Welcome to the third and final part in our interview series on Psalms for the Wreckage, a trilogy of scripts in verse by poet and playwright Joshua Young. So far I’ve chatted with Young’s long-time mentor Oliver de la Paz and one of Young’s first editors J.A. Tyler, and in this last interview I sit down with Josh himself to talk writing, theatre, and hybridity in general. Josh was also kind enough to ask me questions about Plays Inverse, its interests, and my own experiences as a dramaturg to give a better portrait of our author-editor relationship. The breadth of Josh’s projects and influences are as impressive as the work themselves, and both of us hope that this interview series—and the story of Josh’s late arrival to playwriting—will inspire more authors from outside the theatre to experiment with dramatic writing of their own. Thank you very much to ENTROPY and Adrienne Walser for hosting this series, and keep an eye out for work from both Josh and Plays Inverse soon!
Tyler Crumrine: When we first met, you were a poet who stole a lot of elements from plays and screenplays to use in your poetry. Now that you’re three plays deep, are you ready to call yourself a playwright too?
Joshua Young: I do consider myself a playwright now, but I didn’t before. With When the Wolves Quit, playwriting was just a way to harness the story. The letters between poems weren’t enough, and the idea of being presented on a stage helped me visualize things. They gave room for things to happen “offstage” too. Since working with Plays Inverse on The Holy Ghost People, though, I’ve written two plays, started a third, and revised This is the Way to Rule into a play hybrid. The most important part of my work for me is the characters—how they address their actions and emotions, how they deal with the formula/archetype/role they’ve been given, how they push past what we expect of them or can’t—and having the idea of a physical performance in the back of my mind makes that much easier for me.
Plays Inverse gave me an opportunity to move past simply doing hybrid forms, though, and to start crafting actual plays. All the elements that make up my plays—the dialogue, the staging, the art direction, the music, the artifacts—I can see clearer in my mind’s eye, and if someone were to stage these plays they would all be there. I think that’s what’s great about a Plays Inverse book—that you get the physical element of playwriting (and play hybrids) just by reading them… even before something is staged.
But, you know, I always refer to you as either my friend or my publisher/editor. How do you think of yourself? You’ve worked in both theater & publishing and you’ve performed & dramaturged shows… so when someone asks you, “Tyler, what do you do” what do you say?
Tyler: It depends on the context. In the rehearsal room I’m a “dramaturg” and at AWP I’m an “editor.” The same goes for literary manager vs. publisher. Or how I’ll talk about Plays Inverse books as “narrative poetry structured as theatre” with poets but as “plays with poetic elements” with playwrights. They’re all the same thing, so it’s more just using the language your audience knows so that they’re comfortable engaging with you.
I usually just tell people that I “work in new play development” and go from there. Whether I’m helping create books or productions, the goal is to always be working towards championing new work and playwrights. And I feel extremely lucky to have both theatre and publishing careers that dovetail into each other.
Acting mostly just helped get me here. I knew I preferred editing as soon as I started working in dramaturgy, but it helps having been on the performance side once upon a time when you’re working on any script.
Let’s talk about performance some, though. You’ve toured as both an author and musician in the past, but I don’t know if you’ve acted before. What’s different about performing excerpts of these books/plays at readings as opposed to less hybrid work? And what would your ideal productions for Wolves and This is the Way to Rule look like?
Joshua: I have acted before, but not in any huge roles or anything. Mostly in a project I’ve been chipping away at for years. But to answer your question, I don’t think there’s a big difference in terms of reading/performing. I just don’t want any of my performances to be boring. The more I write for the stage, though, the more I want audience participation and collaboration to be a part of my readings. Those who’ve seen me perform have probably participated in call-and-responses with me or been asked to chant “We drink from the same water, we drink from the same water, we drink from the same water.” I love incorporating that kind of stuff, and want to include larger moments of participation that are rehearsed ahead of time.
My ideal production for When the Wolves Quit: a stage that looks a lot like Dogville, but with the dressing of Twin Peaks. Everyone is onstage at all times moving around doing their own things. There would be an apartment in the back of the stage where the letter writer sits, and the rest of the play would be acted out while a poet/narrator reads the stage directions. Sometimes, though, the speaker would narrate one thing while the actors do another, veering off-course from the story that’s being told. Kind of like that episode in True Detective when they’re describing a shooting frenzy, but what you see is someone sneaking up on the targets.
My ideal production for This is the Way to Rule: It’s pretty nuts, but I would love to see it on a black-box type stage. I want the play to be completely minimal in terms of set. There’d be a booth for DJ far back on the stage with a red light that pops on overhead when they’re speaking and on the other side of the stage a spotlight for the Leader’s office. But the whole theater would be in use. There would be scenes offstage, and when intermission starts the play would continue even though people are encouraged to go and take a break, etc. Scenes happen in the aisle, shouted from off stage left, in the balcony, at the doors, etc. The opening scene would be really hard to do (since it’s essentially an orgy in an earthquake) but that would set the tone I’m aiming for—that kind of insanity. The opening scene represents the beginning of an apocalypse—the rest of the play, ongoing apocalypse.
