Artist Interview: Gregory S. Moss
This interview contains spoilers about the plot and content of Indian Summer.
Tim Sanford: I’m always interested in the story of the birth of a playwright, how it happens. Where do you think it began for you?
Gregory S. Moss: I started out as an actor, as a kid, when I was like seven, doing community theater. A lot of plays with giant puppets in them, a lot of fairy tales. I also did some writing, poems and stuff, along a parallel track. And I continued doing both through college. I was studying Medieval Lit in the day and acting in student-directed [María Irene] Fornes and Sam Shepard plays at night. But separately.
I did write one play in college, but didn’t think of it as any kind of profession or anything like that. Then after college, I went out to LA and tried to be an actor and that was horrible. So I came back to Boston.
What was so horrible about it? Was it because it wasn’t theater? Or because you just weren’t meant to do it?
I think it was horrible because I was evading the more obvious thing, which was that I needed to be making my own work. I was not going to succeed in a system where I had to wait for people to choose me. I was not going to be happy doing that. I lived in this shabby apartment in a complex called “The Shangri-Lodge” right across from the Celebrity Scientology Center and I’d watch celebrities come and go from my window. All my friends left. And my friend Dylan—before he left—asked me, “Why are you doing this?” You know, “This isn’t very punk rock, going to auditions, hoping someone’s gonna put you in a coffee shop in the background on an episode of ‘Felicity.’” So I went back east and started a theater company of my own. And that’s when I really started writing. I wrote some things for myself to perform. And then plays for my friends to perform. And eventually started sending them out, and that’s when I crossed paths with Paula Vogel. Which was really...I attribute her with sort of pulling me out of the wilderness and saying, “You can do this.”
How did you “cross paths” with Paula?
She was doing a three-week workshop at this place called The Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. So I went down to Florida in this jungle near the beach and worked with her for three weeks.
What was it like? Were you writing the whole time?
Meeting her was like a lightning bolt. It was a big deal. I wrote five plays in three weeks for her. Hundreds of pages. With a bunch of other cool writers—David Adjmi was there. Dominic Orlando. And then she...well she took me to this psychic actually. In Cassadaga, Florida, which is a village of psychics, and he was like, “I think you’re going back to school. And I think you’re going back to school like an hour south from where you live now.”
Did you find out if that is something she frequently does?
No, but I mean...either the fix was in, like she had paid this guy off, or…
It was a very strange three weeks. It was also the first time I met someone who helped me understand that there is a profession to this. I always thought that you just luck into it, or it’s for rich people, or something. But she really validated what I was doing. She told me to apply to Brown, so I applied to Brown and a couple other places. I got into Brown and I went to Brown and wrote like a dozen plays in two years.
And what happened to your writing there? Did it change? Did you experiment? Tell me about your experience.
Paula imparts a very practical technique. I felt there was a real working-class bond between us. Like, this is a job, there is a craft to it. It’s labor, it’s work. So there was a real practical side to her teaching. The other thing is this sort of tacit permission to do the thing you wanna do, and to do it now. You continue to learn craft all your life. But the big thing for me was just to have permission to actually write the way I write instead of trying to chase David Mamet or chase whatever I thought was good at that time, you know? So yeah, I started thinking structurally and formally and also just doubled down on my own…on writing things the way I heard them. Which was incredibly liberating and this outpouring of work came out of that.
You mentioned your “working-class bond” with Paula. Would you describe yourself as working class? Your plays often feature real, everyday, salt-of-the-earth type characters. What was your socioeconomic background growing up?
My parents were both teachers. My father was a teacher at the public high school in Newburyport where I grew up. My mom ran a Montessori school, which she started from the ground up. So not tons of money. They both came from Brooklyn and moved to Massachusetts. My dad’s Jewish, my mom’s Catholic. There were a lot of long-standing old townie families in Newburyport. It’s a Polish-Irish-Catholic working-class city. We were not the center of the demographic. I always felt a little bit like an outsider there.
Yeah, I started out in my mom’s Montessori school but then I was pushed out into this pretty rough-and-tumble public school situation, that I just did not understand the rules of. And I would say that’s a huge seed of my writing: not understanding the rules of a social structure and trying to catch up all the time.
My mom was a teacher, my dad was a minister, so we never had much money, but they also both had graduate degrees and believed strongly in education and culture.
Yeah. They always had a really good bunch of books in the house and had good taste in movies and things like that. And also they came from a certain kind of intellectual atmosphere having come from New York in the 60s.
