10 questions: Joshua James

1) What the fuck is going on?
I’ve been busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. It’s been a good summer.

On the theatre front: I had a couple plays produced, Ambivalent n Miami and A Gay Thing in Indiana that got some nice reviews.

Right now I’m co-creating a show with Bad Girl Productions that has the working title of Rage Against the Man-chine. The plan is to do it in New York later this year and later in Los Angeles, once we get it ready.

There may be more readings here and there, I’m always on the lookout for cool theatre companies interested in imbibing, with me, from that crank-pipe known as live performance. I’m in love with that abusive spouse known as theatre.

On the screenwriting front: I recently got hired to adapt Peter Biskind’s book Down & Dirty Pictures into a movie, which was a great, challenging job that I loved.

On the fiction front: The novel is done and about to be sent out, so cross your fingers. But the feedback thus far has been positive, so it’s all left to karma now.

On the personal front: Best news of all. Better than all of the above.

Seriously, this news is righteously kickass.

My significant other (known on my blog as the Samurai Lady) and I are about to have our first child. Any day now. Any moment.

Seriously. Baby be due. Just waiting. For those contractions to start. Waiting. Any minute now. Any second.

Baby might come by the time you get this email, I dunno.

Really, by the time I get done writing this sentence, the Samurai Lady could be throw a plate at my head and say, “IT’S LABOR TIME, LET’S MOVE IT! MARINES, WE ARE LEA-VING!”

Actually, she probably wouldn’t say the last part, she’s never even seen Aliens. But it’d be cool if she did say that.

Wait. Just a second. Did she –

Nope. Nothing yet.

If it happens, I’ll send you an update.

Baby. Best production ever.

2) Why do you like writing plays more than acting in them?
Hmm, I think I’m simply just built for it. Writing, I mean.

I’ve acted in some of the plays I’ve written, but most of the time, I get more pleasure in watching good actors do it.

I like acting, I enjoy it but I don’t need to do it. I like to watch, heh. Bonus if you name that movie.

I seem to need to write.

I just love creating stories. And the actual writing itself, there’s a sort of tactile pleasure from it. Just writing this email is kind of fun for me. It’s like giving something of yourself, thoughts, ideas, imaginations or sometimes just foolishness, but it’s still a gift wrapped up in words, and I kinda dig that.

Even more, there’s a real sense of giving and discovery of the self. You do it long enough and work at it so you do it well enough, you’ll find out a lot about yourself. You’ll find your own truth.

I don’t know that you can be be a good writer and hide from oneself, writing eventually communicates the subconcious to the conscious.

Pretty amazing to read Stephen King’s The Shining, written in the seventies, which covers in depth the lead character’s alcoholicism and then go back and read his non-fiction book On Writing, where he talks about how it took years and years for him to face his own alcoholism but it kept coming out in books like The Shining and Misery, the beer-monkey on his back.

It’s just hard to write fiction well and hide from personal truth.

3) Looking back on your catalogue of plays, do any recurring themes emerge that you didn’t necessarily see when you were writing them?
Hmm, wow. Good question.

I’d say a reasonable person, examining everything, could probably find three distinct thematic personalities in my work:

First, LOVE. A lot of my work deals with love, the first short plays I wrote was a trilogy called Love, Lust & Life.

Love and relationships, how people interact and navigate the truth and lies they tell each other. The first play I wrote that got attention, The Men’s Room, is essentially about how straight men love each other.

Second, DEATH. Life and death and suicide played a part in early works . . . dealing with the pain of existence . . . I’d point to The Beautiful One as an example. And my play 2 Very Dangerous People Sharing 1 Small Space Together.

There were a lot of plays like that because I had difficult times during formative years, like so many, and it’s how I channeled it.

And I think the ethics of existence is a extremely pertinent question to examine, so it’s really featured in a lot of my works, in particular Tallboy Walkin’ and Extreme Eugene and a whole lotta more.

