His plays have been produced by Theatre of NOTE, Evidence Room, and The Actors' Gang, and developed through the Lark Play Development Center, Moving Arts, Black Dahlia, EST, Naked Angels, and the Mark Taper Forum. Erik has written film and TV projects for Warner Bros., ABC Family, Universal, Vh1, Mandalay Films, and others. He was recently nominated for a WGA Award for Best Children's Script for the film Another Cinderella Story, which he wrote with Jessica Scott.
What is it about hypochondria that inspired you?
For many many years I was a terrible hypochondriac. Not like the character in this play, I wasn't the worst hypochondriac, but I would go to bed at night thinking “I'm going to have a heart attack and I'm not going to wake up tomorrow.” I'm over that finally – and I think I got over that by writing this play.
Pamela [a lead character in Sick]'s hypochondria makes her behave in an enormously selfish way. Yet, I don't ever feel anything but compassion for her. In a lot of your plays, I've noticed you have characters who act selfishly, yet I never find them to be anything less than fascinating because I feel so much for them. How do you do that? It's very difficult to make a character sustain an audience's interest yet be so deeply flawed.
Well, make her a mother....
Yeah, but she's a terrible mother.
Yes, she is. But I'm glad you said that, actually, because one of the difficulties of writing this play was that she seemed so unlikeable. The play's been through many different drafts and I've developed it at many theatre companies and the biggest note I've had has been about her. In the initial draft she was much more unlikeable and I had to find a kind of balance. But in the journey of the play, hopefully, at the end we'll feel compassion for her.
In my opinion, you feel it all the way through.
You like her even from the beginning?
Yes! I guess one reason is that she's so self-absorbed, she's funny. But there's also something very true about the way you've written her – you don't have to be a hypochondriac to recognize the way her insecurities manifest.
Well, she's a little bit of me, and she's a little bit of my own mother, who was a terrible mother until I was about five or six. I tagged along with her to a therapy session, and when her therapist saw me yanking at my mom’s pants, trying to get her attention, the therapist told her “you're a terrible mother” and that was like a big moment for my mom. That story was one of the early inspirations for this play. Of course, I only remember my mom as being really wonderful. I don’t remember the bad stuff. And I named the character after Pamela Gordon [legendary Los Angeles theatre actress who died in 2003] who was a wonderful actress. She and I became friends for the last two years of her life. One of the things I really admired about her was how the world revolved around her, yet you loved her. It was like the world revolved around her in a great way.
It's easy to ascribe the title of the play - Sick - to the character of Pamela – but really, you could apply it to any of the major characters of the play.
That was one of my goals. I wanted to look at sickness in all of its incarnations. Literal sickness, mental sickness, addiction, spiritual sickness. So each character has their own personal sickness. It is Pamela's play, but I wanted each of them to have their own little shining moment. I approach a play from character first, then I get into the theme. For instance, in Sick, I started with the very first scene of the play – it's the first thing I wrote. It's Pamela and her husband David and her brother Gary.
With Gary screaming “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
Right. Usually when I start writing a play I get a kernel of an idea, but then it might not be what the play ends up being about – but that's where I start from. Often, it'll be a scene at the end of the play, or in the middle and I'll look backwards. But in this case, it ended up being the very first scene in the play. I was in London in 1998 and I was sitting outside a movie, and this guy is screaming at cars passing by. He was clearly drunk and yelling obscenities for about 45 minutes. And I'm sitting there fascinated by this guy and I'm filling in the story of what’s going on in this guy's life. About twenty minutes into this screaming tirade, I notice a couple another couple watching him. They were with him. They were just waiting for him to shut up and leave. I hadn't even started writing plays at this time – but that scene kind of stuck with me and I always knew I wanted to use it someday. So when I finally started writing Sick, it was really about Gary. And then Pamela kind of took over.
In another play of yours, He Asked For It, there's a moment when a character asks for redemption, but doesn't get it. But at the end of this play there is a moment of redemption. Which play did you write first?