I think this division plays out stylistically in your works as well. Plays that depict the kind of rough-and-tumble characters you depict tend to fall within a more straightforward realism. But your plays also feature a kind of theatricality and fluidity that goes beyond realism.
Yeah, my process has been to invest in characters, grounded in the mechanics of psychology and social circumstances, which, I find, allows me to write the kind of dialogue I like to write and to create the kind of theatrical gestures I like, both of which are elevated. I like human beings. I don’t wanna write about ideas. I concentrate on being faithful and being empathetic towards the characters and then letting them speak eloquently when they need to. Lifting the language when they need to. Being a working person doesn’t mean you lack language, that you lack imagination or vocabulary.
What were your artistic influences growing up? How did you become aware of playwriting and theater as an art?
Well, Newburyport is kind of a weird town. It’s spawned a lot of artists, like my friend Nikole Beckwith, who’s a filmmaker, and Brendan Pelsue, another playwright. There are a lot of people who came out of there who are working artists. There was a group of people in the late 70s that retreated to Newburyport: former hippies, actors or artists that left New York and came to this little New England town because rent was cheap and they started little theaters. And those people were my teachers, and mentors, and directors. So I was actually surrounded by a lot of it, people making theater. People who showed me not just the art form, but that there was a way of life attached to it. But you know, I saw You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. And I had an enormous crush on the woman playing Snoopy. So maybe that did it, I don’t know. Maybe it could be that.
Not the play I expected you to say...
No, and yet somehow…
Although the offstage crush, that’s a common story.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I think probably between You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown and reading Artaud, like (explosion noise)—like somehow that made me want to make theater.
(Tim reads in a movie announcer voice:)
“Indian Summer: where You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown meets Jet of Blood.”
I imagine your circle of influences expanded when you got to Brown. What did you do when you got out of Brown?
I worked in Rhode Island for another year, year and a half. I went to The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis and had two fellowships there.
Jerome, then a McKnight.
What did you do in Rhode Island?
I taught at Johnson & Wales. Johnson & Wales is a college that focuses on cooking and other professions like that. I taught public speaking and expository writing. And I loved that, actually. I taught playwriting at Brown too, and at Providence College and University of Rhode Island. And, then, off to Minneapolis for about a year and a half.
Has teaching been your primary money job since you finished Brown?
Yeah, it’s pretty much all I’ve done since I came back from LA. I was doing a lot of weird jobs, making donuts and such.
So just list them off for me.
Sure, okay, the teaching jobs? Or everything? Cause there’s a lot of weird jobs.
Yeah, I love the weird stuff.
(Laughs.) I mean I was making donuts, making donuts overnight at a grocery. I did a lot of waiting tables. I worked at a bunch of video stores, bookstores, record stores, before those all left. I was working at Massachusetts Financial Services for a year dealing with people who were getting their dead loved one’s retirements plans. Then I taught theater at a school called The Waring School in Beverly. Up until recently I was writing screenplays for Bible cartoons for a Lutheran Sunday School Series.
How did you end up in New Mexico?
My funding from The Playwrights’ Center was running out. And I was getting a little antsy there. So I applied for every academic job that came down the line because I wasn’t ready to go write for TV. I had principles about it then, which I do not have now.
What were they?
I was a little snobby. I mean, TV, even if it’s good TV, only exists in order to sell products. It’s essentially advertising. I don’t think that’s true anymore, entirely. I had a bad attitude coming out of Brown because I was unleashed finally. I was finally liberated to write.
And that led to New Mexico?
Yeah, I applied for every job that came down the pike and I had no interest in living in New Mexico. And I had no real belief that they were gonna offer me a tenure track job, you know. But I went and interviewed like three times, and I was like, “This place is crazy,” and then they hired me. And so I was like, “Alright, I’ll do it for a year and see how it goes.” And I did it for a year and then I was like, “I’m never going back there”...but each year...
...slowly it sort of works on you. It’s sort of hallucinatory and strange and a little dangerous feeling. It’s also like being at a writing retreat all the time. So it’s a really good balance to New York or LA or…
How is that? Why is teaching at the University of New Mexico like being at a writer’s retreat?
Because you’re off the radar. You don’t feel obliged to see a lot of plays or attend a lot of events. There’s space. It’s the Wild West still, there. It’s a very peculiar stubbornly unchanged part of the country.
And who are your students?
They’re all kinds of people. Some from New Mexico, some from out of state. It’s a really diverse group. Native students and Latino and Latina students, Southwestern writers who haven’t necessarily had the advantages that people who go to Brown or Yale have had, but who have amazing stories to tell—stories which have not made their way into the larger theater culture. It’s a job that feels worth doing.
