A Conversation with Threshold Festival Playwright Lee Nowell

Posted on November 30, 2015

with Clifton Guterman, National New Play Network Producer in Residence

CG: Tell us about your play, please – its origins or inspirational source, a quick plot summary, its themes and what, if anything, you’re hoping will be a take-away for the audience.

LN: Obsession is a story written from two perspectives, one from a theatre director, the other from an actress who's been cast in his play. The first act is entirely the director's perspective; the second is the actress's. I wrote this play to understand how obsession (stalking, etc.) works. In this particular story, the actress is stalked by someone involved in the play she's working on. Obsession is a classic thriller driven by a modern structure- it definitely has hints of Hitchcock in it.

CG: When did you start writing plays and why? Do you have formal training?

LN: I trained to be an actor and director, and made my living doing that for more than a decade. As a director I was drawn to new work. I got deeply involved in new play development, and adjudicated plays for the NEA, the Essential Theatre, and the Lark in conjunction with Synchronicity. After a while I found that I really wanted to write plays, so I started turning down directing and acting work so I could focus on writing. My understanding of how to write a play is based on working on them from the inside, both as an actor and a director. It's also based on the theatre program at Kenyon College, where I was taught the mechanics of play structure from Wendy MacLeod (who wrote The House of Yes) and the mechanics of dance and choreography from Maggie Patton. Structuring a play is very akin to structuring a modern dance piece, or writing a piece of music. I find I learn as much from poets, novelists, and composers as I do from other playwrights. Other disciplines help me see structure, pace, emotion, and approach to content in new and prismatic ways.

CG: Who is your favorite playwright – living or long gone?

LN: Jez Butterworth, hands down. I was in New York a few years ago and really lucked out- his masterpiece Jerusalem was playing with Mark Rylance in the title role, who gave the most astonishing performance I've ever seen in my life. After that, I couldn't stop reading Butterworth's plays. Every time Hollywood lures him out of the theatre to write a screenplay, I start to panic, thinking he'll permanently defect to film and never write another play. I will be so depressed if that happens. Other favorite playwrights include Martin McDonagh, Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, Alan Ayckbourn, Tracy Letts, and Sam Shepard.

CG: Why are early readings with professional directors and actors beneficial to you and your work?

You can't know where the kinks are in a script until you work on it with really good actors and a great director. Writing a play is like designing a new flying machine. You can look at how all the parts work, you can put the contraption together in your garage, and you can crosscheck everything on paper and think you're done. But you'll never know if it'll fly until you take it out of the garage, give it to a master mechanic, and put experienced pilots in it for its first journey into the air. (Obviously the mechanic in this metaphor is the director, and the pilots are the actors.) They're the ones who have to inhabit it, and they're the ones who can help you figure out where the kinks are- where you can adjust a section to make it fly more smoothly. During the rehearsal process, I like to close my eyes so I can just listen and feel how the script is moving. I know there's a problem in the script when my stomach starts to feel funny- it's telling me that something in the script needs to be fixed. Until I hear the script out loud for the first time, I have no idea if what I have will be any good at all. A great director and actors are absolutely essential to everything I write. Plus I love actors and directors- they think the same way I do - so to me the rehearsal process is like coming home.

CG: Could you share your thoughts on Atlanta theatre from a writer’s perspective?

LN: I moved to Atlanta in the nineties from Philadelphia, where I was an actor and director with a resident rep company. Philadelphia wasn't offering the kind of new work I wanted to do. At the time, everyone was saying that the two hottest places for new work were Atlanta and Portland. I chose Atlanta. In the nineties, Atlanta was at the top of its game, for innovation in the theatre, for great directors and actors, and for the sheer quantity of theatre companies doing incredibly brave, current work and doing it really well. Something happened- or several things happened- and a lot of Atlanta theatres stopped taking risks. Actors and directors started moving away. New plays were considered too risky, and so new work wasn't done as often. Many theatres started making safe choices, even sellout choices (and they knew it), and a number of great companies closed. We're still seeing the hangover of the 2008 recession. We're still acting like we can't afford to try new things- even things we really want to try- because people are scared they're about to become the next closed theatre. We've now hit a point where we have to start taking more risks. We have to do the work we want to do. Working in the theatre is so hard- it's impossible to make a living, the hours are ridiculously long, and the lifestyle takes its toll. If we're not doing the work for the love of it, we might as well just become accountants and call it a day.

CG: How has Atlanta grown (or not) over the years for playwrights?

