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In a Garden State

Jason Grote in conversation with Caridad Svich

[Jason Grote's plays include 1001, This Storm is What We Call Progress, Hamilton Township, Maria/Stuart or Platzangst, and Box Americana. Honors include nominations for the Kesselring Prize and the Weissberger Award; an NEA Grant via Soho Rep; a Sloan Commission from Ensemble Studio Theatre; The P73 Playwriting Fellowship; and "Best New Play" (for 1001) from Denver's alternative weekly, Westword. He teaches playwriting and screenwriting at Rutgers University, is a member of PEN and New Dramatists. This interview was conducted via e-mail in September 2007 while Grote was in rehearsals with 1001 in New York City and I was on a writing retreat on Whidbey Island, WA, as part of Seattle Repertory Theatre and Hedgebrook's Women's Playwrights Festival.]

Caridad Svich: 1001 premiered at Denver Center Theatre and premieres in NYC as a P73 production this fall (October 2007). The play began in NYC and left NYC to find a home and is now returning, as it were, to where it began. This process of starting a play's life in one city and having it premiere elsewhere is not uncommon. Let's say it's fairly standard actually. Plays come to NYC often after having been seen in the regions. Or in other countries. My question has less to do with development than with how you keep faith in a play's potential and its vision over time?

Jason Grote: I think it's more about not getting tired of the play. I actually really enjoy 1001, not only because it's mine -- I can get plenty bored or embarrassed by my own work sometimes -- but I've talked about it a lot, to collaborators and the public, so much so that I practically have my rap on it memorized -- all of the stuff about Orientalism and translation/mistranslation and Said and Borges and the Arabian Nights and so on. Luckily, though, the rabbit hole that I've dug is deep enough and play is layered enough that I keep finding little surprises that my subconscious must have left. For example, I was consciously accessing the narrative and structural games of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges (as well as the playwright Len Jenkin), but it was only recently that I realized that I had written it while watching the sketch comedy show Mr. Show, which is known for using imaginative and absurd segues and loops and running gags that use a brilliant kind of dramaturgy unseen in most theater.

In terms of its themes, the play was written in 2004 and 2005, during the presidential election and right before Hurricane Katrina, which was the point when it became significantly more mainstream to be critical of Bush et al. I'd been an activist for years, and I'd already been arrested and been under police surveillance, so I was eager to speak up, but I was still very conscious of the McCarthyite atmosphere of the time. I had this feeling that I'd be blacklisted, or at least lambasted, for writing the play, even in the comparatively liberal circles of theater. 1001 is not very politically correct, partially in that I am a white guy playing very fast and loose with racial stereotypes, and that I don't soft-pedal the horrible misogyny of the original Arabian Nights stories. On the other hand, the play is very explicitly critical of Israeli policy, which is an enormous taboo in this country, especially in NY. I am Jewish, and can use that as something of a shield, but even that only goes so far. I've been pleasantly surprised so far that the culture seems to have changed in the last three years, to the degree where the point of view of the play is considerably more acceptable (though I'm actually happier for the country than I am for the play).

I want to have a successful career, but I'm perfectly happy being outsiderish and punk rock; I'd rather have modest success in a healthy world than be the most well-regarded playwright among the remnants of humanity in the post-apocalyptic rubble. On the bright side, at least a few producers and artistic directors have seen this as a play which needs to be staged ASAP, partially in response to our current state of affairs, which is rewarding. I think it also helps that it's ultimately not a polemical play -- I hate leftist BS as much as right-wing BS, perhaps even more because I consider myself to be a leftist. I'm also very interested in the Brechtian conflict between intentions and circumstance; we might think of ourselves as nice, educated, liberal people, but history often has its own plans for us. Plus I think that having my own beliefs parroted back at me, either as harangues or built into the cause-effect structure of a narrative, bores me to tears. I'm no fan of reactionary entertainment either -- I think 24 is one of the most damaging pieces of popular entertainment since Triumph of the Will -- but ultimately my responsibility is seeking whatever imperfect version of the truth I can come up with, and engaging an audience, because if no one's paying attention then who cares what I'm saying. I think I get away with a lot because I'm not peddling a specific ideological agenda and I generally respect peoples' intelligence. 1001 even got a rave review from the extreme-right Washington Times, which sort of floored me.

CS: Describe the process with 1001 and how you were able to entrust it to Denver Theatre Center and how that relationship has sustained you (they have commissioned you to write a new piece).