So having all the responsibilities of teaching, do you write at the same rate as before?
In terms of my career, it’s been great, actually. Every year since I started there I’ve had something. I had a show at South Coast Rep. Last year I had the Humana show. Now this. I write one bigger play each year. And then a few small things. If anything, I’ve increased my output, I’m writing more regularly than ever —having a salary and health benefits does that. I’m working on a commission for Woolly Mammoth now, that I’ll go workshop right after this show opens.
Is it like a wild and crazy Woolly show?
No. It’s not like spectacle-driven or anything.
I ask because you wrote that Pig Iron show at Humana. How did that happen?
Well. I wrote a play called House of Gold, which is very sort of over-the-top and spectacle-driven and kind of boundary-pushing. And the Pig Iron guys, Dan and Dito, they read that and...you know the real reason is—this is how most things happen for me—I think they were gonna work with Robert O’Hara and then he got busy so a mutual friend, Rebecca Rugg, got them in touch with me.
So someone said, “Who’s like Robert O’Hara?”
Exactly. (Both laugh.) And the musical I’m working on I only got because Adam Rapp dropped out.
Oh right! The…
Hunter S. Thompson
Joe Iconis piece, right?
That’s been around a long time.
It’s happening now, though, for real.
Where’s it happening?
La Jolla. In 2017.
Cool. What’s it called again?
Right now, it’s just The Untitled Hunter S. Thompson Musical. We have to figure out what we can legally call it at this point.
What’s the issue?
Well, we had the word “Gonzo” in it which is associated with him, and apparently it’s copyrighted.
“Fear and Loathing on Broadway?”
There you go.
Let’s talk about your process. Is there a common way plays come to life for you? Do they start with characters? Or with a bit of dialogue? Or a scenario?
It’s different from play to play, but generally it’s a bit of dialogue from a character that starts to light them up. A character that’s in a particular predicament. Whatever character’s kind of at the heart of the play starts talking and things become apparent to me about them. I write a lot that doesn’t end up in the play. It’s a lot of improvisation that gets cut away ultimately.
Who started talking for you in Indian Summer?
That’s—you know that’s funny—this one started almost like a series of panels of the beach, almost like a graphic novel.
How do you mean?
One of the sources I was drawing on was Dan Clowes, who’s a great graphic novelist. Dan Clowes renders adolescents in a way that captures the enormity of that time of life—the disaffection, the bad attitude, the calling-bullshit-on-everything—the crushing boredom and raw hope of it. His stories are heartbreaking but muted, oblique. Ghost World and a story called “Like A Weed, Joe!” are big influences. I named the character of Daniel after him, actually.
His drawing style is nostalgic, it’s got this mod 50s look. He strikes a good balance between the abstract and the figurative. Limiting the play to a single set made me think of the panels of a comic strip. We never talked about it but I think Dane’s set and Carolyn’s blocking reinforces that—the wood frame around the stage, and the simplicity of the staging give the sense of a comic strip come to life.
Talk about Rhode Island a bit. You were talking about accumulating people and places before.
Dan LeFranc’s thesis play at Brown was about Providence. It had music and was very sort of Brechtian, had an Edward Gorey feeling to it. And Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw took place in Rhode Island, I think. But no one had written about Rhode Island the way I perceived it. More from the inside out. And I wanted to write a play about boy/girl love. That was something I hadn’t tackled. I had had love of various kinds in my plays. But never an actual semi-successful male-female romance. So I felt like I had to do that.
But doing it with 17 year olds is interesting. Adults sometimes say that young love is not real love, yet in a way, it’s super real. It’s like Romeo and Juliet, the reason it’s so compelling is because it has the pure components of what makes a love affair, you know? In both a kind of primal and universal, almost archetypal sense.
That’s it. They are real characters, real adolescents. But there’s a kind of metaphorical sense to them too. There’s an empathy about them, about that time of life, that we can still feel. That experience of discovering a color of emotion that you have not felt before. Uncovering the rules of the world. It’s so present as an adolescent. We continue to do that as adults. But to be totally honest, there’s times, where I’m like, “I wonder if I can feel that anymore.” You know, I wonder if there’s a certain point where you mature out of being able to feel that kind of absolute absorption in another person. So I think I wanted to at least touch that feeling again.