LN: Atlanta has started to get press for the theatre we do - because there are still stubborn artists and companies here who repeatedly turn in great work - and we have to build on that. There are some incredibly talented people in Atlanta. But there is still a massive fear of collapse. I had a reading at a theatre which shall remain nameless, and the play was a huge hit. The theatre was moving into discussing when they could produce it. But there was a board member who was offended by the notion expressed in the play that women are sexual beings - so the Artistic Director decided to pull the plug out of fear. That's where we are right now. If the play has no content, nothing that really makes you think, and it coddles (or titillates or shocks) the audience, it's considered a safe choice and it has a better chance of being produced. The fact that this means we often have a roster of plays with the nutritional equivalent of junk food makes me want to move somewhere else. Somewhere they're taking risks. Somewhere they're actually saying something. I actually considered moving somewhere else a few years ago for that exact reason. I considered New York, London, Edinburgh; I considered throwing in the towel entirely and moving to Provincetown, where I might not do theatre but I would have a good life. Then I read that this is actually happening all over the country (especially in New York, where there's nowhere for artists to live anymore) and in London, which just made me depressed. (Edinburgh still looks pretty good...) So then I had to reconsider Atlanta in that context. Luckily, there are still a few Atlanta companies like Actor's Express that focus on new work, and are willing to take risks. If companies like that didn't exist, I'm not sure what I'd do. Because, look: audiences want to come to the theatre (to paraphrase Mamet) to hear the truth. Truth is hard to come by these days. Actors want chewy roles. Directors want great plays to work on, and most of them love working on new plays. Theatre artists go wherever the work is. I moved halfway across the country, with no job in sight, to work on new plays- and I'm not the only one. If Atlanta can keep challenging its audience with new, interesting work, the national buzz about us will continue to grow. A city is only as good as the work it does, and the people who do that work. We have some kick-ass artists here. We just have to up our courage and commit to doing the work we actually want to do. There are a number of people here who are doing just that- for example, Freddie Ashley is a fiercely talented director who has managed, despite the obstacles, to take major risks in programming and still keep his audience. So it's definitely possible. We just have to throw off our post-2008 PTSD mindset (because it's not 2008 anymore and we need to move on) and do it. Where's the St. Crispian's Day speech when you need it? Because we need it.

CG: Could you share three pieces of advice for early career writers?

Figure out what works for you as a writer. There are many different ways to write a play, and you can choose any one of them. Some people have to start with structure. They write an outline of the plot and then they follow it. I can't do that- I feel like I'm doing math, and the play becomes stilted at best. I have to write the way I understand plays- I have to crawl inside a character and let that person speak, because I understand things the way an actor understands them. There is no one-size-fits-all way to write a play. Don't listen to anyone who tells you there's only one way to do it- because that simply is not true. If you can't sit down and write, but you can improv with another actor, then do that and tape it- afterwards you can extract whatever came out of that session. With enough sessions, you'll have a play. If you start with an idea and you don't know where it's headed but you keep writing, that can work, too. Find what works for you.

Mechanics are very important. I'm adjudicating all the plays for the Ohio Arts Council right now, and what I'm discovering is that the people who are starting from the most powerful, personal source material often can't write a play. They can't write a play because they don't understand craft- how to put the contraption together. A great idea is helpful, but it isn't a play all on its own. You have to figure out how to craft a story- and I'm not saying it has to be Aristotelian with a beginning, middle, and end- it can be anything- but it has to have a cohesive structure. Structure is what holds it all together. Without it, you have nothing- even if your starting idea was great. If you're stuck on structure, choose a play you really like and study it- how does it move from one moment to another?

All writers have some sort of responsibility in the stories they tell. They have a responsibility to their characters and to their audience. What you permit to happen to your characters has an immediate effect on the audience and on the people working on your play. What kind of world are you creating? Ideas and stories are powerful- they're what sustain us in times of trial, and they're what make life bearable in our lowest moments. Do not believe for one second that you can't change the world by writing a play. It's one of the few ways a single person actually can change the world- because you change the internal dialogue in your audiences' heads when they see your play. You change the invisible things people think- and those thoughts can sustain themselves for years. If you write torture porn because you think it'll get produced, then that's a sucky thing to inflict on yourself and on the world. If you write an issue play that's safe (rape = bad. Yes, we all know that.), that's equally questionable. Art can change the world. We all need (and I'm talking to myself here too) to start asking ourselves what kind of world we want to live in. Playwrights are the progenitors of entirely new trains of thought. Whether we understand it or not, playwrights are the futurists- that's what we all are. We're writing possible futures. What kind of future do you want? (And P.S. - If you doubt that a movie or a play can change things, look at Minority Report - the phone ear pieces they used? They inspired the bluetooth technology a few years later.) Thoughts become things. Choose the good ones.

For more information on the Threshold New Play Festival and for tickets, visit: www.actors-express.com/readings.