Monday, March 3, 2014

A Conversation with Gregory S Moss

Playwright Gregory S Moss
To say that playwright Gregory S Moss is busy these days is an understatement. Lately, he has been splitting his time between New York and New Mexico, where he runs the graduate program of dramatic writing at the University of New Mexico. Moss recently finished two new plays and he’s writing the book of a musical based on the life and work of Hunter S. Thompson with Joe Iconis. He’s also working on a new show about Charles Ludlum with the renowned Pig Iron Theatre Company of Philadelphia. Heading into rehearsals for Reunion, SCR’s Literary Director Kelly Miller talked to Moss about his writing—and the ferocity of the characters and music in his work.

KELLY MILLER: When did you first know you were a writer, then a playwright?

GREGORY S MOSS: I started writing at a pretty young age—maybe eight. I remember writing little illustrated stories that were structured like fairy tales. The first one was a made-up origin story for Robin Hood. After that I went through a solid adolescent phase of writing poems—and look, I’m not gonna throw my young, idealistic self under the bus, but I hope never to read those things again. I was deeply into Rimbaud, I wanted to be Rimbaud—someone who wrote so beautifully and lived this wild, itinerant life, then walked away from poetry altogether at age 20—his life and art were totally in sync. An utterly romantic, completely unfeasible model to imitate.

Writing plays didn’t start untill college—I was hired (for no money) to adapt The Pied Piper of Hamelin for a local children’s theater. I was moving back and forth across the country from Los Angeles to Durham, N.C., to Cambridge, Mass., primarily acting and directing, when I wrote my first “real” play—a one-act monologue I wrote to perform myself, so I wouldn’t have to pay someone else royalties. Even then, I didn’t think I was a writer. I didn’t believe it, really, until I met Paula Vogel. I saw Paula speak at The Huntington, and was just so lit up and inspired by her—like, “Here’s someone talking about making theater, with immense passion and intensity, in a language I understand!” At last!!!

How did your time studying at Brown University influence your work?
In more ways than I can name. It put in me in touch with my peers—Cory Hinkle, Dan Le Franc, Ann Marie Healy, Christina Anderson, Dipika Guha, Meg Miroshnik—and legitimized what I thought were my deviant artistic tendencies. Brown taught me to value community and hard work. It taught me to value my personal weirdo writerly DNA and gave me a practical set of tools to craft those impulses into something that (one hopes) becomes meaningful for an audience. Brown gave me a context and community in which to do the thing I wanted so badly to do.

I grew up, I should say, in a working-class family, in a working-class town. Being an artist as a job? And going to a school where someone might help you figure out how to do that? It never occurred to me; I didn’t think such things existed. I thought artists were like aristocrats—you had to be born into it.

Tim Cummings and Michael Gladis in rehearsal for the 2013 Pacific Playwrights Festival reading of Reunion.
The thematic, stylistic and literal terrain of your plays is so varied and imaginative—from the dark, surreal world of House of Gold to the hard edge of punk play to the more naturalistic Los Angeles of La Brea. How do these ideas and worlds come to you—and what are you finding most intriguing right now?
Writing plays for me is always about challenging my own habits. I like to try different things. And each story requires a specific container that will best bring it to the stage. I’m restless. But as I write more, I find I am more comfortable with my own voice. I’m less concerned with reinventing the wheel each time out, and more invested in getting things down the way I see and hear them.

I take ideas from all over the place, especially other art forms—music, movies and comics in particular. I listen to people talk on buses and in coffee shops and write down what they say. I mine my own personal past for things. Sometimes things just come to you.

I am increasingly interested in the intersection between naturalism and expressionism or surrealism. There’s a sweet spot, between straight realism (which I don’t think theater does very well, actually) and something more dream-like. That’s usually where I’m aiming—a nice bridge between the familiar and the strange.

What was the original inspiration for Reunion?
I wanted to write a conventionally structured two act play about working-class characters, that would then subvert or break up the familiarity of the form. What was important to me was to capture a certain kind of character I knew as a kid, wondering what might have happened to them. Tough, working-class, deeply macho Massachusetts kids. I was also thinking a lot about getting older, the sort of unfairness of how time keeps moving, and how we contend with things that we lose to that.

What other sources inspired the play—and how do you describe it to friends?
I like to describe it as a Tennessee Williams play in Mamet drag. Or a Smiths song played by Metallica.

My dad gave me this story by Nathaniel Hawthorne—“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”—about a group of elderly people who are given this potion that makes them, temporarily, young again. They have all these hopes and plans for how THIS time they’re gonna get it RIGHT, do things correctly. Then they drink the potion and just do all the same stupid things they did the first time around. So that dual sense—of wanting to go back, and of falling prey to the same mistakes—that was a big part of the play for me.

How important is it that the play is set in your hometown of Newburyport, Massachusetts?
It’s important to me! But no—I think it’s more about specific kinds of tough working-class kids who are regionally specific to Boston—angry, tough, hyper-masculine and always busting each other’s balls. The location is important because it forms these kinds of men, and these kinds of friendships.

So much of this play is about male friendship and cruelty and aging—and about trying to reconcile who you were in high school with who you’ve become as an adult. How does the play resonate with who you were back then—and who you’ve become?
The play is about kids I was afraid of in middle and high school. This was not my social circle. But that culture—of swagger and brutal male bonding—that was in the water there, and parts of it, much as I resist it, have definitely shaped me. There are some years I would like a “do over” on, for sure.

Playwright Gregory S Moss and Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt in rehearsal for the 2014 Pacific Playwrights Festival reading of Reunion.
Music is such an important part of the aural and emotional landscape of your plays. In this play, metal. Punk rock in your fierce coming-of-age drama punk play. Why is that?
’Cause that music—punk, metal—so perfectly expresses adolescent male energy and rage. And I’m always gonna be a little in love with that period of life, painful as it was. As a kid, music is identity. You let everyone know who you are through the shorthand of your favorite bands, and your devotion to them is borderline fanatical. I think the internet has changed that, but really, back then? Social lines were drawn over whether you wanted to listen to an extended guitar solo or not.

I was in bands in my teens and 20s, too, so music is a big part of how I process things.

What do you hope people will walk away with after seeing Reunion?
I hope they find it diverting, and laugh, and are moved by it.

What’s next in your writing world; what else are you working on?
I just finished two new plays—one is a romance set during one summer on a beach outside of Providence, Rhode Island, the other is a response to the work of recently-deceased LA artist Mike Kelley. I’m finishimg the first draft of a book for a musical based on the life and work of Hunter S. Thompson, that I’m making with the brilliant Joe Iconis, for La Jolla Playhouse. I’m working on a show about Charles Ludlum with Pig Iron Theater Company in Philly. And with writer/performer Kristen Kosmas, I’m writing a new play that mashes up The Cherry Orchard with the sitcom "Friends."

What brings you the most joy in your writing—in rehearsal, or in the production process?
I could rehearse and rewrite forever. I think, with the right collaborators, that would be heaven. I envy the Russian and European models of year long, two-year-long development processes. But I want to write for other people, so deadlines and opening nights are good things, too.

Learn more and buy tickets

1 comment:

  1. Greg Moss is a brilliant writer. I love how his mind works!