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Interview: Playwright Peter Coy On Building His House In The Country and Other Plays

Prolific playwright Peter Coy has recently published his latest collection of his plays A House In The Country and Other Plays

Interview: Playwright Peter Coy On Building His House In The Country and Other Plays

Prolific playwright Peter Coy has recently published his latest collection of his plays A House In The Country and Other Plays. I had the chance to pick deeply into Peter's brain on his works and past schooling.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Peter!

How did you choose these five plays from your repertoire of over 45 plays to include in this book?

I chose, in collaboration with the publisher, five plays that use music and theatrical time in five different ways to create different kinds of theatrical experiences for an audience. A HOUSE IN THE COUNTRY is a lyrical, intimate drama that uses non-linear time and place structure to unravel out character and plot. POE & ALL THAT JAZZ is a madcap psychological trip that uses jazz standards, fluid historical time, Poe's actual words, and a three-foot-tall doll to explode the desperate love life of Edgar Allan Poe. A SHADOW OF HONOR is an historical play combining interlocking, alternating stories about PTSD and murder from different time periods based on real events from 1907 and 2007, using period songs and music. THE GIFT OF THE MAGI uses a more traditional theatrical time structure to focus on the tough financial landscape of the early 1900s that is the reality surrounding O. Henry's romantic fable. And WILL'S BACH is a love story in real time - an hour and a half of personal crisis. The main character uses poetry, verbal invention, and several J.S. Bach's violin and cello sonatas to create the emotional urgency of his situation, the music becoming another character in the play. The structure of the play is also a theatricalization of musical form.

Your plays collectively portray states of chaos. Any other particular themes reoccur in your plays?

Yes, chaos - but I am always searching for the reason chaos bursts out of the status quo. For me, it is love that most powerfully creates chaos; love is always revolutionary and is the dynamism that blows up conventional order. I want to find out how, to know how love influences the characters' decisions that will ultimately determine the shape of a new order.

How long does it normally take for you to complete the final draft of a play?

I have five or six stories and a lot of characters and relationships living in my head all the time. Some of the stories have been there for 15-20 years. For whatever reasons, I will start to work on one of these. Once I start, it could take two to three months to come up with a first draft.

When do your words become set in stone? After a few workshop readings? After a premiere's dress rehearsal?

Never. But, yes, on opening night, the words are pretty much set for that production. But each new production, each new cast and director, makes me look again at the script and at changes that might be made.

How involved are you in the pre-production of your plays' premieres? A hands-on physical presence? A hand-off, but open to script changes?

Interview: Playwright Peter Coy On Building His House In The Country and Other Plays I almost always insist that I be involved in pre-production, talking to the director and designers. I like to be at the early rehearsals to make sure that it is, in fact, my play that is being worked on. I will never talk to the actors, though, unless the director asks me to, and then only in the presence of the director.

Do you often attend your show's premieres?

I will do my best to go to opening night. And I will try to see a performance or two during a run. A play will continue to develop and deepen during a run often in unpredictable ways, and I am intensely interested in the process. I want to be surprised by what happens as a result of the actors' commitment to the work over time.

Would you name what you consider the most perfect production of one of your scripts? And why?

Two productions: the Hamner Theater's production of POE & ALL THAT JAZZ that was performed at the DC Capital Fringe Festival and Charter Theater's production of A HOUSE IN THE COUNTRY.

POE requires from a director - apart from a deep appreciation of Poe's work and his psychological make up - an understanding of the particular theatrical demands of the play: a confused clown that was Poe, a three-foot-doll as a character, surprising bursts of jazz songs, a verbal fugue, blurring of past and present time, a character who toys with her relationship with Poe in order to confuse him, etc. I directed two brilliant actors, a jazz pianist, and a bass player. I knew ahead of time how the play should work. And I had to throw away all that knowledge every rehearsal and go back to the energy of the language, the actors, Edgar Allan Poe, and all the women in his life.

A HOUSE IN THE COUNTRY requires a full commitment to the non-linear time structure. Charter's production, brilliantly directed with skill and love by Keith Bridges, with a cast of four talented, deeply engaged actors, brought the play to life in ways I hadn't imagined. I was at most of the rehearsals and continued to make changes right up till opening night. We won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play - 65-seat Charter Theatre was up against Arena Stage, the Kennedy Center, Studio Theatre, etc.