JG: I was as amazed as anyone that they decided to pick it up. Daniel Aukin, then the artistic director of Soho Rep, offered to help me self-produce the play because he had so little faith in theaters doing it, but he thought it needed to be seen (we both agreed at the time that it wasn't right for Soho Rep). I remember talking to the artistic director of another small downtown theater in NYC that wanted to do a short run of 1001; I love this company but felt like I wanted to see if 1001 could cross over to larger theaters, and besides, Denver had the right of first refusal. I remember her saying something like, "well, they'll never produce it, you know those big theaters," and I thought she was probably right. I've inveighed against big institutional theaters as much as anyone (my primary experience having been from the outside, as an audience member), but it turned out to be a great experience.

The only conflict we had was over the director. They wanted Ethan McSweeny, while I originally wanted to fight for director Liesl Tommy, with whom I had developed the play at Soho Rep -- at the time I was naive enough to think that a huge LORT theater would let an untried director direct a new play. I feel good that I fought for Liesl, and I remain good friends with her, but in the end I was very happy with Ethan's work, and I'm very excited that he's directing the play in NY. The Denver Center provided us with amazing resources, and everyone in the theater, from Kent Thompson on down to the marketing and production people understood the play and put tremendous effort into the whole enterprise. Obviously not every experience with a large institutional theater can't be as great as this one was, but I am very glad that this was my first.

CS: How did you find audiences in Denver responding to what is in part a rather experimental play structurally?

JG: Very well, to my amazement. There were a small handful of impatient walkouts, but almost every time I saw the play it got a standing ovation. I think it helped that the theater, aided by the DJ Sara Thurston, really made a great and ultimately successful effort to bring in a younger audience. It's important to me that I don't make an audience feel stupid, because I think that's elitist and counterproductive, and as enamored as I am of theory and postmodernism, I'm a believer in Enlightenment thought. I'm fine with challenging an audience -- most of the theater I see doesn't challenge me nearly enough -- but I also believe in the contract between artist and the absent/present Other of the viewer/reader/audience. Any artist is entitled to do whatever s/he wants, including me, but it's important to me that I earn an audience's trust.

CS: What has it been like to work with director Ethan McSweeny on 1001? What have you learned about the play? And how is the process of restaging different for NYC?

JG: It's great. Ethan is a very smart, clean director, and he's very pragmatic. He's got a very elegant aesthetic, and his sense of symmetry meshes well with the apparent chaos of 1001. To a less attentive director (or reader), 1001 would look like a mess -- hopefully an entertaining mess, but a mess. However, underneath that "mess," there is actually a complex narrative architecture that has certain labyrinthine inconsistencies designed into it; I was very influenced by Islamic art and architecture and M.C. Escher. Ethan does an excellent job of recognizing this and staging the play in a way that is clear but doesn't flatten out the mystery of the piece. We also have a certain amount of healthy argumentation -- if I feel really strongly about something, like a music choice, I tend to get my way, but if he's got some brilliant idea that I'm not seeing, he's not afraid to argue for it. We're still grappling over the most problematic scene in the play, Scheherezade's first and most complete tale, which is a take on Vertigo combined with an old Thomas Mann story, the ideas of Wendy Doniger, and one single sentence in an Arabian Nights tale. We both agreed that we never hit the tone quite right in Denver, so we're playing with things.

CS: You're a resident P73 playwright this season. What does having a theatre home mean to you? Soho Rep has also been a kind of home for you as playwright and administrator, and that seemed to be a useful and genuinely supportive environment for you to make work and advocate too for other people's work.

JG: It's become a cliche that all playwrights are subjected to "development hell." This has its basis in a few very real problems: big institutional theaters taking money to promote new American plays, then relegating them to peripheral programs while only producing established work, or arts administrators who operate under the delusion that theater is like film, and give Hollywood-style "notes" to writers. But the fact is that some development is necessary -- the work I've written in the Soho Rep lab is measurably better than stuff I've written at home and brought to theaters. P73 is great because they're good producers dedicated to new work and emerging writers, which is extremely rare; most young producers who do new work are artists themselves, which is fine, of course, but they usually just wind up focusing on their own work.

CS: What advice would you give to younger writers about seeking out home(s) for development and training?

