Welcome to the first episode of
JOSH K. INTERVIEWS HIS DRINKING BUDDIES!
Every week or month or however long he feels like, At Play writer Josh Koenigsberg goes drinking with his buddies and interviews them. Some are artists, some are not...all are fascinating!
This week Josh sits down with playwright Steven Gridley (a.k.a. Leegrid Stevens) to talk about Steve's upcoming play "The Dudley's!" which is playing from August 22-30 at Theater For The New City (155 1st Avenue).
First a little about Steve:
The Dudley's! A Family Game is an evocative new play that translates the adolescent memories of a young man into a malfunctioning 8-bit video game -- the kind he used to play as a child. A life-size video game onstage provides the setting in which the characters must score points and overcome obstacles as they navigate their way through the dangers of their own family.
Josh and Steve discussed playwriting, religion, and whether or not Steve wanted another beer as they drank at No Idea -- a bar on 20th street between Park and Broadway, close to where Steve works.
JOSH: So check it out, it looks like this place has its own brew. See the one called "No Idea"?
STEVE: Oh yeah. Huh.
JOSH: You think it's good?
STEVE: I don't know.
JOSH: I already ordered a Blue Moon, otherwise I'd get it. You wanna try it?
(STEVE orders, gets, sips the beer)
JOSH: How is it?
STEVE: It's pretty good actually. Yeah it's...yeah pretty decent. Here, here's some money.
JOSH: Nah, it's cool. I'll get the first round, you get the next.
STEVE: Okay, sure.
JOSH: (Fumbling with recorder) Wait, let me just check the levels. Say your name out loud I guess?
STEVE: Okay, uh...Steven Gridley.
(JOSH plays it back)
JOSH: Oh yeah I heard everything, everything we've done up to this point actually. That song ["No Rain" by Blind Melon] is playing sort of loudly in the background, but that's okay...
(JOSH fumbles with recorder again.)
JOSH: All right great so...the first thing I want to know is what the impetus of this play was. Did you start it as sort of a writing exercise or did you sit down and say 'I have this play I need to get off my chest.' Did you know what it was from the second you started?
STEVE: No I didn't. Not at all. And in fact I thought this was gonna be two separate plays. Cause I started getting into the "Chip Tune" scene where these guys hack into these old videogame consoles like Atari and NES and make music out of it? So I started searching eBay for old consoles and then started making music and I thought I was gonna make a videogame play that was gonna be a re-enactment of The Battle of Marathon?
(They both laugh.)
STEVE: And then when I was at Columbia [in the M.F.A. playwriting program], we started doing writing exercises and I started writing these scenes related to the video game play, but that for some reason included members of my family also, and the two ideas started fusing together. And in another class we had to write a new play, so I just kind of decided this would be the play I would write and banged out a draft.
JOSH: And how did your family seep into it?
STEVE: Well you know how those writing exercises are.
JOSH: (Chuckles) Yup.
STEVE: It's stuff like, y'know, "close your eyes, picture yourself sitting near a window and think about somebody that did, y'know, something bad to you."
(They both laugh.)
STEVE: And so the things that came up were family stuff. And so I'd write these scenes about my life but in a video game world cause I was still interested in writing this video game play, but...what was the original question?
JOSH: Yeah it was...yeah I don't remember. I think it was about your family. I mean originally I asked if you wanted to try the beer this place made, but--
STEVE: Yeah so it was when I realized I wanted to write a whole play about a family in a videogame, which is based on my family, but became its own thing. I drew whatever I wanted from my family and I changed whatever I wanted.
STEVE: For the sake of the play, y'know.
JOSH: Right, yeah. So you mentioned Columbia, where we both went and where I first saw the play presented, um, well over a year ago, right?
STEVE: Yeah. A reading in Kelly[Stuart]'s class.
JOSH: So what's changed since then?
STEVE: Uh, quite a bit! (Chuckles.)
JOSH: Right no. I guess what I mean is was that time off useful for you? How did you, y'know, develop it more.
STEVE: Well it didn't really have a central focus other than that it related to this certain event...that happened.
JOSH: Uh huh.
STEVE: And so I started working with directors, this one in particular [fellow Josh K. Drinking Buddy] Matt Torney who, um, started trying to focus it in on who the central character is, whose story is it. And so it started becoming the two brothers' story and everything related to them as oppose to saying "we're gonna go follow the aunt for a couple of pages." All the characters are still in it -- it's just that all their parts of the story relate back either to the brothers or the main family.
JOSH: Right. Now you yourself are sort of in this play. There's sort of a version of you. Is it fair to say that?
JOSH: What was that like? I mean did you know you were gonna put yourself in it or did it just sort of happen naturally?
