Five Questions for Isaac Butler

Name: Isaac Butler
Title/Occupation: Freelance theatre director and writer
Organization/Company: Various, but most people know me for Parabasis, my blog.

1. Where did you grow up and how did you end up where you are now?

I grew up in Washington, D.C., I lived there until college.  D.C. was not a cool place to live when I was growing up, we were probably most famous for our crackhead mayor and sky high murder rate.  So growing up a little white kid with a certain amount of privilege… I lead a pretty cloistered life, I’m not going to lie. But it also turns out that D.C. had– and continues to have– this incredibly vibrant theater scene that was then in the midst of its kinda 2.0 phase. 1.0 was, of course, the Arena Stage and touring shows, and then there was this second generation of theaters that came up– the Shakespeare (Where I saw my first adult play, St. Joan), The Studio, Woolly Mammoth, The Source etc.  And when I was 12, I officially became part of that scene for awhile when I was cast as Jason in Falsettoland. I talk a lot about that experience on my blog in this post.

Anyway, that show ran for 100 performances and I was pretty much hooked. I took a lot of acting classes, acted at Buck’s Rock Summer Camp (honestly, if you are or have an artsy kid who doesn’t totally fit in, send that kid to Buck’s Rock!) and at Georgetown Day, where I went to school.  And I thought Okay, I’m getting the leads, time to go to college and study theatre and become an actor!

But there was  aproblem that developed… I couldn’t– psychologically speaking– take being an actor. I couldn’t take going to the places you have to go to in that way that actors (or at least method trained actors, which I was) have to go to.  So first show in college, I get cast as the lead. I was Barry Champlain in Talk Radio. Justin Long, who does the Mac ads (he’s the Mac) he was Stu.  And every night I had had to have an onstage nervous breakdown while chain smoking and drinking flat coke masquerading as coffee. And I wasn’t really directed that much. Apparently, my nervous breakdowns were really convincing. I was physically literally sick from smoking (15 cigarettes roughly, in 90 minutes) and mentally just… I’d have to go back to my dorm and stare at a wall for 2 hours before I could talk to people.

I realized this wasn’t healthy. That I couldn’t do this in a healthy way. And I had directed a couple of shows (Peter Shaffer’s Five Finger Exercise and Daniel MacIvor’s Never Swim Alone) and loved it, and started doing it more, and was totally and completely hooked.

Okay, that was long.  You can edit if you want!  As to being a writer, that happened by accident. I was depressed and thought about keeping a journal to talk about my thoughts and feelings and theories about art, poltiics and theatre. But being in theatre, I can’t do anything without an audience, so I started a blog instead.  There were very very few theatre blogs at that point. There was like you, me, George Hunka, Dan Trujillo, Laura Axelrod and Terry Teachout.  Anyway, so I just stared doing it and it was fun and I started doing it more and more.

It’s weird. I was 25 before I started calling myself an “artist”. And it was only last year that I started calling myself a “Writer” and seeking professional writing work, and now it’s the bulk of my income. It seems silly. Most people have been thinking of me primarily as a writer for years. I mean, when they think of me. Which is probably very very seldom!

2. Which performance, song, play, movie, painting or other work of art had the biggest influence on you and why?

This is such a hard question.  I came up in the golden age of the “AIDS play” which is a horrible moniker, but there were all these amazing plays about this plague that bended theatrical convention in really wild ways but also contained a real raw honest emotionality to them. They used irony, but shot through it and transcended it at the first time. Of those, Nicky Silver’s Pterodactyls was my favorite play for years. I finally got to direct it in college, and it still remains a play I’d love to direct again.  I saw Angels in America in one weekend up here in NYC in I think 8th grade or 9th grade or something, and Ir emember never feeling so alive before in my life.I would also say that– and this is going to sound ridiculous, i know– but seeing Soderburgh’sOut of Sight kind of changed my life.  It’s a resolutely mainstreamovie– I mean, it’s a George Clooney/Jennifer Lopez crime vehicle, for christ’s sake! But I loved how he took that movie and, while remaining incredibly entertaining, he made it smart, and formally interesting, and experimented a bit.  I loved the way he married a lot of different concerns on that project.Two others, if I can list them.. Peter Brook’s The Open Door and David Foster Wallace’s Salon interview with Laura Miller from when Infinite Jest came out. I could go on and on. I feel like every play I saw when I was high school was a Major Lifechanging Event. I learned so much from all of them.

3. What skill, talent or attribute do you most wish you had and why?

I wish I could write plays.  I can write other things, but not plays. I think it’d be cool to write plays.

4. What do you do to make a living? Describe a normal day.

Well, as a freelancer, “normal” is a bit weird.  My day is a mix of working for this organization, for whom I do a large amount of copy writing and general operations work (if you click on the “issues” tab, I co-wrote all of that).  So that takes up a couple of hours a day. And then there’s Critic-O-Meter which I currently make no money off of, but we’re working on that. That takes up 1-2 hours a day.  Then there’s Parabasis, which is unprofit!  And then I work on articles, or chasing down articles to do, or e-mailing people to do interviews etc. I’m on deadline for three articles right now this week– one for American Theatre, one for The Drama League and one for Vassar Quarterly. And then there’s theatre work.  So I’m chasing that down, reading scripts etc.Today, for example, my AAV work is light this week because we just hired a new director and we’re still figuring things out.  So instead, I’m doing Critic-O-Meter, interviewing someone for an article, writing a rough draft of another article, blogging and going to dinner with a playwright and a few othe rcollaborators I might be doing a musical with. Of those things, the musical will pay next to nothing.5. Have you ever had to make a choice between work and art? What did you choose, why, and what was the outcome?

I am very, very lucky.  I live to some extent subsidized by inheritance and my fiancee makes a very good living.  Thus, I’m able to enjoy a standard of living above my income. I coudl live off my income if I needed to, but I’m very lucky that I don’t have to.  My choices have been more about choosing my personal life over my art.  Opportunities I haven’t taken because of needs of my relationships, family, things like that.  I turned down Williamstown one summer because my then-partner was entering grad school and I felt like I should be around to support her. I went to the Directors Lab instead.  Things like that.Now, however, I’m facing a new set of dilemmas… Anne and I are getting married, and we want to some day have a kid, maybe more than one! So now I need to think a lot harder about money and how to make more of it. And I’m not sure continuing to be a fulltime theatre person is really the answer to that. As a director, making your living means either founding a companyw hich could eventually maybe if you’re lucky pay you a living wage or travelling. A lot.  And that’s not really that possible when you also want to be a good father etc.  It’s a tough circle to square. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.

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