On an April afternoon, playwright Joe Goodrich and director Nick Faust met up in our Downstairs theater prior to rehearsal to discuss SMOKE AND MIRRORS.
You two have collaborated on many projects for a number of years. Can you tell me how you met?
Goodrich: You know, I was listening to the WQXR this morning and the announcer said that today was Monday, April 2nd. It occurred to me that 17 years ago, on April 2, 1990 Nick and I started rehearsals for a production of Beckettís Endgame in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Faust: How do you remember these things? Do you write them all down?
Goodrich: We started working together earlier than that, I believe in 1989. We were each working for different theatres in St. Paul that were housed in the same building.
Faust: A big old warehouse space.
Goodrich: Then Nick directed a show at the theatre I worked at. After that I wrote a piece for him. Nick had been talking with a gallery owner and he wanted to do a reading there, a Christmas piece. So I wrote a sort of anti-Christmas piece.
Faust: It was called My Christmas with Jake LaMotta.
Goodrich: And after that, Endgame. Beckett died in December í89, and out of that came the decision to do Endgame.
Faust: Was it í87 or í88 that we first met?
Goodrich: Itís been a long time.
Faust: Does it seem like 20 years? That scares me. The years go by so fast!
So was the reading of the Christmas piece your first collaboration?
Faust: Joe is not mentioning that he auditioned for me as an actor. He told me that he wrote also, and I asked to see his stuff. I had worked at Milwaukee Rep for many years and was interested in new work.
Goodrich: For a playwright to find a director he can trust, both aesthetically and personally, is rare in the theatre world. Itís self-preservation, too! I know that with Nick directing, the work will be well-served. We have a short-hand after all this time, it would be impossible for me to recreate that with another director. So Nick is always my first choice.
When the Flea asked you if you had a director you wanted, you suggested Nick. Heís directed your work all over America, hasnít he?
Goodrich: From coat to coast: Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New Orleans, and Portland, ME.
Where do you both call home?
Goodrich: Iím based in St. Paul but Iím in and out of New York all the time because of New Dramatists.
Faust: Iím based in Evansville, Indiana, my hometown, but Iím also often in Los Angeles and New Orleans. Evansville is a nice respite after places like Los Angeles and New York. Thereís a lot of stuff we do there. Joeís play An Opening for Murder was commissioned by the Evansville Museum of Modern Art, which was great.
Goodrich: Primary Stages is doing a reading of that play in New York later this month.
Faust: Joe wrote a screenplay that we shot in Evansville two summers ago, that weíre now editing down for length. I also wrote a screenplay in which Joe plays the part of a writer who gets up to some questionable activities. So Iíve worked with Joe as an actor and writer.
What do you like about working with Joe? What draws you to his writing?
Faust: His writing is always challenging. Our sensibilities compliment each other, I wouldnít say they are the same but they are well-matched. You keep me focused on something thatís worthwhile, and I think I help you be accessible.
Tell me about the genesis of SMOKE AND MIRRORS.
Goodrich: The play grew out of a series of conversations I had over several years with Gordon Dahlquist, a playwright and novelist here in New York, about the role of theatre in American society, why theatre has become so marginalized and incapable of dealing with the world itís presumably a part of. How do you encompass real political ideas onstage, both aesthetically and in a theatre world where the only political content onstage reflects the status quo.
Were you encouraged by plays like David Hareís Stuff Happens?
Goodrich: That was great because it was written and put up so fast that it was actually a part of the dialogue, very much so in the U.K. and, Iíd imagine, to some extent here in NYC. The shadow of September 11, 2001 and the occupation of Iraq falls over any discussion of political theatre these days, and were the genesis for the discussions Gordon and I were having and continue to have. What can political theatre do? What is its role? How does the theatre fit in the world, and the world fit in the theatre? It was a couple of years of talking about these things before I wrote SMOKE. Iíve worked a variety of temp jobs, mostly at American Express, and that fed into the play Wage Slave, that was the working title. Once I had the idea for setting it in the smoking room, the play coalesced, combining the disparate bits of dialogue and fantasy I had been gathering from years of temp work.
Youíve written a play with a great deal of smoking onstage. Smoking is more than just a prop in this play; itís an inherent part of SMOKE AND MIRRORS tone and meaning. Can you tell us about what it means for you?
Goodrich: This play is an act of provocation. I tried to mitigate the effect of the smoking on the audience by setting the play inside a clear box. In The Fleaís production we are not using that box, and what that does is put us all in the smoking room. Weíre watching but weíre also participants. Weíre all breathing in that smokeÖ
Faust: The entire play is a provocation. There are attempts to elongate time, giving the impression of real time, these long silences. There is no straightforward story being told, rather there is an accumulation of action and information. It becomes, as Peter Brook would say, a true act of theatre. Theatricalizing these bits of daily life becomes poetry. For instance I have this moment where two people are smoking downstage at the wall; they put out their cigarettes and leave. Forty people here will just sit and look at the smoke rising from the ashtray, with no one onstage. Thatís risky. Thatís a provocation. Also the impression of taking real time is going to challenge viewers.
