On Tuesday, January 29, Mathew Green will have his dream realized. The Station Theatre will stage his one-act play titled Vacation. It is being directed by Katie Baldwin, and stars Tanino Minneci and Maxwell Tomaszewski. The show is free and begins at 7:30 p.m. (rather than the Station’s normal curtain time of 8:00 p.m.), and if you arrive at 7:00, you’ll be treated to an acoustic set by singer/songwriter Brittany Helfrich, whom Mathew describes as a “gifted girl troubadour.”
Vacation is a story about two gay men: Stuart is out and Jason is closeted. It’s about their friendship, their relationship (or their relationship that could be), and what happens when Stuart confronts Jason, forcing him to come to terms with who he is and who he wants to be.
When I sat down to talk with Mathew about this pretty extraordinary event coming up in his life, I’d planned to talk to him about the play’s subject matter. I’d planned to get into the nightmare of the closet, the pain that it brings not just to the people who are closeted, but to those they bring into the closet with them (beards, sham marriages, forcing friends to keep the secret). But as we talked, Mathew made clear that this play isn’t a heart-wrenching drama whose purpose is to “teach a lesson” (nothing against those, for sure). Rather, it’s humorous; it’s fun; it’s “hopeful.” So I squelched my fist-shaking activist instincts, dropped the maudlin, and focused on the play (and the playwright) itself.
Smile Politely: This is not the first play that you’ve written, right?
Mathew Green: No, no, no.
SP: But it is the first that’s being staged?
Green: Correct. This is the first thing of mine that’s ever been done at the Station, which is a personal milestone. It’s a reading, one night only. It’s a series that we’re trying to do more often, which is that during productions on the dark night (a Monday or Tuesday), we have a reading of an original play or something that we don’t have the wherewithal to stage right now, but that we’d like to do in the future. We’re still working out exactly what form this will take. But it’s an idea we came up with a couple of years ago, and it’s certainly not a novel idea, but it’s something we haven’t really done much at the Station.
It’s intended as a way for writers to hear their work in a public setting, because a big step in the development of any writer is hearing one’s work. It’s one thing on the page; it’s one thing in your head; it’s another thing altogether to hear people say your words and hear people react to them. Very exciting.
SP: The show begins earlier than usual, and it’s only one act. What’s its run time?
Green: It’s a one-act play; it runs about an hour. It has five relatively short scenes. Two characters.
SP: I’ll briefly describe the plot, but can you add some teasers of what your play is about?
Green: It is being described in our promotional literature as a ‘boy meets boy’ story. It’s not necessarily ‘boy meets boy’ because they already know each other. It’s more ‘boy confronts feelings about boy.’ Two characters are acquaintances; Jason returns home from his vacation several days early. He has been on vacation with his girlfriend, and he comes home to his apartment which is being couch sat by Stuart, who is his girlfriend’s best friend. Stuart is openly gay; Jason is very much not openly gay. He is, in fact, home early because of a fight that resulted from his admission that he might have feelings that need some contemplation. There is discussion in the play of whether or not his girlfriend, Jamie, has broached the subject because she senses something or if it’s just a conversation. But it goes from being a seemingly innocuous question, to being a meltdown, to being a major life moment very quickly.
And because it is a short play, time might feel somewhat compressed, but I was very much interested in this piece telling the story of two people coming together and coming together quickly — people who meet and have an attraction and act on it. Because that’s that first blush, that first … sometimes very impulsive feeling. There’s a line in the play where one of them describes the feeling as the feeling of being drunk. And it’s just that feeling of, ‘I’m not entirely in control of myself, but this feels like the right thing to do.’
SP: This sounds very romantic, actually.
Green: I think it’s a very sweet play. It’s interesting to have a play in which people are coming together because most of the time plays are about people coming apart. Most plays are about relationships ending or on the verge of collapse; that’s where the drama comes from. It’s unusual in my experience in reading plays and attending plays and directing, to come across a play that is hopeful. And I very much wanted to write something that hopeful.
SP: That leads to my next question. Did you decide, from the start, that you were going to write a play about two gay men, or was the plan to write about a relationship that’s hopeful, and this topic just came to you unbidden?
Green: All of the pieces of the idea sort of flew together at the same time. When I’m really lucky, when I’m writing, the idea comes to me more or less fully formed. Sometimes that just happens in the snap of fingers and it’s just there, and then I have to figure out how to put it down on paper. Sometimes it’s the beginning of an idea that has to be developed. This one came to me pretty much whole.
I was at a lecture one time at a theatre conference and Edward Albee was talking about his process…
[We both pause to have a fan-girl/guy moment that Mathew met Edward Albee.]
Green [continuing]: He was giving a talk and someone asked, ‘How long does it take you to write, and how do you know when you’re ready to start writing?’ and he said that he actually doesn’t begin writing a word until he knows everything that’s going to happen and he knows the characters inside out. And that … I had never thought of that because I started off, as a young writer, as somebody who got an idea and just went for it and just hoped ideas came. And that’s not always the way it is and sometimes projects have to be abandoned, but in this case, I had the idea; right off the bat I knew what I wanted to do and for some reason this was the story of two men. It wouldn’t have had to have been. I mean, obviously certain elements in the story would have to have been altered if this had come to me as a man and a woman or two women, but in this case I wanted it to be someone who was discovering something about himself that was simultaneously difficult to face, but also made him feel a happiness he couldn’t compare to anything else, and that could only be because it’s true. That kind of … he’s discovering feelings of love and happiness that he’s never experienced before; it’s unlike anything he’s ever admitted or experienced.
SP: This play seems quite different from most stories of unrequited love between opposite sex couples, because they’re often unrequited for typical, even cliché, reasons: he’s in love with — or tied to — someone else, or she’s oblivious to the geek because she’s crushing on the football player, who ignores her. But in this story, if the love is unrequited, it’s for complex reasons. Instead of an outside factor interfering, it’s something inside that’s interfering.
Green: I’ll spoil it a little in saying, there’s ‘requited’ in this play.
SP: [I silently scream]
Green: So many plays are about people withholding or searching for that thing they can’t have, their motivation, their drama all stems from this ‘why can’t I have this thing or this love that other people have experienced,’ and I wanted to write something about characters who feel strongly and say what they’re feeling. I wanted the linchpin of the story to be ‘these are people who are being honest with each other,’ and it’s going to get messy, but they’re going to be honest. And one of the things that Jason says about Stuart is that he’s so impressed and in awe because it seems like he’s always honest in what he says and who he is. That he just is. And there’s no subterfuge and there’s no layering of meaning. He just says what’s on his mind.
SP: Does this play take place in a certain town or particular place?
Green: It is alluded to that they are in a large city, but I didn’t put a particular place.
SP: Place, in these kinds of stories, is so important. Whether the story takes place in a small southern town or a large city like New York, or even a college town like Madison, has great meaning, obviously, and influences what coming out means to the characters.
Green: There are moments in the script that allude to the fact that although the apartment in which it takes place is not large, that it’s probably an expensive place to live. And Stuart makes reference at one point to being young and running off to the ‘big city.’
SP: How old are the characters?
Green: Mid-to-late twenties. I wanted them to be adults, but I also wanted them to be at a place in their lives when …
SP: It doesn’t matter what your parents think, at least financially.
Green: Yeah, they’re clearly on their own, but they’re still forming some of their beliefs as to who they want to be and what kind of people they want to be. Stuart is in grad school, but I wanted them to be grownups in a grownup world with grownup problems. Not quite adolescence, but not quite full maturity. But that can apply to anyone. Hopefully we’re all searching and growing and developing.
SP: Is this Katie Baldwin’s directorial debut?
Green: She’s directed children’s theatre. And I want to say that she’s had a hand in directing some other less-organized, less-official type things. She has assistant directed. She was Assistant Director of Becky Shaw, in fact. But this is her first time with her name as Director.
SP: So it’s a big night for the both of you!
Green: She’s completely ready to direct a play. She has all of the instincts. She knows comedy; she knows how to build a dramatic moment; she knows how to break a character down. She’s very good at taking the words on the page — which to a lot of people, that’s all a script is — and finding a beating heart. Finding the thing that makes it real; finding what makes it necessary.
