Around a Table with a Lot of Friends: Daniel Talbott with Mark Schultz
Daniel Talbott has just gotten back to New York. He’s a bit tired, a bit jet-lagged. All understandable. The artistic director of Rising Phoenix Rep and the writer of Slipping (which begins previews at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater on July 28th), Daniel’s just finished a turn as Frank Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor in St. Louis. He also happens to be a director. And a good one. To call him the theater person’s theater person is no mere superlative—it’s one of the truest things anyone could say about him. He’s also a devoted husband and father (his wife is the awesome and talented actress Addie Johnson, with whom he founded Rising Phoenix, and their disarmingly precocious three-year-old is Bailey). And on top of it all, he’s an all-around good guy.
I met up with Daniel for lunch around the corner from Rattlestick, my ancient mini-cassette recorder in hand, to do a little interview. After a few bites of sushi and teriyaki chicken, and after chatting on everything from how much we admire playwright Crystal Skillman [says Daniel: “She loves theater. And I so appreciate that. There’s no jadedness about that with her. I love that.”], to how tall Bailey is now [“He’s huge. He’s so tall. All the men in Addie’s family are like six foot three. Or six five. He’s already up to my belt.”], we finally get down to the interview.
Mark Schultz (Rail): All of these questions are vague and general ‘cause I’ve never done this before. So you’ll have to forgive me.
Daniel Talbott: No, please. My God. Forgive me. I’m like psychotic today.
Rail: The first big general question is what formed you as an artist? Was there an event, was there something in your life, was it where you grew up [the Bay Area]? What made you want to do what you do?
Talbott: I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was younger. And I had a humongous phobia of sharks.
Talbott: I’m very terrified of sharks. I love them, but I’m terrified of them, which is kind of like the story of my life. And I love the ocean, but I can’t even put my foot in it. Like even if I put my toe in, the sharks may eat me. I had trouble swimming in swimming pools for a while, I’m not even kidding. I thought a shark would make it in the drain or something. So there went marine biology really quickly.
And then I was a baseball player for a long time. I was training to maybe play college baseball. And I was dating this girl named Annie Gillen. And she had done a play at ACT (American Conservatory Theater). We would make these movies together. These little like vampire movies. I’m not quite sure what they were. I hope none of them see the light of day. And she told me she thought I should take an acting class. And I know it sounds crazy stupid, but I signed up for an acting class at ACT Young Conservatory and—something clicked. It was literally like I had found my life. And I cold-turkey stopped playing baseball after like four or five leagues, and six years. It was like falling in love. I knew: whether I’m good or whether I’m bad, it’s what I would do, and I wanted to do every aspect of it.
On top of that, my family has hugely influenced everything in my life. I have a wacky humongous family, as you know. We’re close and very different, and very explosive, and there’s a lot of insanity in it but a lot of love.
And also sports is really big. I like the physicality of theater. I like tennis. I love tennis, just to get that in there. Roger Federer is the main influence on my life. And he won today, mothafucka!
Rail: You came to New York. You went to Juilliard for acting. You founded Rising Phoenix in ’99. Why a theater company? Why was that important to you?
Talbott: Once I became obsessed with theater, I kind of read everything I could about it. What I’m thinking inspired me the most were the upstart companies, the kind of companies in the Bay Area like the Magic, like Berkeley Rep, and ACT, how ACT was founded originally, the Eureka Theater which Tony Kushner and Tony Taccone came out of. And Steppenwolf. The Royal Court. Stuff like that. I always knew that I wanted to start a theater. And I knew I wanted it to be small, I didn’t want it to be big. I wanted it to be about being able to work at like two in the morning with my friends on a play that I love with people that I love.
Rail: The mission of RPR talks about creating a raw and vital living theater. What do those words in particular—what does that mean and how does it translate into the work you produce?
Talbott: You know I think it often doesn’t translate? [Laughs] But I think it’s about the intention. About trying. It’s about the fight. For me, I feel like I don’t want to see overly smart, smug, neatly packaged theater. I’d rather see the nastiness and the warts of it.
So that’s what I hope it means: that something’s really happening and it’s really challenging you. But not just that—that it’s not trying to be tricky or nifty. That the actors are really going there and not being lazy and not gliding off their technique or their talent or their past successes—that they’re challenging themselves as much as, hopefully, the audience is, and that it’s happening in a room together as one event, one thing. That’s what I hope it is.
Like I said I think it fails a lot of the time [laughs]. But that’s also why I like RPR. If we’re successful, it’s great, and if we’re not successful, I’m just as happy. We’ve got to do stuff that stretches us. Everyone’s always like, “theater should be a place where you can fail.” Yet, I feel often in American theater, you aren’t allowed to fail. Americans do not like failure. And in theater, if you’re gonna be great, you really have to push yourself to fail. We really do have to create a place where it’s okay if we fuck up.
Rail: Who do you conceive of as the RPR audience or the community that you’re reaching out to?
Talbott: It’s weird, everyone talks about that. And I think if we were larger I’d think about that more. But I want everyone to be our audience. I think of New York as our community. To me, it’s hugely about community, but it’s about everyone in community.