What are you most proud of in your work with the drama department at Nelson County High School in Virginia?

Proud - yes of the work, engagement, creativity of the kids. What I love about working with the advanced drama class at Nelson County High School is their desire and willingness to explore and experience everything from full bore, wacky physical comedy to deep, internal psychological drama, and often the mixing of these extremes. Diana Driver, my theater partner and the head of the drama department, has created an atmosphere where the students feel safe in any kind of exploration.

Interview: Playwright Peter Coy On Building His House In The Country and Other Plays Writing and adapting plays that need to be especially shaped for a given cast and 35 minutes max duration has been wonderful and challenging. Directing plays in styles from commedia dell'arte to American realism to kabuki to clown/bouffon has been particularly exciting. And, of course, watching the kids become state champions five times and runners up three times in the past 13 years - what more could I want.

What words of wisdom, that you learned from a mentor, do you always try to pass on to these high schoolers?

Be on time for rehearsals ready to work. In rehearsing a scene, always ask, "Where's the love?" even in crazy physical theater, especially in crazy physical theater. And then go with your impulses, physical and otherwise, and see what happens.

What did you originally want to be when you grew up? A writer? A clown? A professional lacrosse player?

When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a writer, a poet. But then, as a grown-up kid at the age of 49, I wanted to be Buster Keaton.

Where did you get your clowning, bouffon and commedia dell'arte training?

I got my first clown training from three of my favorite people - Jane Nichols, Karen Beaumont, and Virginia Ness-Ray. They blew my mind and heart open. At SUNY-Purchase I had been trained in Stanislavsky and Eugene O'Neill, and clowning was a kind of theater I'd never experienced or even imagined. I went on to work on clown with Pierre Byland, Christopher Bayes, Avner Eisenberg, Aitor Basauri, Giovanni Fusetti, and Dody DiSanto. My bouffon work has been with Giovanni Fusetti, Victoria Scott, and Aitor Basauri. My comedia work has been with Joan Schirle and Christopher Bayes.

Would you share your highlights of being a three-time, all-American lacrosse player and a member of the 1974 USA World Champion lacrosse team?

What a time. I don't think there were highlights, just honing my edges. The camaraderie with teammates and with opponents is what has lasted these many years. College athletics is a huge commitment. I remember I was constantly working on my own on my individual skills. And on the practice field, always working on team play - positioning, anticipating, preparing for new opponents, their vulnerabilities and their strengths. And, of course, constant physical conditioning. One thing: for games, you have to go on the field with the knowledge that you are going to dominate. Of course, you're not going to win every game. The 1974 Lacrosse World Championships were in Australia and the international rules were different from the NCAA rules, especially for defensemen. So I had to adjust in a week to a new kind of play. And we won. It's great to win.

What have you been doing these pandemic months to keep creative and sane? A brand-new play, maybe?

I've been writing. I worked on a Zoom play with Nelson County High School for the Virginia High School League State One-Act Play Festival. For that, I adapted and directed Karen Hesse's Newberry Award winning novel Out of the Dust, which we submitted in video form to the Festival. We ended up coming in third in the State competition. And now I am preparing myself for the unexpected in the 2021 Festival - not knowing what play the kids will decide they want to do. I typically have to create an adaptation in two to three weeks.

Interview: Playwright Peter Coy On Building His House In The Country and Other Plays Also, over the past year, I did significant rewrites of three of my plays, and I've completed a draft of a new play that will have a reading this coming fall.

I've been dancing a lot in the kitchen by myself to Jackson Browne's "Tender Is the Night," and listening to Tom Waits gravel his way through all that down and out, one-foot-in-the-grave blues...

Now that live theatre is opening up again, what's in the near future for Peter Coy?

I'm in a clown workshop in August. I want to go to the theater again, be fed by great productions - plays like PETER AND THE STARCATCHER, NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812, THE ENCOUNTER, the New Victory's production of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, Mark Rylance's JERUSALEM. Give me physical theater, the excitement of invention - and give me actors and a space to create.

Thank you again, Peter! I look forward to reading and seeing your plays.

To purchase a copy of A House In The Country and Other Plays, log onto ITASA BOOKS or Amazon.

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