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Interview

Sonya Sobieski and Billy Aronson on LIGHT YEARS

Sonya Sobieski, Literary Manager:  What was the impetus for Light Years?

Billy Aronson:  Actually, when I was in college, lo those many years ago, I got the idea around Junior year—

Where did you go to college?

Princeton. I was obsessed with playwriting. I wrote pretty far-out plays, I’d write one every year and get students to stage it the next. But after Junior year I got this idea for a play about college students, which for me was a stretch because it was so literal—no witches or giant sex organs or huge moving shapes. It was just about college students going through four years of college. They arrived with certain expectations, made friends, changed expectations, fell in love, fell out love, and then had to say goodbye. I’d just been in a faculty production of Three Sisters which I’m sure had something to do with it, because that’s about how time just goes on and you think you’re getting somewhere and you don’t know where you’re getting and then it all goes away. That play blows me away. Anyway, I thought my little play about college was so terribly moving and deep, but it only turned out to be eight pages long. So obviously it was not for production. But for years, whenever I felt it was time to write a new play, I’d think about doing something with that one. The trouble was, it seemed that if I were to write a full-length about college it would have to be about a very particular period, like Moonchildren was for the sixties, or something big and dramatic would have to happen, like a student kills himself or something, or it would have to be a farce. But none of those possibilities related to my initial impulse. I really had no idea how to approach it, until I was heading back to college for my fifteenth reunion. I was sitting on the bus from New York feeling very proud, this was just before our second child was born, and I felt so secure about where my life was headed and what it was all adding up to. And as we pulled into Princeton, I saw graduating seniors out the window—reunions happen at around the time of graduation—and they were acting just as arrogant and smug about the future as I was. And it all came into focus for me. I thought if I could capture those simple rituals of that secluded world, the desperate attempt to feel like you’re getting somewhere, the way you feel time rushing by from one season to the next and how that makes friendships and romances so precious and difficult, if I could get that quirky world just right it wouldn’t just be about college students thrown together in a dorm, it would be about human beings thrown together on earth.

So how soon after your reunion did you start to write the play?

It still took a year or two. I wrote the first draft in the spring of 1998. One problem I had to solve before getting started was, I kept starting with two guys in their room trying to get women, and I couldn’t stand that. It seemed like a real cliché that bugged me to death, and I kept identifying with one character more than the other, no matter how I tried to juggle it. But as soon as I flipped things around and conceived the play as two women trying to fill up this empty room and fill up their lives it became fascinating to me. And all the characters felt equally to me close and equally important.

You do tend to have women protagonists.

They sure are fun to watch.

More fun than men?

Maybe it helps me write objectively. I know there are people who write things based closely on their own lives, like O’Neill does so amazingly in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. But I can’t do that. It just sucks when I try. I need to configure the characters in a way that keeps me objective about the quest I’m going on so I can maybe discover something about the universe, and about my own strange head.

Were you in theater before college?

In high school I acted, and I played jazz flute in a quartet. But right before college I had this very powerful romance, and I suddenly realized how out of control all the important things in life are. I felt very alone in this realization, and I couldn’t express it with the flute so I began writing a play. But it was pretty nutty, and I was into Joyce at the time, so it was very symbolic. There were a lot of symbols in this play. Very many symbols.

So you no longer use symbols?

Oh, you might see a symbol or two in Light Years. But I hope they come more naturally.

Now I’m telling my secrets—

Please.

But before anyone can work for me in the literary department, they have to read and like a Billy Aronson play.

I like that about you.

Yes. Because your plays require a reader to be very perceptive. Someone has to, one, get that they’re funny. Sometimes people will read them and not think that they’re funny, because it’s a very unconventional, very distinctive kind of funny. But, if they think that they’re only funny, then they also can’t work for me. For instance, Party Animals is the script that I use a lot. It’s about a dinner party, but under it all is the fear of death. They’re sitting there, exchanging quips, offering each other cashews, and meanwhile, they’re clinging on to their very existence. So you have to understand that there’s also this other layer going on. Which I think makes your plays very difficult to produce, because you have to get both of those elements.

Exactly.

I actually was watching the runthrough and I thought fear and funny. That’s what you are. You’re dancing between the two. There’s goofy stuff, and then there’s abject terror. I think Michael certainly embodies that in this particular play. He’s absolutely terrified and covers it with this machismo which we can all recognize, but the ways the machismo and the fear fight together are quite amusing. When you’ve got writer’s block, it seems like the worst thing in the world, even though it’s not, it’s a paper. But, suddenly, your entire self-worth is caught up in it, and you think “Will I ever have a future?” In Michael’s case, in fact, it does affect his future. The mundane things have serious repercussions. The fact that he can’t write a paper means that he ends up selling stainless steel kitchenware.

