Dallas — Sylvan Oswald is a playwright on the rise in theaters that specialize in the avant-garde around the country, and who Dallas is getting a taste of thanks to the group that finds these writers before anyone else here: Undermain Theatre. Oswald's latest play, Profanity, has its world premiere here, opening tonight, and following a workshop production at New York's SoHo Rep.
A native of Philadelphia, Oswald has taught playwriting and screenwriting at Barnard College, Purchase College/SUNY and Mount Holyoke College. On his fascinating website, he describes himself as a transgender theater artist who creates plays, texts and publications.
The theme of gender identity has played a role throughout his work, including the three plays in his “Romance” trilogy, and the first two plays of his “Mystery” trilogy, Sun Ra and Nightlands.
Profanity, which is the third in that trilogy, deals with real estate agents in 1950s Philadelphia selling homes in the Logan neighborhood, where structures were built on unstable soil and became known as the “sinking houses.” Directed by Katherine Owens, it stars Bruce DuBose, Michael Federico, Alex Organ, Shannon Kearns-Simmons and Katy Tye.
Oswald just wrapped filming a web series called Outtakes, which he describes as a “low-fi, mock-doc, semi-improvised web series about two trans guys making a web series,” and he'll start editing and producing those this fall.
While in Dallas for the initial table read and beginning of rehearsals for Profanity, he stayed at the Belmont Hotel off, appropriately enough, Sylvan Avenue. TheaterJones caught up with him to talk about his career, the theme of gender identity in his work, dramatic structure and Profanity.
TheaterJones: You've said that you write about your family in your plays. Tell me about your family and growing up in Philadelphia.
Sylvan Oswald: I do tend to write about my family. I have three half-siblings; my parents got divorced when I was five. My siblings and I are not that close, we all have only-child identities. Technically I'm the second, but none of us share any of the same two parents. I was raised by my dad.
When did you become interested in theater?
I was always rather outgoing and confident in my ability to skill to speak in front of people. My dad and grandmother are also that way. When you're a little kid, the first little thing you have access to is creating little plays and little skits and drawing with crayons. It was very intuitive that all that was enjoyable to me. I was always writing and drawing things when I was young. In junior high we had a strong young playwrights organization in Philadelphia that would send artists into the schools, and I did a workshop and was like, “oh, this.” Because I don't like writing in sentences and paragraphs, I was surprised to learn that there was a kind of writing where I didn't have to do that.
When did it move from being an interest to something you knew you had to do?
One of the first books I read that changed my life was Augusto Boal's Games for Actors and Non-Actors. I had this amazing acting teacher who was using Uta Hagen's Respect for Acting. That was the first time I realized you could read about theater in a book. That lead me to start a theater group in my high school. I went to the bookstore to find books and found Games for Actors and Non-Actors and I was like [makes explosion sound and gesture with hands].
In college I was like “I'm not majoring in theater” – and I was totally majoring in theater – and I had some awesome mentors and I ate all that stuff up, and started learning about the avant-garde and spent a lot of time in the stacks looking at photos. I had this one semester with a terrible case of unrequited love. I was living in London on a study abroad, and I was in love with this person – and that makes you write a lot. And my writing started changing. I came back and showed it to a new teacher and she said “you need to read Mac Wellman and Suzan-Lori Parks.” She was writing a book about Suzan-Lori and I assisted her for many years on that. That was my first exposure to what was contemporary playwriting. In grad school, I started reading more things.
How did your personal journey with gender identity parallel with your writing?
My trans journey wasn't like I'm five years old and saying I'm a boy. Eventually it was more like when I would hear the word “lady” and it was like fingernails on the chalkboard. It's been little steps.
I came out at different phases. I lived as a lesbian for a while, even though I never identified with that word. Not until the word “queer” started to crest, and it was [what I identified with]. “Lesbian” always felt like second-wave feminism for me, and that wasn't helped by the problem of not feeling very female. Not everybody has that experience. Coming out as gay or lesbian or bi, not everyone is going to be the same. Some people have this slow, Polaroid-development process; for some it's like a lightning bolt, it's not even a question. You just need some time to rejigger things.
It wasn't until college that I realized I could write about stuff that wasn't being talked about. I started writing roles with girls that play boys, and I was working some stuff out. I was 20 when I started writing those roles. I kept running into the same problem around my body, with self-esteem issues. It was not until 2005 that I met a trans person; I didn't even know it was something I could do. [This person] was a female-to-male, but it was about being gender-queer, trans-masculine and using male pronouns.
Up until then I had been writing these females playing men and calling them pants roles. But then I was like, “they're trans.” Previously, one of my mentors said “what are you doing with these pants roles; you're not revealing them, so why are they there?” I was not ready to answer that question. I was discovering that in myself.
So there's this way that my plays know more than I do, they know more about me than before I could articulate it. That's one of the things I try to accept. It's like how people see things about you that you don't...you have to stop trying to control that because you can't.
Once I realized that the characters were trans, I wrote a play called Pony.
How did your work progress after Pony?