What are your thoughts about working with The Bats, the company of non-Equity actors who work at The Flea?
Faust: Iíve worked with Equity actors, community actors, student actors, and the essential remains the same: they want to know what to do so they donít feel self-conscious. But I will say about working with younger actors, they have a kind of enthusiasm that may be raw but it will be adventurous. Where more seasoned pros might say, ďWhy would I do this?Ē, the Bats are amazingly inventive and gracious. When you are doing a new play, with its own style as this one has, there is a lot of trial and error, and these guys are really up for that. They are also trying to figure out what the play is, at the same time I am. In a way they are the ideal group for working with this playwright. If they can answer, ďWhat is the style of this writer?Ē, that will impact all productions of Goodrichís going forward, especially in New York. They are helping introduce his writing.
Joe, what were your feelings about having your production be performed by the Bats?
Goodrich: To be honest I didnít know what to expect. Clearly, I had an older group of actors in mind when writing this. But in the end they are more than appropriate for their roles. I would definitely like to work with them again. Iíve been very impressed at how un-self-conscious they are, considering their ages. They are very dedicated to their work; these are not young people playing with acting, they are acting. Nick and the Bats—-Nickís experience, the Batsí energy and gusto—-are a good combination.
Faust: They want me to tell them, and I will. I teach a lot, and I try to set it up so that they know the path, they know the result Iím looking for. Iím not trying to be Buddha, Mister Guru or whomever. Itís not a mystery. Weíre all in the same room. You canít deny that we manipulate actors, telling them to cross to Up Right instead of crossing Up Left is manipulating them. But if you tell them why youíre doing it, you make it clear that weíre all playing the same game.
Tell us your thoughts on having the play done at the Flea, both in terms of the kind of theatre we do here, and also on using the Downstairs space, which can be both an obstacle and a joy to work in.
Goodrich: I had never been to a show at The Flea. I knew of the spaceís previous incarnation as The Workhouse. In fact a Los Angeles playwright wanted to buy it in í96, and he asked me if I would live in it and run it. It fell through somehow, but I was this closeÖ (Laughs.) Aesthetically we are a good fit. I wrote this play in the fall of í03, and until one month ago I was convinced that no theatre would touch this play, both because of the smoking and the politics. Iíve been thankfully disabused of that notion by The Flea Ė there is at least one theatre in America brave enough to do this. I was introduced to Gary Winter (Ed. Note: Gary is The Fleaís Literary Manager) through a mutual friend, I sent Gary this script, and within a remarkably short time it had gone though Gary, Mac, Jim and Carol and right up to doing it. Itís phenomenal, there have been no difficulties, no hoops to jump through, itís just rare to have that experience in American theatre.
Faust: I asked Jim what he liked about the script, and he told me ďIts mystery and its politics,Ē and I thought that was a great answer!
Goodrich: As you said, working in this space is both an obstacle and a joy.
Faust: It took me awhile to figure out how to do this. Neal (Ed. Note: Neal Wilkinson, the set designer for SMOKE AND MIRRORS) sent me the ground plan but I told him I couldnít do anything until I had sat in the space. I worked with John Dillon at Milwaukee Rep, and he said to me that every space has its own rules. You canít fight the rules of the space because the space always wins. I remember working at a theatre called The Spirit of the Horse, staging a play that had a sex scene that was supposed to happen on the floor. Then when we got in the space I realized that would mean only the first row would be able to see it, so I restaged it to happen on the kitchen table. And people asked me, ďWhy is the sex scene on the kitchen table?Ē And I said, ďBecause thatís what the space requires!Ē
Are you enjoying using the interesting quirks of the space, like the low wall in front of the audience, and the stageís vast width?
Goodrich: The low wall is certainly being used, and weíre using basically the entire length of the space. Itís interesting for me to see the play ease into the space, and the space ease into the play. Because this production is the premiere, this space becomes the paradigm for the play. The space and the play seem to fit each other better every day.
To conclude, if you each had to tell a member of the public in a sentence why they should come see SMOKE AND MIRRORS at The Flea, what would you say?
Faust: Theatre is an immediate experience, and this play taps into that. Weíre breaking down the wall that separates the audience from the play, with the smoke wafting over them. And thatís probably all I can say without going into something really long!
Goodrich: Come if for no other reason than to support The Flea.
But as the playwright, donít you have a suggestion as to why people should come see what you wrote?
Goodrich: Iím Midwestern, so if I said that it would sound suspiciously like bragging. So Iíll just say, come see it, and help us all out!
At that point the cast began arriving, and Joe and Nick turned to the work of the dayís rehearsal.
interview by Sherri Kronfeld, Audience Development and Marketing Manager, The Flea
SMOKE AND MIRRORS runs April 18 Ė June 2, performance schedule varies.
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