Third. RAUNCHY HUMOR & OUTRAGE. In other words, what’s the most outrageous thing that can or cannot be said, and why can’t we say it? Plays like Spooge – The Sex & Love Monologues or The Elf, the Bunny & the Big Xmas Blowup and a whole lot of short ribald sketches to numerous to mention.

My good friend Chuck likes to tell the story of how he went to a performance of one of my plays some years ago but arrived late (also known as being “Chucked”) and wandered around the building, which was large, looking for the theatre space where my play was being performed.

He heard someone shouting, “Did you fuck her? Did you fuck her! Answer me, you lying asshole!”

And he said to himself, “Ah. That must be the Josh James play!”

Heh. The bastard.

So those are the three different thematic personalities that I can see in my plays.

Some plays, like The Penis Papers, feature all three of the above.

Lately politics has come to play, though less in plays and more in other areas of writing.

4) How do you feel about the idea that American theatre has – to its detriment – become centralized around New York City?
Ooh boy. I almost wasn’t going to touch this. But okay.

Let’s take A first, let’s break it down.

When whoever proposed this says American theatre is centralized in New York City, what are they talking about? Theatres themselves?

Theatre is centralized in New York City?

Every city and town in America has a theatre. Most have more than one. Just about every high school and junior high school and elementary school has a theatre.

I grew up in a town in Iowa that had 350 people. Had a theatre in our school. And we also put up plays in the theatre space in our church. So we had TWO.

In Iowa City, where I went to grad school, we had three theatres in our arts department, and there was a professional theatre in town and I think there was also a community theatre. All did shows all year round. Not to mention Hancher, which housed Broadway touring shows and concerts.

There are small professional companies in just about every small city, there are community theatres in almost every town across the country, there are shows done in EVERY high school all across the country, not to mention a load of shows touring.

The act of theatre, ITSELF, is not centralized in New York City.

Okay, we’ve proven that wrong.

But let’s say whoever proposed this “NYC centralized theatre” hypothesis isn’t speaking of theatre, but of theatrical content (which means, of course, they’d need to change their statement) – let’s say they’re really trying to say that the content of the theatre being produced is centralized in terms of culture, that the majority of shows produced across the country are shows set in a specific location (New York City) and specific topics (New York City topics).

Is that what we’re talking about? Content centralized in New York City Culture?

Is American theatre unfairly influenced by New York City theatre culture?

I’d say . . . I don’t think so. Not at all. Not in what I see just in New York City alone, and certainly not what I experienced when I lived outside it.

I think the majority of works produced in theatres across the country are heavily favored toward THREE things:

Free plays (shows where no fees are involved, Greek and Shakespeare), musicals (because that’s where the money is) and old plays that are proven.

Let’s look at the recent theatre season from my undergraduate alma mater, Morningside College:

Cinderella (a musical, ironically enough, I acted in this as a student at Morningside 17 years ago, I played the King). Antigone by Sophocles (old free Greek play) Butterflies Are Free (old play – I think the movie version of this play is at least 25 years old, Englebert Humperdick did the film, right?) Dancing at Lughnasa – Brian Freil . . . (how old is this play, close to 15 or 20 years old, right?)

No real modern New York culture there, right. Irish, Greek, English fairy tale . . . Butterflies is set in New York, I think, but it ain’t New York of today, not by a long shot.

I’d bet if we looked at the season lists for most universities, they’d be close to the same, right?

And I’d say the season list for most professional and semi-professional companies looks very similar . . . the bigger the company, the more often one might find a new play in there . . . but very rarely.

In terms of content, I’d bet money that if we did a statistical analysis of all the theatre produced across the country, in every theatre from high schools to the pros, you’d see that Shakespeare and old musicals outweigh everything else.

I bet we’d see hundreds of productions of Pumphouse Boys and Dinettes and Greater Tune. Both of which feature rural characters and culture far, far from New York City. I’d bet there are far more productions of those shows than of A Thousand Clowns across America currently in theatres.

And I’d bet of all theatre produced, everything, from high schools to Broadway, I’d bet less than thirty percent is by living artists.

