What Happened When A Conversation with Daniel Talbott

Roger Q Mason


Good people beget more good people. I was first introduced to Daniel Talbott by my esteemed friend and collaborator Lovell Holder. Upon first meeting, Daniel excited me as an interdisciplinary artist unafraid to allow all the facilities of his instrument (as writer, director, and producer) to inform his work as a theatre-making in a holistic, rigorous, and all-encompassing way. Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Daniel to discuss his popular, bi-coastally acclaimed play What Happened When, which is currently receiving its third revival at The Echo Theatre in Atwater Village. This dynamic production is being directed by Lovell Holder. The show runs Tuesdays through Thursdays at the Atwater Village Theatre. It closes this coming Thursday, October 11, so get your tickets today at EchoTheaterCompany.com

What Happened When is a penetrating work which I dubbed as electric naturalism. Electric because of the dynamicism of Daniel's storytelling and naturalism because of its tonal point of view on familial relations, human kindness/cruelty, and the enduring pain of trauma. But, enough of my spoilers. Let's get into it with Daniel Talbott.

Roger Q. Mason (RQM): First of all, Daniel, you are the nice guy of theatre. Everybody knows you from Los Angeles to New York and back. How do you know all of these folk in our business?

Daniel Talbott (DT): I started really young in Bay Area theatre. I was a baseball player for a long time and then I found the theater. Without, hopefully, sounding too pretentious, it really did save my life. I was in deep shit as a kid and going through a lot of stuff with my family. I found Berkeley Rep; I found ACT. And there were some amazing artists, especially at Berkeley Rep at that time whom I was lucky enough to work with and work under. They gave me my first professional opportunities.

Then I went to Juilliard as an actor. So many people came in and out of Juilliard from different backgrounds, different types of artists. We were lucky to work with those people. I wanted to be an explorer. From the minute I touched down in New York, I was like, “This is my fucking island. I love this place. This is my home." I still feel that way about New York. The Bay Area and New York theatre communities changed my life. I would go see everything I could and if I loved something, I would talk to anybody and tell them I loved their work. I was a street kid. I wanted to take everything in. When I first started doing theatre, coming from sports, I was terrible: I overworked everything; I was obsessive about it; I treated everything like I was doing push-ups or hitting 500 baseballs. But I loved it. Once I found that theatre was going to be my life, I promised myself that if I sucked at it or if I was good, or people liked me or hated me, I would do it for the rest of my life. If that meant taking tickets, sweeping the floor, being a stage manager, an actor, a director, I would do whatever I could in the theater. I met a lot of people by doing a lot of different shit. I don't think I slept for the first few years I was in New York.

RQM: No one else did either, honey.

DT: Right, no one slept. I look back at Juilliard now, and I don't know how I even memorized a scene. What was I doing that I could take in all that. Now, if I don't sleep eight hours, I'm dead to the world. But I wouldn't have traded it for the world.

RQM: I can see that you have a tremendous drive and work ethic. Truly, one of the hardest working men in show business.

DT: I keep trying to remind myself no one owes us anything. I chose to do this. I knew this was hard. I really try not to ever have a chip on my shoulder and not to be jaded. I really do go out of my way to try to be kind to people. This is a hard life and no one's paying anyone enough. We should be holding each other up. I think of theatre as a peasant art form. It's telling stories to people. I bring that to the work I do. And I believe in an open door policy. I hate snobbery. I hate social clicks. I don't like hierarchy.

RQM: That's that Bay Area spirit.

DT: Right. I don't care if someone has 150 Tony Awards or someone doesn't know your fucking name. I am really interested in the work they are doing and who they are in the room and if they're kind and work hard. They should work as hard in a dingy shit hole bathroom as they do at Lincoln Center. I want people who are in the room that love theatre. I feel like at all walks of life I've met those people, and when I meet those people, I try to continue to work with them.

RQM: I appreciate your egalitarian, community-oriented understanding of the theatre. I applaud it because I wish more people understood it that way. In our industry, there are so few opportunities. And those opportunities are guarded by gatekeepers who uphold certain visions of what will and won't be seen in the theatre. It's not that other forms of storytelling don't exist. It's that these are the types that the gatekeepers decide should be made available to the public to consume.

What I wish is that these decision-making folks could remember that someone had to open a door for them to come into the Temple of the Theatre. Someone took a risk and gave them a chance. I don't know, but I feel like so many, when in positions of power, forget their own nascent moments where all they had was a dream and the hope that someone would believe in them - not only who they are, but who they are to become.

Daniel, I feel you understand what I'm saying. And we cannot forget that you came from sports. There's something about endurance in this business and teamwork that you must understand so deeply. So, let's talk about sports for a second. Now, I don't follow the tennis, as the kids say, but let's delve a bit into how sports informs how you work.

DT: Sports is theatre to me. It's pure action. It's spectacle, obstacle, space, given circumstance. I love theatre that feels like sports where I don't know who's gonna win; I don't know what's about to happen - that surprises me. How does a tactic change because someone is losing, or winning, or it's as close as they head to the end?

