Chad Beckim’s play, The What?, will be read on Sunday 4/29 at 7:30, as the 3rd play in this year’s annual Welcome Mat Reading Series. Actor Crystal Finn stars in it, alongside Greg Keller and Reed Birney. The reading will be directed by Davis McCallum
Chad Beckim (CB): Okay, Miss Crystal – so I’m going to ask YOU some questions:
Last year’s retreat was our first experience really working together; I’d seen you in a
couple of things, here and there, and I’ve always loved what an open book you are as
an actress…really expressive. Were you an expressive little kid? What’s your earliest
And also, what’s your favorite 80’s rock band/musical group, and why?
Crystal Finn (CF): Okay, good. Then I will ask you some questions.
My first theatrical experience was working at a Renaissance Fair in Northern California
with my parents starting when I was three (they were potters): I stood outside the booth
and hawked pottery; I also danced for the bag pipe guy and people threw coins at me. I
did that for years. In retrospect, I don’t feel I’ve come that far. In a good way. So the
Renaissance Faire is probably to blame for how overly expressive I am. The reduced
Shakespeare troupe got there start at that particular Renaissance Fair so those guys and
the belly dancers were my idea of what acting was.
As to the 80’s—I mostly listened to my Dad’s music at that age which was Dylan….I think
the closest I could get to an 80’s rock band was Dire Straits.
Okay now for you: At last year’s retreat you were just starting to write this play that we
are reading on Sunday and, aside from how fast and furiously you wrote, I was pretty
impressed with how much actor input you wanted. Not just stuff like, this is what I feel
my character wants, but also which line should go where in this scene? What do you get
out of working that way–so fluidly, and so inclusively? Don’t you ever distrust actors-
-since so many of us as a group tends to over-estimate our intelligence. But it seems to
work so well for you. What is the secret?
Also: the main character in this play “The What” knows every lyric to every rap song of
the 80’s. You share this trait I believe. How did this come to be. And WHY!?
CB: Ha! Great questions…really great. No one has ever really asked that of me before
(the rap stuff, not the other stuff).
First: I actually remember working with you last summer as we were talking through the
play, and seeing your eyes while the lads were giving me feedback, and finally telling
you, “This is okay, it’s my process.” Because I know a lot of folks don’t work that way.
I literally wrote my first “official” play for the membership of Partial Comfort. I had a
gloppy mess of a piece (this was for one of our first retreats) that was all over the place.
And I remember after the reading one of the actors came over to me and said, “There’s
really something there.” Which made my day, because I was terrified it was bad. And on
the ride home in this monstrous old van, that same actor and I were driving and kind of
firing ideas back and forth, you know, the ol’ magic “What if” – like, “What if this might
be the event that kicks the play off, or what if that might be the event…” And I went
home and started writing again, really fast – I had an entirely new play two weeks later.
During workshop of it for our first official Welcome Mat Series, we were all in the room,
Group Theater style, just firing off ideas about what did or didn’t work.
And that kind of stuck, I think.
My general sense is that if I have these really wonderful folks around me, folks whose
voices and input and intelligence I trust and respect, then I have to honor that. I’d be a
fool not to. (I actually read somewhere that some folks believe Shakespeare was written
by committee…) And I feel confident enough in the trajectory of whatever I’m working
on to have a sense of what feedback from my collaborators does and does not work, and
to quickly take a stand when I sense that something doesn’t fit.
As for the Hip Hop – I grew up in Maine, which is not super culturally or racially diverse,
and I think because of that I was always fascinated by other cultures, which included art
and music. And my dad is a huge Motown guy – he’ was actually a drummer, when I was
a kid – and on Saturday mornings he’d be playing Motown on his record player (my dad
had tons of albums) and drumming along to it and my brothers and I would listen while
we ate breakfast.
And when Hip Hop started becoming a thing in the early 80’s as I was in my early teens,
I gravitated towards Run DMC and LL Cool J – along with “Yo! MTV Raps” – and just
immersed myself in all things Hip Hop. I worked at the family mom and pop store and
would take all my earnings to the mall to buy rap tapes, and then listen to them until I’d
saved up for another round of tapes.
Whew! That’s a lot.
So. Potters. You’ve mentioned this to me before, and I always have this image of your
mom and dad in the dark in the kitchen, working with clay like Patrick Swayze and Demi
Moore in “Ghost.” First, was that the case, and second, do you plan on seeing the new
musical version of “Ghost”?
