The Playwright’s Playground: Playwright Aaron Posner Talks About Inspiration, Adaptations and That ‘Stupid Fucking Bird’

Aaron Posner is a director and playwright whose impact is nationwide, and he is one of the hardest working men in theatre. Posner’s Award-wining play Stupid Fucking Bird (Helen Hayes – Outstanding Resident Play, Outstanding New Play) made its stunning World Premiere last year at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. The production returns to Woolly reuniting the original cast and creative team and runs until August 17.

Posner is a multi talented artist who has built a thriving career as a theater administrator, playwright, and a freelance director of award-winning productions in the Washington, D.C. area and throughout the country with an emphasis on Shakespeare and literary classics. He was a founding Artistic Director of Arden Theatre in Philadelphia, directing more than 35 productions there and Aaron is an Associate Artist at the Folger Theatre and Milwaukee Rep.  Posner has won three Helen Hayes Awards for Best Director in the last eight years all for work at the Folger: Measure For Measure, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Cyrano, and a 2014 HHA -The Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play along with two Barrymore Awards (A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Best Director), and The Chosen (playwright), both at the Arden.

Aaron Posner
Aaron Posner

A graduate of Northwestern University with a B.S. in Performance Studies, Aaron is an Eisenhower Fellow and his plays and productions have been seen at more than a third of the LORT theatres in the country. His published and produced adaptations include: The Chosen, My Name Is Asher Lev, Sometimes A Great Notion, Cyrano, A Mystery & A Marriage (music by James Sugg), Stupid Fucking Bird.  He has directed at major regional theaters across the nation including the Folger Theatre and Milwaukee Rep, Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, The Alliance, The American Repertory Theatre, Arizona Theatre Company, California Shakespeare Theatre, and Seattle Rep.

Aaron Posner has a full 2014 – 2015 DC theatre season planned.  In addition to Stupid Fucking Bird, he has written another irreverent variation of an Anton Chekhov play – this time Uncle Vanya – with his adaptation Life Sucks (Or the present ridiculous) presented by Theater J, Jan 14 – Feb 15. Posner will also direct Sex with Strangers (Signature Theatre, Oct 15 – Dec 7), Tony Award Winner, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Arena Stage, April 3 – May 3), and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at Folger’s Theatre, May 12–Jun 21st.  He is currently directing George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma (Aug 8- Oct 3rd) at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Aaron, why do you write? More specifically, why do you write plays/adaptations? Did you always want to be a writer?

I didn’t set out to write plays or write at all. Going all the way back, I started as a reader, as an avid reader of comic books, then books, etc.  Reading led me to acting when I was in Junior High or so.  Acting led me to directing in college. While I was in college at Northwestern I was lucky enough to stumble into the world of adapting literature for the stage, which I have done more than 25 years now.

Now I have eased into real playwriting through adaptation. I view typical, reverential adaptations of literature—like what I did with My Name is Asher, Lev, and The Chosen and many others—more as an extension of the directing process – or an expansion of it. These are the kind of adaptations where your goal is to be true to the intent of the original author. You are serving them and transforming or translating their work to this new medium. In these instances the key questions that arise are the same as when you are conceiving a Shakespeare play or re-imaging any other kind of classic for the stage.

While my adaptations have been successful and I am extremely proud of them as works of theatre, the truth is, I’ve only recently begun to really think of myself as a “real” playwright …Stupid Fucking Bird was a real departure for me in that it is was much more personal.

While I am still building plays on the bones of an existing piece of literature, my Chekhov variations (both SFB and Life Sucks or The Present Ridiculous which I am doing at Theatre J this coming season) are anything but reverential. I am not serving Chekhov.  If anything, I am subverting him. Or perverting him. Or lovingly deconstructing him or something. The original work is just a jumping off place or an inciting incident for my own personal explorations. I am finding this kind of writing deeply satisfying. It give me a chance to speak directly to things that are of deep and abiding interest to me, and I get to try to make theatre that is the kind of theatre that I most want to see.

So I am writing because…I have something to say, I guess, and having spent my life in the theatre this is the best way I know to say it.

You just mentioned that only since Stupid Fucking Bird did feel that you were a professional playwright. How long did it take to get to that level of confidence? Was there another specific incident or achievement when you felt you were “on your way?”

I have been writing plays that have been produced for more than 25 years.  I began to think of myself as a playwright somewhere in the middle of that… maybe after The Chosen in 1999 began to get produced at other theaters and won some awards and such. But writing the musical A Murder, A Mystery & A Marriage with composer James Sugg was another major step.  It is based off of a Mark Twain short story, but it is all my words and lyrics. And then the final step has come with these Chekhov variations. I can now call myself a playwright with a straight face… not just when I am applying for Playwriting Fellowships.

