2014 Griffin Studio Artist Lachlan Philpott gives us a guided tour of his first month as recipient of the inaugural Professional Play Writing Scholarship at The American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco.
I arrived in San Francisco on Halloween and discovered that the first house I’m staying in is haunted by Mary, the ghost of a young girl who slipped on the roof she was dancing on during a party and fell to the garden and her death.
Mary doesn’t let me sleep much during those first few nights. She doesn’t do ghost things like footsteps or slamming doors but I sense that she is there, a staring presence in the room at night. I suspect she wants to party and finds me a bit dull. I let her think that and she tries some little games- presses random letters on my phone when I’m texting on the toilet. Makes the lights surge and glow brighter momentarily when I open a bottle of wine.
I am being hosted by Mary and a generous San Francesco theatre buddy Marilee and her husband Andrew. My room has the most amazing view of the city. The Mission and the rest of San Francisco stretch out below me in twinkling glory and as I sit and watch night fall, I realize how lucky I am to be here. I make plans to hit the ground running with the writing as soon as I can, to not be distracted by distractions and I think I hear Mary make a bitchy little giggle a little behind me as she hears my thoughts. Perhaps she knows that in reality it’s not always so easy.
So in spite of Mary, the trick or treaters, the burrito eaters, the big old cars, noisy gay bars, the gun shops and scary cops, I do some work here.
In my first week my host company The American Conservatory Theatre (‘ACT’) had the opening of Testimony by Colm Tobin and he is in town for the opening. It is a coincidence that I have been reading [ and loving] his books, so I take a copy of Brooklyn to get him to sign, only to realize that the copy I was given by my mate Alyson has already been signed by him. Colm is like some big happy Irish Labrador and he doesn’t care. He seems to view the world with complete childlike delight and it’s invigorating. At his opening night he spends a lot of energy making sure that people meet me and his amazingly selfless act makes me feel grateful but at the same time embarrassed. This is why I love the Irish.
I spend three days workshopping my play Bustown with some remarkably insightful second year MFA acting students, supportive director Jennifer Vallenger and ACT’s insightful dramaturge Michael Paller. It is going to stage in January in Kansas at Kansas State University, which I’m thinking will be exciting, until we start reading the play, which I wrote back in 2007 and haven’t really focused on since. As the actors read, I want to ditch each page and start over. I want to re-write the entire play and I cringe at how slow the scenes are held back by endless exposition. It’s strange and unglamorous way to realize I have come a long way as a playwright. I vow to do a re-write before January when rehearsals start in Kansas.
Lachlan Philpott in San Francisco
The next day I fly to New York to undertake an intensive writers retreat at the Lark Play Development Centre.
It’s freezing on the streets in New York but my Bushwick airbnb is like a sauna so I wonder about in my undies hoping the host doesn’t come home. I buy a Met Card, a scarf and a pair of gloves and I head to 42nd St, get out and walk to The Lark. This is one of my favorite places on earth and I am thrilled to be there taking part in a week-long residency. There are six playwrights and we are expected to generate 20 pages a day which we bring in and share the next. The Lark always focuses on making a supportive nurturing place for writers to test out ideas. We share work and laughs and our own fears while we eat goldfish and popcorn and potato crisps and Oreos and cupcakes and… you get the idea, we eat and eat.
The plays being developed are striking and bold. The language playwrights here use to engage with each other’s work is less confrontational than we might use in Australia and for writing at this stage in its evolution that seems fitting. These plays have big ideas and politics and I hope they get seen on the stage. It’s an obvious thought but it still strikes me how different the plays being developed in the room are to those in big theatres under the blinding lights on Broadway.
I catch up with lots of mates in New York. My dear buddy Jeremy Cohen invites me to be his date to the MIMI’s at The Lincoln Centre where Stephen Adly Guirgis is the recipient of a $200,000 dollar prize in recognition for his contribution to theatre. The speeches, inspired by his collaborative spirit pay tribute to the range of artists who have worked with him over the years and have come to understand and trust his impulses as an artist. Philip Seymour Hoffman, his long –time collaborator is remembered and missed as we eat the best finger food I have ever had and I watch the New York theatre scene working the lobby.
I return to San Francisco and on the eve of thanksgiving, attend a company run of A Christmas Carol at ACT, with countless children and songs and turkeys on stage. And I get taken in by the cheesy wholesomeness of it all, this strangely Americanized version of this English story. ACT produces this play every year and it’s become a tradition for the locals here. I am yet to understand which locals. But San Francisco is like no other city in that way. I leave the building and walk past the homeless and the hipsters, lining up for different or is it the same reasons on the street. I don’t understand that yet either. There are still so many things I don’t.
Lachlan Philpott is a 2014 Griffin Studio artist. He is currently undertaking the inaugural Professional Play Writing Scholarship at The American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco.