Charley Lerrigo Interview
On June 18 The Virago Theatre Company staged a rehearsed reading of Charley Lerrigo’s play Fluffy: A Gorilla. The play tells the story of complicated consequences after an engineer and manufacturer of robots and droids gives to his thirteen-year-old daughter a droid in the form of a full-size purple gorilla that is programmed to do whatever it takes to “make Suzie happy.” The performance was followed by a lively Talk Back during which audience members discussed the play with Mr. Lerrigo, Laura Lundy-Paine (Director), and the cast.
The following interview was conducted July 9.
dc: Tell me how you got into playwriting.
Lerrigo: I didn’t formally study “play-writing” until about eleven years ago, after retiring from a dual career as a journalist and as a pastor.
When I was a kid, I loved to make up stories, become a character or characters—cowboys, soldiers, magicians. I’d dress up, dance around. Have fun. The key word when I was a child was “play.” It was not writing a play for someone else, but making the play for myself.
In that sense, the written play is not the thing. The “thing” we desire is play.
When I was a journalist, I would tell the story as well and clearly as I could, to help readers decide how to respond to the world we share. When I was a pastor, I would take old stories we thought we knew and playfully reshape them so we can alter our inner landscape, and learn how better to love one another. And as a playwright, I try to create a dramatic world that has the same effect—and which sometimes just helps us enjoy life, and play with all the serious things we must do.
When I was a student at the University of Alabama, studying Journalism, I wrote a play, supposedly in the flavor of Samuel Beckett, whom I loved. It wasn’t as good as Samuel Beckett [laughs], and I thought, “Well, maybe I don’t need to do this.” I wanted to be a journalist, and that’s primarily how I’ve made my living.
For many, many years, I loved theater, and thought, maybe I could do that, but I never seriously worked at it until I started working as a United Methodist pastor. I’m retired now, but I have served about seven churches. I’ve also worked for the church at local, state, and national levels, as a journalist. The last thing the church paid me to do was to be pastor of a church in Vacaville, CA. I would preach on Sunday mornings, but I began to take some of the biblical stories and write them differently. Many of the biblical stories lend themselves to an imaginative retelling.
On of my first plays was about Zacchaeus, the man who climbed into a fig tree to see Jesus through a crowd that had gathered. Jesus sees him and says, “Come on down because we’re going to your house.” Zacchaeus says, “You don’t want to come to my house because I’m a tax collector.” Jesus says, “Yes, I do want to come to your house, because you’re a tax collector.” Zacchaeus winds up giving half his income to those he had cheated, and to the poor and needy. I wanted to tell the story about when Zacchaeus goes home and tells his wife, “We’re not going to have the money for the piano lessons because I just gave half of my money back to the people, and I owe some more.” She’s going to say, “Don’t hang around that Jesus guy!”
At the church, we had some amateur actors who loved the opportunity to perform, so I started rehearsing them on Saturday afternoons. I would tell them my ideas about the story, and how their characters would interact. Then we would stage the little plays at church on Sunday. Our little group of readers, our “theater,” started doing this every four or five weeks. Instead of a sermon we’d have a staged reading.
Then I retired, and started thinking about how what I had always wanted to do was write plays. I realized, however, that I actually didn’t know what the craft and art of classic play writing is all about. So I started participating in activities offered at places like the Playwright’s Foundation in San Francisco. In that way I had the opportunity to study with a lot of people who were successful playwrights and teachers. I am still wrestling with all that, since there are many different ways of looking at how plays are written. I’m on the steering committee of the Play Café at the Berkeley Rep. where we do scene readings, cold reads. I’m also on the board of the Playwright’s Center of San Francisco.
Theater, in a sense, has become my work, sometimes as a producer and director, but mostly as a writer. I woke up yesterday morning at 3:00 a.m. and wrote for three hours, and I said, “Well, there’s a new play!” Then I share it with my colleagues and they help me tear it all apart and tell me how horrible it is [laughs].
dc: What are you reading?
Lerrigo: I don’t read a lot of fiction any more. I have a large library, but it’s mostly books that have titles like Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith or The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious. And there are how-to books like Will Dunne’s The Dramatic Writer’s Companion. I’m much more interested in film. If I were not writing plays, and I had the right connections, I would be doing film. When I was getting my theology degree, I studied film. As [Rudolf] Arnheim observes, film allows us to play with time and space in a way that theatre doesn’t. In stage plays it’s very hard to do that. People like Caryl Churchill have done some of that, but it is hard to do.
And oh, yes, I do read newspapers. The New York Times provides a steady supply of stories or events that I think could become a play by Charley Lerrigo—if he had more talent and time.
dc: What are artists, of any medium, who have influenced you in your thinking or your approach to drama?
Lerrigo: I’m not sure there’s any one person I can single out who influences my playwrighting. I could talk about a number of film directors who enrich my creative juices. But everybody I work with, whose work I see, shapes my thinking and writing. Other playwrights, actors, directors, even the audiences who give me valuable feedback, all nourish and challenge me.
In the various playwriting groups that I am in, I attend a lot of new plays, some of which are musicals. I’m attending one tonight, in fact. I sometimes read at these events, and participate in discussions afterward. I watch their work, then sit back and try to tell them how they should have done it! [laughs]. I attend a lot of plays—I will see three this week. I am mainly interested in things that lead to stories.
dc: In your play Fluffy: A Gorilla, one of the things you are working with is artificial intelligence. What are themes, situations, issues, perspectives—including artificial intelligence, if you want to say more about that—that you are interested in pursuing in your work?
