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Laist Interview: John Glore and Matthew McCray
Los Angeles playwright John Glore is the author of The Company of Heaven and On The Jump, among other works. His most recent piece, Preludes and Fugues, is currently playing at the Son of Semele ensemble theatre in Silver Lake. (Laist reviewed it here.) Preludes and Fugues explores the pathological, bizarre and beautiful dreams of four frustrated musicians the night before a concert. Glore has had his plays produced nationally, including at South Coast Repertory, Actors Theatre of Louisville and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. He was the dramaturg for Center Theatre Group from 2000 to 2005 and before that was the literary manager at SCR for 15 years. He has recently become the Associate Artistic Director of SCR.
Matthew McCray is the founder and Artistic Director of one of Los Angeles's most avant-garde theatres, Son of Semele Ensemble (SOSE). The company was founded in 2000 to produce McCray's original play Earthlings. Since its inception, SOSE has produced 15 plays in five years, been profiled in American Theatre Magazine, and received the Ovation Award for Best Musical Production (intimate venue) and Best Director of a Musical for their production of Animal Farm. Steven Leigh Morris (LA Weekly) has written that SOSE "jumps off of cliffs the way most people step off curbs." McCray has worked with SOSE as a writer, director, actor, and producer, and serves on the faculty of Chapman University.
Age and Occupation:
John: Associate Artistic Director of South Coast Repertory, a position that lends dignity to my gray hair and wrinkles.
Matthew: 29 (almost the big 3-0!) --- Actor/Director/Teacher
How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and which neighborhood do you live in?
John: I’ve lived in various homes around Los Feliz and Silver Lake for 21 years. I’ve been in my current Silver Lake house, around the corner from the Coffee Table, since 1993.
Matthew: I have lived in Los Angeles since 1998. 1st residence was Korea Town --- funky studio with high ceilings and a scary elevator. A few years later I moved to a townhouse in Silver Lake where I live today. Love Silver Lake.
Why do you choose to live in Los Angeles?
John: I first moved to the area (from Washington, D.C.) because my wife needed to be here for career reasons, which is also why we chose L.A. even though I was working in Orange County. We’ve stayed here, and stayed in Silver Lake, all these years, through several job changes, because we like the combination of urban energy and diversity and L.A.’s easy-going metabolism, the feeling of living among artists and educated, politically liberal people like ourselves, without compromising our daughter’s safety and sanity (any more than any place else in a city would). She was born in L.A. thirteen years ago and seems to be turning into the kind of hip, well-rounded, Green Day-fixated teenager we can be proud of.
Matthew: I just can't move away from my friends/family/etc. Love those guys... can't do without them. Aside from that... is the Silver Lake dog park a good enough reason?
What gave you the idea to start Son of Semele? How did the company come to exist?
Matthew: I wrote a play and wanted to see it produced..... I got a bunch of my friends together and we produced my play - and sometime in the middle of the production the question of "What's next?" started to pop up. "Uh.... I don't know.... Let's start reading stuff and see what we.... uh.... will do next." Basically, a few months later we produced our next play.... a wonderfully bizarre play by Richard Foreman called "Lava" and a 20-second play by Beckett called "Breath" (which required no actors... only trash and a sound cue!). I still count "Lava/Breath" as one of the most interesting
pieces of theater we've done. I think "Lava/Breath" started us in a really interesting direction and brought the members of the company together.
SOSE as a company is noted for its experimental, cutting-edge theatre. How did you find this original group, and how do you continue to find new members?
Matthew: The company was founded by 11 people who wanted to work together because there was a level of mutual respect since many of us had worked together for years in college. In the very very beginning we weren't experimental at all.... We didn't know what we were. But we started to figure it out pretty quickly. We all sort of gravitated to experimental-type work. As for membership.... we don't add new members often, mainly because there is so much more to being in SOSE than our productions. It is difficult to find people interested in not only our "style" but also all the other things that go along with membership like administrative work. And, in terms of recruitment.... it is more likely for a prospective member to find us than it is for us to find them. Artists of a like-mind will often find each other --- it is all very mind-meld.
How did SOSE find its own space to produce, and how does it hold onto it in this year when so many companies have been displaced? Do you think Silver Lake or downtown LA have advantages for theatre companies?
Matthew: Basically we found our current space by "I knew a guy who knew a guy,... who knows a guy." The quick story goes.... The husband of a board member heard that a friend of his was leasing units in his building. It was a block from our rehearsal studio on Beverly and so I stopped by one afternoon, walked in and saw some potential for a small theater. Turns out that what I actually saw was a 9-month long head-ache. Joking aside.... SOSE put a ton of work and money into the theater and had to stop producing shows for 9 months because it wasn't suitable for an audience. As for the future.... our lease expires soon and we don't know what is going to happen. (If anyone out there reading this has a spare empty warehouse that you want an experimental theater company to occupy... contact me through our website. I might know of someone willing to take that vacant warehouse off your hands.) Advantages: the advantages of being near Silver Lake is the vibe of the residents, but our current space is too far removed from the main drag of Silver Lake to really cash in on that. We are trying to tap into that more and more as we grow.
When did you first start working as a playwright in Los Angeles? How did you get started?
John: I was in my fifth or sixth year as SCR's literary manager and was beginning to feel a need for a new challenge. I asked for and was given the opportunity to create a play for SCR's Young Conservatory Players, an adaptation of three folktales from around the world. I had a blast writing it and working with the kids on the production, so I just kept at it. A couple of years later, while teaching a playwriting class, I challenged the students to write a ten-minute play and submit it to Actors Theatre of Louisville's 10-minute play contest, and I made a deal with them that I would do the same. The play I wrote was "What She Found There," and it ended up winning the contest's Heideman Award that year. Now that play is incorporated into Preludes & Fugues.
What was your first produced play?
John: My first produced play of any kind was the children's play I just mentioned, which is called Wind of a Thousand Tales. It was later published by I.E. Clark and has had hundreds of productions since then, mostly at schools. The first produced play for adults was "What She Found There," at Actors Theatre of Louisville, and the first full-length for adults was a play called The Company of Heaven, which was produced at SCR in 1993.
When did you first begin working with SOSE, and why?
John: I knew Edgar Landa from having worked with him a few years ago on a production called Chavez Ravine, at the Taper. He mentioned that he was working with a new company called Son of Semele, which I had heard of but didn't know very much about. He said SOSE was looking for new plays that emphasized language and unconventional theatricality, and he wondered if, in my capacity as the head of the Taper's literary department, I might be able to recommend a few plays that weren't right for the Taper but might suit SOSE's aesthetic. I mentioned several, and then asked if he'd like to take a look at something of mine. Edgar took that earlier draft of Preludes & Fugues to the company, and they decided to do a reading of it in their Rapid Reading Series. I enjoyed that experience a lot, did a lot of work on the script, and came out of it feeling that Edgar and SOSE had an affinity for the play. So when they offered to produce it, I jumped at the opportunity.
How did you begin to write Preludes and Fugues?
John: A few years after "What She Found There" had had its moment in the sun, at Actors Theatre of Louisville, I realized that I had several short plays that weren't likely to ever have much of a life on their own. I also realized that they shared certain thematic elements and that there might be a way to stitch them together into something resembling a full-length play. So I took three existing plays, wrote two more, then created a prologue and a set of four monologues that were intended to frame the five separate short plays and tie them together. This is the first time that I've taken my previously existing work and incorporated it into something new - but I've actually done quite a bit of adaptation work over the years, using other people's work and turning it into something new: the folktales play I mentioned earlier, and my latest children's play, which is an adaptation of a book called The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. And actually, my most successful play, On the Jump, is based on a story written by my wife, Amy Dunkleberger. So I have a lot of experience as a literary scavenger.
Talk about the collaboration for Preludes and Fugues. How did the process of working together happen?
