I first interviewed Matthew Lopez in 2015, when Hartford Stage was about to produce his play Reverberation . His two previous plays The Whipping Man, which quickly became one of the most produced plays nationally and which received the Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards for an off-Broadway production. In 2013, his play Somewhere had a reading during the Festival Brand/New presented by Hartford Stage, and a full staging in 2014.
Each one of those plays deals with very different issues, like slavery and freedom (Whipping Man); a theater loving Puerto Rican family about to be evicted (Somewhere) or a gay man devastated at the end of a relationship (Reverberation). His collaboration with Hartford Stage, under the auspices of the Aetna Playwrights program in 2012, and productions of his play have been something that, according to Lopez has given him courage. ” It’s a kind of relationship that I imagine any writer would dream of having with a theatre.”
Now, TheaterWorks Hartford is presenting his latest play The Legend of Georgia McBride which had its premier at the Denver Theatre Center for the Performing Arts. This latest Hartford production makes Lopez the most produced contemporary Latino playwright in Connecticut. :In The Legend of Georgia McBride, Lopez creates the character of Casey, a straight,, married man who is broke , his wife is expecting their first child and they can’t pay the rent. Casey, has been performing as an Elvis impersonator, but when his show is cancelled, he is presented with the options of no job, or a job performing as a drag singer. In this new play, Lopez allows us to listen to drag performers as they imitate Judy Garland, Edith Piaf and country-western singers. But the most important aspect of this play is its emotional core: How Lopez allows the audience to learn about some of the motivations of men who become “drag queens” regardless of the constant bullying and hateful environment surrounding their daily lives. If a comedy can make you cry, this is it.
The following is an excerpt from our previously published interview in www.CTLatinoNews.com. The play is set in the town of Panama City, Florida, where Lopez grew up. Aside from the production at TheaterWorks Hartford, The Legend of Georgia McBride has been staged in New York and Los Angeles.
When we last spoke, Lopez was working on a movie with Brad Pitt’s film company, which is a sexy European spy thriller adapted from a Javier Marias novel. And he was getting married in the summer, which he said, was “my biggest and most ambitious project to date.”
But The Legend of Georgia McBride won’t be just in staged productions. New Regency and Fox 2000 have the film rights to the play with the actor Jim Parsons as producer and co-star. Lopez will be adapting the screenplay.
IN CONVERSATION WITH MATTHEW LOPEZ
BR: When did you become interested in the theater?
ML: I think I can literally pinpoint the day that my life changed. It was the day my parents took me to see Hollywood/Ukraine and I got to see this wonderful show and I got to see [my aunt] Priscilla be Harpo Marx and then go backstage and see her. There’s this one photo that is of me sitting on her dressing table at four and a half years old and she’s putting on her makeup and I’m watching her. There’s this wonderful interaction between the two of us and of all the photos that is my favorite because I can see in my eyes and in my face the look of a life changing. That is precisely the moment I think the rest of the course of my life was changed and determined.
BR: At a panel at Mark Twain you mentioned you wanted to be an actor..what happened?
ML: There were several factors informing that decision. I’d been acting in professional and amateur theater since I was seven. I studied acting in college and when I arrived in New York to finally pursue a career, there was a part of me that was already burnt out on it. I had taken a playwriting course my junior year and it opened my eyes to new ways of storytelling that I had never considered for myself. I discovered I was more interested in staying at home and writing than I was in going to vocal lessons, dance classes or auditions. It was a very subtle yet definite shift in my priorities. As I grew in confidence as a writer, I began to share my work with friends and colleagues and I found the encouragement I needed to continue and to ultimately leave acting completely and focus all my energies on writing. There is something ephemeral about acting on stage that I suspect is alluring to many actors. It wasn’t for me. I liked the definitiveness of writing, even as it changes and grows in development and production. There’s also the question of ownership. I wrote The Whipping Man and Somewhere and Reverberation. I own them. Someday someone will inherit them. I like that idea.
BR: Your plays deal with many different issues, how do you choose them?
ML: I can never predict what is going to capture my interest and draw me to create. I think it comes primarily from curiosity. I like to play the “what if” game with subjects. “What if slaves owned by Jewish families adopted that religion?” “What if a family living in the proposed footprint of Lincoln Center in 1959 were completely devoted to Jerome Robbins and his work?” “What if a straight guy became a drag queen?” That leads to the next important question of “why?” And then “who?” And so on.
If you look at my first three plays, The Whipping Man, Somewhere and this play Reverberation, there is no superficial connection between them. The first is set in 1865, the second in 1959 and the last in the present. And there was no conscious attempt to link the plays in any way. They were just three separate plays. But once I finished Reverberation, I looked back at all three of them and I realized that what they are all about is the idea that the world is dangerous and that it is safer inside. The three men in The Whipping Man are hiding in that destroyed home from the chaos and the danger of Richmond just after the fall to Union forces; the family in Somewhere are battened down against the irresistible force of Robert Moses and his willful remaking of the city; the characters in Reverberation see the world as menacing; they all see men as dangerous, the city in which they live as unsafe for them and so they huddle in their apartments, attempting to ward off the dangers of the world together. I’ve since gone on to write about drag queens and I’m preparing to write a large play for Hartford Stage about the impact of the AIDS epidemic on succeeding generations of gay men (based on E.M. Forster’s Howards End). But those first three plays perhaps represent where I was in my thinking and emotions at the time that I wrote them. Unofficially, I refer to those three plays as my “Agoraphobia Trilogy.”
BR: Do you have a favorite playwright?
ML: I have too many. It depends on what you’re looking for in any particular moment. I am a perpetual student. If it weren’t for the friendship and the influence of Christopher Shinn, I would have never written this play. He paved the way for my generation to write honestly about our common humanity and our fears, hopes and ailments. I don’t think he gets enough recognition for that fact. Williams and O’Neill are at the top for me. Miller and Odets and Wilson and Inge. Kushner and Churchill and Simon and Ayckbourn. Oscar Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim. Arthur Laurents. Rajiv Joseph and Annie Baker.
The Legend of Georgia McBride will be playing at TheaterWorks Hartford, 233 Pearl St. until April 22. For information visit www.twhartford.org