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Ken LaSalle interview with Joshua Fardon
What inspired you to write this play? Have you had a date go like this?
Murielle came after having written my first full-length play after a long break. I’d written the previous play following all of the rules I had kind of learned along the way and I ended up not liking it. I had to actually analyze what was going wrong and what it was about the play I didn’t like. Was writing plays just not in me anymore? Or was it the rules themselves that were causing me problems? One of my rules, for instance, was to write a lot of jokes before starting the play and sort of drop them in around the story – but the problem I ended up with is it felt inorganic.
I actually was presented with the perfect opportunity to break all the rules I had built up one week at work, when my completely micromanaging boss took a week off and I had lots of free time. I decided to just write and see what came out, completely organically. What came out was a surprise because, in answer to your second question, my dating life has actually been pretty standard. But I loved the natural weirdness of it so I let it go where it took me.
That's kind of ironic (or maybe it's because of where your mind was?), in light of Murielle being asked to break her own rules around dating. Personally, as funny as they are, I often find myself kind of agreeing with Sam and Angela.
Why do you think we place these restrictions on ourselves?
Why do you think we place these restrictions on ourselves?
You know, I don’t even really think of that when I think of Murielle (the play). My mind is so keyed into things like timing and my own paranoia about getting things right, the subtext often has to work for itself. But you’re right, in a way. Sam and Angela really are kind of the friendly demons breaking Murielle out of her expectations and constraints.
How do we get ourselves there? In my own case, it is far too often because of fear. I think “a = a” in a kind of Nazi, Germanic logic. A play must be this or a date must be this – which is actually where most of the push-back has come with regards to Murielle. I hear “That’s not the way that should go”. And they’re right, of course, which is what makes it so cool. Setting yourself free and allowing something to happen is what writing, and perhaps all art, is about. We are taught to fear it but that’s where the fun is.
There's a kind of meta-theatrical thing that happens in the second act when Mark starts playing Barthelomeus: they're doing a play within the play - and by acting out this crazy fantasy, it pacifies Angela and Sam, gives Mark a connection to them and saves the date . What is it about role playing and fantasy that helps us to deal with tough situations?
Okay, the thing about Murielle – and one of the things I have grown to love about it – is that so many people see so many different things in it. For instance, when Mark starts playing along, that was my way of helping him find his comfort zone. Sort of a “Hey, I can do this” moment. Does it save the date? My personal opinion is that if left to her own ideas about what was right for the date, Murielle would have wrecked it beyond saving. Sam had to wreck it first to save it, if you follow me.
If I may digress for a second, the whole role playing thing – as with so much of my writing – came in a moment of giddy “I know what I can try next” kind of writing euphoria. I hit it a couple of times in the play, I loved it so much. The first time I saw it on a stage, I was so happy to see that it actually worked. Recently, though, I was watching a DVD of Drawn Together (yes, the cartoon) and they did a whole role playing thing, too. So, it was probably planted in my head from the first time I saw it and decided to sneak its way – um – blast its way out at that point.
As for how fantasy helps us cope…? I mean, my god, that’s what writing is, isn’t it? That’s how I came to writing plays, to cope with a very difficult divorce. My first three plays were therapy for me. Later, I wrote a play inspired by the death of my father and included an extended monologue of what I might have said to him. (Fortunately, things worked out better for me than the protagonist in my play.) That old saw about writing keeping you sane – that’s me. But it’s a two-way street. Writing opens you up to things that help you become a better writer but, once you’ve been opened up, you can’t just join the rest of the closed-off, normal people in the same way again.
You write in several mediums - and, unless you're also a poet, theater is the least potentially lucrative. What is it about the theater that appeals to you as opposed to television and film?
Wait. What? The theater is… what? Nobody told me about this! This changes everything! Maury! Call my lawyer! What? I don’t have one? Damn. … uh, sorry. Actually, you’re right. I’m a starving playwright, a starving novelist, and – whew, when’s lunch? The thing is I like to write. I got into writing plays because I was also a stage actor so I understood the format and had plenty of opinions about what was wrong with it. With regards to TV and film, the sad truth is I have no idea how to break into those mediums – which is not to say I’ve actually broken into this one. More importantly, though, I’m a big movie buff and I can watch a lot of TV – those things work just fine for me. Even when they suck, the format is at least usually functional.
