The Cambridge Writers’ Workshop is proud to introduce Stephen Aubrey, who will be teaching classes on theatre, performance, screenwriting, and playwriting at our Writing and Yoga Retreat in Newport, Rhode Island (April 2-5, 2015). The Cambridge Writers’ Workshop’s Megan Tilley sat down to interview Stephen Aubrey. Check out Megan’s interview with Stephen below, and be sure to apply for our Newport Retreat by February 20, 2015!
MT: How did you get into playwriting? What were some of the early plays or performances which inspired you to write?
SA: My life as a playwright owes more to serendipity than anything else. Growing up, theater had always interested me. I was obsessed with Spalding Gray and I hung out with a lot of the theater kids in high school, but my complete incompetence as an actor meant that I was usually an audience member rather than a performer (save for one disastrous turn as Francis Nurse in The Crucible in 11th grade). Playwriting (and writing in general) never exactly occurred to me as something I could do.
In college, I took a lot of philosophy and history courses, which exposed me to a wealth of interesting stories and ideas and very slowly, I became interested in writing short stories my senior year of college. About this time, I was approached by a director I knew from a fiction workshop I was taking. She was interested in developing a documentary play about a historical event and asked me if I knew of any good source material. After batting around a couple of ideas, I told her about the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944. She was hooked on the idea immediately and we decided to round up a couple of actors and co-write the play.
I thought this was going to be a one-shot deal. I really thought of myself as an academic and was seriously considering getting a PhD in history after I graduated college. Slowly, however, writing got its claws in me. We brought our play to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that summer where it was well-received and nominated for a prestigious award. When I came back from Scotland, I moved to New York and started thinking seriously about writing plays. The group of people who traveled to Scotland asked me to write another play to perform the next summer and we slowly coalesced into a theater company.
Since I came to playwriting somewhat late, most of the formative plays in my life haven’t been ones I studied in a classroom (though I love some plays I happened to study in school, mostly the Greeks and Shakespeare) but rather, ones I saw performed when I first moved to New York. I didn’t have very much money when I first came to the city. All those big sexy expensive shows were out of the question so I ended up exposing myself to the weird, scrappy stuff you can find downtown where the tickets cost the same as a beer at one of the ritzy joints. When I had been at the Fringe Festival doing my show, I had seen the TEAM’s Particularly in the Heartland which really blew me away (I think I’ve ended up seeing it 5 times in total in a bunch of different theaters over the years) and showed me how adventurous and alive and surprising theater could be. Nearly 10 years later, it’s still one of the most amazing pieces I’ve seen. So when I was trying to acquaint myself with what was happening in the theater world, I sought out more people like the TEAM. After seeing a few shows that interested me, I started lurking around theaters that I thought were curating interesting work–The Ontological-Hysteric [R.I.P.], The Ohio, PS122–and becoming aware of groups like Elevator Repair Service, 13P, and Pig Iron that were doing things I found really interesting. I think I learned a lot from these groups, but above all, my downtown education taught me to take risks and embrace the idiosyncrasies of my voice, things that are in abundance downtown and less so once you get above 14th street.
MT: You’re the cofounder of The Assembly Theater Company in New York – what lead you to create the group, and how has it impacted your writing?
SA: The simplest explanation for why I created the group was that it was the easiest way to make theater in New York. Especially when you’re just starting out and have very limited resources, it really does take a village to make a play. Doing it alone is, well, lonely. It can be incredibly discouraging for the first few years as you try to break into the community and are dealing with expensive yet somehow filthy black boxes you can only half-fill with friends and loved ones you’ve coerced into buying a ticket. It helps to have comrades.
I was lucky enough to find a group of collaborators in college who have similar interests and aesthetic senses and whom I genuinely care about. We formed the company fresh out of college; there have been some personnel changes as we all learned what the life of a young theater artist entailed, but a core group has remained over the years which has been a wonderful resource to have as I tried to find my artistic identity.
As we’ve grown and developed as a company, we’ve worked towards a truly collaborative way of working together that has become fundamental to the way I think about my writing. After my first few plays, I became disenchanted with the way new plays were developed and also with the way that certain voices (namely straight white men like myself) were overrepresented. At the same time, I was being exposed to a lot of alternative ways of making work–chief among them devised theater–that seemed new and fresh. The Assembly’s four artistic directors are a director, a designer, an actor, and a writer (that’s me); the idea is that by working together as equal partners in series of development periods over the course of a year or two (rather than the typical new play process in which a playwright writes a script, a director decides to work on it and then hires a cast and crew who rehearses for a few weeks) we can create plays where every part of the production is realized in harmony. Even more recently, we’ve been working with group-writing where I write the script along with the actors so that as they get deeper into their characters and make interesting discoveries, we can integrate these into the script.
I’ve found that working this way has really opened up my writing. The plurality of voices and concerns you have to contend with when working in this way can be really overwhelming and intimidating, but it’s incredibly satisfying when it all comes together. It can get messy and heated sometimes in the rehearsal room, but the kind of work I’m creating now–where I’m a main voice, but by no means the primary one–seems important to me. I think we live in a complicated world, one where we need to be aware of and sensitive to alternative perspectives, especially ones that we don’t normally encounter on stage.
