Barbara Jwanouskos interviews, Alan Olejniczak about his upcoming show, “Present Tense.”
I had to feel instant comradery with Alan Olejniczak and having a complicated last name with a silent “J”. In case you were wondering, Alan gives you a little tip on his website on how to pronounce his name, which I’m totally going to steal for my own forth coming website.
“How in the heck do you pronounce that last name?”
We had the chance to bond over email about opera libretti. I was inspired by Alan’s story of the serendipitous outcome of a little facebook post he put out to the world when he had submitted to a company he admires that actually didn’t take unsolicited playwriting submissions. Partially because while I make adjustments to my own playwriting trajectory, I’m feeling the need to be bold and put myself out there more and more.
What follows is my email exchange with Alan. I am looking forward to meeting him, geeking out about Pearl S. Buck and of course, seeing his plays.
Babs: I’m interested in people’s trajectory into writing. Tell me how you got involved in the Bay Area theater scene. Did you come in originally as a playwright? Was anything an impetus?
Alan: While I have a BFA with a focus in Performing Arts, I studied the classics but had little idea of how plays were written or even developed. Up to that point, I never considered the idea of writing one. About six years ago, I saw a developmental reading of a play by Lauren Gunderson at Marin Theater Company. I was inspired and strangely determined to write one myself. After all, how hard could it be? For me, playwrighting has become a passion and continues to be the most difficult and most rewarding personal endeavors I have ever undertaken.
Babs: This tends to be such a loaded question, but do you think you have a writing style, and if so, what is it like? How would your friends describe your writing and the subject matter that you’re attracted to?
Alan: It’s too early for me to claim any particular writing style, and in many ways, I’m still finding my voice. I enjoy writing dramas and I’m naturally drawn to mythology and the stories of powerful historical figures. My work has been described as classically-styled, intellectual, but most often, operatic. I believe theater should be distinct from film and I’m not always attracted to realism, despite Present Tense being written this way.
Babs: Tell me about your upcoming production of “Present Tense” at ACT Costume Shop. What is it about? Where did it grow out of? What might we expect?
Alan: Present Tense is really my second play. It’s a play cycle of five separate vignettes. It’s about loving families and dilemmas that some us face. It’s drawn from personal experiences and those of people I love. The focus is on intimate stories rather than the grand and the characters are drawn from real life rather than archetypes. I wrote the Present Tense with my friend, Rik Lopes in mind and I’m thrilled that he is able to direct and perform in this play.
Babs: I read on your website that you are also very much interested in opera. Could you talk a little about that? What drew you to it and have you written any libretti, out of curiosity?
Alan: While working on my undergrad at UW-Milwaukee, I studied theater production, but outside of school, I sang in the chorus of the Florentine Opera Company. I graduated, moved to Atlanta, and didn’t sing again for another fifteen years. I loved working with the Atlanta Opera and sang three seasons before moving to California. For now, I simply enjoy being a season ticket holder with the San Francisco Opera.
I love opera and believe it’s one of the greatest western art forms. It combines the highest expressions of vocal and orchestral music with the greatest demands on stagecraft. Currently, I’m in the early stages of developing a play for We Players. It’s drawn from Greek mythology and combines spoken drama with song, spectacle, and dance. I’m excited for the opportunity to work with such amazing and dynamic company. My crazy dream is to adapt Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth” into a grand opera.
Babs: I mentioned that this month’s themes are “luck and chance”. Can you tell me a story of how this might have intersected with your playwriting/theater trajectory?
Alan: Connecting with We Players was certainly serendipity. Last summer, I posted on Facebook that I foolishly submitted an unsolicited script to a company I love. Never a smart move, but I was feeling bold and guessed that my email was already deleted. By chance, my friend Arthur Oliver, who I worked with at the Atlanta Opera read the post and privately messaged me, asking which company it was? He knew Ava Roy personally and he really made this connection happen. I’m forever grateful.
Babs: What keeps you writing?
Alan: Humans have always had a deep need for sharing stories. It’s primal. We are also drawn to meaningful and satisfying work and playwrighting for me fills both of these needs. I find I’m most productive and inspired in the mornings. I wake early, make a pot of coffee, and write. Playwrighting, for me, has become literally the reason I get up in the morning.
Babs: Any advice for those that might want to write a play and have it produced?
Alan: Frankly, I’m still learning myself. However, I would say to write a play, one must learn the mechanics of dramatic structure and how to develop compelling characters and dialogue. You must also really love the subject of your play as it may take years to develop. Lastly be persistent and be open to thoughtful critique. I know the surest way to bring your play to the stage is to self-produce. Take the risk yourself rather than ask others. I remember speaking to Stuart Bousel who stated there is no right way to produce a play or be successful in theater.
Babs: Any plugs for anything of yours (or others) coming up?
Alan: Well, certainly We Player’s Ondine. I hope to work front-of-house on the production after the run of Present Tense. Ondine will be spectacularly staged at the Sutro Baths and will not be a show to miss. I would also recommend Patricia Milton’s Enemies: Foreign and Abroad with Central Works Theater. I’m also looking forward to Impact Theater’s Richard III and Piano Fight’s ShortLived.
Barbara Jwanouskos is a SF Bay Area-based playwright with an upcoming reading of her untitled punk play through Just Theater’s New Play Lab on April 28th. You can follow her on twitter @bjwany and now on Facebook.