My 2009 Interview with Kristoffer Diaz

2009 Interview I did with playwright Kristoffer Diaz.

Playwright, Kristoffer Diaz, answered some questions about his plays, writing process, and influences etc., over email in December 2009 for a project I was doing for a class at Columbia College Chicago, where I just graduated with a B.A.. “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” had just finished its very succesful run at Victory Gardens Theater, and “Welcome to Arroyo’s” was scheduled to open at ATC (American Theater Company) in the spring of 2010.

Diaz was recently named a “Finalist” for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” and it starts performances Off-Broadway in New York at Second Stage Theater on April 27th. (Diaz blogged about finding out about the Pulitzer nomination here.)

“Welcome to Arroyo’s” starts previews tonight, April 15th.

Q. Can you describe your writing process, generally? What do you go through from when idea pops into mind to a first draft? Do you outline? Do you just do scenes?

KD: This varies, but here’s the gist: I get an idea. I kick it around in my head. For a long time. Sometimes there’s research involved, but usually, I’m just thinking about it. For months. Years sometimes. Then I usually sit down and make what I call a “work diary” — a document on my computer in which I start listing all the things I know about the project. For example: with Chad Deity, I said that I wanted to write a play about wrestling. And that it was based on a storyline that had happened in the WWE. And I knew there were characters based on certain wrestlers. And I’d keep going back to the document, adding things that I knew I wanted to put in the script. And I put off actually writing for a long time. Then I set some kind of deadline, and I just start banging it out. The actual writing process may take a month or two, but the prep takes forever. A lot of times I’ll write in bursts, generate about a third of a play, then stop altogether, returning to it later, and sometimes changing it dramatically. It’s incredibly inefficient.

Q. How soon do you show it to anyone? Do you use closed readings to “hear” it and then work on it?

KD: I’ve developed a small network of folks that I can send stuff too when a draft is done. Usually though, I contact The Lark Play Development Center in NYC and try to schedule a reading with them. Hearing the play is a huge help to me. I’m lucky to be at a place where I can start sending plays out to theaters/competitions pretty early in the process, but I try to hang onto them until I feel pretty confident in where they are.

Q. Recently on Twitter you wrote that you might have realized you write the same play over and over? What was going on in your mind at that time?

KD: I’m trying to remember exactly what that was in reaction to. I think it was about identity, surely. That’s kind of all I write about. But more specifically, I think it was about someone holding onto something inside them that they need to say but can’t. I don’t feel that way so much anymore, or at least I can’t remember the impetus.

Q. Deity and Arroyo’s have lots of the same characteristics. You break the fourth wall quickly and determinedly. You have multiple characters give direct addresses/monologues to the audience. You also have characters address the audience in asides during dialogue. To what would you say your style is influenced by?

KD: Three major things of many (maybe four): 1. plays from the 80s: M. ButterflySix Degrees of Separation, and Zoot Suit, specifically. They all broke form, bounced around, addressed the audience, and they all feel influenced by their times. But at base, they’re all traditional narrative pieces. That’s what I do. 2. solo work by Danny HochJohn Leguizamo,Sarah Jones (and Universes, who are a collective, but have the same feel). These were the first writers of my generation that I remember following, and they wrote about big issues that were personal to them, and they did it with some hip-hop swagger. 3. Musicals: in good musicals, characters speak until the emotion gets too large to express through speech, and then they sing. In my plays, characters speak until the emotion gets too large, and then they wrestle. Or rap. Or the play ruptures and conveys that emotion for them. and 4. pop culture: I’m a child of the eighties, which means I watched a lot of TV and listened to a ton of hip-hop. Those things influence me, and they influence the audiences that I want to see my work.

Q. How do you use workshops? I recently had my first workshop for my first play in September. It took me (two months) to be able to glean through all the feedback, go back and do research, figure out what I wanted to write and be able to start to write again. I ended up splitting my play into two different ones. Do you find workshops can be as harmful as they are helpful?

KD: Workshops can be tough. The most important thing I learned was to take notes in a workshop and not enter into arguments. There’s no value in “winning” an argument with someone who thinks something about your play. I try to take what people say and then digest it in a way that helps get me closer to what I want to say…and will help get them closer to understanding it. Sometimes you learn things you don’t want to learn (like you’ve got two plays where you though you had one). But the goal has to always be to get what you need to help the audience, not what the audience thinks you need to help them. Audiences don’t know why the like what they like. What’s important is hearing what they like and what they don’t, then you figure out the why.

Q. Have you ever used a dramaturg at any point in your writing process? Do you find them helpful? I believe I’ve read that you dramaturg plays atyoung playwrights conference in Nebraska. What about that is helpful to you as a playwright? What is the role of a dramaturg on new plays in your eyes?

KD: I’ve worked with dramaturgs a few times. You get good and bad from them, I think. I’m undecided. Working with young writers, my role is more of a teacher — I’m trying to get them to understand things about the writing process, about craft, and about what it means to be in a workshop. I’m trying to teach them to defend their own work. But professionally, the dramaturg is trying to help you say exactly what you want to say, which is good — but sometimes, you just need to trust your own instincts. People (directors, dramaturgs, actors) get interpretations wrong ALL THE TIME, and if you go with them on a lot of it, you can screw up your play. It’s not a science. You’ve got to figure it out as you go.

