Wednesday Feb 08

PaulMullin Paul Mullin is a relentless advocate for fresh, “locally grown” plays. His dramatic innovations have flourished in productions across the United States. His Louis Slotin Sonata won the L. A. Drama Critics Award for Outstanding World Premiere, and was read by invitation before scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory prior to its Off-Broadway run. Mullin’s The Sequence premiered at The Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena and The Ten Thousand Things at Washington Ensemble Theatre in Seattle. Both Louis Slotin Sonata and The Sequence, were commissioned by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, in collaboration with Ensemble Studio Theatre. He conceived, co-wrote and co-produced NewsWrights United’s series of Living Newspapers, It’s Not in The P-I: A Living Newspaper About a Dying Newspaper and The New New News which enjoyed tremendous audience and media acclaim. In addition to work for the stage, Mullin has written several feature film scripts and television documentaries, including Hitting The Ground, an independent feature in which he also starred as an actor. He is a regularly contributor to Sandbox Radio Live! with his noir-angel detective series, Markheim. Mullin was recognized by Seattle’s preeminent alternative weekly, The Stranger with a “Genius Award” for achievement in theatre. Mullin serves as an instructor at Freehold Theatre and Hugo House, and has also taught at Centrum, and with ACT’s Young Playwrights Program. Born in Baltimore, Paul now makes his home in Seattle with his wife and two sons. His play Ballard House Duet received its world premiere at Washington Ensemble Theatre in December 2012. He is currently developing a play about scientific and philosophical investigations of consciousness tentatively titled Philosophical Zombie Killers. His thoughts on how Seattle can take its rightful place as a World Class theatre town can be read at his blog Just Wrought.

Paul Mullin, a Seattle based playwright, who has since retired from playwriting, which makes me sad because I enjoyed getting to know him and his play grew on me, snuck up on me really with it's deeply specific world and characters.  Enjoy!
                                                                                                          Drama Editor, Kathleen Dennehy

                                                 Paul Mullin interview, with Kathleen Dennehy

Gossamer Grudges
starts out wildly enough, putting me in mind of plots and scenarios from Dali to Bunuel to Garrison Keillor to Charlie Kaufman in social commentary. Despite the almost nonsensical overtones and characters, the play is very visually imaginable- I could envision this production and envy the set designer who gets to create this world. The characters are daffy (in the most intellectual way!) yet they come alive as they are actually grounded in a relatable humanity. The supporting plot that skewers the preciousness of celebrity is particularly timely. It’s funny yet rueful. History and memory and forgiveness are the meaningful undertones but the play doesn’t preach. Despite being a farce almost every character in the play has more than one dimension- either they begin as a villain and end up the opposite and vice versa. By Act 3 the set and the plot conspire to bring the characters’ arcs to a satisfying pitch. Yet it ends on an emotional note, which makes everything that came before much more resonant.

Well thank you very much. I honestly couldn’t hope for a better response to the play. It’s tremendously gratifying to read your kind words.

What inspired you to write this play?

Grudges have always played a large, often damaging part in the on-going dynamic of my extended family. (We’re mostly Irish Catholic and nurse our grievances like single-malt whiskies.) It takes a lot of psychic energy to hold a grudge. At some point, well over 15 years ago, maybe more, I joked with someone that I should start a company to hold grudges so people wouldn’t have to. It was just the sort of absurd, completely non-profitable idea that sticks with me, usually to end up as the starter for a play, or, at least back then when I was still writing plays. I just sort of filed it away until I had more inspiration, or found myself needing a project. That time came around 2007. Once I really knuckled down to day-dreaming about it, I realized that the essential absurdity of the idea could only be properly examined through farce.

Your comprehensive may indicate otherwise, but are you primarily more attracted to writing farce?

I have only written one true farce and Gossamer Grudges is it. It’s unlikely I will write another, for several reasons. 1) I have retired from the theatre, and playwriting; 2) I ran into a brick wall finding a home for the premiere production of this piece; 3) Farce is very, very hard. This is easily the hardest play I have ever written. That said, the challenge was a lot of fun and I’m glad I did it. I would just be surprised if I ever did it again. A bit like running a marathon while juggling a chainsaw, a bowling ball and a feather.

Your characters’ tendency to utilize ‘hifalutin’ language seem to straddle Wildean and earlier farce more so than Joe Orton… but there’s also a simple modernity in it as well, which is enjoyable to read. Which farce plays you are attracted to, if not inspired by?

I was deeply inspired by Georges Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear, and of course, all three of Orton’s farces, but most especially What the Butler Saw. He was at his very best with that one.

Best farce lines ever:

         “Geraldine: We must tell the truth!
         Prentice: That's a thoroughly defeatist attitude.”

A note on this as I re-read it: it’s funny, but it’s not that funny out of context. And that’s just the way a good farce laugh line works. Farce has no time for true jokes, or witticisms. That’s why, as close as he comes, Wilde isn’t really writing farce with The Importance of Being Earnest, because folks have entirely too much time to be clever.

As you can probably tell, I love talking “farce theory”. I developed the habit while trying to avoid actually working on my farce.

So with that in mind, here’s just a little bit more: Farce works differently than conventional comedy. Great farce has to ratchet, and allow zero room for breathing on the part of the characters and the audience participating in their adventures. I tried my best to be as ruthless as possible with my three acts. Any fat I found was mercilessly thrown on the fire.

