Issue IV, Volume V : December 2013
The Sex Lives Of Strangers is deeply disturbing yet funny and ultimately compelling in a completely human and humane way. Wow, what an opening sentence! Okay. Enough about my wordsmithery, what inspired you to write this extremely timely play?
That is, indeed, quite an opening sentence! Thank you. Bits and pieces of this play have been percolating in my brain for a while—especially the relationship between Dylan and Mick. I've always been interested in the power dynamics between hustler and client, and I've explored different versions of that relationship in other plays. But I didn't really have a play for Dylan and Mick yet. Then about eight months ago, I was in Palm Springs for a friend's birthday, and I ended up splitting my head open in a freak photo booth accident. No joke—there was blood everywhere, it was super dramatic, and I still feel bad that my bloody head upstaged some of the birthday festivities. My friend Ashley is a doula and great in emergencies, so she washed the wound and we ended up spending the rest of the night in the emergency room, waiting for a CT scan, and talking. At some point, we started gushing about how much we loved each other's work, and Ashley asked me to write a play for her to act in. That night, as my now-stapled head wound bled all over my Best Western pillow (side note: they don't even bat an eye at Best Western when you tell them you've bled all over their pillow—they have SEEN IT ALL at Best Western), the character of Ru started to form in my head, and I started thinking about how she could fit into the dynamic between Dylan and Mick, and I started to see what the play should be. I wanted to write about how disconnected we all are in the Internet age, and the roles we play when we're trying to figure out who we really want to be. I've also been developing the play through Naked Angels' Tuesdays at Nine, which has really helped me find the shape of the play.
Have you personally experienced Chatroulette? If so, what do you think of it? Or are you endeavoring to comment more on the existence of it and how it serves you dramatically as a writer? (Personally, I'm afraid of seeing something I can't unsee, so I'd rather just wonder and imagine that my life is far too full and complex for Chatroulette.)
I never went on Chatroulette when it was a phenomenon. I have friends who had parties where they'd be on Chatroulette for hours, goofing around, but I missed out on all of that. But even though it isn't as Zeitgeisty as it once was, if you go on Chatroulette right now you'll find thousands of people on it. I knew I wanted to write about an agoraphobic character who used the Internet to get out of her bedroom, and I wanted Chatroulette to be one of her ways out. So I did my research. I went on Chatroulette every night for about a week. And, you're right, there are a lot of things you cannot unsee on there. A lot of penises. So many penises. Attached to most of those penises, you'll find men looking for boobs. Boobs take on a mythical quality in the world of Chatroulette. They're like unicorns, special and rare. (Boobicorns?) There are also lots of people just sitting around, looking bored. I'd see them and wonder if they were all playwrights like me looking for inspiration. And then there are some people who just want to talk. I had a few interesting conversations with the talkers. Snippets of some of those conversations ended up in the play.
When you talk to the talkers on Chatroulette you realize they're all there for some human connection. It seemed like a fruitful world.
I've been ruminating recently on how we've shaped the internet and how it's shaped us, meaning humanity. I'm curious what your thoughts are regarding the internet- clearly, based on Sex Lives Of Strangers, you have a complicated relationship to it, as lives can be expanded or minimized based on how one relates to, or utilizes the internet. Do youfeel that the internet has the ability to deform people as well as inform them? To enslave as well as liberate?
I think a lot about how distancing the Internet is. I'm a total addict, so I'm criticizing myself here, but I kinda think the Internet is a terrible thing. (It's also wonderful—see, I'm conflicted.) I spend way too much time on Twitter. (That being said, follow me on Twitter: @erikpatterson.) I miss going to libraries and having to search for information. I miss that pre-Google time when we had questions that couldn't be answered. I was smarter before Smart Phones. But then on the flipside, some of my best real-life friends are people I originally met on Twitter. They started out on my computer screen and then they became real. It happens. So as much as I say I hate the Internet, I would never get rid of it. Oh, God, I really am enslaved, aren't I? Thank you for pointing that out, Kathleen.
