Saturday, November 3, 2012

CP Voices, No. 1: August Schulenburg

One of the most enjoyable experiences we have at Carrier Pigeon is the opportunity to champion voices that we feel deserve discovery by a broader audience. With that in mind, we're inviting some of them to talk about what motivates their work.

Our first interview is with playwright, actor and director August Schulenburg. A two-time contributor to Carrier Pigeon, he is a founding member of Flux Theatre Ensemble and its current Artistic Director. August will be starring in Flux's upcoming comics-genre spectacle, Hearts Like Fists by Adam Szymkowicz, as the death-wielding Dr. X. Keep up with the production at

1. I'd like to jump in by talking about your contributions to Carrier Pigeon. Both pieces of fiction, "The Midas Touch" in Vol. 1 issue 4 and "Presents" in Vol. 2 issue 1, are monologues. They're easy to read and easy to follow, focusing on one point of view, and so my perspective has been that our readers aren't suffering from not being able to see them performed live. What are your thoughts on the publication of short, multi-character plays for reading enjoyment? Do you think packaging other media resources along with the written play, like video of live readings, makes sense? Do you think we're chumps for trying to outsmart the ephemeral nature of theatre?

Donna Diamond monoprint for "Presents."
I've been thinking a lot lately about the various knowledge/aesthetic-experience delivery systems we have and their differing strengths and weaknesses. For those of us lucky enough to have decent jobs in a wealthy country like America, our challenge is one of abundance. How do we choose amongst all the good causes and great works, knowing we will never have the time to do, be and see all the things we might have done, been and seen? I can work myself into a minor frenzy, thinking of all the wrongs and plays I'd like to right and write. But, of course, time being what it isn't, the right question is what do with right now. I think that our various medias, whether videos of live readings, publications of heft or plays of whoosh are all just ways of enabling us to more deeply live here and now. Art take the great quantum forevers and compresses them into (depending on your current level of cynicism) an illusion or revelation of a meaningful pattern that expands our consciousness so that every now that follows thereafter is just a wee bit wider. We contain more life. I think theatre is especially good at this, because, like the life it apes, it allows us only the one time through. It is the espresso of here and now, you know? No? Me either. Anyway, why not pour a story into many differently shaped containers and see how it catches the light differently in each? To conclude, I see nothing chumpish about pinning these butterflies to your pages.

2. We hope there's a sense of community in our collaborative approach to the magazine, and I know Flux has built a pretty large, die-hard community of its own within the independent theatre community. In your experience, has social media strengthened those bonds, or is online chatter deceiving? What are your favorite ways you've enlisted your community to help you grow as a company dedicated to strong, personal work?

A recent Flux Sunday event. From left: Chris Wight, Lori E. Parquet,
and Rachel Hip-Flores.
Oh sure, social media has definitely strengthened the bonds of Flux's community, though I think that's only because we have such a strong in-person connection and that naturally migrates online. Sometimes social media gets portrayed as a an enigmatic and capricious Greek deity that must be fed a steady stream of content-sacrifice or she will smite you. As my time in the social media trenches has continued, I'm ever more convinced it's much simpler: People show up online for the same reasons they show up in person. There are tricks, of course, to help you navigate the ever-treacherous Facebook feed and Twitter streams, but really, it's just about showing up, listening and engaging, and providing something of real value. For Flux, that value is very much about community: Our mission is to build a creative home, and so our active presence online naturally emerges from that mission. We're constantly trying to open up our process so that when we develop plays (and we develop a lot of plays) we're also developing community. My favorite way of doing that, if I had to choose one, is Flux Sundays, our weekly play development workshop that touches over 50 new plays and 100 artists a year. And the biggest lessons of running those Sundays for the past 4+ years are numbingly obvious: Show up, even when you don't want to. Do the work to the best of your ability. Be good to each other. And have fun. Following through on such painfully simplistic maxims yields, cumulatively, a surprisingly complex and vital creative ecosystem that sustains me, like a secular church, and for which I am profoundly grateful.  