STEVE: Um...I didn't mean to do that, but when I started writing these exercises I could tell that I was writing myself a little bit. Well it's kind of hard because you have to have a certain amount of...not self-loathing but...
JOSH: But A LOT of self-loathing.
(They both laugh.)
STEVE: Yeah, it's like "sometimes I really suck." Um, so I would write these things in this play that I did or that I thought I was ashamed of and felt bad about. Things that are related to how the character who is basically me hurt other people. I just wrote it, y'know? In a weird way I feel like I was, I don't know, I was pretty hard on myself? It felt, in a way as I was doing it, like sort of an apology.
JOSH: Well it's funny because at least in the previous versions that I've seen, it seems like you're hard on yourself in a plot sense. Y'know in the sense that you do certain things that impact other members of your family. But the characteristics of your character are not unappealing.
STEVE: Yeah "he's funny, he's quick!" y'know...
JOSH: (Chuckling) Yeah I mean he's a very appealing guy. He's a guy that I think we most relate to in the play -- despite the things that he does to other people.
STEVE: Yeah I mean I can't say that I didn't want to make him, y'know...
JOSH: The coolest guy in the world.
STEVE: (Chuckling) Yeah exactly.
JOSH: So have rehearsals been tense?
STEVE: Well, it's funny, y'know when you're working on material that's really emotional to you there are times when an actor might doing a really good job and re-enacting, I don't know, something in your life maybe and it's gonna get you, and it's like "man..."
(STEVE stops, as the memory gets him. Long pause.)
STEVE: (Chuckles) It's getting to me here...but uh, you keep moving and you just have to be okay with that. I feel like a lot of writing, especially for me, is kind of like 'confession' in a way. Where you just spill your guts, write something emotional that you care about and y'know, just sort of close of your eyes and go forward with it. Cause when I'm writing I don't sit there thinking, "what's mom gonna think about this." I mean that's what I think about now. Now that's all that I'm thinking about: "what's mom gonna think about this."
JOSH: Right. Was there anything in your life that you wanted to include, but maybe for fear of how it would come across, you didn't get a chance to?
STEVE: (Sighs) Yeah, yeah...
JOSH: A few things?
STEVE: (Sighs) Yeah a few things...
JOSH: And what are they?
STEVE: (Not taking the bait) Well whenever you're developing a play to the next stage, you just have to cut things because they kind of don't relate to the arc? So you literally just have to find what the story of the play is and then be a little cruel to the rest. And write another play with that stuff in it.
JOSH: Does your family know about this play?
STEVE: Yeah they know. I felt like the play would not be too hard for my brother or my sister to read, so I gave them the script. But I was really worried about my mom. And I still am. And so she hasn't read it. And she was trying to come down to New York to see it. And now she's not. And I'm kind of like "okay." But it might be going up again. And she might be planning on seeing that version?
STEVE: Yeah I really just, y'know, it's tough cause I really like the character and in some ways it's very different from her, but I'm worried that my mom will feel that this is what I think of her. That this is my statement on who she is as a person. When it's not at all! I just took some ideas and things that originated from things she had said and went my own way with it for the sake of a fun play.
JOSH: Yeah, one of the things that I really love about your writing is that it successfully does a balancing act of funny and sad -- especially in the scene where she announces at the dinner table that she's converting to Judaism. And they come from a Mormon family. And they've gone on a bunch of Missions.
STEVE: Yeah most of the family has pretty much left, at least emotionally, the Mormon world. Except for my character who's like "wait, what's going on? Nobody believe in the church anymore?!"
JOSH: Right he's like "how can you switch your religion when you forced me to go on Missions where I literally converted hundreds of people?!"
STEVE: Right and now suddenly you don't believe in Jesus Christ anymore.
JOSH: And did that really happen?
STEVE: Yeah, that really happened.
JOSH: That happened to you.
STEVE: That happened to me. Well see that wasn't me. That was my brother. But I was there. See my brother went on a Mission and he really didn't want to. He went to Taiwan. And came back and my mom was in the midst of converting to Judaism and he got really angry. What's not in the play is that she wanted him to go back, while she was converting to Judaism.
JOSH: To finish the Mission?
STEVE: Yeah and he was like "are you kidding me?! You don't even believe in this stuff anymore!" But she thought he needed to mature and grow up, so...
JOSH: Now, but you've been on several Missions yourself.
STEVE: Yeah see, for me, I really believed it. I went and I was all gung ho like "Yeah this is really the thing!" And then I came back and I was like really confused for 7 or 8 years. Eventually I guess I just sort of fell out of it. But uh yeah I went to Portugal and converted a lot of people.
JOSH: So did this play come out quickly?
