BWW Interview: Playwright Brendan Bourque-Sheil Talks BOOK OF MAGGIE, Set to Premiere at Stages Rep

BWW Interview: Playwright Brendan Bourque-Sheil Talks BOOK OF MAGGIE, Set to Premiere at Stages Rep
L to R: Director Josh Morrison and playwright,
Brendan Bourque-Sheil, prepare for
THE BOOK OF MAGGIE at Stages Repertory Theatre.
Photo courtesy of Stages Repertory Theatre.

"... What if your life isn't wonderful? What if your life's a loveless shit-show that's unlikely to get better? What if the world may actually be better off without you? Can you still find a reason to live then?" asks THE BOOK OF MAGGIE playwright Brendan Bourque-Sheil. It's a tortuous question and subject, but it's well worth contemplating, which is Bourque-Sheil's aim in his original comic play that is set to world premiere at Stages Repertory Theatre--THE BOOK OF MAGGIE, a story about one woman's search for the value of life.

Who is Maggie? And why is it her book?

In a lot of ways, I think Maggie's a fairly typical young person, working her way through a fairly typical set of philosophical starter questions about the nature of life and what her purpose is. The main thing setting her apart is that her life so far has just been absurdly -- almost cartoonishly -- unlucky, to the point where she feels like she might be the butt of some cosmic joke, and she doesn't want to stick around for the punchline. It's up to Judas to change her mind, but of course, he doesn't have a great track record as a servant of God. So basically, he's a schlemiel, she's a schlimazel, and comedy ensues.

How? How did this play come to be? Space? Judas? Suicidal ladies? Joking aside, what was the inception of the THE BOOK OF MAGGIE?

I have this quibble with IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (which, of course, is a brilliant film that's better than anything I'll ever write, but still). George Bailey spends the movie figuring out that even though his life isn't quite what he planned on, it's still wonderful and absolutely worth living. It's a great lesson for us all. But my issue is that, of course his life is worth living; he's George "Lasso-the-Moon" Bailey, for God's sake. Sure, he's had some money problems, but he's still the smartest, best looking guy in Bedford Falls. His parents are saints, his wife is Donna Reed, and without him, his charming little hometown would descend into a Grand Theft Auto game. If that's your situation, of course you can find a reason to live.

But what if your life isn't wonderful? What if your life's a loveless shit-show that's unlikely to get better? What if the world may actually be better off without you? Can you still find a reason to live then? That's the premise I started off with. Religion quickly got into the mix, just because it's something I think about a lot. And I've always had a deconstructionist tendency to examine stories from the point of view of side characters, so Judas, Pilate and Peter felt like logical choices to people the play.

Where does the conception of hell come from in your play?

Keep in mind that when I wrote this, I was pretty sure it would be produced on the cheap (if at all). Best case scenario, I thought this show might go up at a community college or something. So I ruled out the classic, fire-and-brimstone Hell, purely on the grounds that I didn't think I'd have the budget for it. Looking for alternatives, I remembered hearing the theory in college that Hell is just the absence of God, and since God is in everything, Hell is therefore nothingness. I'm pretty sure some eastern religions our dedicated to the pursuit of attaining nothingness, so that was an interesting juxtaposition to me. And an empty void felt like a more dynamic version of Hell to play with in a theater anyway. So that's the template I started with, and what's in the final script is what grew out of that.

Who are Judas Iscariot and Pontius Pilate in THE BOOK OF MAGGIE? And how much is their BOOK OF MAGGIE representation based on their biblical representation?

These are very user-friendly incarnations of Judas and Pilate, I hope. I never wanted this play to be something you'd have to be a biblical scholar to get. As long as you know the story of Jesus's death, even in its broadest strokes, you should have all the backstory you need going in.

BWW Interview: Playwright Brendan Bourque-Sheil Talks BOOK OF MAGGIE, Set to Premiere at Stages Rep

What are some of your other influences for the play? Do you include BOOK OF MORMON among them or is that clever wordplay/coincidence?

