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Kris Diaz, Busted Open

 

The playwright chats with C1’s Director of New Work, Ilana Brownstein, about girls, the Greeks, and taking the long view.

So, let’s begin at the beginning. How did you find your way to the theatre?

Growing up in New York, my mom took us to see plays. When I got to high school, I was playing baseball, basketball – I’m short and not particularly athletic, but it’s what I did. I was between sports seasons, and for those two weeks I had nothing to do, so I went into school on a Saturday, and they were holding play auditions. I auditioned and got in, and then I realized there were girls there. I got to hang out with girls! I acted and sang, and danced – I got really into it. I went to NYU thinking I was maybe going to study acting, but I got there and realized that people who study acting do it really, really seriously, and I didn’t care about it that much. So I studied a little bit of everything, and then tumbled into a writing class. It went well.

Chad Deity is such a bodyslam of a play. What’s the path that led you to writing it?

Chad is maybe the third full-length play I ever wrote, and the first play I ever had completely produced. I wrote a play when I was in grad school at NYU called Welcome to Arroyo’s, which was a hip hop play. I was seeing a lot of theatre at that time, and the stuff that was really moving me was stuff like John Leguizamo, Danny Hoch, Universes, Sarah Jones – these were all people who were in some way connected to solo performance and hip hop. I got to develop it with the Hip-Hop Theatre Festival here in New York, the Lark Play Development Center, and South Coast Rep, but I didn’t know that when you get out of graduate school you don’t necessarily go into production, you go into development. I thought that because people liked Welcome to Arroyo’s that it was going to be my huge success, and my career was going to be set! It doesn’t work that way. Arroyo’s wasn’t getting produced because it had too many characters and was “too large,” so I started working on a small 3-character play that wasn’t my voice. Then, you know, I sort of got fed up with the theatre business, and started seeing a lot of parallels with the business of professional wrestling and the political system of the United States, where it seemed that things weren’t necessarily about coming in and doing the best work. There were other factors involved – whether it was factors of image, or who you know. I sat down to write a play in response. That became Chad Deity.

What was the “in” for you with the wrestling world?

When I say I grew up watching professional wrestling, I Grew Up Watching Professional Wrestling, and paying attention to all kinds of nerdy stuff associated with it. I saw Wrestlemania in 1984 or 1985. Around 2000, during the first internet boom, when you could get paid for doing anything on the internet, I would watch wrestling and write about it online. So, once I realized that the forum for all these complicated feelings that I had about the United States, and about my job, was going to be pro wrestling, I decided to go all the way in. You know, back in the early days – like the 1930s and 40s – all the bad guys in pro wrestling were German, then they became Irish, then Polish, and then at some point they were all Russian. You don’t think about those things, but there’s a deep politic involved, and hopefully people begin to see that through the modern-day story of Mace and VP.

So, why is pro wrestling awesome?

That answer changes for me. When you’re young, the fighting is very cool. At some point you realize that it’s dance. Now most people realize that the outcomes are pre-determined, the moves are choreographed. But even in the old days when we didn’t acknowledge the artifice and wrestlers didn’t acknowledge that they were friends, even then you saw that they were cooperating. You can’t do those things without the help of somebody else. That’s what I respond to. At the same time, it’s just cool. It’s flashy, the sounds and music, these big ripped muscular guys. The hard thing with wrestling on TV is that 90% of the time, it’s super dumb and the storytelling is terrible, the characters are cheesy, and politically offensive. But when they get it right, it’s mind bogglingly good. They tell multiple stories at once. There’s the story of a match, there’s the longer-term career stories of the two guys who are involved, there’s the story arc of the show that you’re watching. It’s sort of the best of what television, theatre, sports, soap operas, improv, and sketch have to offer – when they get it right, it’s nuts.

What’s your favorite storyline?

Bad guy Randy Savage, from Wrestlemania 2 to Wrestlemania 8 – the story of him and his manager, Miss Elizabeth, is this epic, six-year love story. He treats her badly, and then finally he starts to learn to be nice to her and he becomes the good guy, and then he turns his back on her, goes to somebody else, she retires, he’s about to retire, she’s gone from television for years, he’s the bad guy for years, then he’s fighting a retirement match, and the other woman that he’s with is in his corner. He loses the match, the bad woman turns on him. The camera cuts to the crowd – Elizabeth is there, at Wrestlemania. She never interfered through the match, but she hops around him, beats the other woman down, and he doesn’t know she’s there..I’m choked up talking about this…he bumps into her and turns around, and people in the audience are bawling their eyes out. (And, I’m actually really choked up right now.) It’s epic storytelling in a way that you don’t see anywhere else. I mean where else do you see story that takes six years to tell? You always sort of chase that, I think.

