Five Questions for Jason Grote
Name: Jason Grote
Title/Occupation: I’m mostly identified as a playwright, but I also DJ on WFMU (The Acousmatic Theater Hour with Karinne and Jason G), am working on a movie, and sometimes do generative/collaborative work. I also teach (currently at Rutgers and Hollins), and I just auditioned for a play.
Organization/Company: See above
1. Where did you grow up and how did you end up where you are now?
I joke that my upbringing was the worst of all possible worlds: my family moved around a lot, but we never left New Jersey. I actually like Jersey (I reverse-commute for my teaching job and radio show), but I really prefer living in Brooklyn. I moved to Williamsburg almost by accident in 1997, after my life in NJ had pretty much fallen apart — for a couple of months before that, I was couch-surfing in Jersey City and Piscataway. I didn’t even know Williamsburg was cool at the time, just that a friend needed a roommate and I needed a new start. I had a fun few years there and probably developed some respiratory ailments, and am now happily settled in Fort Greene with my wife.
2. Which performance, song, play, movie, painting or other work of art had the biggest influence on you and why?
Yeesh, it depends what day it is. I probably wound up doing theater because I was permanently damaged by seeing an NYU production of Cabaret at 4 years old. But then again, my parents took me to see the ultra-weird David Bowie movie The Man Who Fell to Earth at around the same time, so who knows? Now that I think about it, everything I’ve done since probably has its roots in those two experiences. Five current obsessions: Slavoj Zizek, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Anne Carson, comics in general, WFMU in general.
3. What skill, talent or attribute do you most wish you had and why?
I wish I had musical talent. I’ve been seeing live bands and collecting records since adolescence, but I can’t sing or play an instrument to save my life. I guess that’s why I wound up on the radio, even though I’m a piker when contrasted with the average music-obsessed WFMU DJ.
4. What do you do to make a living? Describe a normal day.
Well, teaching is just teaching — I’ve taught most of my classes for a few years now, so I can use my long commute to prep class discussions and do my grading. On a typical writing (i.e., non-teaching) day, I will fritter away hours and hours on email, small errands, and other stupid and non-stupid distractions (like selecting radio plays for my show from mp3 submissions, Ubu.com, or PennSound, which is mostly fun). I get my news from listening to Democracy Now every day, plus skimming Google News, Salon, Slate, The Huffington Post, and the NYT (which my wife gets for the crossword). I generally try to avoid the NYT arts section, as it makes me insane. The op-ed pages make me angry too, but in a more pleasurable way somehow.
Somehow, in the middle of all of this nonsense, I have managed to be pretty prolific, though I don’t know how — often I feel like I look at the clock and it’s 4pm and I haven’t written a word, and I still have to make it to the Post Office or something. Yet somewhere in there I’m averaging something like 1.3 scripts per year, most of which have premiered in a more or less timely fashion, though I barely remember writing any of them.
When I actually am writing, I prefer to write as slowly as possible; I typically start from page one and revise and refine as I go — I get to wherever I get to, then the next time I revisit a script, I start again from page one. This results in much better work than writing a quick-and-dirty first draft, then spending months rewriting. Plays I’ve tried to write like this (which seems to be standard operating procedure) never come out well and are often deeply flawed no matterhow much work I do — my way takes longer at first, but in the end the play is done much more quickly.
Then, miscellany; often I’m traveling or at rehearsal or in meetings. And every Sunday night is the radio show.
5. Have you ever had to make a choice between work and art? What did you choose, why, and what was the outcome?
In college, I was costume shop manager for a production of Nicholas Nickelby, and my duties required me to call in sick to my job a horrible club-music-n’-big-hair women’s clothing store in a North Jersey mall. My manager said she’d fire me if I didn’t come in, so I quit — I didn’t have any other source of income, but it wasn’t like the store was paying me a living wage anyway. It’s pretty much gone like that since.
Luckily my teaching job, difficult as it can be in terms of workload,has provided me tremendous freedom, both in terms of schedule and having a source of income outside my creative work. It gets tough to juggle sometimes, but it’s worth it. There’s a reason why so many writers have been teachers — I have the late, lamented David Foster Wallace’s syllabus taped to my office door as a reminder to be generous and rigorous, and that teaching and creating are not entirely separated experiences.