Dallas — If the "I" in "FIT" (Festival of Independent Theatres) means the event focuses on theaters without a home, House Party Theatre probably fits that definition better than any group that has ever been in FIT. That's because in about two years, HPT has presented its theater in numerous local spots—from warehouses and galleries to bars and breweries. The group of Southern Methodist University students and alumni now has its first entry in FIT, with company member Ted Gwara's Wealth Management, which looks at the excess and indulgence that created the global financial crisis in 2008. The play, which opens in the first slot on Saturday night, was developed with Taylor Harris and Kristen Kelso. We chatted with Gwara about the play, his writing influences, and millennials, of which he is one.
TheaterJones: What is your theater and playwriting background? Have you had other plays produced?
Ted Gwara: I am an SMU alumnus, class of 2013, with no official playwriting background and no other plays produced, though my flash drive is chock full of tidbits that may or may not ever see the light of day. My first ever credited role was the great Pharaoh Tut-Ankh-Amon (ever so popularly known as King Tut) in a fourth grade production of a “history”-themed musical, and I haven’t looked back ever since. My theatrical career has led me from Eldritch, Missouri in The Rimers of Eldritch at SMU to Paris and Florence in All’s Well That Ends Well at the Great River Shakespeare Festival to an imaginary world of Pablo Picasso’s in Desire Caught by the Tail with House Party Theatre, which I am proud to represent with Wealth Management.
The description for Wealth Management is "a sordid look at the excess and indulgence that created the global financial crisis." That's pretty broad. Tell me more about it and the characters.
Yes it is! Wealth Management was birthed from a series of conversations I had with friends who were on Wall Street in August and September 2008 when everyone was going all to hell financially. Asking the question, “What actually happened on the day?,” the answer I repeatedly heard was “We had no idea what was going to happen to anyone.” Utter chaos and uncertainty. So Wealth Management is the story of these six people (none of whom bear any likeness to my dear friends) with advanced financial careers when the market plunged after Lehman Brothers failed in September 2008. It’s six beautiful, intelligent, highly literate, witty, clever, ambitious, dangerous, physical people in a room together during the most stressful time in their lives they’ve ever experienced. That kind of stress is revelatory, unfortunately for most of them, and we get to see what they really believe about each other and about complex things we deal with every day like race and gender politics, sex and sexual power, and deeply private beliefs about personal wealth. The process of writing it felt very much like heating up a deep fryer to a thousand degrees and dropping in a frozen turkey.
Your generation, millennials, gets a lot of flak. But it's the generations ahead of you that mucked everything up. Do you feel like your generation has a different way of looking at the shape the country is in than, say, Boomers or Gen Xers?
Absolutely. The cultural factors that gave rise to Gen X and decidedly gave rise to the Boomer generation are very different from what we are dealing with today. Boomers born in the 1940-1960 range grew up with parents who lived through World War II, and experienced the Great Depression firsthand, and they cultivated a very unique cultural identity as a result. But Boomers and Gen Xers were also the first generations to experience firsthand a social revolution that would dominate decades of American history alongside technological advancements like birth control, nuclear proliferation, and the rise of television as a medium for mass communication.
We are still dealing with the fast-accelerating precipitation of social change (for the better) today, but the difference between millennials and the generations that came before us is our newfound vast access to raw and refined information.
In the days of Walter Cronkite, there weren’t nearly as many readily accessible sources of current event or socio-political information, and paralleling the increase in availability of information and the proliferation of technology, we see a healthy rise in cultural skepticism towards the government and towards the accepted narrative of the shape of the country.
Millennials are better equipped today than ever before to gather information with which to draw conclusions—problems just start to arise when people with the ability to distribute vast quantities of information realize (or don’t!) that they to some degree control the narrative, or when what used to be a crystal-clear lake of unified knowledge becomes muddied by the knowledge-glut of a thousand information platforms, political or no.
