CATF Talks to Playwright Thomas Gibbons

Researched, interviewed, and edited by Sharon J. Anderson, CATF Trustee/Professional Storyteller

CATF:  What does “uncanny valley” mean?

TOM: It comes from the field of robotics.  It is the idea that people are fascinated by an artificial being that is somewhat human-like, but the closer it comes to being more truly human-like, it becomes creepy.

CATF: Why write a play about it?Uncanny

TOM: The sound of the words – uncanny valley – really appealed to me.  I didn’t have a title when I started the play, but I like to have a title as early as I can.  I also liked that no one knew what it meant.  I have a weakness for cryptic titles.  Also, when I go to the theater, I like a certain element of mystery – not a “who-done-it”, but a certain amount of mystery where I don’t quite know what I’m in for.

CATF: What do you want your audience to have realized after seeing “Uncanny Valley”?

TOM: That’s the kind of question that I really don’t like to answer. I hope that 20 different people will walk out with 20 different things. However, one of the things I want people to think about is this: as technology blurs the line between human and mechanical, artificial or whatever word you want to use – how is that going to change our definition of humanity?

bina 48

LifeNaut’s Bina48

CATF: “Uncanny Valley” has been described as traveling “to the ethical heart of humankind’s bid to outrace mortality.”  What’s that about?

TOM: The idea for the play came from a National Geographic article [click for story] that I came across in my dentist’s office a couple of years ago.  The article was about the LifeNaut Group in Vermont [visit LifeNaut website here] which is exploring the idea of downloading human consciousness into a mechanical or artificial body in order to extend our life span by hundreds of years.  People in this field seriously talk about immortality. That article included a photo that I found absolutely fascinating and haunting . . . I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. One of the LifeNaut engineers is sitting in a chair facing a table on which is an artificial head. This head is called Bina 48, and she is probably the most advanced robot in the world right now. I’ve since found out through research that lots of other people are working on this very idea.  In fact, an article in the New York Times last June entitled, “This Man is Not a Cyborg, Yet” [click here to read article] is about a Russian multi-millionaire named Dmitry Itskov who is putting a lot of money into this idea because he wants to live for a long, long time.

CATF: Do you want to live for a long, long time? Do you want to be immortal?


Playwright Thomas Gibbons. Photo by Seth Freeman.

TOM: No, I don’t want to be immortal, but it is hard to answer that question.  What does immortality mean?  Dmitry Itskov is having a cyborg created that is basically identical to him. By the way, I had never heard the term, “uncanny valley” before I read that National Geographic article.  So I started to do some research.  It’s a really well-known concept in the field of robotics, artificial consciousness and the whole field of computer animation.

As I began to work on the play, the word, “valley” became very important because it has many metaphysical implications: the valley between life and death, the valley between the creator and the created, the valley between parents and children.  I’ve come to realize that this play is very much about parents and children.

CATF: What was the first play that made an impression on you?

TOM: The year I graduated from college, I went to England and saw a lot of plays.  One play in particular called, “Destiny” made a huge impression on me.  It was about the rise of right-wing politics in England, and I was struck that “Destiny” was about something happening in England at that moment. I decided that I wanted to write plays that were very urgently of the moment. “Uncanny Valley” actually takes place 40 years into the future, but it’s of the moment in that is deals with research that is happening now and just extrapolates from that.

One of the important questions the play asks is this: Is Julian (the artificial human) conscious?  Even though the field of study I’ve been researching is called, “artificial intelligence”, it seems to me that what researchers are really talking about is “artificial consciousness”. They are a little bit slippery about the distinction.

CATF: What is the distinction?

TOM: In my play, Claire (the human) says, “There are people in my field who don’t make much of a distinction; they say that to be conscious is to know. But that’s not true.  To be conscious is to know we know.”  This is the fulcrum of the play.  What is consciousness?  How do we measure it? How is it signified? Can an artificial being be truly conscious?

On the face of it, the play is very simple: two characters in one room and the relationship between a neuroscientist and an artificial being, but as the play goes on, it gets deeper and deeper and deeper.

CATF: Do you like one character more than another? And why is the scientist female and the artificial being male?