JG: Any writing group, even a lousy one, is absolutely vital, because writing is essentially a social, public act. I'd advise any beginning writer reading this to go out and find some sort of group in his or her town or city or college and get writing. You don't have to agree with their aesthetics, or even like them, as long as you have a community in which to write. As far as training goes, Mac Wellman is find of saying that MFA programs have effectively replaced bohemia, which makes sense. It is still possible to learn through trial and error and apprenticeships, but MFA programs provide access and formal training in a way that is hard to find anywhere else. I should point out, however, that eight years passed between when I finished undergrad and when I went to NYU -- in the interim, I joined a writers' group in Hoboken, started putting up little one-acts in rental theaters, and eventually self-produced in the Fringe. I think it took this long for me to really develop my work, and learn how to write about the complex and hefty stuff that interested me, and on a personal level, it took me that long to get it together. For a lot of those eight years, I was smoking a lot of pot and working as a waiter in Jersey, and what I was working on was only marginally more crafted and sophisticated than a Kevin Smith movie, even though I wanted to write like Tony Kushner.

CS: It's tough to put a play on in New York City. It comes down to the hard truth of real estate and the dependence on casting celebrities in shows in order to fill seats. What are your thoughts about skirting or confronting the reality of NYC real estate, celeb culture and the alchemical art of writing and putting up a play?

JG: I think the problems facing theater are the same problems facing everything else -- for the past three decades, every industrialized country has prioritized profit-making and the redistribution of wealth up the income scale at the expense of everything else -- education, healthcare, feeding ourselves, the arts. Some might make the facile argument that the profit motive has supported some excellent art, and that is true -- greed has led to some excellent film, TV, music, and visual art. It probably motivated Shakespeare to a large degree. But in the end this just cheapens our entire culture. Live performance of the kind one sees on Broadway, or in Las Vegas, or Branson, MO, might eventually turn a profit, and some of it can be pretty good, and other marginalized forms of popular theater like improv comedy or the Chitlin Circuit might still thrive. But it's a sad commentary on our culture that even successful "legit" theater loses money, mostly because of expensive real estate and the inability to successfully compete with infinitely reproducible media like video (though ironically that's the very reason why the entertainment industry is screwed anyway, due to piracy and such).

I should add that the notion that theater should be profitable enough to sustain itself is bullshit. It's magical thinking to believe that any capitalist system can sustain itself without substantial government intervention. Every profitable industry ever has received subsidization from our tax dollars, and I would much rather see the money taken from me by the IRS go to any art -- even art I despise - than to some crooked war profiteer.

CS: How one uses aspects of what is popular in culture, for instance, toward politically populist ends theatrically can be very exciting. It can re-invigorate and reify John McGrath's concept of the "good night out" without making it a "good night out" in a strictly utilitarian and reductively comfortable sense. How do you position yourself as a writer vis a vis populism? And has your position shifted at all over the years? If so, why?

JG: I think the basic distinction between the two words ["popular" and "populist"] is that the "popular," as used by thinkers like Paolo Friere or Augusto Boal, comes upward from "the people," while something "populist" is coming from a power structure of some kind, and is designed to appeal to "the people" in the service of a particular end, whether benevolent or nefarious. I should also add that "the people" are defined by what they do, rather than who they are, to paraphrase John Fiske; someone who is oppressed in one context can easily and seamlessly become an oppressor in another. But I think that there is a similar mistake that both the avant-garde and the political left have made in the last few years, which is to equate marginalization with integrity or ideological purity. The argument goes that people are smart and should be left to their own devices and that any attempt to approach "them" rhetorically is manipulative and impure, soured by the legacy of Goebbels and Mao (or, in this country, by Walter Lippmann, the father of Public Relations).

Now, I'm not advocating lying or manipulation, but the end result of this is that the very parameters of our global cultural narrative are defined by big media companies and PR experts, the results of which are disastrous -- an Orwellian, fear-based culture where words like "welfare," which literally means well-being, have been turned into virtual obscenities. I feel a responsibility to tell the truth in a way that actually might make a difference in peoples' lives, not a way that makes me feel better for being all smart and cool and cosmopolitan. This relates to avant-gardism not in such a way that I think artists should imitate Hollywood or the video game industry -- I can't emphasize strongly enough that artists should do whatever they want -- but in that there's no inherent conflict between being "experimental" and being popular.

I love moves and TV and comics and genre fiction and pop music and comedy and the internet, but I also take great joy in outsider art, the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, the novels of Don DeLillo, the poetry of John Ashbery, whatever the hell is on WFMU, and "downtown" artists like Radiohole (with whom I'm collaborating) and Young Jean Lee. Work that's deemed "experimental" can often be much more entertaining than some of the boring crap one sees on TV or in comic books, and by the same token it can also be just as ossified as mainstream art -- for example, I think Robert Wilson stopped experimenting a long time ago -- whether or not one likes his work, he's got a distinctive, solidified style that's every bit as recognizable as Stephen Spielberg's.

