Furbelow-An Interview with J. Stephen Brantley

On August 12th, I talked with New York Playwright J. Stephen Brantley.

Here’s what he had to say:

SOL- Tell us a little bit about the background of your play.

JSB- It started with a folktale emailed to me by Rabbi Michael Berg. It was just a few sentences about a man convicted of a crime, the friend who took his place, and a king who had to choose which of the two, if either, would be sentenced to death. It didn’t say what the man’s crime was, or why he’d be allowed to leave custody to settle his affairs while a friend kept his place in prison. It was meant to be about the unbreakable bonds of true friendship but I couldn’t stop thinking about the king and the position he was in. That character quickly became a woman, and the rest unfolded from there.

SOL- When did you first begin writing? What sparked your interest in this medium?

JSB-I wrote my first play in fourth grade. Actually, it was a bit of a fairy tale. I don’t think I wrote anything along those lines again until Furbelow.

SOL- What, in your opinion, is the difference between risky theater and safe theater?

JSB- Good question. I’ve lately been trying to define what makes a play ‘dangerous.’ Is there anything that hasn’t been done? Nudity? Check. Eating babies? Check. Actors plummeting headlong into an orchestra pit? Check, unfortunately. Sociopolitical plays too often just preach to a subscription-holding choir, so they end up having less impact that they ought to. So is risk all in the context of production? There was a production last year of Doric Wilson’s A Perfect Relationship in India. In New York that would be no big deal but in some parts of the world, gay theatre is really truly risky. To one’s life. For me, risk means honesty. It means writing what scares me. It means leaving aside my concerns for what is palatable or producible.

SOL- In this age of technology and instant gratification, where do you see the role of the playwright? What role to writers in general play in this electronic age?

JSB- Jose Rivera has a really great piece in a recent issue of American Theatre in which he says that the work of the dramatist can never really be digitized, that what we make lives in a world between the zeroes and ones. I quite agree with him. But that doesn’t mean we can’t embrace new technologies as storytelling tools. You look at companies like New Georges and Three Legged Dog, they’re using all the latest technologies to serve the plays they produce. Playwrights need to get with that. Furbelow uses live video feed because the story has everything to do with how the broadcasting of images can determine our reality, for good or ill, if we allow it to. What I don’t like is theatre that attempts to be too filmic, or anything less than live. This is why there’s hardly ever a blackout or a phone conversation in any of my plays.

The other thing that playwrights, and all theatre practitioners, need to consider is that the world is moving much faster than we’re producing new work. You can have quality on-line content in a matter of days, sometimes hours, but it still takes years – years – to get a play on its feet. We have to find ways to create and mount new plays with greater speed and efficiency, not because we should emulate mass-media, but in order to remain relevant in and connected to a wider world.

SOL- Where is your favorite place to write?

JSB- I have the tiniest little nest of a place in the West Village. I love it. From my desk I can see the townhouse where Edward Albee wrote Tiny Alice. I’ve got to where it’s hard for me to work anywhere else.

SOL- Who were the writers you grew up reading? How have they shaped you as a writer?

JSB- I love Lanford Wilson. His work has been a huge influence on mine. And Tennessee Williams for sure. Both of them taught me to pursue the music in dialogue, they inspired me to heighten the language my characters speak, even in my more naturalistic work. Of course they were both masters at the balance. I often sacrifice storytelling for style and end up have to do a lot of editing for the sake of clarity.

SOL- What is the most effective medium for producing your work?

JSB- …While I don’t Kindle I do use a laptop and I’m almost always plugged into the net. It’s useful. While working on Furbelow, I was always researching something – fabrics, designer finishes…it’s nice to know immediately whether ‘gabardine’ is really what you meant to say.

SOL- Does your writing play to a theme or do you writer for feeling and story?

JSB- I tend to write about personal transformation. My characters often struggle against making a change, and arrive at some new possibility just as the play nears its end. I love the moment when someone stands at a precipice. I enjoy telling the story of how they get there. I think most of my work is about fighting toward or against a connection to something beyond oneself. But then, most drama probably is about that.

SOL- If you were to name this age we are currently in, what would you call it? Do you identify yourself with this age or with a past school of thought?

JSB- For a while I kept saying that we were in the era of the Bitchy Play, or ‘Mean Theatre.’ I don’t know. We may well be remembered mostly for jukebox musicals and film adaptations. I don’t think much about my ism, I just try to do something different with each new play.Furbelow appropriates a variety of classic styles but I hope the combination feels very contemporary. Do I identify with our current age? I guess. But the real question is ‘Does the current age identify with me?’ I hope so!

J.Stephen Brantley is an actor and playwright whose work has been commissioned by Lincoln Center Director’s Lab and Performance Space 122, where his Distortion Taco was named a Village Voice Pick Of The Year. His plays Blood Grass(Sam French Final Forty, 2011), FurbelowGood God Enters FlossingThe JambNeverthelessShiny Pair Of Complications, and Struck have been performed across the United States. Brantley’s award-winning one-act Break has been produced in Provincetown, New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Portland, Cranston RI, and at the Absolut Dublin International Gay Theatre Festival. J.Stephen is a graduate of NYU’s Experimental Theatre Wing, a member of TOSOS, artistic director of Hard Sparks, and a quintessential Scorpio. He is currently collaborating with Theatre 167 on the final installment of their epic Jackson Heights trilogy.

More at www.jstephenbrantley.com and www.HardSparks.com