Artist Interview: Adam Bock
Adam Greenfield: I feel like we should start this interview by saying to anyone who’s reading this: Stop reading this if you haven’t seen the play yet!
Adam Bock: Right.
Right. That would be a spoiler.
Yes so…Spoiler Alert. Okay. So, right now we’re in the middle of planning one of our Symposium events about A Life, and you quickly settled on the topic of memoir as the frame for this conversation. Could you speak to why you went there first?
Sure. I thought about memoir for a couple reasons. One is that a really good friend of mine, Susan Cheever, is a very great writer of memoir and we’ve been talking about writing memoir for years. It’s not something I’d ever done. And just the idea of how my life fits into my art became interesting to me. You know, because it’s always in there. Whatever play I’m writing, there’s always pieces of me. But I’ve usually covered it, or hidden it, or changed the names or changed enough of the details so people wouldn’t know.
About 10 years ago or so I went to Yaddo, the writer’s retreat up in Saratoga Springs, and I was there for five weeks, and instead of working on a play I decided to write a novel. And I’d never written a novel before, so I just started typing. And I ended up writing five chapters that had about 65,000 words, and I was like, “Oh my god, they just keep going on and on and on.” So I gave up. But what I’d written about was that time of my life when I was in my thirties and living in Providence, Rhode Island. And so as I started writing this play, I went back and looked at the novel and I was like, “Oh, there’s so much stuff in here that I love, so many stories of mine that I covered up slightly, but are really pretty true from my life.” So that was one of the building blocks of the play.
Did any material from the novel end up in the play?
Yeah, tons. Like, his name in the novel is Nate Martin. And the story about the policeman is a true story — a woman I knew up in Providence did that, you know, she’d gotten in trouble for going out and wanted me to spray paint that person’s car. And my boyfriends are all in it, and a lot of other things. And about eight years later I was thinking, “What’s my next play?” And I happened upon the novel and I was like, “Oh, this, there’s — this is a story I would like to write.” Also, I wanted to write a big monologue for a gay guy my age, and I thought, “Oh, I should just write a story that I would tell.” And so what story would I tell? Well, anyone who knows me knows that I’m, like — I’ll talk to everybody about astrology. I’ll talk to everybody about their love lives. I’ll talk to everybody about, um, group therapy. You know? So I was just like, “So how does that all work together? How does that all work in my life?” Or, “What is it that I’m trying to understand about myself?” You know?
How, in your previous plays, did you put yourself into the writing? You mentioned it was in a less overt way.
Well, I was a receptionist, and I wrote a play about a receptionist. [The Receptionist, 2007.] And what I knew from being a receptionist was that when you’re — you have tons of power and no power. You’re sitting, attached to your desk and you can’t get away, but you know everything that’s going on in the office. So when I was writing this play about surveillance and about the state trying to control people, I was like, “Oh, that’ll be a nice intersection because in the play there’s power in information, and the receptionist has all of it and none of it.” And, then, I’d also brought in other stuff, you know, the stories that I — my cousin, for example, was reading a book called Help, I’m in Love with a Narcissist. So that went into the play. I just, I pull things from anywhere.
Even in A Life I’ve used things that’ve happened in rehearsal. For example, at one point the Company Manager [Caroline Aquino] from Playwrights came up to our rehearsal and described the theater’s ticketing procedure. And because she’s done it probably a hundred times — Caroline’s been here for like twenty years, right? — she said it really fast. And after she was done I was like, “Did anyone else understand what she just said?” And they were all like, “No.” And so she laughed and she said, “Well, it’s all on this piece of paper.” And then that’s where I got the idea to write the part where the Medical Examiner is telling Curtis all the things that he has to do, all that information, too fast for him to keep up.
I take things endlessly. That house Nate describes, the one in Providence, with the hair salon and the bead shop: People I know have come to see it who knew me then, and they’re like, “Oh my god I remember that bead shop!” And names of people. Because really I did date a guy named Sean, and then a guy named John, and then a guy named Jan, and Johann, and then a Ron and a Don. My ex, Steve — I went out with a guy named Steven and I went out with a guy named Bill, and now they’re together, so I put them in the play. This time I just didn’t change the names. Um. And then I make stuff up. It’s always a mixture of bringing my own things, things I see, things I hear, and things I make up.