During Too Much Memory, there was a kid that came up and said, “Hey, I really wanna see your show,” and I was like, “It’s 15 bucks,” and he says, “Well I don’t have any money.” He was serious. I don’t think he had any money. So we were like, “Good, well go watch it,” and we got him a seat. I want to make sure people can see theater, and that theater is affordable—that there’s a place for everyone. It’s really important for us that Off Broadway tickets be affordable, so all our tickets are $20 or $15, and I hope they’ll never be more than that.
Rail: How do you foster new work in the company?
Talbott: The idea for me is that RPR is like a workshoppy homebase for its members. For anybody who’s in the company who wants to do something, it’s there for them at any point.
I’m more interested in the individual artist than I am in a success or a certain play. So how I foster new work is like, “What do you wanna do?” And I don’t care if it’s good, I don’t care if it’s bad. Whatever the fuck you wanna write, that’s what the company serves, for both company members and non-company members. It’s there to be a place where you can really just expand yourself as an artist and you can fail and we’ll still be there with you afterwards. We’ll do six plays, even if all of them are failures, and we’ll do your best play.
Rail: Your play Slipping going up at Rattlestick, where’d it come from?
Talbott: Oh God. It came from a lot of places. You know what’s weird is that I look at it now—and I’m trying to write my third play right now—and it’s so different. Everything is so different. I’m in such a good place in my life.
I started writing it when I was in school. I think it was, for me, trying to make sense of mental illness, and family and sex and sexuality, and my relationships with a lot of different people.
To me, the play is about reaching out. I had this really intense relationship for a long time, and that relationship—having someone love me and be there for me—was what sent me over the edge and really kind of crashed me out. The play is about that and the need to break that open in order to start to become healthy.
And it’s about, weirdly, my relationships with my brothers, my sisters, my gay friends, my straight friends, my close friends, my family. You know, it’s about love. I think it’s a small, simple love story. It’s about starting to love somebody and starting to love who you thought you were in order to become more of who you actually are.
Rail: One of the things that I find great about it and about your other plays is what seems to be the common denominator in a lot of your work: the idea of exploring the mystery of desire.
Rail: The violence of it, as well as the beauty. Can you talk about your new play?
Talbott: Yeah it’s this weird play. It’s about siblings. It kind of takes place almost like in this weird Joseph Cornell box surrounded by ice. And it’s maybe inside this woman’s brain. I’m thinking this woman’s either dead or she’s in a coma. So she traps herself in this world inside her head. Her younger brother died when he was fifteen. He’s in this thing with her. And then there’s this hunter, this man, who is obsessed with the girl. It’s about possession and obsession. There’s a lot of like carcasses of animals [laughs]. I don’t know. It’s weird.
Rail: I didn’t ask you about the Royal Court yet and about development [of Slipping] over there and development here.
Talbott: This was the first play I tried to write. I wrote it basically because I read this article about Sarah Kane, and I was really inspired by her work so I thought, “Oh, I want to try to write a play.” That’s really how it started, how I remember it starting. I knew that she had worked at the young playwriting program at the Royal Court. And obviously Blasted was done there and many of her other plays. And they had open submissions, which a lot of American companies don’t have. [Laughs] They have funding that we don’t, so they can afford to have open submissions. So I just sent it to them as a joke, like, “I’ll just send it in and see.”
And then Ola Animashawun, who ran the young playwrights program at the time, he called and asked me if I wanted to do it. And it was like a dream come true for me. I went back and forth like three times. Addie got to come over. It was amazing. I don’t remember a lot about like the specifics of it because I was just in la la land.
And then, when I got home I started working on it with Trip Cullman and he helped me develop it a lot with David [Van Asselt] at Rattlestick and did an amazing job with it. And when David started doing this thing called Dirty Works with Lou Moreno, they asked if we could do it in Dirty Works. I asked Trip to direct, but Trip was busy doing all this other stuff. And I asked Kirsten [Kelly]. And Kirsten did an amazing job with everything. And then it went to Chicago and I got to do more work on it.
And I’ve had amazing people help me with it. You’ve given me thoughts on it, Stephen Willems has given me a lot of thoughts, Lucy Thurber and David [Adjmi]. So I feel like I’ve had a lot of people whom I love, respect, and trust a lot who’ve kind of been my playwriting teachers. I feel like I’ve developed it with friends. Like around a table with a lot of friends. Does that make any sense?
Rail: Rawr. I think that’s all I have, actually. And I have so much stuff. I’m like gonna explode.
Talbott: Are you sure?
Talbott: Okay! [referring to the mini-cassette recorder] We’ll all have to have real dinner real soon without this thing.
Slipping, written by Daniel Talbott and directed by Kirsten Kelly, is a co-production of Piece by Piece Productions and Rising Phoenix Rep in association with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. It runs July 28-August 15 at Rattlestick Theater, 224 Waverly Place, Manhattan For more information, visit risingphoenixrep.org
Mark Schultz is a playwright.