“I Want Them To Get Laid When They Go Home.”

Rob-Mersola Something Rob Mersola said to me during the latter half of our sit-down interview really struck me; first at face value, totally surface, and later like a fist coming at me. He said, ‘It’s about how family dysfunctions are handed down generation through generation.’

Given what this play is about, and what happens ultimately–I won’t give it away–that statement serves to season the play with a rich, nutty flavor. One may even interpret it as a modern day Greek Tragedy for the Millenials. But, fear not; for those who don’t want to experience it at theatre-nerd level, there’s laughing and squirming aplenty…though you may also be pleasantly surprised at how touching it is.

Rob Mersola’s new play, Luka’s Room, is the 17th World Premiere production for Rogue Machine, and the second offering of Season 8.  I saw the first invited dress; a performance as raw as it could possibly get, but man, raw works for this play.  I walked out of there impressed, creeped out, and moved. The acting, writing, direction, and design are all superb. These are staples of a Rogue Machine production, sure, but what happens in Luka’s Room is, finally, unexpected. You’ll see what I mean.

You may remember Mr. Mersola’s most recent Rogue Machine production, another World Premiere, Dirty Filthy Love Story, directed by Co-Artistic Director Elina De Santos, and starring Jennifer Pollono, Burl Moseley, and Joshua Bitton (the director of Luka’s Room, a longtime friend and collaborator of Mersola).  Dirty Filthy Love Story began as an Off-The-Clock production, graduated to the Mainstage, then extended its popular run over at the Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz. Sure, it received numerous nominations and awards, 99% of Rogue plays do, but more importantly, it set the stage for Mersola to be able to come back and give us this–something perhaps even dirtier and filthier?


I sit with Rob in a small, overstuffed, airless backroom prop closet at the theater, permeated by the sounds of actors running lines and the grunts and thumps of a ferocious fight-call happening out on stage:

TC: Let’s do this.

RM: Let me fascinate you.

TC: Ha. Good tag line!  Okay tell me about your journey. Your journey of theatre: how’d you get from wherever-you-started to where-you-are-now?

RM: Really?

TC: Yeah. Tell me everything. What’s been your mojo?

RM: Well, I have been seriously studying theatre since I was 14 years old. In school, and with a performance troupe that was in the community.

TC: Where was that? Where’d you grow up?

RM: Hermosa Beach.

TC: A native? Congratulations! How rare! So, did you decide, at some point, that you wanted to do this with your life?

RM: I just never stopped doing it. By the time I was finished with grad school, I wasn’t prepared to do anything else.

TC: Where was undergrad?

RM: CSUN (Cal State University Northridge)

TC: And grad?

RM: Rutgers. But for acting. I never studied playwriting. I moved to NYC after grad school. I was auditioning for, and working with, every crappy artist and every crappy theater and at some point I said, ‘I think I can do this better.’ So, I sat down and wrote my first play.  That was called Backseats and Bathroom Stalls, which was produced at The Kraine Theatre, and it was a huge success, with lines around the block to get in. It was awesome. And from there, I slowly kept writing plays.

They call it… what is it… it’s kind of like ‘The Seven Year Itch’, where a playwright writes their first play that gets well received…and then it’s seven years later before you hit the next one. And it feels like that was true for me, in a way.

TC: What brought you to LA from NYC?

RM: That play was optioned for a screenplay, and most of my friends had migrated out here… to get paid to act…

(We both laugh)

RM: And I also thought I would be making a movie, but…

(We laugh again)

TC: What was your first play out here?

RM: What’s Wrong with Getting Laid, and it was like Eugene Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, but then the characters started really asking what their own play was about. That was done at Improv Olympic, and was directed by a Second City improv teacher, Dave Rosowski.

TC: How did you find Rogue Machine?

RM: Well, we decided to do Backseats and Bathroom Stalls in LA. At The Lyric-Hyperion, and then it moved to The Coast Playhouse, at the same time that Small Engine Repair was running here.  The casts were coming to see each others’ shows and we were all becoming friends. I finished my next play, and sat down with my producing partners, who said the play was too dark. I took it Jen Pollono, and she said, pretty much immediately, ‘Okay, we’re going into production. Now.’

And that was Dirty Filthy.

lwh-10
Joshua Bitton & Jennifer Pollono in Dirty Filthy Love Story
Photo: John Perrin Flynn

dfls-12
Burl Moseley in Dirty Filthy Love Story
Photo: John Perrin Flynn

RM: It was initially born out of the TV show “Snapped”, from where I was crafting this character in my mind, and it wasn’t until I saw an episode of “Hoarders” where I was like, ‘I have never seen anything like this on stage. How can I take this character, for whom I had mapped her entire arc, and then put her into the Hoarder house? And that was how the story really came to life. And then it was, ‘Oh, Okay.’ That disease informed everything about her. And the love interest in it as well.

TC: So what was the impetus for writing Luka’s Room?

RM: I was crafting a play in my head that would kind of be like a modernized Noises Off (which I still want to write) but then this one morning I was driving to work, daydreaming, and this story popped into my head, and I went, ‘Ahhhhh’  and I went home and started writing it.

TC: Boom.

RM: Right.

TC: So, how do you feel about this play?

RM: This has been a different one for me. It’s deeper, more realistic, it’s more truthful. I generally stick to farcical. I stick to Joe Orton-esque stuff.

QPaLjsqThis started out that way for sure; my first draft was a lot more on-the-surface. But John and Josh continually pushed me to make it deeper, to deepen it, and it became more of a tragic comedy. I feel like…in some ways…I am hoping that I have not lost my voice, my comical voice, but… it’s different. I’m nervous.

TC: Did you work on it a lot in rehearsals? Rewriting?

RM: We did a reading, then a month-long workshop, we met every weekend, then rewrites, and it got it almost to where it is now. There were still a few issues…I added an entire character, and through rehearsals…well, there were changes, but more tweaking and deepening, not overhauls. Molding the voices of the characters for the actors. Writing for them what I felt would be best for them.


Nick Marini and Sarah Scott in Luka’s Room
Photo: John Perrin Flynn


Nick Marini and Sarah Scott in Luka’s Room
Photo: John Perrin Flynn

TC: That’s very kind of you, actually. To nurture an actor like that. To write for an actor while they’re in process. I’m totally jealous. Do you do any other kind of writing?

RM: No.

TC: So what is it about plays? Why plays?

RM: I like the storytelling aspect and I like the production aspect a lot. I want to be involved, you know? I don’t want to just write it, and send it off somewhere. I am interested in the theatre part of theatre.

TC: What about the storytelling aspect of plays does it for you, specifically, in comparison to other forms of storytelling?

RM: I never learned to do anything but theatre, so there is no other medium for me.

TC: Do you read a lot of plays?

RM: Well, I went to theatre school for 300 years so I have read a lot of plays, and I have seen a lot of plays, but it is weird…I wouldn’t just pick up a play, any ol’ play on some random day, and read it. I might, on a whim, pick up some Aeschylus, but it has nothing to do with my own art. I don’t read others’ plays because I want to write plays. I read others’ plays because I am interested in theatre.

TC: Do you see a lot of theatre?

RM:  I fucking love actors, so I go. I love theatre. I see a lot of bad plays, you can’t avoid it. But I have to go. I just love… I just love actors, and the whole thing.

castTC: But, I find it is hard to see. Hard to experience. It’s hard, right? When you are yourself a theatre artist? I wish I could just be a normal person when I go see theatre. Like when I watch football, I have no fucking clue what is going on, and it titillates me.

RM: Well, I try to do that. Allow myself to believe, you know, to get caught up in whatever their truth is.

TC: What’s your feeling about the American theatre? Do you have any kind of a vision for it?

RM: I don’t think it has changed all that much in the past 200 years. But I’ve seen a huge flourish in LA theatre over the past 7 or 8 years. When I left NYC on the early 00s, I saw a huge decline in the quality of theatre there. I see theatre as a communal experience that has been happening since the beginning of time, but I don’t really see that it has changed all that much. I mean, here we’re hanging on the same streets with prostitutes and pot shops…but that’s okay. I mean, it’s not going to die. Theatre is not going to die.

(Vince Melocchi [cast and company member] walks in, grabs a prop…
RM: Oh, here’s another fascinating playwright right here.
VM: I’ll pay you for that later. Hey Tim.
TC: Hi Vince!
Vince smiles and goes)

TC: What is your proudest accomplishment in theatre thus far? What’s your ‘yeah bitch’ about it all?

RM: I’ve been trolling around theatre since I was 14. My ‘yeah bitch’ is that I’m actually still here. I’m painting a set until 2am. I am at rehearsal for 14 hours starting at 8am. It’s fun. I’m not fuckin’ Neil Labute, but I’ve done well for myself. I feel accomplished in what I do.

Mersola painting TC: What do you want people to take away from this play?

RM: I want them to get laid when they go home.

Pause.

TC: My work is done.

RM: But, you know, I want people to be moved.

