Writing Craft, Vol. III: Playwrights Jeremiah Albers and Brad McMurran (Part 1)

This conversation in two parts deals with comedy writing, reading, inspiration, criticism, and making an audience laugh.

And a new play. Can’t forget that.

Wanderlust, premiering Friday as part of the Dog Days Festival at the Generic Theater Down Under Chrysler Hall in Norfolk, Va. is the first play written and by the team of Jeremiah Albers, theater critic for AltDaily, and Brad McMurran, one of the leaders of The Pushers comedy group. Albers, too, did his time with The Pushers.

Readers of the blog probably caught the recent Belligerent Q&A with them. If not, give it a try. They bring the funny.

Albers and McMurran also directed the play. Again, it opens Friday, June 17, at the Generic, 215 St. Pauls Blvd., Norfolk downtown. The run is from June 17-19, 23-26, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $10. For more information call (757) 441-2160 or visit the Generic’s online reservation Interbot thingy. Patron under the age of 18 must be accompanied by a “responsible” adult.

This is Generic’s standard, not mine.

The playwrights met while studying in the Old Dominion University theater department before working together in The Pushers.

We spoke at the Colley Cantina in Norfolk for about an hour, and I had to make some hard choices about what to keep in these posts. I leaned toward questions about writing, as this is the supposed thrust of the blog. Point being: thas been edited for length, clarity, and, in cases that should be fairly apparent, language.

One link to/embedded video below contains adult language and probably is not safe for work.

This starts with a question to Albers about joining The Pushers.

Q: You had a dramatic background, but had you done improv?

Albers: No. No improv.

Q: So why did you want to do comedy?

Albers: It just seemed like an interesting thing to do. It was something I hadn’t done before.

McMurran: He turned in probably … in my opinion, one of the finest scripts we had the first season. What we’re doing now, compared to then, is a lot different, because we didn’t know what we were doing. He turned in a beautiful parody of The Vagina Monologues. … It was written by somebody who certainly knew that play. You know, it plays every ten minutes in Hampton Roads.

Q: I think people hear improv and think you get up on stage and make up whatever you want. When I went to my first Pushers show – One of my favorite skits, as I told Sean (Devereux, head writer and producer of The Pushers), was “Justice Crusaders.” It’s just great. It’s written –

McMurran: That was certainly a sketch. It wasn’t until the second year of The Pushers that I went up to Upright Citizens Brigade and went through the whole program up there, and came back and started implementing that into shows. We also used that for writing. Still are. … We found something in New York that I think we instinctually knew, but to put vocabulary to it, “game.” (Finding “the game of the scene,” for example; Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre defines “the game as the single, specific comedic idea that makes a scene funny.”) … I started to notice the pattern of a game. It makes your scene so much better. That’s something that’s gotten a lot better about writing and doing improv.

Q: There’s a really clear pattern of reversals, and not just reversing the expectations of the characters but what the audience expects, and that makes it funny.

McMurran: One of the first things you learn about comedy is one of the funniest things you can do is the unexpected. That’s game. If you’re leading an audience down a pathway to where they think it’s going somewhere and then you – (claps) – flip it on them? They love it.

Q: Particularly the sketch where (Albers) plays Aquaman trying to join the supergroup in the kid’s bedroom or basement or whatever –

Albers: Yeah. It’s kids with a superhero club.

Q: But you play it straight. It’s a tragedy for Aquaman. … Did you have a part in writing it or did Sean write it?

Albers: Sean wrote that one, and he brought that. The key to really successfully acting in comedy is you have to believe it. You have to play it straight.

McMurran: If you don’t play it straight, it’s not funny.

Albers: If you don’t believe it, nobody else will either.

Q: (Albers) left the group. You’ve done some plays. You did a play with CORE Theatre Ensemble.

Albers: A few actually.

Q: And then you’re doing reviews as well. What was it that made you want to write a play?

Albers: It’s something that we’ve been talking about doing since probably the beginning of The Pushers.

McMurran: Believe it or not, this is our fifth idea. We have four other ideas that we want to do. The original idea that we had … is we wanted to write a comedy around Elizabeth and Bloody Mary as sisters, where what that would have been like growing up in that household between the two, but done as a pure comedy. We, ah – we bailed on that project. (Laughs.)

Q: When did you start writing this project?

Albers: March.

McMurran: A little before that.

Albers: February? February.

Q: And when did you have a script?

McMurran: Yesterday. (Laughs.)

Albers: Ask me on the 17th. (Laughs.) No, we actually had a second draft of the script by the beginning of May. We had a rehearsal-ready script. And, of course, we’ve been revising and changing and rewriting as we’ve been going through rehearsals.

Q: What was your process? I haven’t seen the play or read the script. I made the assumption that it’s based (after its inspiration, Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde) on a circular –

Albers: It is. One character from each scene moving to –

McMurran: Yes and no. We have an argument about this.

Albers: It is the same model.

McMurran: I learned La Ronde as an improvisation. It’s actually one of my least favorite improvisational games. However, the crowds love it. It’s something we’ve implemented in The Pushers. The crowds love it. I thought this would actually be genius to write this as opposed to improvising it.

