John Crutchfield on playwriting

Writing for this stage, these actors, this town

In his newest play, Landscape with Missing Person, John Crutchfield himself appeared in the lead role as a man who doesn’t talk much. As soon as I saw the play I wanted to get him to talk, and talk we did one autumn afternoon. He parked his bicycle on my porch, took a seat at my dining room table,  told me what it is like to write for The Magnetic Theatre in the North Carolina mountain town of Asheville, and described the challenges of taking new plays produced there to other towns.– Carol Polsgrove, October 2012

John Crutchfield

 

You didn’t start out to be a playwright. You started out as a poet. Your first produced play, The Songs of Robert, began as poems, and somebody wanted to stage them, and voila, you saw the potential of drama. You then wrote Ruth as poetic drama, and then The Labyrinth. These all feature monologues in various poetic forms, like this passage from The Songs of Robert

     “Please! just some way to snuff me out, so I

      won’t have to see the mossy rocks and sticks

      persist and flourish in the springy light,

      the leaves outrageous where the birdlife

      makes its urgent little sounds, the breezes

      turn the pages of the grass….”

Oh, yes, that’s Robert.

Your last two plays, Solstice and Landscape with Missing Person, seem very different to me. Instead of monologues, we’re getting quick dialogue – scraps of speech like shards of glass that are bouncing back and forth.

That’s a nice image.

Well, I wondered why that change had occurred. Is it because of your experience with The Magnetic Theatre?

Hm. If you look at those first verse plays that you’ve named (I have others that have not been produced yet that were also written during that time), in those scripts you would see an evolution. The Songs of Robert really is monologues – some of them a bit colloquial, and others sound lyrical in a literary sense like this one you just read a section from. That really is poetry rather than dramatic language in a poetic form. And then by the time we get to something like The Labyrinth, which is the last of those three plays, there are long stretches that are essentially written in blank verse dialogue form, that you wouldn’t necessarily know was poetry at all, unless you looked at it on the page. So I think I have been gradually moving toward a different form.

I would argue, though, that even in a play like Landscape, in which there’s as much silence as there is speech, the speeches are very – what’s the word? Elliptical. I’m still thinking rhythmically, the way a poet can’t escape thinking. For me the rhythm, even as the silences interact with individual words, to me that’s very important. So I feel like I’m still a poet, even though what the audience hears on the surface doesn’t rhyme. But Solstice, granted, was a bit different. There I was moving in a much grittier, prosaic kind of direction. For me they’re all experiments – trying to find the language for what this particular play wants to say, and in some cases, a grittier, more idiomatic, slangy kind of texture is what’s called for. But I will continue to write verse plays, I’m sure.

You did ask about whether the influence of The Magnetic Theatre is part of it. I think that might be the case, one reason being it’s extremely labor intensive to write in verse. The Labyrinth took eight years to write. Granted, I wasn’t sitting down eight hours a day every day working on it. But it’s a very labor intensive way to compose a play.

You call Landscape with Missing Person an “existential romantic comedy,” and certainly we did laugh a lot, but there is an underswell of sadness in it. I wonder if you would describe how the idea of the play came to you.

As far as the moniker that we adopted for the play, this has been a new experience for me as a playwright, now that I am associated with a theatre that really sees the whole thing as a business. They’re trying to market these plays and get people to come and see them, and so finding the right way to describe the play is actually an important part of that side of things. I’m not entirely sure what was meant by an “existential rom-com,” but I liked the idea, I don’t think I originated it. I have to say I have been strongly influenced in my writing by Samuel Beckett. So the existential part of it – well, for me that just means work that addresses some probably unanswerable question about life. That’s what existential means to me. There’s a seriousness in that word. And they’re not vast theological questions. They’re questions about human life, questions that have probably troubled artists forever. The romantic comedy side of it really just describes some of the generic elements of the play. One of the themes is love, and we have people who are struggling to find each other, to find someone. And it is funny, but, you’re right, at bottom it raises questions that are serious and in a different context might seem depressing.

What would you say are some of the questions about human life that you’ve raised in this play?

I could tell you the main one that I think it raises, and there may be others that people would respond to who saw the play. For me, consciously, I was interested in the role of the imagination in life. To what degree is reality something we construct with our imaginations? The main character of the play is someone who has created a sense of meaning for himself, and it turns out later that a lot of that is derived from his own imagination. My inspiration for that is one of the definitive works of western literature that deals with this problem: Don Quixote, which I reference explicitly in the play. There, too, we have someone who, is on the surface, delusional. Don Quixote is completely wrapped up in his world of novels of chivalry that he’s been corrupting his mind with for years, to the point where he can no longer distinguish reality from fantasy. And we could look at it clinically and say he’s delusional. On the other hand, his vision of life has something beautiful about it, and there’s a nobility to his vision despite the ridiculous situations he ends up in and despite the obvious fun Cervantes, the author, has at his expense. This character – Don Quixote –there’s a nobility of spirit about him. He will look at the garlic-breathed milkmaid and see the beautiful maiden who deserves to be elevated –

Which is very much like your central character Don, who you play. I wanted to ask if you meant to play that role when you wrote it.

