Sunday, June 8, 2014

First-Person: Jonathan A. Goldberg on Real Dead Ghosts (Fringe)

There's Something About a Ghost Story
by Jonathan A. Goldberg

Jonathan A. Goldberg (playwright) has had work seen at HERE, Ars Nova, Dixon Place, The Public Theater and many other venues.  His play The Jew and the Demon won the Rita and Burton Prize for Theater.  His short work was featured at Ephemerama at the Magnet Theater and he won the Israel Baron Award for How to Shoot a Bull Moose. He's had plays developed by the Inkwell in Washington DC and won the 2013 In Process Short Play Festival at Hudson Valley Shakespeare.  His play Sousepaw has received critical acclaim around the country. He is a contributor to #serials at The Flea. He won the 2012 L Magazine short fiction contest and has an MFA in playwrighting from NYU Tisch.

It’s hard to know where ideas come from. It’s a question that gets asked a lot, and most writers like to demur or give a flippant answer. I think it’s because in reality we’re not sure. A play doesn’t come all at once, there might be a few flashes of ideas that I string together and sketch out a plot and characters. We might have a triggering idea or moment, but for me at least a lot of it is writing into the unknown. For this pay, Real Dead Ghosts, my triggering ideas was “ghost stories.”

There’s something about a ghost story. When I was a kid I loved them, and also hated them. They’d keep me up at night and give me pause before opening a door or going to the bathroom. Yet I was also fascinated and would read everything I could from Geff the talking mongoose spirit to the Winchester Mystery House. I was fascinated by the idea of unfinished business and odd hauntings. But as I grew up ghosts seemed less scary than other things like failure or cruelty or being an adult.

Scripts don’t fall from the heavens perfectly intact all the words in place, it’s a struggle sometimes over a comma or a turn of phrase.

Being a writer is like being a collector. A collector of bits of information, of turns of phrase, of moments and I always circle back to ghosts. Maybe not always in a literal way, but ghosts have been part of theatrical traditions for a long time. But I also wanted to ground the play in a real world, so part of the challenge was finding a way for ghosts to exist but not exist. 

So when I sat down to work on Real Dead Ghosts I decided to set the play in a cabin in the woods, the standard for this sort of story. But, I didn’t want to write a traditional ghost story; the ghosts I wanted to write about were the kind we all carry around. All the possible paths we didn’t take, the choices we didn’t make, all the ghosts of what could have been and what should have been.

This play came quickly, the first draft at least. From there I read it with a group of my friends and it’s those same actors who now play the roles of Graham and Amber. Also I knew I wanted Courtney Ulrich to direct, and she was vital in helping me shape and edit the play. Scripts don’t fall from the heavens perfectly intact all the words in place, it’s a struggle sometimes over a comma or a turn of phrase. It can seem like madness and there’s times you want to just walk away from it. But I had people with me every step of the way to help shape the play and bring their talents to it.  The rehearsal room became a place to explore the play and where it reached its current form. 

Having great actors is vital as well. I’ve worked with both Nathaniel Kent and Lara Hillier before. Nate has a long history with my work and he’s a smart actor who brings so much passion and heart to everything. He’s also a great producer and this show wouldn’t be coming to Canada without him. He’s tireless, and will keep me going when things can feel hopeless or frustrating.

Lara has a depth of emotion that she brings to each moment that really strengthens the character of Amber. Her dedication and talent really makes working with her a joy.

Theatre is only created through collaboration and connection. And the team that’s brought Real Dead Ghosts to life is top notch. It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come from that first draft I wrote over a cold weekend a year ago. It’s become much more than a ghost story.

June 13-20 Montreal Fringe Festival
July 2-12 Toronto Fringe Festival

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