beyond the surface of things: an interview with lyle kessler and david fofi
This interview originally appeared on Culturadar, an arts listings website for New York City. You can read the original post here.
Entering Rattlestick Playwrights Theater on Waverly Place, I blinked my watery eyes as my face thawed from the blistering cold blanketing the city. I asked for Lyle Kessler and David Fofi, the playwright and director, respectively, of Collision, a new Off-Broadway play being produced by The Amoralists, a downtown company known for raw, in-your-face productions. Neither gentleman had arrived, so I stood at the back of the theater and watched the cast of Collision joke with each other on stage as they relaxed prior to their final preview performance.
After a few minutes, Mr. Kessler entered the theater and immediately saw me. He stretched a sweet smile between longish locks of silver hair. His gravelly voice inquired, “Are you James?”
He reminded me of, Harold, a character from his famous play, Orphans: a smart, old dog with some good lines and a few tricks up his sleeve. I confirmed my identity, and he wondered where “Fofi” was. Mr. Kessler looked at his watch and realized we were both early, so he approached the edge of the stage where the cast joyfully greeted him, like a favorite uncle. It’s clear they like having him around. He’s a likable man, as I soon discovered.
David Fofi arrived right on time; his stocky frame stuffed into a bundle of winter wears. Mr. Kessler joked about it being colder than Los Angeles, where Mr. Fofi resides and is artistic director of The Elephant Theatre Company, also known for hyper-real productions, including L.A. premieres of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ plays.
We settled into the two back rows of the Rattlestick’s house, and the actors instinctually vacated the stage, only to return intermittently to warm up for the evening’s performance. I saw Collision the day before, and I was eager to discuss the play’s development and its themes, including family, violence in America, love and hate.
JAMES CARTER: Orphans is receiving its Broadway debut in March. What’s the difference between mounting a 30 year old play on the Great White Way and a new play with a company like the Amoralists?
LYLE KESSLER: This is very exciting because it’s a new play. We’re on a journey, an adventure in discovering it. I mean, Orphans has been discovered and rediscovered, and been around for a while. Certainly, it’s wonderful it’s being done on Broadway. For years they were attempting to do it. Finally, I’m fortunate Alec Baldwin is doing it.
This is a play that I wrote a few years ago…the first draft of it…and I was sort of was rewriting and developing sort of privately because I didn’t have any productions of it. I had a relationship with Dave Fofi at The Elephant because I lived out there for many years…my wife and me. He directed a play of mine called Robbers, and they called me and said they were going to do it. And, then I began going to the Elephant Theater, which is really kind of a cutting edge theater in L.A. It’s terrific. It’s like the Amoralists or Steppenwolf or Labyrinth. So, I would go to see all his plays…all of Steve Guirgis’ L.A. premiers.
So, we had a relationship, Dave and I, and so that when Collision was going to be done…David Van Asalt was going to do it…Terry Kenney connected to it for quite a while, and then he got offered a Broadway play of Neil LaBute’s, you know. Then David gave me a list of directors that may or may not be possible to come in…and many of these people were all booked up and I wasn’t crazy about some of the people on the list, and I thought to myself, “Oh, shit.” You know? And then I thought, “Why don’t I call Fofi up? I mean, I know he’s got this fuckin’ theater, you know, in L.A….
Mr. Fofi laughs.
…and he’s probably booked for the whole year.” And it turns out that they had taken a little a…a…
DAVID FOFI: Hiatus.
LK: Hiatus. And they were going to start in February, March, and he said, “Hey, I’m available. Send me the play!” So I sent him the play and this is how it happened. He read it, and flew in…without much preparation.
They both laugh
DF: That’s the best way to do it.
JC: Down and dirty?
DF: Not too much time to over-think everything.
JC: You’re a writer, too, right? Or, you have written?
DF: I’m primarily a director, but I do work with a kind of…I guess I would say…most of the time I seem to be working with new scripts. I don’t write scripts myself, but I’ve a lot of experience working with writers in development.
JC: And you like working on new plays?