CS: Writers in the U.S. theatre tend to have half-lives. There's this spurt of acclaim and productions, let's say, followed sometimes by dormancy, and then if you're lucky you're discovered again. I recall one of Arthur Miller's last televised interviews (on PBS) where he said that he felt if he had made his life as a dramatist abroad, his career would have been quite different, just in the sheer level of constancy and patience he said he felt producers and audiences had, say, in the U.K. with their dramatists. How do you feel at this moment in time where there is surge and momentum around your work, and have you any thoughts about how to keep and build an audience?

JG: Well, I'm flattered to be asked this question, but I don't think my star has risen so much that I have to worry about it falling. I'm not terribly concerned about this -- it sounds to me like one of the many silly but ultimately damaging prejudices one finds in the American theater: others include the notion that audiences aren't interested in new work, or unconventional work, or work by women or artists of color, or that the audiences for these kinds of plays "don't see theater." It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy -- producers go back to that same old well over and over again, theaters cannibalize their shared audience instead of expanding it, and that core audience is quite literally dying. I feel I can do something about this "sophomore slump" issue by doing what I've done in regard to these other issues -- lobbying institutional theaters, using print media and the internet to debunk myths and promote work that I enjoy, finding communities of mutual support, and self-producing if necessary.

But I also think it's important to parse the question itself. I'm starting to realize that being a successful playwright can be a sort of trap -- I've recently had to cut back on all of the essay-writing, blogging, and emailing I've been doing, but I'm still swamped with production responsibilities and meetings and speaking engagements and things like that. I can really see how playwrights having a moment in the sun want to trade on their popularity and wind up writing sub-par plays due to distraction or burnout or any number of factors. I don't really have an answer to this, aside from the fact that I've written five plays in the four years since grad school, all of which I feel are production-ready, so I'm about due for a break; to paraphrase the poet Philip Levine, I'll let them go out and work for a while. Though I should add that I am under commission from three different theaters, and none of them would be happy to hear that. I do plan to make good on all of those projects, but I'm my own toughest critic, and hearing or seeing work that I know isn't finished is like nails on a chalkboard for me, so I'm reluctant to see the work produced before it's ready, even though productions are so rare and precious.

The other issue is, no one in this field ever really feels successful. We're always restless, because we're artists, and besides, there's always something to complain about. I might be having a pretty good year, but there are a lot of life goals -- boring bourgeois things like owning a home, having children, or getting out of debt -- that I have yet to achieve. If theater became more frustrating than it was rewarding, I have all kinds of other things I'd like to do -- I'd like to write for film or TV for example, or do comedy, or script a comic book. I could spend some time writing fiction or nonfiction or being an activist. Hell, if I was financially solvent enough I could thoroughly enjoy just traveling and bumming around for a while.

CS: I think as writers we are as much about what we don't like as what we do. So to subvert the usual question: what don't you read, don't you gravitate toward for inspiration, and how do you think it affects what you make for the theater?

JG: I really dislike "political" plays that are more about making the audience feel smart than actually fomenting any kind of change (or at least making interesting art). I don't like anything that takes the point of view of powerful people -- I'm far more interested in people on the ground in Iraq, or some mid-level functionary at Halliburton, that I am with anyone in the White House. They're crooks, who cares how they intellectually justify their crimes? I hate pretty much any political coverage on TV, especially those talking head pundit shows -- they're reactionary and stupid and boring and awful. I don't like bad, derivative comedy, exploitative reality TV (though I love Project Runway),

CS: So do I. I admit it. That show completely hooks me.

JG: Or anything that's based on an ad. I hate most top-40 music, though I am obsessed with music generally, mostly indie rock, hip-hop, and jazz. I don't like football, or any video game more advanced than the 1989 version of Super Mario Brothers. I think Thomas Friedman of the New York Times is more or less a buffoon, and I don't like Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees because he was mean to my friend Tom once. In most cases, these things fuel blog rants more than plays, though all my outrage provides a sort of creative engine. Many of my plays are refutations of ideas I strongly disagree with; for example, in many ways 1001 is a full-throated refutation of Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" idea.

CS: We've chatted about this briefly but you said it's really when you read Tony Kushner's work that your world kinda changed about what was and wasn't possible in theater. I definitely see Kushner's influence in your writing. Especially in This Storm we call Progress. But what intrigues me more in a way, because Kushner's influence is also a generational thing, is your keen interest and love of Kaufman & Hart's work. You reference Kaufman & Hart structures in Maria/Stuart for instance. I have great affection for Philip Barry's work and cite him as influence but it is work that is less on everyone's lips, not to mention fingertips ... again this question of cultural forgetting ... How'd you come to Kaufman and Hart and why? And what lessons can we learn today from their work?

