As much as I love getting to interview my idols, I equally enjoy interviewing new talent. It's exciting to talk to them about early projects and learn about their hopes and dreams. Michael Raver is a playwright and actor on the rise. This past April, his play Riptide, received an industry reading in New York city. His latest play, Fire on Babylon, was nominated for The Robert Chesley/Victor Bumbalo Foundation Award for Playwriting, as well as being named a semifinalist for The O'Neill Conference in 2015. Now, Fire on Babylon is making its New York City premiere in the Fresh Fruit Festival from July 12-17 at The Wild Project (195 East 3rd Street). Click here for tickets!
1. Your latest play, Fire on Babylon, is getting ready to be workshopped in the Fresh Fruit Festival this July. What excites you about having Fire on Babylon in the Fresh Fruit Festival? I’ve been working on this play since 2012. After the years of pushing this play uphill, it’s exciting to get it on a proper stage. There’s something magical that happens between the process of doing a reading and fully staging something that is pretty indescribable and I’m so happy that we’ve finally moved the play to that point.
2. Fire on Babylon tells the story of two New Yorkers each locked in personal crisis, while the city is having one of its own: the 2003 blackout. What made you want to set this show in the confines of 2003 blackout? Someone asked me that a few days ago and I honestly can’t even remember. Isn’t that terrible? I do vividly remember that blackout and how, when it first happened, everyone panicked that we were being attacked again. But as soon as the word spread that it was an outage, it became this huge out-breath for everyone. People’s lives paused. Everyone, particularly in New York, got to take a pause from the chaos for a hot second. The two characters in Fire on Babylon are afforded that same opportunity. I’m someone who sometimes needs to be derailed in order to see clearly. It’s uncomfortable, but it can be so revitalizing.
3. What do you relate to most about your character, "Christian"? T hat he’s manipulative. I’m kidding. And I’m not (laughs) Seriously though, I think he’s got a questionable value system, which is something I at one time could identify with. Thankfully these days, life has me in a much more discerning place with what I spend time thinking about and doing. He sticks his foot in his mouth, which I can absolutely relate to. I have a propensity for letting my emotions take the driver’s seat sometimes, which "Christian" definitely does. But I try not to judge him too much because it’d make the task of playing him impossible. I’d be winking and nodding to the audience rather than letting Jeffrey honestly rake me over the coals.
4. In this show, your character get into a psychosexual situation with an older man (a couggay if you will). Has there been a time in your life when you've been involved with an older man? If so, what did you learn from that experience? I’ve never exclusively dated someone who was as far away in age as "Hugo" is from "Christian." When I’ve spent any time with someone older than me, regardless of the circumstances, the second that there’s some kind of parenting happening on the older person’s part, I want to run for the door. It can feel patronizing. I’m all about being a student to someone else’s teacher, but romantically, I get the itch to step away as soon as I’m being placed into a surrogate child role. I get that the father/son roles are easy to recognize in Babylon but the play isn’t really about daddy issues. The same way that it isn’t about a midlife crisis either, despite it centering on a middle-aged person in crisis.
5. How do you feel the generation gap of these two characters comes into play? The play feels, in some ways, like a pendulum swinging back and forth. The "cat and mouse" thing that’s going on is fun because at any given moment, the roles switch back and forth. Sometimes really quickly. They start the play off in very quintessential behaviors that are indicative of stereotypes for their age. "Hugo" is the rambling older man archetype. A bit of an absent-minded professor. "Christian" is a quiet, potentially simple younger man. But they spend the entirety of the story playing against what might be the obvious behavior for someone of their respective ages. When things get physical, when things get verbal, when things slow down or when things speed up between them, the instigator isn’t always the person who you might assume it’d be. The age gap also proves a really important point: no matter our age, life still can happen to us. At any time and without warning. We can always be embarrassed, feel lust, get confused, lost and also be found and feel love.