And less than ten percent is work LESS than ten years old. I’d bet.

That’s a non-scientific guess, of course, heh. I admit it when I make those. But I’d be interested to find out how close I am. Free plays by dead writers count for a lot. And the Bard wrote a lot of damn plays.

I’d also bet there’s a FUCK of a lot of productions of A Christmas Carol, which is set in England, motherfuckers.

The whole idea that the New York City culture overwhelms all other cultures when it comes to theatre is silly, I mean, Sam Shepard has a career, right? He doesn’t write about New York, he writes about the American West (and he spent four formative years in London). Lots of American playwrights don’t write about New York. Tennessee Williams (another Hawkeye) . . . Beth Henley, Tracy Letts, Rebecca Gilman, Naomi Wallace, Robert Schenkann. Come on, the list goes on and on.

Good writers write what they want, and some are from New York, like Shanley, who’s from the Bronx, and some, like David Mamet, are not.

Most playwrights I know in New York City are not from New York City. And that’s reflected in their work.

The idea that New York City has just ONE culture is ridiculous anyway – Queens ain’t like the upper west side and Brooklyn ain’t like the upper east side and don’t even get me started on the Bronx or even the individual neighborhoods in each borough . . . you can walk ten blocks in Queens and be in a different city . . . There are hundreds of cultures here, that’s the advantage, you can take three steps and find a new cultural viewpoint, and all are welcome.

All cultures are welcome here. All. Which, in a way, makes it a good place to communicate those cultures to the world.

You can’t say that about all other places in America.

One thing that is centralized in New York City is media . . . most traditional mainstream American media is in New York, the biggest papers, the biggest news outlets, they’re here.

So if the argument was that the American media is centralized in New York City, you wouldn’t necessarily get an argument from me. But the media world ain’t necessarily the theatre world.

But that might be what gives lie to the idea that theatre is centralized here. Because the media (which I’d include publishing, the big play publishers have offices here) is here and loud and outleted to rest of the country, you hear about New York theatre in the media.

You want to de-centralize the media, I’m all for that, and let’s bring back the regulations that Reagan destroyed, which left the free press vulnerable to robber barons like Murdock. I’m all for that conversation.

But I don’t believe the theatre culture, itself, is centralized here, I haven’t seen anything to lead me to believe that. I believe some things are, media, publishing, agents . . . I don’t know that theatre is.

As far as what plays are produced here in New York City, there seems to be a lot of influence from London and from American regional theatres.

Naomi Wallace is from Louisville, Kentucky, grew up there, she had plays produced here and there, she had awards but if I recall correctly, her work had to hit in London first (War Boys) before she ever got produced at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Even though she’s from there and a lot of her work reflects Kentucky. Even though she was known and had mad props from major writers like Tony Kushner about her plays.

And she had to hit in both places, London and Louisville, and win the Kesselman award, before she got her first major production in New York City.

If New York City had an undue amount of influence on theatre across the country, it seems it would work the other way, right? New York, then Louisville and London.

What I see as the largest influence on professional theatre in New York, on Broadway and Off-Broadway, is a Hollywood, especially Disney, especially on Broadway.

I don’t know that New York City is the hotbed of “new” and daring theatrical works that it was in the sixties and seventies, or hell, even the early nineties, when I moved here.

It’s too expensive now, and it seems a lot of shows are brought in from regionals, like Sarah Ruhl’s plays, where they’re developed in places more friendly to new artists and then, when successful, brought to New York City on a professional level.

There’s a strong independent theatre community in New York City, make no doubt, filled with great artists telling great stories and finding their audiences in pockets throughout the city, but we’re not making money off of it the majority of the time . . . and I see a sharp divide between that and what happens on the Broadway and Off-Broadway scene, I do.

The idea that theatre, as a culture, is centralized in New York City just isn’t true from what I’ve seen, and it honestly feels more like a talking point than it does anything based on true observations or anecdotal evidence. Usually when people say that, in my experience, what they’re really saying underneath it is, “Too Jewish” or “Too gay” . . . and that underlying ickiness makes me irritable, I have to say.