Was it harder in this case to put yourself into the writing more? Did you ever feel the instinct to hide?
I don’t know, it kinda made me laugh to put people’s real names in. You know? I think a big trouble with memoir is, uh, it’s easy to worry what friends and family will think. And will they mind? Will they think I’m writing about them? Or will they recognize that I borrowed a little something and then exaggerated it for dramatic effect, or — and so, I mean, I don’t know yet, because none of my family has seen this yet. Um. My aunt was very pleased that my grandfather Oswald’s name was in there, so that’s good. (Laughter.) …But, um, I don’t know, that’s — I think — part of writing is this, for me, is, How do I turn off the editor when I’m creating? It’s always a balance...a back-and-forth between letting myself create, and then crafting. So the danger is that an editor will enter your head too soon and stop you — or will, you know, become part of the conversation too quickly and stop me from doing things, like the editor that says, “Don’t say something mean about your mother!” Or, “Don’t say—” You know, “Don’t expose that part of yourself! That’s too—” I mean, it’s a little daunting because I’m quite closely connected to this character.
What are some ways in which Nate is not like you?
Well, I’m not dead. (Laughs)
Um, I’m not sure in this play that I’ve — I... I know that I have a lot more friends than Nate does. Like, I’ve really built a big friend family. And I also have more family, you know, so I’m showing maybe a more, maybe a slightly lonelier person than I am, you know? I also think I’m past the place that Nate’s at. I think I used to be more like him than I am now. I think he’s sort of caught in that desire for love, and I think I’ve actually outgrown it a little. I used to — I think I had it much more than I do now. Um. Whether because I’m like, “Aw, maybe it won’t happen, so let’s not worry so much about it.” Or just that I’ve, uh, matured out of it a little bit. I don’t know. That would be the way I’m slightly — And I’m also a playwright, I’m not a proofreader, so I have this great other part of my life that I love. I think to myself sometimes I might be in love with art more than people, you know? I’ve really built my life around doing this. Like I’ve sort of thought, “Oh, I could have a boyfriend, or I could have art.” And when that’s the choice I almost always pick art.
Well, that is the — you know, being married to a writer myself, there’re times when I know there’s more space for me, and other times I know there’s less, and that’s just what it means to love a writer.
Because I think it’s... The hard part about art is there’s a selfishness that’s kinda necessary. Or like not — maybe I shouldn’t call it selfishness. Rather a need for self-reflection, or a willingness to think on your own.
Yeah, you have to be able to — oh God, I’m about to paraphrase Rilke like an asshole. How he talks about cultivating loneliness and space around you to live in your perceptions and your experiences. Because for an artist it can feel like someone else is invading that space and—
Watering it down.
Taking it away from you.
Mmhmm. No I know from myself that it’s like — in the writing process, I need to really go, “Oh no no no.” I need to have a strong, strong voice. Because then suddenly my director’s gonna have a strong voice, and the actors are gonna have a strong voice. And what makes a good play, I think, is when everybody has a strong presence. And if I come in a little faint, it’s easy to get washed away by everybody else.
Well you... When you’re writing it, it’s just you. It’s a solitary experience to look at a blank page and have the guts to look at it again every day.
So I can only imagine — not being a writer myself — that you’d feel contaminated, or touched, when suddenly there’s all these other people working on the play as well. Giving you their ideas and weighing in, and talking about it as co-creators when for so long you were the only creator.
That’s gotta be so hard. (Laughs.)
It’s hard and wonderful. It’s both. It’s — the fear is that it will get blurry. Um, that, uh, that I’ll lose too much of what I care about. Because other people care, too. Everybody comes in to the mix caring about their own things, and when I’m lucky it’s a good dovetailing, and we make this great puzzle with all these different little pieces, and some beautiful image emerges. Or sometimes a voice is too strong, and then I forget, “Oh no no no, I was writing about this character, and they’re focusing on that one.” That’s happened to me sometimes, where I knew the play was about this over here, but someone else has come in and really identified with this other part of the play and made it about that over there. And the play sort of creaks or starts to tilt or starts to lose its solid mooring. Yeah. So that’s a problem, but the thing is it’s a risk you have to take because, really, theater, what’s wonderful about it is that it’s a full world. It’s not one person’s vision. It’s actually the — and I think that audiences can feel this – that people have come together to make something. And that’s such a rarity in the world. We have a lot of solo voices in the world. But to feel a great collaboration is, you know, that’s why an orchestra is an amazing thing to listen to. You’re listening to all these people coming together to make a glorious sound.
