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Charles Fuller Discusses ‘One Night’

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

CATF:  What was the most important thing the military taught you?

CHARLES FULLER:  I enlisted in 1959 and was there until 1962.  While there, I had the opportunity to read all the great works in English.  I had an opportunity, in a sense, to finish college. I had left Villanova my junior year because I wasn’t happy. My father had two jobs to keep me in college, and I thought that was a waste of his money, so I left. In those days, you couldn’t sit around your parents’ house; the next best thing to do was to join the military, so I joined the Army.

 CATF: Your experience in the military was essentially a good one?

FULLER: Yes, but it is profoundly disturbing to see the kinds of things that are happening in the military at the moment – these extraordinary charges of sexual assault.  This was probably going on when I was in the military but at the time, there was no large female population.

 CATF: What convinced you to give a voice to women who have been sexually assaulted?

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Charles Fuller, winner of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize. Photo by Seth Freeman.

FULLER: This may sound naïve, but sexual assault is simply wrong.  You can’t keep brushing things under the rug and believe they will suddenly disappear.  You can’t keep maintaining that all the male soldiers who came home were heroes when last year the estimate of sexual assaults was 26,000.

I didn’t start writing to tell happy, little stories.  I started writing to make some impact on the world in which I live. If you don’t want to say anything about sexual assault, that’s your business, but I want to say something about it.  I think it is absolutely and unequivocally wrong.  We have no right because we are in the military to rape fellow soldiers who just happen to be females.  A lot of victims are male as well.  In the Army I was in, the life of the person next to you was as valuable as your own. You would never do anything to hurt your comrade.  Your life depended on him, and in the case of Iraq, those gentlemen’s lives depended on the women they were raping.  It’s horrifying.

 CATF:  Why is war hell?

FULLER: Because it’s justifiable murder.  The idea that the only way we can change things or convince people or defend religions or overthrow governments — whatever those reasons for starting wars — the idea that the only way we can do that is to kill one another is horrible.  It’s horrible because there’s a kind of acceptance; a kind of behavior that maintains that during certain operations we can and must kill one another in order to succeed. That’s absolutely insane.

 CATF: Does war corrupt the military?

FULLER: I’m not sure about that.  What happens is this: when we come to believe that the only way to make change is to murder one another, the idea of “the other” makes less valuable the human life it possesses.  As a consequence, we can kill the “other” and not feel guilty. Unfortunately, human beings spend too much time rationalizing that war is right under certain circumstances; that it’s okay to threaten and kill other human beings.

 CATF: You have said, “Plays are about language”.  The military today trains soldiers to “neutralize” and not to “kill”.  Does the military dehumanize people?

Charles Fuller with the poster from 1982’s “A Soldier’s Play”.

FULLER:  I don’t think so, but over time the language of war has changed.  When I joined the Army in 1959, we learned how to “kill” the enemy. When I was a kid, a person was “homeless” and a guy without a job was called a “bum”. When is the last time you heard that term used in current language?  Language has changed over the years, and that’s reasonable.  To be concerned about another person’s feelings despite what they are or what they are involved in is okay. CATF: You have said, “sexual assault in the military is now academic”.

FULLER:  It is something that is accepted.  What I find very strange is that we haven’t worked out a way to do very much about it. The bill that was going through Congress at one time was not passed because it would take some power away from commanding officers. To solve this problem, we have to bring people who are accused of sexual assault into civilian counts.

 CATF: What do you think about the recent increase in rape scenes on TV?

FULLER:  I don’t know what the heck is going on with that. Most of those scenes are extremely poorly done and seem done only so viewers have something to talk about at work the next day. If you’re not serious about doing something about rape, you shouldn’t even think about writing about it. After a rape scene, you have to see that someone is punished; that they are made, in some way, responsible for what happened.  It is not something to laugh about, it not something to dismiss.  That kind of behavior is not entertaining.  It dehumanizes women. It’s horrible.

CATF: Thirty minutes before this interview began, the Washington Post published an article entitled, “Jurors to weigh whether ex-Marine should be executed”. [LINK TO ARTICLE HERE] The convicted Marine attacked a soldier – at random — wrapped her neck with the power cord of her pink laptop and sexually assaulted her until she was dead.  Should this ex-Marine be executed?

FULLER: I don’t believe in the death penalty. People should be isolated from other human beings. That’s enough punishment – isolated for the rest of their lives.

[Charles Fuller “in conversation” with Ed Herendeen during the 2014 Season Annoucement, Part One.]

[Click for Part Two, Part ThreePart Four, and Part Five

CATF: About America and Americans, you have said, “calamities seem to bring us together but we discard things quickly”.  Are we discarding women in the military?

FULLER:  Today, a strong, religiously evangelical tint seems to be growing in the military. Yes, there is respect for women, but women are considered less than men. The more religion enters into the military, the more this happens. When I was in the military, I don’t recall any evangelical preachers trying to change things or baptize people. I saw chaplains who would talk to you and help you through difficult times.  Today?  I recently read of the extraordinary increase in the number of evangelical preachers and congregations growing in the military.  Some of the precepts of evangelicals who believe in the strong translation of the Bible are that women have very little place aside from being helpmeets to men. I also think some people don’t want women in the military at all because it equalizes you. That’s dangerous to men because they believe they are stronger and more important than women.

 CATF: There is a blues song called, “Mean Old World”.  [LISTEN TO THE SONG ON YOUTUBE] Do we live in a mean world?

FULLER: The world is a product of human beings, and we can change the world.  The world is not, in and of itself, mean.  It’s just what it is.  We have made it whatever it is — we cannot blame it on wildness or Mother Nature.  We have destroyed whatever was good. To say that the world is “mean” is to not understand our place in it or to not understand what we have done to it.  The world was not mean when it was created and if it is mean now, we have made it mean because the meaning of mean is something we describe.

2014_CATF_ABSOLUTE_FINAL_One_Night--2-17-2014 copyCATF: You have such a peaceful presence, but you can write a visceral play like, ‘One Night’.  Did writing it help you dissipate your anger about sexual assault?

FULLER: Every day, I confront things that upset me, that I think are wrong, that don’t make sense.  But the only way we can deal with them is rationally.  You can’t write “crazy” things.  Art is about framing.  A picture that encompasses the whole world is one that has no frame.  How can you know what it’s about? The best art is framed.  Books are framed from cover to cover. Plays are framed by where they begin and where they end.

Art is something you must think about in terms of how much you do and whether or not what you do is sufficient for the idea or the anger that you have. You can’t do that irrationally.  If you do, your art is irrational, and no one will understand it.

 CATF:  Has your art healed you?

FULLER: Sometimes.

 CATF:  Should art heal?

FULLER:  It can suggest ways of healing. The weatherman knows which way the wind is blowing, and that’s what art can suggest for us.  Where is the weather vane turning? What direction? I have no idea whether or not art can overcome evil, but it can suggest that maybe we need to think more about an issue.  I don’t think art can win wars.  I don’t think art can overturn nations.  But art can tell us which way the wind is blowing and that just might help us to better understand the world in which we live.

Visit the interviewer’s website here.

‘One Night’ was commissioned, developed, and produced by Cherry Lane Theatre (Angelina Fiordellisi, Artistic Director), in conjunction with Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre.

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?

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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 http://www.sharonjanderson.com/