There’s no such thing as mature. I read this really great book called Brainstorm which is about the adolescent brain development. And one of the things he says is a misconception is the notion that adolescence is just a period we have to go through to achieve maturity. Instead he says what happens is that the brain sloughs off many of the old connections while new neural paths that are being formed in the frontal cortex. You learn how to manage the excitement and chaos of new feeling and risk-taking, hopefully to set a pattern for your future.
You can actually establish good practices to get you through the hairy, scary chaos of adolescence, by learning how to process your brain.
Right, for the first time.
I’m just saying I’m old, but so-called maturity is just a form of sleep.
I find that comforting, somehow.
Good. So you were exploring for yourself these intense feelings, like trying to rekindle your thoughts about something.
…that you believe could be true then, but not so much now. When George says, “All love is unrequited love.” What does that mean?
That I do think is true. I think ultimately, no matter how long your relationship is, how successful it is, or how much the love is reciprocated, eventually one person goes. If it’s the end of the life or if it’s the end of the relationship. In any kind of love. I think it’s true.
Have you ever heard the Proust quote—I can’t remember the French—“The only true paradises are the paradises that one has lost?”
Yeah. That’s sort of a great inscription for the play in some ways. It always feels a little bit like it’s somewhere else that you’re supposed to be. That the perfect situation is somewhere else. Not where you are. But I think that’s what happens at the end of the play, when Izzy says, “No, I’m not gonna wait to kiss you. I’m going to kiss you now.” That’s the puncturing of that feeling. Like it is here, now, you know? For a moment anyway.
So you said when the play came to life for you it was Daniel probably first and then Izzy right away. How did the other two come into it?
There used to be even more. Daniel had a brother. His mother was in it for a while. Yeah.
Jeremy had many more scenes, actually. He had a huge backstory.
She had to have a boyfriend, yeah. There had to be a foil, I think.
Yeah, George kind of developed parallel to the whole thing. I really wanted an intergenerational relationship. I didn’t have much time with my grandparents as a kid. So again, I think some of my playwriting is compensatory. George is actually my grandfather’s name, too. I wanted an intergenerational relationship but it’s also about the play containing both first love and last love. Love at the beginning and love at the end, you know.
And you said you wanted to write about Rhode Island. There’s two ways to look at that frame. If you’re talking about young lives, it’s more compelling to have them from two different worlds. It creates conflict and raises the stakes, following the Romeo and Juliet model. But also, she’s like the epitome of Rhode Island. She is a Rhode Island creature.
Definitely. It was crucial for Daniel to be from somewhere other than Rhode Island, to be a tourist, a summer person. It was essential, for the structure of the play—for the ticking clock and the ways it escalates the conflict between Daniel and Izzy—and for the thematic idea, of passing through a place temporarily, not allowing yourself to have attachments. Of sort of putting off the living of your life.
And I knew girls like Izzy. I knew girls who came to school a little dirty in their Velour shirt and you couldn’t tell if they were gonna punch you or kiss you. They seemed to know things that they shouldn’t know at that age. I wondered what they were like at home, when they left school.
A big part of what we see is these characters struggling with who they want to be and who they are. Jeremy has a line, “Izzy is already completely Izzy.” And that’s exactly the danger, for her. She’s comfortable being Izzy. She has no problem being Izzy. “But why am I not punching this guy?” There’s something else there. And that’s the weird thing about love; it’s not just about some other person you dig. It’s really about, “What’s firing in me? I’ve never seen this before.”
And what my life could be or our lives could be together, yeah totally. What does this person allow you to be, what do they bring out in you? Daniel allows Izzy to reveal this secret delicate part of herself. And she conversely allows Daniel to get out of his own head and stop being so blinkered, so isolated from the world.
Tied up to that idea of the hypothetical self, one of the things I love in the play—which I talk about in my bulletin article and compare to Shakespeare—are the scenes within the play where the characters play-act with each other. It happens four times. It happens twice between Daniel and Izzy, first initiated by him and then at the end by her. It also happens when Daniel coaxes Jeremy into rehearsing how he would propose. And George persuades Izzy to be Millie. Which of those did you write first?
I think George and Izzy came first. Then Daniel and Jeremy.
And did you become aware of it as a trope? Are you in control? Does it just happen and then you realize, “Oh I’ve got four scenes like this?
