Review Fix chats with Jason Paris, who discusses his latest production, Locker Room Talk: A Liberal Fantasy.
About the Production:
A high school football coach and former player explore what it means to be politically progressive in rural, red-state America, particularly in light of the 2016 election
About the MITF:
The Midtown International Theatre Festival returns for another summer of quality stage works. New York’s oldest continuing theater festival will present 100 plays in 23 days.
One of the leading reasons to visit New York in the summer is the theater – from Shakespeare in the Park to the best of Broadway. New York is also known for its amazing theater festivals. This year, the venerable Midtown International Theatre Festival takes its place as the oldest continuing summer arts festival in New York. To usher in this honor, producer John Chatterton presents nearly 100 new and fascinating live stage works – plays, musicals, variety acts, short plays, solo projects, and so much more. Visit www.midtownfestival.org for further info.
Review Fix: What’s your creative process like?
Jason Paris: I try to write every day. I’m a full time high school theatre director, speech and debate coach, and history teacher, so my days are already pretty full. Still, I try to set aside at least an hour when I get home from whatever rehearsal I have after school. That usually makes for some terrible writing, honestly. There’s a lot of venting in those sessions. My best work happens on weekends and breaks. I stole my process from Steven Pressfield. He wrote a book called The War of Art that I can’t recommend highly enough to artists of any kind. I have my writing space set up with some pictures and objects that represent various accomplishments, or inspirations. I play some music. I don’t even know what it’s called. I know what the album cover looks like. It’s New Age-ish, Celtic-ish stuff. It’s always the same music. I sit in silence for awhile and kind of invite the Muse to help me out. Then I start writing. It sounds a little crazy when I say it like that. But that’s the process. When everything’s working, it’s the best. It’s like watching it happen, rather than doing it. Sometimes I know what I’m going to write, and sometimes I don’t. I think the important thing is just to start, and see what happens. It’s amazing how a play will shape itself for you, if you’ll just free yourself enough to get started. But that’s the hardest part. Once you start, though, it’s like Michelangelo freeing the angel from the marble. You know, hopefully. Not always. Probably not even most of the time, actually. The truth is, though, I’m still new to this. I mean I’ve written all my life, but I’ve only recently started putting my work out there in a serious way. So I might have a completely different answer next year. Or tomorrow.
This play in particular, grew out of two things. First, I have a former student, Avery Bagenstos, who’s now an L.A.-based actor, and we’d been talking about doing a short film together, so that had been on my mind. And second, Donald Trump won the election. I’m from Oklahoma, which is an extremely red state, politically. I’m a very blue person, though, so the election was a shock. This play grew out of those circumstances. Many of my friends were ardent supporters of President Trump, and Locker Room Talk sort of grew out of my wrestling with that. How could these wonderful people, whom I love and respect, see the world so differently? And what makes me think I’m so smart and they’re not? What if I’m wrong? This work really derives from my struggle with those questions.
Review Fix: What makes this different or special?
Paris: This has been such a great experience so far. First, I’ve only been submitting plays in earnest since January. It was a New Year’s resolution. I’ve always written, but I’ve only submitted sporadically and kind of half-heartedly. I took playwriting classes at NYU while I was working on my master’s degree, and found that I really enjoyed it, and had some ability, but I didn’t seriously pursue it. I decided this year I’d make my playwriting career a top priority, so I started submitting plays. By the end of March, I had commitments for three short plays. I submitted Locker Room Talk kind of on a whim, and was surprised when it was accepted. It’s not that I didn’t have confidence in it, I’ve just been really pleasantly surprised that a New Year’s resolution actually paid off. That’s kind of a first for me.
The second thing is that it’s a real treat to get to do this show with a former student. Avery went through my theatre and competitive speech and debate program, and really excelled. He’s chasing the dream out in L.A., and it’s been great fun to work together to bring this play to life. It’s also intimidating as hell. He’s learned some things since leaving my program, and he’s a far better actor than I am now. Emily Tinawi, our director, is another reason to do this. We went through the Educational Theatre Program together at NYU, and she’s one of the best people I know. It’s been fun to reconnect. We’ve always talked about working together on something, so this has been terrific.
