David Ives, who no longer gives press interviews, sat on a Philadelphia stage for an hour recently and answered questions from director John Rando and members of a Philadelphia Theatre Company audience. The occasion was the company's American Playwrights in Context Series in conjunction with the world premiere of Ives' newest work, Lives of the Saints.
Best-known for his collections of short, one-act comedies, All in the Timing and Mere Mortals, Ives for the first time is premiering an entire evening of new plays. (The earlier productions were collections of plays, with only one new one-act in each six-play evening.)
Ives said he chose the Philadelphia Theatre Company for this premiere because it did a good production of All in the Timing in 1995 and because you can work relatively quietly in Philadelphia, without the close scrutiny you get from the New York press and public while you're trying to fix new material.
Ives said that one of his theatrical heroes is George S. Kaufman, creator of the zany early Marx Brothers comedies, and he remembered Kaufman's crack that he wouldn't open even a can of sardines anywhere but in Philadelphia.
One of the new playlets in Saints is Enigma Variations, wherein a Ms. Doppelganger, shadowed by an alter ego, tells her therapist she feels there's more to the world than what she thought. Babel's in Arms is a riff on the biblical story. The School of Natural Philosophy is a spoof of a spy drama. The title playlet shows two Chicago Polish women preparing a funeral breakfast accompanied by visible sound effects that send up percussive productions like Tap Dogs. Soap Opera recounts the love affair between a repairman and his washing machine -- a hot-and-cold relationship, you might say. And Saint Francis Talks to the Birds is a wacky look at the hereafter, partly based on Aristophanes' The Birds. Ives looks for unusual subject matter; he considers it a personal challenge. And he likes to challenge actors; not because of hostility towards them -- just the opposite. He thinks actors deserve more credit than playwrights. "I can sit comfortably in the back of the theatre, while they're up there risking everything." Some actors say they've taken his roles because they thought his ideas were too crazy to be staged and wanted to see for themselves. "I'm a trouble-maker," he said. "I like to create problems."
Asked if he's ever thought of writing serious plays, Ives revealed he wrote a somber piece for Lives of the Saints and dropped it because it didn't fit with the lighter scenes. "But my comedies all have a serious side," he said. "Comedy is serious." Ives and director Rando also recalled that his Ancient History, a one-acter presented three years ago at Primary Stages, was basically serious.
Why are so many of Ives' plays short?, an audience member wanted to know. "I'm impatient," Ives said. "When I watch a play I say 'Okay, I get the point, now end it. I don't want to see any more.' I like things short and to the point."
Ives said he gets inspiration from music and art more than from attending theatre. He noted that many more enduring pieces of music have been written since 1600, and more composers are remembered than all the writers of theatre "from Aeschylus to Albee." His idea of paradise would be to spend his life inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These musings come as little surprise to theatregoers who remember Ives' parody of Philip Glass in All in the Timing and his riff on the life of Degas in Mere Mortals.
He recently returned to studying piano, which he'd abandoned as a boy. Ives likes to sit alone and play the piano at two in the morning and often writes plays afterwards. He works quickly. Many of his short plays are written in two or three days -- or nights.
Though Ives refuses to sit for press interviews, some writers were invited to this performance and Q&A. When asked why one-on-one interviews are shunned and today's session was approved, Ives said this format gives the public a chance to hear his opinions directly, without filtering and editing.
The Philadelphia Theatre Company production of Lives of the Saints is at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street, Philadelphia, through Feb. 21.
-- By Steve Cohen
(Special to PBOL by permission of the author and This Month ON STAGE magazine)