The true challenge for Millennials in assessing the state of the state lies in the discernment of what information is useful, clear and unbiased recognition of the difference between fact and opinion, and the crafting of a new cultural identity that is rooted in finding unifiying factors—not polarizing ones. Every generation has had to deal with the choices made by generations that came before them. When the hammer drops, and it always drops, we can’t look to the past for dividing lines so we know what side we’re on. What’s up to us, and up to the people in Wealth Management, is what to do next.
Are you looking for answers with this play?
I wrote Wealth Management because it was about stuff that was interesting to me: huge sums of money, people at the height of their ability in positions of extreme power requiring vast skill sets, sex, violence, alcohol, conflict. Same stuff that I look to Game of Thrones for my fix of. And here’s what I found: simply having the characters fight and talk about and deal with things I was interested in brought both sides of every coin tossed to light. Trying and trying in the past to develop a new work, I would get caught up in the message I wanted to impart. I’m not interested in that anymore. I believe in the Rutherford gold foil experiment we learned about in ninth grade chemistry—Geiger and Marsden found out that observing the experiment taking place changes the results of the experiment.
The same thing happens with art. We do ourselves are great disservice in assuming what we derive naturally from our artistic process needs anything more overlaid on it to produce some kind of overarching message.
The audience will see what they want to see, and I heartily encourage that! Their views will either be reinforced or challenged no matter what. These days I want people to leave a production of one of my plays more alert than they went in saying “Man, that was really cool.” If they experience what we refer to as a mirror held up to society, the potential for truly enlightening ambiguity is a huge bonus. But it can only come about if interesting stories are told.
Who are your playwriting and writing influences? What about other influences, artistic or otherwise.
Adam Reed. He writes Archer for FX. Super funny, topical, political. The whole creative team from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, also FX. Aaron Sorkin, for The Newsroom and West Wing. I lean heavily into Netflix culture in an effort to be what I fondly call an “early adopter.” Which is probably why Wealth Management is comparatively short, and most of the other things I’ve written wrap up in under 45 minutes too.
Other artistic influences include Warhol, Rothko. But then I read my own work and I realize oh, that’s a reference to Step Brothers, here’s a reference to Anchorman, Talladega Nights. Will Ferrell is definitely on the brain too.
Describe your writing style at this point in your career.
I don’t think I have a particularly descript style! I like my characters to yell and throw fits and fight with each other, and I’m always looking for the next way for them to one-up the intensity of the previous fight. I like them to be smart as a whip and clever, and to be able to think on their feet. I always think this is super cheesy, but Wealth Management wrote itself—I tried to create the most absurd and interesting story I could, and let the characters really fight with each other, and if there wasn’t a fight going on, I tried to find a reason for two allies to be split apart so they could get back to it. Conflictual? I fantasize about myself as the next Tarantino for the stage, but really I just never took a formal playwriting class and don’t know what I’m doing.
What does it mean for House Party Theatre to be doing its first FIT show?
A great deal! HPT is intensely proud to be named among these other independent companies, and to have our work selected lends us an opportunity to fulfill our mission statement with new audiences, a space customized to our needs, and with a team of professionals who understand the needs of an independent theatre because they are part of one or have been running the FIT Festival for many years. Our mission is to work as much as possible, wherever possible, with as many people we love as possible to create work of uncompromising quality, because that’s what a paying audience deserves, and FIT is a great honor because we get to fulfill that mission every time we cross the threshold of the BHCC.
» See more info about the 2016 Festival of Independent Theatres in our special section here, where you can also learn how to download our FIT app. In that app, you'll see a section for the playbills for each company, which includes cast, creative and director's notes.
» See more info about the 2016 Festival of Independent Theatres here.
Wealth Management is performed in the following blocks:
- 8pm Saturday, July 16
- 5pm Sunday, July 17
- 8pm Saturday, July 23
- 2pm Sunday, July 24
- 8pm Thursday, July 28
- 2pm Saturday, July 30