your observation?
W: I think Brodie is typical. I think Meredith is atypical in that I don't see a lot of women who are as strong as Meredith. Women that age tend to be more tentative.
T: Do you think people see Meredith as strong?
W: She's determined. She's bossy. She's smart.
T: What about their moral scope, what they think of as right and wrong? Are they atypical that way?
W: I think they're figuring out their morals. I think that's what the play is about. I think that they arrive at a place where they do have a moral center, but that it takes some careening to find it.
T: Is that something that was true in your college experience?
W: I think it's something that's been true of my whole life. I've always wished that I could be nicer. "Why can't I be nice? Why can't I be nice to people? Why can't I be more compassionate? Why am I so lacerating about the world?" That's where I think I connect to Meredith. And do I feel this obligation to be nice because I'm a woman. Would I have this internal dialogue if I were a man?
T: Does Meredith have that internal dialogue?
W: Maybe she doesn't. Maybe it's more of a fantasy for me to be somebody who is so out there in terms of her lack of concern for how she's perceived and so unapologetic about it. I careen internally between Angie and Meredith, or at least between Henry and Meredith.
T: I think a lot of people who are older seeing this play might find it a little scary to see how readily these kids seem to shrug off what we think would be normal moral considerations. At some point, you begin to wonder if there are any limits, any parameters at all. But for me, kind of the scariest thing of all-and this is what I really love about the play-is that I really feel these characters are struggling with the world that has been given to them, a kind of scary amoral view of the universe where there is no consensus model of right and wrong.
W: I have a philosophy professor friend who quoted someone I can't remember whose response to the new conclusion that God didn't exist was, "But I shall be sorry to lose Him." I think Angie has a framework that explains right and wrong to her. I think once we abandoned a religious framework then there wasn't anything really to take its place except this celebrity culture of sex and beauty and porn and privilege, where it's about being beautiful and rich. Yet, I think students today still have some sort of moral barometer where they're looking for how to move through the world in a way that makes them feel good, in a way that's meaningful.
T: How did the specific idea for the play come to you?
W: In this case it came from the description of a teenage boy's room, and I selected the three props: an exercise bike, a lizard, and a computer. Then I imagined the guy who inhabited the room, Henry, and I began with him. And as I was writing, I had images of four students in my mind. Some I knew well, and some I didn't know well, but that helped me. I knew who they were in this college world.
T: So you're a writer that starts writing and finds the play as you write? You don't map it out first?
W: No. I did a lot of mapping as I went. It's interesting. I've heard August Wilson describe the same thing. You'll be writing and your characters will keep talking about someone and you'll say, "Who is this sorority girl everybody is talking about?" It's more like that. It's more catching up to them. I remember this light bulb went off for me when I realized that Brodie had been hurt by Meredith's comment that she wasn't going to marry him. The strange arc to his character was that he wanted Meredith to say that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. So I think that all this outrageous behavior is coming from very normal desires, namely to get the other person to say that they love you as much as you love them. Meredith wants Brodie to say that he's not going to fool around on her anymore. So they want the same thing, but they choose a very odd way to get there. They want the other person to say, "Let's stop doing this."
T: Do they do what they do to be cool or to prove something?
W: I think there's a recklessness about them that makes them cool. Perhaps one of my fears, as an older writer writing a college play, was not to sanitize it or sentimentalize it. So, if anything, I probably went to the other direction, to make it as edgy as I possibly could.
T: Do you remember on the first day of rehearsal that quote you read out loud?
W: Oh yes, The White Stripes interview.
T: Can you share that?
W: It's from an interview in the New York Times Magazine. The interviewer asks them: You've said that your band's new album, "Elephant," is about the "death of the sweetheart." What does that mean?
And Jack White responds: The sweetheart, the gentleman-it's the same thing. These ideas seem to be in decline, and I hate it. You have white kids going around talking in ghetto accents because they think that makes them hard. It's so cool to be hard. We're against that. And Meg White says: The message everywhere is it's OK not to care about anything. Everything can be judged, everything can be trashed.
T: Is that true in your observation?
W: That they don't care? That's the message. But what it boils down to is being afraid to admit to emotions; it isn't cool to admit to having emotions. And that's something that's always been true in my work. I think it was there in The House of Yes, the idea that whoever was vulnerable emotionally lost. In theatrical terms, I think of it as the battle between text and subtext; if people can't just say what they want, you have more interesting drama.
T: What does it take for the subtext to come out?
W: In my plays, they have to go to extreme measures before they come out. These are people who don't speak in self-help, new age clichés and it takes a lot to get them to admit what's going on inside.
T: So when you imagined Henry and knew there were four characters, did you imagine next Brodie and Meredith together, as a couple? Did you imagine "boy who doesn't have a girlfriend" and "his best friend who does"?
W: It must have been the image of him on his exercise bike on a Friday night, which suggests someone who doesn't have a date. It's one of those things where as I was writing Brodie came into the room complaining about his girlfriend. He'd had a fight with his girlfriend, so then you know that Meredith is coming because there's a lot of time spent talking about what happened with Meredith. Then Meredith comes in, and something else has to happen.
T: And that something else turns out to be having a three-way with Angie. How did Angie come to life for you?
W: Well I did make a conscious decision to make her African-American because I felt like that would broaden the thematic concern. Not to be too ponderous, but I do think that there's a similar objectification that goes on in porn and in racism; both turn "the other" into an object. So it was interesting to me dramatically to have Angie be as "other" as she could be. She was also based on a Kenyon student that I knew very well. She impressed me because she seemed about ten years ahead of other people in terms of maturity and morality.