Q. I think I read it took you seven years to get finally get a professional production of one of your plays, which ended up being “Chad Deity” at Victory Gardens. Why do you think it took so long? Was it seven years since when you got your bachelor’s? Or your MFA?

KD: Seven years from my MFA. I’ve only really had three plays out in the world in that time, so I don’t think it’s that unusual. Jobs come, a lot of times, from getting new work in front of people consistently. I’ve been working on the same plays for so long that when theaters read a play and said “we love it but we can’t produce it. what else do you have?” — I didn’t have anything else. I’m happy with that process — I created two plays (Deity and Arroyo’s) that I’m unspeakably proud of, and those are the plays I want produced. I’ve got no problems with laying the groundwork for so long — it’s made me better as a writer and gotten me to the place where my first real productions have been larger successes than they would have been if I got produced at 24.

Q. The big monologue at the end of Deity seems to be a comment on hard it is to get your “voice” heard as an artist. Is that monologue a reflection of your feelings as a playwright in trying to get produced?

KD: It’s a lot of things, but yeah — I’ve definitely got some problems with the way the theater business is run. It’s not just about me getting produced — there are a lot of things that rub me the wrong way. I wanted to use the play to both vent and explore some of those issues in a way that wasn’t just directly complaining about the business.

Q. Do you think the play development process is helpful or harmful? You signed with William Morris right after NYU? If they can see your talent, why would no theater take a risk on your work?

KD: It’s not either/or. There’s lots of good about the play development process. The danger is that if you’re working outside a certain aesthetic, or if you’ve got a play that people like but don’t think they can produce (because it’s too expensive or they’ll have trouble casting it, they think), you get shuttled into the development arena. For some plays, that can actually be a problem — in the case of Deity or Arroyo’s, most development opportunities don’t have the resources to do the wrestling or hip-hop portions of the play, so you’re only developing the script, which means you’re only developing half the piece. It’s like working on a musical without performing the music.

Q. How does an agency like William Morris treat a “young” playwright like yourself? Are they patient while you try to get produced? Do they work for you in any way?

KD: The main things that agents do is handle your contracts. The early part of your career (and most of your career) is still built on you going out there and getting work. Agents can help with that and can get you meetings with folks you might not know otherwise, but getting you jobs is not their primary goal.

Q. There’s a big debate in Chicago about the importance of having an MFA for a playwright. The feeling among a lot of people here is that you can get your work done by one of the many companies here, so why go into debt to get an MFA? I was looking at your list of influences from the 7 Questions interview linked from your blog. I probably didn’t know 80% of your influences. I enjoyed looking them up and reading about them. It seems like a lot of the playwrights have MFAs from NYU or Brown. Did getting an MFA help you become a better writer or is it more helpful in the fact that it opens doors and it’s easier to get a teaching job?

KD. I wouldn’t be a successful playwright if I didn’t have an MFA. I learned a great deal of craft and structure from my program. At the same time, I wouldn’t be a successful playwright if I hadn’t worked with folks from theHip-Hop Theater Festival, the Hispanic Playwrights Project, and The Lark early on — folks that encouraged me to write about things that mattered to me and my generation. The MFA definitely opens doors, and it definitely helps establish a network of folks who know your work. It can also (and I think usually does) make you a more technically proficient writer. But you can certainly succeed without one. A lot of my favorite writers don’t have MFAs, and don’t need them. I needed one.

Q . The top two people on your influence list is Danny Hoch and Eisa Davis. Hoch runs the Hip-Hop Theater Festival that gave “Welcome to Arroyo’s” it’s original workshop production. Hoch wrote in his essay “Towards A Hip-Hop Aesthetic: A Manifesto for the Hip-Hop Arts movement,” “Hip Hop Theater is by, about, and for the Hip Hop generation, participants in hip hop culture, or both.” Do you thinkArroyo’s fits in that category? Certainly, ATC’s and the majority of American theaters don’t speak to the hip hop generation. Are your plays bridging that divide? Are you creating a new audience or bringing the theater audience to your world?

KD: Arroyo’s is hip-hop theater through and through. I want members of the hip-hop generation to come see my plays, regardless of where they’re performed. At the same time, I don’t want to be exclusive on that front. I want mainstream theater audiences to be confronted with the voices of my generation. My challenge to myself is to create work that can be appreciated by multiple audiences. I want people to leave saying “I didn’t think I’d like a play about professional wrestling, but I did” or “I usualy don’t like plays, but I really liked this.” I travel in both worlds, so I make art for both worlds.

Q. Hoch also wrote, “An entire generation of hip hop artists have graduated from the nation’s arts schools, and yet our stories are rarely put on stage.” Any thoughts about that comment? Do you think you and your influences going to arts schools are going to change that wave? How do you change theater’s minds about what kind of work they can put on? Are you breaking new ground for a new generation of playwrights?

KD: We’re getting there. Generational change is inevitable and starting to happen. Eisa DavisQuiara Hudes, Annie BakerLin-Manuel Miranda,Danny HochUniversesDeborah SteinPeter Nachtrieb, and a whole ton of other writers I’m forgetting right now are starting to get produced — most of the ones I named aren’t hip-hop artists, but they’re folks I consider peers, and folks whose work I love. Things are changing.

You can learn more about playwright Kristoffer Diaz on his website.