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Edward Sobel Interviews Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

by Edward Sobel and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

Edward Sobel: What made you interested in being a playwright? How did that even start for you? Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa: Writing has always been a part of my family; reading has always been a part of my family. I suspected very early on that I would somehow be a writer. Now, I truly thought I would probably be a reporter or a journalist, and, in fact, I started my career as a professional writer as a journalist in Washington, D.C. working for the free weekly there, the City Paper, and also doing some freelance for the Washington Post. ES: What kind of beat were you covering? RA: It was sort of a smorgasbord. I did some Arts reporting and reviewing. I was also on the city beat and I did some investigative reporting on the political scene in Washington, D.C. But I would say that the bulk of my stuff was Arts reporting and reviewing. ES: So, how did you end up writing a play yourself? RA: In high school I developed a deep love for theater— going to theater, seeing theater, and acting in theater. And even though I never thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be an actor,’ I very much liked theatre people; I liked being around them; I liked talking and hanging out with them; I like working with them. ES: You’ve since learned better, I hope. RA: Exactly. (Chuckles) In college I took a playwriting class, I really enjoyed it. At Georgetown University there was a festival of one-acts where you could submit a one-act play and they would perform it. And you’ll be happy to know that for four years I submitted a one-act play to Mask and Bauble, which is the oldest, continuous college-level theatre company in the United States. For four years running I was rejected out of hand. Now, of course, they embrace me as though I was a prodigal son. While I was at McGill University in Montreal, where I went to graduate school to get a degree in English literature, you could either write an academic thesis or a creative thesis. I had written short plays, I had written short stories, I had even written a novel (not a very good one), but I thought, ‘I’m going to do a creative thesis.’ And while I was at McGill, they too had festival of one-act plays. I had written a play about the Archie comic book characters and the Leopold and Loeb murders (the murders that happened in Chicago in the 1920s) that was a speculative play that imagined what would happen if Archie was college roommates with Leopold and Loeb. It was an idea to look at the morality of the Archie comic book characters, who were incredibly moral (didn’t do anything wrong, didn’t drink, didn’t swear, always wore their seat belts) and the ammoralistic Nietzschean philosophy of the Leopold and Loeb murderers to see what that would be. So, I wrote this play, and sure enough it got done, and it was a very big hit at the student festival, so much so that it was picked up by the Montreal Fringe Festival. And then I thought, ‘This feels really good.’ ES: Suddenly you’re a playwright. RA: Well, it felt really good. And I then wrote a creative thesis while I was at McGill, a play. That play was about graduate students who decide that they are going to stop living by social mores and social constraints and what society tells them. They make a list of what they consider to be taboo behavior and they set about violating, one by one, all of those taboos. And the last one is cannibalism. The play was loosely (I mean loosely) inspired by Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. It made me very happy to work on those plays, but I still didn’t have the idea that you could be a living, working playwright, Ed. I thought this was what dabblers did. I thought this was something that I would do in addition to either teaching or journalism, whatever. I finished graduate school and I got a job working at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, where I had seen some of my first plays as a kid in Washington, D.C. While I was working there, I continued writing plays. And as I’m sure you know from working at Steppenwolf, everyone who works at a theatre on the administrative side is a secret actor or secret director or secret designer or a secret writer, and I was the Shakespeare Theatre’s secret playwright. I would get together with my friends from the Shakespeare Theatre and I would write these plays that my friend, who was the Artistic Director’s personal assistant, would direct, that the director of telemarketing would star in…it was that kind of thing. And we would throw these plays up on the off-hours at smaller theatres around D.C. I also started submitting shorter plays to D.C. Summer Festival of Plays, a work that happened at the now sadly defunct Source Theatre, and I developed a cult following. It started with me strong-arming my friends to come, but eventually more and more people would come. And one of those people was Michael Kahn, the Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre. When Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel was in residence at Arena Stage for a year working on a new production of her play Hot N’ Throbbing, she did a playwriting workshop and the Shakespeare Theatre was invited to send their playwright-in- residence, who, or course, has been dead for five hundred years or so. Michael Kahn said to me, ‘Do you want to go to this?’ And I said that I’d like to do it. I went to this boot camp, and that was the time, Ed, when I really started feeling like a playwright. Paula treated me like a playwright, and I felt like this might be what I want to do. And at the end of the two week workshop, Paula Vogel said, ‘Is this what you want to do?’ And I said, ‘You know, I think so.’ And she said, ‘Well, you better get serious about it, fast. And you should apply to graduate schools.’ And that is what led me to apply to graduate schools. ES: But you ended up at Yale University rather than at Brown University where Paula was a member of the faculty? RA: Almost on a whim, Ed, I applied to Yale with an autobiographical short play, a relationship play. I wrote three of these plays; they were a trilogy. And in my infinite wisdom, I didn’t apply with the first play—I applied with the sequel. That’s how insane I was when I applied to Yale. But, sure enough, I did not get into Brown and I got into Yale. I did not send any of these relationship plays to Brown, but I wonder if I had if I would’ve gotten in based on the relationship play. Who knows? Probably not, but there you are. ES: It’s worked out ok for you anyway. RA: Absolutely. ES: Let’s talk about Good Boys and True a little bit. These early plays of yours dealt very much with the notions of morality and immorality and one’s willingness or not to conform to social convention. I match that with your interest in investigative reporting, and then there are some things about Good Boys and True that start to seem like a pattern, that seem to be interests of yours that you continue to pursue. RA: In a way, although Good Boys and True is about these bigger questions and bigger issues of privilege, class, culpability, and inheritance (and I don’t mean literal inheritance, I mean what we inherit from our parents, about how we live our lives) it lands, ultimately, very squarely on a family, on the shoulders of this mother and son. I like that you