Pony is in a group of plays called “Romances.” I guess I'm into these monolithic categories. With “Romances,” I was trying to teach myself how to write a bigger play than what I was doing with the pants roles plays, which was me teaching myself how to be dramatic and exploring ideas about the voice. In those plays I was trying to play with structure. I asked my collaborator, Jordan Harrison, “how do you write these long plays?” He said “you have to tell a bigger story.” I needed to expand the scope, and was playing with different kind of old theater conventions.
So Pony borrows the skeleton of [Büchner's] Woyzeck. Vendetta Chrome is kind of a melodrama farce that built from there, [it] plays with a Delsarte kind of acting. Painful Adventures is borrowing the skeleton of Pericles and this old stagecraft manual by Nicola Sabbatini, Constructing Theatrical Scenes. It's like the backstage handbook from the 1600s, like “here's how you have a guy coming out of Heaven out of the clouds.” Those plays explore bigger structures and literally more distance, the way that the romances are often traveling through space and time.
These Mystery plays are more on a spiritual angle, with people working out something spiritually; although in Profanity, the whole play is a spiritual question rather than following one person like in Sun Ra or Nightlands.
Profanity is inspired by a true event, of the sinking houses of Philadelphia's Logan neighborhood. So the Mystery plays seem to be based on actual people and events.
That's true. The Romances were much more my inventions. Sun Ra was a real person, Nightlands was based on my grandmother on my dad's side, and Profanity is based on uncles on my mom's side.
How did you get in touch with Undermain Theatre, and what has your experience with them been like so far?
In New York it's impossible to get this kind of attention, and they have the resources here. Having the set already built [three weeks before opening], what is that? They have a legacy of producing my heroes, so I thought they might be willing to talk to me. Katherine [Owens] had apparently read Nightlands, and liked it, and when we talked I told her about Profanity.
When you say “Mystery” plays, you're thinking more along the lines of Medieval mystery plays?
It's cosmic mysteries, the spiritual mysteries of people. This is a phase of my life where I'm asking a lot of questions about my own spiritual capacity, and not just “do I believe in God?” and “what religion am I?” but “what is my obligation to the world and other people? How am I going to be proud of my life and proud of how I treat people?”
Have you been able to answer those questions?
Not really, but I write plays to do that contemplation. I've certainly spent a lot of time with [those questions].
How does your Jewish background play into that?
I was raised reform, and my dad joined a Reconstructionist congregation at some point. This play [Profanity] is inspired by the structure of the Talmud, the idea that you've got this Bible verse and somebody interpreting it, and then you've got their descendents interpreting them, so you've got these generations of commentary. To me that's a very interesting theatrical structure. Often my plays have multiple time frames happening, jumping between times. Previously I think I was checked out of Judaism. I felt culturally Jewish, very much so, but was I spiritually Jewish? I don't know. Did I feel something? No. During that process I feel like what I have is more ways to engage. Otherwise being Jewish doesn't inform my work at all. My questions are more about gender and emotionality, those are the kinds of things that rule my life.
In Profanity, the characters are jockeying for real estate, which brings up the correlation to David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.
Yes, there's no way to avoid that. For a long time, because of my orientation and my interest in exploring female masculinity or trans masculinities on stage, I wasn't interested in putting cisgendered [a person who identifies with the gender they were born as] characters on stage, except for cisgendered women. I was interested in the interplay between a trans-masculine person and a cis-woman. That was the kind of romantic heat that I wanted to look at.
It took me a long time to put a cisgendered man on stage. If you follow from the pants roles until now, this play is entirely cis people and almost no queerness, except we're talking about the idea of what is masculinity.
How does that fit into where you're at with your personal journey as a transgendered person?
My experience is like a sidebar to this play. Sometimes in the industry, and it's more true in TV land, they want “your story.” But for me, it's like “can I write a play about these people?” Sometimes I'm writing “my” story and these are real questions I have, too, but I don't always want to write a “gay play.” It's gay or trans because I've written it, but my interests are big. I have lots of different interests and I don't always want to write a play with myself and my problems.
Who were your role models as a queer person?
My queer role models were these women in my summer camp who said “this is how you pull your tube socks up,” or taught me how to wear a Hawaiian shirt go to the thrift store. This was in junior high. They had to be completely closeted. I couldn't have existed without them. I needed that mentorship. We didn't know any gay people.
What are your thoughts on more mainstream gay theater, or someone like Larry Kramer?
Kramer is interesting and important, but a lot of what happens at gay theaters is for a white, cis-male population, which I don't relate to at all. I'm a middle class person who's been educated, and I have “white privilege,” but I don't want to watch that onstage. That's why I started to write my own plays. The historical and political implications of Kramer's work are very important, but as far as something like Naked Boys Singing, I've never seen it, so I can't comment on it.
But you're a part of that movement. You're billed as a transgendered writer in the press materials.
I billed myself. I made that choice to put that in my bio, because I'm now at a place where I feel like a need to wave the flag. In 2011, when I was coming out [as a trans person] and having two plays opening, a trans guy I know said “I'm surprised it's not in your bio.” But I was like “it's not artistic information about me.” But as I started to feel more comfortable using it, I felt it could have significance as far as the power of being out.
Here's a video shot by SoHo Rep when they were workshopping Profanity. It features Sylvan Oswald narrating the story of the sinking houses in Philadelphia: