Acclaimed Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham is having a busy season. This month he and his good friend Joe Canuso (Producing Artistic Director and Founder of South Philadelphia’s Theatre Exile) attended the New York opening at 59E59 of ANY GIVEN MONDAY, Graham’s Barrymore Award winning Best New Play of 2009-10, which premiered at Exile and starred Canuso. Their Manhattan excursion followed a reading of Graham’s latest work-in-progress, NORTH OF THE BOULEVARD, at Exile’s Studio X.
Graham has two upcoming shows at Malvern’s People’s Light & Theatre Company (THE PHILLY FAN, directed by Canuso, and MR. HART AND MR. BROWN, running July 18-August 19, 2012) and another at the Philadelphia Theatre Company (THE OUTGOING TIDE, on stage March 23-April 22, 2012). In addition, the book of Graham’s SOMETHING INTANGIBLE, which premiered at the Arden Theatre Company in 2009, and garnered a total of seven Barrymore Awards including Best New Play, has just become available through the Dramatists Play Service.
STAGE was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Graham and Canuso between their many engagements, prior to the current run of THE PHILLY FAN.
STAGE: Thank you for finding the time in your busy schedule to speak with STAGE.
Bruce Graham: I’m very happy to do it, and to see that STAGE has grown and is thriving. My first press interview years ago was with Holley Webster [STAGE’s founder, publisher, and editor for more than three decades], when she was still writing for another publication.
STAGE: You always seem genuinely surprised that your work is so well received, and that you’ve been the recipient of awards, including Barrymores for SOMETHING INTANGIBLE and ANY GIVEN MONDAY. What does the acclaim mean to you, both professionally and personally?
BG: I think it’s important to be surprised–though I’m not as surprised if it stinks! I cut three pages out of NORTH OF THE BOULEVARD after the reading at Exile because of the comments in the discussion that followed. It’s easier to follow a flop; after the rave reviews for BELMONT AVENUE SOCIAL CLUB and all the Barrymores for SOMETHING INTANGIBLE I thought, “Yeah, great, how am I going to top it?” But I do think the Barrymores generate excitement about the theater community, and are good for younger actors to establish themselves. Personally, for me, I think the Barrymore voters figured, “Give it to him, he’s been around for so long,” so I think of mine more as a Lifetime Achievement Award! Of course to be recognized by your peers is always great.
STAGE: When did you first decide to become a writer? And an actor?
BG: Both evolved at the same time. In high school there were more opportunities to act, but I also wrote sketches. We had a small TV station in my high school, and I wrote a play when I was 16 or 17, which was presented in the lecture room; I was even allowed to direct it. I’ve since learned that you should never direct your own work!
STAGE: What is your first creative memory before high school?
BG: When I was a little kid, my parents took me to see the Jack Lemmon movie GOOD NEIGHBOR SAM. It wasn’t a very good movie, with all of the actors mugging for the camera, but for me as a child it was like that moment in A CHORUS LINE; I remember thinking, “I can do that!” I was also always writing one-liners when I was young.
STAGE: You’ll soon be opening THE PHILLY FAN at People’s Light & Theatre Company. Have changes been made to the script to reflect the Phillies’ latest playoff disaster?
Joe Canuso: No, not for this run. It takes place on February 5, 2005, the night before the Super Bowl [the following day the Eagles lost Super Bowl XXXIX to the Patriots by a score of 21-24]. The ending was changed after the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, since the idea of Philly never having a winning team drastically changed. But with this season, we’re back to the old way of thinking, with no more wins. It captures the spirit of Philadelphia sports fans; we need to grumble and to commiserate, to come together to share our frustrations. So no changes were needed this year, nothing came along to change the basic mindset. This is actually good timing for THE PHILLY FAN, with the Phillies out of it and the Eagles off to a bad start, since the play asks the question, “Why are we always in this place?” THE PHILLY FAN helps us to laugh about it; it says, don’t sit home and be miserable, be part of the healing through comedy.
STAGE: Do you have any expectations about the suburban audiences in Malvern, or how they might differ from your usual Philadelphia subscribers?
JC: We’ve already done the show in Media, Bristol, Ambler, Atlantic City, and Philadelphia, for both suburban and downtown audiences, and they’re all the same when it comes to their fervor for sports. Sports is a great equalizer, no matter what your class, your race, your sexual preference; we all come together in rooting for our team, or to commiserate when we lose.
STAGE: You have not only directed but also acted in Bruce’s plays. Do you enjoy both, or do you prefer one over the other?