TOM: I like them both. I first wrote the play for two actors I knew and they, in fact, did the first reading of the play.  But the more I worked on it, the more I realized that the scientist really needed to be a woman.  I thought the play would be too icy if it were two men.

CATF: So a woman brings a certain warmth that you needed?

TOM: Exactly. And then Julian ended up being much younger, so the two original actors were no longer right for the parts.

CATF: So this is where the mother and child dynamic comes in?

TOM: That is part of it, yes. Whenever you write a play, you always hope it will go in directions you didn’t plan or expect.  I didn’t realize when I started it that it was so much about parents and children.  My wife and I have a son who is now in his first year of college. When I started the play, I was acutely aware that he wasn’t going to be around here much longer and very much thinking about how much I was were going to miss him. Those feelings worked themselves into the play . . . in some things revealed about Julian and in some things that Claire reveals about the past and her own daughter.  The play really is about actual and metaphorical parenthood.

CATF: What is the best thing and the worst thing about being a parent?

TOM: There are so many great things about it.  The best thing is just seeing how this being that you helped to bring into the world grows and develops and changes; and how completely fascinating that is on a day-to-day level.  The worst thing is realizing that you raised your child to be a separate being and there is something definitely bittersweet about that. You can raise a child and be with them constantly from the time they are born and – any parent knows this – you will be surprised by something at some point. You think you know everything about your child, but you don’t.

CATF: Here’s a “101” question: what percentage of the play you originally wrote ends up being the one we see on the stage?

TOM: At the moment, I’m working on draft #15. The reading and research never ends. I finish a draft, and then it away for a couple of months. Then I go back to it because I want to make the play deeper and richer — to have what I call, “poetic density”. It’s not just what the characters are saying, but also what is being suggested.

CATF: Why do you keep your eyes open like you did that day in the dentist office?

TOM: I read the papers like a mad man everyday because most of the ideas I have for plays have come from things that I’ve read.  I know I’ve hit on a good idea when I can’t forget something I’ve read, but I deliberately don’t start writing right away.  I let it sit, and if I still can’t forget it in a couple of months, it probably needs to be written.  And I’d like what I’ve written not to forgotten by the folks who see my plays.


The CATF production will be directed by Tom Dugdale.

“Uncanny Valley” is presented as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere in conjunction with San Diego Repertory Theatre and InterAct Theatre Company.

Visit the interviewer’s website here.

An Interview with Playwright Bruce Graham

Researched, interviewed, and edited
by Sharon J. Anderson, CATF Trustee/Professional Storyteller

2014_CATF_ABSOLUTE_FINAL_North_Boulevard--2-17-2014 copyCATF: You have said that you wrote, “North of the Boulevard” because “the middle class is getting totally screwed by this country.”  Are you as mad as hell and not going to take it anymore?

GRAHAM: Oh, I’ll take it, but I wake up angry. This play represents the difference I can make as a writer.   I’m not a political activist, so this is how I’m going to make my attempt at change.  Also, your audience in theater is usually upper-middle-class-to-wealthy.  Maybe I’m exposing something people never thought about before.

CATF: You also have said that you always want to give the audience something or somebody to “root” for. What are we rooting for in “North of the Boulevard”?

GRAHAM: Depends on your point of view.  There’s a guy named Trip in the play and he faces a real moral dilemma and question.  Some people don’t see moral dilemmas and questions.  They just do it.  Other people say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa . . . you’re making a kind of Faustian bargain here. Don’t do it.”  I think people in this play are rooting that these guys can get better lives, with the exception of the old guy who is probably beyond redemption.  These guys haven’t gotten the breaks in life that others have.

CATF: A description of this play asks this question about your characters, “Are they corrupt enough to escape the corruption that’s ruining their neighborhood?”

GRAHAM:  Well, I have a favorite line of my own because I’m a typical American: I hate corruption until I get my piece. We all roll our eyes, but if someone slips you 30 grand do you take it or walk away?  Quite frankly, I’m not sure what I’d do. I hope I would do the right thing, but we’re all on shifting sands.


Bruce Graham. Photo by Seth Freeman

CATF:  How was being a stand-up comedian the best training you ever had as a writer?

GRAHAM: Comedy is immediate reaction.  Your audience either laughs or they don’t, and if they don’t laugh, you’re back delivering pizzas.  In the 1970s I worked in a couple of clubs with a partner, and I hated doing the same jokes twice.  I had to write new material every week. If the sketch didn’t work during the first show, I’d be at the corner of Fourth Avenue leaning against a dumpster doing a rewrite for the second show. They don’t teach you that at Yale.

CATF: In all of your interviews as well as one-on-one, you drop one one-liner after another.  Are these one-liners a way to protect yourself?  Keep others at bay?

GRAHAM:  Yes, they are.  I’m a private person in a public business. Writers have to be hermits. Too many writers want to talk about writing.  It’s the most boring topic in the world.  I may talk about it with a couple of writer friends, but I really like my privacy.  People like the one-liners because they believe they’ve heard something that sounds like insight so they walk away which is why I like one-liners.

CATF:  You said that if you weren’t a writer, you’d be a serial killer.

GRAHAM: It’s nice work if you can get it. That would be an easier way to get out my aggressions.

Stella and Lou at Northlight

STELLA & LOU by Bruce Graham at Northlight Theatre. Directed by BJ Jones. Pictured: Ed Flynn, Francis Guiman, Rhea Perlman. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

CATF:  So that’s why your plays are called, “blistering” and “gritty”?

GRAHAM:  Yes, but I’ve also written a play, “Stella and Lou,” now playing in Chicago with Rhea Perlman in it which is the sweetest, nicest PG-rated thing in the world.  One of my most popular plays — perhaps my most popular — is called, “Moon Over the Brewery” and it’s about a little girl and her imaginary friend. I change from play to play.  I get really bored writing the same thing.

CATF:  Coleridge said that comedy was more useable and more relevant to the human condition than tragedy.

GRAHAM: Comedy comments constantly on the human condition.  I just saw, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” which had a dour ending to it and a lot of profanity for a Neil Simon play.  People were shocked. Comedy will always comment on the human condition and not always in a nice way.  Historically, any time dictators come to power, the first thing they want to do is to get rid of the clowns and the comics because ridicule has so much power.  Nothing can make you look more ridiculous than being the butt of a joke.

CATF: Joni Mitchell’s album, “Court and Spark” includes this line: “Laughin’, cryin’ – it’s all the same release.”

GRAHAM: I love that album. And yes, it is the same release.  Our shoulders hunch, we get short of breath – physically, they are one degree apart from each other.

CATF: You teach your students that a play must have a story and that there must have “universality”.  What’s universal about “North of the Boulevard”?

GRAHAM: What’s universal about it with the exception of a very, very, very few people – we’ve all had to struggle at some time.  It can be an emotional struggle or an economic struggle, but three of the characters in this play want a better life for their kids. I know my parents certainly did. I think that’s important to people even if you are in the upper income bracket. The characters are struggling and when they make you laugh, you suddenly care a little bit more about them.

CATF: Does that happen when a character makes us cry?

GRAHAM: Oh, no . . . my students are forbidden to write anything in which a character cries.  It’s a cheap way to get emotion.  If the character is on the verge of tears, that’s okay, but crying, no way. A character has to earn the right to cry.


Paul Sparks in the 1999 CATF production of COYOTE ON A FENCE by Bruce Graham; directed by Lou Jacob. Photo by Stan Barouh.

CATF: Do characters have to earn the right to make us laugh?

GRAHAM:  No! Because laughing is fun!  I personally don’t like displays of emotion, so I don’t put them in my plays too often unless it’s anger. My most heinous characters make you laugh before you find out that they’re evil. My play, “Coyote on a Fence” [CATF, 1999]  is about death row and it’s somber for the first five minutes, but then the character is funny and the audience is laughing and then they find out what the prisoner did and they say, “Oh, my god.”  So I’ve yanked their emotions back and forth.  They don’t know how to think about this guy.  The audience can’t get comfortable with the character because they don’t know how they feel about him.

CATF:  The masks that symbolize theater – the comic mask and the tragic mask – both look like grimaces.  The grimace of comedy resembles the grimace of tragedy.  The masks seem to have the same distortion.