In a Drama Urge interview you once said, “I am interested in flawed people doing the best they can while messing up quite a lot along the way.” We are all flawed people, so unpack that for me. What intrigues you more – the mistake (or the drama leading up to the mistake) or the recovery?

I am intrigued and engaged by all those things. I am not very interested in villains. I am not interested in black and white or any of the shades of gray that border on black and white. I am interested in the really messy, ambiguous, complex, tricky, baffling stuff in the middle where right and wrong are not only impossible to distinguish, but often beside the point. I am interested in our most mess, most human, most awkward struggles to connect and engage with each other and the world around us, because that is actually what most of us spend our life doing. At least those of us embroiled in first world problems. If the day-to-day struggle is not for survival then it tends to be largely about connecting in more meaningful and fulfilling ways with other human beings. In other words, of course, love. So there you are…Stupid Fucking Bird.

STUPID FUCKING BIRD

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I saw the amazing World Premiere production of Stupid Fucking Bird at Woolly Mammoth. Congratulations on the Helen Hayes Awards wins. What has happened with the life of the play since its Woolly debut?

I am very pleased that it is having a nice robust life and I have no idea where it will go from here. There have already been three or four productions since Woolly and there are about a dozen more coming up next season all around the country, both in professional theatres and at Universities. We have not released it to amateur companies, but I think it is great for colleges so I am letting them get a crack at it earlier than is the norm with new plays.

There is an excellent production running right now that was just extended through August 10th at the Theatre @ Boston Court in Los Angeles. I had the chance to see it and was thrilled with it. And of course the remount of the wonderful production that started the whole thing off at Woolly is up and running now, too. But there are professional productions coming up in Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, and Boulder, and more. There is interest from overseas now  as well, and so we will see just how far it can go. I am very excited about all of it.

Tell me what you like most about Stupid Fucking Bird and what you’ve experienced with the many STB productions you’ve seen around the country?

I’ve only seen two other productions thus far, one at UC Santa Cruz and the one in LA. Both were great and the audience was engaged with the ideas of the play and the story of the people, so it was working. That was extremely gratifying…

Why did you want to write a remix of Chekhov’s The Seagull?

I love Chekhov in theory, but I have rarely loved seeing it. He was a brilliant, insightful, revolutionary, paradigm-shifting author, but then… the paradigm shifted. He won. The majority of the plays written in the past 100 years owe a great debt to him, but this huge influence has served to make what was once revolutionary feel historical and often even hackneyed.

My hope, I think, was to be, perhaps, a tiny bit of a revolutionary myself. I make no claim to even a tiny percentage of the genius Chekhov was, but I have spent more than 25 years thinking about theatre and making theatre and I would like to think that I have learned some things about the kinds of energy and theatrical moments make me excited in a way I am seeing a play. So I was hoping if I wrote honestly about things that I really cared about and tried to put them in a form that would wake me up, not put me to sleep; that would make me a little bit surprised or even a tiny bit shocked; that would make me sit forward in my chair and not sit back – then that might be an interesting thing to do.

For those not familiar, please explain the similarities and the main themes at work in The Seagull and Stupid Fucking Bird.

The plot is more or less the plot of The Seagull. The characters are more or less the seven main characters of The Seagull, which some folks cut and some combined and re-imagined. The themes are much the same as Chekhov’s themes… love and loss and art and the day to day to day struggle of being a human being.  The Seagull is our launching pad.

What was your biggest challenge writing this script and how long did it take you to write it? (When will you know you are finished with the play?)

The simple truth is I did not actually find it very challenging to write.  I was writing for my self and my own experience and it mostly just kind of flowed out fairly naturally and easily. It even seemed to just rush out at time, in a bit of a torrent – which was exciting and surprising. But I didn’t worry it a lot, I just did it with very little expectation.

And then, of course, there was a ton of re-writing in the extraordinary development process at Woolly Mammoth with Howard Shalwitz, the Artistic Director of Woolly and the Director of the show, and Miriam Weisfeld, the Dramaturg, and the cast through workshops etc. as we refined and reshaped things, but the core of the writing was not a struggle, but a pleasure.

I have just finished it now, I think. I saw a great production at The Theatre @ Boston Court in LA and I will see the remount at Woolly and then I think I will be done and get it published. I am on to the next one, and the next one ,and there is a time you finally have to say, “Enough. I could tinker with it forever, but that is what this one is. On to the next.”

Why did Stupid Fucking Bird work for you as a title better than any other for your play?

The title came first. I said it as a joke during a conversation at Woolly Mammoth one day while I was directing The Vibrator Play there… almost exactly four years ago now. We were talking about Chekhov and I was saying how much I loved The Seagull and how much I kind of hated it, too. And as I left the room I literally said, “I should do my own adaptation. I should call it Stupid Fucking Bird.” And people laughed… and a minute or so later I thought… “Hmmm… I should do my own adaptation… And I should call it Stupid Fucking Bird.” And that was how it started.

