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Andrew Hinderaker: Tackling Football in One Play (posted 03-25-2015)

The Colossal playwright and DTC's Laura Colleluori discuss producing an "unproduceable play." About football. In Texas. 


L: Are you excited or nervous to have your play about football premiering in Texas?

A: I’m excited! The opportunity to do a production in Dallas is great because it’s kind of an epicenter of football. In high school, at the university level, and at the professional level, Texas is a state where you play from age eight until you can’t anymore. It’s a huge part of the culture. So it’s really exciting.

L: There’s this line in the play where Mike says that everyone loves football, even people who don’t know it yet.

A: Totally.

L: So I’m wondering, since you’re a Midwesterner – from Wisconsin, I believe – but then you went to the University of Texas for your MFA, were you one of those people who didn’t know that they loved football?

A: Oh no, I’ve been loving football since I was about five. Madison, where I grew up, is a huge college football town. It’s this stadium of 80,000 people and they sell out every game. It’s not quite a religion in the way that it is in Texas, but in Madison, Wisconsin on a Saturday, it’s what you do. The whole city goes. So I’ve been loving football since I was a little kid. And one of the truly gratifying things about the play is that of the people who’ve seen it, the audience is a mix of some people who love football and some people who are more into the arts and less into sports, and for a lot of those folks I think it provides sort of a, “Hm, maybe I need to give this football thing a shot, this is pretty exciting.” And certainly some of the folks involved in the show have come into it not necessarily into football and now are, which is interesting, since the play is sort of equal parts celebrating it and questioning it.

L: Yeah, I was going to say, for a football fan, the play doesn’t really pull punches when it comes to criticizing football. There are a lot of – very valid – criticisms of the game and the culture in it. But at the same time there is also clearly a deep love and intimate knowledge of the game in the play as well, which makes sense since you grew up loving it. But as you’ve gotten older, I wonder, has your relationship to the game changed? How would you characterize your relationship to football now?

A: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s watching it with an eye to all of that. It’s weird. I haven’t stopped watching it even though I think there’s, as you can see in the play, a lot of problematic aspects to it: the culture of football, the violence… To me, a lot of the really really appalling situations that have arisen having to do with domestic violence, the whole thing at Penn State, or Wilmer Hutchins, you can take your pick, football has been in this state of one crisis after another. And those are all to me under a sort of larger umbrella. There’s a culture in football that is about violence and suppression. And it’s interesting to me because in so many ways I don’t think that that would hold true for a lot of the individual players who play the game, but it’s this cultural paradigm inside the thing. So I watch it, and… It’s a great question, and clearly it’s one I don’t have a prepared answer for. I was at a UT game a couple years ago, and a player got hurt and he was carted off the field. And the tradition at UT Austin is when somebody gets hurt, everybody puts their horns up – they raise their arms and everybody does the hook’em horns. And the first time, it’s great watching a hundred thousand hands go up; it’s crazy ritualistic. But then what happens in the game is that you applaud as the person is carted off the field, and it is certainly meant as a respectful gesture – you’re wishing them well and all of that – but really what it is is more of a release for the crowd, because the very next thing you have to do is then start cheering as people bash into each other again. And I think what the play does is try to position itself in the game that happens on the field as well as the game that we are turning a blind eye to every time we applaud and then go back to watching the game. It’s such an interesting question, because I do continue to watch it. I guess in this long, roundabout answer, the best response would be that I’m a little like Jerry in the sense that there’s a penance. There’s a penance of talking about it and having a play be part of the conversation about what is football and what is the culture and what are we honestly participating in, while still continuing to watch it. The guys who wrote the really groundbreaking book on concussions in the NFL, they still watch it. That’s a big part of what they’re trying to do: they’re trying to create an NFL and a game that’s more transparent about what it is, so that the people who participate in it know what they’re participating in. I think there’s a piece of that. What I’m really curious about is this: is this problematic paradigm necessary for this game that we love? And to me, there isn’t an easy answer of, “Oh no, it’s not at all, you can have a completely different paradigm of the game.” Because I think the thing that football’s up against right now is that as they try to make the game safer, less violent, less aggressive, it’s getting the immediate pushback of, “Oh, well that’s not football, then.”