DF: Yeah, that’s what I wanted to do, you know, when I really got started working on theater in Los Angeles downtown after school back in ’95…’96. I kind of got into theater late, as some people would say…in terms of it wasn’t something I did in high school. So, when I did get involved it was actually post military.
JC: You were in the Navy, right?
DF: Yes, I was in the Navy. And I was really attracted to this contemporary new stuff. And though I appreciate…have an appreciation for classics and all of the different kinds of theater people do or revive, my company was started primarily as a new theater company.
DF: That’s part of the process for me is just telling stories that reflect the completely complex and insane world that we live in. You know? So many topics…so many things that touch our American lives or abroad. We like to do stuff…like Lyle’s stuff, too…that’s very kind of visceral…very down to earth. Not that everything has a realism, but it’s definitely something that approaches people on a level of this is something that they either relate with. Or, it is part of our fabric and it is something you should be aware of. Whether it’s something that has comedy or tragedy or both…a little bit of both, that’s what we’re attracted to.
JC: There are some great performances in Collision. Nick Lawson and muMs were especially beautiful. How have the actors influenced the development of the play?
DF: They had probably a series of readings over the past year…or something like that…with Terry or with maybe various actors in and out. But, I think that once we got started, Lyle was really willing to and wanted to open it up and really mine it for everything he could kind of find in there. Of course, anytime you get have opportunity to use the actors…I mean, just to have human beings to hear how things sound, how they would feel about it…especially with the youth involved. Because I’m older. I’m an old guy.
DF: I always think it’s good for Lyle to hear that stuff. Obviously, he’s the writer. Anything I can do to facilitate not only hearing different things…the opportunity to look at it from different angles, hear different ways…hear how it comes out of actor’s mouths…and also just from a generational stand point of what type of feelings they may have on it.
In the amount of time that we had, it was definitely kind of a workshop/rehearsal process that was pretty impacting. A lot of work got done.
LK: My plays are allegories. Orphans is a parable, really, though the emotions are very true. You know, I try to find a certain basic truth by not going into a realism kind of thing…although everything is real in terms of intense emotions. But, in this piece, which is much different than most of the plays I’ve written because of the…it’s like a fable…it’s like an old, Medieval morality play with extremes of behavior. The play has gaps in it because I didn’t want to write it naturalistically. And, to try to mine the truth I was trying to find in it, it had to move in certain ways and things would happen and would change.
So, Dave’s involvement has been essential to the links of each of the scenes so the audience can follow to a degree and go with the journey. Dave was bringing in certain kinds of reality issues that needed to be put into the play, you know…and the play needed. As we said, this was like a brief…this would be way out of town now…in Baltimore…we’d just be developing the piece. It’s like a pressure cooker here doing it so intensely. Trying to discover with the set and the music and everything…so, I’m very happy with the production Dave’s done.
JC: Both Collision and Orphans have similar themes – especially that of family and redemption. What does family mean to you?
Mr. Kessler laughs.
LK: Well, like my character [Grange] says, “I’d never put them on the wall. I’d have nightmares.”
We all laugh.
JC: It hits close to home.
LK: You know, I love the fact that Fofi comes from a military background. His father was a lifetime career…his brothers were all career. This great family. We all come from different families. I use a lot of extreme emotions with my family.
Family, you know, I guess there is…I never try to connect the two of them as themes, but I guess the first one is…in a way…a positive family. Orphans becomes a family. In a way there’s a redemption there. He brings the two brothers together and they live their life.
This one, is a different journey. It’s probably the reverse of it. But it’s a family. The people — in both aspects — need family. I think this is what’s happening in America right now with the families…the macabre families of violence and needs and lost people…are looking for something and not getting it and striking out.
I never intended it to be a play about guns. It just accidentally happened I was writing a play about these characters and it turned into this family that he [Grange] brings a family and exerts his power. It’s open to interpretation whether he comes into the room and wants to do that from the beginning. Or, as he starts to observe his power it starts to see more accumulates and ends up where it’s ended. I love the fact that there’s laugher, and then suddenly the audience doesn’t realize…it turns on a dime, really. “What are we laughing at?” It’s a black comedy, but it’s extreme emotions. So…we’ll see what happens.
