31 Plays in 31 Days Interview: Meet Tom Block

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by Adrienne Pender
31 Plays in 3 Days / August 11, 2013

Meet Tom Block

Tom Block is a playwright living in “the graveyard” of the Washington, DC suburbs. His first play, White Noise, was produced in Washington D.C. last June and will be produced in New York next summer as a Resident Theater Production of Theater for the New City in the East Village. His second play, Butterfly, had its world premiere in February 2013 in Takoma Park, MD. In addition to his plays, Tom is a published non- fiction author and visual artist whose work has been exhibited in the US and Europe.

 

1              Is there an overall theme to your work as a writer?

The underlying premise of all of my work is that we (humans) have been given enough of a consciousness to understand that something is going on, but not enough to figure out what it is.  That is to say, creation itself is “the rape of man by God.”  I actually used this line in my first play, but as I have written more and more, I have buried this idea beneath layers of humor, metaphor, absurdist action and other devices.

Still.

2              When did you start writing?

I wrote my first poem when I was sixteen.  (“Hope, hope, better than dope . . .”)  Happily, I have refined my craft since then.  Actually, I am quite a late bloomer – I wrote dreck throughout my 20s and 30s; only in my 40s did I begin to finally produce writing of any worth.  I published my first non-fiction book (of four which have been published or have contracts) when I was 47, and had my first play produced when I was 49.  Now, at 50, I am rolling along, and finally think I understand the craft well enough to actually produce decent work on a regular basis.

3              When did you first realize you were a "writer?" Or, did you always know it?

A writer writes.  So, I’ve always considered myself a writer.  But not until I held my first book in my hands did I truly consider myself a “writer.”  As in, I would tell people in a bar: “Yes.  I am a writer.”  Now, much more confident, I am writing everyday.  Especially this August!

4              What was the first play you wrote; and what was it about?

The first play I wrote I actually worked on in my 20s.  It was a one-act called “Frank Johnson,” and concerned two people sharing a single life.  It was very text driven, but 20 years after I wrote it, it was produced in a local one-act play festival.  The first full-length play (“White Noise”), which was produced in both Washington DC and then off-off-Broadway in New York over the past year, concerns art, existential crisis, racism, sexual deviancy and the ghost of a 20th-century prophet, Simone Weil. 

5              If you could re-write that play now, as an experienced writer, how would you do it differently?  If     at all?

I think that I’ll just leave that one alone.  I am applying what I learned in that rather successful failure to what I work on now.  I am not one for beating a dead horse.  However, I definitely like to apply what I learned from killing that horse to keeping subsequent horses alive.  Metaphorically speaking, of course.

6              What do you struggle most with as a writer?

My personal struggle at the writing desk is to create characters that are human, engaging and sympathetic.  Because my work is highly philosophical and absurdist – idea and action driven – the characters themselves sometimes get lost in the shuffle.  If you want the audience to weep when the main character is crucified to the hood of a Volkswagen, then they have to have engaged the audience with that character along the way.  Right?

7              Are you a full-time writer? What do you do during the day?

I am a writer, activist and a visual artist.  I wear all three hats equally.  So for instance, this past week I had visits in my studio from two potential institutional buyers for my art (one a university I have worked with and one a developer looking for art for their new building); I worked on a play for submission to Theater for the New City (NY – where my first play was just produced); traveled to New York for a “Table Read” of a one-act of mine and then participated in the founding conference of a new Interfaith Institute of Peace, with a collection of academics and practitioners.  A bit confusing, but incredibly fulfilling – and I find that all of these interests can be channeled into my playwriting, in addition to using my art onstage with my productions.

8              How do you balance day job/school/family with your writing?

I don’t know.  I have a wife and two kids, and am spending more and more time in New York as my career begins to go better.  I’m kind of all over the place, but it is a hell of a lot better than being no-place, which is somewhere me and my art spent a lot of time for many years.

9              How does where you live impact your writing? Or does it?

Interesting.  I live in the Washington D.C. suburbs and I hate it.  The American suburbs: the graveyard of art and thought.  Still, I have done an incredible amount of quality work in the small basement studio and writing room at the back of the house.  Pain comes in many forms – and pain is always necessary for the creation of true art.  Right?

10          What made you decide to participate in this year's 31 Plays challenge?

A story: I was in art school a couple of decades ago for a short time.  During this short time, I took a six-hour drawing class, which would run from 9-noon and then from 2-5 pm.  It was autumn in Boston.

The day was long.  The morning session was full of students, and then in the afternoon, the class would begin two-thirds full and then bleed students, so that by the end of the day, only a handful of us remained.  Add to this the dying winter sun and no electric light in the room.  By the end of the class, the few of us left were pretty much drawing in the dark. 

I drew straight through.  By about three pm, I was exhausted and by four – with an hour left – I hated drawing more even than boiled cabbage.  I was exhausted, my eyes ached, I hated the paper and charcoal.  The room had gone completely quiet by this time.  The only sound the scrabble of charcoal on paper. 

Yet.  It was here, as I was so sick of drawing that I thought I would vomit, that I did my best work.  I was beyond caring.  I hated the act of drawing and therefor I stopped being in any way a conscious participant in the work.  Yet I drew.  The charcoal had to move across the paper. 

“Men marched asleep; many had lost their shoes, but limped on, bloodshod.” 

I was just one such man.  I would draw until five pm and then pack my things quickly, not even looking at my work.  I would find Emilie and Alex and get my ass to the Linwood Bar as fast as I could and wash the bitter bile of hatred of art from myself with cold Bud tall necks.

And guess what?  The next morning, when I opened my portfolio to look at what I had done, I saw some beautiful work.

And I discovered that true art can emerge from the place beyond exhaustion, when the ego and caring and self have all been quashed, and one is left with only the act of creation.

That is why I want to write a 10-minute play a day for 31 days.  To reach such a level of disgust and hatred and misery.  And art. 

11          What do you hope to achieve while writing in August?

I want to work on dialogue.  I want to carry a story with dialogue.  Little action.  Dialogue.  

12          Do you have a strategy for finishing 31 Plays?

Yes.  To move beyond everything and force myself to write one 10- page play everyday.  No questions.  No excuses.  That’s the strategy.

13          What one piece of advice would you give a new playwright?

Write, write, write, write and write.

14          Open Paragraph!  Please write a paragraph or two on any hobbies or things you do outside of work/school and writing. What do you do for fun? Are you an expert gardener? Obsessed with Scrabble, or Game of Thrones? Jot a few things here! J

This is funny.  Hobbies?  Well, everything I love to do, I do.  I write, paint, research, develop and implement projects.  When I am exhausted, all I want to do is watch sports.  Baseball.  Football.  Hockey playoffs.  Basketball if nothing else is on.  If I am exhausted and there are no sports on TV, I lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling.  Maybe there is an answer up there?

Well, and of course, my kids.  They aren’t a hobby, though – but they do take up a lot of time.  Wonderful time.  And now that they are writing plays and making films themselves, it is wonderful to see their work.  And steal from it, when necessary.