Interview with Paul Heller
by Lissa Tyler Renaud*
Clearly, the dictum “write what you know” has made no impression on San Francisco playwright Paul Heller. He seems to be magnetized by everything unfamiliar. He writes plays about cultures he doesn’t know, and works with people whose language he doesn’t share. The subjects of his plays encompass Aztec stories, an explorer’s letters, Russian samizdat poetry, Catholic mysticism, and criminality; his plays’ concerns include a woman’s trauma, gay attraction, and the orphans of Mexican drug dealers. He’s written works for puppeteers, dancers, slam poets, and musicians. With this impressive reach in his work, it is no surprise that it appeals to a refreshingly unusual mix of audience members.
Here’s a 2010 interview with Heller and colleagues about his play, Beijing, California. Heller received coveted and prestigious grants for the play—as he has for other plays—and a warm welcome from the Asian American Theater Company, which gave the play its premiere production.
It also makes sense that Heller’s work has ended up in unusual spaces. His latest project, Wolves, is performed in the living rooms of private homes. Learning that the elderly and disabled have difficulty coming to the theatre, he took matters into his own hands and developed a play with two characters that could come to them. It’s very striking that he’s attracted a mix of sophisticated and new viewers to attend these performances: as the piece moves from house to house—fourteen so far, in different cities—Heller gathers a devoted following for his work. He offers practical advice for others interested in creating In-Home theatre here:
Your plays involve unusual relationships with your directors.
I write two forms of plays: political, linear epics with international casts, and intimate pieces that literally happen to the audience.
My large-scale, political plays stem from my experiences working in the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Europe. My plots drop audiences into the same stew of language, culture and ethical dilemmas that I encountered abroad. I make audiences watch North American characters try to deal with people they don’t understand. For example, an American teacher ignores that her pupils are used to being told what their learning means—she insists on asking them open-ended questions. As a result, the children don’t view her as a teacher, and the teacher finds the children unreachable. In short, I want my plays to reveal how other countries see us.
But as a North American writer, I can only construct half the story. For this reason, I collaborate with directors from other countries who can teach me what it’s like for them to deal with North Americans, especially when wealth and power are at stake. Over the years, I’ve collaborated with directors from Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Korea and Mexico. Before I write the play, they tell me about their personal experiences, for weeks and sometimes months. This way, as I compose, I learn what my non-American characters might say and do. This preliminary work ensures that once the director and I take the scenes into workshops, we are already on the same page.
It takes a lot of patience on both our parts and a long time commitment, but the results, for me, are plays that I could never have written out of my own imagination or experience. For the directors, our work tells stories they are excited to tell.
How is that relationship different for your smaller plays—when you haven’t collaborated on the play with the director?
My intimate pieces are another story. My plays borrow from a lot of informal theatre I saw living abroad: Bahamian Junkanoo (a kind of winter Carnival), Mexican Negrito and Gachupín dances; folk tales and myths I heard told and acted in tiny villages in the mountains of Puebo—and also just from listening to stories and gossip in Spanish, Italian, German, and even Nahauatl (with help from a translator). I’m also highly influenced by work I’ve seen or participated in—by England’s Forced Entertainment Company, Serbia’s Dah Theatre, Mexico City’s Señya y Verbo Theater of the Deaf, and San Francisco’s Mugwumpin (a devised theatre ensemble). My plays are based on these building blocks, but they don’t yield scenes with a typical construction, or even with logical connections between the lines to be spoken. Directors might ask how some of the ideas transition from one line in the text to the next.
My play Wolves, for instance, features a man sitting alone in a hospital corridor, listening to his own mind while dreading his wife’s imminent death. The text slides from setting to setting, and forward and backward in time, often in mid-sentence. It relies on innuendo, irony, rhetorical questions, suggestion—and on the actor’s ability to change swiftly from beat to beat, often in mid-thought. As we talk and the director and main actor get clearer about what’s happening, I find ways to tighten the play.
