An Interview with Gilbert Tanner

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conducted by Mike Doyle

On Sunday, April 28th, Gil Tanner joined me for an interview regarding his forthcoming play, A Tribute to Thick Leonard. The playwright displayed a jovial presence, nothing unusual for this Virginia native. We had a pleasant conversation regarding his process on the play and working on a fully-realized production. I wish him the best as his play opens this week at the Greenhouse Theatre, and hope that this interview offers a glimpse into all of the hard labor that has gone into its physical embodiment.

MD: What was the process like applying for NPS?

GT: We were all already under consideration based on our four plays. The application process was just sending an e-mail to Carlos and Dean if you wanted to ‘cc him, and just saying, “Hey, here’s my play.” That being said, preparing the play was a year-long journey from September to July first. July first was also the day that I finished the play and wrote sixty-four pages. Not a lot of that has been kept up into this tech week draft. The same things happen, they’ve just been rewritten to be less, “BLEH! I’ve got to finish this!”

MD: When did you find out that you got NPS? How did you feel when you got it? What were some initial thoughts or concerns that were running through your mind?

GT: We found out about it…I would say mid…I can actually get the exact date right here, because I sent Jacob Schuler a text…No, Jacob Schuler found out about it, and then he sent me a text, which I saved.

MD: So Jacob Schuler found out about it before you?

 GT: No, no, no. I found out. I told Emily Marlatt. He told me, he said, “I heard a rumor you stud muffin,” and that was on August 13th. So, I found out on August 13th. Topher and I had a deal that whoever found out first would tell the other one to simply just check their e-mail, and not say anything in return. Topher found out first. I did not have internet in my apartment, I was on my way to the Chicago Public Library on the Red Line. I got the text when I was at Clarke and Division. I quickly got off and went back to campus, so I could check my e-mail. In the same e-mail they also said that the studio series would not be how they regularly do studios, because of the low size of the casting pool, so I was pretty bummed out about that part of the e-mail. Then, I found out I got NPS and it was an over-rushing flood of joy, and also like everything had just left me. I’ve kind of had trouble describing it. Then, I kind of felt bad that, you know, the rest of my fellow playwrights did not get the studio opportunities, and it’s good that they’re getting the supported readings, but it was sort of a bummer that we had a small casting pool. So I did think about that, so I sent them an e-mail. Was there another part of that question?

MD: Just initial thoughts and concerns. You kind of addressed that…

 GT: Yeah, initial thoughts were like, Wow, DePaul is actually putting on a play that’s about an all female Thin Lizzy cover band, among other things. And then I thought, Has John Culbert read this? and I’m still not sure he has, because, uh, well, maybe he’s into that. It took me a few hours to call my family. I wanted them all to be together with speaker phone on, but my dad was at work, and I couldn’t tell anybody because I wanted them to know first. So it was just like containing the excitement, it was just a joyous day. It was raining, I got really wet. It was just like, Wow, okay. Now I’ve really got work to do. I have to rewrite this, and I’ve got to now consider what this play will be. Every decision I make about the script affects 20 different people, probably more––the seven people in the cast, the director. It affects all the designers, and the technical people, so it sort of puts some pressure on you.

MD: How did you proceed when you were writing. You kind of just touched on it a little there, but knowing that you had the NPS slot––how did that affect the rewrites?

GT: Affecting the rewrites, it was really just as quickly as possible, because after I had written the NPS draft, or the first draft completely and sent it into Carlos, during the month and a half that it took him to respond to us, I was not too…I hadn’t really touched it, but I had thoughts in my mind about how I was going to rewrite it. So then, it became a concern of I need to as quickly as possible implement these rewrites, and I didn’t do it as quickly as I should have, because, you know, by the time the actors got the audition sides there were still scenes that were like, I don’t find this satisfying. But as it turns out it really helped in the table work week to figure out what worked and what didn’t. It just changes my whole outlook on the writing process. There’s one actor who plays many different roles, and some of those weren’t in the original draft. And so for the sake of the costume designer, Sarah Jo, I was like, Okay, I need to make the rewrite so that his planned characters are in this new set of rewrites, so she has all the plans she can. I need to make sure that I don’t add anything that would greatly affect the set, which I don’t think I did. Sound is relatively malleable, and lights. It was mainly just costumes and even that was malleable. I was a bit too concerned about them at first maybe.

MD: In general how’s the collaborative process affected your writing? Like any interactions you’ve had with Matt, or Carlos, or Dean, or Culbert?

GT: Not really Culbert, or Dean. Dean’s been working on Kitchen Sink, so Dean’s really, when I get frustrated with other people’s notes, I go to Dean and he gives me lollipops and tells me it’s all going to be alright. Shade, the director, sees the play on its own terms and has from the beginning, so his notes for rewrites and stuff are not to fit his vision, they’re to better enhance my play. He really believes in that, and I’m totally happy with that, and most of what he’s suggested have been really good ideas. Carlos has given me stuff, especially last week, he sat me down and taught me how to do internal cuts, and I was resistant at first, and then I did it, and he actually suggested a lot of cuts. And once I got into the groove of it, I actually had more cuts than he had. And I just watched the run today, and we cut a whole twenty minutes off the first act just from my cuts alone, and it still is the same story. We haven’t lost anything, it’s just better, and I thank him for that. He’s been really helpful. Matt, the dramaturg, will also give me things––he sees the play on my terms, and then how to improve it. He’s not putting his own spin on it. He’s probably read it more times than I have. I think that’s really great to have him and Shade just see it on the play’s terms. The improvements that we make are for the good of the play, not for their own personal visions.

MD: In recent work––going through auditions and rehearsals––what are things that you’ve found surprising, or frustrating, or parts of the process that have been really rewarding?

GT: The first time it was read aloud, because, you know, they didn’t know the characters as well as I had, it was very shocking for me, and I left shocked and hollow basically. I thought it was a completely terrible play, and then by the end of the week once they had really worked with Shade and really got a feel for it, it was like, “Oh, this play’s great, we’re going to be fine.” Actually, by the end of the next day it was like that. So like, just how the play isn’t really cut and dry, so the first read through no matter who you give it to is going to be kind of wonky, because it’s multi-layered. And then, once they get a chance to discover it, they’re frickin’ amazing and they make it so much better than it is on the page. And that wasn’t me implying that the actors had done a bad job at first, I was just like, “Is this play any good?” And they were like, “Yeah, it is.” It’s just with the first read through, it will get a little awkward. Same thing with the first run through, I was like This play’s so long, it’s so dense. It’s just so ehhh. And then, you know they’ve been doing a few more runs, and I was like, Oh, okay this is good. Then, after I had made all of those cuts, I was scared that I had lost something, and I really hadn’t. It’s really just been me thinking, This is crappy, and then once you give the actors time to deal with it, it’s like, Oh, this is actually pretty good.

MD: What should audiences prepare themselves for in terms of the experience?

 GT: There’s quite a bit of comedy in it, quite a bit of dark stuff…dark stuff, that’s so eloquent. There are some really heavy moments, some really great moments of family drama, and then we go to some dark places. Then, maybe some uncomfortable laughter, too…I was going to say something, but I’m going to just leave that to shock the audience. I would just come in with an open mind, and an enthusiastic heart.

MD: As opening is just under two weeks away from today, what are your thoughts and feelings right now?

GT: I’m a little concerned that we’ll not be ready in time, but Shade seems to think it will all work out, and so far everything Shade has said, like, “Hey, it will be fine in like a week,” or, “It will be good,” has happened. I think the vast majority of my work is over, and so now it’s just letting them put it on. I think we’ve got one of the best shows of the season, yeah, I’ll say that. And I’m not saying, “Oh, I wrote the best show of the year.” I’m saying we, altogether, created what I believe is, I’ll say, the best show of the year for this season, I’ll say that. And if anyone wants to challenge that, they can fight me in the alley.

Gilbert is a fourth year BFA Playwright from King George, VA.  His next play, “Gathering of Gonzos,” will be part of the 2013 Wrights of Spring Festival.

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