The Old Masters playwright, Sam Marks, interviews Greg Keller who will be in Monday night’s reading of The Old Masters as part of our Welcome Mat reading series.
~ Monday, 4/23, 7:30. FREE. ~
GK: I’ve heard that actors write amazing plays. We met as actors doing a Mac Wellman play together at The Flea. Instead of asking how your experience as an actor informed your writing cuz that’s played out, I’ll ask you this… did you like acting with me more in Sincerity Forever or Tent#5 ?
SM: Well you were really good in both. Although I think I looked better in both the Klan Costume as well as the military get up. But that experience—of acting with you—actually helped put me on the path to writing. When in Tent 5 someone very close to me (my girlfriend who is now my wife) said “Greg is really good in that”. And I was like, “what about me?” But she was clearly impressed by you. And after she said that I noticed that you did have a way of making things that were somewhat ‘out there’ sound pretty real and I thought, hm, maybe I should do some more writing and little less acting.
GK: We both grew up on the streets of New York, listening to hip hop, and attempting to stop people from snitching. Being a New Yorker is a large part of my artistic identity. Is it yours? Discuss.
SM: Of course. It used to be more on the surface, when I literally wrote about Stop Snitching (i.e. Nelson) or about really New York-y stuff like weed delivery (Craft) and Landmark Education (Bigger Man).
Now, as I don’t spend all my time on the blocks of Brooklyn, I’ve started to write about subjects, hopefully, that aren’t strictly NYC- based. That said, my dialogue is still pretty influenced by the city, there’s a pace and a sarcasm built into most of the characters that remind me of the city and it’s deli men.
And, finally, as NYC changes, as it always does, I find that I’m writing a bit about mythology of NYC. Not like the Bowery Boys mythology but about the basic bohemian struggle of trying to make it while and living is cramped places with your family.
GK: One of my favorite plays of yours is The Real Deal (your adaptation of/homage to Von Horvath’s Don Juan Returns From The War). It contains a scene where a ring of fire spontaneously ignites around a character. I have always admired the embrace of the other-wordly and the unexplainable in your work. Where did that come from and what does the word “firey” mean to you?
SM: Aw thanks. Glad you like it.
“Firey” is a term you and I coined about ‘non-realistic’ theater, but really it applies to the trend in a lot of playwriting to be imaginative/poetic. And I have to say, I’m proud of that play too, as that quality often gets squished out of plays in order for them to find production.
The Real Deal was a play I wrote a Brown, under the guidance of Paula Vogel, and the idea was that the fire in the character’s minds grew literal and then became the world (like the violence we have in ourselves we play out in war and sex).
GK: You have a lot of kids. I can never remember how many. Was that something you always wanted? As an artist/father and as a child of artists, what’s some advice you have for those of us who aspire to have a family and are in the arts.
SM: I have so many kids, it’s crazy. This is actually very germane to The Old Masters (which you are doing a reading of on Monday). I wrote that play about 6 months after my son, Ozzy was born. And the play originally set out to be an art mystery but is really about a guy and his wife freaking out –and doing some ugly stuff–before their kid is born cause they are afraid it means the end of their dreams. I was really afraid this was going to happen when I had kids. And while of course things get really different, I like to think that having kids actually helps your life in the arts. Not just in some Pollyannaish way like kids make you a better artist (although it’s possible they do). In a way that kind of forces you, as an to say okay, here’s my life, as a writer, I’m going to do it even with kids. And money may get short, but I’m going to keep doing this thing because that’s what I want to do and my kids deserve a father who goes after his ‘dream’. Also, it’s kind of awesome to have kids in the theater and as a kid who spent a lot of time in the theater it’s a lot of fun to hang out with goofy actors.
GK: What do you have planned, artistically, in the coming year?
SM: I wrote a short film that Daniel Aukin is directing and I’m hopeful that is going to shoot this year. Also, I spent time last year developing a TV series pretty intensely and I’m looking forward to continuing to work on that type of thing, and develop a new show. I just wrote a pilot. And, even more cryptic. I have a play that—not Old Masters–I’ve been working of for the past year and I’m really excited about that should be happening with it at some point in the next year.
And in general, I’m just really grateful that I get to keep making stuff and working with the folks I like.
AND NOW SAM ASKS GREG …
SM: You’re an accomplished actor and playwright. What’s more annoying for you: when as a writer you know you could do better than the actor who’s been cast? or as an actor, when you know you could do a better job than the play you’re being asked to read?
GK; Thanks for asking this Sam. The first one is more annoying because you have to get up out of your chair, make your way down from the back of the theater, push the actor off the stage, fight him or her if they try to come back, and then do your thing (luckily, I know all my plays by heart so I don’t need to find a script first). As an actor, if you don’t like the script, all you have to do is say different lines when the audience is there. The stage manager usually corrects you after, but you can just nod and smile. This is especially easy with dead playwrights. Or when you’re doing shows out of town.
SM: How has being a knicks-fan affected your career? Our friendship? Has that helped or hurt your career?
GK: Being a Knicks fan is the perfect preparation for the rejection, vulnerability, and loss, that one will inevitably experience from a career in the theater. To be fair, I also get a taste of the highs of a theater career by being a Giants fan, while you get a triple serving of sadness by being a Met-Jet die hard. Although, being your friend has made me a Jet-Met guy vicariously because your emotional life is inextricably bound with the rise and fall of those teams, so I have to root for them to win because otherwise you’re like a tiny inconsolable baby.
SM: 10 years ago, I wrote my first play, CRAFT, and you were instrumental in that process (helped me write and starred in the play). How have things changed since then? How have they not?
GK: I think you’ve changed my life in many ways. For instance, when we first met you put me on to Cam’ron and J-Love mixtapes, while I brought you MF Doom and convinced you Common was nice.
Working on Craft really was instrumental in defining what I wanted out of a life in the theater. The experience of working on that play with you is really all I’m looking for now from a show that I do. I feel like we understood each other in some essential way and wanted to help both ourselves and the other person express that simultaneously. Going over to your house late at night, working on the script, eating sandwiches from Bageltique. Joy and a sense of purpose mixed together. And then seeing the response. The happiness I got from delivering the line “mad girls up in the AIDS clinic”. Not only because my ego enjoyed getting those laughs, but the thrill of helping to express someone else’s vision and heart, and sense of humor is addictive. That writer-actor relationship can get real close to Platonic love. You know what else it was? That’s one of the only times I’ve thought “There is no one else in the world who could communicate this part as well as me.” Actually, I don’t know if I’ve ever had that feeling again. The success of that show was instrumental in me continuing both to act and to eventually write. That kind of fulfilling collaboration, when you’re working with people you love on stories that you are excited to tell, is all I really want. Although now I need to get paid for it because I have more pride and more bills. But basically, I’m just looking for that experience again. It’s kind of like how you always remember your first kiss, how I can remember the taste of her braces mixed with mustard and Entemann’s chocolate chip cookies and the intense roiling in the pit of my stomach, and how I always make Danielle put mustard covered nickels in her mouth before we kiss now, looking for that same feeling.
SM: Tell us a little bit about what you have coming up on the writing front and the acting front. I think this is called the shameless plug section.
GK: I am writing a play for the Williamstown non-eqs this summer as part of something called the Foeller Fellowship. Our friend Oliver Butler Butler is directing, who I’m very excited to work with in this capacity. We go in a room for a week with the actors, and from that I (we) devise a play. And I recently got my first commission.
Acting-wise, I don’t think official announcements have been made so I won’t mention any specifics but at the beginning of next year I get to revisit a play that I love with wonderful people I adore at a super cool space I’ve never worked at.