When travel agent Jim Strong approached New York theater jack of all trades Andy Sandberg about writing and directing an all-new play based on the travel industry, Sandberg was skeptical. "[I was] a little bit like, What is this? Is it an infomercial?," said Sandberg, "But it became very clear that that was not [Strong's] intent, which was exciting."
Rather than conducting interviews, writing, and directing, all on his own, Sandberg quickly involved his old college classmate, writer and computer-science major Greg Edwards. Together the two have discovered that the travel industry is rife with dramatic situations and hilarious characters. The end result of their work is Craving for Travel, a two-actor off-Broadway play that will receive its world premiere January 9-February 9 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.
TheaterMania spoke with the collaborators about their arts-and-craftsy outlining process, the wonders of Google Docs, and how designing a computer game is like writing a play.
What was the motivation behind this project?
Andy Sandberg: Jim did not come at us with, "Write it this way. Write this, write this." He said, "I think this would be a fun way to do a legitimate project." I like to wear a lot of different hats, as well, so I appreciated and respected someone who is thinking outside the box in terms of what would be a fun way to just kind of remind people that travel is a cool thing. Another part of it is [that] he deals with a lot of big personalities, for better or worse, and that's what leads to a lot of the humor in this play. And I think that's what we gravitated to dramatically.
Greg Edwards: I think part of it, too, is the idea of humans desiring an environment that they're comfortable with. Travel, by definition, takes you out of all your familiar surroundings. So you try to establish this new level of normality where you are by making sure that everything works the way you expect it to. And when it doesn't, even something little can take on huge importance, because this is the thing anchoring you to reality as you know it.
Tell me about your collaborative process.
Andy Sandberg: A lot of collaborators take their work and go into different rooms and then they kind of mush it together. But we had an absurd outlining process that became as much of the writing process as anything. So we were working so closely in that, that we ended up pretty much writing the play side by side.
Greg Edwards: When we say "wrote the play together," that may suggest, like the Comden-and-Green type of collaboration, two people sitting in a room, one person typing, the other tossing out ideas. But thanks to Google Docs, we'd be in the same document at the same time, like writing and crossing out each other's work. And when we're doing the outlining process, it was literally us at a huge table with all different character beats cut out and us sorting them on the table.
Andy Sandberg: Like a thirty-foot-forty-foot conference table, the whole perimeter, with colored papers around it.
Why did you decide to use just two actors?
Andy Sandberg: We wanted to incorporate a lot of the personalities in the travel industry — the travelers, different venders, clients, etc. — a big cross section of that world. Jim had given us a list of fifty names around the country. He said, "Here's the list, here's the contacts, I told them you'd be calling, and I'm staying out of the way so they can speak candidly to you." So a lot of the stories in the play are loosely based on anecdotes and ideas and personalities that we encountered. At the same time, the world of produce-ability doesn't allow for casts of thirtysomething, especially off-Broadway.
How did you end up putting your character beats on cards?
Greg Edwards: Our first draft of the play was something like twice the current length just because there were so many subplots going on. And then we realized, Wow, this is not Nicholas Nickleby and we trimmed it.
Andy Sandberg: The trilogy is gonna be great!
Greg Edwards: So to cull the best ideas from our pool and build those into a play, it was just like, OK, here's a character type, here's what their problem is. And then we have like the three-five steps of everyone's problems. Sometimes the beats are dependent on another character's beats so you have to make sure those are ordered, as well.
How have your other experiences come into play?
Greg Edwards: I'd say one of the things that's been most helpful in writing this play is computer-game designing. For my senior project in Computer Science, I wrote a game. The player has to figure out how one story line relates to another to unite them and save the day. It's a very similar logic to this play where you have all these separate disparate threads that you have to track individually and then find out how seemingly unrelated things interact.
The great thing about having so many subplots is that you can play different games within each of them. Like one story arc has the key, one story arc has the lock, you put them together, great, problem solved. But there's also the emotional side of that where someone's in an emotional crisis and it's trying to address that person's emotional need. If that was the sole plot, the play would be very heavy and Eugene O'Neill: The Travel Cometh. [laughs] Whereas when it's one of your twelve subplots going on at the same time, then you can kind of give the audience the best of both worlds.
Andy Sandberg: For me, I kind of feel like the different hats I wear in the different aspects of the industry all inform each other. What I learn as a director on one project, I can carry through as a writer into another and know I can respect and appreciate other people's crafts and skills in a particular collaboration.
What do you want people to take away from the play?
Andy Sandberg: First and foremost we want them to have a good time. It should be a fun evening at the theater, so that's goal number one.
Greg Edwards: As opposed to our first draft, which would have been a fun week at the theater. [laughs]
Andy Sandberg: Beyond that, I think we'd like people to walk out of there with a good feeling about travel.
Greg Edwards: I would say it's a show that Angela Lansbury would enjoy, so she should come.