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Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa on comics, horror, and his new play, Based on a Totally True Story. logo
Erik Heger and Carson Elrod
in Based on a Totally True Story
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
When Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa titled his latest play Based on a Totally True Story, he knew he would be asked if it's autobiographical. After all, the work revolves around a young playwright and comic book writer -- a description that also fits Aguirre-Sacasa, who pens the adventures of The Fantastic Four and Spiderman for Marvel Comics and is the author of such plays as Say You Love Satan, The Mystery Plays, and Golden Age.

"It definitely has specific elements and echoes of my own life," says Aguirre-Sacasa of his new creation. "However, the more I wrote, the more the characters became their own people -- and they started doing and saying things that I've never done. Everything changes the second you put it on stage."

Now in previews at the Manhattan Theatre Club and set to open on April 11, Based on a Totally True Story is about Ethan Keene (played by Carson Elrod), who writes The Flash for DC Comics and is working on his first screenplay under the guidance of veteran Hollywood producer Mary Ellen (Kristine Nielsen). At the same time, he's having relationship trouble with his boyfriend, Michael (Pedro Pascal), and his father (Michael Tucker) is on the verge of walking out of his marriage to Ethan's mother. Rounding out the cast is Erik Heger in a variety of roles, including Ethan's editor at DC and a "hot L.A. guy" whom Ethan encounters in Hollywood. MTC originally presented a reading of the play as part of its 6 @ 6 series, which gives new works a chance to be seen and heard by audiences made up of the theater's subscribers; that reading featured Nielsen and Tucker and was directed by MTC's director of artistic production, Michael Bush, who is also helming the full production.

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
(Photo © Philip Rosenberg)
In many ways, Based on a Totally True Story is a departure from Aguirre-Sacasa's previous works for the stage. "I had a string of plays that all had some sort of fantastic, mythical, or supernatural element," says the author. "Each of them posed a specific series of challenges, as you have to explain the rules of the world: what the monsters, creatures, witches, or other supernatural characters can and can't do. You fall into a pattern when writing that kind of dialogue; the characters relate to each other only in response to the supernatural menace. I wanted to make this play more human, grounded in the struggles that we face every day -- although, if you compare it to Say You Love Satan [which won an Excellence in Playwriting Award at the 2003 New York International Fringe Festival], you can hear the same kind of comedic voice."

There are elements of fantasy in the script, but they show up in Ethan's fictional screenplay, which is actually based on Aguirre-Sacasa's play The Muckle Man. It's about a marine biologist who loses one of his sons in a boating accident and whose other son is brain damaged as a result of the tragedy. A mysterious man washes up on shore, and though at first he appears benevolent, he's actually the ocean's "herald of doom," come to drag the surviving boy into the depths. "Growing up, I was drawn to the horror genre," says Aguirre-Sacasa, "so it creeps its way into my playwriting."

While he considers playwriting to be his primary vocation, Aguirre-Sacasa very much enjoys his day job. "I have always loved comic books," he says, "and I feel like it's a privilege and an honor to get to write these characters. Because of my schedule, I'm giving up the Fantastic Four series, but those characters have become a huge part of my life. I'm very invested in them. The difference is that, when you're writing comic book characters, they are other peoples' creations and the stories go through an editorial process -- whereas, when I write a play, it's the clearest expression of who I am."

The young writer has seen a flurry of activity in recent months. April also sees the premiere of his short one-act Bloody Mary, which is part of a program of horror-inspired pieces called Dread Awakening at the 45th Street Theater (running through April 23). His play The Velvet Sky had its world premiere at Washington D.C.'s Wooly Mammoth in February, and he's now working on commissions for both MTC (Good Boys and True, which receives a free reading at MTC on April 24) and Second Stage Theatre.

If that weren't enough, he's also working on a Warner Brothers screen adaptation of his play Dark Matters (which will be produced by Rattlestick Playwright's Theatre next season). So how does he prioritize his workload? "Sometimes, deadlines decide that for me," he says with a laugh. "Other times, it's the works themselves. When you've got several different projects, some rise to the surface and some fall away. Whatever is happening, you just go with it."

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