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Interview with BOBBIE CLEARLY Playwright, Alex Lubischer

Interview with BOBBIE CLEARLY Playwright, Alex Lubischer

Playwright Alex Lubischer

Ted Sod: Give us some background information on yourself: Where were you born? Where were you educated? When did you decide to become a playwright and why?

Alex Lubischer: I grew up on a farm near a small town called Humphrey in eastern Nebraska. The population of the town was about 750, and the size of my graduating high school class was 20. I loved writing and acting from very early on. In junior high, I devoured Stephen King books and tried to imitate them in would-be young adult novels I wrote on an old Dell computer. There wasn't much theatre to see, but I acted in one-acts in high school. I found myself drawn to movies, and I decided at a young age that someday I would move out to California to become a famous actor. Well, that didn't happen. Or, it half-happened. I did move to California to attend the University of Southern California. I took my first playwriting class there freshman year, and sophomore year I produced my first play on campus. Putting it up, I kind of knew then that I wanted to be a playwright. There's something incredible about getting to see a story that began in your mind realized in front of you by fellow artists. When a scene lands or a climax elicits a gasp from an audience, you know that you've translated an emotional experience; you've reminded a crowd of people about some essence of life that we're usually too busy or distracted or exhausted or traumatized to notice on a day-to-day basis.

My favorite play is Our Town, and there's this exchange at the end of the play between two characters:

EMILY: Does anyone ever realize life while they live it...every, every minute?

STAGE MANAGER: No. Saints and poets maybe...they do some.

And I think the job of the playwright is to tell a story that reminds an audience of what it's like to be alive.

TS: What inspired you to write Bobbie Clearly? What do you feel the play is about? Does the play have personal resonance for you and, if so, how?

AL: Because I grew up queer and closeted in a rural area of a red state, it has always been relatively easy for me to empathize with outsiders. Most of my plays are about outsiders. But with Bobbie Clearly, I wanted to write about a community-about insiders-not the pariah.

I'm haunted by the small town where I grew up; I can't stop writing about it. And I think that Bobbie, accidentally-it's not that I set out to do this-became about me trying to love the town where I grew up, and to find understanding for a community that struggles with understanding.

At the time I was writing the first draft, there was an onslaught of mass shootings in America. In the aftermath of each shooting, the same pattern seemed to emerge. People would be horrified, then they would latch onto some reason this had occurred, trying to gather the tiniest clues to help them make sense of senseless violence. Some people would retreat from the world, and others would turn to activism-like Jane in the play. So that informed Bobbie, too: Americans have wildly different ideas about how to heal as a community in the wake of tragedy.

TS: Will you give us a window into the kind of research you had to do in order to write your play and how you went about doing it?

AL: The starting point for the play was a nonfiction book called The Violence of Our Lives: Interviews with American Murderers by Tony Parker. It was exactly that-a series of interviews, each with a person who had killed another human. What amazed me is that none of the testimonies felt sensational. Most were mundane. Epiphanies came slowly, if at all. A murderer's understanding of what they had done took years, sometimes decades, to coalesce. Afterward, I wanted to write my own (fictional) interviews-just pages and pages of characters talking. I wanted to listen to members of a community not unlike my hometown. I interviewed real people, too, which helped me write the fictional characters. I talked to my Grandpa about what it was like to be the small town cop for twenty years. I talked to my friend Tim's dad about deer hunting. I interviewed my friend Evan about what it was like to work at an Apple Store.

TS: What was the most challenging part of writing your play? What part of writing this play gave you joy? How did you come upon the idea of using direct address as part of documentation and public performance?

AL: The hardest part of writing any play is that it sucks and it sucks and it sucks until it finally works. You have to endure so many drafts of a play before it emerges as the play you imagined.

I get pure joy when I'm writing the first draft of a scene and I've tapped into something essential in a character. Something deeply human. It's hard to describe, but I know it when I've done it because I'll have a visceral emotional response while I'm writing, and also the character will do or say something I didn't expect, which is wonderful because that also means the audience won't expect it. It doesn't feel "written." The documentary aspect was a symptom of wanting to let these characters just talk at me and tell their stories. I thought, "What's an excuse to get a person to talk for a really long time?" Ah! They're being interviewed for a documentary! And then, like a documentary filmmaker, I found myself doing an enormous amount of "interviewing" and an enormous amount of editing. I would write six pages of interview, but only keep the best six lines. As for the public performance in the play-it was another sort of accident. I had written the act one talent show scene, along with a few interviews, and asked some actor friends to read the first act out loud in my living room in Chicago, where I lived at the time. People loved it. I loved it. I heard it out loud and thought, "That's really good." That feels right. So I decided to extend it throughout the whole play-the concept of these characters performing live in the midst of a documentary.

