There are likely few new playwrights today who have more experience with both Los Angeles and New York theater than John Pollono. His raw and dark comedy, Small Engine Repair, was originally staged in Los Angeles by Rogue Machine Theatre in 2011 to great commercial and critical success before making the jump to the Off-Broadway MCC Theater in 2013. And while Small Engine Repair was onstage in New York, Rogue Machine mounted another new play by Pollono, Lost Girls. This play also made the transcontinental jump and recently opened in the 200-seat MCC Theater.
After seeing Lost Girls on opening night, New York Times’ Chief Theater Critic, Ben Brantley, favorably compared Pollono to O. Henry and W. Somerset Maugham. With a script about a Boston Marathon bombing survivor set for filming in Spring 2016 and another script currently being written for producer J.J. Abrams’ company, Bad Robot, Pollono has his feet firmly planted in both the worlds of filmed and live performance storytelling. But it was his bicoastal experience with the stage audience that formed the backbone of our recent, symbolically transcontinental, phone discussion:
Who do you imagine is in your audience?
When I sit in an audience and I’m watching a play, I can tell if it’s written for someone who studied theater. I tend not to enjoy those plays as much. My favorite writers did not write for connoisseurs of theater. They wrote for people to feel things and feel stories and engage and think. I think that’s what the best plays are for.
Back in the day when theater was the dominant art form, that was obvious. You weren’t writing for an elitist scholarly audience – nothing wrong with someone who’s educated versus not educated – but why write a play that requires a deep understanding of theater?
I think the collective IQ of people goes up when you’re in an audience. You’re breathing the same air as the characters and actors and that’s magical. If we want to continue to grow theater audiences and get younger people to see theater, then you have to create theatrical experiences as opposed to some vestigial elitist art form that exists for the people who are educated in theater.
On the blue collar characters that populate Pollono’s plays:
There are reviews for the two plays that say things like “these three losers in a machine shop” for Small Engine Repair or “this woman with dim prospects” for Lost Girls. But these plays are about people in the neighborhoods we grew up in and this is how most people are. It’s a little unsettling to me when the reviewers, the gatekeepers of theater, look at it as sort of an anthropological excursion into a subspecies.
Maybe it’s a by-product of how New York has gotten out of control money-wise. The rents? You have to be so damned wealthy just to live here, it’s becoming a sort of different planet. Or maybe it’s because blue collar people aren’t often represented on stage. But that’s how most people are, in my experience.
There is a sort of elitist thing in theater. It’s supposed to be wealthy, white people problems, existential dilemmas, I-have-to-finish-this-poem-so-I-can-go-to-grad-school. And those plays can be great – but those things are not my experience. And so when you write something that is more truthful to my sister, for example, audiences can turn around and say “Oh, the dim prospect. The blue collar, headed-nowhere, claustrophobic life choices.” Get over it! This is how most people live, this is how most people are. I’m not writing plays to give a window into this lifestyle. This is how people live. And these are the stories I’m telling in a truthful way.
Los Angeles versus New York audiences:
I’ve now done two plays in both LA and New York. It’s interesting to see that the two audiences find different things funny. LA audiences, in my experience, seem to enjoy the grit and the raunchiness more. New York audiences seem a little more sensitive to that.
One reason may be that people who go see plays in LA, especially late-night plays – which is where Small Engine Repair got started – are going to be more adventurous than the average New Yorker. So the adventurous people go out and see these plays they hear are crazy and they are saying “Bring it!” But in New York, especially at the beginning of a run, you are getting the theater’s subscribers. These are people who don’t really know what the play is about. They are going to the theater because they are subscribers. So they may wince at some of the rawer language because they didn’t know what they were getting into.
It’s interesting that neither East or West Coast audiences had an issue with sexism or misogyny. It’s been specifically characters who express homophobia that made some in New York uncomfortable.
I noticed with Small Engine Repair that the longer we ran in New York, the more connection we had with the audience in some ways because they are more along for the ride. At that point the word had spread about what type of play it was and so you start to get the audience your play needs. When we do the late-night plays in LA, we don’t have subscribers so the people who show want to see us.
The demographic that, hands down, loved Small Engine Repair the most openly were women over the age of 55. I don’t know why that was. But in both LA and New York, we’d have older women love that play specifically. Maybe it was women of a certain age appreciated being shown how people really talk without trying to dilute it.
New York audiences are also very concerned with the logic and timeline, I’ve noticed. If you have a character say “Let’s do that Monday” and then you are 14 hours later, you’ll be at Tuesday not Monday. New York audiences will dial into that where LA audiences seem to go with the flow a little more. It’s an interesting difference.
New works in Los Angeles verses New York:
It’s much, much easier to get a play done in LA. It’s a much more forgiving landscape to getting something done. It has to do with real estate. And LA has the Equity 99-seat plan – at least as of now – where you can experiment and try out stuff. In New York, it’s cost prohibitive to really take a chance. It’s just much harder.
Now, I think the 99 seat scene in LA is fantastic. It’s driving. But the big gap is that next step. It’s frustrating that for me – as a playwright – it’s easier to go to the other side of the country and mount this massive production for a 200 seat house, like the MCC Theater, in New York than it is for me to do anything larger than 99 seats in LA.
The local theater scene in Los Angeles versus New York:
The theater audiences in LA are harder to come by because they are spread out. But these audiences are more adventurous because, I think, theater in LA is considered more of a niche thing (although that’s changing). In New York, theater-going is more in the mainstream so it’s not unusual to say “Hey, let’s catch a play and then get dinner.” It’s more in the fabric of what their nightlife is. The best thing about NY audiences is there’s a lot more of them.
I think New Yorkers have exposure to a greater variety of theater. And, of course, they have the apex of theater, which is Broadway, right there. I grew up in a smaller town. And you’d hear about these great movies and great bands but they never came to my town. So when you grow up like that, you’re always yearning. But if you grow up in New York, you’ll think: “If it’s worthwhile, it’s coming through here. If it’s a worthwhile theater piece, it’s coming through New York.” So if you tell someone, “I saw the most amazing production in Minnesota, it blew me away,” they’ll say “Well, if it was that good, it’ll come here.” I don’t think New Yorkers have to dig so hard to find really great theater because it’s right there and people will talk about it more. So in that sense, you do have a different audience. Because theater is in the daily conversations, you know? I think people in New York have been more conditioned to enjoy a story in a staged setting. They are more used to that.
The LA audience is way more aware of New York than the other way around. If you look at the big houses in LA, the plays they do come from New York. They don’t home grow hardly anything. The only home grown theater is done in the 99 seat theaters. Now, more New York houses are taking plays from LA and moving them. And people in New York don’t seem to care. There’s no stigma attached to that anymore.
You’ve been artistically successful on both coasts. Do you see yourself as an LA screenwriter and a New York playwright?
It’s more complex than that. I consider LA as my home base and I will continue to start plays there. You just have such great theater opportunities in LA that you don’t have anywhere else. There’s such a great community in LA. I’m able to write a play and have it done at my theater company. In the case of Lost Girls, I wrote the lead role for my wife [actress Jennifer Pollono] and I was able to cast her in it. She did the role for 6 months. I don’t know anywhere else in the world where I could do that. Not even New York.
Los Angeles is my backyard.
There’s just something great about the hard scrabble quality of LA. You’re doing your art for a more pure sense because the financial stakes are lower. So you’re able to take more chances on casting, on material, on everything. Although you may not get the audiences you get in New York or the recognition that New York launches globally, you’re able to do it solely for the craft and for the art. You just can take bigger risks in LA.
Originally published November 23, 2015 in Footlights.