Matthew-Lee Erlbach is a producer and writer at Nickelodeon who came to New York to do standup, moved on to sketch comedy, and recently appeared in the science-fiction film Another Earth. Now, the multitalented midwesterner is stretching his theater and activism muscles, starring in his own one-man show about the triumphs and struggles of real Americans from across the country.
Handbook for an American Revolutionary is a dark comedy that gives "voice to a panorama of ordinary citizens in extraordinary circumstances." The play's characters, which range from migrant workers to lobbyists, are inspired by individuals Erlbach has encountered in his travels around the United States.
TheaterMania spoke to the playwright about believing in fate, trusting his own audacity, and playing a middle-aged Ukrainian manicurist.
Are most of your characters based on specific people?
This isn't journalism. It's journalistic, but it isn't journalism. For instance, Grace, a character in Twilight, West Virginia, she's a conflation of three different people. I took those three people and put them together to make this character. The information that she's talking about and the situation that she's in is real to their lives and what's happening…but there are no direct interviews. There were a lot of interviews and a lot of conversations, but, like, I'm not doing Anna Deavere Smith, in other words.
How did you decide whom you wanted to talk to?
It was really a mix. Like, I knew I wanted to go to West Virginia and I knew the key players I wanted to meet. A lot of these interviews and a lot of the journey to get to these places inspired a lot of other things and the arc of the play. It's really about these struggles — how are they're reshaping this nation — and these people you've never heard of.
I targeted places that I didn't know anything about. I'd never been to Slidell, Louisiana, but I had an opportunity when I was on a shoot to stay a couple extra days, So I'm like, while I'm in Louisiana, let's check out Slidell. And I talk to everybody. I love talking to people. My friends make fun of me because whenever I meet somebody, I ask them where they're from because I'm really curious, I mean this is such a crazy country. We all speak the same language, but the north is different from the south and the southwest, and Montana, big sky country.
Where are you from by the way?
We're Midwesterners. I'm from Chicago.
Doing this play is interesting, because in New York, it's just so fast-paced. When I go back to Chicago, everyone's living such a slower life. It's just a different pace. And I have family [who] are farmers in Ohio, and [also] family in the south. And when I'm out there, it's like, man, I want to live these different lives. I want to understand and process it and give it back. I [want to] take the play to Slidell, Louisiana; to Tacoma, Washington; and Montana. That's really what I want to do. This is hopefully just the beginning of a longer journey.
Why have you chosen to be both writer and actor?
There's actually a few different reasons why. As I was meeting these people, I was always processing stories. I'm hearing the world as a writer, but when I'm talking to people, I'm hearing it as an actor. So both of those things are coming to me at the same time, and I think the empathy and the kindness and the fear and the confusion that I felt for a really long time, I felt myself, so I felt all these people and all these stories so deeply that, beyond writing, I had to give them voice. I had no choice.
The second part of it was, and I'm hesitant to talk about this because it just sounds so coarse, but it's all to the larger endgame. Professionally, I'm never gonna play a fifty-seven-year-old Ukrainian manicurist; these are all roles that I'll never get cast in. So it gives me great opportunity to challenge my acting muscles. And that's really, really, really exciting for me.
And I gotta say, I'm really not a fan of solo theater. It's really ironic. If someone tells me, "I'm going to go see my friend's one-man play," I'm like, "Alright, yeah, you have fun at Don't Tell Mama or wherever you're going. I'm not interested." And of course I have great respect for Anna Deavere Smith and Danny Hoch. They're great artists. But it's audacious. What I'm doing is really audacious, so I'm hoping that all the hard work that we've all done in making this production come together…people get it.
You wear a lot of hats. What's your passion?
That is the f*cking struggle of my days. I'm a writer-producer at Nickelodeon, which is a really awesome job. Beyond being immensely creative, I get to work with some great people. With that said, my endgame is to continue telling compelling stories as both a writer and actor, no matter the genre or venue. I want to be a voice at the table, whether that's comedy or it takes on a social-activism role or a playwriting role…But my goal is to merge them all together.
It's great to have so many roads open to you.
Yeah, I mean, I'm still trying to make the roads. When I moved to New York, I felt like I couldn't wait for anything to happen. Same thing with Handbook. This had been in development for a while and we had a lot of stops and starts, and I was like, "I have to make this happen now. Like, now."
I'm glad it's happening the way it's happening, because I think it's meant to be. Not to get all fate and free will about it, but I really do think its happening now was for a reason. I don't know what that reason is yet except that all the elements have come together in a really great way.