Interview with Neil LaBute

I meet celebrated American playwright, screenwriter and director Neil LaBute the Arsenale’s café. His residency “AdA Venezia: Author directing Author”, together with fellow authors/directors Marco Calvani and Nathalie Fillion, is the only such project at this year’s Theatre Biennale. He directed Calvani’s new play, Fillion directed his own play, and Calvani directed Fillion’s play over the five days of their Venice residency.

What does it mean for you to be part of a ‘resident company’ here in Venice? How has the experience been?


It is a very different, interesting and fun experience for me. As a writer, I have a solitary life and pursuit. Directing gets me out of the house, which is great. Here I’m working with people I’ve already collaborated with, whose talents I know, and with new acquaintances. I spent the whole summer around different countries, holding workshops, and meeting resident actors that I could work with. There’s definitely nothing like that in the US. Both here and during the previous residency with Marco [Calvani], I have used the same approach to directing work, though in different environments. I’ve been working in tandem with various personalities, more so than in other stage productions. Compare to our collaboration in 2012, there are more assistants and one additional author/director. So the decision process is a democratic affair, different from working alone or with one other person that you know well: it’s a new frontier for me.

How does Venice influence your creative process? Does such a beautiful and unique location inspire you?
Venice doesn’t influence my working on a whole, but a place like the Arsenale certainly does. I always walk through the architectural exhibition: I like being surrounded by it, seeing excerpts from the great films [that are on show as part of the Architecture Biennale] every time, it’s highly inspiring. I also enjoy meeting the theatre community in the café at lunchtime, the excitement and challenge of being close to many other artists. The theatre we’re working in is new: the space was obviously not initially designed as a stage. This reminds me of my experiences as a young artist, creating new theatrical spaces from scratch. So it has a familiar feeling, yet everything is very novel for me here, as I’d never been to this part of Venice before.


How will this project evolve?
The plays can only evolve more positively the more I work with them, in English. In Italian [the language of the actors here in Venice] at a certain point I begin to fail as a director, as I cannot understand every nuance of the language. There is a balance between the frustration of not knowing Italian language and culture, and the great lesson in collaboration that I’m receiving. I’m collaborating with people I trust and rely on, including actors who at times tell me that “this doesn’t feel right”.

Often lines just don’t translate directly. You also realize that in another country “block it this way” doesn’t make sense, since for instance a man and a woman just wouldn’t behave in a certain manner. This kind of work goes beyond language and text into the fabric of the people, and you learn more than what simply pages and texts can tell you.


Which attribute(s) does an actor need to have in order to work with you?

The other day, at the encounter, Stefano Ricci said that “all they must have is breath”, and I would agree. I have worked and could work with such a wide variety of people. What I really look for is passion, real excitement for the project, and that the actors aren’t there for ulterior motives, such as money, or their resumes. I’d give up some natural talent in exchange for an actor who gives everything he has to give. I prefer to team up with people who enjoy the creative process as much as I do, rather than transforming it into a combat.


Is there any other artist here at the Theatre Biennale whom you’d like to work with?

No, I wouldn’t say anyone specifically since I’d be open to collaborate with any of the other artists, as they seem to be here for all the right reasons. I’d be challenged to work with companies such as Blitz Theatre Group or Ricci/Forte, whose theatre is more physically-based, or with artists who don’t rely on traditional texts, since I’m more text-based. It would take me out of my comfort zone. I’d have less need to work with people like Marco [Calvani] and Nathalie [Fillion], who write and direct traditional texts, with a similar approach to mine. But there’s nobody like me here! [He laughs]


How come did you and Marco choose Nathalie Fillion as third writer/director?
Marco met her in France and thought she’s be a good candidate, as an interesting author who works in a similar way to us. We decided that were we to include an additional author/director, we should choose a female voice. I don’t know whose idea it was but it doesn’t matter as it made perfect sense! Even though triumvirates historically haven’t proved successful… With a female sensitivity and writing, something new is bound to happen, even if it turns out to be negative!


So does it make a difference to work with a woman, or a man?

It makes a lot of difference to many, less so to me. It’s very ghettoizing to think like that. Nathalie is present here first and foremost as an artist. The fact that she is a woman is simply an element of her identity, together with her age, provenance, and so forth. Were we to include a fourth author, it would be superfluous to choose them because of their sex.

I believe that women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights are moving forward, if turgidly, though maybe not enough, even if at times there is some backsliding. I prefer a woman as a director to a female director: I’ve worked equally successfully with the same number of female and male directors. Having a female author or director’s perspective can give us the opportunity to share the artistic experience with a wider variety of people. It is very flattering when I’m told “you write women well”, as I haven’t been and will never be a woman – I can’t experience directly giving birth, abortion, or marriage and even rape from a female point of view. I do my best to emulate it on paper, and the highest compliment for a writer is when you’re deemed able to portray someone you’re not.


Can you compare the situation of theatre in the US to the Italian one?

It seems to be harder for new playwrights to put their plays up in Italy, everyone I’ve met here cries the same foul. It would be extremely frustrating for someone like me, since I’ve had a good number of opportunities to have my work staged. In the US, we have more theatres taking chances in showing new plays compare to Europe, both by established and upcoming authors. However, it can take a long time to obtain a production, often only readings are held, due to the nature of this biased market. Readings can function as a try-out for new plays, they’re much less expensive. At times artistic directors cannot ‘see’ a play until it is read by a group of actors. I can understand this, though I don’t care for business.


How would you define the theatrical community?

Theatre is a microcosm for most other aspects of life: you can work with some people, not with others. Its members can be generous, or mean-spirited… I feel that at times we marginalize theatre, treating it almost as a religious, sacred matter. People can make it very precious (in the negative sense of the word), insisting on the ineffability of the experience. However, I can explain it very easily, being an extremely practical person: this is the work to do, then there is a show.
Theatre is big enough to contain all the different approaches to it, at times it may look closer to dance but I know when it’s theatre, it’s as diverse as anything else. Above all, theatre is a form of communication, and a way for us to work out things by fleshing out situations, with little or no consequence: in the end it isn’t real, though we may try our best to make it seem real. Theatre is the gateway to an imagined world, and here lies its cathartic power.


How is it different to write for the stage or for the screen?

Most people say there is a difference, and I believe there is. If the work is commissioned by others, more rules set in. In my own [non-commissioned] writing there is greater fusion: many say that my films look like theatre, with lots of characters talking in few locations. I think film is more of a “show-me” medium (rather than “let’s talk about it”), while theatre is more of a “tell-me” medium. Many examples reinforce this view, others don’t, there are different approaches. My plays and screenplays are wordy and character-driven. I took on lots of directing jobs in cinema so that I could continue in theatre in the way that seemed right to me, that I’d like to leave behind as a legacy. Playwriting is the purest medium for me, I’ve written plays of one piece and with a unified purpose and I hope that people reading them will think “he seems to have a sort of idea he’s banging onto”: gender and sexual politics, the government of two – not government!

In film and TV, I’ve done more commissioned writing. I’m happier with some scripts than with others, but overall they aren’t indicative of the message I have to say.


How did you trilogy on physical beauty become a “quintet”?

I initially wrote two plays about physical beauty, with a similar structure and number of characters. Then I wrote a third play [Reasons to Be Pretty], which concentrates on the physical beauty of the face, and I thought it should become the first part of a new trilogy with the same format: a variety of scenes, a cast of two men and two women, with one man taking the emotional journey throughout the plays. Some years later, in 2013, I felt the desire to write numerous episodes in the life of various people instead of just turning the page and starting a new story – and not just for TV! It’s a commercial failure in the sense that no audience or producer asked me to, but it felt like “Wow, I’d love to write a sequel to something I’ve already written – what group of characters should I choose? It would be interesting to see what has happened to those of Reasons to be Pretty in a few years”. So I wrote Reasons to Be Happy and I’ll probably write a third one since there is more to say about these characters’ lives. I already have a title in mind, in a similar vein.


Why do you make theatre?

I want to get rich!No, obviously I need psychological help. [He laughes] It’s what I do best, and gives me the best chance for me to express myself as an artist, and also psychologically and physically. I’m happiest when I’m working in theatre. I always tell people “if you have anything else you can do, don’t go into theatre!” since there are too many other people driven by these angels and demons. It’s the only thing I want to do, and to have it as a job gives me a double happiness.

Today you’re wearing a Texaco t-shirt, and I’ve seen you wearing Nirvana and The Misfits t-shirts. Are these the clothes you prefer?
The only principle is pure simplicity and ease. Here it’s hot, it’s summer, so t-shirts and short trousers are handy. I love Nirvana and Johnny Cash so I wear their t-shirts. I usually don’t put on anything I hate – and I have no love or hatred for Texaco, I simply like this graphic design! Practicality is also a driving force in my work, I’m a romantic realist!

[Iante Roach]
[ph. Ilaria Scarpa]



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