Eric Samuelsen interviews Matthew Greene about his new play Adam & Steve and the Empty Sea

1.10.13 | | 4 comments

Salt Lake City’s Plan-B Theatre Company is staging the world premier of Matthew Greene’s Adam & Steve and the Empty Sea at the end of this month. The play opens Jan. 31 and runs through Feb. 10.  Tickets and details are available at planbtheatre.org or 801.355.ARTS.

Here is the description of the play from Plan-B:

Adam is LDS. Steve is gay. Set against the backdrop of the passage of Prop. 8, these childhood friends grapple with religion, sexuality,politics and adulthood.
 A world premiere by LDS playwright Matthew Greene. Featuring Logan Tarantino as Steve and Topher Rasmussen as Adam, directed by Jason Bowcutt.

AMV readers may recall that I interviewed Greene is about his play #MormoninChief. LDS playwright, retired BYU professor and literary/cultural critic Eric Samuelsen recently interviewed Greene about Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea. Greene attended BYU during the time Eric taught there so that also is discussed. Enjoy!

One Playwright to Another: Eric Samuelsen’s Interview with Matthew Greene

I guess it would have been five years ago now that Matthew Greene showed up in my beginning Playwriting class at BYU. Mild-mannered kid, obviously exceptionally bright, but rather quiet. I assigned the kids to write a ten minute play, due the next class period—jump right in and start writing something, anything. And his play was smart and funny and real. I knew I had someone special in that classroom. He’s had his New York debut, with #MormonInChief. And now Plan-B Theatre in Salt Lake is producing his play Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea.

The play seems particularly timely now that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear Hollingsworth v. Perry, the case challenging the constitutionality of Proposition Eight in California. Oral arguments on Perry could very well coincide with the opening of Matthew’s play. But certainly the issues of the play seem particularly relevant today.

This last week, I caught up with him via email.

ES: First, talk a bit about the genesis of the play.

MG: Well, I was at Brigham Young University during the Proposition 8 campaign.  I was pretty upset by all the ignorance and homophobia I saw on campus at the time and wanted to do about it.  Here was a divisive issue and two polarized groups of people who refused to listen to each other.  And, of course, that kind of thing is dramatic gold.  I had the idea for a story of two best friends going through what we were all going through, finding themselves on opposite sides of the battle.

ES: I sense it’s at least somewhat autobiographical.  Did this begin with a similar friendship?

MG: It’s certainly autobiographical in that I lived through the historical period (if we can already call it) represented in the play.  And yes, the character of Adam has a lot in common with me.  But it’s not actually based on any particular relationship in my own life.  Rather, I drew on a lot of my personal relationships and the experiences of a lot of people close to me.  Actually, a lot of Adam (the Mormon character) is based on a gay friend I knew in high school and a lot of Steve (the gay character) is based on a good friend of mine who happens to be Mormon and straight.  So, I guess the honest answer is yes, this play draws a lot on autobiography.  But not in the way one might expect.

ES: I’ve always thought that your strength as a playwright was characterization.  And yet your New York debut was a highly political play.  Talk about that experience.  And what, to you, is the relationship between political drama and personal drama, and how does the personal become political or vice-versa?

MG: I guess, at a basic level, political stories have the benefit of high stakes, something that playwrights drool over.  I’ve only got two actors onstage in this play (and there were only three in #MormonInChief) but we know the issues transcend these two characters because they have become national political debates.  One thing I’ve learned about myself as a writer is that I’m interested in compelling characters dealing with issues larger than themselves.  I think drama occurs when something extraordinary galvanizes the lives of the characters.  And, yeah, I guess politics is quite the galvanizing force.  It makes people acutely aware of what they want, what they value, and what stands in their way to getting those things.  That’s where it starts to get interesting to me, when people become involved.  I don’t think Empty Sea or #MormonInChief could really be seen as “issue plays.”  They’re stories about people.  I think we forget that these explosive political issues only become such because of all the millions of individuals who are personally invested in the issue.  I want to tell those individuals’ stories.

ES: Your plays do tend to reject a kind of Mormon cultural conservatism, certainly in terms of language and subject matter.  Do you feel somehow estranged from mainstream Mormon culture?

MG: It’s funny.  I have a lot of friends who consider themselves “culturally Mormon” but not “practicing.”  I, on the other hand, am the opposite.  I don’t totally identify with Mormon culture, but because of my personal beliefs, I’m still a card-carrying, practicing church member.  I don’t like cultural conservatism.  I can’t feel like a disciple when my head is buried in the sand.  So, it’s taken a little while, but I’ve learned not to be at odds with myself.  I don’t reject mainstream Mormon culture in spite of my beliefs, but because of them.  That being said, the short answer to your question is that, yes, I feel somewhat estranged from mainstream Mormon culture.  I think the language I use and the subjects I choose to portray reflect the kind of honesty my religious beliefs have taught me to strive for.

ES: Have you gotten much pushback from folks in the culture?  What’s the connection between Mormonism as a religion and as a culture, and how do you negotiate that?