3. Thematically your work draws consistently from the well of what I think of as our nobler aspirations. In fact, your last two fully produced shows in New York, Dreamwalker and DEINDE, each explore magical ways of connecting to a higher plane of understanding in order to bring forth change to the real world. You're an atheist, right? How does man's traditional spiritual quest factor in to what your characters are looking for? 

At the core of my atheist Bible is this quote from Virginia Woolf that answers this question better than I ever could. She is trying to explain how her creative revelations come as shocks, and how these shocks drive her work forward:

“And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what: making a scene come right, making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate, it is a constant idea of mine that behind the cotton wall is hidden a pattern, that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this, that the whole world is a work of art, that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet, or a Beethoven quartet, is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven. Certainly and emphatically, there is no God. We are the words. We are the music. We are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock.”
—Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being

When I saw this piece of text staged in Anne Bogart's production of The Room, I was literally shaking and uncontrollably weeping in what can only be called a ecstatic, religious response. If you want to know more about my answer is to this very large question, the closest I've ever come to answering it is here:

4. It's been one year since you were married to Flux's Producing Director, Heather Cohn. Do you feel the priorities and values of your new characters changing as your family grows, or do you have a backlog of ideas and characters to whom you'll stay faithful? 

The cast of Hearts Like Fists. From left: Aja Houston, Becky Byers,
Rachel Hip-Flores, Marnie Schulenburg, August Schulenburg, and Chinaza Uche.
Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum.
I currently have—are you ready for this?—53 unfinished play ideas (that doesn't count TV series and novels I'm working on—yipes!). In some cases, they're just the germ of an idea, but in others, I have several scenes finished or a rough plot outlined in my mind. I'm trying very hard to catch up the ideas but that has proved impossible so far. I wonder if I ever will, and I'm certain I don't want to, although maybe that would be a kind of peace. As to whether my wonderful marriage to my dear beloved wife has affected my writing: Yes, absolutely, it has made it stronger because I am stronger. I find I'm writing faster than ever, knowing that if our family does grow I may have less hours to do so in the future. She bleeds into the work in all sorts of subtle ways, but I wouldn't say there's a larger observable shift in the nature of the work . . . at least not one I can discern yet. 

5. Last question, and this is the one I really care about: do you have any tips on how to maintain a healthy writing output while juggling a full-time job, a five-year-old theatre company, a developing home life, and other myriad distractions? I see posts from you about finishing up scenes from new plays early in the morning before work, and I'm astounded that you're able to focus on large projects in small, available increments. Also, you're always pleasant to be around. What gives?

August reads "Presents" for an audience at Grit N Glory boutique, NYC.

Thank you for these kinds words, my kind and equally busy and impressive friend. I have become more and more productive, actually, and that has happened gradually, driven by three things. The first is definitely my relationship to Heather, which sustains and inspires me daily to keep pushing. The second is Flux, and in particular, Flux Sundays, which has provided me a weekly expectation of new pages, and a regular feedback loop with topnotch actors and directors. Because of Flux Sundays, I not only write more frequently, but more effectively. The third is the most prosaic, and yet it has had a huge impact: I now keep a Google Doc where I input the minutes I spend on the things that are important to me each day. That means at the end of the week, I can actually see how my hours have been spent, and often they haven't been spent doing the things I claim to love doing most, aka, writing. The power of that empty cell is a surprisingly effective motivator, and the little thrill I get from entering in my hours is embarrassing, but undeniable. As is so often the case, what at first is an intentional and hard-fought focus then becomes second nature, where a week without writing feels like an unbearable fast. Really, we're all creatures of habit, so the trick is to become a creature with the right habits . . . including the habit of breaking out of them from time to time.


A heartfelt thank-you to August for his time and his personal consideration of my very intrusive questions. August's contributions to Carrier Pigeon can be found in Volume 1 issue 4 and Volume 2 issue 1.