Billy Aronson.

Q&A: Billy Aronson

Playwright discusses collaboration, children's TV, Rent and The First Day of School. Plus, video!

published Wednesday, July 7, 2010

To understand Billy Aronson's sense of humor, first visit his Website.

And do not skip the intro.

He's introduced as a playwright, wordsmith, scriptmason and...jackass. Then, among the prestigious institutions to which he belongs or for which he has written: Playwrights Horizons, The Ensemble Studio Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre and...Beavis & Butt-Head.

You gotta love a guy who has written educational non-fiction about Abraham Lincoln and scientific discovery; penned a "middle school romance" version of Romeo and Juliet for the Wishbone series; had the original concept for Jonathan Larson's musical Rent (he gets royalty checks to prove it); wrote the book for the musical Click, Clack, Moo (although not the version seen at Dallas Children's Theater in early 2009); and whose résumé is filled with children's TV credits. He just won an Emmy Award for his lyrics to the song "The Fiddler Crab Am I" on Nickleodeon's The Wonder Pets.

In the fall of 2009, Aronson had three plays premiere within five months around the country, including simultaneous world premieres of The First Day of School in Philadelphia and San Francisco. That show is making its North Texas premiere at Fort Worth's Amphibian Stage Productions this week (the 'Phibs' hilarious promo video for it can be seen above). The play deals with five parents who have their own unusual adventures after they've dropped their kids off on, well, the title says it.

In an interview with TheaterJones, Aronson talked about the play, his previous projects, and how writing plays allows him to unleash his "loopy" sense of humor.

TheaterJones: You are a parent. Was The First Day of School inspired by a real-life experience?

Billy Aronson: Yes. My kids are now teenagers, but when they were in elementary school, it was the first day of school and my wife and I were dropping off our kids. There was a nervous energy in the air. I had one of those moments. As a playwright, I'm always looking at life from the ceiling or from a tree or something, I see this life with all these rules. We're friends with so many of our kids’ friends' parents, that’s our community. It just struck me as weird and scary and hilarious, many things at once. So I began writing the play.

Is it about parenting?

It’s about five parents, but it’s not so much about parenting as it is about questioning where you are in life and why you’re doing what you’re doing.

It has been described as a sex farce. Is that accurate?

I've also seen it called an "existentialist farce," and I think that’s good too. It’s certainly not a realistic play. The characters don’t do everyday things. Something extraordinary happens and they respond to it in a way that I hope reveals something about everyday life.

You have written a lot for children's TV. Did that experience help with this play, even though there aren't any characters who are kids?

There is a relationship, yes. I started writing for television for money to support my playwriting habit. A lot of what I got hired to do was for kids. I’m able to make use of my youthful side and my loopy tone. A lot of children’s TV is animation and people can do loopy things, and there's a lot of physical comedy. I love physical comedy. I love trying to see the world for the first time. In a way, this play is like a children’s TV show about adult sexuality, although there would never be such a thing.

How has your experience with writing non-fiction helped your playwriting?

I got to do these funny science books. I do like science and figuring out the universe, and to me it was very much akin to what I’m doing with theater, figuring out the world from a different point of view. I love the objectivity of that, and being accurate and the research.

You had the original concept for the musical Rent. How did that happen?

I went looking for a composer to write a modern version of Bohème, this was back in the late ‘80s. Playwrights Horizons recommended a couple of composers, and Jonathan [Larson] was one. We started working on it for a couple of years. We did some songs together. The ones that remain are the title song, "Santa Fe" and "I Should Tell You," although the title tune lyrics have changed, and "I Should Tell You" is about 50/50. "Santa Fe" is me.

Collaboration was a challenge for us, and it always has been for me. I don’t think either of us understood what kind of sacrifice you have to make. We had different tones, different sensibilities.

You don't play well with others?

I like to do things my way. I think the joy of playwriting for me has always been that you can present your own quirky, insane vision of the world. When I’m working on a play, a lot of times I start in one direction, I love it, then I get fed up with it and throw it out. I don’t have to argue with anyone if I start all over again.

My plays have an odd sense of humor, and to work, you have to get what’s serious about them, what’s funny about them, you have to get the tone just right. The minute you team up with somebody else, it’s tricky. Bringing in a composer is like bringing an elephant into the room. Music blows everything else away.

Do you like Rent?

I loved the way it turned out.

Jonathan’s sensibility is very direct and honest, it’s from the heart. His characters can turn to the audience and say "I’m dying," "I love you" [or] "I love this person," in a way that could be melodramatic if the music didn’t give it such specificity and vividness and personality, and make it original and breathtaking, emotionally. In the early stages when we were talking things through, it was hard for me to get how that would work, certainly with my type of storytelling, which is more about irony and getting emotion in a different way. I love Rent, it’s an expression of Jonathan Larson’s style and personality and his life, it's autobiographical in some ways.

And you still get some of the credit, so that worked out.

I'm credited with original concept and additional lyrics. Luckily, [when we stopped collaborating] we put in a brief note that if anything should happen with it, I would get credit and compensation. I love that piece of paper. Thanks For Reading

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Q&A: Billy Aronson
Playwright discusses collaboration, children's TV, Rent and The First Day of School. Plus, video!
by Mark Lowry

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