I’d love to work with a director who could make my plays come to life, though, and hear their thoughts too. But you’re bringing theater to the page as literature rather than performance. What makes a title stand out as something that’s right for Plays Inverse? Do you see the edits/suggestions forming in your head when you read a piece for the first time or is that something that develops? And how much does the question “can this play be staged?” play in your decision making process?
Tyler: As a press that only puts out a handful of titles a year I tend to think less in terms of “is this a Plays Inverse book” and more in terms of “could this be a book anywhere else?” If I receive a manuscript of excellent poetry framed as monologues, but it doesn’t NEED to be a play—doesn’t need a stage, audience, choreography, etc.—I’ll usually urge the writer to submit it to a poetry-centric press. Same with more conventional plays. If something could potentially have a life as an acting edition with Samuel French, fantastic! They’ll to a great job championing and distributing it.
What Plays Inverse is interested in is the plays that exist in-between those two extremes. Works that NEED to be plays in order to operate, but challenge the idea of what a play can be too. Plays that deserve an audience—literary or otherwise—but might not get one unless someone goes to bat for them.
I feel like “stagability” is a bit of a misnomer, though. Any play can be performed… the question is whether it can be performed literally. I always encourage writers to embrace impossibility, and part of the inversion of Plays Inverse is putting literature first and performances later. We believe in supporting a playwright’s voice and vision first and foremost and trust that if a work really resonates with someone, directors, actors, and designers will always rise to the challenge.
You’ve mentioned a handful of other projects you have in the works: Do you tend to juggle multiple projects/genres at a time or do you work on something exclusively until you hit a wall? And do you find your projects bleed into each other, or do you tend to keep things separate?
Joshua: I’m always in the middle of at least five projects… usually in a variety of genres. I don’t know if they bleed into each other, but I feel like they all speak to each other in some way. Each project has its separate identity, but I’m not afraid to blur or change that identity as the text demands.
The biggest thing I’m working on—besides promoting Psalms for the Wreckage—is a multimedia project that involves writing, film, social media, design, merch, and music (both supplemental and diegetic), with the capstone being a feature film. I’ve been working on it for years, so it had a lot of moving parts, and its hard to explain that all this supplemental material isn’t just supplemental but is all under the larger umbrella of this project. The texture and foundation and lighting all come together in the end.
People have this idea that for something to be good it needs to be hyper-focused—”MASTER ONE THING AND DO THAT, YOU DON’T NEED TO DO A TON OF THINGS”—but to me, that’s kind of bullshit. Art bleeds and talks and screams and cries. It’s doesn’t want to just be one thing, and sometimes a project becomes something that won’t just work on the page or on the screen or whatever. That’s a big part of how I fell into hybrid and post-genre approaches. I always felt this need to create supplemental material, and now the supplemental stuff keeps coming to the forefront.
I know we’ve chatted about this before personally, but can you talk about what you want (emotionally and intellectually) when your watch a staged play vs. what you want when you read one? How are these wants/expectations related or different?
Tyler: Ultimately, I’d love to see more folks recognize play production and publication as complimentary halves of a single whole. You don’t need to read a play to appreciate a performance, but you might miss out on the conversation going on in a playwrights’ notes and stage directions if you only see a play. Similarly, do you need to see a play to appreciate it as literature? No. But there’s something beautiful and powerful in hearing and seeing the physical manifestation of a piece of dramatic literature first hand.
So whether I read or see a play what I want is something that can only be done via that medium. I want to read plays that that flaunt the page’s infinite possibilities. Similarly, I want to attend performances that utilize audience, bodies, and movement–works that make an argument for why it needs to be a play and wouldn’t “work” otherwise.
Any time I publish a book through Plays Inverse I’m extending an invitation for people to try and perform it too. Can our books stand on their own as literature? Definitely. But plays are possibilities, and I’d love to see more people realize those possibilities on the stage.
Last one—What about you? What do you focus on most when you read a play, and how does the way you read drama inform your own work?
Joshua: Regardless of genre, when I read something the filmmaker/playwright side of me is always thinking about how something could be recreated using with practical effects. Or, if it would be too hard (or expensive) to do literally, how something could be represented metaphorically. I think that’s how I approach it my own writing too. Can my readers see what I’ve created in their mind’s eye, and how does what they see affect them emotionally, physically, etc.? I want all of my work to exist off the page in some form or another—even if only in the mind—and that’s a big part why I started writing scripts in the first place. It’s why my other work tends to be hybrid-genre or interdisciplinary, and why I create short films and write music to accompany my books. More than anything, I want to write something that doesn’t just live on the page, but that thrives and moves and grows.
JOSHUA YOUNG is a poet, playwright, and multimedia artist currently living in Chicago. He is the author of six collections, most recently, Psalms for the Wreckage (Plays Inverse 2017) and, with Alexis Pope, I Am Heavy w/ Feeling (Fog Machine 2017). He was awarded a grant from the Reva and David Logan Arts Foundation in 2017 for his multimedia work. He works at the University of Chicago.