MT: You’ve written plays that have been performed at venues from The Ontological-Hysteric in Manhattan to The Brick Theater in Brooklyn. What was the process like for putting on plays at these venues?
SA: When I first started, my company had to work very hard to find theaters to do our plays in. Being curated by a theater was ideal, but more often than not, we had to rent the theater (which is a huge financial burden). I was very lucky to be able perform in venues like The Brick or The Ontological-Hysteric; both of those came about by applying to programs or festivals like the Short-Form Series or the Video Game Festival. In those instances, the theater was given to me free of charge (though I was financially responsible for everything else). There were a few other fortuitous opportunities like the year-long residency The Assembly had at Horse Trade Theater Group, but for the most part, putting on a play at a venue in New York requires producing it yourself. At least at the beginning, that’s going to be the case. But these things tend to snowball. If you produce a play yourself, and you invite the right people to come see it (or the right people wander into the theater on their own, which is a rare, but beautiful thing), it’s possible that you will be accepted to a festival or residency somewhere down the road. Making a career from theater is largely about using each opportunity to springboard to the next. Once you start generating interest in your work, things get a little easier.
But what has been true throughout is that, even if we were given the space, my company has always been responsible for making the play happen. We have been responsible for finding a cast and design team, for doing the brunt of the fundraising, grant writing and marketing (or paying for our own press agent if we had the money). I’m also forgetting a thousand other small, obnoxious tasks that also fall to us. It’s a DIY world. Making theater requires initiative and a bit of humility; you may be the Writer, but you also have to be The One Who Takes a Vacation Day to Drive the U-Haul to The Storage Unit in New Jersey and Sit in Traffic for the Better Part of the Afternoon. Unless you’re at a theater with a lot of money and resources, that’s the reality of theater.
MT: How would you compare your writing process for fiction versus screenwriting?
SA: In my mind, the difference is about a visual language versus a written language. In fiction, you can get so much deeper into a character’s mind. You can linger or digress in a way that screenwriting or playwriting cannot. Fiction necessarily requires narration which is something that doesn’t usually work on the screen. A voice-over is so often the sign of an insecure screenwriter, someone who isn’t thinking about a visual language. Because when you’re writing for the screen, you need to be thinking about the audience’s gaze. “Show, don’t tell” is one of those writing cliches I hate throwing around, but it’s an essential tip for screenwriting. Whether it’s through sharp dialogue or a clever structure, you need to find a way to dazzle the senses.
MT: What kinds of workshops are you planning to offer at our Newport, Rhode Island Retreat, and what would you say is the most important part of the workshop experience?
SA: I’m offering three workshops at Newport: one on world-building and the importance of defining space in playwriting and screenwriting; one on “impossible theater,” which is all about pushing yourself away from Realism and thinking in terms of visual and symbolic gestures; and a third on Aristotelian and anti-Aristotelian narrative structures and the opportunities that each affords a writer.
I think the most important part of the workshop experience is meeting other writers. Writing can be a lonely pursuit at times and community is very important. It’s helpful to know that there are other people also sitting at their desks staring at a blinking cursor for hours at a time. Sharing your work with other writers also exposes you to a lot of different styles and perspectives; other writers can show you tricks and tactics and solutions that would never have occurred to you. Finding your co-travelers is an immensely important task and the workshop is a great place to do it.
MT: What advice do you have for budding playwrights and screenwriters?
SA: The most important piece of advice I can give is: Learn how to produce your own work. It’s very difficult to find people willing to take a chance on your writing, financially or artistically, if you’re untested. No one is going to believe in your work, in your words, more than you. You are your own best ambassador for your art, and you need to learn how to present it and talk about it. If you keep at it, people will begin to pay attention, but they need to see your work first. You can apply to contests and festivals (in fact, you should apply to contests and festivals), but it takes a lot of time and patience to work through the system. You could spend that time waiting for a response, or you can take the matter into your own hands and make the work you want to make.
Stephen Aubrey descends from hardy New England stock. He is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, dramaturg, lecturer, storyteller and recovering medievalist. His writing has appeared in Publishing Genius, Commonweal, The Brooklyn Review, Pomp & Circumstance, Forté and The Outlet. He is a co-founder and the resident dramaturg and playwright of The Assembly Theater Company. His plays have been produced at The New Ohio Theater, The Living Theater, The Ontological-Hysteric Theater, The Flea Theater, The Collapsable Hole, Wesleyan University, The Tank, The Brick Theater, Symphony Space, the Abingdon Theater Complex, UNDER St Marks, The Philly Fringe and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where his original play, We Can’t Reach You, Hartford, was nominated for a 2006 Fringe First Award. He is also the editor of two ‘pataphysic books, Suspicious Anatomy and Suspicious Zoology, both published by the Hollow Earth Society. He has an MFA from Brooklyn College where he received the Himan Brown Prize and the Ross Feld Writing Award and a BA with Honors from the College of Letters at Wesleyan University. He is an instructor of English at Brooklyn College and holds the dubious distinction of having coined the word “playlistism” in 2003.