6. As the play unfolds and the blackout happens, press notes, say secrets are revealed. What is one secret you have been holding onto that you would like to let go of and finally reveal? Oh shit. I have no idea. I’m a pretty terrible liar so secrets are actually kind of hard for me to keep. I draw a pretty distinct difference between secrecy and privacy though. Privacy is great because I see it as a loving and protective concept. Secrecy is awful because it denotes that there’s some shame somewhere. Shame is harrowing and I’m not into it. Not at all.
7. Press notes also state that the character of "Hugo Thomas" is a recluse. Was there ever a period when you were a recluse and if so, how did you emerge back into the world? When I was about fifteen or so I was dealing with a lot of things and stayed in the house for most of the summer of that year. Wasn’t eating much either. My poor family didn’t know what to do. I’ve had plenty of moments where I’ve wanted to drop off the radar. It’s a hard thing for us to do, right? We’re addicted to our phones and our computers. And I get it. We like feeling connected to each other. Communication is one of the great advantages to being human. I’m also temperamentally highly sensitive so the idea of being without connection to other people can totally freak me out. I do also need the balance of alone time and as surprising as it might seem to people who see me as extremely talkative, I have plenty of long stretches where I don’t open my mouth at all except to eat or brush my teeth.
8. In addition to writing this play, you are also starring in it. How do you divide actor/playwright when rehearsing and performing the show? Do you ever blur the lines or are you able to keep things pretty separate? I think the only thing I need is a clear picture about the story I’m trying to tell and to be directed by someone who wants to tell that same story. And trust. Respect also goes a long way on both parties. Thankfully, I have a truckload of respect for Paul Mason Barnes and I’m greatly relieved that he’s trusting me to wear both hats. I’ve taken the "kill your darlings" concept to heart as a writer and am not precious about any one, single line. I check for accuracy as opposed to better-ness. As long as the text in the script is accurately telling the story, then I’m all for it. As a castmate, Jeff Hayenga has been super helpful with that too. Neither of them are afraid to tell me that they don’t like a certain line or that something needs to get cut. At the end of the day, my job as a writer and an actor still have to deal with one very important bottom line: is this the truth?
9. Who or what inspired you to become a playwright/performer? I love this question. I never thought there was anything odd about wanting to do more than one thing. It wasn’t until I got out of school that I was ever given a "should" or a "you can’t" by anyone about it. For some reason, culturally, we celebrate Bob Dylan, Sting, Alanis Morissette and Lady Gaga for writing and performing their own material. Richard Pryor wrote his own jokes. The performers on Saturday Night Live are expected to write sketches. But there has long been a stigma against actors writing work that they perform. Shakespeare did it. And thankfully, the multi-hyphenate thing is starting to normalize a little more. Thank you Lin-Manuel Miranda. Thank you Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. Thanks Kate Hamill. Renaissance people. I respect when playwrights don’t want to perform their own work. But I think to dogmatically say that it’s not possible to be in my own play is a bummer. Trust can go a long way.
10. On "Call Me Adam" I have a section called One Percent Better, where through my own fitness commitment, I try to encourage people to improve their own life by one percent every day. What is something in your life that you want to improve by one percent better every day? Staying in the present moment as much as possible. I think I’ve got my head up my own ass a little more than I need it to be. I have moments of being an ostrich and I’d be willing to let some of that go. I’m down for it.
Michael Raver is an actor, playwright and journalist. His performance as a young "Richard Feynman" in the film How We Built the Bomb received rave reviews. His Off-Broadway debut was in Ellen McLaughlin's adaptation of The Persians with Tony Randall's National Actor's Theater. His most recent television appearance was on TURN: Washington's Spies. As a playwright, his adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray was produced by Sonnet Repertory Theatre at the Signature Theatre Center in 2012, and a reading of his pre-WWII adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull was seen at the Pearl Theatre Company. He has also served, for three years, as a judge for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction. He regularly contributes cultural arts journalism for Classical TV, as well as pieces for Hamptons York Monthly, Dance Magazine, Cool Hunting and Nature's Post.