DF: Family to me has always been very important. Four boys in my family. Military. Different than a lot of people I know. Like I said, my family’s very strong, male, you know, kind of ideals. But, you know, I think we had a kind of intense and at the same time loyalty and a lot of looking out for each other.
I think the thing here when I approached at the top was human beings or people have an inherent need for that. Whether it’s an actual biological family or the family that you choose. The family that you fall into. Sometimes you don’t choose it, you just find yourself involved. Whether it’s a gang…whether it’s a theater company…a musical group. Whatever your cabal or click that you happen to find. We’d all like to think that people are all just so secure and strong and sound by themselves. But people like to be part of something. And to me that’s an extension of family.
I think, when people don’t have that…and whether it’s even good or bad…I sometimes think apathy is even worse than sometimes coming from a rough family. Rough father…or rough family…at least there’s an impact there. When there’s a vacuum, something’s gonna fill it. And, I think in some of the young people, there’s a vacuum out there today. It can be filled in various forms. Whether it’s media, or whether it’s other people…and, unfortunately, they become very susceptible to with going with the group. Until you find yourself face to face with, “What are we doing here?”
This [Collision] is an extreme version. Obviously, it’s very extreme. From here to here. But, I can name a myriad of instances where people find themselves part of a group and then find themselves face to face with the decision, “Do I even believe this group is doing?” And it doesn’t necessarily mean something this intense.
I think people are always searching for that.
JC: You’re tackling very controversial and current issues, including atheism and violence. Did the Newtown shootings influence the development of the play?
LK: When I wrote the play, I had these posters that were going to be put up. And one of them was Heath Ledger as the Joker. I didn’t realize. We had it there and took it down. Somehow, in my…I don’t know how I intuited this character would be drawn to this kind of violence. And then, this kid that did that in the movie theater had the same thing.
I wasn’t doing it terms of controversy. Hopefully, it’s about what is happening now. I always intended to try to discover what the nature of… Fascinated by all the books about Hitler to try and identify at what point did he become a crazed racist and a psychopath. And then you read this thing that he was a poetic soul in the beginning. His buddy…I have a book that that they went on the mountain, and they talked about music…and Hitler had a “yearning disposition.” The guy became the worst mass killer in history.
And nobody could identity where that is. Nobody could identify what the kids at Columbine…why they would want to commit suicide…why they would want to kill people.
I don’t explain it in the play, as you know. To go naturalistically, and say, “He did this because of that,” is just a lie. It’s an assumption that I don’t…I’m trying to go for bigger fish. I’m trying to attempt to leave it to the audience to understand that these people…I’m trying to make them human. That hopefully they’re not so far from us. And maybe to disturb that way. They become this family, they need each other, and they’re manipulated. And they need each other. It happens. I don’t try to show the naturalism of it.
DF: The news…I heard about it in this theater from the stage manager, who was online. Obviously, it affected me in a strong way. And it wasn’t something we wanted to go, “Okay, we’re gonna rewrite things.” But I think it affected me in terms of, “Okay, what are we doing?” I think going into it I took it from the level of, “I’m directing a play…is it a dark comedy? How far do we want to go with it? Are we going from this parable…maybe this graphic novel kind of feeling in my head to…”
You know there are particulars of just staging it and not thinking about them. I don’t ever go into something thinking about repercussions. You know? I don’t choose that kind of theater. If I was worried about it, I wouldn’t do it.
I remember this [Newtown] happened on a Thursday or Friday. That weekend I was kind of going through something. I needed something to be really passionate about this. And in the midst of that initial, kind of, “Oh, shit. This is one of the most horrific things I’ve ever heard, and here we are doing this play. How can we continue to do this?”
