St. John's Confidential File
“The Escape Artist Children” Punctures The Soul
By Michael St John
Nov 17, 2012 - 7:25:45 AM
HELLO AMERICA!—After viewing so many really bad plays from several young playwrites, it took a lot of persuasion to agree to view the latest theatre offering "The Escape Artist's Children" written by one of the most creative, fascinating writers I’ve been privileged to meet in quite a long time. His play within moments after the curtain went up captured my attention and I wasn’t set free until the last words were spoken by Christina Moses the unbelievable, gifted and utter fascinating lead actress. This is why I was determined to discuss the play and discover more about the writer and here we go!
MSJ: Since so many people are talking about your play “The Escape Artist’s Children,” what led to your need to write this kind of play with characters drowning in confusion and desperate to survive?
SH: I started writing this play to explore my relationship with my family and I realized that many of those connections with my relatives are happening in my head. There are times I’m imagining what my family thinks – and that drives a dialogue about them and me that may or may not be accurate. And that dialogue can be what motivates my behavior at times. When I began this play I was a playwriting student (at Juilliard) and I was in this amazing program taught by Chris Durang and Marsha Norman - and I had just become unemployed. So I was trying to reconstruct a sense of who I was. All that came to bear on the play – so the struggle and the confusion and search for survival emerged from that place.
MSJ: To deal with such personalities, you must have been surrounded for quite a long time to be able to delve into the shadows of people who are obviously in emotional and mental distress. As a youngster, growing up in Brooklyn, is this when you began to become aware of men and women who really didn’t know who they were, but simply just existing?
SH: New York is such a fascinating place to me because by definition it’s all about contrast. There’s incredible wealth and incredible poverty side by side and because most people ride the subway or the bus, there’s this multicultural mass of humanity that is thrown together every day. The thing that I miss most about New York is the subway for that reason. I became aware at an early age that there were wild emotional extremes all around me: there was sadness and despair everywhere – some people were homeless and struggling, some were middle class or wealthy and struggling. I spent hours watching people as a kid, and I picked up the sense of being challenged – and the sense that people were searching for hope everywhere alongside the difficulty.
MSJ: When growing up in New York, how did you see the world? Did you have the urge to join the madness of it all or did it in many ways scare you to death?
SH: Both. My parents took my brother and I to see Broadway shows from a very early age. I was exposed to the excitement of heightened reality in theatre as well as encountering pan-handlers on the way to the show. My mother was born in New York and, as any NY parent does, she emphasized not talking to strangers and all that – so I grew up both cautious about Manhattan and eager to jump into it. Consequently I saw NY as a playground – full of adventure, but also full of danger and darkness. On some level I became obsessed with that balance. How can I move through the darkness and find the joy? I’m working through that all the time.
MSJ: Is it possible to genuinely “love” someone if you are consumed with ambition?
SH: It’s a great question. I’ve always imagined my ambition around my career stuff – around writing and acting - as potentially counter to my primary relationships. It can certainly play out that way. In fact, another play of mine (Urban Rabbit Chronicles) explodes that idea – it’s about a married couple fighting over the wife’s artistic impulses (which may or may not be the result of demonic possession). Ambition can consume and love can consume – it’s a tricky balance. I’m in a terrific relationship, and we live in different states, so I get to be consumed with my career stuff in huge chunks and then get to relax into some “cozy time” periodically. That works for me in many ways, but I know finding the balance between career and love is always an issue.
MSJ: Since becoming a writer as well as being a creative member of the entertainment industry, have your values changed and do you look at people in a more cynical way.
SH: I don’t think my values have changed. I was raised to seem pretty “put together” and middle class. My parents are retired teachers. My dad’s a big church-goer. No matter what was going on at home, we were taught to leave the house looking neat and organized. When I started doing theatre at Yale I met artists who felt the need to wear black and do drugs and act wild and that was never me. For me the work is about the work. If I’m writing and acting then I’m doing the work. I don’t have to have a million vices to be a real artist. I think I partly get that from my father, who is a visual artist as well as an educator. The way I see it, being a gay black writer/actor already feels counter cultural. I know a lot of lawyers and stock-brokers (and they’re cool people) – but they have lives that are quite different from mine. What I’ve learned is that it’s important for me to surround myself with support for my work and support in my life. I have some really good friends I rely on. I still go to church. I try to create a safe and sane space. That way I can channel insanity and chaos into my art while being grounded in my life.
MSJ: What do you want most in your life right now…success, love, wealth or what?
SH: I’m always looking for more balance – creating a healthy combination of work, rest, exercise, relationships and spiritual growth. That sounds idealized, but that’s really my struggle. In 2008, I started working as a creativity coach – helping other artists look at issues of balance. It’s always a mirror for me. These days I’m incredibly blessed to have this workshop of "The Escape Artist’s Children" at Celebration Theatre. And I’m looking forward to more productions of my work. I’m working on a new play, and a TV idea and I’m excited to return to the writing staff for "Covert Affairs" (on the USA Network) for season four. I had a great time writing on season three. I’m a juggler – I like having lots of things going on – and I want to continue to have time with my partner, time to travel, time to rest.
MSJ: When you’re alone, relaxed and possibly look in the mirror, what do you see?
SH: I see a work in progress. I’m proud of who I am and I want to be a better person. And I’m so grateful for the chance to help people and be of service. Ultimately, that’s what I see my creative work as – a chance to share some ideas and reflections and hopefully get people reflecting on their own stuff.
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