The February Rough Reading features Teenage Dick, a new work by the Mike Lew. We had the opportunity to ask him a few quick questions to share -- keep checking back to find more playwright insight!
Rachel Finkelstein: Thank you for coming in! I know this play is a commission from The Apothetae theater company in New York -- how did you get involved with the group?
Mike Lew: "Teenage Dick" is the product of an almost decade-long conversation I've been having with Gregg Mozgala, one of my favorite actors. Gregg has cerebral palsy, and he founded The Apothetae out of the desire to mount plays that explore and illuminate "the Disabled Experience."
I've often felt a kinship with Gregg in terms of our mutual goal of wanting to broaden the range of perspectives being presented onstage. In 2006 I wrote a piece for Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts where I said that as a writer I'm not as interested in exploring diversity as an end in itself (although diversity is often a byproduct), whereas as a director/producer I'm more invested in "nontraditional casting" as a means for balancing the inequity of representation I'd observed in the industry. Since then, my politics on the writing side have shifted. I've come to recognize that I have to build diversity into my storytelling or it might not happen downstream. So my hopes for this play are multiform: to re-examine tired tropes about the disabled, create stories for people we're not otherwise seeing, hire more disabled artists, and carry out a ground-up reconsideration of how theaters embrace the mantle of inclusion (not just in terms of the art but the very physical plant).
RF: So going off of that, how did you go about understanding and researching the "disabled experience" for Teenage Dick?
ML: My understanding is still evolving and I don't presume it will ever be fully complete given that everyone's experiences are different. To be clear, this isn't a research piece exploring the physical reality of a specific affliction (though it is mentioned that Richard's character has CP and that his best friend Buck is a wheelchair user from an unspecified etiology). Instead, this play is more about clocking social dynamics - the way we tend to project assumptions onto people rather than taking them in. Under Elizabethan conventions, Richard is evil because he's disabled. Today, we tend to think of the disabled as sainted just because they're disabled. Both of these constructs are traps.
That said, it's still my responsibility to play-test this work with as wide an audience as possible. I'm writing about an experience that isn't my own, so part of this workshop process is making myself accountable to people whose experiences run deeper than mine.
RF: That's definitely important to keep in mind. When reading the play, I've noticed that it has quite a bit of distinct stage direction, such as the lighting direction and set design. Do you usually have such a clear vision for the look of the performance?
ML: As playwrights we have to think in three dimensions; I'm sick of plays destined for a life on music stands only. And as theater-makers we've GOT to get out of photo-realistic-NYC-loft mode and really transport the audience - put their imaginations to work. My play "Tiger Style!" requires set pieces that can double as locations in both Irvine and Shenzen, so as to portray the locales as two sides of the same coin. "Bike America" requires a set where the actors can go cross-country biking in motion onstage.
In this play specifically, I wanted to create a stark distinction between Richard's mental space and his reality. That distinction manifests itself through set pieces that seemingly coalesce around him, and in stark lighting contrasts, and also in Richard's use of language (which is more elevated and arcane in his head and more pedestrian out in the world). In that way the acting and design are meant to reinforce each other.
I'm a big fan of playing with the actors - of getting in a room and adjusting the script based on the actors' impulses. That sense of play extends to designers as well. I wanted to give the designers a strong starting point in terms of the physical space, if anything just so we can all start riffing. I'm totally fascinated with designers; just like the actors, they've got a skill set I'll never possess.
RF: It's refreshing to see! Finally, I have to ask what drew you to choose which aspects of Shakespeare's Richard III you wanted to stay more faithful to?
ML: I really don't feel a particular reverence for staying true to the source material. If you want to see a faithful production of Richard III it's not going to be too hard to find it elsewhere. But what I did want to do is faithfully recreate Richard's spirit - his silver-tongued eloquence, his ambitions, his sense of injustice - all within a decidedly modern context (and in high school!). And then on top of that I layered in a bunch of cheeky winking references for anyone who cares to go digging.
RF: I'll be sure to keep an eye out. Thank you for your time!
The Rough Reading Series is Pay What You Can, and continues with "Teenage Dick" by Mike Lew, playing February 9th at 7:30pm at Roble Hall, Stanford University, and February 10th at 7pm at the Tides Theatre, San Francisco.
Read more about "Teenage Dick", Mike Lew, and the Rough Reading Series at Playwrightsfoundation.org.
"Teenage Dick" will have a reading in New York City on February 18th as part of Ma-Yi Theatre Company's Winter LabFest.