Playwright David Ives, best known for his collection of one-acts All in the Timing, now says he has achieved an unforeseen level of "obscurity," as he has described it. Ives recently reteamed with director Jason McConnell Buzas on his new work, Polish Joke playing at Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre through Aug. 5. In the play, the protagonist, weary of being on the butt end of jokes, attempts to jump the "Polish conveyor belt," where you "eat kielbasa, play the accordion and become a priest." Playbill On-Line sat down for a chat with Ives and spoke of Buzas, Beckett, Big Love, Batman and more.
Playbill On-Line: When did you start writing Polish Joke? And how did it end up in Seattle?
David Ives: I finished it about a year and a half ago, it took a few months to write. I then showed it to the director of the show [Jason McConnell Buzas] and he gave me four hours of notes and said "Take out these 45 pages." So I did and replaced them with 45 other pages. I then went back to work on it and just at that time I was called by the head of the Ojai Playwrights Conference in California and he said "Do you have a new play?" and I happened to have this one. So, Jason and I workshopped it there last July and we did some work on it and I guess someone at the festival called Gordon [Edelstein, artistic director of Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre] and said "You should look at this play." And so he did and I knew Gordon, he called me up and said he'd love to do it.
PBOL: You've worked with Buzas before. Do you find that you complement each others' work?
DI: Jason Buzas was the first director of All in the Timing in New York. He conceived it and directed it as well. It's a beautiful collaboration. He just really understands how to keep a vision of the play in his head which I can't violate by doing terrible rewrites or by cutting things that shouldn't be cut, adding things that shouldn't be added or those lethal 45 pages which luckily are now burned.
PBOL: Have you ever considered directing one of your own shows?
DI: Never. Directing is a job I've never, ever wanted. I don't think I'd be very good at it. Also, I don't understand how directors can see a show 50 times and keep going to it. I have to admit that I lose interest in a play the day it opens, because I'm already working on something else anyway. In fact, one of the weird things about working in the theatre is that it's like you met the most wonderful girl on a bus and you have a five hour conversation. This is the most sexy, attractive, intelligent, wonderful girl in the world and you ask her out, she says yes and a year and a half later, you get to go out on a date.
PBOL: What is Polish Joke about to you?
DI: The play is a journey play about a young man growing up Polish and what it's like to be Polish. I'm speaking from personal experience, growing up on the South side of Chicago and knowing a thing or two about it. So, I would say it's a sort of "fantasia on Polish-American themes," if I may steal from Tony Kushner for a second. It's a series of steps along the journey of someone trying to deal with metaphysical state of "being Polish," which is a state in which nothing you ever try can ever come out right. It's his discoveries on the road to wisdom about "Polishness" and so it draws on recollections of growing up in Chicago, but it's sort of a Polish Candide. PBOL: A lot of your earlier works are set in a sort of fantasy world. Is this one more personal?
DI: In a funny way, all of those plays in fantasy worlds are pretty personal. (Laughs). It's my personal fantasy world. It's really hard to write anything, including a grocery list, that isn't personal. Even a grocery list tells people what sort of oatmeal you eat in the morning. But, I think that this play certainly has elements of fantasy in it; in fact, it goes in and out of little fantasy worlds that take him to different places of "Polishness." But I think that I have a prejudice toward plays that don't have couches and don't have kitchens. I go to the theatre to get away from the world, so the theatre, for me, is a crystallized expression of somebody's interior and I seem to crystallize into fantasy (which I guess I should be paying a lot of money to psychoanalysis for.) I like plays to be a little suspended above the Earth because there's a lot of freedom there. It may also just have a short attention span. I just have a prejudice against realism. As I've said before: Realism is not only the bane of the theatre, but is the bane of reality. So I flee it at every possible turn.
PBOL: I've read a few interviews you've done...
DI: (Jokingly) They're lies! They're all lies! They all misquoted, they're totally misquoted! I know, I read those interviews.
PBOL: Those same ones?
PBOL: You seem to mention Samuel Beckett a lot. Do you consider him an influence?
