A Conversation with Playwright/Director Seth Bockley
This week, I was lucky enough to catch the brilliant Seth Bockley to chat about his work for The Chicago One-Minute Play Festival at Victory Gardens Theater, and what’s going on in Chicago in general. Seth, who is currently in NYC working on a bunch of different exciting projects, is a rising talent that everyone should know. Here’s what we talked about:
Dominic D’Andrea: I think there is this perception about Chicago theatre as being a “tough and gritty” community of artists. It’s probably the most unique artistic community in our country for a lot of different reasons. For outsiders, what do you think is important to know about what’s going on in Chicago theatre? Who/what do you think we should know?
Seth Bockley: Chicago is a great place to live and work in theater. A lot of the ‘gritty’ reputation comes from the ‘hand-in-garbage-disposal’ stereotype of Chicago plays; that is to say, plays set in apartments or houses in which someone onstage gets his hand stuck in a garbage disposal and has to yell lines while his character is sweating and spitting and getting his arm ground to bits. That’s Chicago acting, to a lot of people.
But Chicago theater is a dynamic ecosystem. It’s actually one of the great centers for lyricism, of all things, in theater. In my view, there is this main meat-and-potatoes naturalism strain of Chicago theater, and then there is this visual theater and poetics side, which is exemplified by Lookingglass, 500 Clown, Redmoon Theater (where I spend a lot of my time) and a number of young companies. Some of the more exciting small companies seem to be inspired by both worlds (the naturalistic and the lyrical) including Dog & Pony and Sideshow, as well as New Colony and the burgeoning clown/physical theater community.
DD: In your opinion, who is making the most exciting theatre in Chicago right now?
SB: To me the most exciting theater artist in Chicago is playwright Mickle Maher (who, it must be said, recently moved to Madison, but still spends much of his time here). His latest play, There Is A Happiness That Morning Is, is playing now in Chicago and is a must see. It is an exhilarating, arcane, visceral, whimsical, heady, bodily exploration of sex in public and the poetry of William Blake. Mickle also wrote the remarkable plays The Strangerer and Spirits to Enforce, among others. I don’t know why he is not very very famous, on the level of Lady Gaga.
DD: What themes, styles, or ideas are active for you as a playwright right now? Did any of this find it’s way into your work for the One-Minute Play Festival?
SB: I find that plays I like very often flirt with duration, and make you aware of time passing. I also find that one minute is a ridiculous parameter for a playwright, and I am attracted to the ridiculous, and to parameters.
DD: Did you learn anything from working with the one-minute play form?
SB: What I’ve learned from writing for the One Minute Play Festival is that a very short form challenges a writer to be inspired by a very specific and private source. Anything else will invariably be a joke, or a ‘sketch’, and a sketchy sketch at that. So in creating plays for the festival, I embraced the instinctual starting point.
DD: Tell us a little bit about the work you have in the festival.
SB: I have four plays in the festival, which arose from four very different instincts: literary, rhythmic, aural, conceptual.
One was inspired by a short paragraph from Saul Bellow’s novel “Humboldt’s Gift” in which the narrator describes reading comic books while recovering from TB as a boy at a children’s sanatorium on Lake Michigan.
One was inspired by the image of a man saying the word ‘drip’ once every second for 60 seconds, which led to the notion of an insomniac divorcee.
One was inspired by the sound of the phrase “mutual diagnosis” when spoken with a thick Irish accent. Which led to a sung drinking game.
And one was inspired by the irritating challenge (imposed by the festival) of not being able to use props other than chairs. As an (occasional) puppet artist, I find not working with real objects very frustrating, so decided to write a puppet chair for two chairs, since chairs were all I was told my plays could contain in the way of props.
As they are inspired very specifically by an ‘instinct’, one-minute plays remind me very much of poetry, my other interest as a writer. I love short poems and short forms: haiku, limerick, koan, sonnet, ghazal.
DD: How do one-minute plays remind you of poems?
SB: Economy and concentration of language are natural to both plays and poems. It’s the tiresome tradition of the naturalistic 90 to 150 minute play that makes us feel that what unfolds onstage should happen at a conversational pace, as in a sitcom. Experience can be far more compressed, more concentrated, than that.
A good play is duration itself. It moves in ‘real time’ (while a poem squats on the page to be savored or skimmed at your pace). A one-minute play is ideally a small but memorable bite of food, a sexual encounter, an awkward stumble on a carpet wrinkle. What I hope the plays in this festival are, for the audiences and writers and actors, is a set of opportunities to share such human moments, second by second. As on a first date or while falling off a cliff, in the best case scenario time will pass more slowly.
DD: I hope so too. The festival is indeed about a series of human moments. 100 of them, in fact. It’s actually more to the point that the parameter of a minute. It’s something that has come more into focus as the festival and the form have evolved. I think so far, this has held true for this festival here in Chicago, as well.
100 Plays. 50 Playwrights. 1 Minute. The Chicago One-Minute Play Festival with Victory Gardens Theater will be presented on May 15th and 16th, 2011. Tickets are available here.