Meet the Playwright: Michael Puzzo

Michael PuzzoMichael Puzzo has been involved with indie theater as an actor and playwright for at least two decades. His first full-length play, The Dirty Talk, was published by NYTE in Plays and Playwrights 2006 and is on Indie Theater Now. It went on to be nominated for a New York Innovative Theater Award as Outstanding Script and has been produced in New York City and all over the world. He's a member of LAByrinth Theater Company and appeared in the film version of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, among other acting credits.

His newest play, Spirits of Exit Eleven, begins performances at the Lion Theatre on Theatre Row on January 10, 2013. (Watch for a review on nytheatre.com). Michael took time from readying the play for its first preview to answer some questions about it. Here's the cyber-interview:

Martin Denton: I first got to know you as an actor, back in the late '90s. When did you start writing plays? Do you think of yourself primarily as an actor, a playwright, or both? Do you prefer one over the other?

Michael Puzzo: I wrote my first play The Dirty Talk at LAByrinth Theater Company’s Summer Intensive in 2000 and have been trying my damnedest to keep both those plates spinning ever since. I don’t think I could ever do one without the other, and honestly don’t see much of a difference between the two. It’s like having two cars in your garage, when one stalls, you just hop in the other one. Even though I probably have had more success as a playwright, I still consider myself as an actor first. Mostly in protest to the unnerving sense that from the instant I started writing plays, women who would not give me a second glance, all of a sudden were willing to date me.

Scene from SPIRITS OF EXIT ELEVEN

Nicole Balsam and Deborah Rayne in Spirits of Exit Eleven | David Zayas, Jr.

MD: Your new play is called Spirits of Exit Eleven. Can you talk a bit about what the play is about? Was there some incident or event that led you to write this?

MP: This is probably over simplifying things a bit, but to me the play is really just about New Jersey. Not just the Jersey I recognize to be true, but also the cheap-shot punch-line Jersey the rest of the world knows. Jersey is pretty much the Jan Brady of states. It’s like NJ is an old tuna fish sandwich that fell between the cushions of Pennsylvania and New York. When I was growing up, if you were from Southern Jersey all your newspapers, TV & radio stations were from Philly and if you were from the Northern part, it was all New York. So my formative years were spent in a place that wasn't even important enough to have its own fucking news! (That's what it also must feel like to be from Wales or Canada.) I’m certain if I still lived there I would either be 800 lbs. like Chris Christie or pumped up and tanned within an inch of my life; how else can you cover up all that low self esteem? This is why the setting of my new play is another kind of place that most folks have dismissive superior preconceived notions about; a strip club.

MD: I don’t have a map in front me: where is Exit Eleven? (I’m assuming it’s off the Jersey Turnpike, is that right?)

MP: Yup. Exit Eleven on The New Jersey Turnpike is the exit you would take to get to my hometown. But my dear ol’ dad Pat Puzzo’s arch enemy has always been traffic, so he was more of 1& 9 man. But "Spirits of 1&9" just does not have the same ring to it.

MD: You are sort of becoming the Springsteen on Northern New Jersey. Why do you set your plays in this area?

MP: I think Springsteen is the pretty much the Springsteen of every inch of Jersey. But this play does try to explore many Bruce-like themes and I listened to The River and his latest record Wrecking Ball a bunch while I was writing it. I have to admit, when I was in high school, I did not get the Springsteen thing at all. Every song seemed to me to be about either cars, getting laid off from the factory or some weird girl on the boardwalk, and sometimes it was about all those things at same time. I thought it was all just some fake ass Woody Guthrie wannabe bullshit. But the older I got, the more I saw that he was the real deal and like Steinbeck, he really did care about and deeply understand the hard working people in the stories of his songs. And when I finally saw him live and experienced what a joyous and generous spirit he was, I was immediately converted to his Church of Rock and Roll.

Scene from THE DIRTY TALKSidney Williams and Kevin Cristaldi in <i>The Dirty Talk</i>, Michael's first play, also set in New Jersey | Jim Baldassare

As far as why all my plays are set in Jersey…...well, I guess if I was from North Dakota or Belgium, I would write about there. I wish I had a better answer. But it does get me to wondering if there is a Springsteen of Belgium out there somewhere.

MD: What’s your writing process like? Do you write in longhand, or on a computer, or something else? Do you work from an outline? Do you like to see a scene up on its feet right away, or do you like to wait until a full draft is complete before letting actors work on it? Do you laugh when you write something funny?

MP: I write directly on my computer, but since I type like a blind gorilla, it is really an ugly and painful sight to behold. But every once in a while if I‘m lucky, I can fall into this sort of mysterious trance-like state, where I suddenly look up from my computer screen and realize that I have been at it for hours. I don’t know if all writers have that, but I once heard a guy on the radio talking about being abducted by aliens and experiencing this odd sensation of lost time and that sounded about the same.

As far as my process of developing a script, it really varies. I do like to get actors’ voices involved as soon as I can. That is why being in LAByrinth is such a gift. Spirits of Exit Eleven actually started as a one act play that I wrote for Dear Darkness (an evening of Halloween-themed one act plays that I co-produced last October). By coincidence the night I finished writing it, LAByrinth was having their weekly writers group. So about an hour and a half after I finished writing the piece, I was hearing it read out loud by actors. Which never ever happens.

It was at that reading,that it occurred to me that the characters in the play really had more to say, and it should be a full-length. Now at first that was sort of a pain in the ass, cuz’ now I had to write another one act for Dear Darkness. The good news is that the play I ended up writing to replace Exit Eleven, The Slasher’s Lament, turned out pretty ok. (It is included in the collection My Soul, The Pavement and Other Plays, coming soon to Indie Theater Now.)

Then I brought the short version of Exit Eleven up to the LAB Intensive last summer and worked on it with some terrific actors to see if I could figure out what the Hell to do next. I guess it still remains to be seen if I did.

As far as laughing at things I write. I think the answer is: yeah, maybe.

MD: We’re about to publish some one-act plays of yours – can you briefly talk about them?

MP: I have been acting a bunch over the past few years and so Spirits of Exit Eleven is my first new full length in forever. But I did still write an occasional one act, for friends, fun or to impress a girl. But mostly I wrote just to remind myself I still knew how to do it. Many of those plays are collected in My Soul, The Pavement and Other Plays which is being published for the first time anywhere here on indietheaternow.com. Most of them were performed in New York City by people I know but a few were also done in Mumbai, India, which is about as far from Jersey as you can get.

(January 8, 2013)