Blog Less Traveled: A conversation with Matthew Crehan Higgins and Donna Hoke
blog by Scott Behrend • June 16, 2012 @ 9:41am
This week, we take a break from our usual Q&A format for a more informal roundtable chat with two celebrated local playwrights: Matthew Crehan Higgins, author of The Casual Sex Diaries and Making Gay History (among others) and longstanding company member at Buffalo United Artists, and Donna Hoke, author of The Couple Next Door and Road Less Traveled Productions Ensemble member. Both Matt and Donna are Artie Award nominees and they are currently collaborating on BUA Takes Ten: LGBT Plays at the Buffalo United Artists Theater—an evening of variations on gay themes by local playwrights as well as playwrights from all over the country.
SCOTT BEHREND: First of all, I just want to tell you how excited that two of Western New York’s favorite playwrights have joined forces on a project. So how did BUA Takes Ten evolve? And what came first—the idea for BUA to host an evening of short plays, or the idea for the two of you to collaborate on something/anything?
DONNA HOKE: Hey Matt, we’re favorites!
MATTHEW CREHAN HIGGINS: That’s very generous. I first became aware of Donna… last summer when she wrote a blog post about Recovery Mode, a play by Matthew Burlingame, based on my story, that I performed in last summer. In her posting, she mentioned (she) really liked “most” of it a lot. In addition to the many positive things she commented on, she also offered some really fair, constructive and useful criticism of the piece. We became electronically acquainted, as people do, having largely a status update commenting relationship for awhile.
DONNA: I had sent Javier (Bustillos, founder and executive producer of Buffalo United Artists) an email telling him that ten-minute play festivals were all the rage and that if he were interested in doing one, I’d be willing to help. I was thinking maybe nothing more than a fundraiser of readings, but Javier said “I’m going to hook you up with Matthew.”
MATT: Then several months ago, she sent me a note saying that she hadn’t heard anything further about the short play event at BUA. I was surprised to hear “further,” only because I hadn’t heard anything about it at all. Little did I know that (Javier) told her that it sounded like a good idea and that he would assign me to it, but hadn’t gotten around to mentioning it to me.
DONNA: I had no idea that Matt was this dynamic force of organized energy! I thought I’m detail-oriented—but he put me to shame. The whole thing has seemed seamless but he’s done the bulk of the logistical work. Every step of the way, he has generously included me and counted my input, but really, he’s been on top of everything, overseeing and organizing and basically turning this into a full-blown BUA production that I’m really proud to be a part of.
MATT: For good reason Javier has confidence that I’ll do what he asks me to do. Certainly he has given me a lot over the years—so he is correct in that assumption.
SCOTT: You received a really staggering number of submissions; correct me if I’m wrong, but I understand you topped out at over 150 plays?! To what do you attribute this incredible response?
DONNA: We got 174 plays, which wasn’t really incredible, but totally within the realm of what I expected. I’ve been in 10-minute play festivals where there were 500 submissions. Some get 700. I deliberately wanted to keep the submission window small (about a month) so that we wouldn’t get overwhelmed. So once we got the call written, we set up a dedicated email…
MATT: The credit for that really belongs to Donna. As writers go, she has to be the most supportive and interested in the work of other writers… I have ever met. I have been a lot more insular in the 11 years since I started writing for the stage. I have a bad reputation - that I should work on changing - for not really getting out there and seeing other people’s stuff. Working on this project with Donna has really made me regret that. I have had the luxury—that I didn’t even understand to be all that rare—of being involved with a company that alway produced my work, several times even scheduling it before I had finished writing it. So for those reasons, I really had no idea how many people were out there looking for these opportunities. When we first finalized the submission guidelines I thought, “I really hope we get at least 20 really good submissions so we can put 10 really good things up.” (Donna) has had her own work produced in many of these events around the county and is well connected through the electronic playwright network. She basically knew where to announce it and as soon as she did, the submissions came rolling in.
DONNA: And then we had to read them…
MATT: I was shocked as the number kept growing to the 174 we had in the end. Donna wasn’t.
DONNA: In the interest of time, we did say in the guidelines that the the plays could absolutely not be more than 10 minutes. That’s something that drives me nuts when I go to a 10-minute festival - seeing 15- or even 20-minute plays. We did, in fact, ask two people to cut their plays so they’d adhere to that guideline and that we could do 10 in a neat two hours. But then there was this little one that we wanted to include… which is how there ended up being 11…
SCOTT: While remaining tactful to the playwrights who invested their time into writing and submitting all of those plays… please share with us some of the challenges that you encountered while sifting through such a wealth of contenders!
DONNA: Reading 10-minute plays goes faster than you might expect. I read them first, as they came in, and came up with this crazy color-coded system to rate them using the Gmail stars. When Matt didn’t even balk at the star system and, in fact, embraced it and added to it, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit (laughs.) So basically, with this color-coding system, I could read and let him know what I thought, and he could do the same when he read. The idea was that when we were done, we’d have a handful of top tier (green) plays that we’d have to debate about. But there ended up being very little debate. Either the top plays were really obviously stellar, or we have very similar sensibilities. It’s probably a bit of both.
MATT: While we were reading the plays, I was reminded of learning standard deviation in high school math. The majority fell in the middle - neither bad or good, just kind of in the middle. On one end were plays we felt for various reasons weren’t produceable. Then on the other end were plays we were very excited about, several of which we didn’t even get to choose because even at less than 10 minutes each, the time fills fast.
