Interview: Sylvan Oswald on How Undermain Theatre Trained Dallas to Appreciate the Avant-garde

Undermain Theatre opens its 30th season with the premiere of playwright Sylvan Oswald’s Profanitya darkly comedic exploration of his Jewish heritage rooted in family lore, all set in 1950s Philadelphia. Oswald himself hails from Philadelphia, went to Barnard, lives in Brooklyn, teaches playwriting and screenwriting at SUNY Purchase, and says he’s been writing scripts since he was 13. I asked if that meant he feels like he’s been “emerging” forever, and he just gave a wonderful cackle and said the subject had come up a lot recently. “You know, on the one hand, I can bitch about it,” Oswald says. “But on the other hand, it’s a good thing because there’s really a lot of opportunities in the emerging category that kind of really start to ebb when you hit the mid-career. From what I hear from my friends.”

Ahead of his play’s first preview tonight, we chatted about inspirations, Orange is the New Black, what makes Profanity different from his previous work, and how Undermain trained Dallas to appreciate the avant-garde.

FrontRow: I haven’t been back in New York for awhile and I wasn’t as familiar with your work. Can you give me a little background on Profanity, what it was like working with Undermain, and why you wanted your play to go there?  I have the general view that Undermain picks interesting shows, and they always have a good reason to pick it.

Sylvan Oswald: I completely understand that. No, there’s no reason you would know an emerging playwright from New York, at all. And then I’m meant to be in the company of . . . To answer your question, why I was so excited to work with Undermain is because of their producing history. They’ve produced some of the most exciting writers over the last 50 years who have pretty much set the bar for where the direction of playwriting is going. I’ve known about [Undermain] for many many years because when I was in graduate school and just starting out, you look around and think to yourself, ‘Gosh, where are my affinities? Who seems like they might be interested, could potentially one day be interested in me based on who they produced?’ And Undermain always stood out to me for that reason.

FR:  Tell me a little about Profanity itself. Where did the play come from, and where does it fit in with your other work?

SO: Profanity comes from a couple of different sources and inspirations, all mashed together. Which is kind of actually how I work, I’m kind of a little bit of a mash up artist. I pull together history things and personal, family history stuff together with bizarre intellectual footnotes…And then also there’s a little bit of the story of Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish critic, there’s a little bit of Talmud. There’s all this that came out of the exploration of my own Jewishness and my own heritage. And I’m presenting male more than I ever have in my life, so I was exploring masculinity and the particular dubious Jewish masculinity that I come from. Thinking about what does it mean to have some people in your lineage who didn’t do the right thing. But the stories in Profanity are not exactly things that happened, but a mashed up version.

FR: How does that square with your other work? 

SO: I think that actually of all my plays this play is the most threatening to be a fourth wall realism play. But the way that I view it—it’s one of the opening lines of the play is that it’s a “realism that fails to fill the space.” So that’s one of the stage directions, meaning there’s something haunting this play’s ability to give you a complete experience or give you a proper story. There’s something already unraveling about its ability to exist.

I’d say that most of my other plays do that mash up thing, where I’m pulling together sound texts  or sound stories, bringing a lot of stuff together, including my own material, but a lot of the time I’m actually exploring queerness and gender in the confines of the story and the structure. I would say that this play is much more about spirituality and there’s not really any exploration of queerness here. Because that’s what I was thinking about at the time. Even though you’re going to see the play and be like, what? Because I’m really cynical. This isn’t the play where I finished working it out. It was more like the play where I’m having the crisis.

FR: Do you think that you’ll ever work it out? Do you think there will ever be that moment, or will you always be wrestling with these issues?

SO:. Well, there’s this other play — this play is part of a trilogy — looking at spirituality from different angles. And one of the other plays in the trilogy is about the avant garde jazz composer Sun-Ra, and that play actually does achieve a kind of lift off because that’s who Sun-Ra was. So even though I’m not necessarily sure I’ve achieve some completion or resolution, it happens in that play. Somebody gets it, but not me. I’m writing about it, almost like I’m trying to experience it vicariously.

FR: How ago did you write that play?

SO: It’s been written, and I’ve been working on it on and off since 2009. But we’re actually heading into a big season of preparing to produce it at La Mama in 2015.

FR. Is there anything that really excites you in American playwriting right now?

SO: Yeah. I have a hard time…I do a lot of teaching [and] I have a hard time teaching anything other than plays from within the last 15-20 years. Because I am so excited by the writing that’s been happening. I’m not even that interested in the old stuff anymore. I used to be together in love with it…but I think partly it’s because part of my job is to get students excited, and I feel like they get excited by what feels fresh and new and what feels like it talks to them. It’s hard to explain how Stringberg in translation talks to them. So I guess there’s just a geometrically expanding array of playwriting strategies and there’s more and more exciting, adventurous work happening. Not enough of it is getting produced, that’s for sure, but there’s tons of it out in manuscript, circulating amongst writers and amongst theaters.

I think there’s a real boldness in playwriting right now. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the television is having the golden age. I think part of the golden age of TV is that they’re drawing — there’s incredible writers there — but they’re also drawing a lot of great playwrights out of New York. And I do feel emboldened by what TV audiences are excited about watching. I definitely feel like there’s a real feedback loop happening, because everyone I know is obsessed with TV shows. Right now there was just this huge flurry of Orange is the New Black. Everyone this summer watched it.

FR: I actually really enjoyed that.

SO: It was fantastic. It’s super well-written, and also what’s revolutionary about it is that so far it’s the best and only real portrayal of actual female masculinity or trans-masculine bodies. I think they have a ways to go in terms of sexualizing butch people, and also people of color. Right now, the white ladies are the only ones who get to be productively sexual. But it’s so entertaining.

FR: And something you might not normally see otherwise.

SO: Yes. And it’s a critique of white privilege, while also letting white privilege be our lens.

FR: I thought it was interesting that you talked about Strindberg. Undermain does quite a few revivals, [including] productions of Strindberg, and there was a question of why. But people got into it. [Kitchen Dog’s production of The Chairs just took home quite a few DFW Critics awards.] Do you think there’s a way to make those older playwrights new again?

SO: Well, what’s cool about the Strindberg, and also cool about what they’re doing with their season this year. They’re providing the historical framework for the contemporary work that they do. And by using me and Jackie Sibblies Drury in their season this year alongside Len [Jenkin], they’re taking it to the next generation. So they’re really actually exploring the generational spread of avant garde playwriting. And I think what they do in Dallas is remarkable and extremely powerful. In over 30 years, they’ve trained Dallas to like Strindberg. And they did it by using [experimental writers] Mac Wellman, Len Jenkin, and Erik Ehn. So now you can go back and look at Strindberg, and go forward and look at me and Jackie. And that’s pretty amazing. It’s like a book club. They’ve really prepared the way. I think it’s important, but even more exciting when you contextualize it as part of an artistic lineage.

 See Profanity at Undermain Theatre; previews are Sept. 10 & 11, the show runs through Oct. 12. Sections of Oswald’s play Sun-Ra will be explored with the jazz ensemble Burnt Sugar at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan on Nov. 14 and Jan. 9, with the last two dates in the Sun-Ra Visitation Series to be determined.