Albers: It was a likely first play for us to write because, I mean, we have experience working together in sketch comedy and so here we have this fully integrated complex play but it’s still done in manageable chunks. From a writer’s perspective, it’s easy to handle that. We have these two characters. Each character has a two-scene arc. Everything is very contained in this model. It’s very compartmentalized, and that has made it very easy us to find our feet as (writers) because it’s not like we were trying to write some complex farce where if we find out we have a problem the whole second act collapsed.

McMurran: I think some of the coolest moments we had were how many natural patterns showed up. Some we intended. Some we didn’t.

Q: One of the things that can happen when you have characters who aren’t on stage for a long time, and have a very limited arc, is they can become types. Is that something that you fought against or embraced?

Albers: Every character in the play is identified by their job. You have a housewife and a newscaster and a squid and a waitress, and the idea is you introduce them as these labels, and you peel that label away.

McMurran: It also becomes our thesis in the play, at the end of the show.

Albers: Yeah. It’s really the main thesis of the play.

McMurran: Are we our jobs?

Q: Why did you set it in Hampton Roads?

McMurran: Write what you know.

Albers: I really philosophically believe that theater has to exist for community that it’s in, and what better way to do theater for your community than to do theater about your community. People are more likely to respond to this than they are to, you know, Twelfth Night. That’s just true.

McMurran: We hope. (Laughs.)

Albers: Although I like Twelfth Night. (Laughs.)

McMurran: I like Eleventh Night better.

Q: There might be expectations for fans of The Pushers that the play will be a certain kind of (humor). What do you think their experience will be?

McMurran: You’re not going to get a play by (us) where comedy is not involved. He tried to fight against me on that a lot. “Brad, this is not a sketch show.”  I’m like, “It should be.” (Laughs.)

Albers: The idea is kind of a play for people who don’t see plays. I’m hoping to get that audience because I think they will be surprised by what they get, but hopefully they’ll like what they see.

McMurran: This might be controversial. I’m so tired of going to plays where it’s people playing for their friends. I would love to get a different group coming in, much like we do with The Pushers. … We went away from the theater crowd. It was one of the best moves that we made, when The Pushers left theaters and went into bars.

Q: Can you describe the change for you?

McMurran: When you go out and play for people who are in the business or in this local Hampton Roads area – and I have a lot of respect for actors in this area, please don’t confuse that, and groups such as CORE; I love CORE – but it becomes more of Our Gang, where we’re going to put up our play, and they put up their play. I had guys who have never seen any live theater come up to me after a show and say, “I never knew it could be this fun.”

Q: One of the interviews I read, you had talked about Tim Conway. Can you talk about him, and … some of the writers, either comedy or dramatic, who influenced you?

McMurran: When I grew up there were two names in my household, Tim Conway and Bill Murray. Tim Conway … I never heard my parents having such fun. They would be losing it, you know? … I didn’t understand the concept, of just watching this little guy get so carried away in these scenes. Just thinking about him in any sketch just makes me laugh. Certainly, probably the first sketch that comes to mind is the one where he’s the old man. No, I take that back. It’s the dentist. The dentist, where he keeps hitting himself with the Novocaine. It’s all physical comedy. … Bill Murray, I think everybody at this table knows I have an unnatural man crush on him.

Q: What they might have in common is there’s pain in their comedy. Especially Bill Murray, there’s a sadness.

McMurran: He’s a very subtle actor. There’s so much more behind the eyes than the normal comedian.

Q: What kind of writers did you emulate or study?

McMurran: I’m a classics guy. When I got put on restriction … I was on restriction every day. I went to Episcopal church in Portsmouth and every Sunday I would do a pratfall after communion. … I’d be put on restriction. My restriction at the McMurran household was you had to go and read classics. … Herman Hess’ Siddhatha is a book I read two or three times a year. And I know I’ll get dogged on this, but I do love The Old Man and the Sea. It’s one of those books that I go back to. And the last one I will have to put on there is The Razor’s Edge.

Albers: I read a lot of plays. Plays are easy to read and it’s kind of an occupational necessity to be familiar with a lot of them. I love all kinds of stuff. Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. More modern stuff, I love David Mamet, sometimes. (Laughs.) I will add that caveat: sometimes. Sondheim. I’ve always been really interested in playwriting as a craft because really when you’re acting in a play, which I have a lot of experience doing, you are given this information in front of you and it’s your job to kind of unravel it and get the information out of it that you need to do what you need to do. So I’ve always kind of been fascinated with word choice. I think the best person writing in the theater today, although he’s not really writing anymore, is Sondheim. Even though he’s a music guy, you look at his lyrics and how compact they are, and they’re so clever and they have these crazy rhyme schemes to them, but they’re also brilliant dramatic writing. If you you unfurl them and put them as lines in a play, you could play them as a scene. And I’ve always been really enamored with that idea.

McMurran: One of the writers who has influenced my life is in this play – John Keats. … “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is the (poem) in this play. I’ve never fallen in love with a poet more than I did him. My father turned me on to him. He said, “Hey you ought to read this guy.” I said, “I don’t want to read this flowery guy.” And next thing you know I read that specific poem.

To be continued in part two, which should be posted by early Friday morning.

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