Q: In The Rothko, a man impulsively kicks a great painting, causing what's estimated to be millions of dollars in damage. The play was inspired by a real-life incident, correct?
A: Yes, Steve Wynn, the billionaire casino magnate, had just struck a deal to sell a Picasso from his collection called Le Rêve for $139 million. The night before he was supposed to ship it out, he brought some friends into his office to show it off and accidentally jabbed his elbow through it. He paid to have it repaired, but estimators revised the value of the painting to be only $85 million, because even though the damage was undetectable, everyone knew that it had happened. Wynn sued his insurance company for the lost $54 million, and the idea of that debate, and how value can even be assessed for something as unique as a masterpiece of art, fascinated me.
Q: The script raises questions about who art really belongs to, the public or its guardians. The Director and the Curator no doubt believe that art should be enjoyed by the masses, but they also have a duty to protect it from the masses. How accessible should art be?
A: I would love for art to be everywhere, and I think we like the places where it is whether we are conscious of it or not. If we're going to pave over nature to install civilization, we should mimic nature and make sure our surroundings have things to contemplate and be inspired by, because that feeds us. When I walk around downtown Chicago, I pass public sculptures, masterpieces of architecture, street musicians - that stuff makes you feel alive.
Q: As a playwright and actor, do you sometimes feel that theatre is too elitist, that it can too often prize the abstract or oblique over the visceral and immediate?
A: It's an eternal challenge to make it feel alive, and I think that touches the material, the execution, and everything in between. It really depends on the audience you're writing for - if you want a thoughtful, experienced audience, they might appreciate something that's challengingly opaque; just know that you're doing that and everyone's okay. But I never want to abandon the wide audience, or give up on the idea that they want to be moved and challenged and excited, too; because I think history has proven that they do. Because they go to the theater less often, they're more likely to make safe choices - things that are pre-approved or pre-digested rather than things they don't know much about. But the classics can still surprise if you invest them with living emotion; Shakespeare isn't just coasting on reputation.
Q: You've logged a great deal of time on local stages - acting with Shakespeare Orange County and at Long Beach Playhouse and STAGEStheatre and Zombie Joe's Underground, to name just a few places. Do you think that it is especially advantageous for a playwright to act, both in terms of understanding playwriting mechanics and pursuing production possibilities?
A: It has worked tremendously well for me, and I don't know if that's just how I'm wired or if would really work for others. But I think each discipline has improved the other, and a lot of it has to do with point-of-view. When I write a piece, I can look at it and be conscious of what the actor is going to do with it, since more often than not I won't be there to explain it to them. And when I act a piece, my instinct is to look past just my line and try to get a sense of the overall direction of the story, which is very clarifying for how I fit into the canvas.
Q: What is the most valuable playwriting lesson you've learned over the years? Or alternately, what is the best piece of advice about playwriting that has come your way?
A: Because I write prose stories and screenplays as well as stage work, I am a fierce proponent of what I call "inherency of medium". If you are going to write a play, make damn sure that whatever story you're trying to tell NEEDS to be a play, not a sitcom or a pamphlet or anything else. That means you have to have some personal idea of what the theater is and what it can do, and hone your idea in that direction until the very fact that it is a play is inextricable from what it is. The Rothko takes place in a realistic world but it revolves around a very abstract exchange of ideas that nonetheless requires the impassioned urgency of the actors playing it; and to me that was always going to be more effective on stage than in, say, a short film.
Nicholas Thurkettle's The Rothko opens Saturday, August 23 @ 2pm at OC-centric. For the full schedule of performances of The Rothko.