DONNA: If there was a challenge, it’s probably that we didn’t hear them aloud before we chose them. If we were to do this again, it would be a good idea to have semi-finalists that we then hear aloud before making final choices.
MATT: As writers, I think we understand that struggle and that desire to have one’s work heard and seen and produced. Even though I have been lucky that way, I felt guilty when we’d send something into the archive knowing it meant we weren’t able to give that person the opportunity.
SCOTT: You’ve assembled a large and really impressive ensemble of directors and actors to bring all of this good work to the stage. At the risk of betraying any favoritism, is there a specific script/director/cast combo that each of you are particularly excited about and looking forward to?
MATT: I could really go on and on about this because, as creative teams go, we are incredibly lucky on this. We have seven actors playing a total of 42 characters over the course of two hours and everyone is really bringing something special with them. I’m really surprised by what these actors and directors are finding in these character that I sometimes didn’t even notice while we were reading the shows.
DONNA: Matt gets the credit for that. A few BUA regulars expressed interest in directing, and I asked about bringing Victoria Perez on, and Matt was totally on board with that (because who doesn’t want Victoria for any project?).
MATT: Any opportunity to be around her—at all—is special.
DONNA: I knew (Matt) and Marc Sacco (one of my favorite Buffalo actors) would be in it…
MATT: Last summer, my very close friend Marc Sacco and I played fictionalized versions of ourselves in Recovery Mode. Before I did the spoken word evening that became that show, we had talked about putting something together that was a celebration of our friendship, but I was very caught up in the exceedingly long-term hurt I was feeling at the time over relationship loss… so that project took precedence. Within Recovery Mode, there was certainly a great deal of material on the ways Marc carried me through that time, but M&M is a 10-minute taste of what that initial idea would have been.
DONNA: And I knew Jonathan (Shuey), who I love…
MATT: When I saw BUA’s production of Bent in the fall of last year I was really taken with Jonathan Shuey’s performance. He had a smaller part, but I thought about his performance for a long time after. One of the very first plays I read in the review process was Allan Baker’s ...Last And Always. It’s one very final phone call between two men as the world is literally falling… around one of them in particular. I decided before finishing that play that it would definitely be in the lineup and that I would definitely be seeking Jonathan out for it… and that I then would selfishly cast myself in the other part. All of that worked out, and working with him is exactly what I thought it would be.
DONNA: I can’t wait to see that. So I was happy with all of (the casting), and happy to trust (Matt’s) suggestions for Caitlin and Alisse, who are great. Then we got together and decided who should go where, et voila! There is…some really funny stuff that I can’t wait to see, like Happy And Gay and Incident On Crescent Road. Selfishly, I really want to see (Donna’s play) Write This Way, because even though it’s been produced five times, including in England, I’ve never (seen) it.
SCOTT: Finally (since you are both highly productive authors in your own rights)—what personal projects do each of you have on the horizon?
MATT: In September, I am going to the Rochester Fringe Festival to perform my solo show The Pipes Are Calling: An Elegy to Dan Higgins, Sr. about my relationship with my grandfather… I consider that show to be my very favorite thing I’ve ever worked on and am grateful beyond belief (for) any chance I get to do it again. I co-host Cocktails And Cream Puffs with Joey Bucheker and Marc Sacco, which is one of the top 15 GLBT podcasts on iTunes. And I will be appearing in BUA’s production of Martin Casella’s The Irish Curse—a very funny play about five guys in a support group for men with small penises. My next writing project hasn’t come to me yet. I used to be in a big rush to find the next idea. These days I’m happy to go with it when it comes, but don’t try to force it anymore.
DONNA: The same weekend (BUA Takes 10) opens, Subversive Shorts is opening, and I have a piece in that, and I’m also participating in MF24H, MusicalFare’s fundraiser that has four teams of writer/composers writing four short musicals that will then be rehearsed and publicly presented, all within 24 hours. Busy weekend! Beyond that, I have a full-length play, Flowers In The Desert, in (the Emanuel Friend New Play) Workshop at Road Less Traveled, and RLTP will also be producing Seeds in March of next year. I’ve got a few shorts going up around the country, The Couple Next Door is being translated into Turkish, and I’ve got someone trying to place it overseas. I just finished two new shorts that I’ve started sending out, and I’m two scenes and a lot of notes into a new full-length called A Kind Of Salvation.
SCOTT: All of that sounds great, guys! I personally can’t wait for BUA Takes 10 and Seeds—and Matt, I know that Jon Elston will be there on opening night of The Irish Curse!
BUA Takes Ten opens Friday, June 22 and runs through Sunday, July 1 at the Buffalo United Artists Theater (119 Chippewa St., Buffalo). The production includes short plays by Matt, Donna, and WNY playwright Stefan Brundage, among others. Donna’s Subversive Shorts selection can be seen on “A nights” from Friday, June 22 through Saturday, July 14 at the Manny Fried Theater. Matt will appear in his own play The Pipes Are Calling: An Elegy to Dan Higgins, Sr. at the Rochester Fringe Festival on Sept. 23-24, and will appear with an all-star cast in The Irish Curse at the BUA Theater in November. Finally (but not least of all!), Donna’s play Seeds will receive its world premiere production at the Road Less Traveled Theater in March 2013. I’ll see you there!
Photo from The Buffalo News.