I’ve been fortunate to work with directors who know how to ask the questions necessary to begin rehearsals—they often have no experience in the cultures I’m writing about. For example, my play Hebrew Lessons concerns a young, gay Hassidic Jew living in New York and studying to become a cantor. At the end, he chooses to reject the sexual advances of a young gentile man to whom he’s attracted. At first, the director searched the text for a more compelling reason for this than the character’s rejection of his own sexuality. He worried the cantor would come off as a fanatic—certainly a hot button word. This is my own culture, so I could explain why some Jews dedicate their lives to preserving ancient customs. Once we’d worked this out, he could help the play show that orthodoxy is not fanaticism.
Is there a part of the playwriting process that you like least?
I love writing, and every play I’ve written, I’ve written differently, so there is no part I like least.
I am most irritated, however, at being urged to change a script about a week before opening because an actor or director thinks it will make things “clearer.” Often they call this a “quick fix,” when actually there just wasn’t enough time for us all to figure everything out. These “fixes” rarely make for better lines, and there’s little time to see how they settle into the actors’ performances. I also write and think slowly, and hate to be rushed, so I end up with lines I’m not sure work.
Are there social issues that contemporary American theatre has failed to address? Is censorship a factor?
Theatres don’t have to address social issues; they can do whatever they want. We live in horrible times, but even so, our theatre isn’t compelled to address these things. The president must, but art isn’t required to. The grants I apply for suggest that artists ought to include a social justice piece to their work, but the results I’ve seen in the U.S. are pretty anemic. I’m not touched by plays with social messages delivered in traditional forms and in naturalistic language. Because all that reminds me of is T.V. The plays get to their pearly endings even before they begin, and they all end cynically—with agreement, understanding, a truce, or peace. Is that censorship?
However, it’s not hard to find a play that reflects us and tells a story imaginatively and powerfully. For example, the play Incendies, by Canadian/Lebanese playwright Wajdi Mouawad: I am impressed by its ability to mirror us, to resolve the action, and to leave us tasting bile at the end. We want to vomit, and we never saw it coming.
Social issues we haven’t addressed? I was just in Hawaii. There is a thriving, but subjugated indigenous population living alongside a thriving tourist industry. I’ve never seen a play about this contemporary population in Hawaii or anywhere else. Perhaps they’re written but not performed near me.
Have you ever received a particularly insightful piece of criticism?
My Beijing, California received a rave review from George Heymont in the Huffington Post; the San Francisco Chronicle panned it. Heymont’s writing was very helpful, as he knew the subject and demonstrated when the play didn’t fulfill its goals. Invaluable for revision. The Chronicle serves as an entertainment filter, letting local readers know if they would be amused by a show, so the comments were of no help.
The helpful “criticism” I receive is from directors and actors engaged with my work, who let me know why something isn’t working for them.
And from my audiences. The protagonist in my play Wolves speaks directly to the audience. The play is performed in living rooms, so this creates an intimate, sometimes threatening, and always emotional atmosphere. Audiences want to discuss the play afterwards. They often tell me they wanted to respond to the rhetorical questions the actor asks during the performance. This has taught me that I can put more of these questions into the script—that audiences enjoy being messed with in this way. It’s irresistible.
*Lissa Tyler Renaud (M.A. Directing; Ph.D. Theatre History/Criticism) is director of InterArts Training (1985- ). She has been visiting professor, master teacher, speaker and recitalist throughout the U.S. and Asia, and in England, Russia, Mexico, and Sweden. See her invited chapter in The Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky, 2013. Renaud was co-editor of The Politics of American Actor Training (Routledge 2009/2011); under Yun-Cheol Kim, she was founding editor of Critical Stages, 2007-2014. Renaud is senior editor for the Wuzhen Theatre Festival, China, and a longtime Senior Writer for Scene4 international magazine of cultural arts.