At what point in the writing did you know Nate was going to die? Or was that something you discovered along the way?
I don’t know when I figured that out. I think it was pretty early, because... When I write a play, most of the time, I sort of gather things that interest me. So I knew, “Oh, I’d like to do this character from this novel that I started writing.” And I wanted to do a big long monologue for a gay guy. And then I was interested in this idea that I’d read about the Tibetan Buddhists, and how they think that after you die your soul remains for a while, hanging around. And I’ve always had this fear of being buried alive. So I just sort of threw that in the pot and then at some point I thought, “Oh, he should die and then we’ll hear what happens to him after he’s dead.” (Laughs.)
Something I’ve learned about all your plays is that there’s a — you’re always telling two stories. At first we think we’re following just one story, but all the while there’s this other story that’s also been happening the whole time, and at some point that becomes the story that the play’s about. Like, in The Thugs , we think we’re watching an office comedy, but really it’s more of a horror story, about paranoia and mistrust. So when I sat down to read A Life for the first time, I was like, “Okay, what is he actually doing here?”
It’s getting harder to trick you guys.
It is the most audacious turn that you’ve taken so far, I think.
Well that is the moment... I always have a moment... But actually, I’m kind of a traditional writer. What I do is I do the five, you know, the five: there’s the exposition, and an inciting incident, and then there’s complications, a climax, and the dénouement. So something I like to do is make the exposition quite long, and then the inciting incident comes after you’ve already thought it’s happened. And so we think, in this play, that the inciting incident is that Mark broke up with Nate. Rather than the fact that he dies. (Laughter.) So I trick you a little, because normally in a play you get to the inciting incident almost right away; you find out, “Oh, this is the problem of the play.” What I like to do is I like to show you the world for a while, and hopefully it’s interesting enough, and then I trick you and say, “Oh, but he also broke that guy’s finger” in The Receptionist. Or, in The Thugs, for example, it’s when Bart comes down and someone says, “What’s the problem?” And Bart says, “Someone’s killing people in the building. Does anyone have any gum?” You know, it’s this moment that suddenly shifts the whole play. Because I think that in our lives, I mean, we’re all wandering along thinking “Oh, this is going great.” And then suddenly you get hit by a car. Or someone tells you the truth, by mistake. Or, you know, suddenly you have a spot on your face and you go find out what it is. You know what I mean?
Yeah, if we could recognize the inciting incidents when we see them in our lives we would avoid a lot more catastrophes.
They’re just everywhere. So it’s a question of which ones are important or, like — I think we — I think we notice the dramatic ones. And what I try to do is notice the other ones, the ones that we forgot, that might be important. The play’s called A Life, and lives end with death.
So if you chart it out that way, on that Aristotelian pyramid, and if Nate’s death is the inciting incident, then what would you consider the climax?
I think the climax is when he’s talking from under the ground. You know, that’s sort of the climax of his life in a way...but I don’t like telling the audience, “This is what you should get from the play.” I just want to say, “Oh, have you looked over at this area? What do you think of this?” I don’t wanna tell you to go and live your life better. What I wanna say is, “Oh, here’s a guy who worried a lot. What would his life have been like?”
Do you think that, at the end of the play, Nate’s appeased? The play leaves me feeling mixed about this. Do you think he’s at rest?
I do. I think he’s content.
You think he’s content.
I don’t know any better than to say that. I think he’s not as bothered. I think he’s more able to see the world instead of getting caught up in how he’s thinking about the world. I mean, in his last speech he says, “I have so much to tell you.” And then, “I saw a bird.” Which I think in the first scene he’d be like, “I saw this bird, but I didn’t know what kind of bird it was, and it made me a little nervous, I thought, “I wonder if that bird is gonna, you know, is that bird sick?’” You know, he would’ve dizzied out a little bit. Instead just being like, “I saw this bird. It was beautiful. And it flew away.”
Do you think we can live like that?
