Recently introduced to the works of Thomas Bradshaw, my jaw dropped. As I looked further into his celebrated portfolio, I discovered that he is poised to be Oprah’s next best thing, negotiating a deal with the Harpo TV maven. Winfrey has designs to bring Bradshaw’s plays from the theater to HBO.
I’ve read several of his scripts and find the 33-year-old Guggenheim Fellow (2009) to be one of the most courageous and daring playwrights of the last decade. His staged works have earned repeated praise from New York critic circles to theatre lovers across the spectrum. Further, The Whitney Museum in New York has commissioned a new work by Bradshaw for the Blues for Smoke Exhibition live performances to premiere April 26-28.
“The Bereaved” is Bradshaw’s shockingly direct, fast-paced, provocative comedy that was named best play of 2009 by TIME OUT New York, making its’ west coast premiere at the cozy and contemporary Thick House on Potrero Hill, home to the Crowded Fire Theater (CFT).
Marissa Wolf, CFT’s Artistic Director has mounted a three-week run through April 27th, and says of the New York playwright and professor (Northwestern University), “Thomas Bradshaw steps outside of the normal paradigm of good versus bad, his characters each offer both tenderness and depravity, which is where the play’s incredible humor keeps us teetering on the edge of laughing and cringing.”
This marks the first fully staged production of a Bradshaw play in San Francisco. It has been said his aggressive voice undermines our cultural comfort and refuge inside of naturalism, taking well-worn tropes of the white middle class drama, and reframing them to reveal jarring truths.
In THE BEREAVED the wife and breadwinner Carol realizes she is on borrowed time. Before she goes, the determined attorney and mother of a teenage son is determined to put her affairs in order. After all, what is more important than being certain her family maintain their upper-class-private-school Manhattan lifestyle?
I half slept the night before my interview with Bradshaw. There was so much to ask and I was anxious to get answers. An added touch, we met at a tastefully appointed vacation rental where he was housed during rehearsals in San Francisco. Attired comfortably, appearing calm and reserved, we greeted and traded pleasantries. Accompanied by CFT’s Marissa Wolf, our 90-minute exchange began.
Following is an excerpt from our conversation–
Talk2SV: When did you become so daring in the way you tell stories?
Thomas Bradshaw: Well, it’s something that comes naturally to me, I guess. I didn’t realize that my story telling was so daring when I first started. I started writing plays when I was a senior in high school. I wrote a play and they banned it from being produced.
Talk2SV: Somehow I’m not surprised.
Bradshaw: I acted in all the high school plays until they banned me from being in the spring musical that year. I can’t remember what it was…they sat me down and said, ‘you cannot write things like this, no one wants to see them, this is not the way forward.’
Talk2SV: Fast forward to today, you’ve been complimented and rewarded many times over for your creative voice and growing body of work. In your own words, how do you describe this voice that you’ve honed to receive prestigious critical acclaim?
Bradshaw: Well, that’s a difficult question to answer because as a writer, I don’t really have control over how my work is interpreted. People are going to say whatever they’re going to say– positive or negative– and I have to stay out of the business of believing the things that are written, whatever they may be.
Talk2SV: So you’re free from the opinion of others…
Bradshaw: Oh no, no, no but I’m getting there because if you invest in the positive you also have to invest in the negative. And it’s not actually helpful to go around thinking, ‘I’m a genius,’ it doesn’t help. It also doesn’t help getting those negative things stuck in your head. I’ve always dealt with what comes to the top of mind– realism, more real than reality or reality on crack. What I mean by that is our dominant form of theatre is psychological realism. It’s primarily concerned with how people should act versus how they actually do act. Psychological realism is often a portrait of our better selves, of our ideal selves, of an identity that conforms to societal expectations of how we should behave.
Psychological realism is actually quite predictable. Someone does something bad they are either going to feel remorse for what they have done and repent or they will receive their just deserts, if you will and there’s pretty much none of that in my work. Except by design, I do play with that angle sometimes but for the purpose of subverting it. I would say that my characters are often acting on instinct; sometimes I would say acting on pure id. They relentlessly follow their desires. My characters at all times feel that their actions are absolutely necessary for them to move forward in the world. I think theatre, writing, art [for me] is about capturing the essence of truth.
Talk2SV: Whose truth?
Bradshaw: Well, that’s the thing (big laughter). It’s subjective. The only thing that any artist can do is try to capture truth or what they see in the world. My goal as an artist is to portray a more accurate version of truth than what I feel is often portrayed in the theatre.
Talk2SV: Reading your work, it becomes suddenly clear that you’re an efficient wordsmith; it is without doubt your insignia. Do you spend much time developing the characters in your head so they can race through the stories you tell on stage?
Bradshaw: (More laughter) that’s a good question. I’m always determined to let my characters lead the way. I try to stay out of the business of manufacturing, coming up with contrived plot points or sitting and thinking in that way. Now, that being said, I never write a scene until something has come to me. I take it step by step.