frame it in terms of the context of one of my earliest plays about the Archie comic book characters and about these kids who seemingly have it all, Leopold and Loeb, who transgress. Although, I think that their behavior is very different from what the boys at St. Joe’s are doing, on another other level the behavior is just an intensification of it, an example of it carried to an extreme. I went to a school like St. Joe’s and I have always known, and I think playwrights always kind of know this (that there are certain plays that they are eventually going to write) and I knew that I would one day write a play about my experiences at Georgetown Prep. I didn’t know what that play was going to be, though. Periodically I would read articles about scandals erupting at schools like Georgetown Prep, often sex scandals. And I kept wondering why these things kept happening at these sorts of places with alarming regularity. One of the things about working on plays that are more genre-based, that have elements from science fiction or ghost stories, is that the plot and the structure has to work a certain way in order to keep the audience from getting a head of the play. They have to work like well-oiled machines. They have to be very, very plot driven. They have to unfold with a kind of efficiency that plays that are based on language or based on character or idea or theme don’t have to. When I started writing Good Boys and True, which is much more character-based than many of my other plays, I was able to take what I had learned about plotting and put it to good use so that the play would unfold with a pace and forward momentum of something like a thriller or a mystery, even though it is family drama, a searching, probing drama. The motor that working on these other plays has given Good Boys and True is really terrific. ES: You were here with us doing this little workshop we did in the Fall. I know at the same time we had The Crucible running, which you got to see. And you said some things at the time that I thought were pretty interesting about the impact that The Crucible had on you when you read it and what you were thinking about when you were working on Good Boys. RA: Whenever I work on a play I keep a file of clippings or photographs. I start amassing a library of books that I read….I try to read as much as possible to immerse myself in the world of the subject on which I am writing. And I very frequently try to think about what plays wrestled with these same themes that I’m wrestling with or what kind of plays can inform me. As I started to work on Good Boys and when I realized that the play would not so much be about the boy who may or may not have made this transgression but was going to be about his family, specifically about his mother, who may or not be estranged from him, I started thinking about John and Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible. I love The Crucible because it ultimately wasn’t just about a community on trial but it became about this couple on trial and how the events of Salem village land or coalesce around Elizabeth and John Proctor. And I thought that was such an interesting way to tell that story, to construct that story. And I thought that’s what I’ll do here, but the couple in Good Boys and True wouldn’t be a husband and wife, they would be a mother and son. I thought that would be an interesting way to filter that. When Steppenwolf said they were going to do this play and that it was going to be part of a season dedicated to exploring what it means to be an American and I learn that The Crucible was opening the season, I sort of got a chill. I could not imagine a modern classic that more successfully bumps up against Good Boys and True. I couldn’t think of a single one that more informed it, which is why Elizabeth Hardy has such a Salem witch trial kind of name. And when I was watching the Steppenwolf production, it was as though an arrow had been shot by Arthur Miller through The Crucible and landed squarely in the heart of Good Boys and True in a really satisfying way. I’m not at all comparing my play to something with the stature of The Crucible, but it felt like they were in dialogue across the decades in a really terrific way. ES: And speaking of decades, Miller decided to set his play during the Salem Witch Trials, which is at the time of the birth of the country. You also, rather than set your play in 2006 or 2005 when you wrote it, you set it in the late 1980s. What led to that decision? RA: A couple of things. One is, Ed, the subconscious works in strange ways. While I was working on Good Boys and True, even though I knew I was one day going to write about my experiences in high school, I didn’t even realize that was what I was doing as I started writing the play. About half way through I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, this is the play I’ve been waiting to write for the last fifteen years.’ And once I realized that, I thought, ‘Well, if I’m really writing about my experiences at Georgetown Prep or what I saw or how I absorbed it, why isn’t that set in the late 1980s?’ I wrote the play, finished the play, and two or three weeks later the Duke lacrosse scandal broke. When I finished the first draft it was set in 2006, and the Duke lacrosse scandal broke and suddenly I had written a play ripped from the headlines. And everyone thought that I had written the play in two weeks after the Duke lacrosse scandal, even though I spent fifteen years prepping to write this play. It felt so ‘of the moment’ and, in a way, the more ‘of the moment’ something is, the more dismissible it is. In a way, historicizing it even a little bit made it a little more timeless. It seemed to be a really good idea to do. The other thing is, there is a danger with this play because its construction is much more traditional than some of my other plays, meaning it is more or less linear, it is more or less two-person themed in realistic settings, I didn’t want it to turn into a turgid and cobwebby old-fashioned kind of play. I thought that if it was set in 2006, that would liberate the play as well. But I also thought that the least cobwebby, safe, traditional time period could be the 1980s, which is all about a certain kind of music and a certain kind of look and a certain kind of wealth. It felt like it might also blow the cobwebs off it. Of course now that we’re moving towards production there’s the danger of shoulder pads and teased up hair, but it felt like that move could buy the play a lot actually. I want to add that the play feels a little bit like it’s pointing to, hopefully, the next part of my career as a playwright. So it does feel special in that way. All plays are special, but this feels a little more special. I’m so happy that it landed at Steppenwolf and that it’s going to get such a great launch there and that it landed in the context of this investigation of what it means to be an American. I know exactly what it means in the context of your season and it feels like the right time to be making these kinds of inquiries. I don’t think people grow up dreaming they want to be television writers, but people do grow up dreaming they want to be playwrights. In the context of that dream, I thought, ‘One day, hopefully, I’ll have a play at Steppenwolf.’ So it’s really exciting to me that this play in particular is the one that docked with you guys and it’s going to get launched there. It just makes me very happy. ES: And we are delighted to have it here, too.