Yeah, I do. I do. I think it’s not easy. And I think almost all spiritual traditions ask us to aim for it. The Buddhists ask to be in the moment. That’s what meditation’s about: learning how not to spend all your time in your mind, but rather to come out into the world. I think it’s the same with Christianity. I always used to think “turn the other cheek” was like, that it means basically “don’t get hit again.” But I think it really means, “Turn your cheek so you can see a different part of the world.” You know, I think all of them ask us to be in the moment we’re in instead of in worry or in regret. I think it’s really hard. And I think it takes discipline. But I think it is possible.
To just let the world happen.
The question is, if we let the world happen, are we missing something? Because we’re not in the middle of it, messing it up? Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that. I just know that in New York, where I have stacks of like, “I’ll do this interview, and I leave from here and go teach my class, and then tonight I’m going to a rehearsal.” The stacks and stacks of appointments and distractions I have in my life. I’m interested in, “Oh, it might be good to practice a little detachment, too.”
You’ve often said you write plays from intuition as opposed to logic. What do you mean when you say that?
Well, I think there’s a way we think plays are supposed to work. So before I went to grad school, I learned plays had a lead character that something bad happened to, and then you watched as they struggled to either overcome it or succumb to it. There is a world that’s a single world, and this person walks through it, it’s usually a white guy or a white woman, and comedy makes you laugh and a tragedy makes you cry, and things that are told in sort of a stern or definitive way are considered dramatic and important, and things told in a lighthearted way are considered less important. So that’s what I thought I knew. And then I went to grad school at Brown, and suddenly Paula [Vogel] said, “Oh no, the rules are up for grabs.” And so what I started getting attracted to was that “Oh, I could write a group protagonist.” “I could have no straight people in my play.” “I can have a world that changes with every scene.” Like this one does, for example. And so did Drunken City [which Playwrights Horizons premiered in 2008]. That play started with a world that had no fourth wall, and then sort of turned into magic realism, and then it became a song, and then it turned into realism. The world kept shifting. When I came up as a playwright, deconstruction and postmodernism were very big, and we were challenging the shape of things, and challenging the rules. I started saying “I’m gonna break the actual shape of the play.” I wanted break the rules of playwriting so we could recognize they can be broken, which means the world can change.
When you led the playwriting class that Playwrights Horizons offered this past summer, you spoke about creating new ways to organize a plays, not by logical cause and effect but by colors or shapes, or other systems. Could you speak to that a bit, maybe in other plays you’ve had at Playwrights, say, in A Small Fire?
In A Small Fire, one of the organizing principles was the five senses, and Emily lost each one in time. Which doesn’t happen in the real world. But dramatically, it was um — I kept taking away one until there was just emptiness left. In this play, in A Life, the organizing principle is, well, a life, actually. Which includes death. And after. I really just prolonged how long the play stays with someone after they die. Weirdly, this play is as much about the audience as it is about Nate. It’s about our relationship with him, in a way. I mean we meet him, and I think fall in love with him (because it’s David Hyde Pierce), and then we find out “Oh, that’s his friend.” And then, “Oh, this is what he’s like alone. And then, “Oh no, he died.” But then we don’t leave him. We stay with him as he gets put in a body bag and goes to the morgue, and then it’s his funeral, and then he goes into his grave, and then he goes away. We actually just stay with him longer than we normally would.
We’ve seen a good range of audience responses to the play in previews. What kind response do you like the most?
I had a teacher who used to say, when I was at the O’Neill, he’d say “Bore, Snore, Goodbye.” And he’d say, “If you bore ‘em, then they’ll fall asleep, and then they’ll leave.” For me, the only response I don’t like is, “I was bored.” Obviously, my favorite response is when somebody loves it. But I’ve also had responses where people seem baffled or uninterested. And what I try to remember is that Anne Kauffman and David Hyde Pierce, and all the actors and all the designers — I think we’ve done really good work. So if someone doesn’t like it, that has something to say about them as well as us. You know, I just try to just remember that. Because it’s easy to take it personally or think, “Oh, I’ve done a bad job.” You know? And I’m trying to remember that that’s actually not my job to feel that way. It’s my job to try my best to tell a truth. Or my version of one. And some people will like hearing it, some people will not be able to hear it, some people will hate hearing it. And I get discouraged if people can’t hear it, if I’ve been too oblique or too difficult. But I try my hardest not to be.