CF:I like to hear that actors can have an impact on where a piece goes or how it
changes. Usually I think our job is to do this by showing the writer different options
but It’s very liberating to have a playwright who actively wants the actor’s opinion. I
wonder if your interest in rap music influenced you as a writer in other ways that you are
not even aware of: rhythm, musicality, theatricality. Too much?????
As for the pottery. I would say, no: it was more like Leslie Nielsen in Naked Gun. I have
a friend in the musical–so I would like to see it. I haven’t asked if the pottery-throwing
scene made it to the stage.
Can I ask some questions about the play we are reading? The new draft seems
to have really focused in on questions of adulthood, and also-I’m almost afraid to
write the words: “manhood.” What it means to be a man, what does society expect
from men. Does being a Dad mean certain things about the kind of man you are
supposed to be. Saying those things sounds so cliché, but your play doesn’t take the
questions for granted and really explores the pressures and limitations of our definition
of “manhood.” Yes? No? Where did the idea for this play come from?
CB:Absolutely. Again, I’m not sure that playwrights are as open as I am about it, but I know
without a doubt that a lot of my writer friends write for specific actors, and trust said
actors to impact the script, whether through conversation or via performance.
As far as the musical tastes go, I could see some of my work being influenced by rhythm
and theatricality of my musical preferences. It absolutely makes sense.
(I was actually walking down the street and reading part of this interview on my phone
and laughed at an image of your parents, “Leslie Nielsen-ed” out, making pottery. And
if “Ghost: The Musical” cut out that pottery scene, they should be banned from the
theater for life…that scene is ESSENTIAL to that production – whether cinematic or on
And quite masculine, actually. Shirtless Swayze, getting down and dirty with Demi in
the pottery, is pretty rugged. Which is a nice segue to the play. I write REALLY fast, as
you remarked earlier, and generally have long gaps in between drafts. So it’s nice to be
forced to reflect after another huge round of rewrites.
Manhood. A huge theme. Not what the play was about, initially, and it’s cool that it
morphed into what it is now. I like being surprised by the process.
But I think you’re spot on with it. What is manhood anyway? Does it differ from place
to place? My brothers and friends that I grew up with in Maine would say yes, and
then joke with me about being metrosexual. And this might be dicey, but I think that
across much of the blue collar U.S., the concept of manhood is wildly different in New
York City than other places. And perhaps it’s just having grown up in a part of the
country where the vast majority of men work outside – construction or pouring concrete
or something like that – but when I think of “men,” I think of my grandfathers, of guys
toiling outside, working with their hands in the sun, foraging and hunting and fishing and
whatnot. By that definition, I sometimes think that, if the world were suddenly thrown
into “Walking Dead” (or non-zombie apocalypse), I personally might be done for. I’m
not going to battle with a weapon or sword…unless zombies are terrified of playwrights
who can iron and sew a button. In which case, I’d be the Emperor of the World.
And what does that mean to the concept of Fatherhood? How does being a New York
City father differ from being a father somewhere else? I’d like to think that the play
explores some of this, and hopefully less limited than my brief exploration above. (Right
now some very masculine New Yorkers are reading this and planning to beat me down,
I’m guessing…although now that I think of it, they’re probably not on the Partial Comfort
Mailing list reading blog interviews. So I might be safe.)
I can’t really pin down exactly where the play came from, actually – usually two or three
ideas are floating around out there and collide in my head at the same time. This play
was born out of an exploration of the claustrophobia of New York City living spaces,
coupled with that magic “What if my parents had to suddenly live with us?” and “What if
said parents arrived with some awful secrets in tow?” And it snowballed from there.
Whew. That’s a lot. Okay. Winding down now.
a) If you were immediately reincarnated as an animal, based upon how you’ve lived your
life, what animal would you be, and why?
b) Do you have any performance rituals that you adhere to?
c) What’s your favorite breakfast?
CF: I’m excited to read the play! Last three…
Animal: I have to go with dolphin since as a child I thought I was a dolphin in human
form. When my family went to the beach I wrote the dolphins notes that I put in glass
bottles and threw into the ocean, probably polluting shorelines everywhere.
No performance rituals.
I guess my breakfast food is a kind of performance ritual: Ezekial bread with almond
butter…..eat it pretty much every day. Never felt weird about that until just now.
Looking forward to the reading!