Departing from the internet, the character of Julianne is attempting, in middle age (or slightly thereafter) to become an actress- which is a difficult if not impossible undertaking. What does the process of auditioning reflect, in your dramatic world view? Since you contrast the audition process with scenes taking place largely on computers, I'm curious how you co-relate these two worlds.
Oh, poor Julianne. I really love her. I wish she could get what she wants, or even what she needs. I wish that her dreams would pan out. But I don't see her ever becoming an actress. All of the characters in this play participate in various role-playing scenarios, and I see Julianne's audition process as part of that. These people aren't living healthy, fulfilling lives—they're all stagnating—they wish they had the courage to change things up. So the role-playing games give them a chance to try out these alternate selves. It's like they're testing out these "what if" scenarios, and that can be liberating...but it can also be taken too far. It can become an end in itself, a trap that keeps them from moving forward.
Are you someone who relies on the internet? Do you find yourself compelled to use it? As a Twitter friend, I am aware of you on social media- and as someone who easily is drawn to anything addictive, I find I need to curtail my usage of social media. That said, it's daring to write drama about something that is so stationary and usually done alone- as a person who sees drama as what happens between two characters, I really enjoy your stretching of those dramaticboundaries- can you expound on any of this or should I mind my own beeswax?
Don't ever mind your beeswax. I love the challenge of taking something that might seem inherently un-dramatic—the Internet—and making it theatrical. I gave myself three rules when I started writing this play: no more than four characters, keep the locations limited, and include an element of spectacle. This was mostly because I have a tendency to write big sprawling plays with dozens of characters and thirty locations, which can be expensive to produce. So I wanted to keep it small—but then I threw in that rule about including an element of spectacle to remind myself that "small" can still be theatrical.
The four-character thing worked out. The limited locations thing...not so much—there are about a dozen locations in this play—but it's fine because I didn't really like that rule anyway. And then the spectacle rule actually manifested in all of the computer scenes. Which, yes, might seem stationary, at first, but I think there's a lot of movement to them as well when you factor in that we're going to be seeing their webcam feeds. The audience will have four different things they can watch during those scenes: you can watch Ru in her bedroom; you can watch Ru's webcam feed; you can watch Dylan in his bedroom; or you can watch Dylan's webcam feed. Did you see Closer by Patrick Marber? I was inspired by how they staged the Internet scenes in that, how they projected the words they were typing onto the stage. I wanted to do something like that, but take it a step further and use live cameras and let the actors show what they want to show each other (and the audience) on those webcams.
Do you actually write a play a year? It certainly seems like it.
Yes. I write my film and TV projects on weekdays, Monday through Friday, and then I work on my plays at night. I'm not always in the mood to work on my plays, especially if I've already spent the day writing other things, so my personal goal is ten play pages a week. It doesn't matter if they're good pages, as long as I do at least ten pages. A lot of those pages get cut. In the first draft of The Sex Lives of Strangers, there were several scenes between Ru and Julianne, but they were terrible (and unnecessary) so they don't exist anymore. But sometimes writing the wrong scene helps me find the right scene.
Regarding the character of Mick, who is married for 30 years but gay and closeted (until the internet) do you find that more people who cannot be who they are in the real world explore or discover their secret, truer selves via the relative anonymity of the internet? Yet isn't there also a factor of internet life that steals all our privacy as well as our shame?
Through my writing, I get to explore different sides of myself. I let my characters say or do things that I would never do or say in real life. And I think the Internet gives people that freedom as well. People say whatever they want on the Internet. It's allows you to be anonymous and when people are allowed to be anonymous they often show their worst selves. But for someone like Mick, it can be such a blessing. He would never have explored that other side of himself without the Internet. As it is, he waited so long to explore his sexuality...if he didn't have the Internet, I think he would still be hiding.