STEVE: Yeah it came out quickly. I sat down, wrote it once. Felt pretty good about it and made adjustments. But I haven't done major major re-writes. I had all these stories and these things I'd been thinking about for a long time about a family losing their identity because of the death of the father. And then everybody's changing their last names and their religions. And it just sort of makes me think about what would've happened if my Dad had not died. I wonder sometimes...
JOSH: The play has a really tight structure. When you write, how much are you aware of structure?
STEVE: Not aware at all. When I write I have to just write on instinct--
JOSH: Yeah totally, me too.
STEVE: And follow a feeling and hope it's tying together. And it takes me a while to then realize "oh -- this is all about how people deal with grief." But I didn't know that when I started. I rely a lot on the emotional feeling and if it doesn't feel right emotionally, then I just stop and work on something else.
JOSH: Why do you think the videogame angle was (chuckles) an entrance point into your family? I mean it's not really an intuitive idea but it works.
STEVE: Yeah. I went to this concert as I was getting into the "Chip Tune" scene and in the lobby there was this guy who had hacked a Super Mario Cartridge and he made his own, like, Super Mario Movie. This guy's name is Corey Archangel. I recommend this movie to everyone. And it was like Mario standing on a completely empty sky, standing on one of those question marks.
STEVE: And then this dialogue would come up and he says, "I have no idea what to do. If I jump, who knows what will happen. But if I stay here, I'll be alone forever."
JOSH: Like an existential Mario.
STEVE: Yeah existential Mario. And he goes "Fuck it. I'm jumping." And so he jumps and then he just falls for like minutes. And then finally lands in this crazy, fucked up world. And he's trying to figure out what the point of the game is. That movie really influenced my play. And I was like "this movie really reminds me of how I was feeling when all this crap was happening to me with my family." It takes this innocence -- stuff you were told to believe when you were young and Mario -- and turns them around and shows what's happened after that innocence is broken.
JOSH: Right. That's so interesting. Cause we've all played Mario and when you think of it that way, it's a really terrifying game.
STEVE: Yeah it's a coping mechanism in a way. Where you don't want to think about somebody with cancer. But if you turn them into a zombie that you have to kill, y'know it makes it less...I don't know I felt like that related to how you feel when you look at somebody that's about to die.
JOSH: Yeah. You want another beer?
STEVE: No, I gotta go home soon.
JOSH: Gotcha. Yeah the videogame angle makes a lot of sense when you talk about it like that.
STEVE: Yeah I wanted to portray a malfunctioning videogame that made no fucking sense. And you're just trying to figure out "what is the point of this game?" And "I just want to win!" (Chuckles) "How do I win?!"
JOSH: It's like whether you're told to hit the question mark box or go abroad on a Mission to convert people.
STEVE: Yeah and see I had just come from two years of knowing exactly what the point of life was.
JOSH: Wait two years?!
STEVE: Two fucking years. Going out, talking to people, and converting them Mormonism. And I was fairly successful. It wasn't hundreds of people, it was like 20. But which is amazing in Portugal because they're staunch Catholics. I think they average for most Missionaries is like 2 people?
JOSH: Wow. And you got 20.
STEVE: Yeah. 2 years, 20 people. Brazil's easier. You can get a lot more. But Portugal's a tough Mission. So I came back home after 2 years, my Mom is becoming Jewish, my Dad is dying. Nobody knows what's going on. And my sister is changing her last name just cause she didn't like our last name. And everything is falling apart.
JOSH: And so you fell out of Mormonism. And what's with the pen name [Leegrid Stevens]?
STEVE: Well I know some people would be hurt. What is this going out on? Is this going on like a website?
JOSH: I'm gonna type this up and it's gonna go on my theater company's blog.
STEVE: Okay. I do worry that people might be hurt about certain things. Like my Mom. Although she would never get really angry and take like legal action. But I do worry a bit about certain other people so I started writing under a pen name.
JOSH: And do you want this to be under your pen name?
STEVE: Yeah it should be. Well. I don't know, you can put whatever. Yeah I don't think it really matters. I'm not that known.
JOSH: Not yet.
STEVE: Well. It's sort of why I like writing. I took this class with Craig Lucas at Cherry Lane awhile ago and he said something I've never forgotten that I thought was great. He said, "If you wanna be healthy -- tell one person all your secrets. And if you wanna be free -- tell everyone." And so for playwriting I just want to go all out. Say what you want to say as if you were talking to somebody who knew you and loved you, y'know?
JOSH: Yeah. So you want another beer?
STEVE: Nah, I gotta get home to Erin.
For more information about "The Dudley's!" and to buy tickets, visit http://playthedudleys.com/tix