“You never know where an experience is going to lead”. Perhaps that might be said about anything we undertake in life, but for Jonathan Dent, a classroom assignment on his first day in Solo Performance class at Brown University hs blossomed into a full-fledged play and Mr. Glass, the companion piece in our RUNNING ON GLASS evening of plays. It may be said that no one is more surprised that than actor and playwright who will take on this solo piece for us this Fall.
After being selected for a Solo Performance class in his Senior Year at Brown, Jonathan tackled the first
assignment for the course, which was to prepare a ten-minute comedic piece to be presented to the class on the very first day. “The exercise was intended to help ‘break the ice’,” he explains, “and create a warm and friendly performance environment.” From there, Dent experienced the serendipitous experience of having the show take on a life if it’s own. “The stand-up piece I wrote ended up being the catalyst for my entire show.” That catalyst grounded Dent in a reflective pattern that started right there in class. “For an entire semester, we wrote and wrote and wrote,” he recounts and the very process seemed to evolve effortlessly from class exercise to solo introspection to theatrical development.
As an accomplished actor and director in his own right, Jonathan admits to a little uneasiness with the mantle of “playwright.” He explains, “I must admit, I cringe a little bit at the idea of being called a “playwright”. Mr. Glass was the first thing I ever wrote, and it honestly just poured out of me.” That honest, rawness of his own personal reflections quite naturally took on a life of their own. “The stories and monologues in Mr. Glass have come from free-writes in my journal, and after a few weeks a shape started to form in which I could create a piece of theater.”
It comes as no surprise that this accomplished actor with numerous roles on the Brown stage and with some leading theatre companies in the area (including Providence Black Rep) would feel most comfortable translating his free-writes from the page to the theatre stage. Along the way, Jonathan feels that he has learned a great deal about both himself and the art form. “The most important skill I utilized during
the creation of Mr. Glass was self-reflection. Many of the stories and characters that exist in the narrative are real and they all had a significant
impact on my life.” The development process of Mr. Glass has been a two-way street: writing the play has helped Jonathan to reflect on his own experiences, while at the same time giving them a vivid, breathing life in dramatic context onstage for all of us to experience and learn from. “One of the most essential journeys an artist can make is inward, because once a concrete knowledge of one’s own-self is established, it helps create the possibilities for a much more rich and vivid world for others around you.”
This fall, with New Urban Theatre’s presentation of Jonathan Dent in this role, there is no doubt that we’ll all be riveted by the rich and vivid world of Mr. Glass.
Cliff Odle is one of the Founding Members of NUTLab and is known all over this area for his work as an
accomplished playwright, but also as an actor, director and theatre professor. With all of the projects that Cliff successfully juggles, as well as a beautiful family, one might wonder when he actually sleeps.
You have diverse talents across the spectrum from Actor to director to playwright to theatre professor. In fact, I easily get tired reading about all of the projects that you seem to manage. How do each of these inform your work in other “roles” and, in particular, what skills came into play as you wrote “Running With Bulls?”
I like to think that one skill informs the other. In other words, acting and directing informs playwriting, playwriting and acting informs directing, etc. Having experience as a director and actor allows me to better get a picture in my mind of what I am trying to create.
Who are some of your favorite playwrights to read? Direct? Emulate in Style? Perform?
Cliff: My playwriting hero is August Wilson. It is impossible to overstate what he has brought to the American Stage with his ten play cycle. It was working on the production of Seven Guitars that gave me the courage to write my first full length play, Lost Tempo. His work also gives me much joy to perform as an actor. Other playwrights I enjoy are David Mamet, Carol Churchill, Susan Lori Parks, and Arthur Miller. There are some local playwrights that I truly admire such as Lydia Diamond, John ADEkoje, and Melinda Lopez. The Boston Theatre scene has to consider itself blessed to have these talents around.
Who are some major influences on your playwriting — perhaps other playwrights or writers or filmmakers?