Interestingly, your play seems to skip over the whole Facebook revolution and dives much, much deeper. Sometimes I like to imagine that FB is as deep and daring as most Internetters are willing to go-and yet I also find FB much more narcissistic, isolating and masturbatory. I wonder if I just haven't tried exposing myself more to the dark side that lurks a few Google pages down... did you feel compelled to explore the dark side of what's microseconds away fromone's own consciousness via a few Google searches in researching the play? Or did you rely on good old imagination and dramatic license?
There's nothing very theatrical about Facebook. I'm on Facebook, but I only like it on my birthday. If any of the characters in this play are on Facebook, they also only like it on their birthday. Actually, no, they probably don't like it on their birthday because they probably don't have very many friends sending them birthday messages, if any.
I didn't really have to go too much deeper and darker in my Internet searches—my imagination gets pretty dark on its own.
I know it must sound like I'm trying to find out if you check out hustlers via the internet, but I swear this is professional curiosity. Mostly. Speaking of curiosity... do you find that to be a dramatic element for Ru, Mick and Julianne? Or is their searching and longing something far deeper than curiosity?
I do think it extends far deeper than curiosity. These are deeply unhappy people who desperately want to be happy. They will try anything...and they do.
When you write plays, do you ruminate for a long time on outline, structure, design, character, etc. or are you more driven to organically write from personal experiences (I'm not prying, maybe a little)?
I have a writing partner who I write film and TV projects with, and we always start out with very detailed outlines. You kind of have to in those mediums. But when I'm writing a play, I like to go in almost blind. Let the play find itself. When I started writing Sex Lives, I knew how the characters were connected, and I knew that I wanted to surprise the audience with some of those connections, but I didn't know how those connections would be revealed. Some of my plays are more influenced by personal experience than others. This one, not so much. There are always little true details that find themselves on the page, but those true things get changed and warped in the context of the play. I know you were searching for dirt. Sorry!
Care to tell me what made you become a writer?
I grew up surrounded by writers. My mom and my stepdad are both journalists. So is my grandfather. The summer I turned ten, I spent a week with my parents at the home of Clifford Hicks (who wrote the Alvin Fernald book series) in Brevard, North Carolina, and Cliff inspired me to write a novel. I use the word "novel" very loosely. It was terrible and action-packed and someone died on every page and the protagonist was a man named Arnold Schwarzenegger who was desperate to find the men who had kidnapped his wife, and did I mention it was terrible? But it was my gateway drug into writing. I was hooked after that.
Who are writers that inspire you?
There are so many. I've learned so much about writing from my screenwriting partner, Jessica Scott. My writing group is constantly inspiring me. (We call ourselves the Splinters. The group consists of: Bridget Carpenter, Hilly Hicks, Jessica Goldberg, Laural Meade, me, Diane Rodriguez, Michael Sargent, and Annie Weisman.) We get together every other week and I'm always floored by what they do. They raise the bar. I love Three Days of Rain by Richard Greenberg. Angels in America by Tony Kushner is a perfect play. I wish I had written August: Osage County by Tracy Letts. Such a great play. I'm also inspired by Sian Heder, Josh Fardon, Lena Dunham, Jacqueline Wright, Paul Auster, Jason Katims, John Irving, Christopher Shinn, and Sarah Kane. To name a few. I'm sure I'm forgetting some of my favorite writers.
What is your education background? Did you study writing?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be an actor. Then I realized that was crazy. I might be crazy, but I'm not that particular brand of crazy.
(I love actors.) I went to Occidental College, where I took playwriting classes with Los Angeles playwrights Leon Martell and Laural Meade. They were wonderful teachers and I was totally the best student they ever had. (Don't ask them for verification—please just let me continue believing it, whether or not it's true.) I'm also a theater and film junky. I grew up about five minutes away from South Coast Repertory and some of my earliest memories are going to see plays there. That was the beginning of my writing education. I'm also an old-school eavesdropper. When I was a kid, I remember sitting in my room pretending to read, but really listening to every word the adults were saying in the other room. I still do that.
This was fun. Those were great questions. Thank you, Kathleen!
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