What was important about the title for me was it meant—at the time—that I was assuming hardly anyone would ever do it. I wanted to write it for myself. Or, rather, not for myself, but without worrying about produce-ability or viability or censoring myself in any way. I figured the title made it clear what I was up to from the get go, so I didn’t have to worry and I could just write whatever the fuck I wanted, as it were. So that was very helpful to me. And, you know, people seem to really enjoy it. It is nice to have a title that gets a laugh but that also accurately describes the whole energy and dynamic of the show to come.

What has been your biggest surprise with the success of the play?

If you write about things that are personal to you, it’s always a wonderful discovery and surprise to find that other human being can really relate. It is nice, because it makes you feel that it is more likely that you are not just an oddball or crazy. I have been incredibly gratified that all kinds of people have responded so strongly to it. I have gotten the most amazing emails and calls and notes and reviews and all. It is hitting a chord. And that is deeply satisfying.

What questions or thoughts would you like audiences to take away after seeing Stupid Fucking Bird?

I think about this question a ton as a director, but not so much as a playwright. I am not writing to a purpose. I am writing about things that feel important or troubling or disturbing or delightful to me and I am exploring them out loud through these characters. I am trying very hard to make sure the play is not boring. I am trying very hard to surprise and engage the audience. What exactly they take away is going to depend on what they bring so it is not so much my business.

A Deeper Look: PROCESS . . .

How disciplined are you with your writing process? Do you have a favorite time or place to write?

I write on the computer. And I tend to write as fast as I can type. I don’t worry it too much. I know that I will cut and cut so I just write and write and write and see what happens. In terms of disciplined I have no idea. I have no set process, no set time. I have a crazy busy life and a nearly three-year-old daughter so I write when I can write… Very late at night, very early in the morning, on trains, in waiting rooms… I wrote the party scene in the third act of SFB with one hand while my daughter was about eight months old and asleep in my other arm during the workshop we did at the amazing Lake George Theatre Lab.

I write when I can…

Your theatrical tastes are broad. Your works have ranged in style and subject. Is there a throughline or a conceit that is at the heart of your writing? Is there a Aaron Posner style when it comes to your adapted and original work?

I am trying to make work that is worthwhile. Worthwhile is a word I have co-opted from Chaim Potok. My adaptations of The Chosen and My name is Asher Lev have been two of the most important works I have created and I have enormous respect for Chaim, and he would always talk in his work and in his life about doing things that are… worthwhile. Which I take to mean, worth doing – worth spending your time and energy and money on. So that can be a huge range of things… I am interested in a lot of things so I tell a lot of different kind of stories.

I am afraid it might be up to others to look in from the outside if they ever care to do so to draw any conclusions about what an “Aaron Posner style” might be.

. . . & INSPIRATION

When you graduated from Northwestern University what was your career plan? When did you make the transition from directing to playwriting?

I didn’t have a career plan. I thought I would be a professor, I think, since my dad is a professorand I always loved being a student and a teacher. And I still do and hope to do much more teaching in the years ahead. But I just knew I wanted to direct and be in theatre and I was already really engaged by adaptation from my time following Frank Galati around Northwestern. So I just started… and things just unfolded one step at a time. A long story.

But everything that is central to my work was really formed during the ten years I was one of the founding artistic directors of the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia. This was where I really started directing professionally and writing adaptations that would get instantly produced and where I learned the foundation of everything I know about theatre.

When do you find time to write when you are so busy working as a Director?

You know… if you love something enough and care about it enough… you find the time.

Well said. I agree 100 percent.  Who are your playwriting inspirations? What three favorite living playwrights do you recommend or would you like to see performed in the DC area?

I love Stoppard for the breadth and intelligence of his work.

I love Duncan MacMillan who is a Brit who wrote LUNGS that I directed at Studio a few years back and I think is as exciting and dynamic a playwright as is working out there now.

I love Chuck Mee, too, and I would not have written Stupid Fucking Bird or Life Sucks or really any of the pieces I am doing in this vein if I had not seen and read his amazing work. I think he threw open doors for me and a lot of others writers and I am very grateful to him. And of course there are so, so, so many other writers—locally, nationally and internationally—doing such amazing, inspiring work. I just wish I had more time to read and see more of them.

I think the new writing for the theatre that is happening now is incredibly inspiring and is taking theatre in exciting and dynamic and… worthwhile new directions. It is fun to be a part of it.

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Stupid Fucking Bird plays through August 17, 2014 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

The Playwright’s Playground is a monthly in-depth conversation with local female playwright in the D.C. theatre community. Female theatre artists make up more than 50 percent of those involved in the theatre, yet the number of female playwrights being produced is dramatically lower. In this continuing Column, I will also interview and introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights in the DMV area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and their motivations and struggles to write and produce their art. Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - sydneychanele@gmail.com [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]