For me it’s quite disheartening how the word “farce” gets horribly misused. People say things like: “That staff meeting was a farce.” And I want to ask them, “Were you on the edge of your seat wondering who was going to come through the door next? Was it tense and relentless and fun and funny but in that way you feel when you know you’re falling in love with someone that’s going take you on a wild ride to utter devastation?... No? Then it wasn’t a farce, jackass. Maybe, just maybe, it was a “travesty”. So do me a favor and trot that out instead next time, ‘kay?”

(Whoa. I think a certain someone takes all of this farce crap a bit too seriously.)

Since farce appears to be quite rarely written lately, especially in America, I’m fascinated by what made you think, “I’m going to sit down and write a farce play about a company that keeps grudges for paying customers” ?

I have never been particularly smart or savvy when it comes to writing what American Theatres want to produce. Hence the retirement thing.

I’m almost over this line of questioning. I promise. How do you envision this performed? Based on your set descriptions I’m imagining something like Steampunk meets Galaxy Quest! I mean that as the highest compliment. But clearly you have a strong visual sense of how these sets should look… care to expound?

Funny story, I actually do not have all that clear of an idea of what the sets should look like. Maybe more so than a “normal” play of mine (no such thing, really), but not much. I’m very much an aural playwright. I write what I hear, not what I see.

What I do have is an amazing designer that I like to work with named Gary Smoot; and I like to work with him as early in the process as possible. I understand that the set dynamics I am asking for are extremely challenging, but I also know that someone as gifted and inspired as Gary would meet them in ways I could never imagine. Like having a great actor in mind for a particular role, knowing Gary is out there frees me up to imagine outrageous things, with the confidence that someone else will make them happen brilliantly.

There was one design element I knew about this play before I had a single character or line of dialogue. I wrote a note to myself very early: “A door slams. No. A coffin lid.”

The plot surrounding the blindingly gorgeous star with the penchant for knives and caskets put me in mind of Angelina Jolie. Via the role of Juliette Page are you skewering the modern cult of celebrity? If so, why?

I suppose I am skewering the cult of celebrity (though I’m not sure how modern it is.) But more than skewering it, I’m hoping to explore it a bit. I have two kids, and I love and enjoy them more than I ever imagined I could, but I can’t for the life of me imagine wanting more. So I wanted to understand what would make someone like Juliette so hungry for such a profuse proliferation of the sort of deeply challenging connection that comes with each and every kid. Eventually that’s how her father, John Page, evolved: as the anti-parent. I suppose I enjoy exploring the weirdness of people and then letting that weirdness drive them to take utterly outrageous but also utterly believable actions. I think Juliette-- like a lot of Hollywood folks, but also a lot of Americans and zooming even farther out, a lot of humans—craves the essence of life, but is also secretly fascinated by death. Children are, sure, a hedge against death but only as they accelerate the grave’s careening approach.

There’s this notion in the Western world that being rich and privileged means you are obliged to “do more good”; but that implies one has made an extremely arrogant presumption: namely, that one understands just how one does good in this confusing world without actually adding to the evil.

I enjoyed the rebel sister Alice, who preaches against grudge-holding. Are you making a philosophical point about the more Buddhist practice of ‘letting go’ as opposed to the more Western tendency to ‘hang on’ to things and bitterness? Am I over-thinking this? Possible… but the play has gotten me thinking, which is never a good thing!

I think Alice grew out of my cussed refusal to come out and say this or that is absolutely good or bad. As damaging as grudges have been in my family, I have often defended the concept of holding them to people who, like my wife, do not come from such a tradition. My argument goes along the lines of, “If you’re not willing to stick with holding people responsible for their behavior when they hurt you, then you’re only going to get hurt again, and then it will be you who is responsible for the hurt. (A sort of long-winded way of saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”) And all of that is an even more long-winded way of saying that I created Alice to show that forcing forgiveness can be as rigid and self-righteous as holding a grudge. When you wade all the way into the deep end of developing a farce, a wonderful and wicked realization begins to dawn: every absurd moralism causes an equal but opposite absurd moralism. No one is ever right in a farce. But everyone one can be equally vastly, fantastically wrong.

Grudges are absurd, but by a similar logic, so is love.

How did you come to writing and playwriting in particular?

I started as an actor. But as a teenager I also wanted to be a rock star, so I wrote songs and lots and lots of lyrics. When I went to college on an acting scholarship I had to split with my band. We all wound up going to different ways. But I kept writing lyrics, poetry, and when I looked really hard at it all I realized that most of it took the form of conversations. And there I was, already doing theatre as an actor, so I thought, okay, why not try to write a play. During the first semester of my freshman year of college, I sat down and wrote a play for real. We put it on in the Spring in our experimental black box space. From there I was hooked. It’s taken me over a quarter of a century to kick my addiction.

Who are writers you love? Who are playwrights you are inspired by?

I have always loved Thornton Wilder as a playwright. He’s a lot craftier and harder core than nearly anyone gives him credit for. I also like Brecht a lot. In the broader realm, I adore Borges, John Gardner, James Joyce, Ursula LeGuin, Mark Twain, Pablo Neruda, William Carlos Williams, John Steinbeck, Walt Whitman, Dashiell Hammett, Walter Mosely, Rumi and on and on.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on something that seems to want to be a book. It’s called The Starting Gate, which is the name of a country bar that I sort of grew up in, working there from 13 to 16 years old as a stock boy with my brother. The book will be about that place, but also bars in general, and working and what it is I should be doing now that I’ve left the theatre. It might just be my mid-life crisis book.


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