For a time.

For a time. So what do you think? What do you have to say about the fear and funny factor?

I concentrate a lot less on the funny part. There are times in my TV-writing when I have to write comic sketches or gags, and they usually come out all right. But when writing for the stage I’ve got to focus on what mystifies me, scares the shit out of me, or what I find incredibly beautiful and sad, like how scary and urgently important it is to know another person. To realize that you’re never going to be in any body but your own, and you have to get through to these other bodies, it seems impossible to me, and yet somehow it happens, briefly, and I find that so amazing. When I write about this sort of scary, odd stuff, and the production captures what I had in mind, then, sometimes, people laugh. That’s my idea of comedy, really. There are all these horrible things in life, pointless disasters and diseases, but people keep falling in love, and babies keep being born, and the earth is still gorgeous. There’s birth and death every minute, these things are inextricably bound, they’re happening on the same block, always. And if you can look at all that, take it all in, and say, you know what, it’s okay, that’s comedy.

I think where a lot of your comedy comes from is that you take these worries that we all have and, when it’s done right, your characters care so incredibly deeply about these tiny things, that there’s a laugh of recognition. We really do care about the tiniest things and the tiniest grudges, if we haven’t spoken since Tuesday, or we haven’t said goodbye, or whatever it is. And I think when we see that on stage, we can say, “Oh aren’t we humans silly.”

Which is why I think college is such a fun situation to choose, because things that seem trivial on the surface to us are of such huge importance to them. But you’re right, we have to get the moments right. When we were first doing the first act at the EST Marathon we began going through scene one, and the actors were so good at comedy we played it like farce. And then we got to the end of the scene and something awful and unfunny happens. So there was pressure on me to cut the line, some of it my own. Then we looked back over the scene and realized there’s a terror there, right from the first words. In a sense, the end of that scene is what the whole scene is about. As trivial as who you’re going to sit with at the class picnic might seem, there’s nothing trivial about finding an identity. And that’s what it’s really about. Who the hell am I? What do I believe? What do I think? Who do I like? In a moment of crisis you feel the urgency of finding a real connection.

You need identity to face the crisis?

You need real friends. The characters realize that they’d better start figuring out how they can be together in a genuine way, so they’ll be able to face the insanity that surrounds them, of which there is much in the second scene.

I’ve noticed that you tend to write about people in confined spaces just bouncing off the walls.

I think it may be partly that I try to write for as few actors as possible so I can get my plays done. And I love physical stuff.

Were you a very physical actor?

Yeah, I did Beckett a lot. They had me playing geeks and all kinds of weird stuff—

There are geeks in Beckett?

There was one, Act Without Words, where I played the mime who crawls out of a bag. I was good with that sort of thing. Old men. Although I never was a very good dancer, modern dance has really inspired me. Pilobolus, Twyla Tharp, Parsons. They capture something about how strange it is to have a body on earth. I think in a lot of my plays, the physical stuff is more important than what’s being said. Watching what the bodies are doing to each other gives you more of a clue to what the play’s really about than what they’re talking about.

Even though they’re talking talking talking.

Oh they talk.

But I think the talking comes out of the nervous energy of the body.

Oh yeah, sure.

In the last scene the characters aren’t bouncing off the walls, because it takes place outside. Is there something different going on in that scene?

Yes, and no. I mean, the enclosed spaces of the earlier scenes correspond with a certain level of anxiety, but then to suddenly be outside is scary too. They’re free. No boundaries. And everyone’s floating away. They’re going to be miles and miles apart in a few seconds. And for me that’s pretty scary.

If you can boil it down, which is a terrible thing to ask, what do you want an audience to take away from this play?

That friends are great. That even doomed friendship, even friendships that can’t last, are important. We don’t really know where we’re going, we’re all tied up in our careers and our missions, we never really know what it adds up to, but with friends, we can make one another feel like we’re getting somewhere. Like our fragile lives have beauty. Of course, we’ve all felt this need most intensely lately. In a crazy world, those bonds are so important.

When the first act was done at EST in ’99, did you have the whole play written, or just the first act?

I had the whole play. But I learned a lot from seeing the first part produced.

This play has changed a lot since we did our first reading in ’99, and even just in this last year. I’m impressed with how much you did with it.

You were very helpful.

Well, that’s good. I know Tim [Sanford, Playwrights Horizons Artistic Director] worked a lot on it, too.

I think I’m no longer afraid of dramaturgs, after you and Tim. You guys were very helpful, in a gentle way.

