This week we meet award-winning playwright, director and NYU Professor Joe Salvatore. What struck us when we first met Joe was his infectious energy and generosity. He’s a natural collaborator and the sort of artist who encourages and exalts the work and talents of others. And so… we want to take this chance to celebrate his work and talent by featuring his play ‘Bromancing the OK’ as this weeks Play of the Week.
I’m a playwright and director. I also teach in the Program in Educational Theatre at New York University’s Steinhardt School. I live in Harlem with my cat Buster who makes regular appearances on my Instagram feed @profjoesal. I work primarily with primary and secondary source materials to create plays based on historical figures and events. I also make ethnodramas from interview transcripts and field notes. It’s only in the last five years that I’ve begun to experiment with writing more fictional characters and stories.
What is your play about?
“Bromancing the OK” is about two young men, Jeff and Matt, who are in their 20s and have been best friends since college. They work on Wall Street and share an apartment in Manhattan. One night they’re home having a conversation in front of the television, and the subject shifts to their girlfriends. Matt reveals that he’s starting to think about marriage, and Jeff freaks out. The conversation then shifts to a discussion about their own relationship and begins to examine what it means for two straight-identified men to have a deep, emotional friendship.
What inspired you to write the play?
I read an interview with Hanne Blank on Salon in 2012, and that was the major inspiration for the play. Blank wrote a book called Straight that looks at the history of heterosexuality, and like others before her, Blank points out that in the earlier part of the 20th century, male sexuality used to be much more fluid. Men used to be able to express their affection towards one another without the stigma that we have today. I think that’s changing for a younger generation of men, so I thought it would be interesting for two straight-identified friends to have a conversation about what it means to care deeply for one another in a platonic way. What that looks like, sounds like, and why.
What is your creative process?
Historical periods, figures, current events, music, and news articles are all fodder for me as a writer. I usually get intrigued about someone or something, and then I start to have questions. My creative process is a lot about answering those questions. I write to figure out the answers. I used to work very quickly, kind of rushing things to completion, and now I’m more interested in letting ideas marinate. “Bromancing the OK’ just came out of me in one sitting; shorter plays will often happen that way for me. Then I spend lots of time revising. The version that’s available on TreePress is draft 12. I really value what actors bring to the process of play development, and I listen carefully to what they have to say about the play and the dialogue in particular. At a certain point, I trust the actor’s understanding of a character I’ve written as much as I trust my own. The actor is the one embodying what I’ve written, so I fully believe that they know the character as well as I do. A thoughtful actor can be incredibly helpful to me as I revise dialogue and generate realistic stakes for a given moment or set of circumstances.
What advice do you have for new writers?
I’ve learned over the last couple of years that it’s very important to ritualize my writing practice. I set aside specific times during the week to do it, and if I commit to those times, I can actually generate material. I heard John Patrick Shanley speak a few weeks ago, and he tells writers that they have a lot of bad writing to do, so get started! That was really comforting to hear, and I’ve been trying to embrace that idea for myself. After eight months of consistent writing and generating a lot of material, I’m feeling really tired, so my productivity has dropped a bit over the last few of weeks. It’s unsettling, but I’m trying to embrace it rather than fight it or panic. I’m thinking of it as a short hiatus rather than writer’s block and recognizing that I need to refuel. I’m a runner, and I work with a trainer once a week. He uses the metaphor of the wood cutter who can only cut wood if the axe is sharp, which means that the wood cutter has to take time out to sharpen the axe. I think the same applies to creativity and writing. So I’m “sharpening my axe” right now.
Who are your literary influences?
As far as writers go, I’d say that I’m influenced by Anna Deavere Smith, Tony Kushner, Bertolt Brecht, Moises Kaufman, Shakespeare, Sarah Ruhl, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Jonathan Larson. Because I’m also a director, I feel like my writing is influenced by the ideas of directors and choreographers like Anne Bogart, Susan Marshall, Mary Zimmerman, Justin Peck, Declan Donnellan, and Michel Saint-Denis.
Why do you think theatre is important?
Theatre is a space where people come together to collectively witness a live story unfolding in real time, and I think that it’s really important that we share stories. The act of sharing helps us to find our common experiences as a community, something that we desperately need right now. Just last week I saw The Father by Florian Zeller in a translation by Christopher Hampton. It was an excellent production with a brilliant performance by Frank Langella in the title role. In the final fifteen minutes of the play, I found myself overcome with emotion, as I felt like I was watching something very familiar up there onstage in front of me. And the man next to me, a complete stranger, seemed to be responding in a similar way. We didn’t know each other, but we were somehow having a shared experience in that moment. I think that’s what makes theatre so powerful. The same kind of connection might happen between two audience members watching a film, but there’s something about the liveness of the event, being in the actual presence of the performers, that makes theatre feel more important to me.
Joe is working on the next draft of a yet to be titled full-length play. He’s in the research phase for a new immersive, site-specific theatre piece inspired by the life and work of American visual artist Paul Cadmus. This summer he’s teaching a course on play development and a course on writing 10-minute plays at NYU. He serves as the director and dramaturg for a one-woman play called Enthroned by Jenny Macdonald. That play premiered at the First Fortnight Festival in Dublin, Ireland, in January 2016, and it was selected for presentation at the New York International Fringe Festival in August 2016. So he’ll be working on the remount of that project in August. Then he’ll be on family trip to Asia before the next semester begins in September!