nytheatre.com q&a preview by Tom Attea
September 23, 2012
What is your job on this show?
Playwright: Wrote the Book & Lyrics.
When did you know you wanted to work in the theater, and why?
My mother taught English and French. After my brother and I were off to college, she went back to West Virginia University and got her master's degree in library science. So we always had books around the house. I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was a sophomore in high school, looking out the window, daydreaming, while the teacher was playing a recording of "Macbeth." She was a kind and thoughtful nun, who told my mother, "Your son should be a writer. He has a way with words." I wrote my first short story when I was 14. I realized I wanted to write for the theater when I was a freshman in college. I had begun to read plays and had recently finished "The Dark at The Top of the Stairs" by William Inge. A few days later I saw a stage in my mind. I remember, very clearly but unsurprisingly, that a man was standing at the top of a staircase. I felt an identification with the space and knew I could people it with characters and write what they'd say.
Why do you do theater (as opposed to film, or TV, or something not in the entertainment field)?
I made the decision to write only for the theater very consciously. I had written the pilot for a sit-com that was optioned by Carson Productions and being produced for final consideration by CBS, as well as another sit-com that was being considered by a different production company. My agent at the time, who was at William Morris, suggested that it was time for me to go to California. I thought about it and realized I had a way to make a living in New York. I was an award-winning copywriter, who had written well-known commercials for products like Dr Pepper and Jell-O. I also reminded myself that I had come to New York to be a writer. So I declined to move. Instead, I found my way into the Playwrights Unit of the Actors Studio, where I was for ten years and enjoyed a wonderful apprenticeship with a great director of the American Theater. His name was Charles Friedman, who was 70 when I met him. He had been the original director of landmark shows like "Pins & Needles" and the musical version of "Street Scene." He had also been a show doctor and friends with George Kaufman, Moss Hart, and other luminaries of the time. He came to the Studio, looking for a funny writer to do a new socially relevant revue with, and the head of the director's unit told him I was the only writer at the Studio who wrote comedy. It took 10 years for us to get the show up to his exquisite standards of craftsmanship. Lee Strasberg read it, loved it,and wanted to be the host. It was called "Brief Chronicles of the Time," which is Shakespeare's phrase in Hamlet for actors. The Studio produced it as a showcase, and it was my first produced show. I believe the theater is the only arena where the text and subtext of the times can be staged in an intelligently delightful way. I also write for the theater because I've found continuing support by Crystal Field, the executive director of Theater for the New City, and I have a team I treasure, my long-time composer, Arthur Abrams, and my long-time director, Mark Marcante. Digital Dilemmas is the eighth show we've done together.
In your own words, what do you think this show is about? What will audiences take away with them after seeing it?
The quote from the press release is the best concise answer to this question: "DIGITAL DILEMMAS shines the spotlight on a modern American family totally addicted to computers, iPads, iPhones, Androids and gaming consoles, just when they receive a visit from their eloquent and witty grandmother, who insists her smartphone is the dumbest thing she ever owned and prefers to remain in the analog age. As the confrontation heightens, she dares them to a challenge that any touchscreen age family might never recover from – going without their beloved devices for one full day. Let the withdrawal pains begin! The musical brings laughter and insight to our obsession with digital devices and our struggle to tear ourselves away from them long enough to preserve our personal space, thoughts and sanity. It also explores romance in the digital age - with the story of a young man so addicted to online dating that he has totally lost interest in any of the women he knows personally, including the woman who's perfect for him."
Which “S” word best describes your show: SMOOTH, SEXY, SMART, SURPRISING?
Can theater bring about societal change? Why or why not?
Yes, the theater can bring about societal change - and the rarest kind of all: change that results from an intelligent, heartfelt, and inviting recognition of who we are. Today, the mass media cover the text of our time, while the subtext generally remains silent. We're left alone with our own thoughts. I believe the theater can hold up the mirror, not only to our outer lives, but our inner lives. So it can bring us together like no other medium. Today, films are mostly for young people on dates or children, TV shows don't welcome deeply intelligent dialogue, and popular song no longer has much of a place for beautifully expressed social relevance. Theater alone remains a welcoming place for us to share our outer and inner lives and in so doing recognize our common humanity. It's also curious to me that, while popular song has at times been somewhat the voice of the age, musical theater has generally fallen short. I like to say things in my plays and lyrics that no one ever imagined could be said in a musical - not only lighthearted witticisms, but the deepest thoughts, winningly expressed. I set no limits, except that everything be done with as much surprising grace as a pirouette.