I love it when plays change on us — when our relationship to the play we’re watching keeps changing. It shakes our expectations of what seeing theater will be. There’ll always be people who want to be surprised, and other people who want to see a form that’s recognizable to them.
I actually love the whole experience of it. It’s a big wide space and you could look anywhere. Everybody has their own experience. I love that. I love the idea that you could sit in a room with 128 people who can see 128 different plays. I think what I admire about theater is that it’s a free form. That it doesn’t tell you how to think. I like that. I like the anti-authoritarianism of that. You get to have your own experience, and a collective one at the same time. There’s two moments, there are two kinds of moments in the theater, there’s nothing better: one is when a group is laughing together (it’s an amazing feeling); and then the other is when people are quiet together and you can tell that each person is inside themselves, having their own experience. That’s a wonderful feeling, too.
Okay, I have one more question and then you have to go teach.
Most people who know you know that Nate’s obsession with astrology is, um, is a detail taken from your own life. We talked about Buddhism and Christianity and other beliefs, but what draws you to astrology?
Well, I loved Greek mythology when I was a little kid. I loved the idea that there might be a god of one thing and another god of another. And so, if you really loved Mercury, you love information and you love trickery and you love quicksilver, and that’s just as valuable as the god of love. And it’s just as valuable as the god of war. I like the whole pantheon of all the gods. Like — I think of the Hindus, they’ve got a god with the head of an elephant. Like what’s that energy? It’s just wonderful, the idea that “Oh, there are all these energies in the world.” Not just one right one, the one you have to follow, and that’s the one you get, and everyone gets the same one. Because I’m gay, so there’s, you know, there’s not that much room for me in that one. I love how full the world seems if there are a lot of gods. Astrology says that a Leo thinks very differently than a Scorpio. A Leo wants to celebrate the world and to be the king. The Scorpio wants to get revenge and transform. They have such different energies, and different things they want.
And I also love astrology because as soon as you find out what someone’s sign is, you can say a lot of things to them and they’ll be like, “No, that’s not true,” or, “That is really true,” and then you find out all this stuff about them. And it starts a conversation beautifully. Because everybody likes to find out stuff about themselves, so like, if you pretend like I do that I know something about astrology, then if someone says, “I’m an Aries, what does that mean?” I’m like, “Well, you should get a red sweater.” And you’re like, “Why?” And I say, “Well, because it’ll make you feel good, and it’s the Martian energy.”
You said that to me!
I know, because it’s true.
And I wore a red sweater.
Didn’t you feel good?
I, uh, I... No. I felt self-conscious. (Laughs.)
But see, whether it works or not, I get to find out something — you actually went and got a red sweater and tried, and we get to talk about it. I’m like, “That’s cool, he actually listened to me.” And then I can say “Well, how was it?” And you can say “I don’t think it worked,” and I’m like “Oh, darn.” (Laughter.) But it connects me with people in a nice way. When I ask someone what their sign is, they’ll start talking to me. I wrote in a play once: if you listen, people will talk. I love listening to people. I love talking, but I also love listening to what people will say if I ask the right questions or if I prompt them.
What’s your sign, and what does it say about you?
Um, I’m a Scorpio. And what it says is that, according to astrology, I transform in my life. And it talks about — it’s the snake that sheds its skin. And so all through my life, when I — there was a period in college when I just wore black, and then I went to grad school and dressed like a lesbian, and then I moved to San Francisco and had a motorcycle and I shaved my hair and had a beard. And now I’m like in a different phase, and you know...and so, I say “Oh, that’s interesting, because that’s what they say Scorpios do.”
And it also says that Scorpios walk through the world worried about whether their faces will crack and the truth will come out. And that feels true to me, too. I get really worried when that moment of revelation happens for people. It’s an awkward moment for me. And my plays have them all the time, it’s like people going along and then all of a sudden there’s a crack in the language and that’s when truth is happening.
So I understand myself that way a little better. I’ve taken a lot from astrology. What it does is it allows me to think, “Oh, huh, maybe I should do more of what it’s suggesting I might be good at. Or—” You know what I mean? It’s a system. I like systems, I like different kinds of systems. ’Cause then I can be like, “Huh. What if I broke that system? Or what if I took from that system? Or what if I get something new from that system?” I don’t know, I think it’s fun.