As part of the upcoming Nashville Repertory Theatre Ingram New Works Festival, I was privileged to have a conversation with playwright R. Eric Thomas to discuss his new play “Crying on Television,” his approach to writing, and what it takes to write successful, enduring comedy.
R. Eric Thomas is a modern writer’s kind of writer. His column for ELLE Magazine, “Eric Reads the News,” allows him to extemporize in an of-the-moment focus on pop-culture and politics. His plays, which have earned the Lanford Wilson Award from the Dramatists Guild and a Barrymore Award for Best New Play, sprang forth from a self-confessed “very enthusiastic and yet mediocre actor” who found his voice behind the scenes. And for any other NPR nerds (*raises my own hand a little too quickly), Mr. Thomas is the host of The Moth storytelling workshops in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
What led you to becoming a writer?
My mother was an elementary school teacher for roughly 30 years and then became an assistant principal and a principal. During that time, she took about 16 years off to raise me and my brother at home. My father was working multiple jobs to support the family, so she would take us to the library at least once a week and she let me get as many books as I wanted. I was a really voracious reader even before I could read. So I’d get stacks of children’s books and demand that they all be read to me.
And I was really just amazed at the places that you could go with a library card. When I realized that that was available to me, too, as a writer, it was addictive. So not only could I enjoy other people’s worlds, but I could create my own world.
What’s your background in theatre? What brought you into specifically writing for the theatre?
Well, I’m a very enthusiastic and yet mediocre actor. I wanted to be a child star. I actually had a book that I bought from a Scholastic Book Fair called How to Be a Child Star and it had Neil Patrick Harris and Paula Abdul on the front. Which is weird because Paula Abdul was not a child at that point. It was my goal. I just wanted to be a child star.
I was in school plays all throughout and musicals. And I just loved it. I love attention so much. And so when acting turned out to not really be one of my spiritual gifts, I switched over to being behind the scenes, which is as fun as being on stage, except people don’t look at me and I really prefer people look at me as much as possible.
Is there a difference between your writing process for your everyday work in your column and how you write for the theatre? The Ingram New Works Festival is very specific, very deadline-oriented. Is there a difference in how you approach writing for one versus the other?
Oh, definitely. When I write for my column in Elle, I am playing a character a little bit. It’s a sort of elevated voice, but it’s also very quick. It’s necessary that I get whatever I’m going to write out in an hour or two. Whereas with playwriting I have a lot more time to plan and to be really analytical and figure out where I want to put the register. There are times where I’m writing plays and a lot of the characters do sound like the words I use in the column. I think “Crying on Television” is a little bit closer to that. But then there are other times when I’m writing things where people are thinking more poetically.
How did you come to be involved with the Ingram New Works Festival. What’s the process like?
They put out a call for applications. I’m not sure how many people apply. I know it’s pretty competitive and I just say that so that you’ll be impressed. I’m pretty sure it’s in the millions. I’m pretty sure.
They ask you to tell them a little bit about yourself and the play that sort of represents where you are right now and propose an idea. It came up at the perfect time. I had been thinking about this idea for “Crying on Television” and specifically about the way that we can connect with things that we see on TV as if they are things that are happening to us.
Initially, Mr. Thomas pitched a comedy to the committee. He was worried that they would come to read this more serious play and wonder what he was doing. He continues:
I think to understand how to write comedy particularly, you have to really understand how to write drama and how to write conflict. Comedy is ultimately about conflicts and things sort of smashing together in an unexpected way. I think great comedy works in at least two channels simultaneously. One is a formal channel, like you have to the arithmetic of comedy really ingrained in you and in the writing for it to work. It’s a set-up, a reversal, a surprise. It’s kind of universal and timeless.
But then there’s tapping into the other channel, something that is true and weird and clear about a particular moment or perspective.
As a queer writer in 2019, are there male characters in your play and how do you approach writing a contemporary male character in this moment?
In the play’s description, the (Sex and the City character) Miranda Hobbes -type is the one male-identified character in the play. And when I was thinking about writing that, I was like, “Oh, should I make that clear that it’s a guy who is also the Miranda Hobbes-type?” And for me and the way I think about what we are, what I’m trying to put out into the world, I realized that it really didn’t make a difference. And that was the thing I was trying to get through, that this man, if he had to pick any TV character to identifywith, he willprobably pick Miranda and that is sort of the universality of television experiences.
I’m not the right playwright to write a comedy about two straight guys, you know, having a lifelong friendship and figuring things out. That’s just not my wheelhouse. I mean, now that I say that, I’m going to make myself do that, but it’s going to be super gay.
I think that it’s important for me as a cis-gender male to use the position and the insight and the privilege that I have in this position to point out places where we may be overlooking or misunderstanding things about the way men are effecting the world.
I’m really interested in elevating women’s voices both because I love working with talented actresses and also because it’s more interesting to me, both in a comedic sense and also in a dramatic sense to tell a new story rather than rehash things that I’ve seen a million times before.
When you’re creating a new play, what is it that seems to come first for you? Is there a particular character, a broader theme, or an image that comes first when you start writing a new work like this?
It’s usually a theme. A theme or some sort of premise comes to me fully formed. A lot of times it’s the first scene of the play. I’m really good at setting myself up and then having no idea where I’m going, which is very frustrating. I will just get introduced to the characters in my head and have them talking to each other and realize that this is something I want to keep working on. At that point, I have to sort of work backwards and figure out what the context of this is and who they are and what their problems are.
I like to write plays where people are funny and maybe they have small disagreements, but nothing is really wrong. And that’s not a play, actually. That is a documentary about happy people, and so I have to go back and problematize their relationship, which is the essence of drama, I guess.
Is there a particular thing you have enjoyed most about the process of creating for the Festival?
Oh God, I mean, I’m not just saying this. This has been the most fulfilling relationship I’ve had with a regional theatre company yet. And this is no disrespect to the other companies I’ve worked with. They’ve all been really wonderful. But the thing I’ve enjoyed most about the Ingram New Works Festival is to be able to bring something new every month and have people receive it as both a whole presentation and also as something that is very malleable, very temporary, and just sort of bat it around the room.
We bring in whatever pages we have every month, the actors read them, and then we sit around and discuss for a couple of hours. This world that we’ve created. That is so rare and so unique.
Most of the time you have a theatre company that wants you to bring them the work and then maybe they’ll have a workshop and discuss it. And then you go home and re-write it. But to be able to bring something that is still baking and have them taste-test it really and give you notes is so, so special.
And it really has changed the play. My play has changed really dramatically over the last six months. It went from being nothing to being a fully-formed play. I had a full draft by January, I think, and over the last three months I brought in a completely different play with different characters and relationships until I got to the place where the play was saying the thing that I was hearing in the room.
What do you hope that audiences will take away from “Crying on Television” as it stands in this first iteration?
Well, I think the first thing I want audiences to take away is the understanding that this play should win the Tony immediately. And they should write their senator about seeing it on Broadway as soon as possible. That’s my serious answer.
I am really interested, every time I write a play, in the conversation that happens on the ride home. I want to write plays where people will sit up over dessert afterwards and have a thought about it as they’re washing dishes and want to talk about it. The thing that I want people to take away from “Crying on Television” is the motivation to have a conversation with friends or a stranger about the ways you connect and the places that we connect.
There’s Talkbacks after every reading and I just can’t wait to hang out with people and talk about it. I think everybody, all four of us (playwrights) feel that way. But my play in particular is about making authentic invitation to talk about the things we enjoy with people that we enjoy.