GRAHAM:  I’ve always thought that.  They freak me out.  When I was a little kid, they scared me. But back to your point.  If I slip on a banana peel, it’s comedy, but if you slip on a banana peel, it’s tragedy.

CATF:  Coleridge said that comedy is a more pervasive human condition; that “the problems raised in the great tragedies are solved in the great comedies.”

GRAHAM:  That’s interesting.  You look at “Macbeth” and you see that Shakespeare stuck some comedy in there like the porter or the grave digger in “Hamlet”.  My play, “Desperate Affection” features a hit man and the woman who falls for him.  I approach his profession as a bad habit.  That’s comedy.  If I approached it as him really killing people, that’s tragedy.

CATF:  You have said, “there’s a lot of anger brewing out there”.

GRAHAM:  I’m not hip to “the meek shall inherit the earth.”  I go to church once a year with my actor friends and this Easter, heard a great sermon that featured a story about how a priest in a country experiencing revolution was appealing people to forgive and move on.  “I burned your house and killed your husband, but now I ask for forgiveness.”  No way I would do that.  I admire people who do that, but not me.

CATF:  When your audience walks out of “North of the Boulevard”, what do you want us to be thinking?

GRAHAM: I want you to be thinking, “Why are these guys in this position?”  I also want you to be thinking, “Okay, what happens the next day?”  Or, “That’s not my life.  How can I be more empathetic to people who have that life?”

“North of the Boulevard” made its world premiere in 2013 at Theatre Exile (link), Philadelphia, PA, Joe Canuso, Producing Artistic Director.
Visit the interviewer’s website at

From Idea to Honor: Jane Martin’s “H2O”

It was December 2011, at a local holiday party, that Peggy and I ran into Lisa Welch.  Lisa and her husband Paul have long attended CATF and are two of our most ardent supporters.  Over the previous fall, Ed had been receiving pitches from agents and playwrights for a new CATF commission, which was possible due to a gift from Shepherd University in honor of our 20th anniversary season in 2010. Ed was committed to an idea from Mark St. Germain, who wanted to write a play about the complicated friendship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.  That play would go on to be last summer’s Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah.

But then something else exciting occurred.  We received a written pitch from the highly secretive Jane Martin. It read:

In H2O (in this case, meaning Hamlet to Ophelia), a young man who aimlessly arrives in LA becomes a giant movie star with little acting background. Because of his sudden eminence he is invited to do a Hamlet on Broadway. He has no internal structure to deal with or understand his success and takes the Hamlet in the hopes it will make him understand his relationship to acting and thus provide his scattershot life with a meaning. He has complete casting approval and holds the Ophelia auditions in a sublet arranged through a construction worker he grew up with. A young woman who has not yet succeeded in NYC has a callback. When she arrives she finds him in bed with another auditioner and while she sleeps he has cut his wrists (yes, it’s also a comedy). Our heroine gets him to the hospital and gets the part. Turns out she’s an evangelical Christian. And the play concerns structures of meaning and lack of meaning and how meaning is achieved. It’s a dramacomedylovestory.

We had the chance to commission a new Jane Martin play, to be directed by theater legend Jon Jory (who founded the Humana Festival of New American Plays while Artistic Director at Actors Theatre of Louisville). Plus, it sounded great. But what to do? Commissioning is not only a leap of faith on part of a theater company to believe in a playwright’s ability to produce a quality piece of art based squarely on a seed of an idea, but it also has financial considerations. In addition to the regular royalty payments CATF authors receive, there would be an upfront commission fee.

We were already on board with Mark St. Germain and excited about that project. How could we afford another? And then we ran into Lisa and Paul, explained what had landed in our laps, and asked if they had any interest in bringing a new play to life, from scratch, 18 months from then. Not only did they say yes, they even sought out another local couple–Larry Dean and Mina Goodrich–to partner with them in the endeavor.

So, we had the ability to have two commissions, both set to premiere during the 2013 season–the year we marked our 100th play produced.

