Full disclosure: I've known New York–based playwright Tommy Smith since before he became a playwright and I became a theater critic. Obviously, I couldn't review his new play, Sextet. So we sat down to have a conversation instead. A review of Sextet is on the left.
How did Roger Benington, the director of Sextet, break it to you that he was going to put an inch of water on the stage for your play? Did you freak out?
Well, it's about trusting your collaborators. Roger has a keen sense of what's actually going to work onstage and he's really good at mapping movement, so on some level when he said, "We're gonna put an inch of water onstage," I had to suppress the first 10 things that came into my mind. I was like [voice rises an octave or so], "Oooh! That's nice! But, uh... what do you think that will underscore dramaturgically?" It was something along those lines. He read me—not calling the idea "bullshit," exactly—and he read my distress. He told me that, basically, because he was scoring all the words, he also wanted to score the footsteps, so you can hear them in the water. There are times when the actors can be walking and times when they can't, and it depends on what's being said.
We talked a lot about what's in the foreground and what's in the background, and sometimes what's being said is not actually that important. Watching the first scene, Antonina is in the back, playing the piano and kicking her foot a little, so you can hear the piano and hear this lapping of the waves at the same time. And there's something going on with Schoenberg—he's playing dominoes and they're actually talking about something, but you're not really tracking that. You're watching—at least I was watching—her.
How often do you show up to the theater and see something of yours and think, "Awwww, they fucked that up"?
I've had times when I've shown up to shows—I don't want to out the production—but the play I'd written was only half-good. But their take on it was so wrong that none of it came across. My only suggestion to the director was, "Speak it fast, and don't have the actors play for laughs, have them play it for real." And they spoke it slowly and played for laughs. But that's the only thing you can do onstage: play it like it actually is and talk really quickly—and if you do anything else, people will start hating it. At least I do.
I've been writing a lot of short pieces in New York, the goal being that I would talk with the director once and not see it until it opens. If I have five or six things to tell them about the play, I should have made the text so that the text will tell them everything they need. The best works are always like that. You have questions about it, but after you experience it, you're not thinking about whether, say, King Lear is good. It's clear what's going on just by what they're saying. But the kind of play that shows up [he lists a few popular contemporary playwrights who have a fondness for magical realism and stage spectacle], that stuff republished has no punch at all. It seems terrible, and it's not fun to read. So last night seeing the show, it was what I wrote—and also it was also a collaboration of 15 people. It was really evident that there were a lot of powers that came together to make this thing whole, but it was based on something that actually had a structure and could actually be replicated.
What makes me sad about the more experiential stuff is there is no future for it. Same with some of the stuff I do with Reggie [Watts, the New York–based singer and comedian]—there is no future for it, and nobody else will do it.
It's sort of like dance—it's built to disappear.
Yeah, but I always get slightly sad that there is no legacy for that. I'm sentimental that way—I like to keep stuff. Samuel Pepys, he wrote down every theater performance that he saw, and that's the only living document from that era because all the plays were so bad. The person who wins out is the person who writes it down. Early Richard Foreman, early Wooster Group—it almost might as well have not existed. Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill are still gods and they will be, because they wrote it down.