I did not actually mean to play that role. I will confess that I enjoy acting, but it’s not necessary to my happiness, and if given a choice, I would spend the time working on my next play, rather than rehearsing, just because acting is a very time consuming endeavor. And it also requires a certain amount of vulnerability and lack of privacy that as a writer just does not come naturally to me. I think I tend to be rather reserved about things. So acting is not something I would ever choose to do unless it was a role I couldn’t resist for whatever reason, or if it was for the good of the show. In this case it was for the good of the show. We couldn’t find an age-appropriate actor who could do it. And even I’m not really age appropriate – I’m too young for the role – the actor probably needs to be in his late 40s, early 50s at least, and I’m just over 40, so I was not in some respects the right guy.

But it was the right role for you, if you like to be private, because he is the kind of guy who likes to stand on the stage –

And not say anything. It was a challenge, and I enjoyed that part of it, and of course I enjoyed working with that particular group of other artists – the other cast members and Steve Samuels, the director. It was a very satisfying project.

Do you have them in mind when you write? Because you’re associate artistic director at The Magnetic Theatre, so you’re writing for that theatre.

At this point I am.

Do you have particular actors in mind when you create the roles?

Often I do, and this is one of the great benefits of being a member of a company like this. Up to the point that we founded this company, I was writing just in the faint hope that at some point the play would be done, but now I’m fairly certain that my plays will be done, and I kind of know who the actors are. I spent my first five years here going to as much theatre as I could, visiting as many shows as I could and scoping out the actors, and now I kind of know. Of course, the nice thing about Asheville is that fresh people come to town all the time. So yes, I write with particular actors in mind, often, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I write for them in terms of what I know they can do; sometimes I write in terms of what I think they could do, if given the right role.

You mention the new people coming to Asheville. This seems to me a very vibrant theatre town.

I agree.

You clearly have audiences that are enthusiastic about going to plays. I’m interested in how you move a play from The Magnetic Theatre in Asheville to other theatres around the country – what the institutional roads are for doing that.

I wish there were an easy answer. If there is one, I’d like to know it. This is something we’ve been talking about a lot recently in the theatre. We’ve had some successful productions, plays that we think really could find a wider audience. How do we get them out there? One way I know of is the theatre festival circuit, and I had some success at the New York Fringe Festival with The Songs of Robert. So submitting work to those festivals is one way to get it seen by other people. But that’s no guarantee by any means. And usually the onus is on the artist to produce it, and sometimes it’s an expensive operation –in the hopes that someone would see it who could take it. There are various prizes; you can submit plays to various theatre contests.

What about universities? They’re doing a lot of plays all over the country. How do you get them to notice what you’ve got?

That’s a good question. Unless you are yourself personally connected with those people on those faculties, I think it’s very hard. Their first duty is to their students, and I think that the perception is the students will most benefit from classic, well-proven plays – even if we call a classic play something like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. It’s contemporary, but it’s a reliable good at this point. But for a theatre department to take a risk on something new –

A lot of them have little stages.

A larger program would have a kind of lab theatre. It can happen. In fact, Appalachian State, where I was teaching for a while, put on a play of mine after I had gone on leave. They produced a new of play of mine in their lab theatre context, and I was very pleased with the way that worked. So I know it’s possible, but that depended entirely on my personal connection with those people.

The plays I haven’t seen of yours I’ve read on Indie Theater Now. Does that website draw attention to your plays?

So far very little, as far as I can tell. You’ll have noticed on that website that Martin Denton, the editor, has put up a huge number of plays. I think that’s a resource for people who already know about a particular playwright, but no, it has not drawn new interest, as far as I can tell, to my work. But it’s new.

There’s a question you haven’t quite answered, which is about the idea for Landscape with Missing Person. When did that idea first come to you? What was the seed of that play?

Well, I will confess that on some basic level I wanted to write an adaptation of Don Quixote – just because I love that story. I wanted to adapt it. I don’t think this play is really an adaptation of it, it’s more of   a response to it. So I had this impulse – this novel is one that I love, I want to somehow deal with it. It troubles me, too. I write about things that trouble me. But somehow I had the image of a man standing on a corner, traffic buzzing around him, people passing by, a kind of raggedy looking man, and somehow he made me interested. And that was of course Don. You can drive around Asheville, down near the veterans’ hospital, anywhere, and you’ll see people like this – and you wonder what happened to this person. What is the story ­– that this person is simply standing there, behaving in this way that doesn’t quite seem connected to what’s going on?

But you wonderfully brought along a very fresh but also lost young girl.

Yeah, that seemed like the right counterpart.

She’s a wonderful actress.

