SALT LAKE CITY — Matthew Ivan Bennett is the resident playwright at Plan-B Theatre Company. He’s adapted stories for Plan B’s Radio Hour, as well as writing several original plays including Block 8, Di Esperienza, and Mesa Verde. His new play A/Version of Events opens at Plan-B on March 5.
How would you describe A/Version of Events?
What is the writing process like for you?
BENNETT: My wife knows when I have a play idea because I’ll be lying in bed staring at the ceiling instead of reading. My process consists of a lot of make-believe in my head before I write anything. When I wrote Block 8, for instance, a big step was poring through Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the Japanese-American internment and just imagining what the people in the photographs were feeling. With A/Version of Events, the process ignited when I imagined a young woman in a park struggling to stay awake as her baby crawled through the grass. It all usually begins with a scene like that, which may or may not end up in the play. It’s just a matter of seeing a person fighting through some pain.
You’re a pretty prolific playwright. How do you keep that up?
BENNETT: I don’t always feel prolific. I’ve had at least three play ideas squawking and clawing at me for months, but either have no time to write them or feel too tired. When I write, I write. I get obsessed and work on or think about the piece constantly. That’s usually followed by periods of wanting to go home, have a beer, play bad ukulele, and watch The Daily Show.
What first made you want to be a writer?
BENNETT: I have three answers to this one. (1) The shot of Steve Cannell at the end of his ’80s television shows. You see him pecking at a typewriter in a sweater in a wood-paneled office. He happily rips the page out of the typewriter and tosses it and it becomes a graphic for the production company. When I saw that, I thought, “That’s what I want to do!” It looked so cozy and exciting and exactly who I was. (2) I wrote a poem for a girl in elementary school with a horrifically cliché metaphor, comparing her to a candle. I wrote it innocently, just trying to be truthful, but it had a big effect on her. When I saw that, an evil gear clicked in my brain and I thought, “Wait a minute…” (3) In college, I wrote a play called The White Light of Terrence, about a young man who has visions. In the days after the production, a friend gave me a handwritten letter explaining that my play had made him reconcile with his mother. It’s still the best “compliment” I’ve ever gotten. A good gear clicked in my brain, and I told myself I’d keep trying to write plays that drew people closer.
What first got you interested you in the theatre?
BENNETT: I guess it was my ninth grade student government class getting cancelled. They cancelled it, and I was put in a drama class. At first, I wasn’t happy about it, but then I was assigned a Shakespearean monologue. I did the Macbeth dagger speech. I was awful, but found out that I was really actually passionate about something. I wove around the stage with a fake British accent and felt alive.
What is it about the Utah theater community that you enjoy?
BENNETT: As far as the community at large, I enjoy the refusal to divide theatre into mutually exclusive categories of entertainment and art. Before college, I did community theatre at the Grand. Shows like Anything Goes and Fiddler. When I got to college, I discovered Sam Shepard. (I got cast in Buried Child.) For a while I thought there were two theatres: the Theatre of Complacency and the Theatre of the Revolution. But gradually I saw that was a false dichotomy. And you can’t deny your roots! I grew up loving the Hale and Americana musicals and comedies like Beau Jest. That’s not what I do now, but the Utah community has certainly taught me that a play is first supposed to be fun. “Fun” doesn’t mean make you laugh necessarily or make your eyes pop; it just means that if you take yourself too seriously you’re probably in some ideal mental realm and not the human realm.
You are Plan-B’s resident playwright. What does that job description entail?
BENNETT: Over the years it’s meant: write ten-minute plays overnight; write for radio; write an elementary school assembly about bullying; write a call-to-action piece for a human rights fundraiser; write something you don’t understand at all until you start writing it.
How did you become a resident playwright?
BENNETT: The plainest answer is probably: by loving Plan-B and what Jerry [Rapier] and Cheryl [Cluff] do. When I saw my first Plan-B show I knew right away that I wanted to work with them. I submitted and got denied a couple times. Then Jerry asked me to write for Slam, a 24-hour theatre festival. The thought was petrifying. When I turned in my ten-minute play at 9 AM (having had the night to write it), I was convinced my piece was incoherent, maudlin, overambitious, and green. To my surprise, the piece was performed flawlessly by Melanie Nelson, Kirt Bateman, and Jay Perry (directed by Adrienne Moore). They got it. And, I think, the audience sighed when it was done. (But that could be my ego lying to me.) When Jerry approached me about developing the play into a full-length, I fell into my obsessive mode and felt like I’d found a home.
How do you know that what you’re writing is good? What makes you feel like something is really going to work on stage?
BENNETT: Wow, what a great question! Well, for starters, everyone has a different “good.” I think good is a lot of things in theatre: A Doll’s House, The Glass Menagerie, Equus, A Woman in Mind, Lost in Yonkers, Passion Play, The Flick. When I write something, I compare it to a set of plays that I think are good. The trick, of course, is to remember that I’m me and Ibsen was Ibsen. I’ll never write an Ibsen play. But I can remember what I love about Ibsen as I write and then ask myself how I did. Also, something I’m learning lately is that “good” tends to be much more average than we think a play has to be. What people want is something recognizable, something that makes them feel life is scary but okay. As far as knowing something will work on stage. . . When you write a play, you have to remember that a relatively vast space will exist around the play when it’s staged. Some audience members might be forty feet away. So you can’t write a moment that only people five feet away will see and understand. Rewriting is sometimes a process of cutting those moments out and re-framing them. Writers of my generation are very influenced by TV and movies and the temptation to write “close-up” moments is tempting. You can still get intimacy at forty feet away. You just can’t rely on an actress’ facial expressions to do that. You have to invite the audience into the character through imagery, silence, or things unsaid.
What makes a play interesting to you?
BENNETT: I like a lot of different kinds of plays so this is hard! I like comedy, agitprop, Renaissance stuff, and some musicals. What makes them all interesting, I suppose, is whether there’s a character in them with a real dilemma, whether there’s a mystery, a question not an answer.
You’ve done several adaptations how is the process of adapting something different from starting from scratch?
BENNETT: One is not easier than another. Adapting presents all sorts of technical and artistic challenges that original playwriting does not. Obviously, in adapting, you have a blueprint that you didn’t have to design. But it can hinder as much as help. Honoring the material is better than flippantly doing whatever you want with it, but you also have to write toward everyone’s memory and love of the piece, which is sometimes different than what the piece is really.
Anything else you want our readers to know?
BENNETT: I want them to know, or remember, that theatre is a chance for friendship.
“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearnéd luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call:
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene 1