L: Yeah, exactly.

A: So I don’t know. But, I haven’t stopped watching. So I don’t know what that says about me.

L: So you kind of touched on this in your answer, this idea of an immense pressure and of a release in the game of football and the game that we are all sort of playing surrounding that. And I think that has a lot to do with our ideas about masculinity, which is a theme that runs through the play – how men relate to each other and to themselves and to their bodies. And in the notes on the play, you even specify that there should be no release until very end – that no one should even exhale audibly until the very end of the play. So do you think that this pressure to take part in this restrictive construct of masculinity, this lack of release, is that universal or is it particularly heightened in football?

A: I think it’s heightened in football, for sure. What’s interesting to me is that football is so far and away the most popular thing that we’ve got in this country, of any sport but also of any sort of entertainment entity – half as many people watch the presidential debates as watch the Super Bowl. Football dwarfs everything. So it’s this paradigm of masculinity that I would say is both a little bit – well, heightened is a great word. It heightens a lot of the expectations, mainstream expectations, of what a man is in this country. So part of that is being violent and part of it is being physically strong and dominating and part of it is being protective, part of it is being competitive. All of these things absolutely are heightened. But it also in some ways lifts it up. For a concrete example, one of the guys who played in the NFL that I was talking with – you know, in my NFL days – he was talking about lifting weights. And he said the reason why you do that is that you are putting armor on your body, literally. If I have more muscle on my body, I don’t have to wear as much football padding and I can move more freely because without any padding at all I have more protection for my organs and my bones than you, Andrew, do with all the regular padding. Because he’s got so much mass protecting his body, right? And I talk about armor a lot in this play. Armor is built into the men’s bodies. The very idea of being vulnerable or of dropping you metaphorical armor is completely contradictory to everything they’re trying to do in the entire game. I think a paradigm of that exists in this country that’s not only heightened but that is perfectly illustrated through the game of football. And a lot of the play is of course about a guy who is dealing with the question of is he going to put himself in a position where he could get hurt again – physically, emotionally, psychologically – or is he going to have this kind of armor that he will carry for the rest of his life?

L: Not only is this play literally colossal in terms of the production, which calls for a drumline and a football team and a modern dance company and a scoreboard and a football field, but it’s also pretty colossal in the scope of the subject matter it deals with. You’ve got football, obviously, and injury, and masculinity, but there’s also dance and homosexuality and disability – and incredibly in this play it all makes perfect sense together. How did you come to put that all together in the first place?

A: A few different ways. For me, every play always starts with character. So in this play, I started with the character Mike. And there I was looking at a character who grew up as a dancer and became a football player and then got injured on the field – that was his trajectory and the story that I built. And where that came from… there are a lot of dancers and athletes in my life. One of my closest collaborators is a guy named Michael Thornton, who runs the theater company I’m a member of in Chicago and we’ve worked on a bunch of projects together. Mike uses a wheelchair, and we’ve done a number of projects that were in no way specific to disability, but I’m sure that as one of my closest friends and collaborators that’s an influence. I have a family member who is a former athlete who has a spinal situation right now. All of these things, while I didn’t consciously go, “Oh, I think I’ll write about this,” the story came about for me. When I was down in Texas, I was doing some collaborations with the Dance Department at UT and I was working a lot with a director named Will Davis who is a former dancer, so I think all of these things were sort of in the groundwater when the story got built. And that was all coming together at the same time that a mentor of mine in Texas challenged me to write an unproduceable play. I had been fortunate with a couple other plays of mine getting produced, and those were fairly large-scale plays, but nothing on the scale of Colossal. My mentor was saying, “You’ve got a laboratory here. You’ve got undergraduates, you’ve got a marching band, you have all these things that you could draw from to dream of this play as big as you want it to be.” For me, it’s never quite as consciously thought out as A to B to C, it’s more that the story begins and these are all of the influences in my life that helped.

L: I was actually going to ask you about that challenge from your mentor! When you think about an “unproduceable” play, what does and what did that mean to you? Was it mostly about creating something on this huge scale?

