Monday, August 18, 2014
By Sam Hurwitt
Berkeley playwright and videogame developer Aaron Loeb is the author of several acclaimed full-length plays, including First Person Shooter and Abraham Lincoln's Big, Gay Dance Party, both of which premiered at San Francisco Playhouse and went on to productions elsewhere. His third play at SF Playhouse, Ideation, premiered in the company's second-stage Sandbox new-works series in November/December of 2013 and went on to win the Glickman Award for best play to premiere in the Bay Area that year. (Full disclosure: I'm one of the five theatre critics that choose the Glickman winner, in my capacity as a freelancer for KQED Arts and the Marin Independent Journal.) This fall, Ideation will become the very first Sandbox show to move on to the Playhouse's main stage season, reuniting the original cast and director. We're proud to present the full script of Ideation in the July/August issue of Theatre Bay Area magazine. I talked to Loeb about the play over breakfast at a restaurant in his South Berkeley neighborhood.
Playwright Aaron Loeb (upper right) and director
Josh Costello (top left) with the cast of Ideation.
Photo: Lauren English
Are you from here?
I'm from central Illinois. But I'm actually a third-generation Berkeleyan. My grandfather's a professor at Cal in anthropology, and my father grew up here and moved away to become a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, so that's where I grew up. Then I came back to good old Berkeley.
When did you come here?
I think it was 1995. A friend of mine had an apartment in the Castro and said, "There's this incredible Internet thing happening, and there's jobs everywhere. You should move out here. I've got a spare room." So I packed my bags and moved out and started working on the web in the very early days. I got a job on one of the first commercial videogame websites and started my videogame career.
So how does your playwriting fit in with everything else you're doing?
How does it fit in with videogame making and being a dad and a husband? Sometimes very stubbornly, and sometimes very easily. When I'm in a writing period, I work every weekend and late at night and get a bunch of writing done. And then there'll be periods where that part of my brain is just not functioning particularly well, and I come home and sack out in front of the television and don't have a creative thought in my head. Ideation was written during a period three years ago where I wrote three plays in pretty rapid succession. And since the opening of it, I've been dormant for a while. I've been doing some rewrites, but I haven't done a huge amount of writing. It really is about finding the time to write in a solid, uninterrupted chunk. I'm not the kind of writer who gets up every morning and writes for an hour or two hours. That sort of disciplined writing style is amazing, but I've never been that guy, unfortunately.
How did this play come up?
This play was born of a couple things. It was born of my work at Electronic Arts; I first started hanging around with former management consultants at EA. I'd never really spent any time working with consultants and their relentless and almost fearless problem solving. It doesn't matter what you put in front of them; they'll say "OK, there must be a solution to this" and start diving in, tearing it down to its component parts, and start to solve the issue. I enjoyed the language of it, I enjoyed the energy of it, and I thought I want to write about that someday.
And at the same time my wife, Kathy, was going after General Ali Samatar, the former defense minister of Somalia, for the genocide and crimes against humanity that he committed in Somaliland, which is northern Somalia. She had a bunch of clients who were suing this guy, who had retired to Virginia, for the crimes he committed, and they won their case.
Just talking to her about that case, and the systematic way in which they went about slowly but surely brutalizing these people, something clicked between the two. The thing about the systematic problem solving of something as complicated as a genocide was horrifying but also very interesting to me.
Did you start working on it right away?
Not immediately, but pretty quickly. Jonathan Spector from Just Theater, he and Molly [Aaronson-Gelb] have their writers' lab there, and he asked me to be in it that year. Jonathan suggested I work on something that wasn't under commission, so I started working on this. The first act came very quickly, and the second act was much more problematic. I really loved the first act that ended with Sandeep pointing out that they don't know who they work for—that moment was always fantastic for me—but then what happens next was a brutally difficult problem to solve. I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. It used to be that a week passed and Sandeep has not come back; I liked that thematically, but it made no dramatic sense.
There were a lot of people around town who really helped me with this play. [Shotgun Players artistic director] Patrick Dooley said to me, "Man, I really love that first act, but in the second act it sort of lost steam. That first act was so taut." And I said, "Yeah, I know. That's the problem with the intermission. It just automatically loses energy. The only thing I could do is just not have a second act." And then I went, "Wait a minute! I can get rid of the second act and make it one big scene!" The realization that the tension of the play is most sustainable if I never have a scene break, if the lights never go down, was what really unlocked the play. That was quite a bit into its development. It had already been at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival and been through two workshops.
This is the first time one of the Sandbox shows has been remounted as a main stage show.
I think it's not a coincidence that this is one of their first seasons in the new space. In the old space, to move from the Sandbox to the main stage, you'd move across the hall and move from 60 seats to 99 seats. It isn't as momentous a decision to make. But also the development in the smaller space was a good bit more developmenty. They were really workshop world premieres. When Bill [English, artistic director,] moved into a larger space, the Sandbox became a more prominent thing. This next season he's announced shows that show he's got even bigger plans for the Sandbox moving forward.
When was it decided that you were going to be doing this play in the Sandbox?