JG: I loved You Can't Take It With You when I was a kid, but rediscovered them recently, first from speaking to David Lindsay-Abaire and then to David Adjmi. The first David referred to his play Fuddy Meers as a cross between Kaufman & Hart and Sam Shepherd, and the second referred to his work generally as Kaufman & Hart style screwball comedy combined with the heavy theory and dark, political themes that one tends to find in Kushner, Naomi Wallace, Caryl Churchill, or even Sarah Kane. What's great is that Kaufman & Hart style comedy -- which itself owes a lot to Moliere, Chekhov, and vaudeville -- can be a great way to explicate fairly advanced ideas in a novel and interesting way. It's not for nothing that the entire Algonquin Round Table were pinkos, and beneath the laffs and the breezy entertainment, there are some pretty serious themes, usually about conformity, identity, and class.

CS: When I read your work I can't help but feel in it a distinct US sensibility, as opposed to say other U.S. playwrights where one can detect European or Latin American writing structures, themes and motifs at play in concert with U.S. ones. This is simply an observation. Not a criticism. But I do wonder and maybe this gets us back to NJ somehow, where you're from, but what do you see as North American (tapping into specific U.S. modalities) about your work, use of language, etc? How do you or don't you identify as a U.S. artist?

JG: I'm not particularly nationalist, but I suppose that I am very American in my sensibilities. I'm reminded of Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- for years, people associated his brand of magic realism with some sort of Latin exoticism, when really he was just trying to imitate Kafka. I'm probably just as influenced by European, Asian, and Latin American writers as I am by American ones, but everything is filtered through my particular working-class New Jersey worldview, or maybe my positivism, or maybe my aggressive temperament or desire to entertain, or whatever it is. I'm also really interested in specificity, though -- I don't care where the place is, or even if it's entirely fictional, as long as it's specific. I get alternately bored and infuriated by this popular trend in European theater to make stuff that seems to take place in some sleek, Baudrillardian avant-garde nowheresville. I'm not talking about artists who create worlds -- for example, WaxFactory do a lot of that sort of multimedia work, but what they do is aesthetically specific and distinct, and I enjoy it thoroughly -- but the sort of infatuation with airports and malls and generic landscapes.

When I was in Slovenia recently, I heard someone say that one place wasn't like another, so there should be nothing specifically Slovenian in their plays. Now, I understand their reluctance to explore national identity in the wake of the Balkan wars, but it's absurd to assert that there's nothing culturally specific about an entire country, which is actually very unlike its neighbors. When I was there, my translator and my director got into a fight, partially because the director was cartoonishly egomaniacal, but also because he wanted to eliminate all of the specific American references from my play. He claimed that Slovenians wouldn't get it, but I argued that that didn't matter -- any work of art, naturalistic and linear or surreal and avant-garde -- contains some sort of didactic element with reference to familiarizing an audience with something new. One doesn't need to understand every detail of 19th-century Russian rural bourgeois culture in order to understand Chekhov, for example.

In fact, that's one of the strengths of Marquez, especially in One Hundred Years of Solitude -- the fact that he throws you into the cultural protoplasm of 18th- or 19th-century Colombia, a place that had little use for time, maps, or fixed cultural definitions, without explaining any of it away. Anyway, maybe the view that universal values can best be expressed in culturally specific terms is particularly American. It could also be that I'm still heavily influenced by the first writers that ever really meant something to me, most of whom were from the U.S. Though my tastes are considerably more catholic now, the first writers that really made an impact on me were Twain, Thoreau, Melville, Vonnegut, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and Kerouac, and sci-fi and fantasy authors like L. Frank Baum, Ursula K. LeGuin, Madeline L'Engle, Ray Bradbury, and Robert A. Heinlein, all of whom have a very uniquely American outlook in one way or another.

One thing that isn't really American about me is that I believe in a mix of social and individual agency rather than individual agency on its own. That is, like Marx, I believe that most of the forces that shape our lives are human-made, but not under our actual control -- basically, like any episode of The Wire. Though I also think the opposite of that -- that individual action can have far-reaching if unpredictable effects, like the pop-scientific chaos-theory notion of a butterfly in Africa eventually causing a tornado in Kansas. Similarly to New Jersey, I don't want to sugarcoat the U.S. -- in many ways we're a colossally stupid, bigoted, violent and unjust country, and I think that goes for the "blue" states as well as the "red" ones -- but we've also managed to jump-start a few pretty significant large-scale experiments. I don't believe we're the most democratic country in the world, but flawed and corrupt as our history has been, we have managed to pull off the first revolution that actually worked.