Cliff: Theatre cannot be done in a vacuum, so it is inevitable that influences outside theatre inform how and what I write. I enjoy a lot of hardboiled noir writing like Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress), Chester Himes (If He Hollers Let Him Oo), or philosophical stories disguised as hardboiled novels such as Arturo Perez-Reverte (The Club Dumas) or Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose). Filmmakers that I feel influenced me include people like Spike Lee,Quentin Tarentino, Lisa Cholodenko, and The Cohen Brothers. The biggest outside influence on my writing is history itself. Most of my work is written with some type of historical event or time period as a backdrop. I believe wholeheartedly that how we view our past will dictate how we approach the future.
Was there a specific “trigger” or incident that prompted you to sit down and write this play? The world of talk radio seems to have taken on a life of its own recently — politically and socially. In what way does that whole form actually become a character in your play?
Cliff: All of my plays start with a conversation between two unknown entities. Eventually as the conversation grows, the
entities start to take shape and form. That’s when I try to find them some place to live. Running the Bulls started with what I had imagined would be good smart-ass answers to callers who seem less informed than they should be about issues. However, I didn’t find a
play about someone who talks to voices very interesting so I had to include some real people. But the present state of “talk radio” does inform the play.
First of all, there is good informative talk radio out there. You will mainly find it on NPR stations. The talk radio that pulls in the big bucks, however, are shows that are driven by mainly neo-conservative hosts. The people who tune in those shows are looking for simple answers to complex questions. They have no time or patience for nuance. It is this situation that allowed the Republican Party to pull of the amazing trick of convincing middle to lower class mid-westerners that they actually had something in common with big businesses like GM, BP and the like.
For some reason this kind of populist talk radio approach has not worked with the politically liberal as the demise of Air America shows. Then again, Fox failed miserably when they tried to put together a neo-conservative version of The Daily Show. For this show the radio is the last frontier for idealism in a world that demands a cost that is more than idealism can afford.
I know that portions of this play were included in New Urban Theatre Lab’s fundraiser last fall. Have there been any other presentations of the work?
Cliff: Yes, it has been produced at the SlamBoston festival in a ten minute form.
How has your play grown or shifted during the time of the readings? HOW MUCH does it change once you hear the words coming out of characters’ mouths?
Cliff: Since every play I write has its own unique set of situations, there is no standard for how much dialogue is changed once it is read. Change of some kind is inevitable. Any changes made are generally for the sake of clarity as opposed to style. I never expect my words to sound the same from show to show or production to production. I actually encourage directors and actors to take risks with my plays as long as they keep to the central truth of whatever the play is about.
How hard is it to let go of your work?
Cliff: Letting go is easier than starting. By the time I have a play that’s ready for production, I am more than eager to let it fly and see what happens. Certainly I get nervous, but since I also have experience as a director of new works, I have to be able to practice what
I preach. And one of the first things I say to a playwright as either a teacher or director is “know when to let it go and let it grow”.” A play, just like a child, will have to find its own way at some point.
What would you like your audience to carry away from experiencing this play?
Cliff: I hope that audiences go away with many thoughts in their head about identity politics, race relations, but most of all I want them to recognize this as a love story. I hope that they will see something of themselves in these characters no matter what their backgrounds are.
In teaching playwriting, what are the major skills that you try to foster in your students?
Cliff: With beginning playwrights I want them to learn the basic theory of writing plays. I do not ask them to necessarily write plays that are ready to be produced. Rather I ask them to simply show me that they understand and appreciate the work the goes into creating an event for the stage. For the advanced playwrights I like to have them work with staging in mind. This will mean making hard choices in what stays and what goes. I try to guide them down the path between what they want to see and what can be practically done.
I’ll bet you are a phenomenal playwriting teacher, Cliff. Hearing you talk about this craft not only makes me want to try my hand at playwriting, but it also makes me want to take your class!