An interview with playwright Aaron Posner
By John Langs, ACT Artistic Director
From the Stupid Fucking Bird Encore program
JL: Well hello Aaron Posner, how are you? What’s going on in your life?
AP: Well, I’m in Las Vegas.
JL: Wow, what’s going on in Vegas?
AP: I’m actually working for Cirque du Soleil this week. Consulting on three of their shows, basically doing acting coaching and a little dramaturgy, that kinda thing.
JL: Has there been gambling and strip clubs?
AP: There has been a little bit of gambling, which hasn’t gone terribly well, and no strip clubs.
JL: Excellent. Playwrights seem a notoriously lonely lot, so I had to ask. [Both laughing] So, honestly, it’s really good to hear your voice.
AP: Yeah, you too. How are things there?
JL: They’re good, man. We are right about to open Assassins, so I drop into tech right after this phone call.
JL: I am looking at the wonderful scenic design for your play. I’m such a fan of the tone of your play and how irreverent and sassy it is, that I thought we’d do a sort of irreverent and sassy John-and-Aaron back-and-forth about the nature of your work.
AP: You go.
JL: So my first question is “What the hell makes you think that you can rewrite a Chekhov play and unleash it on the world the way you have?” Where do you get the chutzpah?
AP: [Laughing] Yeah, good question. Well, 30 years of frustration with the state of theatre, I suppose. Too many nights in theatres feeling like I’ll never get those couple of hours of my life back. A passionate desire to make theatre that has something more to do with authenticity than … fakieositude. You know, theatre is all lying, right, it’s all pretend, but there’s a certain kind of integrity to the lying that I’m interested in; some degree of reality and transparency. And of course, you know, not being a genius like Chekhov, or Shakespeare, or Shaw, or any of those guys, I needed to steal something with which to hold my ideas … so the Chekhovian playground, as it were, of the big questions about love, life, and the quotidian struggles of life, seemed like a really good vessel. On the other hand, I didn’t know any of that theoretical shit when I started writing the thing. It really just started as a joke where people were talking about Chekhov and I talked about how much I loved and hated The Seagull, and literally as I was walking out of Woolly Mammoth, I said, “I should write my own adaptation of The Seagull; I should call it Stupid Fucking Bird” and everybody laughed, and that’s how the play was born.
JL: [Loud chewing] I think that’s fantastic. I’m munching on a bagel, sorry.
AP: That’s all good.
JL: Like you do.
AP: And then a couple of weeks later, I couldn’t sleep one night, and I thought, “I should just do this”. I started writing the first scene. I just thought, “How would I write Chekhov’s first I’m in mourning for my life Masha/Medvedenko scene for me, thinking about what I think about in terms of relationships and people?” And then as I continued working on the play I needed to go back and read it, but the last thing I wanted to read was a good version, so I found the most unspeakably horrible translation on the internet that I could possibly find, which was like an old British literal translation that had lines like … rather than “why do you always wear black?/I’m in mourning for my life, I’m unhappy” it would be like “why is the hue of your clothing so dark? Because of my deep sadness. I am sad about my life.”
JL: Ah, the Brits…
AP: Like it was so bad that I knew it wouldn’t influence me and I wouldn’t actually use any of it, but it reminded me of the scenes.
JL: Bone-dry British dramaturgy.
AP: [Laughs] Exactly.
JL: I’m nostalgic for it. You and I had a wonderful time one summer in Wisconsin. I have a great picture of our kids, Maisie and Captain, sitting out on the porch. How has life, age, and fatherhood, changed your perspective on some of these characters, or on your writing in general?
AP: You can feel it most particularly in the stuff about Dev having children at the end of the play. Dev and Mash gain perspective from parenthood. They gain humanity, and acceptance, and a wider view of the world through the addition of children into their lives. Con is horrified at the state of the world and how people continue to behave in such shortsighted, idiotic, insane ways. Stupid Fucking Bird was born almost at the same time as Maisie was. So I think it shows up in the play that way. It shows up on some level in the fact that I wrote the play. You know, it seems counterintuitive but of course, get a kid and then you get more productive because you have to. I needed to provide, and writing this play was a part of that.
JL: Ah, that’s great.
AP: And of course there’s just simply that fact that, it makes you think about your life on a larger canvas. Maybe one can feel this in the play too; Con and Mash both have a real sense of horror at the state of the world and the fact that people continue to behave in such shortsighted, idiotic, insane ways … I’ll never forget hearing one interview with a guy in the Coal Lobby going like, “People are saying that there’s not enough coal in the ground. There is coal certainly for at least another 100 years!”—as though that was a great argument. Like, “We won’t destroy the world and use up all of our resources for like 100 years, so what could you possibly be worried about? You’ll all be dead!” As though that should be the test. As opposed to obviously looking forward and thinking about your kids and your grandkids, and something beyond, “Will the world survive until I am dead?” So I feel like that perspective is in the play as well and is very much with me, certainly more so since Maisie’s been born.
JL: Well it certainly sings in those scenes between Con and Mash. I wanna ask you the Brain Teaser Question: Which Chekhovian character did you most feel like when you were in your 20s and which one are you now?
AP: Obviously I was Con. How could I not be? You know, my middle name is Conrad …
JL: [Laughing] Your secret is out!
AP: So there just might be a little identification with that young man, and his desire of making a real difference in the world. But the truth is I feel deeply connected to every character in Stupid Fucking Bird … particularly, if truth be told, the men. The women are harder for me and take more research and conversation and … excavation, or something. But one part of my younger self was definitely Con. Now I am more Trigorin … there is a lot of me in that role, too. And a bunch of me in Sorn, too.
JL: Sort of like Trigorin with a Sorn rising.
AP: [Laughing] Exactly! But then I feel really connected to Dev, too. And Mash!
JL: She’s got the Posner Sass. So, I wanna ask you about your first preview of Stupid Fucking Bird. I’m always interested in the inner workings of a writer on their opening night when they’re just about to face the public with a play for the first time. I’m interested in what it felt like to let this one out into the world.
AP: Well, this one felt pretty great from the start, I have to say. There’s a certain quality of laughter that tells you that people are not just laughing because it’s “haha funny”, but because it’s going deeper for them. It’s something they think is true. There was a quality of laughter in response to a lot of this show that was very gratifying from the very start, and has been a continual delight and surprise.
JL: Well, I cannot wait. You and your play are remarkable, my friend.