TS: The character of Bobbie seems like an anti-hero. Do you see him that way? How did you go about creating a character who for some audiences may seem like a social pariah?

AL: I don't think Bobbie's an anti-hero.

To me, "anti-hero" points to someone who is not typically heroic, but who is a main character anyway, like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause or Jughead in "Riverdale." I don't think Bobbie is the main character, though. To me, the protagonist is the town. And the people who have the responsibility to be heroic are the townspeople. It's the citizens' journeys that we're tracking. I care about Bobbie a lot, but it's the group that has the greatest capacity for heroism or brutality, not the individual.

What surprised me writing the play was how little of Bobbie-actual stage time and lines for the actor playing Bobbie-ended up being in it. I kept trying to give Bobbie a bigger part, but the more I tried to give him, the less compelling he became. With Bobbie-and, again, I think it's because the protagonist is the town-less is more.

Interview with BOBBIE CLEARLY Playwright, Alex Lubischer

Ethan Dubin as Bobbie and Constance Shulman as Officer Darla

TS: The Tow Foundation has awarded you a residency at Roundabout this season. Can you tell us how The Tow Foundation residency has affected your work as a playwright?

AL: I've been writing plays for the past ten years, and in that time I've been a waiter, I've worked at a UPS store, I've tutored, I've barista-d-I don't think that's a verb-I've been a barista. I've never been able to support myself on playwriting alone, until now. It's insane. I can just write! I'm savoring every minute of it. Oh, and the other fantastic thing is that it's allowed me to be in the offices at Roundabout. I've been able to work with the education department, chat about new plays across cubicles with Jill Rafson, and have readings of new scripts I'm writing with the artistic fellows here.

It's incredible. Thank you, Tow Foundation. It's difficult for me to be articulate about this.

TS: Can you describe what you look for in a director when working on a new play? How do you and Will Davis, the director, collaborate on Bobbie Clearly? What questions do you ask each other?

AL: One thing great directors do is gather in amazing team of collaborators and help everyone thrive. They do this by being generous, by getting excited about the different gifts artists bring to the table, by creating an environment where people feel like they can take risks and be their authentic selves. I've seen Will do that-bring that out of people-constantly. I also love that he's a Chicago guy. I spent my formative years in Chicago after college. It's where I became a playwright. Will went to undergrad there and is currently the artistic director of American Theater Company in Chicago. So starting out, I think we already shared a lot of theatrical vocabulary and values. We both love Our Town. We're currently binging true crime documentaries for research-okay, I feel like I'm gushing. But the point is that I met with many directors, and Will was the one who instantly came alive when discussing the play. His ideas for how to stage it were out-of-the-box; I would never have thought of them on my own. That's another thing about a good collaborator: there have to be some points of overlap-shared aesthetics, values, stuff you both love-but the parts of the Venn Diagram that don't overlap are just as important. Will has a mind for ensemble-building and a visual vocabulary that just wows me. Those are just two things-and there are many more-that I'm grateful he brings to the table.

To be honest, we find ourselves talking a lot about corn.

Interview with BOBBIE CLEARLY Playwright, Alex Lubischer

Alex Lubischer and Will Davis

TS: What advice would you give to a young person who says they want to write for the theatre?

AL: Just start writing.

And you have to be okay with some of it being bad at first. Cuz in your head, it's perfect, right? But getting it on the page, you realize that most plays will take a lot of time and revision before they're as wonderful on paper as they were in your head. That's okay. That's actually normal. That's how it is for me, and that's how it is for most of the playwrights I look up to. Risk, Fail, Risk Again. Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity. Find a community of friends and collaborators who will read your work and give you honest feedback. And make sure they're people you trust. Sometimes you luck out and these collaborators are classmates you already know. But it might take going out of your way, or even moving to a different city, to find a community that truly inspires you-and vice versa.


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