SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Opus playwright Michael Hollinger
 

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posted Friday, November 13, 2009 - Volume 37 Issue 46

SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Opus playwright Michael Hollinger
by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

Opus
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through December 6


Seattle Repertory Theatre just opened its newest production, Opus, an intense one-act play about a string quartet going through major changes and triumphs. The play stars five well-known Seattle actors: Shawn Belyea, Allen Fitzpatrick, Charles Leggett (recently awarded the 2009 Gregory Falls Outstanding Actor award), Todd Jefferson Moore, and Chelsey Rives. In the play, a famous all-male string quartet has ousted one of its long-time members and a woman is hired just before they play at the White House, and she has to get up to speed in a real hurry.

The playwright, Michael Hollinger, is a theater professor at Villanova University. He talked about the kinds of demands theater places on its audience. "Theater demands [more] attention than just about any other work of art you can name. Because we have to follow things like character and story, it's more demanding than a symphony. In listening to music, it's OK to have your mind wander. If you leave, you don't have to say 'what happened after the piccolo played that passage?' In theater, you always have to ask, 'what happened when I left the room?' Novels we read in installments, we can reread sections, jump to the ending. Theater is dictatorial, 'you sit here until I let you get up.' That expectation is utterly contradictory in nature. Just about everything we do in life gets more boring over time. It's why God made dessert; because every meal gets a little more boring with each bite we take. In the theater, that's bad. We have to contrive a way to make people more interested than at the beginning."

Hollinger's also a professionally trained violist and has composed songs for bands and the stage. "I have written a few hundred songs for rock bands and musicals, all different collaborations, the book and lyrics, the book and not the lyrics or music, sometimes the book and lyrics and music. I just had a musical premiere in Colorado and I have two in development," Hollinger told SGN.

"I'm kind of opinionated about musicals," he declares. "I love the form and hate it. Most people are stirred by musicals and what they can do, but thinking people also hate them because they're dumbed-down and fake and sentimental. Musicals are a challenge in this ironic age that doesn't want to give the heart away too easily, but song lives in the heart and not the brain. How can you write a new musical that capitalizes on and celebrates the emotional power of music without being stupid and thrills the heart as well as the head? I like that challenge and the form, and love working with others in intimate creative circumstances. A musical is like an aircraft carrier; it's huge and hard to change things quickly. The one that premiered this summer was 11 years in the making. With a play, I can change something in seconds. I can kill off a character, change my mind, it can be more idiosyncratic that way. It's more a map of my psyche than a collective psyche."

Hollinger thinks, as many do, that the best pieces of writing combine humor and drama. "I like highbrow as well as lowbrow humor, I like wit as well as people falling down. I like the mix of it. I like humor that is used to soften up the belly of an audience so they'll feel things. You won't get an audience to cry if you don't get them to laugh first. There are about six laughs in Death of a Salesman, and you can't lose any of them. An example in Opus: Carl acknowledges in the White House backstage that he has cancer and he doesn't know how he's going to tell his kids. This is preceded by some decent laughs. When the audience is feeling a little jolly, it hits them harder when it gets a little grim. After that moment, there's another moment of humor and it's a release for the audience because they know he's not down and out yet. It's the combination because we're yanked around. The best roller coasters don't go just up and down; they vary our experience."

Hollinger teaches graduate playwriting and graduate "solo performance" and undergraduate songwriting. "[I try] to get students to understand the nature of attention: how do we get it, hold it, and intensify it over time? How is setting used, how is costume used, what is dialogue beside the way that people talk in real life, what is a title and what does it do? I try to focus on taking a play apart so we can see it as individual parts and not get blurry about it. In shipbuilding, you'd have a lesson on water displacement, on masts, cover these things separately, even if your goal is to make a ship that floats. I try to be that specific. It's easy to talk too generally about the construction of plays."

One of the main stories in Opus is that two of the male players have been a couple for a long time. Asked about his exposure to Gay relationships, Hollinger says, "When I worked on this play, it didn't cross my mind at all. The thing that interested me was to have an established quartet that gets a new member. A couple was good, and the new member would be as different as possible. Younger, female, more naïve, more business-like. I like the relationship between them [Carl and Dorian] a lot. I wasn't trying to make a statement about Gay people in the arts. The evolution was to further the romantic relationship and to make Grace as alien as possible, so that meant that they [the original quartet] should all be male. Still, once characters start developing they take on a life of their own, they say things you don't expect them to say. Example: the flashback scene when Dorian opens the door holding a plunger. I had no idea why he was holding a plunger. I figured I'd find out what he was doing with it and I did. I found out he had flushed his [psychotropic] meds down the toilet, in the bottle."

"I wanted them to be a Gay couple. I ran it past some friends, a composer who I'm writing a musical with has been with his partner for about as long as my wife and I have been together, 19 years. It was great to get his feedback. One of the things that was clear: it was important to see their relationship before it was in breakdown. That probably came out of conversations with my friend."

"The play is more about how people work together to create something greater than the sum of their parts. Every small group, a university department faculty or small touring theater ensemble or string quartet or rock band is going to run into the same kinds of ditches. I've been in all of those groups. There are universals. It's just the way human beings organize themselves. We figure out who we are and what our niche is based on who we're with."

Hollinger wanted the characters to sound a little like their instruments. "There is certainly a kind of anal-ness to Elliott drawn upon the temperament of a first violinist, a touch of a diva characteristic - not to be stereotypical, but a first violinist probably has to practice more than anyone else; the part is more forward and more prominent than the others in a quartet. The Guarneri Quartet - together about 45 years - was founded with three first class violinists and they had to figure out who was going to be first violin, second violin, and who was going to be violist and do it in a way that no one was going to be gypped. Even in that famously healthy quartet, there were tensions about swapping off every now and then so the violist could play first violin."

Hollinger was present for opening night at the Seattle Rep and had praise for the play. "I enjoyed the production so much. It's a theater that I wanted to play with for some time. My sweat was put in years ago, and it's nice to meet collaborators even if the work is done years apart. It would be a delight [to have other plays done at the Rep]." For more information, go to www.seattlerep.org or call 206-443-2222.



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