Lerrigo: Almost all of my plays, including Fluffy, have a moral, or a message, to them.
dc: [laughing] So, you haven’t entirely abandoned your calling as a preacher, right?
Lerrigo: I still have a pulpit, except that the pulpit works differently! And I think now that after doing this for about eleven years, I realize that the pulpit in the church needs to be changed. I think we’d do well to see the pulpit and the altar more as stages for interaction than as residues of wisdom.
dc: Right. In “The Dangling Conversation,” the Simon and Garfunkel song of the 60s, there is the line, “Is the theater really dead?” Joan Baez later covered the song, and changed that line to “Is the church really dead?” You seem to be conflating those questions.
Lerrigo: Theater and church are big parts of my life. And there are times when religion—or drama—becomes “dead,” dried up, out of touch with that green fuse we call life. We’re all trying to tell a story about the way that we see life, the way that we experience life, or the way that we might like to experience life. Or the way that we don’t like to experience life, and bewail it. So, on that kind of stage in which we can move, or that kind of pulpit where we can stand, we want to create an experience. That experience, that mix of script, direction, acting, and even the audience reaction is what has the power to create new life. The best preachers I have heard, when I leave them, I am not thinking about what they said, but about how I felt.
dc: Audiences who know that you have been a preacher might expect your plays to be essentially didactic, yet they are are not.
Lerrigo: Right, and the best sermons are not didactic, either. Good sermons come out of one’s heart, out of one’s deepest place. I also tend to be a teacher, because I interpret old things. I like to take a topic and say, “Forget what you thought about it; look at it in this way. It’s like you have a diamond, and you can look into the diamond and see its multiple facets. It’s a mystery in which we participate. And that changes us. And that I hope is what play writing does, at its best. And Fluffy is a good example of that. People have often responded to Fluffy by liking the first half, but once Fluffy starts to play with young girls, they don’t like it any more. I point out to those critics that when some “dude” messes with girls in the ways that young men interact with young desirable girls, you seem to accept that as part of life.
Why are you uncomfortable when you face
that same thing coming from the droid Fluffy, who has no intention of harming
the girl? The situation is turned around
to be looked at differently. We see Fluffy learning to kiss by using the
Internet, but then the girl has to tell him that she is not interested in
that. He protests: “But I learned on the Internet and in books
that kissing is what girls like!” And he
learns that the standard thinking that comes out of the Internet and books is
not always right.
I have listened to a lot of responses to that play. It has been read three times now, and I can see that I am going to have to work on it some more to get it to become the story I really wanted to tell. One thing that I liked about the Virago reading is that we had a twelve-year-old boy there who spoke up at the Talk Back, and he actually got what the play is about! I thought to myself, “My God, I have written something good! A 12 year-old understands!” At the same time, however, I learned in the Virago reading that it was not clear to the audience that the young girl in the last act is not Susie, but a droid. I have to work on that.
dc: What else are you working on now?
Lerrigo: I have several full-length plays in different stages of disrepair. But almost all my plays are iconoclastic. I take a great myth, a great story, a particular idea, and flip it. One of my plays has Jesus coming back as a black woman in the 20th century. That’s a one-act play that I would like to expand. I also have a play that I have been working on for a few years about Pasiphae, the queen of king Minos. In the classic story she is the one who gives birth to the Minotaur because she mates with a mythical bull that comes from the sea. King Minos sees the Minotaur as a threat, so he has Daedalus, the science-technology guy, build a place to keep the monster away from others. In my play I want to retell, rediscover that myth.
A lot of my plays draw from the work of Alan Turing, the philosopher/mathematician who gave us the model for what computer intelligence could be like. His test is still used: If I can put you in a room where you cannot see the voices talking to you, and you talk to a computer that responds in such a way that you cannot tell that it is not human, then we have created something that is equal to human intelligence. 2010 was a classic movie about this. Spielberg’s film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is another. Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s Her, which won an Academy Award for best screenplay, is another. That is the genesis of some of my work. I am interested in asking: What is intelligence, and does it differ if it’s created by organic or electronic means?
dc: You have been writing primarily short plays. What are advantages of short plays?
Lerrigo: That you can actually get something produced somewhere. A theater company will do only a few full plays a year, and there are a lot of playwrights—and they don’t all come from this area! Another advantage is that the short play is a good learning place.
dc: I like to end an interview with a whimsical question, so tell me, if you could become instantly fluent in another language, which would you choose, and why?
Lerrigo: The first thing that comes to my mind is French because I have a degree in it, but I’ve lost the fluency. If I could really become fluent, it would be a language like Hebrew, which is a magical language that is verb oriented and that has countless meanings, layers and layers of them. Each letter, each shape of a letter, means something. It lends itself to mystery. Another language that would be interesting to learn is Chinese, because it is ideographic.
dc: Anything else?
Lerrigo: I have been a journalist, and I have been a pastor. Pastors are always about teaching, and journalists tend to be about explaining. Playwriting is a little bit of both, but it’s not that. Now I’m trying to be a good playwright, and playwrights need to find some new skills, which don’t always come easy. Fluffy: A Gorilla has taken nearly two years to get to the place it is. Playwriting is something different. It’s more about creating a world in which the audience participates. And everybody—from the playwright to the playgoer—who becomes part of that creation is part of the new world we all want to see come into being.