For me, it was really digging down and saying this is why I decided to do theater. It’s not to make everybody happy all the time. It was to tackle things. Issues. That are happening. Not to be a shock artist. Just to take on topics that need to be discussed. For me, the passion of it became maybe more clear. Obviously, I just wanted to hold it to a lot more reverence and respect to the play and to the characters…to the process. That this wasn’t something to be done…not that it was ever lightly…but it was even more paramount that this was important. To basically go, “This has become a part of the fabric of our society that we’ve chosen to ignore a lot of.”
LK: These people [the characters in Collision] are nihilists against existence, really. I don’t know if they’re atheists. I think they want to kill off God. I mean, their rage…they need the gods because they’re so enraged at existence and whatever existence did to them. Whatever failings… And I have a feeling that a lot of these killings and a lot of these people…that it goes beyond revenging their families or things that happened… I think there is a feeling in a sense like a baby striking out against everything and everybody. That’s what Grange says to provoke them. He asks them, “What do you hate?”
They see themselves as revolutionary nihilists against existence. Whatever that entails.
JC: Today is Martin Luther King Day, and I happened to come across this before I came over here to see you guys. He said:“The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or love?”
I was already going to ask you this question: What do you hate?
Laughter all around.
JC: On the other hand…I also want to know: what do you love?
DF: I love a lot of things. I love my family. I love freedom. I love honesty. I love good people. I love generous people. I love grace. I love forgiveness. I love creativity. I love loyalty. You know, I love…a lot of things.
What do I hate? Ignorance. And not the kind of ignorance that can’t be helped. The kind of ignorance where…you should know better. Or, you just choose not to. Extremists just refuse to be open-minded to anything.
Obviously, I hate murderers, killers, rapists. That goes kind of without saying. But on a bigger level, I hate the idea that we, right now – at this time in America – seem to focus on the most sensationally unimportant things. You know? News stories that just dominate the airwaves that are so inconsequential to anybody’s lives. Some celebrity lied about something. Somebody said a politically incorrect term on the radio. God forbid! We sit there and argue about that while, you know, stepping over some human laying in their own pee to spit on someone wearing fur. That’s the mentality right now. Social activism. It just seems to be a fashionable way of thought right now. Rolling with that, instead of really…really looking at what’s around us.
Millions and millions of dollars are wasted arguing about something that half of that money could have probably had a solution for. I don’t know what the answer is to that. I probably become more disgusted by our political process and our elected leaders representing their party and not this country.
JC: (to LK) What do you love?
LK: You know, I love the theater because it encompasses everything that Dave was talking about…family, love…I mean…coming together. It’s what brought me back to New York, really, from film, which doesn’t have the same feeling. Theater is amazing because it brings up family and how people deal in family…and how you have to resolve issues. And, also, you’re creating something greater than yourself. It’s something to live for, and it’s why we’re here. Not just the everyday things…eating, sleeping and making a living.
And what do I hate?
I hate the idea that people take things at face value and don’t see beyond the surface. They jump to conclusions. I hate that people don’t think for themselves. If people thought for themselves, they wouldn’t be able to be controlled by a situation like this. Or, by Hitler…or, by Stalin. They would think for themselves.
As she [Doe] says: “Stand up and fight,” she tells the professor. But, he says, “Well, I can’t because my wife would destroy me.”
So, I think, look for people who can see the world and make decisions based on what they’re looking at rather than what is usually the case. It’s all a knee jerk reaction to the surface of things. I hate the surface of things because it’s untrue.
JC: Well, thank both very much for hanging out today. It may not be exactly what you expected. I don’t know what you expected.
But I appreciated it. It’s fun to talk about deeper stuff, I think, than the surface of things in life.
Collision runs through February 17 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
224 Waverly Place, between Perry and West 11th Streets
(866) 811-4111; collisiontheplay.com
Middle image (L-R): Craig ‘muMs’ Grant as Renel, James Kautz as Grange and Anna Stromberg as Doe. Photo by Russ Rowland
Bottom image (L-R): James Kautz as Grange, Michael Cullen as Professor Denton, Nick Lawson as Bromley, and Anna Stromberg as Doe. Photo by Russ Rowland.