Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Juggler Interviews, #6: John Shea

I've known John Shea for a while--he's a fellow Huntington Playwriting Fellow, as well as a fellow stay-at-home dad for this three kids.  John is a lifelong resident of Somerville, MA, and writes about his hometown (and elsewhere) with a clear, distinct voice. 

Hi John, thanks for taking the time to talk. It’s always a pleasure to talk to with another writer who is also a stay-at-home dad. How old are your kids now?

My son Jack is now 13, my twins Vivien and Cole are 10.

When do you find time to write? It gets easier when they’re in school. How did you manage when they were little?

I am a night person.  I write from about 10 p.m. until about 2 a.m., sometimes 3:00 a.m.  I’ve always been a night guy and luckily, because I waited tables for many years and worked nights, I have rarely done morning duty.  Incidentally, my family doesn’t want me up early because I am grumpy in the morning, which is understandable seeing that I may have gone to bed only four hours before the start of school.  That being said, I can write anytime.  Noise does not bother me and I have written with 4, 5, 6 kids running around screaming, music playing.  I drown it out… the only problem is if someone addresses me directly, then the concentration is broken, but otherwise, noise does not affect my work habits.  I suppose that’s because I was brought up in a house of seven children, all of us a year or a year and a half apart and when we each had a friend over, that meant the possibility of 14 kids in the house, (which did happen).  It was a pretty noisy environment to grow up in and I learned to concentrate in chaos. 

You went to the O’Neill in 2004. I’ve never been, but often wondered how I’d manage the month away from home with the kids and all. How did you handle it? Do you find it’s harder to apply for the various residencies and fellowships that are out there since you have kids? The business we’re in is pretty tough to navigate, but navigating it with kids can make it a lot trickier.

When I went to the O’Neill, my twins were 3 and Jack was 5.  My wife Debbie took some vacation time and we relied on a wide and very strong network of friends and family.  One of the benefits of still living where I grew up is the support system I have in place.  Also, Debbie took the kids down to see me on some Saturdays.  We had Sundays off at the O’Neill so I could take the train home if I wanted to.  I also spent two weeks in DC at the Kennedy Center’s Intensive Summer Workshop with Gary Garrison… for that we again used the same network of friends and family… and Debbie took some vacation time.  I don’t worry about applying for distant fellowships and residencies… believe me we will make it work, so make me an offer! 

You’ve really been experimenting lately with self-production, putting together readings of your own work, and finding other ways to engage the community in which you live. Can you talk a little bit about what you’ve been up to in Somerville.

Oooh- self production.  I am so glad I decided to produce one of my plays because it taught me that… I WILL NEVER DO IT AGAIN.  I produced a reading of my play, “WELCOME TO SOMERVILLE, Permit Parking Only,” and had a great time.  Two nights, a cast of 17 family and friends, people from the local community… it was great.  Then I tackled a fully staged production of, “The Painter.”  It was a nightmare, not because of anyone associated with it, but because of me.  I felt stressed (and I work very hard and drink a lot of Manhattans to keep stress out of my life).  I was anxious and constantly thinking about money, which otherwise I have no problem spending, especially on Italian leather shoes and good sports jackets, but that’s another interview.  While producing “The Painter,” I was short and abrupt with the kids.  Nobody was happy then.  But, I felt it was important to try and keep my work in Somerville, since this is where most of it is based, where I was born, raised and still live… and no, I’ve never lived outside the borders of Somerville and hopefully never will.  Why leave the place people are clamoring to get into? 

Sean A Cote in the Argos Production of Junkie, dir. by Brett Marks
There are a couple writers who I look to in our community for a strong local voice, and you’re definitely one of them. One of the challenges in writing work that’s so close to home is finding a way to be honest about what you see in the community around you, while still living there.  Sometimes people find it hard to be examined in that way. How do you keep from holding back? How have people responded? How do you see your role as a writer who is writing about his own community, both now and about the past history of that community?

First of all I don’t hold back.  I write what I see, from my point of view and to hell with what people have to say, including my extended family who haven’t always liked being “exposed,” but too bad, it was my life too.   

Anyway, when I wrote, “WELCOME TO SOMERVILLE…” there was a lot of vitriol directed at me and some of it was downright frightening.  I was threatened and accused of possibly molesting kids who come to my house, I was called a drunk, it was said that I berate my wife and children, spend all my money on drugs and prostitutes (I wish I was so wealthy…).  Unfortunately, it was all done anonymously online through public blogs.  The cowards didn’t dare say these things to my face because I wouldn’t have stood for it.  I have no problem standing up for myself or my family when someone fucks with me.  People who have experienced my temper have never crossed me again.  The issue with that play is that I was writing about a Somerville politician accused of molesting teenaged boys.  Someone didn’t like that (hmmmm, now who could that have been?)  But fuck ‘em that was the story I wanted to tell.   Too bad, I’m writing about my community and take it or leave it, I’m going to continue to write what I see, saw, experienced as a child and witness as an adult.  For the people who grew up here who say I’m portraying Somerville in a negative light, get over it.  There is still a huge drug problem and poverty in Somerville.  They don’t like it, too fuckin’ bad, then they should do something about it.  I feel I’m doing something about it by shedding light on it.  Maybe that’s not enough, but it’s something.  And for those suburbanites pouring into the city who never venture beyond Davis Square and claim that the Somerville I write about doesn’t exist anymore… wake up.  Somerville still has a very large immigrant and blue collar population, which was here long before they showed up.  These attacks on me and my writing are bullshit, and nobody ever has or ever will tell me what to write, how to live or anything else.  

