Interview with Playwright Robert Riemer
Q: In a relatively short time, you have earned critical acclaim (including two LA WEEKLY Picks of the Week) for some very intense, very wild-minded plays. What do you think are the hallmarks or traits of your playwriting style?
A: The hallmarks of my writing style? I suppose my style is to tell truths that are meant not to be told. And so when those truths are spoken, to the audience through an actor’s mouth, the audience becomes a group of voyeurs – tens, hundreds of eavesdroppers taking part in listening to dialogue or witnessing an action meant for no one other than the participants to experience. And the best way I see to create theater for these groups of voyeurs is to scream and yell, literally and figuratively. And maybe my “outrageous” style leaves one squirming because they sense they are seeing a private moment, or moments, that are in some ways holy. Perhaps this a trait of mine, to lay it all out, show it all, tell fictional stories that still wane in comparison to life’s actual truths.
Q: You came to playwriting from painting. Do you like to write plays with specific stage pictures in mind?
A: When I am composing a play I am seeing the action as it comes to me as if in a waking dream. I start with a picture as a muse of sorts, and a title. I generally have a first scene in mind, or at the least a key scene the action leads to or works around. I SEE the action, I watch it in my mind and listen to the dialogue and simply write it down. That is why I work quickly, beginning and finishing a play in a matter of three or four weeks. (That is before the numerous re-writes that inevitably follow.) For instance, I have a play in mind I will begin very soon I will call Grace. All I know is the title and the main character, Grace, who was raped prior to the play’s beginning. The play will begin with Grace laying on the floor bleeding from her crotch as she has delivered her baby, twins, days before. She is so distraught by the entire horrible crime that has been perpetrated on her, she “fixes” herself vowing to, “Never deliver another life into this life.” This dramatic beginning is not meant to shock for shock’s sake, but to set the stage, as it were, for who this poor girl is and what will follow. But that’s really all I have at the moment – a picture, a scene I can see, I can hear. And so you see, my playwriting experience is completely visual. Many of those who have seen my paintings, my photographs, and have watched my plays have told me they are all one in the same. And I see the two expressions, painting and playwriting, as the same. Perhaps playwriting is a better medium for me as I can communicate more fully what it is I have bottled up, letting it all out, as they say, through the mouths of characters actually speaking the words rather than a presenting a stagnant painting, photograph, sculpture which is mute leaving the viewer to guess at what they are actually seeing.
Q: Your work is consistently adventurous and your plays tend to go where many others don't. Why do you think so many theatres - here, there, everywhere - tend to shy away from adventure when it comes to their programming?
A: This question plays well off my answer to your first question. Already I have stated that I “lay it all out,” that my voice is often heard through the actors mouths in screams. And I have found theaters generally have a problem with this as they simply have no interest in telling the truth, or thrusting a truth, a difficult truth, into their paying customers' faces. And I can’t say I blame them entirely, or maybe I do. After all what is art? That has always been every artist’s central question. And each artist has to answer in his or her own way. When a theater answers the question the way I answer, we have a beginning. When the audience is touched by my interpretation of art as expression and life as truth, and often difficult truths, they will come to me and thank me, some times profusely. Art is difficult, or can be difficult and is not for everyone, and that goes for those put to the task of choosing the right play for their particular theater. My wish, of course, is for more theaters to allow expression in its most avant-garde, or cutting-edge, or difficult, to be produced widely and not left to the underground where the works are generally preached to the proverbial choir.
Q: Is "Grace Note" ultimately a story about what a family does and does not choose to see?
A: "Grace Note" is about a lot of things. It is about family, it is about familial relationships, parents and their children, husbands and their wives – but in the end, yes, "Grace Note" is about perception and truth and what is the truth. Are life’s experiences the same for everyone? Should we all, all of us living together in this small space in time, see the same? Hear the same? Should life’s experience be the same for everyone? If Chris and Dad see life differently than Michael and Norman, or for that matter differently than the two female ghosts also present in the apartment (or are they actually there?), is their perception to be mocked or shied away from? In the end the question is asked: what is the truth? and does it matter what the “truth” is – is there a “truth” at all?
Q: How would you say you have grown as a playwright from when you started? What are the key lessons that you've learned about the art of playwriting?
A: When I started to write plays I wrote everything, every word, every action. The plays, if produced, would have been hours and hours long. Looking back I believe these early works read well but are totally impractical in their present form for production. There are some very necessary issues, often time-constraining issues to work around when writing a stage play. And truth be told, I still struggle with many of those “issues” as my instinct is still to lay it all out. But, those issues aside, what else I have learned is to weigh each word carefully, delicately, knowing that each word will be hung on, has meaning, and must have a damn good reason to be among the fifteen thousand or so words included in the script. And then there’s this that took a while to get comfortable with: understand that no matter what your subject, no matter what point you want to get across, the work is still a form of entertainment, and being such, when I am composing a part of me is always sitting in the audience watching my actors and the scenes they are moving through. Sitting there I am assessing how I am feeling. Am I drifting? am I riveted? – and I better be riveted or else I have failed.
See Robert Riemer's "Grace Note" this summer at OC-centric. Performance dates & times: Saturday, 8/22 @ 8pm; Sunday, 8/23 @ 2pm; Thursday, 8/27 @ 8pm; Friday, 8/28 @ 8pm.