Interview: Gabriel Jason Dean

Posted on May 15, 2013

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DeanWhere are you from originally? Where are you living now?
I grew up in Chatsworth, GA–a small town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. I’m now living in Brooklyn, NY by way of Austin, TX by way of Atlanta, GA.

What first drew you to a life in the theatre and playwriting, in particular?
I was small, I was a dork and I sucked at sports. All of those things are mostly still true. I’m more athletic now. At least I think I am. Also, my dad was the guitarist in a traveling gospel band and he talked me into singing for the group. You see, my dad was more of a business man than a believer. A Jesus band with a child front man makes way more money. My local fame among the church crowd along with my small stature and ineptitude for sport insured that I took more than my fair share of abuse on the playground, so I eventually learned how to make the bullies laugh. So to recap, it was my lack of height, my preference for books instead of balls, the sense of comedic timing I developed in order to avoid being wedgied and my experience as the lead singer of a faithless gospel group that set me up perfectly for a life in the theatre.

What is the first play you ever wrote and has it been produced?
It was called A Child’s Last Christmas. As you can tell from the title, it was a total drama. It was about a boy who had leukemia and probably wasn’t going to make it to next Christmas. Yeah. And so his family did everything they could to make that year’s Christmas the best ever. Uplifting, I guess, but ultimately very tragic. If I remember correctly, I had the good sense to end on a happy note, never really letting the audience know the protagonist’s fate. I’d never personally experienced something as painful as losing someone to leukemia. In retrospect, it was probably something I’d overheard from the many pulpits our gospel group visited. Regardless, in fourth grade, I thought you had to write about death if you were to be taken seriously as a writer. I guess not much has changed. I’m still pretty obsessed with the quote-unquote tragic, but now I try to find the humor within it. Terminus is a good example of that. A Child’s Last Christmas was indeed produced, as a radio play, for second graders. I also directed it. And starred in it. Afterwards, my teacher, an actor at the local community theatre and a big inspiration to me at the time, suggested I think about adapting some “Ranger Rick” stories. I did. They were very well received by the second graders. I guess I should put more talking animals in my plays.

What or who has inspired you?
My mother, my grandmother (see question 5), my wife (see question 7), my mother-in-law…were and are all incredibly resolved, funny, intuitive and fierce ladies. I’m inspired by them on a daily basis.

What was the initial inspiration for the play being workshopped at PlayPenn?
My grandmother. Terminus, and the whole collection–The Attapulgus Elegies– which it comes from is the most personal writing I’ve ever done. While my folks were working to pay bills, my grandmother–or Nanny as I called her– raised me. And that meant I had a very wild childhood in all the best ways. By her own admission, my Nanny wasn’t the world’s greatest mom to her own three children. I suspect she was making up for that in her relationship with me. Though she was elderly when I was a boy, Nanny never let her age hinder her from thoroughly exploring the 30-something acres of woods behind her house with me. Once, she helped me design and make a ropes course in the trees. She made me wear a motorcycle helmet the whole time and never climbed any trees herself (or so I thought). But, she encouraged my imagination. When it was time to test the course–which included a zip line– she distracted me with her wild-eyed pitch for another project–making pancakes that included everything we loved for breakfast (scrambled cheesy eggs, coffee, bacon, jelly, strawberries and probably chocolate chips) mixed right into the batter. She loved to eat! The pancakes were delicious. The next day when I went to check out the course, the ropes were mysteriously dismantled and on the ground. I thought it was some of the neighbor kids, but I know better now. Like Eller Freeman in the play, my Nanny was a sassy spitfire gal. She earned her attitude the hard way. She was an enchanting storyteller. You never knew if her stories were true, but they absolutely held your attention and made you want more. No question about it, Rosella Wade is the reason I’m a playwright. As she got older, her sanity began to slip and when I was in my early twenties, after a fall that destroyed her shoulder, the family put her in an assisted living home. Financially, it truly was the only option, but it crushed me to see her there. I still wish I could’ve done something to stop it. Tenacious as hell, she lived for six years in that home and eventually died there. From something very personal, the story of Terminus slowly emerged. I’ve been writing this play for over ten years now. I couldn’t even tell you how many drafts I’ve written and how many are yet to come.

Why did you decide to apply to PlayPenn, and what do you hope to get out of the conference?
You mean, aside from the fact that I apply to every single development opportunity out there and pray that someone says yes? Well…I visited PlayPenn in 2011 on a fellowship from the Kennedy Center and I met Paul and Michele, got to know them a bit and really loved what they were doing in Philly. When I asked Paul what he looks for in a play, he said, “Heart.” And then seeing the pieces that year, I saw that Paul was for real. John Yearley, Lisa Dillman, Lauren Yee…those writers ripped me open and made me laugh at the same time. The next year I applied and was named a finalist with my play Bacha Bazi (Boy Play). This year, I really did apply everywhere, but genuinely thought PlayPenn would be the best place for Terminus since it is such a heart song kind of play for me. I wanted to develop this particular play because I think it’s currently the core of the seven play collection. And I figure if I can nail this one, I’ve got a better shot at the other six. I’m coming to Philly ready to listen intensely to the play and make each word sing for its supper. This really is a piece in which the language is doing 99% of the heavy lifting, so I’m hoping to hone the text to a taut specificity and come away with a script that accumulatively earns your engagement beat by beat, climaxing with its inevitable, yet unexpected, epic finish. So, all that to say…I hope to make the play awesome(er).

What’s the most interesting job you’ve worked while trying to support yourself as a writer?
The only job I’ve ever done that fell outside of theatre was being a real estate broker. I started doing it as a part-time job to supplement my income as a writer/actor and then swiftly took over my life. I was doing it when the market was really good (remember that?) and so I made a lot of money very quickly and got addicted to the feeling of security a nice balance in my bank account created. I was occasionally acting, but not writing at all. By year four, I was managing a team of five people; I had gained over 30 pounds of stress weight and was probably an alcoholic. I was miserable. And so my wife and fellow artist, Jessie Dean, did a very nice thing. She set up a room in our house just for my writing. There was a big table with a comfy chair, my favorite books, my laptop, freshly sharpened pencils and eerily white paper waiting for words. She took me to the room and said, “I made this for you. Don’t come out till you’ve written a play.” I wrote two plays in two weeks and that next spring got accepted to grad school at the Michener Center at UT-Austin. But that foray into real estate exposed me to the language of money and I experienced first-hand how the idea of ownership shapes and shift our identities.

If you could change anything about the American theatre, what would it be?
DRASTICALLY increase public funding for theatre. Chances are if you’re reading this interview, you don’t need me to tell you about how abysmal funding for the arts is in the U.S. You’re in the choir. If not, there are plenty of shocking statistics out there. Google it.

Broadly, the lack of funding has done three things:
1) It perpetuates a culture that views…well, culture…as unnecessary.
2) Theatre has become an institution for and by the privileged.
3) Afraid their doors will close, theatres—large and small—have become risk-averse and program from a place of fear rather than one of artistic integrity.

Just to acknowledge, yes, this is a soapbox. If you don’t like those, skip ahead to question 9.

Cultural critic Chris Hedges writes in Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, “A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, and fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.” Hedges concludes that Americans prize spectacle over literacy and are growing less empathetic at a rapid rate. I agree and believe that theatre, when it’s consumed, has the power to halt the decline of empathy, which, in turn, might decrease radicalization, racism, binary politics, etc. But on a smaller scale, increased empathy could decrease the onslaught of depression and anxiety which, in turn would decrease crime which would lower the prison population which might stimulate the economy…I could go on. You get the point. Theatre is important. Let’s endow it.

Complete this sentence: I write plays because…
I love the theatre and its ancient power to transform its participants and I want to do my part to make sure it continues. Writing plays is one way to do that.

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