Interview with E. Hunter Spreen

From an interview on Adam Szymkowicz’s blog:

Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A: We’d get as excited about failure as we do about success. I wish there were places where I could just experiment – you know, hey people, this might not work but I’m going for it. Come watch it and tell me what you think. Sam Shepard had that freedom and there’s so much imagination and playfulness in his early plays. They don’t all work, but he was just writing and making and figuring it out by having productions go up. It’s hard to support that kind of work now.

This is why the Bay Area is lucky to have places like PlayGround, PianoFight, Sleepwalkers, SF Theater Pub….


5 Replies to “Interview with E. Hunter Spreen”

  1. Hmm, I wish I could feel this way — and I do know that the Bay Area is a special place in terms of number of organizations it has to nurture playwrights — but I still feel that whenever I write ANYTHING, it has to be AMAZING, because there are so many hungry playwrights here all competing for the same opportunities! Though I try to embrace Beckett’s dictum of “failing better,” the thought of failing in public terrifies me. I know that part of this is just my own neurosis, which I need to combat, but I do agree with Ms. Spreen that there is still room for the theater community to be genuinely EXCITED by failed ambition.

  2. Marissa: I suppose my thought is that, if PianoFight liked one of my full-lengths and wanted to produce it, and we all really liked the ambition of the piece, but it didn’t get great reviews and didn’t sell out and maybe we even decided it wasn’t our best work…it wouldn’t mean PianoFight would never produce me again.* Many smaller groups seem to be looking for writers and plays that they dig, rather than the next big hit.

    *If PianoFight did ban me, it would almost certainly have something to do with Rob Ready and a bottle of Jameson.

  3. Hey Tim:

    I want my work to be amazing too but also want to stretch it and break it and push myself past personal limits, experiment with form, etc. I guess I was looking at the question in terms of an ecology of theater – that research & development is an essential element in fostering artistic growth, if that makes sense.

    That’s one of the reasons I like the SF Bay Area too. There are an amazing amount of resources for playwrights to get work in front of an audience and experiment w/o the pressure of necessarily thinking about box office.

  4. Thanks Tim and Elizabeth. Maybe my perspective is skewed because the Bay Area is really the only place I’ve lived in, as a playwright. Maybe I just don’t realize how good we have it here :-) because it’s true that most area theater companies do seem to value artistic excellence over Boffo Box Office.

  5. Hi Tim,

    Just wanted to chime in and say that you’re exactly right in your estimation of how PianoFight works in choosing what to produce. Production is usually determined by two factors, weighed equally:
    1) Do we like the work
    2) Do we like the person who created the work
    (to be clear, I’m not saying that we don’t like anyone we have not produced, we just haven’t had a chance to get to know them yet)

    Doesn’t matter how amazing the play is, if you’re a prick, that play is not being produced by PianoFight. And it doesn’t really matter how great a human you are, if the material is shit, it’s not going up.

    The combination of these two factors typically lead to a long term relationship between the company and the playwright, in which numerous pieces are produced over the years – prime examples of this are Bill Bivins and Daniel Heath. The financial or critical success of any individual piece is made less important when stacking it up next to the body of work that’s already been produced or could be produced in the future.

    Regarding Mr. Spreen’s answer, I do basically agree with Marissa: Failure Sucks. It sucks to do a show for 7 people in the audience. It sucks to read a critic who rips up your work with relish. For me, and I think most people, it’s tough to get excited about that. But removing a fear of failure from the equation (ie, the two factors listed above), goes a long way for allowing riskier choices. That way, when you do fail (and I can guarantee it will happen) it’s like, “Ah well, we’ll get ’em next time.” Another plus is that one failure becomes a wicked good inside joke for anyone involved in that stinker of production.


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