John: It started during that reading experience with SOSE, which is when I began to learn about Edgar as a director, and got a good sense of how supportive an environment SOSE offers to its artists. I went into that process not really expecting to do much work on the script, but as soon as Edgar started opening the play up with the four actors, I began to see that the play was in need of significant work. Edgar and the actors (none of whom are in the production, but all of whom had the same sense of SOSE's dedicated ensemble approach to performance) were completely supportive of my efforts to improve the play, and their responses to what I had written really helped point me in the right direction in that process. I have found the same kind of support during the production, in which these four other actors have completely given themselves to the work and risen to the considerable challenges that my play presents to them. No writer could ask for more than I've gotten in this process.
Matthew: Edgar Landa, who ended up directing both the reading in 2004 and the production in 2005, worked with John at the Taper. He brought us together. This play was identified as a contender for a slot in 2005, so we did a reading of it in 2004 and it was very well received. I was really excited about getting a chance to work with John. This play seemed like a good one for SOSE and working with John has been a privilege.
What is the process of creating a new work like for you? About how long does it take to create a new piece, from concept to finished product?
John: For me, creating something new is a very long, often frustrating experience, because my full-time job working with other writers on their work (at both SCR and the Taper) consumes not only a great deal of time, but also most of my creative and analytical energy. So I don't have a lot left for my own work. My full-length plays have taken about five years to complete on average - the kids' plays I can churn out a bit more quickly because they aren't as long or as intricate.
Matthew: SOSE is starting work in January on our first company created project, written and developed entirely by SOSE members. The first draft of this piece is going to be developed over 12 weeks through weekly workshops with a SOSE cast. So... apparently.... Our process to create a work is about 12 weeks... who knew? The fact is, we just don't know what our typical timeframe is because it is uncharted territory for us. I can tell you that as a writer I can't work out a draft under a timeframe like this. It took me 9 months to complete Earthlings, the play that become SOSE's
first production. I'm a slow writer.
What is the playwright's role in the rehearsal room, and in the production? When is it time to let the piece go? Also, how much was rewriting a part of the process for Preludes and Fugues?
John: Edgar has created a very open environment during rehearsals, which I really appreciate. Some of the actors were a bit leery at first about my hanging around, looking over their shoulders, but they were always open to my input. I continued to rewrite until very late in the rehearsal process, and when I wasn't rewriting I was offering feedback to Edgar about my intentions, sometimes in a very specific way. I do try to leave plenty of room for my collaborators to do their work and contribute their own creativity to the process, and I feel that everyone involved in this production has given a lot to the finished product. The show now belongs to the actors and I haven't given a note or a rewrite since we opened - but I honestly haven't felt the temptation to do so, either, because this cast is so much in command of what they're doing now.
Matthew: Hopefully, the presence of the playwright at rehearsal provides a level of clarity for the director and actors, which consequently makes its way into the production. Having the playwright present is a privilege... and if the combination of playwright-vision and director-vision is successful, the production should be all the better for it. Preludes was revised a bit after the 2004 reading and then again during the 2005 rehearsals.
What do you think are some of the challenges and unique facets of the LA theatre scene? What is the audience for theatre in LA?
John: I actually don't think there is a single theatre audience in L.A. I think there are many separate audiences, and I don't get the sense that there's a lot of overlap from one audience to the next. There may be a few people who attend the Taper who would also come to a space like SOSE, but only a few. And I'm not sure there's even much overlap between the SOSE audience and that of Evidence Room, which is just down the street and is as far out of the main stream as SOSE is. It's good to see the emergence of initiatives like Play7, which is a way to try to create more cross-pollination and audience-mixing. But the great news is that, over all, the city of L.A. includes a LOT of people who like to go to the theatre, and enough of them have a taste for edgy, experimental or nontraditional work to support companies like SOSE and Evidence Room and others.
Matthew: What is the audience for theatre in LA???? This is a tough one and if I had the answer, Son of Semele would need a much much larger theater. But,... in terms of challenges and unique facets of the LA theatre scene --- I'd say that for a large percentage of LA residents, theater is not valued as much as I wish it were. There is great theater in LA - interesting theater. It isn't all touring shows... check the listings, there is a ton of stuff in LA --- unique stuff --- underground stuff --- fun stuff. But.... LA has a lot of other things that you can do on a weekend too: go to a museum, a movie, the beach, on a hike, on a picnic. If you put all of many these things on a list along with "go see a play" and have everyone in LA check their pick for the night --- I bet "go see a play" isn't going to come up as much as half of the other things. This is a big challenge! Why isn't going to a play more attractive to the typical LA person? Have they seen too much bad theater? Do they not want to get dressed up? Do they not know what is playing in town? Is seeing theater too stuffy for the LA crowd? I don't know --- It isn't that the theater is bad... cause a lot of it is great!