Because I have such a strong working relationship with Bill, he reads all my stuff. And he liked this but also saw what I and Patrick Dooley and others saw, which was that the second act was losing something. Bill was kind enough to do a reading of my rewrites at one of his Monday night reading series, with no break, and the audience really loved it. Bill and I had coffee about a week later, and he said, "Look, I want to do this." And I said, "On the main stage?" And he said, "No, no, in the Sandbox," and he explained to me what his plans were for the Sandbox. And I bought in; I was excited by it. We agreed we'd do it if we had the best actors in town, and sure enough, we managed to get the best actors in town, and it all came together beautifully. We just assembled an artistic team that made us feel like, it doesn't matter what size space, this is going to be really good.
How would you describe the play?
I describe the play to myself as a modern retelling of the Daedalus myth, but nobody else sees it that way. A guy comes to Daedalus and says, "Hey, buddy, I want to hire you for a job. I want you to design a labyrinth that nobody can ever escape from. And Daedalus is so excited about his own intellect that he goes, "Yeah, sure, I'll do that. What could you possibly be using that for? No problem." So he designs the labyrinth, and Minos sits him in it. Daedalus is so convinced of his own cleverness that he figures out how to escape this labyrinth with this incredibly complex mechanism, and the gods have to punish him for his hubris of thinking that he's so smart that he can solve any problem.
I like the idea of characters who get so high on problem solving that they don't stop to think, "Why am I being asked to solve this problem?" But when they do, they then continue to dispassionately use their problem solving to come to any kind of moral or immoral conclusion; it almost doesn't matter. It's more about the high of being such a clever monkey. That's the impulse of these characters in this play—the constant grappling for Hannah between whether she lives in a moral universe or a universe that is a puzzle to be solved. That's the problem for all the characters, but really it's Hannah's story. It's a thriller and a moral dilemma and a comedy. That makes it hard to describe.
How does this fit in with your other plays?
Stylistically it's a departure from my other plays, because it's so naturalistic, which is not something I've done a lot of. I'm at heart a Brechtian. I generally want to expose the artifice; I want to remind the audience that they're in a theatre.
But at the heart it connects to my other plays because the plays are often about people grappling with whether they live in a moral universe or a universe where what matters is to be right. In First Person Shooter, I was intently interested in how people find themselves in a conflict where all of their economic interests and all their local interests and their tribal interests tell them this is the thing you have to do, but what their moral center tells them is that that's actually wrong, that they don't want to do what their tribe wants them to. And Abe Lincoln is very much a play about people with different tribal interests trying to figure out whether they can actually have a country anymore. Can we be a United States, given how deeply divided we are? Particularly as we've divided more strongly into faction and tribe than we have at any other time in my life.
Are you rewriting Ideation much?
I'm not rewriting a lot. This play was the source of my favorite dramaturgical story of all time. We had two previews, and at the end of the first preview Jonathan Spector was there, and we had a really good talk about it, and I felt really good. And Jonathan said, "And, uh—no, never mind." I said, "No, what is it, Jonathan?" He said, "No, I can't, I can't." I said, "No, you've got to give me the note. What is it?" He said, "Well, I don't know, it just seems to me—I don't remember where—it seems to me that there's a point somewhere where Hannah says something she wouldn't." [Laughs] I was like, "What?!" He said, "That's why I didn't want to give you the note! I don't remember! I'm watching the play and very engrossed, but I think somewhere I thought to myself, I don't understand why she's saying that now." And I was like, "That is a horrible note, you jerk!" He was like, "I told you I didn't want to tell you!" So I'm watching second preview—and the next night is opening night, so I'm not able to change anything—and sure as day, when I got to the moment that he has to have meant and I heard Hannah say the thing that she says, I was like, "Oh my god, he's right! Why does she say that right then?" It was so obvious to me and amazing to me that I'd never noticed this before. I'd seen the sequence dozens of times and had never, ever noticed this, and it was too late for me to do anything about it. So I called him that night and several expletives came bursting out, but I was also very grateful that he helped me find this thing.
And there's a little bit of clarifying Hannah's power in the situation, early in the play. It's obviously pointed for some audience members that it's an office space with four men and one woman, and the one woman in the office is in fact supposed to be in charge. I've had quite a few conversations about, "Well, it doesn't really seem like she's in charge because they just do whatever they want." And I respond, "That's what the modern office is." When you're working with highly paid, high-functioning individuals, being in charge often means being a facilitator. I'm a senior manager at my job, and if I walk into a creative session—and this happens literally all the time—I sit in the background and say, "Pretend I'm not here. Don't worry about it." And then I may occasionally step in and people will be very attentive to what I'm saying, but it would be really weird for the CEO of my company to walk into a creative brainstorm and start telling everybody, "Work on that, work on that, work on that." Everybody'd think, doesn't he have something better to do? But one can't escape the gender politics of it. Which I didn't want to, obviously—the gender politics of it are very important to me. So it's important that the audience's conception of what an office looks like not interfere with their understanding of what's happening in the play.
So what's next for you?
I've been working on a commission for the Dallas Theater Center for several years now. That's a historical play that's extremely complicated. It's a very big story, and it's one I've been obsessed with for years. And that's the next big thing, finally getting a workable draft of that play. It's about Sam Houston, the founder of Texas. The complication for me is that I have so much historical material that it's tough to turn into a play that isn't three hours and 45 minutes. Not to say there's anything wrong with plays that are three hours and 45 minutes.
Sam Hurwitt is editor-in-chief for Theatre Bay Area. He is also the author of The Idiolect, a blog about theatre, movies, comics, media and the decline and fall of Western civilization.