Not quite a year after the initial pitch, in November 2012, we received the first draft of the play from Jane’s agent, Bruce Ostler at Bret Adams, Ltd.  A few weeks later it was read for the first time with Mr. Jory in St. Louis and then we did a private reading, with its eventual cast, in New York City in April 2013 at the home of Doug Moss (the architect behind the Center for Contemporary Arts) with many special guests in attendance. The show went into rehearsals in June.

The end result was the world premiere of “H2O” last summer, with Mr. Jory at the helm, and two extraordinary actors (Diane Mair and Alex Podulke) tearing up our intimate 90 seat theater, with a 10-person crew seamlessly shifting from scene to scene to (countless) scene.

Framed Image

The show sold-out its run, garnered critical affection from all over, and–most recently–is a finalist for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award (to be announced next month at Jory’s Humana Festival).

[Click here for the story, as printed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, with a listing of the other finalists.]

The Steinberg/ATCA is the largest prize of its kind in the United States. It honors plays that make their premieres outside of New York City, as considered by the ATCA membership.  “Gidion’s Knot” was the citation winner last year and, in fact, “H2O” marks CATF’s fourth play in four years to be considered (“Breadcrumbs” by Jennifer Haley and “Lidless” by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig are the others, both from 2010).

“H2O” is where it is because Lisa, Paul, Larry, and Mina believed in an idea and allowed us the opportunity to dream about its possibility. They gave us the chance to commission a new Jane Martin play and work with Jon Jory. Most importantly, a new American play was born and will forever have a home in our collective theatrical canon. And hopefully, in April, it will be honored on the national stage. Those of us who saw it, know it is more than worthy.

Here’s Jon Jory talking about Jane Martin’s “H2O”:

And here are some never-before-released production photos with Diane Mair as “Deborah” and Alex Podulke as “Jake” (all taken by Seth Freeman):


Charles Fuller.

So, the 2014 Season is live. Tickets are for sale. The buzz is buzzing.

2014_CATF_ABSOLUTE_FINAL_One_Night--2-17-2014 copyWe had the — and I’m being hyperbolic-free here — life-changing opportunity of hosting Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Charles Fuller with us this weekend as we announced this year’s line-up of plays.  He was, frankly, incredible  at the Shephedstown Opera House on Saturday.  He spoke from the heart and had the audience eating out of his hand. He has a genuine commitment to telling America’s story, warts and all, and to make the country a better place. If art can change the world–and we think it does–he has every intention of doing so. The standing ovation at the end of his talk with Ed could have gone on all night had he not insisted on stepping down from the stage.  Mr. Fuller has something important to say with his new play ONE NIGHT and he certainly intends on disrupting the universe a little bit with this production, as well he should. (It premiered this past fall at my old haunt, Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village. Cherry Lane, under the leadership of Artistic Director Angelina Fiordellisi, commmissioned the play and co-produced it with Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre.)

The evening included Ed intorducing the full slate of plays on tap this summer (more to follow in a separate post on that front), a terrific clip from Mr. Fuller’s film adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning play, A SOLDIER’S STORY (the movie, with a young Denzel Washington, is called A SOLDIER’S STORY and is definitely worth checking out), and then an hour-long conversation tracing his career, time in the military, and the impetus behind this new script. It was deeply moving and inspirational.

What an artist and what a patriot. Thank YOU, Mr. Fuller, for giving us the opportunity to meet you and produce your work. Ed will be directing this second production in the Frank Center and it will open the Festival on Friday, July 11th.

Here’s a terrific article in DC Theatre Scene by Mark Dewey about the evening and the roll-out of the ’14 season:

And a couple of photos of Mr. Fuller:

Ed and Charles

Playwright Charles Fuller talks with CATF Producing Director Ed Herendeen, Saturday, March 1, 2014, at the Shepherdstown Opera House.


Charles Fuller Delta Sigma Theta

Playwright Charles Fuller, winner of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize, with members of the Eastern Panhandle Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. March 1, 2014.

Charles in Ed's Office

Prior to the Season Announcement, Charles Fuller met with Ed Herendeen about the script and process for ONE NIGHT. Note Ed’s original copy of Mr. Fuller’s A SOLDIER’S PLAY on the table. March 1, 2014.