What makes Preludes and Fugues different from other, traditional theatre? Why is this piece important to you?
John: Actually, I never really thought of it as being radically different from more traditional theatre, but I'm discovering that a lot of people find it quite challenging. I tend to look at each of its parts separately, and when you do that, they explain themselves pretty readily, I think. The challenge is to try to understand what those parts mean when you consider them as a whole - how they fit together, and refer to one another, and how they develop themes and variations in an almost musical way. It all came out of my head, obviously, and I've spent a lot of time thinking about how the parts fit together, so it makes complete sense to me . . . but maybe less so for the first-time audience member. But I actually really like that the play leaves room for each individual audience member to put things together in his or her own way, in a sense to create his or her own story out of the narrative pieces.
Matthew: Preludes & Fugues doesn't have a definitive narrative story that takes the audience from beginning to end.... But there are subtle hints throughout the piece that keep the audience on track to connect the various scenes/dreams together. This play also uses an interesting device in the last scene where the lines spoken by the four characters begin to intertwine, echoing the effect of a piece of music. It is a very interesting device that I think changes a little each night. Depending on
what storyline or emotional journey I'm most tuned into, I hear different
snippets of text from night to night. That is very unique.
What's next for you and the company? What projects are coming up?
John: I'm lost somewhere in the middle of a new play, which is more traditional than P&F but which also does some unusual things in terms of its form. Other than that, my adaptation of Stinky Cheese Man is to have several productions around the country this season, including one at SCR in June '06. Meanwhile I'll be working on a couple of interesting projects as a dramaturg at SCR, including the American premiere of a fascinating British play called Hitchcock Blond, which uses a lot of state-of-the-art video technology to tell a sexy story about a pair of mismatched film scholars. And The Man from Nebraska, by the American playwright, Tracy Letts, which will be directed by the renowned film director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, French Connection). I'm also working on one last project at the Taper, with my pals, the three guys in Culture Clash, and director Lisa Peterson. We all worked together on Chavez Ravine at the Taper, and now we're developing a new piece called Water & Power, to be produced at the end of the current Taper season. It's about contemporary L.A. and the rise to power of Latinos in our political and law enforcement sectors - and it's a real departure for Clash, because it completely leaves behind their roots in sketch comedy and tells a pretty harrowing story about power and what it can do to you if you let it go to your head.
Matthew: We are producing a workshop of a new play by SOSE member Aaron Henne. Info about the play, BARE, can be found at www.sonofsemele.org. We are also producing Aaron's play King Cat Calico Finally Flies Free next summer. That is exciting. The other 2 plays for 2006 are not yet announced, but will be soon. All season info can be found on the website which is becoming more and more developed each month. By the way.... It is also blog-based and you can post comments on it!!! Check it out.
Will you ever leave Los Angeles? Is there something about LA that makes this work possible, or could it take place anywhere?
John: I feel pretty deeply rooted here in every way, professional and personal, so it's hard to imagine leaving. (I may eventually have to move a little closer to SCR, just to spare myself some of the agony of commuting.) But I think the kind of work I'm doing I could probably do elsewhere - I just wouldn't have such ready access to the rich assets of Son of Semele.
Matthew: Our work could take place anywhere in the world although I do think that some of the pieces we have elected to produce have been selected because we are in Los Angeles. No plans to leave LA anytime.
How often do you ride the MTA subway or light rail?
John: I've ridden the subway exactly once, to go to a Lakers game. I love riding the subway in D.C. and New York, but I find L.A.'s system mostly unusable. I have ridden the bus, and actually found it quite easy to get to the Taper from my house, on a single bus, in fifteen minutes.
