BWW Interview: Playwright Christopher Daftsios and LILY at NJ Rep
New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) continues their successful season with Lily written by Christopher Daftsios and directed by Sarah Norris. The show will be on the Long Branch stage from October 24 to November 24. It stars Christopher Daftsios, Joy Donze, Tait Ruppert and Adam von Pier.
Aging country superstar Toby Crenshaw is ready for his usual post-performance "meet and greet" with a line of eager, young groupies. But when the first girl to enter turns out to be far more than Toby can handle, he finds himself in an impossible situation.
Broadayworld.com had the pleasure of interviewing Christopher Daftsios about his career and Lily.
Daftsios acting credits at NJ Rep include Mercy, The Jag, Swimming at the Ritz, and Substance of Bliss. As a writer, he's collaborated with Hegenschiedt and Winkler on over a dozen original theater pieces including Dance is not Enough. His short play, In the Hole, was produced at Theatre Brut: When the Circus Comes to Town. Lily marks his first full-length premiere. Circus Dreams, his second full length, will be produced as a staged reading at The Actors Studio, Dec 11th, and will receive a full production in NJ Rep's 2020 season. Daftsios is a proud company member of NJ Rep, NLTP, The Dramatist Guild and The Actors Studio.
When did you first discover your penchant for writing?
For thirteen years I worked extensively throughout Europe in Dance Theatre, a movement medium that may incorporate music, projection, spoken word, etc. We created these pieces through structured improvisation but the choreographers I worked with eventually gave me the freedom to write scenes/monologues outside of these improvisations. Writing was just something that came naturally out of the process of performing.
Who have been some of your career mentors?
I've never had any formal training in the craft. Shepard, Williams, Miller and Simon have certainly been voices that have inspired me to dream in this realm. They've set a bar for truth and courage that I aim for when I'm in the process. In terms of trusted advisors - I'm actually open to critique from any and all sources. If I check my ego and accept that it's about the work and not me then I can better recognize what is and what is not good for the story's development. After completion of a first draft I try to get as many opinions as I can. I'm aware that other writers may see this as a bit on the foolish side but it's working so far so...
How does being an actor complement your work as a playwright?
I write in the same way I act, with respect and care for the moment. When acting every breath of life is inspired by the person in front of you, or, at least, that's the goal. It's the same with writing. When I have my characters I put them on the page and allow them to react to each other. They write the story. I take dictation. If I respect their process and stay out of their way it seems to turn out. When I try to force them into a certain narrative the story suffers just as much as when I try to force moments while I'm performing onstage. It's about letting go of that ego, that control.
What inspired you to write Lily?
Initially boredom. Last January I found myself without a job or plans of any kind and had the idea, "Why not write a play?". The next few weeks I was glued to my couch ten, fifteen hours a day, writing. At the end of those two weeks I'd finished first drafts of a short (In the Hole) and a full length (Lily). As for the actual story of Lily - I just thought it needed to be told. I'm of the opinion that if it's in the realm of human experience it deserves to be onstage. Lily deals with a taboo subject in a non-traditional way. Most writers might avoid this type of narrative as it may be hard to get produced. As it was my first play and I never dreamed it actually would be produced I didn't feel those limitations. When I go to the theater I want to be changed. I want the play to tear my guts out and shove 'em back. That's the kind of play I wanted to write. The kind that I wanted to see.
Tell us about some of the challenges you are having as being a performer and the writer of Lily?
I don't know if I'd recommend it. It's very hard to create an honest moment with an actor onstage when you're thinking, "Is this scene too long?" or "Maybe I should change this word to that". I've had many sleepless nights reworking the play since we've started rehearsing. But I'm surrounded by incredible people who I trust to tell me the truth. Sarah Norris who is directing is also an exceptional dramaturg. She started as an actor so I trust her when she tells me something isn't working or may be superfluous. I will say that acting in it puts me right in the middle of the process of bringing it to life so, although it's been a certain type of hell, I really wouldn't have had it any other way. I've definitely lived a lot of life the last few weeks.
Can you tell us a little about the cast and creative team for the show?
I've already told you about our incredible captain, Sarah Norris. I acted with her in several plays many years back and since have been directed by her in works produced by the theater company she founded, New Light Theater Project. We got lucky with this cast. Tait Ruppert and Joy Donze were so incredible at the initial audition there was no need for callbacks. Filling the role of Tommy, the gentle giant head of security, was tricky as it required someone who had the courage to be simple but needed to also possess a certain level of musical ability. When the artistic director, Suzanne Barabas, recommended Adam von Pier, the theater's assistant stage manager, I was doubtful at best. I'd known Adam for years working at NJ Rep but he'd never acted before so I didn't expect much. What he did for me during a Skype audition made my jaw drop and he was immediately cast. The performances of these three actors are more than worth the price of admission.
We'd love to know a little about your experiences with NJ Rep and how they have influenced your career.
Several years back I was about to go into an audition thinking, "This is my last. That's it. I'll do anything. I'll go to med school." After I finished the audition the artistic director followed me out, sat me down and said, "We need a real actor for this part. Would you like to do it?" That artistic director was Suzanne Barabas and the theater was NJ Rep. I did that play, three after that and a slew of shorts and staged readings. They then took a chance on a staged reading of Lily and here we are. SuzAnne and Gabe have given me a forum to create like nowhere I've known before or since. They've nurtured and encouraged my artistic endeavors as an actor, guided me with care across that delicate bridge from performer to playwright.... and, of course, saved me from med school.
What would you like audiences to know about the show?
The show is about an aging alcoholic country western superstar, his straight shooting manager, his gentle giant head of security and the eighteen year old girl who rips through, takes them to task and changes them forever. More than that I don't know. It's not a play for the faint of heart but I can say with assurance it will be an experience for audiences not soon forgotten.
Can you share with us any of your future plans?
My second play, Circus Dreams, which explores LGBTQ issues still pervasive in Smalltown, USA, will have a staged reading at The Actors Studio in December then receive a full production in NJ Rep's 2020 season. I'm currently in talks with several theaters for New York premieres of both Circus Dreams and Lily. I just finished my third play This Neighborhood which examines current controversies within the Catholic Church. As for my plans directly after Lily? Sleep.
Tickets are available for Lily and the other productions at New Jersey Repertory Company. The theatre is located at 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740. Visit http://www.njrep.org/ or call 732-229-3166.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Christopher Daftsios