There are much larger problems facing the community than that straw man argument. Especially with the endless treadmill of “development” that’s killing a lot of work before it gets out the gate.

I think we should do less play development and more playwright development. I don’t believe playwrights are paid and/or respected nearly as much as their writer-peers in other fields.

Eventually, either the lack of respect or the lack of reasonable pay drives talented writers to other venues.

I just read an article recently that Brett Neveau, an acclaimed playwright in Chicago (who I knew somewhat when we were at U of I together, go No Shame Theatre!, and very respected) just pulled up stakes and moved to Los Angeles to get into television.

The article quoted him as saying, “I love theatre but I have a family to feed” or something to that effect (Brett, if you’re reading and I didn’t get the quote right, let me know).

Most respected and award-winning playwrights write for film and television these days. Because that’s where we’re wanted, appreciated and most of all, compensated. We do it for the love, true, but we’re not stupid – we know when we’re being treated like unwanted stepchildren.

Hell, I still haven’t been paid for the piece of mine that was performed Off-Broadway in the early part of 2006.

When Rent was workshopped, all the actors, musicians, stage-managers and stage-hands got paid. Jonathan Larson did not. I read that he complained about it and was told, this is how it is. You get paid after everyone else does, after the show opens.

I read later the first major paycheck for Rent arrived two days after he died.

That’s a larger problem facing American Theatre, one that really should be addressed at some point.

Can American Theatre artists make a reasonable living at their craft?

5) Among NYC-based artists, how much support is there for a rigorous and critical questioning of the official 9/11 report?
Not that I’m aware of, at least specific to that report.

What is happening is a rigorous and critical questioning of an obviously fraudulent, corrupt and incompetent Bush administration.

That’s happening. Most artist blogs reference it often, as mine does.

Listen, about NINE-ONE-ONE.

9/11 was a terrible, terrible thing. No argument.

But more tragic is what happened after it.

By that I mean our government and the EPA lying to rescue workers about the safety of the air, and then when the workers started getting sick and dying, the government claimed it didn’t have to do with the air at ground zero and refused to pay for health care (court cases still going on), at least at first.

By that I mean the fact that the man responsible for the above tragedy hasn’t been caught and isn’t a priority for this administration, in their own words, they don’t think about him too much. He sends videos mocking us.

By that I mean the over 4,000 soldiers killed and 30,000 wounded by invading Iraq to protect us from an attack with WMD that Iraq didn’t have.

By that I mean being told we had to invade Iraq and STAY in Iraq because Iraq was responsible for 9/11, when Iraq had nothing to do with it.

By that I mean the over 100,000 dead Iraqi citizens, killed when we invaded to free them from Saddam, and the millions of displace Iraqi refugees.

By that I mean New Orleans and all the people killed there, killed not when Hurricane Katrina hit, but days after when the levees broke and the government didn’t do anything because it was mainly poor black folk and staying in the abandoned stadium without water or toilets is good enough for them, according to Barbara Bush.

By that I mean George W. Bush lying publicly, twice, about breaking the fourth amendment, essentially breaking federal law.

By that I mean the dissolution of our civil liberties and Bill of Rights, as a country who once stood for freedom and democracy around the world which now has a reputation for fraudulent lies and torturing people we don’t like, throwing them in prison and keeping them there for years without trial, without due process or a lawyer, spies on its own citizens without a warrant, just like Saddam used to do.

Those above things, when added together, especially the major tearing and bending of the constitution that binds America together as a democracy, those events are more tragic, terrible and criminal than what happened on NINE-ONE-ONE, bad as that day was.

In America, every year, more than 3,000 people die on the highways in automobile accidents. And that’s tragic, too. But because they don’t die in one spot on one highway, we don’t do anything about it.

And considering what has been done in the name of the tragedy that was NINE-ONE-ONE, maybe we’re lucky no one has tried.

