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Cap T interviews punkplay playwright Gregory Moss

11 June 2014

Cap T Literary Manager Carrie Klypchak had the distinct pleasure of asking Gregory Moss a few questions about his work. They talked about Cap T’s current production punkplay as well as Greg’s work in general.

What was the impetus for writing punkplay?

There were several seeds to the play – the first and most obvious was that I’d reached a certain age and had certain cultural and historical experience that intersected with my own personal coming-of-age experiences – and the personal and historical seemed to strike sparks off each other – they seemed to resonate in a way that felt exciting. There’s a lot of Baby Boomer coming of age stories – kids remembering seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan or hearing about JFK – but there’s was nothing I knew of dealing with growing up in the 80s – with Reagan, with the absolute and very real terror of nuclear destruction, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. And for me, experientially, those historical moments are inevitably linked to my first make-out session, my first beer, my first band.

I was really interested in that intersection, between the macro and micro experience of life in America at that time.I’d written a play just prior called House of Gold, about Jon Benet Ramsey in a kind of limbo afterlife, that was sharply adversarial and dark, and critical of certain mainstream cultural dynamics. And after writing that, and finding myself surprised that the play divided audiences so fiercely, I was wondering why anger and subversion and dark humor are so hard-wired into my approach to making theater. I realized it comes from the Dead Kennedys, from Black Flag, from the Raymond Pettibon fliers with Charles Manson on them – the assaultive imagery and anti-authoritarianism of the punk stuff I grew up with. I just thought that’s how art is supposed to be! I assumed everyone likes things like that!
Finally, I was reading a bunch of German Expressionism that Paula Vogel (my mentor at Brown) had given us, and they dealt with temptation and the mechanization of humanity and war, all in these big, metaphorical, episodic plays. So somehow the history and evolution of punk – from weirdo musicians doing things their own way to strictly regimented hardcore uniformity – and the history of the 80s, and my own personal recollections collided with this German Expressionist container and the play grew out of that.

How did the title of the show come about?

The title is meant to convey an attitude I wanted to infuse into the literal text of the play. I wanted the play itself to be a kind of punk document – there’s a voice in the stage directions, in the opening monologue, in the way the play is structured and laid out, that to me reflects the adolescent irreverence of the best punk music. The play is cheeky, and a little aggressive, and a little snotty. The edges stay rough.

Can you talk a little bit about the developmental process of the show and its history in production?

I’ve had several very good productions of the play, starting with the first one at Brown University, directed by Kerry Whigham. Kerry got the play from the start, he’s a fantastic director, and his understanding really completed the play for me.
I mean, the text of the play was mostly finished after that first production. It got a lot of development after that – with New York Theater Workshop, where I worked with Les Waters on it; readings at Playwrights Horizons and Ars Nova in New York… but (strangely I thought) no one pulled the trigger on a professional production until Maria Striar and Clubbed Thumb produced it in 2009. There was a great production at the Steppenwolf Garage in 2010, produced by a lovely Chicago company called Pavement Group. There’s been good productions at a couple of different universities. One in Australia in 2011. It’s had a good life, so far, this play.

What is your personal relationship and/or history with punk music?

I was an outsider from an early age, but an outsider without any real social definition or categorization. There were a bunch of kids who hung out in this public area by these fountains downtown. They had mohawks and leather jackets, smoked cigarettes and generally seemed to be having a good time. One guy in particular, Chris, was such a badass, seemed so unapologetically himself you know? He did not seem to care what anyone thought about him. So I started looking closer at his leather jacket to read the names of bands he’d written there, and bought the first Black Flag record cause of that. The social aspirations came first. But the music really worked for me – it gave external expression to the deep anger and sense of the injustice and stupidity of the world that a lot of kids have at that age. Once I got that first record I was in the loop. It was like entrée into a secret society, with all these other bands, and signs, and weirdos. As nihilistic as punk appears, it’s really kind of utopian. It was also a way to outdo the scariness of jock culture – you may be muscly and tough and macho, but we have spikes and leather and look like the Devil.

Each of the scenes in punkplay is framed by a specific song. Did the songs inspire the narrative of the play or vice versa? And, could you talk a bit about how you chose the specific songs?

I created the mix tape first, tracing my own personal understanding of the history and development of punk music from the Velvet Underground and The Stooges through the end of the 80s and Sonic Youth. That framework got revised a bunch as I went along, but it gave me some sense of structure and the songs suggested scenes and vice versa. I had anticipated an even stronger formal relationship between the songs and the scenes – like they’d be the exact same length – but that was completely unfeasible. So I let the song inform the scenes without being directly illustrative or constricting. I stuck to songs I liked and I mostly stayed chronological. Some might argue that, for example, Young Marble Giants aren’t punk. But part my intention in concocting this mixtape structure was to confound any limited definitions of that term.

How do you feel that the social commentary of punkplay is strengthened by offering it through the perspective of adolescents?

I’m drawn to writing adolescents a lot, and sometimes I have to fight that impulse, but I really empathize with them. It’s a period of deep skepticism, as well as naivete and innocence, and in a way that can’t help but be political, because at that age you are being told you, ok, this is the way the world works, these are the laws of the land, these are the rules, and because it’s new to you, you’re like, WHAT? That’s crazy! People are behaving in crazy ways! And you expect me to get on board with this insanity? An adolescent character on stage makes things unfamiliar and new to an audience, since we are re-perceiving the world with them. It’s heartbreaking and, I think, relatable, since we all have that period of resistance, and that subsequent moment of submission, to some degree. Our idealism – whether it be I’ll never get a shitty job, or I’ll never take my husband’s name, or I’ll never be beholden to a bank, or whatever – is eventually tempered. I think the struggle to make sense of the structure of the world, and to integrate that structure with all of one’s idiosyncratic impulses and intuitions, is poignant and political.

As you know, I have had the pleasure of working with more than one of your pieces; and your ability to juxtapose very realistic dialogue between characters with more lyrical monologues always strikes me as incredibly powerful. Could you speak a bit about this element in your writing?

I don’t know what to say about that. I love language, and speech, and love contrasting different vocabularies. I think theater has the potential to allow humans to be more articulate about a circumstance or about their inner life than they can be in strict realism. So I like to open that door for the characters. I think language in plays should be varied, like music. The juxtapositions give me a lot of pleasure, and I hope create a depth to the characters and the playworld.

As with many of your shows, punkplay incorporates a great deal of theatricality. How do you feel that the theatricality affects the audience’s experience of punkplay?

Theatricality is tricky. I understand it to mean “making visible things that are normally invisible” and there’s lots of ways a play can do that, from visual design to a narrative speech that takes the audience, through description, to another location. For me, theatricality is the way in which theater earns it’s continued place in the culture – what can theater do that other media cannot? It can combine visual and auditory elements in real time to create an experience bigger than the sum of it’s parts.

I am pretty rigorous with myself about deploying theatrical elements – I want them to have meaning and significance in the play, not just be ornamentation. They should be pleasurable, but they should increase the meaning and resonance of the play, too. It’s a way to pack more meaning and richness into the 80 minutes you spend in the theater.  It’s a way to make the play operate on two levels – the character-based, empathetic story, and the bigger picture of meaning and context.

Amongst your shows, you address very diverse subject matters. Do you feel that there is an overarching commonality in the themes of your plays?

They’re all about love, and especially about varieties of love that we don’t have a name for. That seems to be my theme.

What do you want audiences to be talking about after seeing punkplay?

I hope it will inspire them to think back on their own adolescences, maybe relating to the play through that shared time of life. I hope they’ll be saying it was funny. I hope they’ll go back  and listen to some of that music. I want to show them a good time.