You also gave yourself permission to try all these things out, and take them all back, or take some of them back. I don’t know if that’s because you work in TV, or you’re just a mellow guy, or you’re just crazy.

The key is, you and Tim know me, respect my work, understand what’s different about it, and are willing to work with me. So my defenses don’t go up with you guys like they do with most people. I actually think playwrights should be defensive most of the time. We have things worth defending.

You do.

There are some people who are so tough—I was at [Yale] Drama School with Harry Kondoleon, and he was so tough, he knew what he wanted. You could say anything to him and he didn’t care. He wouldn’t even be mad at you, he wouldn’t have any trouble sitting with you if you said you hated his play. I’m not that way. Drama school, in a way, was a terrible place for me. I used to take all kinds of advice from people who had no idea what I was trying to do, and I ended up wasting all of our time. The one thing I learned there was that I had to ignore advice. I have to decide exactly what I want to write, and write it on my own. My plays are unusual or weird or quirky or whatever you want to call them. So they have to break the rules, and they have to be clear and total in how they do it. They have their own logic. It’s a slightly skewed logic, but it’s just how I see the world.

That logic demands a certain style of the actors.

They have to be willing to, as Jamie Richards says, “Just jump on the train.”

Yes.

You can’t rationalize too much in my plays, because a lot of what happens is irrational. There are these emotional outbursts throughout Light Years, of the sort young people and I are given to, and the reasons aren’t always evident immediately.

There are always reasons, they just happen very quickly.

That’s right. And it’s a style. It flirts with naturalism, but it’s not, any more than opera is. In real life it can take one second to fall in love. In an opera that second can be stretched to forty-five minutes, but it totally captures the feeling by stretching it out. In my plays, it’s more about compression. The language is compressed, the action is compressed, a lot is crammed together in an attempt to get to how reality feels.

So jump on the train.

And I think the physicality helps in the long run. Getting your body into it. Whether it’s the hugging, crawling, or sleepwalking.

I’ve been told this story about André Bishop saying to you, after the first of your many readings at Playwrights Horizons, something like, “Billy, we’re not going to do this play, but someday you’re going to be a writer that we produce.”

I remember his exact words.

What were his exact words?

He said I was one of the few playwrights that made him excited about the new generation of playwrights in town, and he was sure that one day we’d be working together. So I flew home. This was the day the Mets won the World Series, it was a good day. This was in the 1986. Now I think perhaps the mistake I made was I began ushering at the theater at that point, so perhaps André thought I’d let him off the hook. Because we did work together in that context.

Nooo.

And of course right about that time and the next year, Playwrights started getting really big, with Wendy Wasserstein’s Isn’t It Romantic, and Sunday in the Park With George, and Heidi Chronicles moving to Broadway. So they grew faster than I did.

But the moral of the story is that in 2001, Playwrights Horizons is working with Billy Aronson on an actual fully-produced play. So I was wondering if you have any words for those who wait.

My advice, to someone who is waiting for the production, as it will be to myself when I’m waiting for the next production, is just try to enjoy your life. Exercise. Spend time with family and friends. Find a way to make money that isn’t too degrading. Enjoy writing and look for people who understand and respect your work, even if they’re not able to produce it yet, rather than try to hook up with famous people, because that’s impossible, and even if it does work out, the end result turns out to be about them.

So you have experience working with famous people?

No, but this is what I’ve heard. [laughter] But I can tell you that the converse of that, working with somebody like Jamie Richards, I mean we’re right at the same level I think. She had plenty of experience but wasn’t very known, and we worked together, and we failed together, we made mistakes together, we learned the things that you’ve articulated my comedy needs. We found out together, by seeing what it’s like when you don’t have both sides, when you veer to one side or the other. And we’ve learned to trust each other, which is hard, because there’s the impulse in a collaboration, when it’s not working, to say, “Well, I can do it on my own.” But in general, if it’s someone who respects you and is willing to talk with you and listen to you and stick with you, that’s hard to leave. That’s worth the patience. Playwriting is a very slow art to develop. It doesn’t usually happen young, like for pop singers or Olympic skaters. It takes a long time to get your first plays finished, to get perspective on those plays, to write plays you can really stand behind, and then to find people who respond to your work and want to help bring it to life. And you have a lot to learn from them, once you start working with them. And finding producers nowadays is really tough. And then there are critics, who take a while to get new things. It all takes so long. I think any playwright whose work is appreciated in their lifetime is outrageously lucky. I’m just thrilled to have this opportunity so soon, really, while I’m still young enough to enjoy it.