A: Well I think that as a playwright, theater artist, director, whatever your position is, I think we come to plays a lot of times in the theater from assumptions of what they are. You know, we have general assumptions about how big a cast is going to be or what a theater space is going to look like or what an actual play looks like. And I think what this challenge did for me, and my mentor does a lot of this same thing, is that it helped guide me to a place where now a play is where we are in a physical space together and an event is going to happen in real time for a real audience, and just keeping it as open as that. And then what that puts into play is, you know, maybe that’s in proscenium, but maybe it’s like your crazy Dallas Theater Center where you can arrange it in a multitude of ways, or maybe the theater space is not a theater at all but an outdoor park. And cast size – it doesn’t have to be two to seven people, it could be fifty. It’s a choice. And we’ve gotten to a place a lot of times in the theater where it’s not a choice, it’s a default. And that’s so sad, because so many great pieces of theater, like Shakespeare, are massive in scale – not because massive is better, but because the story in the play demands it. I think what as so exciting to me was that challenge from [Kirk Lynn, Professor of Directing/Playwriting at UT], along with a bunch of other things, really giving me the permission to say – to every part of you that is going to have that kneejerk reaction of, “Oh, nobody will ever do this” – to just let all of that go. So like you were saying, here comes this play with a huge cast and a drumline and all of these crazy demands. And what Colossal does is hopefully not what I think so many plays about sports can do, which is to be a commentary on the sport without really getting inside the soul of the thing. And since we’re looking at football players and dancers, I have so little interest in writing a play about hyper-articulate, Stoppard-like characters literally commenting on football and dance. Those are not the football players and dancers I know. I’m making broad generalizations, but a lot of the dancers I know, if you were to ask them to write an essay about their dance, they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. And so I think it’s important to be trusting of the fact that if I actually want to get inside of these people, this is how they speak. This is how they navigate the world. (Pause.) That didn’t answer your question at all! (Laughing.) What was your question?

L: No, it did! The question was about what an “unproduceable” play is to you, and how that resulted in Colossal, so you’re totally on track!

A: Well, I mean, to give yet again a long-winded response, or as my brother likes to say, to make a long story long: there’s a play I’m working on right now about a magician, so the main role has to be played by somebody who is both a really wonderful actor as well as an incredibly accomplished magician. I think there are about four of those people.

L: In the world.

A: In the whole world. But hey, my buddy’s one of them! So as long as he never leaves me, we’re in good shape. But, you know, that’s what that play demands. And what that play then opens up is extraordinary. It’s the same with Colossal. You know, we had auditions, and we’re so fortunate to have this extraordinary cast, but what makes Colossal potentially so difficult to cast is that in some ways, you have to approach it like a musical. You have this huge cast size and you have big physical demands for a lot of the characters. You have to find folks who have the strength and the power of a football player, the grace of a dancer, and true acting chops, so a virtuoso.

L: And that’s rare.

A: Incredibly rare, and incredibly difficult. But how exciting! How exciting to get all of that when so often we’re choosing which of the three we’re going to have. So to me, “unproduceable” is about – and obviously that’s in quotes because the show is becoming my most produced play, which is awesome and is just encouraging me to keep up that habit… But you have a lead actor who has to be played by an actor with a disability, you have the cast size and the casting constraints, but those are the very things that make the play exciting. And that’s because all of these things are incredibly live and theatrical – football and dance and performance are so live and theatrical, and this play isn’t asking us to choose which thing we want to experience tonight, you know?

L: Absolutely. Alright, nerdy question: up on the scoreboard, obviously you have the clock counting down, which is so cool and very important to the show, but then you also a couple of times actually have Mike and Young Mike getting points up on the board. And they’re the only two that do. Is Mike playing against his younger self?

A: Yeah. I think the frame of the play is essentially a competition between Mike and Young Mike to see where Mike is going to live for the rest of his life – in the past, or is he going to move into the present? The frame is useful insofar as it’s a broader context for the play – I think certainly there are moments in the play where they are almost in collusion rather than competing. So it’s definitely a frame that I play with a little bit, but yeah, the larger context of it is this question of which part of his life is he going to live in, the present or the past. And I think we see those scores happen in relationship to moments where he is very strongly pulled into the past, or when there’s an actual real step into the truth of the present. Then of course, before the play ends, everything goes out, which to me is a gesture toward learning to finally learning to step outside the context of this game and be present.

