Back in the Writers (Hot) Seat: DAVID VAN ASSELT and A Fable
I have known David since 1999. He has produced five of my plays, three of them multiple times—most recently The Hill Town Plays ran simultaneously in five downtown theaters this past summer. He is the artistic director and founder of Rattlestick Playwright’s Theater, which has produced over 60 world premieres in the past 17 seasons. Rattlestick is where I learned to be a playwright. We talked on a rehearsal break for his own play, A Fable.
Lucy Thurber: So you started as a playwright, correct?
David Van Asselt: Correct.
Lucy: What was the name of your first play?
David: [Laughs.] What was it? Oh, Dog Daze.
Lucy: Dog Days? That’s a good title.
Lucy: Was it really?
Lucy: That’s fantastic. [Laughing.]
Lucy: And how did you get from the impulse of writing your first play to starting a theater?
David: Totally by accident. First I started a little playwrights group. This was back in the early ’90s. When I got to town. So we could read each other’s work—
Lucy: Got to town from where?
David: From Virginia, where I worked on houses. Necessary compost of playwriting.
Lucy: Where you were a working man.
David: I was a working man. So I just got this group together. And all that ever happened was we started to read people’s plays and then everyone bitched and moaned about how no one would get produced.
Lucy: Sounds like the playwright’s life.
David: Yeah, so one day I got sort of tired of hearing this so I said let’s just do it ourselves, let’s start producing. And immediately all six of them fled the room. So I started a different group with Gary Bonasorte. And I brought up the same idea, and this time it worked cause we gathered a bunch of playwrights together who actually were interested in producing their own work and not just bitching and moaning. So for the first three years of Rattlestick we just did showcases of each other’s work.
Lucy: And how many people were in that group?
Lucy: Seven? So it was almost like a 13P before 13P. It was a 7P.
David: It was a 7P without the brains to market itself. [Laughs.] That’s exactly what happened. We didn’t know enough to, you know—
Lucy: Write some grants.
David: So after three years, we actually started getting a lot of scripts from other playwrights. So Gary and I felt like we should open the group up to more outside work—to different things. And everyone voted unanimously to do that, but then instantly the other five playwrights left as soon as it became clear that we were really going produce other work. So Gary and I were left with this company and these scripts that people wanted to do, some of which we had promised to do—
David: So we just started doing it.
Lucy: And I know that you have, as Rattlestick has grown and prospered—
David: I don’t know about prosper but—
Lucy: Continued to exist.
Lucy: Barely, yeah. Scratched through like the mountain dog it is. I mean, what happened with your writing?
David: Well at first I still was writing stuff. But I had to keep sort of putting it aside. This play [A Fable] that we’re doing right now is something that I started a draft of back then. I wrote a draft but I wasn’t able to finish it cause there were two or three problems with the play that I just couldn’t solve at the time.
Lucy: What were they?
David: I couldn’t figure out how the father fit into the play. And I changed the politics of the play a little bit—I mean the situation, not the actual nature of the politics. And therefore I didn’t know how to end it. So it was a play with sort of a loose body and some scenes written, and then nothing else. And I just set that aside—there were a bunch of things I set aside at that moment cause I was getting so busy with the company, and it was starting to take up all my time. I just kept going with the company for a while and helping other writers. I like helping people.
Lucy: I wouldn’t know anything about that.
David: I don’t know—it’s a flaw.
Lucy: Your theater has at times been known as having a more working class mentality.
David: Oh really?
David: Oh. That’s just because I built the sets myself.
Lucy: Yes, but also I think in terms of what you’re attracted to.
David: Well, I come out of a background that’s more blue collar for sure.
Lucy: How do you feel that sort of perspective influences your work—I mean, this play is a fable—and you’re playing with theatrical conventions. As many of them as you can. [Laughs.] But you’re also talking about human politics—like the politics of the species in a sense.
Lucy: And in my opinion, despite your hard, grumpy exterior, you’re deeply romantic. I mean the play ends—
David: Well I don’t know about romantic.
Lucy: Ah. Clarify.
David: There’s a character in there that says: “Cynicism is the compost of corruption.” And I think the one thing I would say is that I am not a cynic. I don’t think in the end it gets you much. You know? I think it’s a cover for inaction. And for not getting involved in the world and doing positive things. I don’t think we’re, you know, this is going to sound gooey—
Lucy: [Laughs.] No—
David: —and romantic, but I do think that we’re stuck here on this planet, and when one goes out, one should look back and say they made the world a better place, for however small or large that is.
