For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed my friend and colleague, the multi-faceted playwright David Simpatico. His latest work, a grand opera titled The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing, will have a full concert presentation at Merkin Concert Hall in New York City on October 17.
Q: What are you currently working on? Tell us about it.
I like to work on three things at once. I’m doing final libretto revisions on a grand opera, The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing, with a score by Justine Chen, commissioned by American Lyric Theatre. We have a full concert presentation at Merkin Concert Hall on October 17. My new play, Waiting for the Ball to Drop, a three-act comedy/drama about seven friends over the course of 2001, is making the rounds, looking for a first production. And I’ve just undertaken a Masters Degree program at Southern New Hampshire University; my thesis play, Wilde About Whitman, explores the three hours Oscar Wilde spent with Walt Whitman in Camden, NJ. I’m working on a new rock musical, Rose of Sharon, about the end of the world, with composer Heather Christian, and a new holiday project with UK composer Will Todd … I guess that makes five projects.
Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?
For Wilde About Whitman, my husband was reading a terrific biography, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna, and it mentioned the few hours the young Wilde spent with the venerable Whitman. I thought, the meeting of two of the most impactful writers in the last 200 years, both of whom were gay men, was ripe material to explore.
Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?
Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman have always inspired me, as have Tennessee Williams, Caryl Churchill, Martha Graham, Shakespeare, Euripides and Joe Orton. Stan Lee introduced me to the world of contemporary myth, but Edith Hamilton taught me how to read and Joseph Campbell continues to open my eyes. I love listening to music when I write: Wagner, Liszt, Prince, Kate Bush, ritual gamelan … I gain inspiration from a wide range.
Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?
I love being in a rehearsal room working with composers and actors and directors and designers and other writers; when I click with people and the creative spark leaps from one to the other and back again, I find myself immeasurably motivated. I love being around people who show me facets of my own work of which I had not yet been consciously aware; and I love helping other artists see or hear their own work more clearly. I also love being in various writing groups, helping other writers uncover their own stories; I love sharpening my ear and eye and heart. The Lark Theatre has been a creative haven for me for the last few years, as has the Half Moon Theatre up in Poughkeepsie, where I co-curate the Playwright’s Group along with playwright Darrah Cloud. I love being in the thick of creative scrutiny and discussion. And I love sitting on benches, watching the trees in the wind. I love watching the weather.
Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?
I have a new piece I’m writing with composer Josh Schmidt, two one-act, solo musicals connected thematically through a shared tragic event. It deals with agoraphobia, trans sexuality, virtual reality and the paranormal. One of the pieces, Whida Peru, was originally commissioned by Paulette Haupt and produced as part of the Inner Voices festival. Josh and I expanded the piece by writing a completely new one-act, Virtuality Sal, that features a minor character mentioned in Whida Peru. We are just now putting the final pieces in place.
Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?
When I watch my work, I watch the audience to see how the play affects them. Back in 2010, my music drama The Screams of Kitty Genovese, with a score by Will Todd, played at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The harrowing piece knocked out the audience, leaving several of them shaken afterwards. Two people fainted; one critic was afraid to go home. That made me happy! Also, at last summer’s Samuel French OOB Festival in NYC, my one-act Prom Queen, about two teen girls who discover the perfect diet, vampirism, had the audience screaming with laughter and horror at the same time; the response shook the theatre. My plays are designed to be emotional roller coasters, and when I feel the audience going along for the whole wild ride, I know I’m doing something right.
Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?
Working with Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider of the B-52’s, making a campy sci-fi jukebox musical based on Planet Nine from Outer Space. That, and I’d have my own repertory company where I would work on new plays and old plays, both conventional and experimental, working with open-minded, physically oriented singing-actors who felt as comfortable with Samuel Beckett as they do with Rogers and Hammerstein. I like to break down conventions by working within them.
Q: What has been big your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?
People don’t know what to do with me. Agents look at my work, which ranges from High School Musical for Disney, to The Screams of Kitty Genovese, from musical comedy to grand opera, and they can’t figure out how to sell my work. Because I love trying new genres and styles, I like to think I am broadening my talent, not limiting it, but I feel frustrated at the response I’ve had from agents and artistic directors afraid of challenging their audiences with more risky material. Sometimes I feel like I’m 10 years ahead of myself.
Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?
I read. I watch people. I listen to music. I have some art in my background, my mother was a painter, my father was an inventor, so sketching and creating visual pieces always helps me stay grounded and connected to my creative impulse. For the last few years, I’ve been incorporating large-scale collages as part of my creative process, usually at the start of my writing period. Thinking visually helps me stay connected to my groin and gut, rather than to my brain, and allows subconscious impulses free reign as my thoughts start to congeal. And I’ve started experimenting with video, my new performance art platform.
Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?
Envy. I am learning to leave that poison on the shelf; it does nothing but cripple the creative spark. The more I can enjoy other people’s success, the more I feed my own.
Q: What is your favorite piece of art?
There is a portrait of a gigantic sunflower at the very exit of the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. I remember when I first saw it, I was descending the escalator and I felt like I was entering into a dimensional fold through the flower into myself; I went inside the sunflower, into the negative zone of the sunflower’s existence and saw my own. All the skin on my arms and chest rose up.
Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?
Joe Orton, August Wilson, Joseph Campbell, Leslie Feinberg, Steven Sondheim, Charles Laughton, Tiamet, Martha Graham, Alan Turing, Jesus Christ, Prometheus, Aretha Franklin.
Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?
I want to wake people up! I want to make people think. I want to be a catcher in the rye, herding the lemmings to safety; then I want to make them laugh as I push them off the cliff.
Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?
Q: What is your guilty pleasure?
Bad horror movies. Pizza.
Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?
Trust your talent.
Q: Where would you most like to live?
In a loft upstairs from my theatre in a culturally hip semi-rural Hudson Valley town.
Q: What is your idea of success?
Q: What is your idea of happiness?
Sitting in the back row with my husband, as the audience laughs. Or cries. Or screams. Or preferably, all three.
Q: Final Thoughts?
A wise woman once told me, you can’t make a pearl without a little friction. Life is short. Love as much as possible, despite the frustrations you face.