"I Gave Myself the Best Part"

Recently my new play Some Other Kind of Person closed at the InterAct Theater Company in Philadelphia, which had also commissioned and developed the script.  It was a terrific production and a great experience, and along the way the theater published on its blog an interview between me and the multitalented future superhero Kittson O'Neill, reposted below.KITTSON: Is there a childhood trauma that led you to write plays?  Tell us all about it?ERIC: Obviously there was.  I don’t want to go into too much detail but the experience left me with a crippling fear of prominence.  Playwriting, of course, was a natural career path.  It was either this or whittling.KITTSON: What is the first play of yours that was ever performed?  What was it like to watch?ERIC: The first was actually something I wrote in the third grade; I didn’t really watch it, as such, because I was in it; I gave myself the best part; and it was AWESOME.  I wrote a play every month of the school year.  Friends and I would put it on, and the rest of the class was forced to sit and watch it.  The concentrated doses of mandatory attention from my peers, along with occasional bursts of approval, were addictive and pretty much left me unfit to do anything else with my life.  It was my third grade teacher who suggested that I orchestrate these shows and it’s entirely possible she may be liable for some kind of educational malpractice.The first full-length play of mine that was performed when I was an adult playwright pretending to professionalism was an equally heady experience: it was a large-cast self-indulgent prop-heavy comedy with Brechtian banners, brief nudity, a full bathtub, and occasional musical interludes; there was no reason any sensible theater should have decided to do it and yet they did and the cast was terrific and the director was a hoot and the whole experience was, unfortunately, very, very encouraging.KITTSON: What other jobs have you done in the theater?ERIC: I’ve been a terrible actor and an uninspired director; I’ve been involved in ineffective marketing and half-hearted fundraising.  I barely passed the class in college where we had to hang lights and hammer stuff, and I’ve worked in multiple literary offices where my chief job function was to reject scripts that would later go on to great acclaim and financial success elsewhere.  The other night I was at a school event in my daughter’s cafegymnatorium and one of the other parents said “Hey, Eric, you know how to do theater stuff, come up here and close these curtains,” and I thought, “I’m totally going to break these curtains.”  The job I do is really the only one in my industry that I can do competently.  Everything else is, sadly, beyond me.  On another note, I’d like to mention that hyphenates are show-offs and no one likes them.KITTSON: Is that supposed to hurt our feelings?  Seth and I forgive you.  Is there a play or production that really blew your mind artistically?ERIC: I’d like to be able to say “Tons of them,” but it is of course common knowledge among frequent theatergoers that most shows fall regrettably short of mind-blowingness.  The fact that we keep going back and hoping for that kind of transcendence is a testament to how good the stuff can be when it’s really, really good — or of how bad we are at learning from experience.  The middle part of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away blew me away in performance, as did a wordless interval in Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses.  I saw Brian Bedford in a pair of Moliere one-acts that played like someone had finally perfected this comedy thing everyone’s been tinkering with for all these centuries.  And I keep reading everything Young Jean Lee writes, waiting for her to stumble and let me down, but she hasn’t done it yet, which is, of course, very irritating.KITTSON: You are a pretty fearless writer.  What is the craziest thing you ever put in a script?ERIC: I’m reluctant to embrace the “fearless” designation since, to date, none of my writing projects has involved running into a burning building or catching a spider.  Still, I’m personally fond of the scene in one of my scripts that involves a parade of actual children in an elementary school pageant that has been hijacked by a fugitive bomber and turned into lurid anti-abortion propaganda.  Every time we get to that scene in a public reading of the script it makes me uncomfortable, which seems like maybe I’m doing something right.  Strangely, that play has yet to be produced anywhere.KITTSON: That’s from HUNTING HIGH, which is the first play of yours I read.  I thought it was awesome.  Okay, so what is the craziest thing of yours that you have seen make it on to the stage?ERIC: At the beseeching of an actor, I wrote a scene that required her to urinate at length on stage every night — so that was something that happened.  I’ve also got a one-act comedy that revolves around blackface and minstrelsy in ways that I think are interesting; that one’s been produced as well, albeit only once.  One anonymous online commenter called it “funny enough to stun a charging rhino” and another said, “I’m not sure but I think maybe it might be racist.”  Which I think are pretty good blurbs.KITTSON: What inspired you to write Some Other Kind of Person?ERIC: The initial inspiration came from the experiences of Nicholas Kristof, the genuinely fearless journalist who, in the course of reporting on the problem of sex slavery, purchased the freedom of two Cambodian prostitutes and followed up on their experiences thereafter.  Where others might hear such a heartbreaking story and say, “How can I help?” I heard it and thought, “Hey, I think I have an idea for a play.”KITTSON: There are a lot of allusions to fairy tales, particularly Cinderella, in SOME OTHER KIND OF PERSON.  You have kids.  Do you read them fairy tales?  The real ones or the not-so-nightmare-inducing versions?ERIC: I read my kids whatever we have on hand that’s shortest.  I mean, the kids are great and all, but I’ve got stuff to do.KITTSON: I know you are a huge nerd, so when are you going to write a superhero play?ERIC: No, you are!KITTSON: Nerds are the new cool kids. Seriously.ERIC: I’d love to write a superhero play, especially since I invariably feel like superhero movies fall short, but I sort of wonder if I’ve missed that window — seems like maybe there’s already a swell of geek theater happening, and from playwrights who have more nerd cred than I do.  That said, I have some ideas and you’d look great in a cape, so let’s talk.KITTSON: Your case of whiskey is in the mail.  So, have you been to Cambodia?  What did you do there?  Honestly, are you Bill?ERIC: Get out of my head!!!  I’ve done some traveling around the world — often, as it happens, on an employer’s dime, to do business, no just business, there wasn’t anything wrong with what we did — and so I do know well the cocoon of the corporate-friendly hotel, the siren song of room service, the frisson of risk that attends the notion of venturing out alone when you don’t know the language and don’t know what you might find if you get off at the wrong stop.  That said, my experiences overseas were less interesting than Bill’s, and very nearly 100% legal.KITTSON: Yeah right.