The title similarities are coincidence, but Trey Parker and Matt Stone are most definitely influences of mine. Others influences include (and I know this is a weird grouping of names, but here it goes) John Patrick Shanley, Joss Whedon, Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg, Aaron Sorkin, David Wong, Matthew Weiner, Matt Groening, Tony Kushner and Dan Harmon.

Probably one of the biggest influences on this script though, is my cousin/frequent collaborator Kevin Sheil. We spent a lot of late nights talking through some of the plays ideas and exploring them with improv. A handful of bits and jokes from those improvs we did together made it to the final script, so I owe Kevin a lot. I am this play's father, but Kevin Sheil is its wacky uncle.

Perusing through your Twitter timeline to prepare for this interview, I saw two tweets that interested me because they seemed to conflict. One was a retweet from Mara Wilson saying, "You can spend years training but the easiest way to become a comedian is to call yourself one after offending people." The other was about giraffes engaging in oral sex, and the difficulty therein. Do you distinguish between good offensive and bad offensive?

First, let me apologize to any giraffes I may have offended with that tweet. And if my views on good offensive vs bad offensiveever seem to conflict it's because my viewpoint on the subject is still evolving. I'm 26 and this this is my first professional play, so I shouldn't talk about this subject like I'm some kind of seasoned pro.

That said, I suppose I do distinguish between good offensive and bad offensive, but for me, it's not as much about the content as it is about the intention behind the content. That Mara Wilson tweet for example was -- I'm pretty sure -- in reference to a specific video that was going viral at the time (I won't name it, but you wouldn't have to be Edward Snowden to track it down). The video in question made an insulting and wholly unoriginal argument about a subject that's deeply personal to a lot of people. And it seemed clear, at least to me, that the video's creator was putting way more effort into getting attention than they were into being funny or lucid. That marriage of bad writing and self-serving intentions is at the heart of a lot of the material I find offensive. Art often pisses people off, but pissing people off should never be the objective of art.

Your relationship with Texas seems complicated, to say the least, how does it feel to be coming back home, so to speak?

I love Texas. It just took me a while to arrive at that conclusion. In my defense, I was pretty out of my element when I got here from Oakland at age five. My moms were lesbian, feminist, neo-pagans, and none of those words are especially popular in the Lone Star State. Growing up, I knew exactly one other family with gay parents and no other family that celebrated Winter Solstice. I spent most of grade school lying about my moms, because the conventional wisdom of kids at my elementary was that gays and pedophiles were the same thing. It took me a while to see past stuff like that, but of course the state of Texas is so much more than that, and eventually I came around. I love this state and in particular, I love this city and its vibrant artistic community that I'm only just beginning to discover. I'm honored to premiere here.

I read that Kenn McLaughlin encouraged you to premiere THE BOOK OF MAGGIE on the spot after reading it. You were also a member of Stages' first Young Actor's Conservatory? What does this support mean to you? Does it uncomplicate your relationship with Texas somewhat?

Please don't think I'm shilling when I call The Young Actors Conservatory one of the most meaningful things I did as a kid. I'd done lots of writing before that, but that was the first time I wrote for other people in the service of a collective vision, and I realized that satisfied me in a way that more solitary forms of writing didn't.

And I'm clearly not the only one who attaches that level of importance to the YAC. I hadn't seen Kenn in a decade when I emailed him the script. I wasn't sure he'd even remember me, but he did. And even though our whole shared past amounted to one summer theatre program ten years ago, he took the time to read the play, probe it, guide it, and ultimately produce it. Now I'm surrounded by these actors and this crew who mystify me with their talent, and it would all be overwhelming, except that it's happening in the same building where 15-year-old me started playwriting in the first place, so it actually feels sort of natural.

See more from playwright Brendan Bourque-Sheil on twitter (@BBourqueSheil) or at his blog

BOOK OF MAGGIE. January 20 - February 14. Wednesdays and Thursdays 7:30p, Fridays and Saturdays 8p, and Sundays 3p. $21 - $54. 713-527-0123.

Photo courtesy of Stages Repertory Theatre

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