Off-Kilter And Off-Key: An Interview With Lisa and Nick Gentile

In anticipation of “Crappy Holidays”, our anti-celebration of the holiday season coming at you this Saturday, November 16 at 8:30 at the Exit Cafe, we took a moment to chat up Lisa and Nick Gentile, the creators behind the show and a unique husband and wife team in the San Francisco playwrighting scene.

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So, level with us: what have you got against the holidays?

Nick: I always enjoyed the holidays because we got time off from school, so I appreciate the original purpose of the holidays – permission to behave irresponsibly. It’s all the dreary repetitive ritual stuff that got grafted onto the holidays that bothers me.

Lisa: Holidays are Petri dishes of angst, resentment, fear, expectation, hope, and love. It’s rich material for human drama. Some people take holidays so seriously, they need to be soothed when we handle an occasion with anything less than absolute reverence. Everything is fair game for us. I think that’s all there is to it.

Where did these plays come from? Real life experience? Horror stories of others? Your own twisted minds?

Nick: “Death Is My Bitch” came from real life. Lisa was driving on Highway 17 in the rain, and I started talking about how dangerous the road is, and she told me to shut up. We made up the part about dying, though.

Lisa: That’s not all that we made up.

Nick: “Ma’s Thanksgiving Pie” grew as we work-shopped it at Play Café. Doing readings at workshops helps a lot. When you hear it read, you realize what parts are thin. We realized that the first version of the play had only one plot twist, and that we needed to add a few more to make it worth the audience’s while.

Lisa: The empathy that helps us define a character’s wants and pains comes from real life. We like to riff on real world events and archetypes. Maybe we live closer to our shadow selves than some. It’s always high noon!

Nick: Neither of us can remember where “Bobby’s Letter to Santa” came from.

Lisa: Someone asked whether “Bobby” is autobiographical. I didn’t know how to respond.

Your work in general tends to have a bit of an off-kilter quality to it. What do you credit as the source for that?

Lisa: Real life is off-kilter.

Nick: Tell them about your background in psychology.

Lisa: At an early age, long before my formal education, I wanted to see what people would do in various situations. And what moves me more than anything else is the expression of human potential. In our writing I enjoy looking at creativity free of right or wrong. I like to explore how characters see and reach for what they want. I like that we don’t burden them with any codes of conduct other than what makes sense for the story. We get to cut loose, too.

Nick: My Pookie is like the Nietzschean Ubermehsch, beyond good and evil! As for me, I just listen to the voices in my head…the screaming ones…

What’s the best thing about writing as a team? What’s the worst?

Nick: The best part is that, when you run out of ideas, you can get help.

Lisa: The worst part is debating whose take is better for a given scene. We exhaust each other.

Many of the actors are ones you have worked with before. Do you generally write for certain actors?

Nick: We don’t write for specific actors. It’s only afterwards that we realize that this person would be perfect for that role, etc. But perhaps these actors have subconsciously educated us to write for them.

Lisa: We were lucky to meet most of this cast through Theater Pub. We know as a fact that Warden Lawlor, Ashley Cowan, Will Leschber, Dan Kurtz, and Tavis Kammet will totally commit to these characters no questions asked.

Nick: At least one of them has actually said, “I’m your bitch. Anything you want.” It’s too much fun to give up.

Editor’s note: we’re fairly certain the actor in question is Warden.

Lisa: We’re excited to add Stefanie Geerlings, Eden Davis, and Doug Miller to the mix for this show.

You’ve formed your own production company recently- tell us more about that.

Lisa: When we started writing and submitting plays together it was easy to just be two authors. Someone else produced them. But then we started writing and producing short films with other collaborators and a loosely structured network of mix-and-match teams developed. Then we went on to produce films for our niece and nephews. We didn’t want our names to interfere with their credit. Now we also produce stage works. We needed a way to package our various contributions so we picked a name. Our mission is to generate smartly twisted comedy. Studio Banal+ is about to celebrate 10 years of letting the shadow shine.

What’s on the horizon for you after this show?

Nick: We’ve been trying to do a longer work for a while. It involves a producer, a director, and a screenwriter discussing a bad science fiction movie that they are trying to make, with nuns taken over by alien brains and pregnant androids. The three are arguing about changes they want to amok, and whether these are driven by artistic merit or hidden ulterior motives.

Lisa: Someday I want to set one at sea so that we can have those fake waves moving back and forth on stage. But I what I know about being at sea I can’t yet put to paper.

So really, come on… what is your favorite holiday?

Lisa: The ones where the whole family gets together are good fun. It’s nonstop storytelling, playing music, and laughing. But we can’t always make it happen around a holiday. Sometimes it’s a summer weekend at the beach or in the woods. Last year we scheduled our Christmas gift exchange for 30 minutes in the café at Bass Outdoor World in Manteca, even though none of us lives there.

Nick: The ancient roman holiday of Saturnalia. This occurred in December, and involved banquets, gift-giving, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned social norms. I think the Christians stole it and turned it into Christmas, and got rid of that carnival part, which was the best part. That Council of Nicea – they were jerks!

Don’t miss Crappy Holidays, this Saturday at 8:30 PM at the Exit Cafe (156 Eddy Street, San Francisco). Admission is free, with a five dollar suggested donation!

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