Who do you follow these days?

The Rock. I mean, of all time, The Rock. Right now, probably Daniel Bryan is the best – for super nerdy reasons that I won’t go too deep into – but he’s another one who’s got a really interesting story. He wrestled on the independent circuit for a long time, and was considered the best wrestler in the world. But he was too small to ever think he was going to make it in WWE, and finally got a chance, and then lost his chance, and then got his chance again. It’s actually a really complicated story that they’re telling with him. The best men and women in pro wrestling, it becomes clear that they are playing extensions of themselves. Roddy Piper used to say this about bad guys, but I think it’s true about the good guys as well: the best are the ones who are slightly exaggerated versions of themselves. What you see with Daniel Bryan or CM Punk, or even John Cena to some extent, you know that that’s sort of who these folks are. They’re slightly bigger, and what is that – that’s the Greeks, right? They’re wearing platform shoes and giant masks, and they speak directly to the audience, and there’s physicality, and it’s the basics of theatre. When they get it right, it’s special.

What’s the history of this script?

It started with an informal development process – roundtable readings at the Lark and the Summer Play Festival in New York. Then it graduated to the formal development world, with a workshop in the Ignition Festival at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago. In the first year, there were four productions: Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and then the Chicago production went on to New York. It was eye-opening. Philly and Minneapolis were small productions, a lot closer to what Company One is doing – great, intimate work – which is where the play comes from. I really learn a lot from the small companies where everybody is all-hands-on-deck.

One of the things I love about Chad is your extra-honest author’s note where you articulate that this play is a Big Process. As a script, it throws caution to the wind, but producers need to take the play’s requirements seriously: you need wrestling instructors instead of stage combat experts, you need a physical training regimen for the actors, you need video, and, by the way, this whole thing could kill people if you’re not careful –

– And you need actors of color who can handle massive chunks of text. It’s a difficult show to cast, and that was a conscious decision. There are all these great actors I know who get to play the soldier in Shakespeare in the Park, or play drug dealers who grunt and don’t get to say a whole lot. It was really important for me to write characters like these who speak in long sentences, with big thoughts. We’re asking a lot of the actors and companies, but I think actors love that.

Is it fair to see Chad’s excellent production record as some kind of case study? Do you think there’s a misconception about how to tell stories successfully?

I think when you write the thing that expresses your voice, people are going to respond to that, like with Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles or Annie Baker’s The AliensAliens [produced by Company One in 2011] is one of the best plays I know. It’s something I could never write, but it works very naturally for those three characters on a simple set. People are responsive to that, but not because it’s easy to produce. It’s definitely not easy to act. You get to the ladder scene, and that’s incredibly, ludicrously demanding. It so surely comes out of Annie – you meet Annie and it makes sense. I think that’s ultimately what Artistic Directors and audiences are looking for, and if people are excited about it you find a way to do it. My job is to put the big dream and big vision on stage and great companies like C1 will come in and interpret it and make it work for them.

You’ve seen multiple productions now at theatres of all sizes, so what have you learned form afar? What are the particular challenges?

It’s dangerous. Not so much in the way of someone will get seriously hurt, but rather everyone is always hurt. It’s like dancers – you’re working really hard and somebody’s got a twisted ankle, or a sore knee, everybody’s back hurts. There’s still a lot of text work and table work that needs to get done. The combination of the two things is hard. The other thing from my perspective that’s difficult is that everybody comes into it and says it’s a professional wrestling play, but it’s fundamentally about some big themes, and it’s telling a big story. The temptation sometimes is to get wrapped up in the theatricality of the flash, but that’s important, too, because ultimately it’s a play about what happens when we get lost in the flash. It’s also a pretty a straightforward story about a guy who has a dream job, realizes there are a lot of problems with it, and has to decide whether to rock the boat. A lot of us can relate to that.

When you write, do you have a particular audience in mind? For you, how does that fit in with the C1 aesthetic?

You know, George C. Wolfe used to talk about wanting the lobby of the Public Theater in New York to look like a subway stop in terms of who was in the space. That’s what I want. I want to see a bunch of different people, maybe headed in different directions, but all intersecting around this event. I think that you don’t get the full effect of the show unless the people in the room are all getting different references. The ideal situation is hopefully, somebody would turn to their neighbor at intermission and say, “I heard you laughing at this thing, what was that about?” You get a deeper level of understanding than when you have an audience that doesn’t all look the same or come from the same place. That’s why I’m excited for C1 to produce it.

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