Dallas — Matt Lyle and Matt Coleman’s new play Raptured premiered at Theatre Three this week. It’s a sex farce set in a fellowship hall of small town Uncertain, Texas’s Third Baptist Church. With only a few hours before “the rapture” is predicted to begin, characters frantically try to accomplish everything they have intended to, and come to terms with who they are, before it is too late.
Lyle’s comedies have found much success in Dallas, from his festival hit The Boxer in the early aughts to his most recent full-length play, Cedar Springs, or Big Scary Animals, which premiered at Theatre Too last season. That play, now called Big Scary Animals, is starting to pick up performances by companies in other cities; and his Barbecue Apocalypse, which premiered at Kitchen Dog Theater, has had several productions around the country. It seems Dallas-Fort Worth is celebrating his years of hard work by keeping Lyle busy this season: soon after Raptured closes, his play A 3D Adventure, originally commissioned by Dallas Theater Center, will premiere at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth. TheaterJones met up with Matt in the midst of Raptured previews to discuss his new work, farce, and, of course, the intersection of comedy and fatalism.
What was the impetus for Raptured?
I had the idea of setting a farce, a sex farce, in the fellowship hall of a church, and then, how does that work? And the plot followed that initial idea. I had the plot layout already, and when we were working on Cedar Springs, or Big Scary Animals at Theatre Too last year, Jeffrey [Schmidt, Theatre Three’s Artistic Director] asked what else I was working on, and he said, “Well, I’m thinking about commissioning somebody next year. If you have a good idea, pitch it to me. I want to support somebody writing something.” I pitched him a couple of different things, but this is the one we thought we’d have the most fun with. He’s also from East Texas, small town, grew up in church. It just kind of appealed on all those levels. And then I brought in Matt Coleman. I’ve known him forever, and he’s a novelist. One of the first thank you’s in every piece is to him because we have good phone calls about these things, the plotting of so many different storylines and how to bring them together. I talked to him enough about [the idea of Raptured] that I thought “Well, let me just pitch this to Jeffrey that maybe we can write this together.”
And right away [Schmidt] was like “Whatever you need to do.” And there we go. If it had been too weird, or sucked, or hadn’t congealed, it wouldn’t have been put in the season. But once I got enough of it out there, I thought “This feels like a play! This is fun! Let’s do this!”
What did your collaboration with Matt Coleman look like?
We talked a lot on the phone—we live three hours apart—and got together maybe three times in person with a dry erase board, and throwing out ideas, and taking pictures of the dry erase board, and transferring it to Google Drive, and we made all of our notes about who the people were and the plot. Once that exhausted itself, I started writing and sent him the first 25, 30 pages. Then we’d bounce it back and forth, he’d say “Oh, I think I’ll do this Troy and Tonya scene”—he’d write it and send it back to me and then I’d edit it so it was the same voice and speed. I know sort of the rhythm of the stage, and how much an audience can hear, and when you need to get the hell out of there.
Was the story inspired by your religious upbringings?
I grew up Southern Baptist, First Baptist church. A lot of the characters are directly from there. Robin [the youth pastor, played by Jeremy Whiteker] is a real person, a comedy version of the real person. Just the sweetest, kindest person in this church that wouldn’t accept who he really was. There was a May-December sex scandal with an older lady and a younger guy, and when he graduated, they ran off together. Matt Coleman grew up Methodist—the Methodist joke is one of my favorite jokes in the play. I went along with him to church one time, and they had a brand-new preacher because the preacher had been having an affair with the church’s secretary for 12 years, and they were in love, and just told their spouses and had to leave. Adults doing things together in a church is happening constantly. I thought it was fitting. [The show] definitely pushes the envelope as far as sex and church, but hopefully it’s good-natured enough, and silly enough.
How do you tread that fine line in comedy between offensive and funny?
With a lot of fear and trepidation. I don’t want to offend anybody. I don’t want anyone to turn off right away. You have to earn their trust a little bit, and the by the second act they know you are good-natured, and good-spirited, and “we’re all just having fun here, aren’t we?” You have to keep in mind that you are in conversation with an audience, and you don’t want to start a conversation being as abrasive as can be.
Farces seem scientific that way—there’s that balance of content from you, plus a really precise timing and staging from the actors and director is necessary for the physical comedy to land. How do you craft that precision on the page without seeing the actors in front of you to know it’s possible, and does the script change significantly as a result once you’re in the rehearsal room?
A lot of it is pace. Anyone who has ever sat next to me at a play that I’ve written knows that I have a very active metronome. I know the rhythm everything should happen—it’s a thing I instinctually have. How quickly people need to talk, and how quickly we need to impart information. I have a fairly good instinct on the page of doing that.
[In the rehearsal process,] you hear readings, and it all goes great because actors are not moving; you’ve told them to pick up cues, and “the stakes are really high,” and you totally hear where it’s going. Then they get props and distances to cover and business to do, and all of that stuff changes it. And then they have three weeks trying to learn lines while doing all of this other stuff, and you’re trying to coach acting—so you really don’t get to hear the play until the very end. Which is why the cuts in act two—I cut out big sections, six or seven minutes off of the second act—didn’t happen until the very end [of the rehearsal process]. As good as we could get it, I thought “that’s never going to get any better than that, so that’s my fault.”
Dallas seems to have a reignited interest in farces. Aside from the farces that can be regularly seen across D-FW at Pocket Sandwich Theatre or community theaters, Stage West did Don’t Dress for Dinner last year, Flexible Grey is producing a workshop of Lipstick, which had its Dallas premiere at the most recent Kitchen Dog New Works Festival, and Theatre Three will be doing Noises Off next season. Why did you choose to do a farce now, and any insight into their recent popularity here?
I’m all into experimental, but this just felt like we wanted to make it as audience-friendly and traditional as possible, and then push the envelope content-wise. [During the first preview,] I was watching a lot of wives laughing, hitting their husbands. That’s exactly what we wanted, for people to admit that they think that way and talk that way, which is not the church way to go about it, but when you’re in the theatre, you should be open to embrace all of that, as long as it’s in good—somewhat good—taste. So much of this play is about being who you are, believing what you believe.
I wanted to do it because I love it. I have had some great, great times acting in comedies like that, and you hear how audiences react to it—they just like it. It’s a time-tested form. And I wanted to do something fun. Audiences want to laugh, and have a fun night sitting in the theatre, and going back and talking about the funny lines that they heard; It is an audience-serving thing. As far as theatre goes, you can’t just try to preach to people or talk to people about what is most important to you, or what is in the headlines—there’s a lot of that, and it’s important and good—but this is part of the balance. You’ve got to swing it the other direction some. That’s my instinct about it.
Raptured is obviously about “the end,” and how we reckon with ourselves when we’re faced with crisis. It strikes me as a theme across your recent work; it’s a big part of Barbecue Apocalypse and your upcoming show A 3D Adventure, too.
Being a dad has put me in a place where my mortality is in a much different perspective. I’m much safer; I worry about the world a little more because it’s not just about me. I worry about not being around. All of those things are real to me as I get older and my joints creak a little louder and I can see an end is coming. This sounds high-minded, but [something] I do keep in mind all the time is the evolution of the species, that we can end any day at any time. There’s a bag we keep reaching into and pulling out okay stuff, but one time we’re going to reach in and pull out something that is the worst thing in the world. I’m a little bit of a pessimist in that way.
But what I do like is people. I think we are evolving socially and learning to cooperate with each other better, and of course we have backslides. So having things threatened and coming to the end is probably the type of conflict I’m most interested in; rather than “what’s my relationship with my dad?” it’s “what does my relationship with my dad mean ultimately?”
Faith is at the center of Raptured—is that important for you to comment on at this moment?
The idea of having faith in people around you and your community, that seems right to me. But believing in institutions that tell stories that are not real stories—that’s disingenuous and not good. You look at your hand and think about how you are 40 trillion cells, and my atoms have smaller parts that have smaller parts—I’m very interested in the making of what’s around us and what is our consciousness. I don’t know what the universe is, really. In lieu of any answers, you’ve got to take comfort in what you’ve got. I think if I were to just sit and contemplate on that in the play, it would not be as entertaining.
Writing those fears into comedies, or a farce as in Raptured, how does that feel to turn that into something comedic?
We spoke earlier about being in conversation with an audience: I do believe that’s what it is. I heard that from Martha Lavey at Steppenwolf [Theatre] when I was first starting, she said [theatre]’s a conversation we have over and over again. The best conversations are when you laugh, and have fun, and learn something about the other person, and learn something about yourself. So I try to go about it in that way.
» Haley Nelson is a dramaturg and actor based in Dallas.