Five Questions for Sylvan Oswald
1. Where did you grow up and how did you end up where you are now?
Philadelphia and surrounds. I grew up in Cheltenham, though my mom had some apartments in Fairmount Park and Germantown. I would ride the trains from the suburbs through North Philadelphia downtown for acting classes at the Actors’ Center and the Arden Theater. My writing comes out of the scenery of that ride – broken down buildings mostly. When I was a kid I used to draw fanzines for fictional characters. Then I wrote songs on my guitar. I took up directing in high school and college, and then did playwriting after that. I have made my way so far by starting groups or projects or in some ways artfully misunderstanding things.
2. Which performance, song, play, movie, painting or other work of art had the biggest influence on you and why?
There was not really a specific work of art – but a few key moments. Initially, it was frustration at seeing no way out of the high school chorus line – that’s where they put girls like me. My school had an extra theater no one was using. My acting teacher at the Arden told us she had been using Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting to come up with her exercises. It was the first time anyone had made leadership transparent, “you can just buy that book and do it yourself.” I did. And I bought Boal’s Games for Actors and Non-Actors – I was 15 – because by then I was plotting to take over the little theater and start a student-run theater group. And I needed some activities. But Boal wasn’t just about acting games. It was Invisible Theater! I had no idea theater had these other uses before that. I wasn’t actually doing political theater, I was directing plays in a suburb, but it was still cool. The next big shift came from library-trolling as an undergrad and spending hours pouring over pictures in academic journals of German Theater and Robert Wilson’s work. I decided that I should write the text to go with the pictures, all of them.
3. What skill, talent or attribute do you most wish you had and why?
Wish I could compose music and then I could make a gesamtkunstwerk. I also wish I really knew graphic design and carpentry and had a better memory for things people said.
4. What do you do to make a living? Describe a normal day.
Writing in the morning plus work for one of my jobs in the afternoon and a show in the evening. Or no shows when I’m really busy – often I’m working at night too to get it all done. I work freelance running a grant program and I teach playwriting at two colleges in the area. I also work on the journal I started with Jordan Harrison.
5. Have you ever had to make a choice between work and art? What did you choose, why, and what was the outcome?
Every day in terms of holding onto that brain space for art making when you know you have to answer fifty e-mails for other people later on. Though I’m lucky, my jobs are all in my field. The biggest turning point was after grad school. I took a day job for a few years to get health insurance, thinking I could write at night or something. Turns out I don’t write so well at night. After a few years I put a stop to the total misdirection of my soul, put my stuff in storage, got a $5 buzz-cut, and set out on three months of couch-surfing that was just the time I needed to launch a new play. It turned into two years, and now, my current life.
Coming up: Play A Journal of Plays #4 is out now! Co-edited with Jordan Harrison and featuring new plays and ensemble texts, the journal is available in New York at the Drama Bookshop and St. Marks Bookshop. Launch party at New Dramatists February 8th, 7pm