Before we announce the winners of the 2011 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present the My Theatre Nominee Interview Series.
Evan Sanderson just graduated from Boston University’s College of Fine Arts in 2010 and has already made an indelible mark on American theatre, winning the National Student Playwriting Award for the first play he ever wrote, his college thesis project. Fallujah, a visceral and imaginative exploration of mental health among soldiers in the Iraq war, has played to audiences across the country and made a rising star out of Evan Sanderson. The surprisingly funny and deeply affecting production is nominated for 7 My Theatre Awards including Best Actor-Alex Mandell, Best Actress- Marion Le Coguic, Best Supporting Actor- Matt Ketai, Best Director- Jason King Jones, Best Ensemble and Best Production as well as Best New Work for Evan, who took the time to answer a few questions about the piece.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
My first experience in theatre was playing The Owl in my middle school play. I think I sang, and did a little dance, and had a wise monologue in the end. I was a triple threat.
What writers have always inspired you?
I really love Stephen Adly Guirgis because he puts his passion into the words he writes. His plays burst with energy and urgency. I also love Aaron Sorkin. Not necessarily his personal decisions, but his work. His dialogue is amazing, and he can make the most mundane event seem extraordinary.
Would you consider yourself primarily a writer or do you act and direct too?
I actually had a hard time considering myself a writer, and still do. I trained to be an actor, and got into creating plays really only in my last year of undergraduate training. I love to write, but I never considered it a part of my identity until people pointed out to me that perhaps I was a playwright.
What first drove you to writing? Was it the craft itself or the story of Fallujah?
I got into writing through the story of Fallujah. It was something that was burning in me, that I needed to act on. I seriously considered dropping out of school and joining the Marines, but my mom advised me that would be a terrible decision because I would make the worst soldier ever, and that I should just do something I’m actually good at, which is write. And so I did.
Do you have a personal connection to the Marines or the battle of Fallujah? What was your inspiration?
I had no direct connection to the war or to any soldiers before writing it. I do now – there were two young Marines who served in Fallujah that I became friends with, they are pretty amazing guys and helped immensely in the rehearsal process. The reason I started writing is actually in the play, the journalist says it. I read a blurb in Rolling Stone Magazine that said “The death toll from inadequate mental health care may exceed the combat death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan.” As small of a thing as it was, that little piece set me on fire. It was unfair on a level I couldn’t countenance, and it started me on the creation process of the play.
What sort of research went into the writing? It feels like such an insider’s perspective.
I did a good bit of research, but I did it side by side with the writing process. I talked to soldiers, and learned about the war, but to be honest I didn’t want to research too much. I got a good piece of advice at the start of the project, which was that the best way to honor this story would be to bring my self to it, to infuse it with my own hopes and dreams and fears, and for that, I didn’t need much research.
What’s your writing process like? Do you plot and plan or just start at page 1 and work through?
I get to know the characters, and then they sort of tell me. Then scenes start coming to me randomly – like, wouldn’t it be funny if they were stuck in a Humvee and Meathead had access to a cell phone? What would he want to do and say?
Did you go through a lot of drafts? How did the play change through the development process?
I went through SO many drafts, and the play changed a ton. Thanks to incredible creative support from my colleagues and friends, I was able to constantly try new things and refine the play. The play is actually a part of a trilogy, and I wrote the first piece in junior year. That got folded into a new play, my senior year, and then that got further refined as we rehearsed it. Originally, the play took place during the Boer Wars. Just kidding, but it feels like it’s changed that much.
Did you pick Jason King Jones to direct yourself or was it an assignment?
Jason approached me, and said he was interested in it. He had directed me as an actor, actually, so I knew he was an outstanding director. I immediately said yes, I think before he even finished speaking.
Tell me about casting. How did you land on those 5 actors? Are they how you originally envisioned the characters?
We actually had a very different cast for the first go through during my thesis. The five actors you saw [Alex Mandell, Marion Le Coguic, Matt Ketai, Andrew Mayer and Mat Leonard] were cast after that from a new pool of people. Each time, I have a completely new picture in my head of how the characters behave. But the funny thing is that they were so incredibly talented, this weird fusion happened: they started to sound like the characters, and the characters started to sound like them.
The finished product is incredibly physical. How much of that is in the script vs. developed by Jason and the cast?
I left the script purposefully vague about the nature of place and structure. I did that because I wanted the play to feel impressionistic – not to try and capture war but to try and capture what war felt like. In talking with Jason, we wanted to create a physical structure that reflected that dynamic. It could have gone any number of ways, but what he did with it was amazing.
You’ve won some major awards [like the National Student Playwriting Award] and the production’s toured to a bunch of places across the country [including The Kennedy Center]. Did you ever imagine it would take off like that?
I never imagined it, and I still have a hard time wrapping my brain around it. We got to do it in DC, a few miles from Walter Reed, one of the key locations in the play. How incredible is that?
What’s been the reaction from current and former marines who’ve seen the show?
The servicemen and women who’ve seen the play have all had varied reactions, but usually pretty intense ones. One Navy SEAL who saw it told us “I wanted to leave after the first act, because it was too painful. But I made myself stay. Thank you for doing this.”
Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
Oh goodness, a favorite moment? I adore seeing it in action, so every time I watch it I still giggle at the funny parts and cringe at the painful ones. But one of my favorites is probably the “Dr. Drew” scene, wherein we see the journalist re-create a date to one of the Marines. It’s touching, and funny, and unexpected. I think I fall in love with those characters in that moment.
What are you doing now/ what’s your next project?
[I performed] in a show now with Zeitgeist Stage at the Boston Center For the Arts, and I just finished my latest play, called 20 Somethings which will hopefully get a premiere in NYC at the Fringe Festival this summer. As for Fallujah – a director in England is hoping to produce it in London, and [did] a reading for likely theaters in February.