Meet the Artist
Q&A Playwright Matthew Lopez
I read you started out as an actor. What made you switch to writing plays?
There were several factors informing that decision. I’d been acting in professional and amateur theatre since I was seven, I studied acting in college and when I arrived in New York to finally pursue a career, there was a part of me that was already burnt out on it. I had taken a playwriting course my junior year, and it opened my eyes to new ways of storytelling that I had never considered for myself. I discovered I was more interested in staying at home and writing than I was in going to vocal lessons, dance classes or auditions. It was a very subtle yet definite shift in my priorities. As I grew in confidence as a writer, I began to share my work with friends and colleagues, and I found the encouragement I needed to continue and to ultimately leave acting completely and focus all my energies on writing.
There is something ephemeral about acting on stage that I suspect is alluring to many actors. It wasn’t for me. I liked the definitiveness of writing, even as it changes and grows in development and production. There’s also the question of ownership. I wrote The Whipping Man and Somewhere and Reverberation. I own them. Someday someone will inherit them. I like that idea.
What inspires you to write about a specific issue or topic, such as slavery or hate crimes or gentrification?
I can never predict what is going to capture my interest and draw me to create. I think it comes primarily from curiosity. I like to play the “what if” game with subjects. “What if slaves owned by Jewish families adopted that religion?” “What if a family living in the proposed footprint of Lincoln Center in 1959 were completely devoted to Jerome Robbins and his work?” “What if a straight guy became a drag queen?” That leads to the next important question of “why?” And then “who?” And so on.
If you look at my first three plays, The Whipping Man, Somewhere and this play Reverberation, there is no superficial connection between them. The first is set in 1865, the second in 1959 and the last in the present. And there was no conscious attempt to link the plays in any way. They were just three separate plays. But once I finished Reverberation, I looked back at all three of them, and I realized that what they are all about is the idea that the world is dangerous and that it is safer inside. The three men in The Whipping Man are hiding in that destroyed home from the chaos and the danger of Richmond just after the fall to Union forces; the family in Somewhere are battened down against the irresistible force of Robert Moses and his willful remaking of the city; the characters in Reverberation see the world as menacing, they all see men as dangerous, the city in which they live as unsafe for them and so they huddle in their apartments, attempting to ward off the dangers of the world together. I’ve since gone on to write about drag queens and I’m preparing to write a large play for Hartford Stage about the impact of the AIDS epidemic on succeeding generations of gay men. But those first three plays perhaps represent where I was in my thinking and emotions at the time that I wrote them. Unofficially, I refer to those three plays as my “Agoraphobia Trilogy.”
Is there a specific event, person or story that inspired you to write Reverberation?
There was no specific incident. It was more like an accumulation of observances and experiences. Being young and single in New York for many years informed much of the writing. Being older and in a relationship informed it as well. I like to believe that the emotions expressed in the play are universal, even if the play depicts characters far from the experiences of most Hartford audiences. Everyone knows what it feels to be lonely, to be afraid they will never find happiness. Everyone understands the need for connection, for intimacy, even if those things ultimately are pretty frightening. Many people, I assume, have made bad sexual decisions in their life which they regret. Many people, myself included, have experienced great loss, have mourned and have suffered countless broken hearts. I think this play is the result of a lifetime of love and fear, of hope and despair. No one gets through life unscathed. This play, ultimately, is a meditation on those feelings.
There are moments in the play when one character expresses a feeling to another character, uncertain if they’ll be understood and surprised and heartened to discover that they have been and that the person they’ve just confided in actually identifies with that feeling. It makes both characters feel a little less alone in the world. In a way, that’s what I might be attempting to do with this play.
Compared to your other plays, was the writing of Reverberation an easier or more difficult journey?
Both. Depending on the day, depending on the scene. There is so much in this play that flowed easily and other moments that took me years to find the right path through. Charm I can write in my sleep. Honesty takes more effort. I challenged myself in the writing of this play to be as honest as I possibly could about my own feelings and experiences. This isn’t a true story but there are many elements in this play that come from my life. If not my actual experiences, then at the very least my emotional ones. I spent a tremendous amount of time weeding out dishonesty in the writing and daring myself to reveal more, to dive deeper and to look at myself and my characters with an unflinching eye. That is never easy but it’s always worth it.
What would you like for audiences to take away after experiencing this story?
I hope people will think about their lives as not so isolated an event in the world and seek to find emotional commonality across the spectrum of their lives, particularly in the unexpected places. I hope people will take comfort in the notion that perhaps we are not all that emotionally unique as we think (or fear) we are.
What is your favorite play?
The Glass Menagerie.
Who is your favorite playwright?
I have too many. It depends on what you’re looking for in any particular moment. I am a perpetual student. If it weren’t for the friendship and the influence of Christopher Shinn, I would have never written this play. He paved the way for my generation to write honestly about our common humanity and our fears, hopes and ailments. I don’t think he gets enough recognition for that fact.
Williams and O’Neill are at the top for me. Miller and Odets and Wilson and Inge. Kushner and Churchill and Simon and Ayckbourn. Oscar Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim. Arthur Laurents. Rajiv Joseph and Annie Baker.
Do you know what your next project will be?
I’m about to start work on this ambitious project I’ve hatched with the folks at Hartford Stage–a contemporary reflection on the lasting impact of the AIDS epidemic on gay culture. I am very eager to get to work on it, especially as a project for Hartford Stage.
My play The Legend of Georgia McBride, which premiered at the Denver Center last year, will be receiving its NY debut at MCC in the fall. I’m working on a movie with Brad Pitt’s film company, which is a sexy European spy thriller adapted from a Javier Marias novel. And I’m getting married in the summer, which is my biggest and most ambitious project to date.