Review Fix: What did you learn about yourself through this process?
Paris: I’m still learning things! I think the biggest lesson is the importance of believing in your work, and not being afraid to put yourself out there. I grew up on a farm in northwest Oklahoma, and I think, culturally, we’re raised to be suspicious of people who do too much bragging or self promotion. And it’s a fine line to walk. You want to put your work out there, and let it speak for itself. That’s not how it works, though. You’ve got to be willing to shout from the rooftops. It’s hard, though. It takes me several hours and a lot of angst to actually hit the post button on Facebook. I don’t want to bother people, you know? At the end of the day, though, I’ve written a pretty damned good play, and it would be a shame if people didn’t see it. But saying that last sentence? Stuff like that’s pretty tough for me. I feel almost genetically predisposed to downplaying how cool it is to have a show in New York, so as not to offend anyone.
Review Fix: How does it feel to be a part of something like this?
Paris: It’s incredibly exciting. It’s also incredibly terrifying. I think that’s true whenever you create something. I’ve had a lot of success as a high school theatre director, but I’m scared to death every time the lights go down at festivals or competitions. When it’s your own work, it’s doubly frightening. Overall, though, I couldn’t be happier to be a part of this festival. The email thread between the playwrights demonstrates how special this festival is. There are these great conversations going about the process, advice from the folks who’ve been through it before, encouragement. It’s heartening to hear everyone’s point of view, and to realize we’re all kind of in this together. In that way, it reminds me a little of grad school. It’s a wonderful group of artists coming together in celebration, really, of the art form.
Review Fix: What are your ultimate goals for this production and for the future?
Paris: It will be interesting to see what happens this summer. This play is very specific in terms of time and place. It’s certainly still relevant, but I was just talking about it the other day, and saying, “Wasn’t it nice when we were just worried about the border wall?” Things are moving so quickly in the news, who knows what’s next? Having said that, the play’s themes go well beyond the election, or the current political climate. It’s really about how we treat each other, and how we might move forward in a healthier way. I haven’t thought much about the play beyond this summer’s festival, but who knows? Maybe we’ll make that short film if the reception’s positive. I do hope, though, that we’re well-attended, and that people find the play meaningful in some way. I think they will. I think it’s more important than ever that we’re listening to each other and considering alternative points of view, and, probably most importantly, that we’re laughing together. Having lived in New York and in Oklahoma, it seems clear to me that people from rural American and people from urban America really do not understand one another, and we’re all responsible for having let that happen. We all want the same things, you know? We’re all looking for happiness, security, healthcare, the American dream, but the means by which we want to achieve them are different. Sometimes they’re diametrically opposed to one another. I guess, then, that my real goal for this production is to join the conversation about those things in a way that might bring some insight, or that at least humanizes it in some way.
Regarding the future, I’ll get home from this adventure the week school starts, so I’ll be right back at it, directing this year’s competition play, teaching history, taking kids to speech contests, and writing next year’s submissions.
Review Fix: What do you think your audiences will enjoy the most?
Paris: This show has a lot of heart. It’s couched in a kind of political discourse, but ultimately it’s about the friendship between a high school football coach and a former player who are sort of kindred spirits, but who are at different points in their lives. And while it expressly deals with today’s political climate in what I hope is a serious and thoughtful way, it’s actually a pretty funny play. It’s hard not to be funny, really, when you’re dealing with a play inspired by the election of President Trump. If nothing else, there’s a certain amount of gallows humor you just can’t avoid.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Paris: I’m working on a couple new plays. One has a completed first draft, and I’ll organize a reading soon after the festival. The other’s in the early stages. I’m excited about both of them, so we’ll see where they go. Maybe they’ll be at next year’s festival. Beyond that, the immediate next step will be Lollapalooza in Chicago. That’s the week after our show. We’ll be taking in those concerts before heading back to Oklahoma. Then school starts, and the cycle begins again. Teach by day, rehearse the school play by night, write, sleep, start over.