L: So right now, Colossal is in the middle of a rolling world premiere, and my understanding is that you’ve been pretty involved in the productions so far, and that you’re going to continue to be involved at DTC. I absolutely love this script, but obviously you’ve been with it for a little longer than I have. As you’ve been watching the show evolve, are there things within it that you are still trying to work out, or are you starting to feel pretty good about it on its own?

A: I think both! There are absolutely still things I want to work on. There’s a quote that says, “A play is never finished, only abandoned.” And I’m not quite to the point of abandonment yet. [Kevin Moriarty] and I have talked about this a little bit, but there are elements of the relationship between Mike/Young Mike and Marcus that I’m still trying to dig into, and figuring out what is the best way that each beat of this story is told. It’s so interesting, I had a gentleman come up to me after a production we did just outside of D.C., and he was very smart and he said, “This relationship needs so much more stage time. Because really, for the two of these men…” and he started to list off all of these extensive backstories for Marcus and Mike, even beyond what was in the script, but almost to a T the exact backstories that I had written out for them.

L: Wow.

A: And it’s not totally coincidental – there are a lot of moments between them that are meant to carry a lot of history and meant to communicate a great deal. So certainly the goal is that we do get a glimpse of what Marcus’s upbringing is and what his family situation is, what his economic situation is – a lot of pieces that are – you know, a line just talking about draft stuff is meant to carry a lot of weight. And so I wrestle back and forth because if you can get all of this stuff from the play, that means it’s there! He had built the exact story that I’d intended. But at the same time, inside of a play that is very loud and percussive in a way where you are sometimes hammering points – it’s an interesting discussion, and Kevin and I have talked about it and I’ll probably write some new stuff and we’ll see how it goes. It’s interesting because it’s a bit of a Swiss watch of a play. Even though I never outlined it and timed it out, I just sat down and wrote it and revised it, it’s a tricky play to add or take away from because it’s not just Scene One, Scene Two…

L: Yeah, it’s in quarters!

A: Yeah! And you know, this scene needs to be fourteen seconds long, and it’s happening while two other time periods are happening onstage at the same time. So you can’t really say, “Well, let’s just insert this speech.” Colossal will actually spit it out. It’s like a little angry machine. You’ll try something and you’ll realize, “Nope, it didn’t want that. Did not want that in the play.” So it’s tricky, because I suspect that there are a couple things missing from the play, and it will be a great exploration in Dallas to figure out what they are. And that’s been true throughout the rolling word premiere. There’s a moment between Young Mike and Marcus, like a yoga thing where they’re stretching, and that was similar in that that was a much longer scene, and Marcus had all these lines that got cut. What was essentially five long lines of speech got trimmed down to his line now which is, “So, like, um…” And it just came from watching the play and saying, “Nope, too much. Too much. Too much. …That’s right.” Both because it’s dealing with men who are not prone to verbal excess – unlike me in this interview – but also because as a play it’s meant to be as absolutely elemental and muscular and stripped down and spare as it needs to be.

L: Absolutely.

A: So yes, I still have work to do. (Laughs.)

L: I would just be so scared to go back and change anything though, because like you said, it’s so precise! Once I got the timing right I feel like I would be saying, “No, don’t touch it!”

A: (Laughing) Well, you figure out pretty quickly what doesn’t work. And funnily enough, the clock is actually a great indicator, because right now the quarters don’t all run a true fifteen minutes – some of them are a little shorter. And we can cheat that – we can jump the clock when people aren’t looking – but I actually think in a very strange way that the play really wants to be fifteen minutes each quarter. Like in the first quarter, I don’t know where those two minutes are that are missing, but right now it runs about thirteen minutes and it really wants those two minutes.

L: Alright, so one last question: why a play? With a project this huge and this precise and this demanding, where something like a movie might seem more able to accomplish everything, why is it important that Colossal be live theater?