Lucy: So in that way would you say that the impulse to run a theater and the impulse to write theater is coming from the same place?
David: I would say so. Maybe? [Laughs.]
Lucy: Don’t commit yourself!
David: I know. I think the really good playwrights—the ones we look for at Rattlestick—are people that need to say something, and it happens to come out as a play. It’s also a gift, in a sense, it’s sort of your gift to the world.
Lucy: Let’s talk a little bit about the theatricality of A Fable. I mean it’s highly theatrical, in a really fun way. It’s stylized. It walks this very interesting line between almost Brechtian style, but it dips into what we might call naturalism at times. You have also involved music—you’ve had Liz Swados compose music for it. And I happen to know, because I’m fond of you, that you have a deep love of Brecht and also like to read it in German. What is it about that theatrical form of storytelling that you find exciting?
David: Well I was reading Brecht back in the day when I wrote the first draft of this which was in the early ’90s. Brecht definitely had an influence on the very first impulse of this play. When I wrote the first scene, there was a family and they were really happy—they were too happy—and a devil wandered into the story at that moment to say something like, “Oh yuck, these people need a lesson in life.” Once the devil got into the story I realized I needed to have an angel, and it became a mystery play, or at least it became this amalgam of different styles. There’s a mystery play—and sort of Elizabethan thing going on—and Brecht is obviously closer to the structure of Elizabethan playwrights and Jacobean playwrights than he is to O’Neill.
David: The way Brecht always worked was, each scene is a play unto itself, so to speak. There’s always a beginning to the scenes, something happens, and then there’s an end, and then very often it’s a new place in time. And Shakespeare and a lot of the Elizabethans work the exact same way—conjoining small plays that add up together to tell a narrative.
Lucy: There’s also some vaudeville.
David: [Laughing.] Yeah, there’s that too.
Lucy: And I’d also say there are weird, rare moments of naturalism. I think what’s exciting about it is that it’s this glorious hodgepodge of all of these different theatrical elements.
David: Hopefully they work together.
Lucy: They seem to be working—
David: We’ll see.
Lucy: I’ve noticed through my own experience with you, but also in general in the way that you like to work, that you really do seem to believe in long term collaborations.
Lucy: And in this production you have people—Daniel Talbott is directing, and at this point you have kind of a long working relationship with him.
Lucy: And most of your cast actually has been involved—
David: We’ve been doing readings of this for a couple of years with most of this cast.
Lucy: Will you talk a little bit about the benefit you feel of collaborating in this way?
David: I think some of that is comfort, just pure comfort. Obviously I think Daniel’s a very talented director, and he’s the right guy for this particular project. I mean a lot of what we try to do at Rattlestick is put together teams that we think are going to be great advocates for whatever play it is we’re putting on, and so I was hoping to do the same thing for my own thing. [Laughs.] Daniel and I go back a long way because I first met him as an actor, but he brought me a play of his called Slipping, which we worked on for a number of years together. We put it up for the first production with Seth Numrich and Adam Driver, and it was a very successful piece. And I’ve watched Daniel direct over the years. He’s been the literary manager at Rattlestick. So there’s been a long relationship there.
Lucy: So is it comfortable in terms of switching hats like this?
David: I think we’re both used to switching hats. He’s a playwright and a director and an actor, and I’m, you know, whatever I am.
Lucy: You’re a playwright and an artistic director. Come hell or high water.
David: I’ve actually enjoyed not having to be the artistic director. Just sort of being the playwright for a change. And it’s good for me as the artistic director, to go back and remember and be the playwright. Cause it’s always good to be back in touch—one of the things I think we are good at at Rattlestick is knowing what playwrights want, or at least we hope we are.
Lucy: I’ve had a good time.
David: Yeah, well, everything we do is supposedly to try to help that playwright achieve his or her vision of whatever that play wants to be. We’re just doing a piece of Sheila Callaghan’s out in California because she needed to work on it before we did it in New York, and she’s done tremendous work on that play, and it’s been a really big success for us regardless of what the reviews will be—it’s been a success in the way that I think of success, which is that the playwright is going to really feel like she’s solved that play.
Lucy: You are released. Do you have anything else?
David: That’s more than enough.
LUCY THURBER is a playwright who lives in New York City.