Oliver Butler is best known for his work with The Debate Society with whom he has developed 6 plays over the last 6 years. He is currently working with The Production Company on the World Premiere of Goodbye New York Goodbye Heart, opening on December 2 at Here, written by acclaimed Australian playwright Lally Katz.
1. Where did you grow up and how did you end up where you are now?
I was born in Washington D.C. My parents were actors, and I think that my father was in a play in D.C. and my mom was there visiting when she went into labor. My Dad said that my Mother was acting in Romeo and Juliet when I was conceived, and he was acting in Hamlet when I was born. But I think that might be a made-up story. I am definitely the son of actors- there are a lot of stories surrounding my creation and childhood and I have trouble knowing whether they are fact or poetic exaggeration. My mother, Pamela Payton-Wright, is still a working actor, a great theater artist who I had the chance to work with on Cape Disappointment.
I grew up in Connectucut, went to a private day school and boarding school (on scholarship), but graduated from a public high school in East Lyme Connecticut. I tried to study french and political science in college, but somehow I ended up in theater. After a summer at Williamstown as an acting apprentice, I started directing back in college. I can’t say that my mother especially wanted me to become a theater artist, knowing how hard the life is. But both my parents have supported the choice, and are excited by the work I am doing.
For the last 7 years I have been making plays with my theater company The Debate Society. Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen are the playwrights, and in working with them on 6 new plays I have had the chance to figure out everything that I currently know about what makes a play good and how to tell a story. Working with them has been like my own private graduate program in theatrical storytelling, and most of what people know of my work is connected to The Debate Society. I am the artist I am today because of this ongoing collaboration.
2. Which performance, song, play, movie, painting or other work of art had the biggest influence on you and why?
About 4 years ago I took a job with Elevator Repair Service, driving their set for Gatz from Orange, Connecticut to Minneapolis in a 24 foot truck. I took the job because it felt like a way to have a paid road trip. Driving a a big-rig half-way across the country also sounded romantic, and it was. At the end of the trip though, I got to see the 7 hour marathon of Gatz and it blew my mind. I guess I am really interested in simple presentations that expand in their complexity over time. That production really creeps up on you, and you get a unique experience in that at the 6th hour of the show, in addition to the brilliant storytelling (Thanks ERS) and the brilliant writing (Thanks Fitzgerald) there is a shared energy in the audience – a feeling that you are actually going to achieve this feat together.
I think about that play a lot, and got to bring my girlfriend to see the latest at The Public.
3. What skill, talent or attribute do you most wish you had and why?
I wish I spoke Spanish. I am working on it. Mostly I try to speak spanish with some of my co-workers at the shop (see next question) to get better. But mostly that involves me ordering coffee or talking about pop singers. My greatest dream in life is to travel, and I have always felt that actually knowing another language intimately is sort of like travelling to the place. Really I’d like to be fluent in like 5 languages, but I am going to focus on just one for while.
4. What do you do to make a living? Describe a normal day.
I am a carpenter who builds rooftop gardens with a company called City Beautiful Carpentry. I get to spend most of my days on beautiful rooftops all over New York City. My best friend also works for the company, so most days I get to spend with him. But the work is hard. Here is my normal day lately.
6AM: Wake up, make coffee, go to work. (In case of today – finish this interview)
7AM: Arrive on rooftop in Soho, do carpentry things
11AM: Take coffee break. Make a phone call to a designer or Lally (playwright for Goodbye New York)
1PM: Eat Hot and Sour soup, or local sandwich for lunch.
4PM: Break for day
5PM: Rush home, shower, change for rehearsal.
6PM: Rehearsal for play in Manhattan
10PM: Designer meet
11PM: Home with girlfriend. Have a beer. Watch ½ of 30 Rock, Fall asleep.
5. Have you ever had to make a choice between work and art? What did you choose, why, and what was the outcome?
I feel like I am making this choice every single day. All day long I am doing my day job to keep the art afloat, or doing a play in spite of it making me poor. My whole life is a compromise between life and art.