Jonathan Barsness is a founding member of Toy Box Theatre Company. As a member of Toy Box, he co-wrote and acted in its inaugural production of "Greene Grass," played the role of "Stephen" in "Afternight Seating," adapted and directed Christopher Marlowe’s "Doctor Faustus," wrote and acted in "The Landlord," adapted and directed John Ford’s "‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore," and wrote and directed an adaptation of Georg Buchner’s "Wozyeck." He wrote the short play "Love" which was produced by the Rubicon Theatre Project in Chicago.
Jonathan's latest project as both writer and director, "The Empress and El Diablo" is currently playing at the 4th Street Theatre (83 East 4th Steet, 1st Floor) in NYC through March 31! Click here for tickets! All tickets are $18.
1. Who or what inspired you to become a playwright? I saw a jaw-dropping production of Tartuffe at the Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis when I was in high school. It was about that time that I started to really want to be a part of the theatre world. At first I wanted to be an actor, but then I realized that acting was way too stressful. It produced massive amounts of terror and indigestion. Writing and directing is also stressful, but you aren’t actually up there showing your face to the audience.
2. Who haven't you worked with that you would like to? There are so many people that I admire and would love to work with. I suppose if David Lynch were to direct something for the stage, I would like to be his assistant director.
3. What made you want to write and direct "The Empress and El Diablo"? It all started with a fascination with Oedipus Rex. Not so much the incest and patricide part of it, but the whole idea of a national oracle that people travel from hundreds of miles around to consult. And this oracle wasn’t like contemporary tarot card readers and other psychics who tend to be more hopeful and encouraging, the Oracle at Delphi prophesied some really messed up, tragic things. What would that be like if you were feeling down and you went to the neighborhood psychic and she read your palm and told you that you that things will only get worse? You are destined to be unable to hold down a job, your wife will leave you, and you’ll become a crack addict. That was the seed of the play, and then it took off on its own from there.
4. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing "The Empress and El Diablo"? My only hope is that the audience comes away stimulated and that it provokes some interesting post show conversation.
5. What is it like for you to direct something you wrote? On the one hand it’s great because you can interpret your script in the way you envisioned it while writing it, but on the other hand it’s a great challenge as a director to remain objective about your own script. If a scene isn’t working right away in rehearsal there’s always a temptation to change lines or rewrite scenes.
6. What is your favorite part of writing and directing a play? Where is your favorite place to write? Writing is such a personal experience. It can be lonely. It can be therapeutic. It’s very meditative. Directing is whole different ballgame. It’s all about collaboration. In writing you have complete control of what is happening, but directing is all about relationships and working together to achieve a collective expression. The collaboration with actors, designers and musicians is an electric experience. A director always has to be on his toes, ready to respond to what each actor brings.
7. You are one of the founding members of the Toy Box Theatre Company. What made you want to start your own theatre company? What have you gotten out of this endeavor? The idea came to us while we were still in college in Wisconsin. It seems like a lot of companies are started that way. There was a group of people that really liked working together at the academic level, and when you get to New York everything is so competitive. The founding of Toy Box came from a necessity to do the work that we love. It’s so hard to break into the theater world, so why not make it happen on your own? In the ten years we’ve been around, we’ve focused our vision of the kind of work we produce and we’ve all grown and matured artistically, and Toy Box has evolved. Looking back on the last ten years of working with Toy Box, it seems that the overarching lesson is that there is no right or wrong way of doing things. You just have to give it all you’ve got and learn from your successes and failures.
8. What have you learned about yourself from being a playwright/director? I feel that writing in particular is an exercise in empathy. All of the characters are based in reality, so as a playwright you have to imagine what it’s like to be that person. What does he think about the world, how does he relate to his friends, lovers, and family. What are his pet peeves and fears. Every once in a while there’s a moment of realization that I am just another character. I have a bunch of pet peeves and different ways in which I relate to other people. I see the world only through the lens of all of those character particularities. The wonderful thing about writing is those moments of relative objectivity when you see yourself as just another character. It puts things in perspective.
9. What's the best advice you've ever received? A dear professor in college once told us that “Sometimes you have to kill your baby.” As a writer you can get very attached to a certain scene or image, but you have to be clear sighted enough to know when to cut something that really isn’t working.
10. If you could dream about anyone while you sleep, who would it be? I’d like to smoke opium with Edgar Allan Poe.
11. Favorite way to spend your day off? Depends on the season. We’re just starting to some warm weather now, and in the spring there’s nothing better than sitting in the sun with a good book.
12. Favorite way to stay in shape? I don’t stay in shape, but if I did, I think I would like surfing.
13. Boxers or Briefs? Boxer briefs. Is that the right answer?
14. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? My favorite dream I had as a kid was when I had the ability to fly.