JC: As a general rule, one informs the other, it helps to know what actors need when directing, and what the director needs when acting. It’s nice to be able to go back and forth, it provides a kind of navigational chart for both. As an actor, I relish a role in a Mamet or a Graham play, they’re written for actors, they’re fun to play, and I respond to the rhythms. The characters and lines feel right, like putting on a comfortable sweater.
STAGE: Along with its mainstage productions, Exile has a very active reading series. Why have you been so dedicated to presenting works in this format to the public?
JC: We believe in the entire process of theater, the need to be committed to it from the beginning. Writers don’t always have the opportunity for collaboration and feedback, so we like to provide that. Actors too become more invested if they are involved at an early stage, and can provide inspiration for the playwright with their interpretations of the characters. And audiences also feel a personal connection with a play if they’ve been involved from the outset and can contribute to bringing it to fruition. Exile now has its own studio in South Philadelphia [at 1340 S.13th Street], and Studio X is the perfect place for readings.
STAGE: You’ve just completed two collaborations this month at Theatre Exile and in New York. What do you enjoy about working together, and how important is it to you, as two South Philly friends and neighbors?
JC: Bruce has a distinctive Philadelphia voice; he grew up in South Philly, so he knows Philadelphia’s heartbeat, he knows how we think and feel, what we hide and what we show to the world. We have a great working relationship. Because we’ve known each other for so long, we’ve developed a kind of shorthand; we understand the rhythm and sensibility, and can work together completely in synch.
STAGE: Philadelphia seems to be your primary inspiration. What is it about this city that you love?
BG: I love the great characters–especially living in South Philadelphia and having grown up here. I can walk the dog, or go get a haircut, and I get a dozen one-liners just by eavesdropping. I don’t have a great imagination, but once I learned the structure of writing a play, the rest is observing the vibrancy of Philadelphia and appreciating how real the people are.
STAGE: Your characters are all so well observed: real and three-dimensional; flawed, but genuine; rough around the edges, but loyal to their friends; politically incorrect, but still living by some kind of moral code. Are they generally based on people you know, or composites of people you know?
BG: They’re definitely composites of people I know, or people I have observed. I like that–“moral code.” And the moral code is my own. I’ve written about fifteen plays, and I always used to write a part for me, a vehicle for Bruce Graham that would be my stronger voice. I no longer do that.
STAGE: When you write a character, do you ever have a particular actor in mind for the role?
BG: I do now. Twenty-eight years ago, when I started writing plays, there were no theaters, and there wasn’t really a talent pool of actors in Philadelphia, other than Tom McCarthy [who conceived the idea for, and stars as, THE PHILLY FAN]. But I first wrote a character for Janis Dardaris, then I started SOMETHING INTANGIBLE specifically for Scott Greer and Ian Merrill Peakes—two great actors–and wrote the character of Lenny in ANY GIVEN MONDAY for Joe. Joe is Lenny; there’s not a mean bone in his body, and he has that sad-eyed hangdog look. Then Northlight Theatre in Chicago commissioned me to write a play for John Mahoney, so I did THE OUTGOING TIDE [the recipient of the 2010 Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award and the Selma Melvoin Playwriting Award].
STAGE: Although your plays are hilarious, they also have a serious socio-political message. How important is it for you to do more than entertain, to make people think, and maybe to empathize with the plights of your characters?
BG: Empathy is incredibly important; if you don’t care about the characters, why see the play? But my first job is to entertain. If the audience gets a message, that’s icing on the cake, as long as they’re entertained.
STAGE: Do you have any future collaborations in the works? Are there any plans for a full-stage version of NORTH OF THE BOULEVARD to be included in an upcoming season at Exile?
JC: NORTH OF THE BOULEVARD is a definite possibility, we had very positive feedback after the reading. We have to figure out the next step, also what Bruce wants to do with it. There are two sides to producing a play, the artistic side and the business side; we haven’t had a chance yet to talk business. But I can say with certainty that Bruce and I will always collaborate, at Exile and wherever else we’re invited!
THE PHILLY FAN
by Bruce Graham
Directed by Joe Canuso
October 25-November 20, 2011
People’s Light & Theatre Company
39 Conestoga Road
Latest posts by Debra Miller (see all)
- The Battle of the Sexes Rages in Simpatico’s THE LYSISTRATA PROJECT – May 21, 2013
- STARGIRL at People’s Light: A Parable of Acceptance for Teens – April 26, 2013
- Luna’s FUTUREFEST Envisions the Road Ahead – April 21, 2013
- InterAct’s PERMANENT COLLECTION Explores Diverse Perspectives on Art and Race – April 14, 2013
- The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: A Screwball Comedy for the Ages – April 7, 2013