I wrote this play before He Asked For It. I was going to the Naked Angels Tuesdays at Nine a lot and I brought in a scene a week to Tuesdays week after week. Then I started writing He Asked For It and it took on its own life and found theaters that wanted to do it [Theatre of NOTE, The Macha Theatre]. Sick went on the back burner for a while. I blindly submitted it to Playwrights Arena and had actually forgotten that I had sent it to them and then Tony Foster was producing a weekend play reading and he called me out of the blue. And now they're producing it in April 2010 at LATC [the Los Angeles Theatre Center] with Diane Rodriguez directing.
You've had a lot of success in Los Angeles. How did you get started?
I wanted to be an actor originally. I went to Occidental College and was studying in the theatre department. I was actually a double major in Theatre and English, so I’d written a lot of essays, but I'd never written a script before. Then I took this playwriting class with Laural Meade and fell in love with it. She really inspired me to write for theatre.
I started going to theatre when I was ten, I just became obsessed with the medium, I love seeing people on a stage and knowing that anything could happen. It's not pre-ordained. You go into a theatre and you might see a tiny little brilliant moment that wasn't there yesterday and isn't going to be there tomorrow. Those things might click in a new unique way. And I love that. So, I was really addicted to theatre as an audience member. I have a bit of an addictive personality, which fed into Sick. I collect things. I collect theatre experiences. I would want to see as many plays as possible. I wanted to be the kid who went to every play at that theatre company and to every play at that theatre company. I went to New York when I was fifteen and saw a dozen plays in seven days. So I collected those experiences. I would go to see plays, fall in love with them and then see them six, seven or eight times. There were a few shows at The Evidence Room, back when I was in college, that I was obsessed with like that.
So you decided to stay in LA.
I took this class with Laural Meade and she introduced me to the Actors Gang, where I met people who introduced me to Theatre of NOTE, where I met people who introduced me to people at The Evidence Room, and that kind of became my scene. There was a time when I thought about going to New York, but I had so many people I was collaborating with out here, that it felt like if I went to New York, I'd be starting from Square One again. And I like being an LA playwright. I like being able to wear flip-flops in December.
You've worked with a number of different directors. What do you feel is the best directorial approach to your work?
I'm very collaborative. I like to write during the rehearsal process, especially for a world premiere. So, I like to work for a director who is open to that and who wants that. I want to hear the director's opinion and I want to discuss scenes. I remember a specific scene in Red Light/Green Light at Theatre of NOTE. The two female lovers in the play – they had this one scene that, it just didn’t work, but I couldn’t see how wrong it was for the longest time. We were rehearsing the play – we were going to open in, like, two weeks, and I'm at rehearsal, listening to it, and I realize, “This is the worst thing I've ever written.” And somehow it had slipped through – I hadn't realized it was so bad. I went home that night and rewrote that scene from scratch. The new scene was what we used in the play. It was so much better.
Speaking of there being two lovers in that scene, there's a lot of sex – and I mean, in-your-face sex - in your plays. Why?
I think we're all a little bit fucked up in our own little ways. I mean, maybe not as fucked up as the characters in my plays, but we all have that little thing inside of us that gets aggravated. And everyone likes sex. It's human nature. Onstage, I think it's something that's kind of exciting to deal with. Not in a titillating way. I'm interested in who we are when we're alone and when we're with someone with whom you share those intimate moments. I think when you go to a play, you want to see those behind-closed-doors scenes. I mean, we're sitting in a diner right now and I don't know what's going on in those people's heads [nodding to a table] – but I could write a play about them. You know, we want to see that side of people.
There's a whole story going on over there.
There's a line in My So Called Life, I think it's in the pilot, Claire Danes is walking down the hall thinking about sex and she says, “Those two teachers, Mr. Katimsky and Ms. Smith, they both have sex. They could have sex together. Right now.” When you look at the world like that, it's kind of fun.
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