“Theater for me is about looking out and putting action out, listening out, trying out, failing out.”
Erika Sheffer: First of all, it is a pleasure to have virtual chat with someone I consider to be a true Renaissance man of the American theater. A raw and gifted playwright, sharp director, tireless producer, and a generous advocate to any artist who happens to cross his path, Mr. Daniel Talbott.
Daniel Talbott: Huge thank you so much E and so back at you in every way I can’t even say. I think you rock and you are a crazy fucking talented playwright – I think you’re amazing.
ES: There aren’t too many playwrights who produce other people’s work. How does being a writer affect the way you approach producing a play?
I really try to approach everything the same way, and I try to look at it like, what’s my part of this ensemble this time around, and then how can I be the most open, giving, and collaborative ensemble member as possible, whether I’m writing, acting, directing, producing, or whether I’m just there to mop the floor and clean up cat pee and stuff.
And with every play I really try to put the work at the center of the room and then, as much as possible, try to create an environment where everyone feels important, creative, and taken care of, and that they’re able to be radical, dangerous, and vulnerable within the work and with everyone else in the room.
The biggest thing for me in producing is that no one in the room is more important than anybody else. I think there are too many hierarchies in corporate and institutional theater and that they destroy creativity and collaboration. Hierarchies and elitism have no place in the theatre unless it’s explored and blown up onstage and in the work – they destroy theatre and the collaborative process.
If you think you’re better than someone you’re working in a room with, that’s a huge problem. That arrogance will create an imbalance that will trickle down into every pore of a project, and something will get lost or overlooked or unexplored in the work itself. The narcissism of our culture and our own need for personal success and power in the end has nothing to do with creating a play, creating a story, and then sharing it with the people who have taken their time to come sit, stand, or lay down with everybody who’s working on the show. “Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.”
ES: A production teaches a playwright so much, and can profoundly help the writer continue work on the piece. Unfortunately, it seems like theaters are all about world premieres these days. Feeling they may only get one shot, how can a playwright reconcile the desire to hold on to their work until it is “ready”, with the fact that seeing your work brought to life is often the surest way to hone your voice?
God, that’s such a hard, hard question, and I think it’s such an individual answer for everybody. I think you have to see your work up on its feet and running around, buck-naked and wild, in space. I think development can be really wonderful, but no matter what, it’s only a bridge to seeing your play living and breathing in front of you and an audience.
I think theater is always an act of trust and holding hands with fear, remaining open and moving forward, often into darkness. I always think especially in this day and age, if you have a chance to work on your play fully, jump at it and take that risk, cause for me nothing’s perfect, nor should it ever be, so if we wait and wait for the perfect situation and opportunity, it’s probably never going to happen.
There’s no dramatic possibility in perfection, so if it feels right in your heart, dive into the water with someone who’s saying I believe in you and your work and let’s do this together – and if it fails, jump back up, try to laugh about it, and keep your heart open, and dive into the next one.
I hate the premiere-itis thing, and I think if someone’s not giving you those opportunities and you believe in your work, don’t wait for someone else. Go out there and get your work up any way you can together with other folks who you love and admire. I think more and more because of the financial situation in this country that artists are going to have to find new ways to produce their own work and share it with others.
I really think you can always be working as a theater artist, and that if you have a play that is only right at Lincoln Center than wait for Lincoln Center, but also find a living room, or pool house, or beach, or something somewhere, where you can work for free and have free space. Write a new play for there, and grab your friends who are also wonderful and talented and not working in that moment, and all get your play up on its feet and blow it up, have a blast, get the info out to Martin Denton and others like him and the wonderful Rochelle Denton, and get yourself an audience, and don’t wait for anyone to give you permission to work. Again, you can always be working as a theater artist and creating.
ES: I love your egalitarian approach to the work. If no one thinks they are smarter, or know more than everyone else in the room, suddenly people are free to contribute in a deeper more meaningful way. What are some of the experiences, or individuals that have shaped the way you collaborate with artists?