Oh yes, Lisa [Smith] is a fantastic actress, and this was a role that I wrote with her in mind, even though I had never seen her do anything like that. I had the sense from her work in Solstice and other things (she was in The Labyrinth as well), having worked with her before, I had a strong feeling that she could do that kind of role, and she did, marvelously so. There needed to be that kind of crossing of the generations in the play. Both of them are wounded.

But she’s not closed down.

She’s not closed down. She pushes him, but he also changes her. When we first meet her, she’s kind of tough, in her way, and by the end she’s actually taking care of him rather than just herself.

And vice versa.

I think so.

Where did the title come from?

I no longer remember where that title came from.

It does seem to me that when the play opens and he is standing there very still, it is a landscapey kind of image.

Yeah, and there is so much stillness in the play, almost like a series of still frames in a movie.

There are other characters in the play that are all played by one actress [Jennifer Gatti] in this production. I assume you meant to write these characters so one person could play them.

Absolutely.

And it’s not just a practical matter? What’s the virtue thematically? These are the characters the man and young woman meet.

Right, all female characters that they meet along the way. As a playwright – and this was one of the challenges of transitioning to being a dramatic writer from being just a literary writer – I had to learn to think practically. At this point it’s internalized. If I can get away with fewer actors, I will. But that was not the main consideration here. The main consideration here was – from Don’s point of view, from the protagonist’s point of view, for the same kind of faces to be appearing in different forms throughout the play seemed to connect with the theme.

He’s searching for this imaginary (we think) wife, and he keeps encountering these other women who are drawn to him for some reason – his vulnerability perhaps, or just his lack of pretentiousness, or lack of arrogance, lack of whatever it is that keeps people from each other, he seems completely vulnerable and exposed, so people are drawn to him – and each of these encounters evokes for him the search. It seemed to me important that we would see the same actress in these different forms. It’s a kind of dreamlike logic. It’s the way you would see in your dreams, familiar faces in implausible contexts. So each of these women could be his wife, somehow. He sees something beautiful in each of them, and something that could be loved, really, in each of these people. And he doesn’t judge them.

I see a lot of sorrow in your work – the characters kill themselves and take drugs and they have lost loves and they feel lost in life.  I would imagine that working that material would be a rough ride for you sanity-wise.

The fact of the matter is that the play becomes the way to externalize for myself the search for meaning, and healing. Even though the plays are not autobiographical in a strict sense of fact-equals-fact, they all deal on some level with experiences that I have had and that other people I know have had, and the play becomes for me a way to make sense of my own experience. Your question assumes that I’m choosing to go into this painful place and isn’t that hard, but actually the play is helping me get through the painful place that I’m already in.

The Labyrinth is dedicated to a person who died young. Was he a suicide?

He was. He was a dear friend of mine from growing up, and I began that play not long after he died.

I became aware a number of years ago of how many people do kill themselves. And I’ve known several at this point.

I had heard of people on the fringes of my acquaintance who had taken their own lives, but this was an intimate friend, and he was someone who – the way you do with childhood friends – you imagine growing up, and you imagine what your lives will be like in twenty years, and your spouses will get to know each other, and your kids will play together. So for me, his departure from this whole business of life was just at tremendous shock. But it was also a very motivating thing, if that makes any sense, because he himself was not just an extraordinary human being but also an artist of the first rank. He was a visual artist, a sculptor. And somehow I have felt I had to live for two people since he left. And it really motivated me to take seriously my art in a way I had not before.

You are creative on several fronts – you do music as well, you’ve been involved in dance productions, and at the same time you do have a family.

Yes, a new family.

A house –

Which I’m trying to renovate.

And trying to make a sufficient income on this artist’s life, which even in Asheville must be difficult to do. You’re teaching part-time at Warren Wilson College. Can you imagine living like this for another thirty years?

No, I can’t. I can’t. I’m running on battery power at this point. Once our daughter, Polly, goes to school, it becomes an expensive thing. Things will have to change, and frankly I’m very concerned about that, because Asheville does not have a whole lot of jobs for people with my particular –

You have experience teaching at Appalachian State, you have an MFA –

Well, I have a doctorate in literature, and an MFA in creative writing, both from Cornell. So I have qualifications to teach in university, but there aren’t that many jobs around here.

You’re looking just in this area.

I am, because this is where I want to stay, if possible. The theatre here is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. But also family – I grew up in Boone, [N.C.].

Asheville’s a great place. I moved here.

You understand. Quality of life is important. But luckily I’m healthy, so I’m able to live this way right now but there may come a time when I’m not able to do as much, and if we don’t have any retirement or savings – it’s a precarious living. My wife is an artist, too, though, so she understands that. Everyone has to find a balance, I think, between security and freedom, and that balance keeps changing.

 You can read some of Crutchfield’s plays at indietheaternow.com. For more about his life and work, see his website, johncrutchfield.com.

Write to John Crutchfield or Carol Polsgrove