TC: So to speak….  I might… I mean, I might ask audiences to write in to this blog and tell me their post-Luka’s stories of getting laid. Speaking of: is access to sex on the internet killing intimacy in relationships?

RM: That is touched on a little bit, but it’s more of a metaphor. It’s about how family dysfunctions are handed down generation through generation. And also, I wanted to explore the idea that once something gets put out into the internet, it’s there. There’s no getting rid of of, it will live on in perpetuity. But, I’m not trying to make a statement about that, either. I’m not a statement kind of person. I’m not Tom Stoppard.

TC: No Stoppard, no Kushner. This isn’t a resounding 6-hour sociopolitical epic?

RM: No. It’s about human relations, human interactions, the character of people. Drawing characters. Humans… who just…take each other in and react against what happens in their life.

TC: How has Rogue Machine been a good artistic home for you?

RM: I first ever saw Small Engine Repair here, and realized that this was a theater that would understand my voice. And they did.  They do. John Flynn has been so encouraging, pushing me to really make it better, fathering the play because he likes it, not because he thinks I’m going to make a million dollars for his theatre. He thinks my voice is interesting, and he wants to shepherd that. It’s really rewarding. This is the right place for this play.  It’s a rough play.  It’s kinda hardcore. I hope.

TC: We got some really good stuff and I thank you. But do me a favor: stay out of my bedroom.

Luka’s Room
Directed by Joshua Bitton
Featuring Alex Fernandez, Joanna Lipari, Nick Marini,
Vince Melocchi, and Sarah Scott

Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 7pm, Sundays at 3pm
(no performance 8/22)

For tix and info, click on the image:

Getting Intimate with Playwright Samuel D. Hunter

Samuel Hunter, Photographed in Chicago, Illinois, September 10th, 2014.

Samuel Hunter, Photographed in Chicago, Illinois, September 10th, 2014 Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Samuel D. Hunter is an American playwright, born and raised in Moscow, Idaho. He is best known for plays A Bright New Boise, which won the 2011 Obie Award for playwriting, and The Whale, which won the 2013 Drama Desk Award and the 2013 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play. He is also the recipient of a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship (more on that later).

If you were lucky enough to catch Rogue Machine’s lauded production of A Bright New Boise in the fall of 2012, then you witnessed first-hand — and way up close — the searing majesty of his words.

Other recent Los Angeles area productions of note include The Whale and Rest at South Coast Repertory.

His 2011 play, A Permanent Image, just launched Rogue’s 8th season with a bang.
A Big one.

I asked Sam to get intimate about the play, about life as a playwright, and about his inspiration to write.

************************************************************************************************

TC: What was the impetus for writing A Permanent Image?

SH: I started writing A PERMANENT IMAGE for a few different reasons.  The most concrete reason was that years ago a theater that I dearly love out in my home state, Boise Contemporary Theater, offered me a commission and a slot in their season.  And the artistic director, who is a dear friend of mine, came to me and apologetically asked me if there was any way it could be for three characters, and that if I wanted–only if I wanted–it would be great if one of those characters was a lesbian because they realized they had done a good amount of plays with gay men, but never with any gay women.  And I was sort of excited by the constraints, so I said sure.  It was sort of this great empty container they were giving me that I could fill any way I wanted.

The other impetus was this feeling deep in my gut that I had just started to articulate back then–this sort of irrational fear I had (and still do have) that we are the only intelligent life in the universe.  I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I think what appealed to me so much about it was that it was saying that there is this whole big universe out there, so much more than just this little insignificant planet.  And I found that comforting.  So the play is, in part, about facing that fear–someone realizing their place in the universe and submitting themselves to it.
A Permanent Image

TC:
Rich, interesting elderly people show up in your plays quite a lot. What’s the connection for you?

SH:
I think I started writing a lot of older roles because I saw all these amazing older actors out there who didn’t have complex roles.  I wrote A PERMANENT IMAGE a few years ago now, and it was really the first time I had written a main character who was over fifty or sixty, and as we got into auditions all of the sudden I was like–holy crap, there are some amazing older actors out there.  Of course now the pendulum has sort of swung back, the new play I’m working on is about a group of twenty-somethings.


TC:
How did you meet and become friends with the theatre?

SH: I used to do a lot of acting when I was in high school, I was a very socially awkward and introverted kid so theater allowed me to come out of my shell in junior high and high school.  And all along the way I was becoming more and more obsessed with writing–poetry, at first.  But then I started writing plays and something about it just clicked, like I found my mother tongue.  And I still feel like playwriting is a way of telling a story through poetry.

