BWW Interviews: BLOCK 8, DI ESPERIENZA and MESA VERDE Playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett Talks with BroadwayWorld!
Imagine standing on a busy street corner in Chicago, a crossroads if you will. Your own unhappiness and claustrophobia mingles with an edge of exhaust and people in masses. Imagine thinking “This is the desert. There is nothing here for me.”
Playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett recalls this scene and his thoughts surrounding his decision to move home, to the real desert – Salt Lake City, Utah. After three short years in Chicago, he realized that he longed for the desert, mountains and the home he left behind. Born in Taylorsville, Utah he leaned towards the academics rather than the dramatics growing up. He does remember auditioning for The Pied Piper of Hamelin in 4th grade and being cast as one of the children, Martin. However, this was terribly upsetting because he wanted to be cast as a rat – they had cooler costumes. In fact, he pretty much blocked out the whole event and told people he was cast as the rat for years until his sister, who was also in the play, reminded him of the truth.
After writing his first play in High School, he decided to pursue a Bachelors degree in Theater Arts from Southern Utah University. Being so near to the Utah Shakespeare Festival permitted full exploration of his talents and he was able to complete his first full length play -which was a hit! Bennett eventually ended up in Chicago where he worked for Eclipse Theatre Company. While in Chicago he wrote two productions - The Voices (produced at Chicago Shakespeare Shorts) and To Go Boldly (produced at Circle Theater) that Utah audiences may recognize as Wasatch Theatre Company has also produced them locally.
When asked his greatest influence he remarks that acting still plays a major role in his writing. “I act out everything I write as I’m standing there writing it.” Our Town by Thornton Wilder and The Dining Room by A.R. Gurney were both incredibly influential as they had a “mix in perspectives” and spanned entire lives. The Dining Room was especially impactful because it was “precious and focused on the minute but also took into account the long spiritual view.” Ibsen later emerged as a favorite with Ghosts and What Every Woman Knows by J.M. Barrie.
If you had the opportunity to see Block 8, Di Esperienza or Mesa Verde with Plan-B Theatre Company then you are familiar with Bennett’s work. You may also recognize his name from his recent win of "Best Local Playwright" in the PlayUtah Patron Awards. If you’re interested in seeing something coming up by Bennett, keep an eye out for Eric(a) with Plan-B Theatre Company and A Night With The Family with Pygmalion Productions (also at Omaha Community Playhouse) next season. If you happen to be on the road, you may run across Shark Week at the Samuel French Festival in New York later this year or his short play This is Now in Santa Ana, California next month at Theatre Out.
His advice to those who are interested in pursuing a career as a playwright: “Be independently wealthy or be independently poor.” You can decide on this career path but it takes a long while to be able to support yourself and you should only do it if you are able regulate yourself and allow breaks. You need to be okay not having money. He goes on to say that you should “only write about what actually moves you.” He mentions that the one time in his career where he almost gave up hope was when he did something as a favor and for the money. He says, “your soul gets angry at you. You can’t force the soul.”
From A Theater Lover to another:
Megan: “What is your favorite play?”
Matthew: “Enemy of the People (Henrik Ibsen) because it speaks to me of the perfect synthesis of people and politics.”
Megan “What is your favorite musical?”
Matthew: “Spring Awakening because of it’s honestly, which you don’t see a lot of in musicals. I also like Chicago and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
Megan: “If you were one musical or play, which one would you be and why?”
Matthew: “As a play, The Dining Room because it so well sums up sentimentality and the long view by taking day-to-day problems and putting them in perspective. As a musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum because of the parallels in my personality. It has a lot of intelligence but so much lowbrow, bawdy sexual humor. It’s quite smart but a romp at the same time.
Megan: “Any parting advice or thoughts for the Utah theater community?”
Matthew “Keep doing what you’re doing. Last fall there was a meeting of local playwrights and we realized that there were 7-8 new plays being done. This is such a great increase from even the last few years.”
Featured Article Photo Credit: David Newkirk