A: Oh man. That’s a great question. I wish I could say this is the first time that I’m about to be long-winded. (Laughs.) I would say a few things. When I was in grad school, there was a wonderful director, Courtney Sale, and we were in a black box theater one day, just the two of us, and we just looked around and were in awe of this small miraculous place. The theater is kind of my church. And I don’t say that in an at all disparaging way towards people for whom churches are their church, but it’s this place where miracles happen. Where compassion is possible. And it starts with this extraordinarily generous act from the audience, profoundly generous – they come into a theater space, and turn off their phones, and are willing to be with this group of people and this event that’s happening for an hour or two. And that’s another way it’s like church, because those are really the only places where we do that! I mean, to offer up that depth and singularity of focus and attention is sacred to me. And it’s rare, and it’s often abused by theater artists who don’t take it seriously enough and don’t give it the reverence it deserves. I think part of the reason I talk about Colossal needing to be so spare is that as a theater artist, I can’t abide an excessive moment in the theater because it feels like that is disrespectful to somebody who has given up their time. And it’s worse than in TV or a movie, because I can fast forward a movie, or I can watch Netflix while I’m also looking at my email. So that alone is just a sacred thing. And then the liveness of theater is just so extraordinary – it’s so unnerving and so beautiful. I was working on this show in New York, and we’d been in previews for forever, and they’d been going really well, and the big night came where the New York Times was coming and everybody was coming, and we had a blizzard blow through New York. The house was completely empty and both of the leads got sick and the show ran way too long – it was terrible. Even though the reviews weren’t bad, it was a great reminder that every night is truly different. And that doesn’t have to be a cliché sentiment – I think again it kind of speaks to what drives me nuts about some plays. If a play is essentially the same no matter where you do it, and essentially the same no matter who is in it – the idea that really any capable actor can play this role, versus how the role of Mike was written around a specific person and a specific person’s body – there is a liveness that gets marred. Theater is so thrilling and so exciting in the way that it asks us to be present, and Colossal is really asking that central question of how do we be present. To me that’s one of the fundamental human questions, because if we can be present to the people in front of us, that’s when all of the other pieces of compassion and awareness and activism and everything else can come into play. If we’re in our own heads and our own times and our own plans for the future and memories of the past, all of that stuff becomes impossible. Now, I love film and television – I’m working in TV right now – and I think there is something astonishing about storytelling in TV in terms of the scale and scope and what it means to tell a story that’s one hundred hours long with fifty people. It’s extraordinary. It’s great. But the theater is a sacred, miraculous place.  Actually, the very first time I met Kevin about Colossal, I came into the building and I took a wrong turn, and I ended up on the main stage.

L: Wow, really?

A: Well, you have such a weird building there!

L: (Laughing.) That’s fair.

A: So I was in totally the wrong place, I was on the stage, and of course it’s totally empty and there’s a ghost light onstage. And I had the same feeling that I had in that black box at UT. It’s a place where, truly, the miraculous can take place. And that’s just so exciting. (Pause.) This play would be dumb as a movie. It really would. I mean, Friday Night Lights does it better than the play would if it were onscreen. Part of what makes Colossal hopefully so exciting and successful is its liveness. It is actually an incredibly difficult play to do at all, much less do really well. The actor playing Young Mike will actually burn several thousand calories during each performance of the play.

L: Oh my God.

A: Yeah, it’s insanity. I mean, before the show begins, just the pregame alone is going to leave the actors just pouring sweat and aching. And that’s the idea! That everyone in this play is exhausted by the end, emotionally and physically. And you can film that for a few minutes, but it’s just a totally different thing. What the play asks of these performers is a sacrifice and a gift equivalent to what the audience is giving when they are coming in and giving up hours of focus and their time with the people they love and are thinking about to focus on the people in the room. And that can only happen in the theater. As I said, I work in other forms, and I love it, but there’s nothing like the theater.

L: I absolutely agree. And thank you so much for your time and focus in this interview. I don’t want to take up too much more of it– is there anything we haven’t touched on that we should have?

A: I mean, I said so many words, they’re probably all in there somewhere. (Laughs.) I’m excited to get to DTC and be launched back into Colossal. And to do it in Dallas, and to do it in a space with that kind of flexibility and liveness. And [The Potter Rose Performance Hall at the Wyly] is such a rare space, based on what I know of it, where you can be really epic and intimate at the same time, and Colossal really asks for that. One moment we want you to feel like you’re in a 100,000-person stadium and the next moment feel like you’re in a 20-person storefront theater. So I think that will be super exciting to dig into.  



January 2020