An Interview with Playwright Brian Silberman

by Tyler Beckett

Brian Silberman’s plays include Manifest, recipient of the 1998 Clauder Prize and the 2003 Pinter Review Prize for Drama; Walkin’ Backward, which appears in Best American Short Plays of 2001; andSalvage Baas, in New American Short Plays 2005. Other works include Mechanical Brides for the Uncanny; The Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo; Capgras Delusion; Chattanooga: a series of monologues for a solo performer; The Yip; Throw; Sugar Down Billie Hoak; and The Gospel According to Toots Pope. He currently teaches in the theatre department at Franklin & Marshall College.

Tyler Becket: Dr. Silberman, can you tell me what your life as a writer has been like and how long you’ve been at it?

Brian Silberman: I remember I wrote my first play in the fifth grade. It was about a skier who had had an accident and couldn’t ski anymore. When we staged it in my class, people clapped and I thought, ‘Oh, that was cool.’ As I evolved as a writer, I discovered that I had an ear for dialogue. I could hear the rhythms and patterns in the ways that people spoke, which were often separate and distinct from the actual meaning of what they were saying. It was very easy for me to replicate those things, whereas I had a harder time with narrative and descriptions. So I gravitated towards playwriting.

In terms of my life as a writer, I was initially going to be a lawyer when I went to college. I felt like I could write these really great closing arguments and perform them for juries. But then I took my first poli sci and pre-law classes, and I just did not do well at all. I had always been interested in English and theater, so I said, ‘I’ll do that.’ I continued to write plays, but I still never thought ‘Alright I could really be a writer.’

I went on to grad school to pursue a PhD and become an English professor, but along the way, just as a lark, I applied to some MFA programs and I got into some. There I developed relationships with other people and directors, which was a great thing for getting produced. There were the two clear choices presented to me when I finished: go to New York, get a job waiting tables, form a theater group with other people, and face the struggle, or go the academic route, get the PhD, and get work. I chose the academic route.

TB: During that time did you ever look at other avenues of theater for yourself, or was it always playwriting?

BS: I acted in high school, but when I got to college I couldn’t get into anything. I auditioned for things, but I don’t think I was very good. One of the first plays I wrote in college was where I said, ‘I’m going to write a part for myself because I can’t get cast in anything.’ The play won an award at the Kennedy Center, and I realized then that I was probably better as a writer than an actor.
I tried directing once – it was my own play and the previous director had left. I found that I’m not good at it. Part of it is involving the fact that you have to be engaged and interested in the actor’s process. For me it would work best if I could be there at the first read-through, talk about ideas, and then have somebody else come in and do the blocking and discovery work. Then I could come in and do some tweaking, but that’s just not the way that it works. Writing is the thing I do, and it’s a solitary act. You know this as a writer, unless you’re doing something like writing for television where there’s a bunch of writers in a room. Theater is a communal art form, so that when I write the play it’s still not finished. A director reads it and interprets it, and then a designer will read it and interpret it, and then the actors will read it and interpret it yet again. And then the audience sees it and interprets it. So there are all these layers of interpretation. And the communal aspect of that is really exciting to me, knowing that after I go through the hard work of the solitary effort of writing. It’s more social, and I think that’s an element of the attraction for me.

TB: Even as you’re relinquishing control of the story?

BS: People ask me about that too, ‘Have you ever had experiences where people get it wrong?’ And I say, ‘I have, but I’ve also had experiences where they do things better than I could have imagined.’ Usually they balance out. Every once in a while they don’t, and they go in a negative direction, but every once in a while they exceed what I’ve imagined.
It’s always a miracle to me when a play is successful because there are so many things that could go wrong. My very first Off-Broadway play had a relatively successful and kind of famous director who had done a lot of musicals. He wanted to branch out and be taken more seriously by doing a serious drama, and I had written this very gritty, naturalistic, raw sort of play. As a playwright, you have approval over people and the director, but I didn’t know anything, I was maybe 23-24 years old and it was my first play to go big-time on Off-Broadway. I thought “This guy must know what he’s doing, he’s a famous director, he’s won awards for the musicals,” but he got the tone wrong. He sentimentalized the play. That became a real learning process for me, because I let it happen. It’s amazing when a play does go right, because there are so many opportunities for it to fail. That’s the appeal, and also the challenge, at the same time.

TB: How do you feel MFA programs have changed since you first enrolled in them, and what is the most important thing they have kept?

BS: I haven’t done exhaustive research on MFA programs, but what they offer is a safe space to do your writing. They also offer deadlines in a way that forces you to be productive, and the opportunity to be immersed in the world of writers and writing, with models from the faculty that are there as professors and mentors. The other option is to be out on your own, doing all that, but having to find your own models.
With theater, because it’s a communal art form, you have to find other people who are engaged in that art form in different roles. I made a lot of connections with people at Carnegie Mellon, actors, writers, and directors that I still work with today, because we found each other there. I think the value of the MFA is that you are engaged with people who are serious about writing as a career, and it’s harder if you’re not in the MFA program to find those people. You can still do it and read a lot, but I know also that it becomes harder and harder to find a place to immerse yourself.

TB: Who do you feel has influenced your writing the most in terms of their playwriting?

BS: Oh that’s a long list for many, many reasons, and some of them aren’t even playwrights. But there’s a playwright named Naomi Iizuka, who wrote a play called 36 Views and many others. Naomi Wallace writes beautifully. Tony Kushner. David Mamet was important to me early in my career, less for his ideas and more for the rhythms of his dialogue. That was very important to me when I was a younger writer trying to find my own rhythm and not copy his, which I think I might have done in some of my early plays.

Suzan-Lori Parks is a really interesting playwright to me, and Erik Ehn is a playwright whose work I admire for its imagination. Paula Vogel’s work is very important to me as well, and there’s some classic plays by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Sam Shepard. There is a body of work that I am interested in, but I read a lot of nonfiction and fiction too, and learn a great deal from that. I’m a big fan of Philip Roth, Richard Ford, John McPhee, J.M. Coetzee, and tons of others.

TB: Are there writers that you know or have met that make you feel a part of a community or theme?

BS: Some I know and some I don’t, but I try to see a lot of theater myself. I live in Pennsylvania now – about two-and-a-half, three hours from New York City – and I go up there often to see things that I am interested in, new things and ideas. In all forms too, not just in theater. I really enjoy contemporary art, because it helps me think about theater in a visual way, since theater is a visual medium too. I go to a lot of galleries and shows of new work and gain ideas of how I can communicate an idea visually, not just through words.

TB: Is the intersection of mediums a stronger trait in playwriting ?

BS: Yeah, it’s not that playwriting is harder, it just requires different things. You have to be a wordsmith, because you’re going to be arranging words on a page, but you also have to look at it from a composer’s perspective, because everything is read out loud, and as such has rhythm, tone, pitch, and meter. You’re working like a choreographer does, because you’re moving bodies through space, and you’re also working like a sculptor does, because there’s this three-dimensional form: there’s a set with light and dark and depth that you as the playwright are incorporating into this work. It’s many hats that you wear.
You don’t have those demands as a novelist. It’s the poet who has to think about sound. For me, I think it’s the playwright and the poet that are closest aligned; a poem always contains the illusion of the human voice that’s speaking the poem. When people come to playwriting for the first time, that’s the challenge and the struggle.

TB: Do you find yourself looking to digital media in your work?

BS: Sometimes. When I think about the set, I think about it more as a scenic metaphor, so that the environment in which the play happens also has to contain the ideas of the play. Otherwise it’s just a set. That’s why I am so interested in contemporary art and other digital ways that can help reconceive and communicate ideas to that type of effect.
There’s a new way of thinking that’s facilitated by the internet and the digital age, where we think in hypertext fashions as opposed to linear ones. In hypertexts, events can be related in very different configurations, and I think that has had a profound effect on storytelling. I think that seeps into fiction, with writers like David Foster Wallace, and it does in playwriting. It certainly seeps into filmmaking and screenwriting. There are different ways for how we can think about telling stories.

TB: Being engaged with the artistic community, where do you think American theater is going? Do you anticipate change? Are we part of a movement right now, or are we in-between?

BS: Clearly theater is in some degree of crisis in terms of its relevance to audiences now. That’s depicted in the kind of audiences that you see outside of certain venues like New York, where you might see some younger crowds. But go out to regional theater, throughout the country, and you notice that audiences are getting older and older. It’s not financial necessarily; it’s about theater being relevant to audiences, being something that speaks to its time. Theater has a potential and power that has persisted throughout history since its inception, it just has to be reinvented. Vestiges of the old ways are still hanging on, but there are new playwrights, new theater companies who are trying exciting new things. It’s in flux and evolving. It’s at a point of crisis and at a point of a new evolution, and it will be interesting to see what happens.
It could be that because of the digital age theater might have a resurgence. There are those that say we are losing our humanity because we don’t talk to each other anymore, we text. There are people that are really afraid that the younger generation’s language skills are deteriorating because they don’t know how to spell properly. And tweeting – we just write in short bursts rather than trying to really have a conversation. Books are changing too. There are some people who really want the book and some people who don’t need the book. All of these challenges also affect theater, and it could be because of the notion that we’re losing our connection with others. You can watch television at home now with Netflix, and you don’t even have to go to the movie theaters anymore. Watching a movie collectively with an audience is different than watching it by yourself. It could be that theater’s live-ness actually is its saving grace, that people will actually be so starved for that experience that they want a return. That is what we don’t know yet.

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Tyler Beckett is a first-year fiction student in Old Dominion University’s MFA program. He has worked as an editor in an undergraduate literary journal and as a PR writer in Chattanooga, TN. Tyler tends to write short stories but keeps switching between realist fiction and fantasy.