6) To what degree do you think substance abuse is a problem in New York’s theatre community?
I don’t see much, if any of it. Most theatre folk I know are mostly healthy, into organic food and meditation, aside from the occasional organically grown herbal stimulant smoked or baked in brownies, I don’t see any heavy stuff.

I saw more drugs back in other industries (like sales jobs, stocks and the like) than I’ve ever seen in New York theatre communities. I don’t see any of that, but maybe I’m just uncool.

Nobody really wants to work with someone who’s undependable.

7) How have your experiences as a theatre blogger influenced your ideas about theatre?
In every way.

I get to dialogue with many people that, before the Internet, I might never, ever get to meet.

As a blogger in general, not just a theatre blogger, but as a presence on the Internet, I’m able to communicate with a wide variety of folks and hear and see and learn from people from everywhere.

The nice thing about a blog is that it’s interactive and immediate. An idea pops up, good or bad, and the moment you put it up, it travels fast. It gets linked here and there and suddenly it’s in our consciousness, opened up and examined and sometimes even beaten to death, but it’s a good thing.

It’s like a round table with all the smartest people in the world (and some that aren’t the smartest) and you can speak to them and ask questions and listen to what they have to say.

I’ve had internet conversations with NY Times Bestseller authors, Oscar-nominated screenwriters and Pulitzer-prize-winning playwrights.

I’ve gotten advice and knowledge and all around life experience shared from a whole LOAD of accomplished people, and it wasn’t one way, it was a dialogue and nothing is as edifying as that.

Remember in college, when they’d bring in people like that to speak to you and it was usually one of the most exhilarating experiences of college, hearing what someone like Maya Angelou had to say about things TODAY, had to say in response to your question, at that moment (she came to Iowa) remember how thrilling that was? Now folks can do that via the Internet and blogs.

Information from those in the know is always, always a good thing.

Communication is always a good thing.

A huge influence on me, as that people I admire, smart people, I try to listen and learn from and now, due to blogs, I have access to more than I can even reasonably want in several lifetimes.

Myself, I’m always kind of surprised when I post something and hear from a lot of people about it . . . I always figured that maybe my brother and a friend or two would check in, and if maybe five people read what I write on my blog, I’ve had a good day. I always have trouble believing it’s a few hundred or more.

I see my stats, but I always figure it’s the spambots jacking the numbers up. When I blog something and folks talk about it, I’m always like, “Really? You read that? Holy shit!”

I haven’t even really told the REALLY scandalous stories yet, heh.

But it’s nice to share some of this stuff. And it’s a form of writing that’s good exercise for me, which is the main reason I began doing it.

I still get emails, even today, from playwrights who’ve been burned by directors and they read Let me explain my concept for your play or Playwright as an adult who can chew bubblegum, walk and do other things too and for me it’s nice to hear that some of this stuff doesn’t happen just to me.

Playwrights are different from actors in that we don’t meet a whole lot of our peers that often. We meet actors and we meet directors, but meeting other writers, before blogs, was harder, except at short play festivals.

Now on blogs we can really exchange ideas and experiences and it totally rocks.

Man, I love blogs.

8) Are there any new stories being told?
Absolutely.

Heh-heh.

9) What do you like about Tokyo?
It’s a great city, food is great, people are great, the subway trains all have digital clocks on the platforms and if it says the train will arrive at 10:11 AM, it pulls in at 10:11 AM on the dot.

And when it rains, the trains still run, which further differentiates them from New York Subways.

10) As a writer, what are you better at now than you were five years ago.
Everything, I hope.

I know I work harder than I did five years ago. I do know that.

The rest, I don’t know, I can only hope . . . life is a flawed work in progress.

I hope I’m smarter, more mature, more caring, more responsible and a better citizen than I was five years ago.

I hope I’m a more dependable friend to those I love and care about than I was five years ago.

If I can do those things and work hard, then the writing should take care of itself.

I can’t control whether or not someone digs my work or wants to produce it or even likes it, I have no control of that.

So I work hard as I can and try my best to speak to the truth.

That’s why writers and artists and musicians and poets exist, I believe.

To speak truth to power in a manner most excellent.