DI: I adore Beckett. I would hate to put myself in the same room with Beckett, he was pretty wise in the ways of theatre. But, I suppose that it was hard, growing up when I did, not to be influenced by, surrounded by Beckett, because he was still in his great years when I was in college. And so, I'm sort of a product of mid-20th century modernism, those playwrights. It's hard to get away from the influence of things like Waiting for Godot. Really, that whole crop of playwrights in that time—Pinter, Ionesco, Beckett—those are strong [influences]; it's like [a musician] living when Stravinsky, Schoenberg, etc., did—it's hard not to be influenced by what they're thinking. But also you form your work by getting free of those walls. I still adore him.
PBOL: Is there any play you've seen or read lately that has moved you?
DI: Polish Joke. (Laughs.) Yes, Big Love [by Charles Mee]. I thought Big Love was a great play. In fact, Big Love to me, is the kind of play that should be given the Pulitzer Prize. Actually, they just did it here [at ACT], but I saw it in Louisville [at the Humana Festival] last year. He's an extraordinary playwright. I liked it so much, I just went back the next day and saw it again. Everything about it, to me, seemed to be theatrical and grand and real and scary and wildly funny at the same time. That's certainly the best play I've seen in decades, outside of my own.
PBOL: Speaking of you, are you working on anything now?
DI: Yes, I'm working on a bunch of things. I have a children's novel ["Monsieur Eek"] coming out in a month which I had great fun writing. I'm working on two musicals: Batman and Dance of the Vampires, which is supposed to come to Broadway next spring. Jim Steinman wrote the music and lyrics and it's been a big hit in Europe for the last four years, but in coming to America, they wanted it adapted to an American sensibility. I had been working with Jim [on Batman] and he asked me for some ideas on it and suddenly I find myself collaborating on it, which has been a real joy. It's based on "The Fearless Vampire Killers" by [Roman] Polanski. So that's what I'm working on and I'm writing something new. I seem to be writing six hours a day these days.
PBOL: Still longhand?
DI: Are you kidding? It's the only way to write. I don't understand playwrights who can write (mimes typing). I find structure in longhand simply because for me that [computer] screen is totally structureless. It extends all the way up and all the way down and so, for me, I'm staring into infinity. When I've got a little notebook in front of me, it's a great way of tricking yourself into writing on those days when you wake up and you're not feeling too inspired: You can say "I'm just going to work on this page that I wrote yesterday" and suddenly you've got two new pages. It's very contained. I just like the speed of my hand and that's just how fast I think. It also makes me feel like what I'm doing is hand made, rather than blessed by Microsoft, run off by the chips—"I wrote five megabytes today."
PBOL: Any parting words of wisdom for young playwrights?
DI: There are very few generalizations that work about playwriting, except George S. Kaufman [said] that "Plays are not written, plays are re-written," and I'm a lover of rewriting. I love going back and making it right, especially in rehearsal. I think rehearsal is the most fun anybody can possibly have outside of sex. I encourage America to go into rehearsal 365 days a year, and it'll be a better place. Also Moss Hart in Act One said something to the order of "You never really learn how to write plays, you learn how to write this particular play." Every play, even realistic plays, are setups and payoffs, even Chekhov, even Ibsen are realistic setups and payoffs about a situation and so you concentrate on getting the elements of that into the right order and perspective and relative weight, and once you've done that, you kind of have a play on your hands. The thing about theatre that, I think, makes it so different is that characters in theatre are defined by how they talk. It's about people breathing their souls onto an open stage through their voices. That's partly what makes it so interior and so personal and why it's so hard to talk to somebody about how they can reform their personal vision of the characters that they want to talk about. Playwriting is just hard. There are so few plays that last beyond this week, much less til next month or til next year. Plays have such an incredibly short shelf life, which says something about how immediate they are, but also about how perishable they are. So, it's a tricky business and yet it is the most fun in the world. I feel sorry for people who don't work in the theatre. (Laughs.)
— by Ernio Hernandez