Interview – Michael Landes – USA

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What was the first play to make you want to write?

I can’t remember the first play that made me interested in making theater, but the first contemporary play that made me feel that there were new areas still to be explored in performance was “An Octoroon” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. I saw the play in my last year of high school, and it blew open what I thought could be done in an adaptation or in a theater piece in general. It may not have been the first play that made me want to write, but it was the first one that made me realize that there were unique ways that one could write for the present moment.

Your background to becoming a writer? When did you realise that this is what you wanted to go into?

I’ve written for a very long time and was lucky enough to be encouraged to continue by my family and friends. The first thing I wrote and was serious about was a play, but for a while I tried to see what it would mean for me to be a prose writer or poet (and I still work on poetry not infrequently). I never asked myself if I would write or not, only if I would do it professionally. And because I knew I would be writing regardless of whatever else I did in my life, I decided I might as well just do it professionally anyway.

What or who has influenced you the most?

My influences change daily in my writing. But right now I’m looking back at Greek tragedy a lot. Two of the projects I’m working on in Belgrade borrow heavily from Greek tragedy, especially in structure and cast size (three people in each piece, each of whom play multiple roles). I’m drawn a lot to Sarah Kane as well––I think all English-language theatre is in a post-Kane world, whether we know it or not. To go outside the realm of theater I’m utterly obsessed with John Ashbery and am currently attempting to collect all of his collections of poetry. His poems to me have a quality of performance, and whether I like it or not, I often find myself attempting to imitate his estranged use of language in my plays. Lastly a lot of people tell me my work reminds them of Beckett, who certainly inspires me but nonetheless it is a comparison I don’t really like; in a comparison between Beckett and anyone else’s work, he always comes out ahead.

What do you think is the best thing about theatre? And the worst?

The worst is easy: it’s the part between writing the piece and actually putting it on a stage. Unlike poetry or prose, the product of my writing isn’t the actual work that I want to create. I just write instruction manuals or recipes for the actual production of the work of art. Hopefully the recipe is pleasant to read, but that’s not what I’m really going for. And in order to make theater you need space, time, usually people, usually money to pay those people, and it quickly becomes a very difficult administrative project in a way that writing a completed poem isn’t. (Not to say there isn’t administration involved in publishing poetry and fiction, but the poem technically exists, published or not, in a way the play does not technically exist.)

The best part, however, is seeing a play that totally breaks open what seems to be possible in theater. This does not mean works that traffic in theater magic, that make things happen onstage that are literally impossible like people flying or whatnot––that’s fine too, but isn’t what I mean. Similarly this doesn’t mean shows that take sharp dramatic turns that shock the audience––again, fine, but not what I mean. What I mean is a show that, for me, achieves something that theater until that point has not achieved. “An Octoroon” was one such show; others include “The Antipodes” by Annie Baker or “Five Easy Pieces” by Milo Rau. These plays in some cases change the very vocabulary of performance, and in other cases use traditional performance vocabularies to say completely new things. It’s moments like these that I love in theater.

Are there any themes and stories you find yourself re-visiting with your writing?

Right now I’m really interested in story, both through adaptation and not, because I’ve noticed that a lot of new shows I see are either adaptations of existing stories or are about real events. What would a story that is made explicitly and only for theater look like? What’s the relationship between the story and the form it’s told in? This is the real topic of my marathon piece for three actors that travels through seven types of stories over seven hours.

I also tend to find things I dislike and move towards them, using my writing as a way to investigate why I avoid certain topics. In this vein I have a few projects that refer back to the classic American family drama, a format that I find totally repulsive and boring. But I still want to find out what’s worthwhile about it, and so I keep writing about it.

What other art forms do you love when you’re not in a theatre? How important is the interaction with artist from different disciplines?

I try to engage with every other artistic discipline that I know of as much as possible, both out of personal interest and pleasure but also because I think that looking inward at your own discipline leads to a lack of innovation. Historically almost every really substantial artistic movement came about because of interdisciplinary work––painters looking at composers looking at performance looking at sculpture and so on. I especially see a lot of studio/fine/plastic arts in New York, and I’m following this residency with a trip to the Venice Biennale. I also attend a lot of dance and of course, read a great deal of poetry and prose, and I love contemporary music. I couldn’t imagine making theater without drawing influence from all of those other fields.

You are visiting Europe quite often. Are you looking for something specific?

Right now I find myself drawn more to the types of performance coming out of Europe than the United States. The United States has some interesting dance work going on, but European dance-theater, post-dramatic work, and documentary theatrical work all interest me more than the American broadway or off-broadway scenes. I believe this is because the financial structures of European theaters, specifically the national funding, leads to more room for experimentation and exploration than American theater which needs to sell tickets and receive donations to survive. With the exceptions of some of the names above, most of my favorite theater and performance makers right now are European, and so I like to come here to be closer to the scene I enjoy.

What do you like about Belgrade? Can you compare it to the US or other places in Europe you visited?

Belgrade feels like a nicer and quieter Paris to me––not as loud or as busy (in a good way). It’s nothing like the United States, also in a good way; I don’t think anywhere in Europe feels much like the US. The arts and cultural scene here is the perfect size for me, not so massive that it’s overwhelming and impossible to navigate, but there’s still plenty to do and a lot of interesting stuff to explore. It’s extremely easy to become very comfortable here, and I felt at home right away in the city.

Can you tell about what’s coming up next? Any plans?

I’m attending a residency in the States in August called ChaNorth near New York City. Beyond that, a lot remains in flux; I’m working on a Fulbright application to come to Belgium and work as a playwright in 2020, but between now and then I aim to hopefully mount a few workshop productions of the work I’ve accomplished here in Belgrade and possibly found a theatre company in the States to continue producing new work.

What would you say to writers coming to Belgrade in future?

Enjoy it! Everyone’s experience will be so different that I can’t give any blanket advice. But explore the city at your own pace––don’t rush to do everything in one week or a few days––rest, and have fun. And of course, as always, try and get some writing done!