RQM: Come on, Craft! Come on, Daniel!

DT: I learn so much about theatre from sports, especially from tennis. It is my favorite sport alongside baseball. I'm a huge Serena Williams and Roger Federer fan.

Ian Bamberg, Matthew Gallenstein. Mara Klein - Photo by Daniel Talbott

RQM: One of the things that people were saying in some of the reviews of this play What Happened When is how muscular the work is. It's no small coincidence that you come from a sports background. You're very much influenced by the athleticism and rigor, goal-orientation and disorientation of a sporting event. You're interdisciplinary. You bring your other lives into the theatre. Not only are you a sportsman, but also an actor. So, let's go back to Juilliard for a second. What did you learn, the theatre street kid from the Bay Area, as you called yourself just a few moments ago, and how has that informed how you make work as a writer now.

DT: Every experience I've had in the theater always informs who I am as I walk in the room and it stacks each day. I'm a weird creature and I was a weird creature for Juilliard. I challenged them and they challenged me. I grew up very different from almost everyone else in my class. My mom had me when she was 16 and she left her family and did a lot of stuff. It was a chaotic, diverse and tough life. Then I moved in with my grandparents, which took me from one end of the socio-economic spectrum to another. A lot of What Happened When is about my family and our life before I moved in with my grandparents. Juilliard was the best thing because I had to be in one place. I was so nomadic as a kid. There were huge triumphs and failures at that school. It trained me for the real world of the theatre and who I wanted to be.

RQM: And what moved you to start writing? Some people who act say they started writing to create roles for themselves, but I don't suspect that's your situation. So what gave you the writing bug?

DT: I read this article about Sarah Kane. I'd never seen a play of hers; they hadn't been done in New York yet. I was moved by the article, how it talked about her life. Then, I finally was able to get a copy of her Collected Plays. I really loved her writing: she was experimenting and I thought, “Oh, I could try to do that.”

Then the playwriting program at Juilliard was a huge influence on my work as well. I was in school with Adam Rapp, Jessica Goldberg, Francine Volpe, Napoleon Ellsworth and a bunch of other extraordinary folks. They had different, individual, beautiful, strong voices. I still think I am growing as a playwright. It's where I have the most work to do. I think I'm a stronger director and actor and producer. But I love that. Writing kicks my ass and I love that. I especially looked up to Adam Rapp because he calls himself a theatre-maker. That gave me permission to do a lot of different things.

RQM: I really enjoy this idea of staying dedicated to writing because you want to get better at it. I love that.

DT: It's a practice. Like Buddhism.

Mara Klein and Ian Bamberg - Photo by Daniel Talbott

RQM: Yasss! Om shanti shanti shanti. Let me tell you something about these interviews. Sometimes I interject myself in them because they are just as much about what I can learn from other artists and glean from their lived experience.

I will tell you the truth: like you, I find directing and producing easier. I suspect it's because they present themselves as more objective, less emotionally encompassing. I'm looking at something for which the blueprint has already been created. My task is to interpret it and motivate a team of theatre-makers to add deliciousness to the primordial stew I've placed upon that stove called rehearsal. My job is to take this blueprint and manifest it in three dimensions. My theoretical brain and analytical brain are accessed and, for me, those are much easier to engage than my subjective mind, my vulnerable spirit. Those “higher” minds have been well-tutored in the various schools I've attended.

But writing, that means I have to sit in my viscera and smolder there - scared, alone, unknowing. And despite all impediments - insecurity, unsureness, the eminence of others' rejection, I still have to go on with joy and child-like wonder and create these worlds on paper for the stage. When you're writing, your work has to come from the taint, the perineum - the place that makes us pleasured and afraid at the same time. That process, it kicks our asses. It is a challenge. I love that challenge. It's what keeps me going.

Two things I'm working on right now in my writing: how to be vulnerable on the page and how to find pleasure, both for myself in the act of writing and for my characters in my plays. Sometimes I look at the stuff I'm writing - it's hard shit, man. It's like 1960s Pharaoh Saunders, and even he softened with age and time. I'm learning to soften. How has your writing process evolved and changed over the years?

DT: I worked as an actor for a long time and that was my main thing. I made my living as an actor and then I transitioned to directing, producing and writing.

I'm really good at trying to kick ass for someone else, which is why I think directing is comfortable for me. With writing, I don't feel as comfortable trying to kick ass for myself. Not that playwriting is about you at all, but you have to start with your body and get it up and out of you. It's hard for me not to have other people to be working for and be on a team with. A lot of my journey as a writer has been about trying to kick ass for myself and learning how to sit with myself in the dark and be fine with that.

RQM: How to sit with myself in the dark and be fine with that. How do you sit with yourself? Are there rituals?