Talk2SV: Do you write in reverse?
Bradshaw: No, no, no, no, no – I always write in chronological order. I’ll write the scene not knowing what will happen next; it’s about getting into a state of mind where you’re deeply churning it out in the background but not consciously thinking about it. Getting into a mental space where the characters can speak to you and letting them do what they’re going to do. I like to take walks or I’ll just sit quietly but I never map it out. Once I can see what they’re doing, once I can let them be in their space, then I try to let them take over. I know that kind of sounds voodoo-ish but …
Talk2SV: That’s your process.
Bradshaw: Yeah, you’ve got to. Writing is a weird thing. The more you write, you’re exercising that muscle and it’s just about tapping into that thing which allows you to write efficiently. From the onset, there are usually things I know. I know what the play is going to be about, generally. With Bereaved, I knew the basic structure, who these people are and what the inciting incidence was going to be– this woman dying so I walked into the path ….
Talk2SV: Very shortly into this play, you give us a glimpse, there are shadings, we know we’re headed toward someone’s death, we just don’t know we’re headed there so fast and; we don’t know what ensues beyond her death. That’s the place where you as the writer, dangle the unpredictable before the audience, which appears to be folly to you.
Bradshaw: What do you mean? How do you define folly?
Talk2SV: For you?
Bradshaw: Uh huh.
Talk2SV: That you know how to immediately arrest us, emotionally, then you toy with us once we’re apprehended; that’s how I define folly for you.
Bradshaw: It does make sense, I mean, that’s certainly true on some level, in the sense that obviously I’m immersed in the theatre and I’m steeped in our theatrical traditions. However, I’m not interested in telling stories in the way they traditionally have been told. But I understand exactly how we normally tell those stories but once you’ve mastered that approach, then you are free to subvert those expectations. When we’ve taught an audience this is what’s going to happen then you can lead them through the maze so …
Talk2SV: Do you see yourself as a puppet master of sorts? Meaning, once you’ve reached beyond our psychological acclimation and proclivities in theatre norms, we’re enraptured by your surprises, though unsettling they may be.
Bradshaw: Yes, well, I am very invested in getting the audience on the train. You’ve got to get them on the train, get them firmly aboard before you can do these other things. For me, the maze is all about honesty, it’s really a maze of honesty and tapping into those emotions and instincts that we don’t necessarily allow ourselves to act on or acknowledge that are very much there. I wouldn’t describe myself as a puppet master; it’s really about earnest honesty.
Talk2SV: How is Bradshaw’s work different than some of the other voices you’ve brought to Crowded Fire Theater?
Marissa Wolf: Well, it’s been really fun. We spent a lot of time figuring out what are the rules of this landscape and you don’t get a pause because he writes with so much rhythm, it’s fast and to the point. Unlike many plays where you spin off into different choices, in this play you always come back to justifying why you did what you did.
Talk2SV: One has to be in the moment with a Bradshaw play…
Bradshaw: Yeah, absolutely, that’s what it’s all about.
Talk2SV: And given the rapid tempo, there is no chance to form opinions about the characters, you give into them.
M. Wolf: That’s true.
Talk2SV: That’s what I found most surprising, losing the temptation to insert moral judgment.
M. Wolf: No one is coming from a malicious place in this play. They each have strong motivations driving them. Michael marrying Kate, his wife’s best friend, was Carole’s death bed wish. And, the other thing about doing new work in the way that this play presents it, at the end of the day, everyone has to trust the playwright’s voice; it’s the blueprint in the script. It’s not Shakespeare, you’re not putting anything on top of it, you’re not bringing the concept– you’re just trying to unlock what’s already there. And that’s just fun.
Talk2SV: What are you at liberty to say about the deal with Harpo Films and HBO, what are you doing together and when?
Bradshaw: I’m at liberty to say that it’s true; that we are hanging out at Oprah’s pool, that’s not true (laughter). I’m pretty much at liberty to say what you’ve read but the process is going very well.
”Thomas Bradshaw’s fast-paced, fierce and satiric THE BEREAVED is a dark comedy that reveals an unseemly side of upper-middle-class liberal America with itsbase desires and trenchant prejudices…” Sonia Fernandez, Dramaturge.
Cast: Denmo Ibrahim* as Katy, Michele Leavy* as Carol, Lawrence Radecker* as Michael, Olivia Rosaldo as Melissa, Josh Schell as Teddy, and Reggie D. White* as Jamal ( *member Actors Equity). The production features scenic design by Maya Linke, lighting by Darl Andrew Packard, costumes by Maggie Whitacker, sound by Brendan Aanes and props by Ali Dineen.
“The Bereaved” is playing at the Thick House, 1695 – 18th Street, home to San Francisco’s Crowded Fire Theater (CFT). For tix and more information, go to www.crowdedfire.org or call 415-746-9238.