MG: I got some pushback from BYU administration (especially when I tried to do this play on campus a couple of years ago) and some barbed questions from church member here and there.  But I’ve been pleased by the way my work has been received by a lot of LDS people.  One of my biggest goals as a writer is to inspire conversation and I’ve been happy to see that, to a small degree in the LDS community.  I don’t think I’m alone in my belief that Mormon culture needs to expand, to progress.  And I’m grateful to be a part of making that happen.

ES: Who would you say are your influences as a playwright?

MG: I love the work of Donald Margulies, Marsha Norman, and Rajiv Joseph, to name a few playwrights.  And the novelist Chaim Potok seems to “get me” more than anyone I’ve ever read.  I find myself influenced more than anything by the talented people I’ve had the opportunity to work with.  As far as “what’s next,” I’m perfectly happy to say “more of the same.”  I’m always writing and looking for opportunities to do good work.  And there may or not be a film adaptation of Adam & Steve and the Empty Sea in the works.

ES: You know, it’s interesting. I remember you as a student. You were this quiet kid, seemed pretty orthodox. But your writing was so powerful.

MG: Yeah. I was the kid who colored inside the lines. I did my chores, crossed at the crosswalk, and avoided the principal’s office except for the day I told my teacher her outfit was against the dress code. In short, I always took comfort in a world full of rules.

ES: And yet your writing has this restlessness to it.

MG: When I was given the assignment in your class to write my first play, I filled notebooks with outlines and arranged index cards into neat little rows; I had this play figured out. Then I started writing. Characters revealed themselves to me, plot lines took on a life of their own, and unexpected dialogue winked at me from my computer screen. Suddenly, I was in a “no-man’s-land,” some ungovernable province I’d only heard of where expression is boundless and inspiration yields tangible dividends. I had lived the opening chapters of my life convinced that all meaning, all joy and goodness, could be found within the bounds I’d set for myself. I had no idea how limited I was until I tried my hand at creation.

ES: And you still write every day?

MG: Since the days of that early (and admittedly pretty bad) script. . . .

ES: It really wasn’t. . . .

MG: Well, I thought it was. But since then, I’ve become an addict, a zealot, a true believer in the mythical beyond that we call “the creative process.” My identity now, to varying degrees, depends upon the number of words I write and hours I spend crafting stories each day. This has led to an overhaul of my naïve black-and-white worldview, a process I still find myself in. True, I haven’t forsaken all laws and limitations. The words I write, though, give me a space where I can question and explore the statutes, commandments, and mores that surround me. There is a great Truth that transcends rules, structures, and organizations. Dramatic writing is my route to access that truth.

I know it can get tiresome to dwell on the ineffable power of art, so I’ll do my best to be specific. When I refer to this “Truth-with-a-capitol-T,” I have in mind an almost infinite spectrum of experiences, perspectives, dictums, and beliefs that can be found the whole world over. Defining, as I do, my artistic role as one who shares that truth in unique ways, my vision and purpose become clear. I understand my responsibility as a playwright, to learn about the world around me, to read, to listen, to watch life unfold in my orbit and beyond. I know how important it is to seek out experiences of my own and to rise to those that life throws at me unaware. I’ve developed a habit, a hunger, to put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) as often as I can. I appreciate the discipline and the drive that it takes to create something of quality. And I’m becoming acquainted with the naked feeling of sharing my work with an audience.

I realize this might appear on the surface like a kind of cliché: a well-behaved kid from a conservative background (Mormon, no less!) escapes those constraints as he devotes his life to art. The honest truth, though, departs from the expected. For years I’ve faced the demands of conflicting forces all competing for my devotion. Faith, family, country, and career all seem to require more than I have to give. I’ve studied the lives of saints, virtuosos, leaders, and geniuses. I’ve admired their fervor and resolve. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the force uniting them is their desire to reach for something greater. It’s that desire that inspired my youthful good behavior, my irrepressible perfectionism, my religious convictions, and my later devotion to playwriting. All have given me a boost in my personal quest to expand myself and reach for that which lies beyond.

4 comments: “Eric Samuelsen interviews Matthew Greene about his new play Adam & Steve and the Empty Sea

  1. Mahonri Stewart

    Matthew, do you have any future productions of #MormoninChief planned, in Utah or anywhere else? Not that I’m in Utah anymore…

  2. Th.

    .

    I know Greene only from his short plays Foxgloves and Job Well Done, but based on those two, I’m not surprised he’s drawn to the political. “Job Well Done” in particular is about a marital relationship filtered through a religio-political* lens that the characters aren’t quite aware of. Though the bimbo wife gets quite close at times.

    (*sorry)

    I wish I could come see it.

    (And ignore this parenthtical if you feel it’s inappropriate for me to plug a friend at this point, but, speaking of gay/mormon/theater, Ben Abbott’s Questions of the Heart is coming to Cincinnati soon.)

  3. Th.

    .

    Whenever the fringe festival is. That’s in Cincinnati, right? If not, I shouldn’t leave comments when I don’t have access to Facebook.

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