T: You link these themes of objectification very subtly. You don't hammer a judgment about porn too much. It's just part of their lives. Even Angie is not completely thrown by the hints of a three-way.
W: I think one of the things I wanted to be true to was-that even though it would be dramatically cleaner to have everyone in love with one person-what I remember about being twenty is that you're willing to consider a lot of different options, depending on who says yes. So, almost everybody is at least partially in love with two people.
T: Does the focus shift? What's interesting about this play-and it may be partly because of what you just said-is that just when you think you have a bead on who is central it shifts to someone else.
W: That's been an ongoing question: whose play is it? I think different people zero in on different characters. I think David thinks it's Henry's play. And that's possible, but I think it might be Brodie and Meredith's play because we sort of end with their reconciliation. There's no peace in this world until the two of them have returned to each other.
T: Tell me about how you land the play in your process. It's kind of surprising to hear about how your process, about how you discover the characters as you go, and yet it's very cleanly constructed. Each character has a throughline and journey. The storyline interweaves among the four of them. And then it resolves. It 's almost like you wrote it from an outline, but you didn't.
W: No. It was one of those happy plays that emerged full-blown. I just wrote and wrote and wrote and cause and effect took me from scene to scene to scene. There was definitely a point where I had to sit down and think what do these people want, what is their throughline, to make sure that their action was tracking. But it was more a process of figuring out in the way a director figures out from an existing script what they want.
T: Meredith and Brodie's story is completed at the end. How about Henry's and Angie's? Angie's last moment with Brodie is sort of painful, but the final image of the show seems more upbeat.
W: It's interesting because I think some people think that there's hope for Henry and Angie, and I've always imagined that Meredith and Brodie managed to blow the possibility for Henry, in that sort of careless Gatsby kind of way.
T: Is it okay if it's inconclusive?
W: It's okay with me. I like the lyrics of final music cue, "things are going to get easier," because in fact I think that's true. You're always told that college is so easy because your food is there and your housing is there and you don't have to worry about your job and your rent and all of that. But I think it's emotionally harder than the rest of your adult life.
T: What is Angie's journey? Brodie and Meredith constantly push their boundaries but in the course of the play realize they want to restore some limits and come back to something approximating civilized human behavior. Angie goes in another direction. She breaks through her boundaries. It's hard to imagine how things will be for her tomorrow. Will she retreat back into her routine?
W: What I imagine is that she embraces her religion as a comforting thing, as something that protects her from what a lot of other people are subjected to. So I see it as a positive that she goes back to her singing at the end of the play.
T: And it's not a total contradiction for her. Even in her first scene she has that comment, "I just have no idea how to simultaneously be a woman and a Christian, you know? I mean, do you think after Mary Magdalene reformed that Jesus still thought she was hot?"
W: At some point you have to figure out how to align your sexuality with your morality. You can't have this kind of psychic split.
T: Tell me about the title of the play.
W: I actually had the title before I wrote the play; I wrote the word down in my writer's notebook one day. So when I wrote the play, I had a title for it. The word, "Juvenilia," refers to early writings, early attempts at writing, which a writer eventually outgrows and dismisses. The characters in Juvenilia aren't writers, but they are making early attempts at figuring out how to live.
T: You've said that one of the things you meant to explore in the play is the similarity in the coming of age rituals of this age group to your own, and to previous generations. That's one of the reasons I like the title. By labeling the behavior with Latin, you manage to connect it back to the beginning of Western civilization.
W: One of my students thought that "juvenilia" was Latin for a certain species, like a species of 20-somethings, an idea that ties in nicely with our set design concept. The dorm room is like an over-sized version of the terrarium that Nelly the lizard lives in, a zoo exhibit, a place where a zoology experiment might take place.
T: Speaking of the set, I also like the way Michael Yeargan and David have nicely reiterated the Latin theme by incorporating the fictional Latin motto of this fictional college into the set. Can you tell us what it means?
W: "Puberes ex pueris" means "Adults out of Children." I'd say the end of the play is about these people taking a step toward adulthood. They are actually giving up something in order to get something. They understand that that's how it works.
T: I also love the way the panoramic view of the campus serves as a kind of curtain to the action and then raises up and hangs over the entire action. In addition to creating the huge terrarium effect you referred to before-an anthropology experiment, as Meredith would say-I think it also underlines the larger perspective of the play, which basically takes place entirely in a dorm room and a hall outside.
W: Right. The timeless image of the college suggests that this is play is not limited to this generation of college students. We open with the old-fashioned oil painting of a college campus in all its nobility, underscored with a rousing alma mater song. Then rock'n'roll sneaks up on it, kicks in and takes over as an actual claustrophobic dorm room appears. We're playing with the expectation of "the college experience" and the reality of the college experience, with its drinking, drugs, sex, internet porn and boundary-testing. But I have to say, as a college professor, I think the idealized version of college is also true. These students are becoming educated in ways both intellectual and inter-personal. They are learning how to think. They are learning how to love. Having taught undergraduate playwriting for thirteen years now, I have read many plays set in dorm rooms, and invariably I would scribble in the margins, "Why do we care? What's at stake?" But couldn't a college dorm room be a metaphor for the insularity of privilege? It seems to me that the questions college seniors are wrestling with are the big questions, the questions that don't go away: "What should I do with my life? What do I believe in? Whom should I be with?"