I worked with Peter Floyd this past summer at the Kennedy Center’s New Play Dramaturgy Intensive. It was a great experience, especially since the play–The Centipede King–was full of creepy, crawly goodness and things weren’t always what they seemed. I liked that about the play, especially since there was much for us to discuss regarding the play. Ultimately, there were not that many changes made to the play. I think, if I recall correctly, one monologue was added, and the rest of the changes were minor–a cut line here and there, etc. Mostly we spent our time discussing what was going on in the play, is it in the character’s head, is she crazy, and what, exactly is the so-called Centipede King? It was great fun, especially meeting Peter, who is a sweetheart.
This interview was conducted prior to the Boston bombings, but I would like to express my deepest sympathies to the city, and to say how grateful I am that Peter remained safe.
1.) What’s keeping you busy at the moment? Work and non-work related.
Right now, I’m working on a new play (tentatively called Protocol
) for the New Voices program at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, MA. (Info here
, if you’re curious.) Each of us four playwrights in the program has been working on a full length play since last fall, bringing in pieces of the works in progress to be read and critiqued. At the end of May, there will be public readings of all four plays. So, most of my playwriting hours of late have been writing and rewriting my play, which still needs a lot of work before it’s ready for presentation.
Back in February, there was a reading of my play Absence (a first-person portrait of a woman with Alzheimer’s) at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. It will get another reading here in Boston later this month, and in June it goes back to Atlanta for a reading before an audience of people who work with or are related to seniors afflicted with dementia.
Aside from that, there’s my day job of writing code for an Electronic Medical Record application, and also trying to see as many plays as I can…
2.) We worked together on The Centipede King as part of the Kennedy Center’s New Play Dramaturgy Intensive. Tell me a little bit more about how that play came to be.
I got the idea of writing a play that was a real horror story, as that was something I hadn’t seen much of on stage. I wanted to specifically write a horror tale that could only be told on stage, using distinctively theatrical techniques. I was specifically interested in psychological horror, and a strong influence was the Korean horror flick The Tale of Two Sisters. I had only written a couple of scenes when I was given the opportunity to submit a proposal for the Kennedy Center’s MFA Playwrights’ Workshop (that was what the event was called on my end!) and I rather rashly submitted my play, which I titled The Centipede King, by sending in a sketchy outline of what I thought the plot would be, plus the scenes I’d written and a couple of others I hastily threw together. I honestly didn’t think I had a chance in hell of getting in, so I was flabbergasted when Gregg Henry called me and said my proposal was accepted. I was both elated and terrified, as I now had to write the damn thing in time to bring to the workshop.
So, I put the old nose to the grindstone and plugged away at it. In the course of writing, the play took some turns I was not expecting. As you know, the play ends with a surprise twist (which I won’t describe here, because spoilers), but that was not how I originally intended to end. My plan was that the Centipede King, the mysterious presence that haunts Lily, the younger sister, would turn out to represent her fractured memories of her brother, who abused her in some fashion, and that Rachel, the older sister, never actually existed, but was an entity created in Lily’s imagination to protect her from the trauma inflicted by her brother. However, as I was writing, I discovered that Rachel was far too interesting a character to not be real. Further, Lily’s reaction to the Centipede King was not at all the reaction of a victim to her tormenter; in fact, she seemed to view the King as someone who could protect her from her sister. This was a much more interesting path than my original plan, so I went in that direction, and the result was the draft I brought to the workshop.
3.) What did you take away from the process at the Kennedy Center’s New Play Dramaturgy Intensive?
A souvenir mug and an Addams Family beer mat. (Rim shot.) No, I got a lot out the week. Related to the subject of your interview, this was the first time I worked with a dramaturg (three of them!) and I found you all useful and supportive; I’ll give further details under question 6 below. All in all, I learned a great deal about the play, not least that people would actually respond to it, by working with a savvy director and actors who were enthusiastic about the play but willing to pose questions that I did not always have immediate answers for. Having that level of support for a script that was still in a very raw state was both helpful and affirming. Simply being in an environment that was so supportive of new talent (I was going to say “young talent” but then I remembered some of us aren’t so young anymore) was great; it was inspiring to see the work of other playwrights from around the country.
4.) Not many changes were made to the play. Have you made more changes since the Intensive?
Some, but nothing major, which is actually pretty surprising. Absence, the Alzheimer’s play, has gone through many different drafts and now bears little resemblance to what it was like at its first reading. Protocol, my current play, is getting similarly heavy rewrites. But The Centipede King somehow came out — well, I won’t say perfectly, but in very good shape, so that while I’ve done a lot of tinkering (much of it to Rachel’s extended monologues) its essential structure is very much unchanged. I wish they were all that easy!
5.) What’s your writing process like?
Not very organized! I usually start with an idea and some sense of what my characters are, and begin writing to see where they will take me. Depending on how inspired I am, I can usually write twenty or thirty pages before getting stuck, at which point I have to brainstorm. For me, this involves opening a blank Word document, and writing down anything I can think of — plot ideas, bits of dialog, whatever — in a burst of free association. Some of these ideas are deliberately ridiculous. Eventually I’ll get something which sparks an idea, and will get me through another twenty or thirty pages. Usually, I’ll have some notion of how the play will end though, as with The Centipede King, that itself can change as I write the play.
6.) When you work with a dramaturg, what do you look for? What qualities would your ideal dramaturg have?
As noted above, my only real experience with dramaturgs was working with you and Gavin and Georgia at the Kennedy Center workshop. I didn’t have any real preconceptions of what that would be like, but I would say that Gavin (whom I worked with the most) would seem to represent the ideal dramaturg, in that he (a) really liked the play (I wouldn’t want to work with a dramaturg who didn’t like my stuff!), (b) was able to look at the play in a very analytical way, something that I’m not very good at doing; that is, he could pick up themes and images that were repeated through the play and suggest meanings that had not occurred to me, (c) in a similar way, could find problems with the play that I had not noticed (internal inconsistencies, out-of-character moments) and suggest alternative approaches in a non-pushy way; his suggestions were always thoughtful and considered — I didn’t always accept them, but I always respected them, (d) he had a breadth of knowledge both of the theater world and of many areas outside that field, and he drew on all of that in our work on the play.
7.) Do you have any negative experiences with dramaturgs? Explain, if you can.
No, none at all!
8.) How do you like to workshop a play? Do you go in with a specific idea of what you want to happen? Or do you like to observe the process? How involved do you like to be?
When a play of mine is being workshopped, I generally don’t have a specific notion of what should happen, unless there is a particular scene or sequence that I’m finding problematic. I prefer to watch and listen, so I let the director (with whom I would obviously talk to beforehand) be completely in charge of running the workshop and all the necessary logistics, so I can concentrate on the words. It’s always surprising (and sometimes appalling) to hear the lines spoken aloud for the first time — they’re often completely different from how they sounded in my head — and a lot of the notes I scribble to myself are about word choices and phrasings that sound totally unnatural. But I try to keep the big picture in view and make sure the play works as a whole, that the arc is clear and the characters real. Feedback from the director, the cast and — of course! — the dramaturg (if there is one) is vital, because what seems clear to me may not be so to someone living outside my head. Sometimes, if there is a scene that bothers me, I might ask to have it read again, possibly with direction given by either me or the director. However, since the workshop is about the the scripts, not the actors, I try to keep that to a minimum.