Matthew: I ride the MTA rarely... usually when my car is in the shop... but..... I like the bus. LOVE the train. For the most part, I'm a car man.
What are your favorite movies or TV shows that are based in LA?
John: I don't watch a lot of TV any more. I liked Six Feet Under and enjoyed seeing L.A. landmarks on that show from time to time. As for movies, recently I've really liked Mulholland Drive and L.A. Confidential.
Matthew: I like Alias - and I love it when I'll see a restaurant that I know in the show. Silly fun.
Best LA-themed book?
John: I'm a big fan of Michael Connelly, who writes crime novels set mostly in L.A. His main recurring character is a guy named Harry Bosch, who was a cop, then a private detective, and now he's back to being a cop in his latest novel. Connelly is very much in the tradition of L.A. noir in the way he explores the ambiguities and moral complexities of life on the urban edge as experienced here in L.A.
Matthew: It is a great how-to book that hasn't been written yet called, "How to fill your experimental LA theater with audience every night."
In your opinion, what's the best alternate route to the 405?
John: Well I travel to the 405 every day, but I'm headed south, so I use the 110 and sometimes the 5-to-605 route. When I want to head to L.A.'s westside I have often used Venice or Washington Blvd. If I'm headed to UCLA I usually use Fountain to Holloway to Sunset.
Matthew: To get to the 405 from Silver Lake, take either the 101 north or the 10 west.... Or just kill yourself and save the hour commute. Maybe you'll be reincarnated as a bird and you can just fly over to the 405. Death, reincarnation and flying there could actually take less time.
What's the best place to walk in LA?
John: I'm a block from Silver Lake reservoir, so that's convenient, and now that they've finished refurbishing the walking/running path, it's very user friendly.
Matthew: I like Runyon Canyon with my dog, Maeve! She's the best.
It's 9:30 pm on Thursday. Where are you coming from and where are you going?
Matthew: I hope I'm coming from the kitchen to the sofa with a pint of Rocky Road ice cream and a very large spoon. However... in reality I'm probably sitting in rehearsal having just come out of the restroom where I.... Well... you get the picture.
If you could live in LA during any era, when would it be?
John: Probably the 30s through the 50s, because I've done a lot of research about L.A. during that time and I'm fascinated by how power was wielded here, the extent to which corruption insinuated itself into the city's power structure - and the way the Red Scare and the McCarthy witch hunt found an important center in this city.
Matthew: Hm? I think I'd have to go with the vague era of "the future". I think technology is going to make this city very interesting in the future.
What is the "center" of LA to you?
John: Except when I go to work, I seldom stray beyond a three-mile radius of my house. Why should I? Silver Lake has everything I need.
Matthew: Hollywood, I guess.
Los Angeles is often stereotyped as a hard place to find personal
connections and make friends. Do you agree with that assessment? Do
you find it challenging to make new friends here?
John: Most of the new friends I've made in the last ten, fifteen years have come from connections made because of my daughter. She attended preschool and kindergarten at the Silver Lake/Los Feliz JCC, and we met a lot of people there that have remained friends through the years - and many of their kids are now with my daughter at Immaculate Heart Middle School, where she's rounding out her secular immersion in L.A.'s communities of faith. (She did elementary school at Ivanhoe, our local public school where, as far as I know, she didn't pray to Jesus, Mary or Yahweh.)
Matthew: I meet new people through the friends I already have, so I have not found it to be hard to meet people. However... if I had no friends in LA when I arrived.... I think I would have found it challenging to get that ball rolling.
What is the city's greatest secret?
John: That there's so much more to it than Hollywood. That most of us have little or nothing to do with the world of film and TV aside from cursing at the location trucks and honeywagons clogging up our neighborhoods. And yet the presence of Hollywood draws so many talented actors and theatre artists to the city, who can then express their deepest, most extravagant creativity on our stages while waiting and waiting for their next shot at some residuals.
Matthew: Matinees at the Vista Movie Theater in Silver Lake. Only $4.75... eat your heart out ArcLight!!!!. The Vista has leg room for days and its an art-deco dream. Would that all movie theaters could measure up!