Rob Ackerman is playwright on the rise. His hit play "Tabletop," about the hilarious behind-the-scenes madness of making a television commercial, made it's Off-Broadway debut in 2000, presented by The Working Theater. Now, Rob is teaming up with The Working Theater again for his latest play "Call Me Waldo," which takes a comic and insightful look at the workplace, upending stereotypes about the working class when an ordinary electrician begins channeling the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Rob's other plays include "Origin of the Species" (later a film starring Amanda Peet), "Disconnect" (presented in 2005 by Working Theater), "Loons" (EST), and "Volleygirls." In addition to playwrighting, Rob has been Prop Master for NBC's "Saturday Night Live" for many years, working on numerous commercial parodies such as "Schmitt's Gay Beer," "Mom Jeans," "Chewable Pampers," and "Red Flag Perfume."
"Call Me Waldo" will play through March 11 at the June Havoc Theatre in NYC (312 West 36th Street between 8th & 9th Ave). All tickets are $25 (except Saturday Matinees on Feb. 18 and 25 are pay-what-you-can at the door). Click here for tickets!
1. Who or what inspired you to become a playwright? I started as an actor, became a director, and wrote my first play many years after school in the wake of the suicide of a friend. Actors inspire me. What they do is sacred. And plays are more like music than literature. The actors are our musicians. We hear and are moved by them-- their tones, their breathing, their phrasing. They transport us -- they take us places.
2. Who haven't you worked with that you would like to? Reed Birney, and many many many others.
3. What made you want to write "Call Me Waldo"? I've loved and read Emerson since I was a kid, but I didn't want to write some heavy historical period piece, so I got the idea of having this great man's poetry emerge from a character I know from my day job as a union craftsman. I work with a lot of guys who live on Long Island and I like how they sound-- their swaggering, shit-kicking toughness. And I thought: what if Emerson showed up in of one of them?
4. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing the show? I want people to realize that we're all amazing. We are part of God. Emerson believed that, and I believe it too.
5. What excites you about this cast which will help bring "Call Me Waldo" to life? Each member of this ensemble owns his or her role. Completely. That's really rare. We often say, "Oh, I like the show except for so-and-so." You can fill in the blank. Nobody says that about CALL ME WALDO. Some of these artists have been working on the play for years. They're all veterans. And there's no small part, so they play nicely together, like a freakin' string quartet.
6. What is your favorite part of the creative process in writing a show? The part we're doing now. Putting it on its feet. I love how the tactile and sonic and luminous elements enter the picture. Our sound designer Don Tindall took his inspiration from the classic rock that tradesmen always play on boom boxes at every job site. I love that. David Arsenault built a set out of steel studs, A/C plywood and conduit-- the rough materials of a world I know and love. Everything is under construction. And our amazing director, Margarett Perry, knows and cares for these characters as well as and as much as I do. My writing continues in every phase of the process, and at this point, I'm mainly listening, hearing false notes and finding better ones.
7. Where is your favorite place to write? I scribble and type in the corner of a bedroom. I do that because I need to say the words out loud as they come to me. But I write in all sorts of unlikely places-- roadsides, the shower, on my bike on the way to work at 5AM. The characters don't always speak at convenient times and I need to be ready when they do.
8. For many years, you were the prop master at SNL. How did you make the transition from prop master to playwright? What is your most cherished memory of working on SNL? I still work as Prop Master for the SNL Film Unit, and also on non-fake TV commercials and occasional TV shows and whatever job lands in my lap. I do not make a living as a playwright. You can't make a living as a playwright unless you're David Ives. And I've never sold a TV show, though I've tried.
There are too many great moments from SNL to name, but some are: BRITISH TOOTHPASTE with Mike Myers (which was part of his creative process for Austin Powers), SCHMITT'S GAY BEER with Adam Sandler and Chris Farley (for which I built a sort of medieval winch that four body builders cranked to levitate six body builders out of a swimming pool), MOSTLY GARBAGE DOG FOOD (where I helped create dog food from egg shells, a soggy tea bag, a banana peel, and lots of other disgusting stuff...and the dog actually tried to eat it), BRITISH MOVIE with Russell Brand (a ridiculously ambitious one-day shoot that yielded a brilliant mini-movie), and RED FLAG PERFUME with the lovely Kristin Wiig (for which I poured a case of bubbly into a tower of champagne glasses).
Let me very clear: I am not a writer for SNL. Its writers are brilliant brainiacs. I am a problem solver, a prop guy, and I like that work.
9. What have you learned about yourself from being a playwright and as well as SNL's prop master? I've learned craft. Playwriting is craft. Plays require careful and patient invention and shaping and reshaping, and so do prop jobs.
10. What's the best advice you've ever received? Move on. Pete Gurney told me that. You have to work and work on your work, but eventually you must move on.