Maxwell Tomaszewski and Tanino Minneci
SP: What can you tell us about your two actors?
Green: I’ve worked with both of them previously. They’re both extremely talented. Jason is played by Tanino Minneci. Tanino is a member of The Abe Froman Project, which is a project that Katie is involved in. And he was one of the two gentlemen who read the plaintiff roles in 8. And he also was Rosencrantz in Hamlet.
Max, um … so talented for being such a young guy; if only he weren’t so blindingly handsome, he’d really have something going [laughs]. Max, I met about four or five years ago when I was in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Max had been cast in a different role and someone dropped out and Max took over his role, and at the beginning of the play every night, the lights came on to find Max hanging by his wrists, and my character was torturing him. In our first scene together every night, I cut his nipples off on stage.
SP: And I missed this??
Green: And he looked a mess, but all everybody could say was, ‘He’s so handsome.’ But Max is very funny. He’s … I was really impressed when I first worked with him years ago because, being as young as he was, he has really, really good instincts and timing. And from what I’ve been able to tell from the rehearsal readings we’ve had, he’s only gotten better. Very talented kid and a good writer too.
But they have a very nice rapport, a very nice chemistry. They had not met prior to meeting to read the play. I think they’d probably seen each other, but they’ve had a very immediate rapport together.
SP: That’s good, considering the subject matter.
Green: It’s a funny play, and it has a conversational tone. It’s not meant to be high drama; it’s not meant to be melodrama. It’s just meant to be two guys having a very serious conversation. And there are laughs. It is funny. But it’s meant to be two people who are comfortable with each other, talking.
SP: Did you, as the writer, have any control or input in who played the parts and who directed?
Green: I was asked if I had anything that I would like to submit for a reading and I said, ‘yes,’ which was a lie. I’d not written this yet, but I had an idea for something. So I sat down and wrote it, and then I showed it to Katie, and she seemed to like it a lot. And I could tell that she did because she and I pass plays back and forth all the time, and the ones that she really likes, she really wants to talk about. And with this play, she really wanted to talk about the characters, where they were coming from, and what was going to happen next for them.
So because she liked it so much, and because I thought it might not be the best idea for me to try to direct it myself, and because I knew that she was interested in directing and obviously had talent — she just really hadn’t gotten her shot — I asked her to direct my reading. And she agreed, and so we started brainstorming the cast and we kicked around several ideas and had casual conversations about the different actors we know. She asked if I wrote it with anybody in mind and I said no. And one day she suggested Tanino, and I said I thought he was fantastic. I think she said, ‘I wish we had Max,’ and I said that he’s back in town. That was the afternoon, and by that night they’d both agreed do it and had their copies of the script.
SP: I imagine you stay away from rehearsals.
Green: I’ve attended two rehearsal readings. I’ve been trying to stay out of it. I don’t want to be the guy saying, ‘That was really good, but here’s how it should sound.’ I know how it sounds in my head, and it’s not about whether they are doing what I thought or accomplishing exactly the right phrasing, because once it’s out loud it becomes an entirely different play and I have to respect the process. I’ve been involved in a lot of plays and the play is never exactly the same as when I sit down and read the script for the first time. And it’s always better. So that comes from that process of getting to know the character, and trusting your fellow actors, and trusting the director, and trying things, and finding a way to make it as real as possible.
I’m very proud to have this opportunity.
SP: I’m sure you are, but are you also nervous?
Green [long pause]: GOD yes.
Green: There are only a handful of times in life when you can look at something and with all sincerity say, ‘I dreamed of this.’ Having something I wrote performed in any fashion at the Station is literally a dream come true. I realize this is a very casual event and there’s not a lot of pressure, but it’s something that I’ve wanted since I joined the company. And yeah, it’s a big deal for me.
The reading of Vacation is showing one night only on Tuesday, January 29, at 7:30 p.m. The play is free, and reservations are not needed. For more information, check out their Facebook event page.
All photos by Mathew Green.