When I produced, “The Painter,” I was called a racist and told that my ideas were stuck in some 1950’s KKK era.  These same enlightened few saw the play as disgusting and a shame.  But it didn’t stop me.  I’ve always done exactly as I wanted and always will (and luckily have a wife who somehow puts up with me…).  We live in a very diverse, constantly changing city here in Somerville and I think I capture that in my writing.  No, it’s not Lexington or Concord and I say, thank God for that.  Then of course, there are those who love my work, who look for signs of familiarity in characters, try to guess where a particular event in the play takes place (and some have correctly guessed just who or what a situation is based on).  I write about a community I have been part of my entire life and I think I do a pretty damned good job of it and make no apologies, so if you disagree or don’t like it… I have one word for you- screw.   
As your kids get older, your experience of the world shifts. Where a writer used to see the world from a child’s perspective, even that of a grown child, being a parent brings into focus a different way of looking at the world. We see our parents in a different light, from the perspective of a peer. We’ve now been through some of what they’ve been through. Do you find this showing up in your writing about families? Are you able to write about parenthood yet? 

I don’t write about parenthood in the way people expect.  I write a lot about the bad choices characters make as parents that will affect their children for the rest of that child’s life.  I often use drug addicted and alcoholic parents and people to portray just how dangerous these cycles are.  These behaviors and ways of thinking are passed on from generation to generation (some of the characters in “The Hill,” are the parents of the some characters in “Erin Go Bragh-less” and though there is a 30 year difference in the settings of those plays, many of the same domestic problems and beliefs from “The Hill,” have carried over until finally one of the characters in “Erin…” decides to break the cycle).  I grew up in a neighborhood riddled with heroin addiction and domestic violence.  I use that experience in my writing to try to change it.  When people see my plays, even the people still guilty of these behaviors, they see it from a different perspective and recognize that these behaviors and attitudes are wrong and just maybe they will take that perspective home and think twice before shooting up or lashing out against their children.  

Most of my plays deal with families and the interconnectedness of tight knit neighborhoods, an interconnectedness that can become dangerous (characters from one play may be discussed in another play and story lines somewhat cross between many of the works, since these are people who know their communities very well).  My children are shielded, protected from these behaviors and often ask when they can see my plays…”Not until you’re 17,” I tell them.  Not only do my children not see my plays, they will not know the “other” Somerville I write about, the Somerville of drugs and violence. God help anyone who tries to drag them into it, they will have to deal with me.

Jared Wright in The Painter, dir. by Robert Lublin, JaViviCo Productions

You and I have both been stay-at-home dads.  Do you find, as I do, that dads in popular culture, including theatre, are still generally portrayed as domestic idiots.  We're not expected to be competent at changing diapers, doing laundry, ferrying kids around, handling checkups, school meetings, etc.?  Maybe not enough of us stay-at-home dads are writing characters that reflect our own experiences of parenthood yet.

I detest the portrayal of men in pop culture, the stay at home dads who can't cook, who don't know how to operate a vacuum cleaner or sort laundry and who never seem to know where the paper towels are kept.  But the bumbling and fumbling of "Mr. Mom," makes for easy comedy.  I think it still speaks to gender stereotypes.  Women in the workplace are still portrayed as trying to run a board meeting while dealing with ripped nylons and child care issues, constantly on the phone with a nanny or oh my god- the incompetent stay at home dad... Both portrayals are incorrect but it's what people expect and if you give the public the unexpected and try to change their views, they turn on you and won't come to the play watch the movie or TV show.  We have to remember, art is business and going against the grain is dangerous... That's why so many plays today feel like sit-coms and television movies, people are afraid to takes risks.  There's money in safety.
What’s next for you?

I recently finished my first collaboration with my friend Maureen Cornell.  A restaurant comedy called  “Lifers.”  We had a very good first reading and are now rewriting.  And it’s a real comedy, every time I wanted to get dark or bring questionable behaviors in she would pull me back, “It’s a comedy,” she would say, “we’re not going there.”  Thank you, Maureen.   I have also started another play called, “DRUNK- the measure of a man.”  And no, I don’t care that it sounds very similar to my play, “Junkie,” they are very different works.  “Junkie” is a one man show about climbing out of the hell of addiction.  “DRUNK- the measure of a man,” is about the relationship between four men in their mid-forties, their families, marriages, children, occupations and their dependence on alcohol and how that affects each one differently and to varying degrees.  After writing a comedy I needed a little drama.  After writing this, I need a drink.  Cheers.

Thanks, John!

You can learn more about John's work at his web site,

Next Wednesday, I'll talk with Kirsten Greenidge about balancing motherhood with a writing career that's lately brought her productions at La Jolla, Yale Rep, Playwrights Horizons, and the Huntington.

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