DT: No, it's kind of like tennis. You just do it. You either hit the ball, you hit a back hand, you chip and charge, etc…

RQM: Man, you are stronger than me then. You have no idea how much meditating and walking around and talking to “my people,” my gaggle of friends/lay therapists, contortions of the mind, and procrastinations I go through just to get a few droplets of truth on the page. Lord! Daniel, I love the idea of Just Do It!

DT: You've got no choice in the end. And I'm not saying it's always good. A lot of the time it's bad, but you've got to do.

Chris Stack and Randall Clute - Photo by Darrett Sanders

RQM: Alright now. Let's get to it. We're at that moment. What Happened When. Where did it start?

DT: The final scene (Scene Six) used to be a one-act. When the piece was done at HERE Arts, it was just the two brothers. It was all about dancing around what needs to be said and the pages and pages of how we can spin a story in order not to deal with something, especially with sexual abuse. The men I grew up with talk around everything.

RQM: Yes, relevance! So we really need this play right now.

DT: Yes, it's interesting. Then after HERE, David van Asselt at Rattlestick wanted me to go further with the play. He really liked the one-act, but he was like, look this is really the story of these brothers. Let's see more of these brothers. And then I added in the sister. And we put it up at Rattlestick West here in LA and then at Rattlestick in NY. Then I met Chris Fields at Echo Theatre when I moved here to do tv and film. We really wanted to work together and I wanted to find a theater home here. We did a reading of this play one night with just a few associate company members and my sister Lucy was there. Chris just dove in instantly. He said, “Cool, I want to do your play.” There was no gatekeeper there. I was interested in having different versions of the family and to work on it over a period of time. And Chris agreed to do it three times. This was a rare and amazing opportunity.

Joey Stromberg, Ian Bamberg, Libby Woodbridge - Photo by Darrett Sanders

RQM: How has your perception of the play grown through the three different permutations?

DT: Each version has been so spectacularly different.

RQM: Have you changed it a lot each time?

DT: You move it through physical action and language to suit each person. It's been a different family each production, and that family has really dictated the direction.

RQM: Is there a definitive text or is it fluid?

DT: There is, but it shifts on every production. In this production there's been a few minor but important changes. This is the first time someone will hear this version of the play. I wanted to write a play where people just talked, or a play where they need to talk, but can't. For the most part, they sit on the bed. There's almost no physical action. Because it's about sexual abuse and what's not said, I wanted them… I wanted them to have to sit with it and in it. I wanted them not to be able to act around it. You need to come and sit in the dark. This play doesn't dance for you. It's like, I'm gonna sit here and try to find the bravery to talk about this shit and you're gonna sit with me while I struggle. It asks you to have compassion for it. It's a very quiet play. Some people have not been on that ride and some people are very into it.

RQM: You know, in lesser writerly hands, I'd be very concerned about what I call a “talkie” play. However, for some reason I'm in for a real treat with you, Daniel. Your muscularity of dramatic impulse is exciting. There's something that happens to a performer when a memory moves through the body. It has a bewitching effect, one that is kinetic and spiritual, on both the storyteller and the beholder of the tale.

DT: That's my hope. It's how the play functions when it's at its best. When I did the first production at Rattlestick, I did it with my brother and my sister. They're both amazing actors. They know my work better than anybody. But, it's been really cool getting to see each of these new versions. I feel like these people have become cousins and friends, slowly coming into my bloodstream through the play.

RQM: Are you still acting?

DT: I absolutely will continue to act. I've had people approach me and ask me to work on shit. It's been really cool. It means the world to me. I would love to do it. But it's been hard schedule-wise to figure it out, but I really want to.

RQM: Have you considered writing something with yourself in mind?

DT: I would never. I had to do it once because an actor got hurt so I had to go on for them. It's hard to separate the two parts of me - writer and actor. I would feel so self-conscious.

RQM: So, in addition to this play, what's taking up Daniel Talbott's time these days?

DT: I am directing Jessica Dickey's new play Off Broadway. Then I'm working on some TV stuff and a feature that I'll be shooting next spring in Minneapolis.

RQM: So we need to stay tuned.

DT: I hope so! Oh, yes, something else coming up - Echo just commissioned me to write a play for 2020.

RQM: Fabulous!

Roger Q. Mason is a writer whose work gives voice to the silenced. A recurring theme in his writing is the intersection of race, history, and memory.

Mason’s plays include Orange Woman: A Ballad for a Moor; Onion Creek; and The Duat. Mason's works have been seen at such venues as McCarter Theatre Center, Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA; Son of Semele Theatre; Teatro Vista at Victory Gardens; and Chicago Dramatists. He is an Activate: Midwest New Play Festival finalist, New York Theatre Innovator’s Award nominee, and the winner of the 2014 Hollywood Fringe Festival Encore Producer's Award. Mason holds an BA in English and Theatre from Princeton University, an MA in English from Middlebury College, and an MFA in Writing for the Screen and Stage from Northwestern University.

Mason has received commissions from Steep Theatre and Chimera Ensemble in Chicago, as well as the Obie-winning Fire This Time Festival.

For more on Roger Q. Mason, visit www.rogerqmason.com