I think my first response was, “Oh shit, I have four scenes like this! What is that? I gotta fix it!” But at some point I realized it was important. In a play that takes place in this compressed amount of time, in this one little location, the only way to project out into the future is to have them talk about it and imagine it. And that is Shakespearean. I’m not saying it’s like Shakespeare, I’m saying it’s an Elizabethan tactic. This goes back to the working class thing—I like characters that have an imagination. They have an inner life. They’re playful. Just because they’re less educated doesn’t mean they can only talk about bills and beer or whatever. The characters give each other that gift—the opportunity to act out their inner lives for each other. There’s a great deal of trust involved in that, and a great deal of intimacy. Even Daniel with Jeremy loses himself in Jeremy’s proposal story.
You were just talking about the Shakespearean playing space, how the language overcomes its limitations. You talked a little bit about the set before. I think it’s important to underline that it’s not a realistic space. We don’t see little houses in the distance. We’re not trying to create ocean water. They go over the hill into a void. It almost could be the set for Happy Days.
Exactly, it could be a Beckett set. The set is meant to be a very simple, unchanging space, sort of like a musical bass line. Like a canvas on which the language can impress itself. Trying to literalize the space—and I’ve had this problem with productions, where if you have too detailed a realistic set, and then you have this kind of elevated language, they’re dissonant. So the set doesn’t change, it’s an Elizabethan stage—and the language takes us through time and space and does all that work. But the set is also the ocean, you know, which is also a bass line that’s unaffected, unmoved by human activity.
One of the structural pleasures that the play affords comes from the way the scenes flow into each other, and that’s really enabled by George. George can sort of come and go and the timeframe shifts as he does. Is that something that felt intrinsic? Did you discover it early on? Or is that something that you shaped as you went?
No it was totally organic. I’m not a huge direct address person. I find it cloying. It’s not something I consciously wanna do, really. But, he was talking and it seemed clear that he was talking to the audience. So yeah, the whole thing felt quite organic which I think is the key to that structural flow. I think a lot of my process is knowing how and when to get out of the way of the writing.
So George entered the play kind of as your grandfather. He represents an older generation and becomes the de facto narrator. Then he walks into the ocean at the end of the play. I think it’s a surprising moment for a lot of us. Can you talk about how that storyline and the young love storyline rub up against each other for you?
I don’t know entirely. And I like that I don’t entirely know. I think the point of intersection is that moment when Izzy and Daniel finish their last dialogue, and she starts walking towards him to kiss him, and he says, “Wait,” and she says, “No.” And George at the end says, “Now, now, now my life can begin.” There’s this sense of life always being delayed. Real life is always somewhere just out of reach. And Izzy’s the character who doesn’t allow that to happen, who demands that life is there, now, at least for a moment.
Well that was something I couldn’t get into too much in my bulletin article where I quoted Daniel’s bit about whether it’s a comedy with a tragic ending or a tragedy with a comic ending. There are reasons why tragedies are considered such an elevated form. Once the tragic hero dies, we can define what made them great, or tragic, or in fact what defined them as human. Their life has become circumscribed by time. So, yeah, Hamlet dies at the end of Hamlet, but also, no, Hamlet’s alive forever. And in a way his death makes him more eternal.
Yeah, I think that’s right. I don’t look at George’s story as depressing. It’s sad. But I feel like there’s a sense of actual punctuation to it that’s, in a way, positive. There’s something definitive and clear and his own. He understands something in those last moments.
How conscious was the set-up when George asks Izzy as Millie, “What’s it like, to pass over?”
It wasn’t conscious, but I will say this: I’m writing and then George says this thing and I think, “Oh I’m making a bet with myself, and with the audience, the characters have led me into this bet and I’m not gonna back off it.” The decision to follow through, to answer the question, is a conscious one.
For me, what I love about it goes back to the Hamlet thing. You have talked about—and actually, the characters have too—the ocean is like an eternal force. And in a way, George walks into eternity at the end.
There’s a thread in my writing—in a play called La Brea and in punkplay I touch on it too—about an individual being absorbed into the world. Dissolving into it. And that being this kind of positive, culminating event. It’s an idea that appeals to me very much.
There’s another kind of eternity in that Daniel/Izzy scene you mentioned before. Izzy says, “What if I’m on this beach a hundred years from now. And you’re on the beach a hundred years ago” and somehow time overlaps. It’s only one moment, and it’s in that kiss, but somehow time flows backwards and forwards in that moment. It gives it a kind of eternity as well.
I don’t know what to say about that, except that it’s because everything becomes present, present tense, in that moment. We’ve been projecting backwards and forwards in time, imagining being in other places for most of the play, and in that moment Izzy makes something happen now. In the present. Which is where theater really lights up, for me. When I can lose my sense of time in an overwhelming present.