TC:
What inspires you to write?

SH:
Usually something that’s troubling me, something that I haven’t quite worked out yet.  The play ends up being a 20,000 word answer to a question I’m asking myself.  Also, I find myself really drawn to characters who are typically underserved in national discourse.  People who live on the margins, who don’t have much of a voice.  An elderly woman in a tiny town in Idaho dealing with existential doubt, for example.

TC:
What/Who are some of your favorite plays/playwrights, and why?

SH:
I think it’s constantly shifting, but lately I’ve been drawn to a lot of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill.  Williams because at times you read or watch a play and you just feel like it’s unhinged, like he’s letting a wild animal loose in the theater, and then ten pages later someone might just sit down on the couch and tell you a story that’s so quiet and haunting and mysterious.  O’Neill because you feel like the plays are these unsuccessful exorcisms, like the demons come screaming out but they never quite leave you.  I rarely read an O’Neill play and wonder why I’m reading it, or why he wrote it. Among my contemporaries, I think there is so much good work going on–Annie Baker, Anne Washburn, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Dominique Morriseau, Lucas Hnath, to name a few.  It’s a great time.
Tennessee Williams

1971: US playwright Tennessee Williams (1911 – 1983). (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

TC: Where is the American theatre headed?  Do you have…a fantasy vision for it?

SH:
I think that’s a question for a much smarter person, or at least a person who has a wider view of the theater.  I guess my fantasy vision for the theater would be that it just becomes more accessible, in every sense of that word.  That the general population can stop thinking of theater as being something that rich people do on the weekends.  That there is a kind of theater that is relevant to them, that struggles with what they are struggling with, that treats them with respect and challenges them at the same time.

TC: Talk about the MacArthur Fellowship you received.  How is that informing your writing, and your life?

SH:
I think that in a certain sense it’s taken away a lot of pressure, the pressure to say yes to everything in order to make a decent living.  So in a way it’s given me the extraordinary gift of being able to say no.  I’m not totally sure how it’s affected my writing, that probably remains to be seen.  Along with the financial pressure being alleviated, it has given me the pressure to do better work, I’ll say that much.  And hopefully I can just keep improving, play by play.

TC:
How often do you get to see your plays produced all over the country?  What is that like for you? Any productions that particularity shocked or surprised you?

SH:
I don’t often get to see productions of my plays after the first few, so it’s always interesting to visit a play of mine years after I’ve written it.  It’s like sitting down for two hours with this former version of yourself.  Like sometimes I’ll hear a certain line and I’ll remember exactly what I was feeling when I wrote it, and exactly where it came from in that specific time and place.  And then there are times when a production does a scene or a line in a totally unexpected way–and suddenly a production sheds light on this corner of the play that you didn’t even know was there.

TC:
Talk about your time with Partial Comfort in NYC. (I love PCP!)

SH:
Partial Comfort was one of the first companies that ever had faith in me as a writer, so much faith that they asked me to write them a play from scratch about three months before we were to go into rehearsal.  And they gave me no restrictions, no notes, just complete support.  And so in a few months I had written the first draft of A BRIGHT NEW BOISE, and we read it as a company in a little bar called Jimmy’s 43 in the East Village, and afterwards I turned to them and I said, “was that okay?”  And from then on it was just nothing but unconditional support. And actually my husband, the Dramaturg John Baker, is currently working with them, so I still very much feel like part of the family.
A Bright New Boise

TC:
Lastly, outside of writing, and of theatre, what do you do to have a normal, happy life?

SH:
That’s a GREAT question, and one that took me years to figure out.  And honestly, I’m still figuring that out.  It helps that I have a husband who’s also in the theater, so we both get it.  But I think beyond that it’s just doing very simple things, like allowing yourself to have a hobby outside of the theater, or even taking a vacation once in a while.  My husband and I are taking a three week vacation in August, which is utterly unprecedented for us, the only other actual vacation we’ve ever taken was our honeymoon.  I think we both spent all of our twenties desperately trying to make a life in the theater, and now that we’re in our thirties, it’s becoming more about making a life outside of the theater as well.

For Further Reference:
New Dramatists: http://newdramatists.org/samuel-d-hunter
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_D._Hunter

A Permanent Image
Directed by John Perrin Flynn
Featuring Anne Gee Byrd, Tracie Lockwood, and Ned Mochel.
Saturdays at 5pm, Sundays at 7pm, Mondays at 8pm through July 27th.
For tix and info, click on the (permanent) image:

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