Emerging playwrights Rolin Jones, Christopher Kyle, and Craig Wright chat about writing what you know and life in Hollywood.
The main character of Rolin Jones' The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow is Jennifer Marcus, an agoraphobic 22-year-old genius with obsessive-compulsive disorder who was raised in Southern Calfiornia but born in China. Since she can't bring herself to step outside her door, let alone work through the bureaucratic red tape of an adoption agency, she decides to build a robot out of obsolete missiles, name it "Jenny Chow," and send it on a journey to find her mother.
In doing research for the play, Jones was lucky to have as a resource the library at Yale University, where he was studying. He dusted off an eclectic tome called Android Epistemology, which had never been taken out by a student. "The pages were still stuck together," he recalls. "I was amazed that somebody had written 250 pages on the theoretical epistemology of thinking, breathing robots."
Underneath the sci-fi fantasia of Jenny Chow is a surprising amount of personal history. "My mother had passed away, so I had some mother issues to deal with," Jones says, adding that the main thread of the story comes from a conversation with a former boss who told him about the difficulties she had in adopting a baby from China. Jones' past experiences as a pizza deliveryman also find their way into the narrative though the character of Todd, Jennifer's one true friend.
Although the play has nothing to do with evolution, the phrase "intelligent design" -- one used by proponents of creationism -- has caught a lot of people's attention during the show's New York and D.C. runs. "Thank God for the election of George Bush!" jokes the author, adding: "Boy, you'll never hear me say that again!" Jones is even prouder of the play's subtitle, "An Instant Message with Excitable Music," which he believes taps into the youthful energy of the work and highlights the efforts of his composer friend Matthew Sutter.
If you think that Jones' style sounds like a bit of a head-trip, you're not alone. The creator of Showtime's latest series about marijuana, Weeds, flew the playwright in to work on her show after reading Jenny Chow. With typical self-depracating wit, Jones says, "I get out there and a I'm touchy-feely, serious guy -- so I get the touchy-feely, serious episode." After praising the co-writers, the actors, and the creators, he reflects on the experience: "I had a great time, and the pay check certainly helps so I can do my crack addiction, which is theater."
For his next gig, Jones is collaborating with Tim Acito (Zanna, Don't!) on a new musical called The Jammers. "What's the dumbest subject from which I can squeeze some kind of emotion, something where I could surprise people?" he asks rhetorically. "Roller derby! Why the hell not?"
In the scripts for his films K-19: The Widowmaker and Alexander, Christopher Kyle explored grand historical events with an enthusiast's fascination and great attention to detail. When writing plays, however, he tends to explore issues on a more personal level. The Plunge and The Monogamist, both of which were produced at Playwrights Horizons, delved into such seemingly more commonplace subjects as the transition into adulthood and life in academia. But, underneath the surface of these plays, Kyle has been known to examine weighty issues of class, race, and gender. Such is the case in his latest work, The Safety Net, which tells the story of a lawyer who tries to figure out his adopted brother's racial and ethnic heritage.
In many ways, the play embodies the expression "write what you know." Like the fictionalized central character, Kyle is white and has an adopted brother who's African-American, but neither of them know anything about his birth parents. The playwright explains that Indiana's adoption laws are designed to protect the mother: "If she is not interested [in having her identity determined], then there's really no recourse for the child." The play goes into some of the details and legalities of the situation, although it departs from the playwright's autobiography substantially; for example, it begins after the death of the adopted brother, whereas the playwright's real-life brother is still alive.
Kyle, whose screenwriting career began with the independent film The Weight of Water, convinced the executives behind K-19 that he was qualified to write a movie set in a submarine because, as a playwright, he's used to dealing with confined spaces. The film, which starred Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, caught the eye of Oliver Stone; the director later commissioned Kyle for Alexander, which opened to scorching reviews in America but wide acclaim in Europe. "I felt that a lot of the criticism was coming out of an antipathy toward Oliver because he's so provocative and outspoken on a number of issues," says Kyle. "Also, I think, you can't ignore the homophobia that exists in America -- but Oliver wanted to depict the truth, which was that Alexander the Great was bisexual."
When asked about creative control in film versus theater, Kyle remarks, "There's no comparison, really. In Hollywood, a screenwriter is a hired hand, and the most creative influence you can have is a sympathetic, open-minded director who's willing to listen to your suggestions." He says that Kathryn Bigelow, who directed his first two films, welcomed much of his input. As for Alexander, "I knew coming in that I'd be writing rough drafts for Oliver. I wanted to work with him because I admire his films."
*************************THE WRIGHT STUFF
When I called Craig Wright at his Los Angeles home for an interview, the city was experiencing a blackout. "It's a slightly surreal atmosphere," said the writer. He might as easily have been talking about his body of work, which includes the HBO series Six Feet Under and such plays as The Pavilion, currently running at the Rattlestick Theatre with Brian d'Arcy James, Stephen Bogardus, and Jennifer Mudge in the cast.
In many of Wright's plays, the breathtaking scenery of rural towns is eerily contrasted with the often appalling way in which the residents treat each other. For example, The Pavilion is set at a high school reunion in Pine City, Minnesota, where two ex-sweethearts meet after not having seen each other for years. "A guy, having done a girl wrong, returns and wants to make it up to her," Wright explains. "Over the course of the evening, they both realize that this is not possible and sort of beside the point." The play grapples with questions of forgiveness and the nature of time. "Ethics and time are a complicated mixture," Wright feels. "The search for justice is often undone by time."
It's not surprising that a scribe who's fascinated by themes of forgiveness attended United Theological Seminary. "Currently, I don't practice any religion at all," Wright says, "but I'd say that religion and theater are both ways of asking questions. When religion becomes more about giving answers, it gets poisonous." He recalls that, when a friend of his at divinity school opined that actors are "the most self-centered bunch of nymphomaniacs in the world," Wright shot back, "I guess I like those self-centered nymphomaniacs." He quips, "That probably tells you why, even though I have an MDiv degree, I'm not a minister."
Says Wright, "I see the creative act as primarily one of selection. In other words, you're a filter through which events and activities pass, and you pick which ones to put together. I moved to Minnesota when I was 14, on my own, and I stayed there until I was 36. Having come out of an ugly, ugly childhood, I was just fascinated to be in this beautiful, beautiful place."
Four of Wright's plays, including The Pavilion and Orange Flower Water, are set in Pine City, whereas Six Feet Under was famously set in Los Angeles. Though many writers find that television affords less creative control than theater, Wright says this was not the case with that series. The show's executive producer, Alan Ball, made the writer of each episode the producer -- in charge of casting, editing, music, and so on. "I'd say that Alan ran the show like God runs the world, mostly by turning his back and leaving it be," Wright remarks. "He understood that the best way for the show to be good was to let different voices in."