I really think and feel that everyone I’ve ever worked with is why I am what I am in any way. I owe everything I am to all the people I’ve ever been lucky enough to work with and be at a theater with, even the ones I’ve felt fucked over by or abused by and stuff. In the end everything can be flipped into brilliance, compassion, and work, and if you’re not going to shut down and selfishly and destructively go inward, you have to find a way to do that.
Theater for me is about looking out and putting action out, listening out, trying out, failing out. And I think life and trying to make a life in the theater has taught me that, more than anything. But there are also a ton of specific people who have given me amazing advice and really formed and continue to form who I hope to be as a theater peep. Cherry Jones (one of my heroes) gave me the advice that you have to look out selflessly onstage all the time. When you look in, you’re constantly afraid, but when you take the focus off yourself and look out, you stop worrying about being afraid and start being able to act and play with others.
ES: You often encourage your students (I was one of those!) to find inspiration from music, visual art, journalism, etc. In what way does opening yourself to these mediums changes the work you do? How does it relate to your process?
I’m always trying to get inspiration and be open to as much around me as I can – the world, people on the subway, tennis, whales, Richard Avedon, whatever. And I really believe if you surround yourself with art, and beauty, and other folks’ work, you will take it in and it will become a part of you, and it will pour out into and through your own work and into your life and hopefully the lives of the people around you.
See as much great work as possible, walk on the beach as much as possible, see as many movies as possible, read as much as possible, go to as many museums as possible, and take as many trips (literally and figuratively) as possible, have sex with amazing people, or your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend/whatever as much as possible. Walk around late at night, take a hike, dance, tell stupid jokes, try to cook, or knit or sew, or whatever. Experience, discovery, and surprise are some of the most important elements of theater – other people’s work also forces you to look out and be inspired by what’s around you.
ES: 3C by David Adjmi is opening at The Rattlestick. How did Rising Phoenix, piece by piece and Rattlestick come together on this project?
We were actually out in California last year cause my grandma who I was I very close to, and who raised me was passing away, and we were in a really shitty down place, and one of our best friends Wendy vanden Heuvel called and said, I just saw a workshop of David’s play at Playwrights and I haven’t laughed that loud and that hard in so long I can’t remember. And Addie and I were like give us some of that. I think David is a stunning theater artist and is one of the greatest playwrights working today.
ES: The plays of Cino Nights have just been published in an anthology. The project was down and dirty theater – giving the finger to the prevailing wisdom that theater is safe/old/boring/impossible to produce/dying… Any news we may not be aware of yet at Rising Phoenix?
Cino has been the thing that a bunch of us are most proud of that we’ve ever done, and is so much our heart to me. I love Cino Nights; I love the Caffe Cino even though I was never there; I love La MaMa and other theaters like that – The Living Theater, Mabou Mines, etc. I could never do what I do without the rest of the Rising Phoenix Repers, Wendy and piece by piece, David Van Asselt and the rest of the Rattlestickers, etc. These guys are our theater fam, and our fam and friends are everything to us.
We really needed Cino Nights and I can’t wait to do the next one when we get back from California, and of course to keep trying to work on plays at Jimmy’s and hopefully tons of other places too. We have a few shows at Jimmy’s coming up in the winter, spring, and next summer, and our next Cinos will jump up randomly at different times and hopefully keep going and going.
We have a bunch of individual projects coming up for company members and stuff, and some film stuff we’re all working on together. And then Rattlestick’s season next year, and our next Off-Broadway show with piece by piece and the Barrow Group—Marty Moran’s absolutely gorgeous new play All the Rage.
Daniel Talbott’s Cino Nights’ play Break My Face on Your Hand with Seth Numrich, Noah Galvin and directed by Portia Krieger is June 17th at 7 p.m at the Seventh Street Small Stage. It is sold out but a waiting list begins at 6:30. For more information, see Rising Phoenix Rep.
Tickets for 3C by David Adjmi are available here, by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200, in person at 416 West 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th avenues) Mondays through Sundays from 12:00pm-8:00pm, or at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre thirty minutes prior to performance.