Now, you take theater, which let’s be honest most people can’t stand. Most people, if given the chance between great theater and a bad movie, will take the flick. That’s because most great theater ain’t all that great for most people. Theater has turned into a place where, too often, scared artists pretend they’re doing something important… um, in my humble opinion. I knew that I could do something different and alive in theater. I could make it work in a way unique to me. Could I do that for film or TV? Only if certain producers and agents and anyone with a great deal of money gives me a chance… um, hint… Bottom line: the opportunity for theater presented itself and I haven’t had that opportunity with TV or film.
I'll agree that even great theater isn't that great, but I would argue that when it's truly truly great, it beats the living hell out of film.
You’re right. When theater is great it is more immediate and alive than film or television could ever be, because it is alive – right there – you can almost touch it. I recently saw a production of Lisa Kron’s Well, which really restored my faith in what theater can do. That’s why I write plays, because I know it’s possible.
Sadly, though, I think those of us who write for theater, who direct and produce, those with power even in the smallest theaters have lost our way. I think we're allowing bad theater - which is boring theater, which is safe theater, which is moderate theater - to infect us. We theater folk - writers, actors, directors - need to wake up and and kick ass. This has actually been pissing me off so much lately that I’ve been getting into people’s faces about it... Because theater is open to everyone, since anyone can do theater at any time and for any reason, it is the art of the masses. It doesn’t need to be corporatized. It doesn’t require a budget. And this makes it dangerous. There’s something about theater that should always be threatening, should always be in your face. Theater should be punk rock because anyone can do it. That means it can say what it wants and do what it wants. Theater should be telling you to fuck off – pardon my language – and it should do it often. It should wave a knife in your face and ask you what you’re going to do about it. Theater should scare people. TV and Film have to be controlled because they have to remain profitable. The minute theater forgets that it is more than this, it sinks beneath this lowest common denominator and becomes boring and flat and dead. The greatest strength theater has is that it can do what other media cannot. It can hurt you. It should hurt you. We need to stop forgetting that.
Somewhere, we allowed theater to become thought of as nothing more than “art”, the way people think of jazz or cubism, for crying out loud. We need to stop letting that happen. It might take a while but I think it can be done if we wake up to that fact.
It's interesting that your father's passing away and your divorce have fed your writing so much. Is most of your stuff this funny?
I hope so – for my comedy, at least. To write comedy that makes people laugh – which we need to see more of in theater – you have to be pretty brutal with yourself. Again, most people go to stand-up comics for laughs and I know too many writers who think that stage comedy shouldn’t need to make you laugh. Again, huge disconnect.
Where was the play staged and what, if anything, did you learn from it?
Murielle has seen two really cool staged readings. I say they were really cool not just because – well, every staged reading for a writer is cool – but because of how well Murielle travelled to two different types of theaters. The first reading was at Gallimaufry Theater in Laguna Beach, a big, wide stage in a large house. The last reading through Writing Man Productions at the Dark Room Theater in San Francisco happened this past February. The Dark Room is an intimate setting with a postage stamp of a stage. Both locations did a slight different Murielle, adapting for the venue, of course. But even the actors interpreted the characters slightly differently. Angela, for instance, was played more insane in Laguna and more drunk in San Francisco, both equally as effective in their own way.
Both were immensely fulfilling but again for slightly different reasons. In Laguna, I directed the staged reading with all kinds of intricate blocking. I had a great time seeing my vision of it and the audience was mostly made up of local friends and family who hadn’t seen a play of mine before. While it was great hearing them get into the play, the feedback at the Dark Room was even more meaningful because the audience there didn’t know me. It was great seeing someone else’s version of it and watching an audience of strangers get just as turned on by my work.
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