Meet the Playwright: Timothy Nolan

Timothy Nolan has been part of the NYC indie theater scene for two decades. His newest play, What's In a Name, opens at the Chain Theater in Long Island City on April 12, 2013. In this interview with ITN editor Martin Denton, Tim talks candidly about his career, the indie theater scene, and his new show.

Martin Denton: Even though I’ve known you for a very long time, I don’t know how you got interested in theater. So, when did you realize you wanted to be a playwright? Why are you writing theater and not books or films or something else?

Timothy NolanTimothy Nolan: Two people got me started: James Bond and Anne Marie Giordano.

When I was little I wanted to be James Bond. Now since 007 isn’t even a real spy, the closest I could get was to write stories. I guess today you’d call it fan fiction. So that lead to writing scripts for Bond movies, etc.

That’s where Anne Marie Giordano came into the picture. She was this terrible crush I had in ninth grade (and seventh and eighth grade, too) who asked me to join the drama club because they needed guys to audition. And that’s when I fell into theater. That’s when I started moving my writing into plays. Anne Marie eventually moved away but I stayed in the group and started getting stuff read. Hearing your words read for the first time is a pretty transformative experience.  To be in the room with the story. That was pretty much it for me.

But I still have that Bond script ready to go if anyone’s interested.

MD: Who taught you how to write plays?

TN: I learned a lot by reading plays and seeing plays. I go on periodic binges where I try to see as much as I can. Susannah and I always say you can learn as much from watching a bad play or film as you can from a good one. So I try to see a lot and read a lot. Beyond that, I had a great teacher in high school named Chris Del Campo who just let me write. That opened the door. Michael Stephens, a professor at Fordham and a novelist in his own right, encouraged me along. Then I met Mick Casale through the T. Schreiber Studio and things really started coming together when I started working with him. Most of what I know about dramatic theory and craft I learned from him.

MD: Tell us about What's In a Name. What inspired the creation of this story? Without giving away surprises, what’s the play about?

TN: What's In a Name was originally inspired by an article in the New York Times in 1994. A woman named Katherine Ann Power turned herself in to the FBI for a bank robbery in Boston in 1971. She wanted to get involved with the anti-war movement but instead fell under sway to a con man who brought her in to a scheme to rob banks and steal weapons for the Black Panthers. The whole thing was a lie, and in the bank robbery a police officer was shot and killed. The con man and other robbers were rounded up and sent to jail, but Power went underground and was never found.

What was more interesting what that she married and had a son while living under her assumed identity. So now the stakes are raised. She lived in the suburbs, she had her own business and even ran cooking classes. And all the while she’s trying not to lose her mind. She said that by the time she turned herself in it was that or suicide.

What intrigued me the most was how she would have dreams nearly every night when she would do something that slipped up and revealed her identity. I thought, reading this, that this woman hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in twenty-something years. And that was the germ of the play.

In the play, Aileen Doherty is a good girl, a good student, and wants to do good in the world, but has a hard time with the complications of that. She makes her choices, but then finds that as a woman living in her 50s, she can’t live with the choices she made in her 20s, even as, to paraphrase one of the characters, her choices grow choices.

MD: You had an earlier version of this a few years ago at the BoCoCa Festival, and now you’ve spent several months working on the new version at Variations Theater. What has that process been like? What did you learn about the play during this workshop process? How has the play changed?

TN: It’s been the most interesting process I’ve ever been involved with. When I pulled the play out in 2011 to submit it to BoCoCa, I hadn’t looked at it since 1996. So I’m reading through it and thinking, wow, so now it’s been thirty years and she still hasn’t gotten a good night’s sleep.

The play went from being about identity to being about choices, which in the end brings it back to identity but in a different, deeper way. It was an unexpected discovery, and it was only possible with the perspective of time. I couldn’t have seen it when I first wrote it, but it was there the whole time. We are all the sum packages of our choices, either recent ones or ones made decades ago.

After I saw this, her whole story just started revealing itself, one episode at a time. How did she first establish her identity? Well, this happened. How did you get your job? Well, this happened. It was like she was sitting at my desk telling me her story, and it was as loopy but mundane as real life. She sets up the posts in her life and then just goes to live it… day after day after day after day. And she, like all of us, reaches a point when she starts to see the big question… what have I done with this one life I have and what will it end up looking like. And in her case, it’s so fractured that it’s a monumental effort to try to put it back together again. But she’s also dealing with the same things we all deal with, once we have some time behind us as well as in front of us.

MD: Who are your favorite playwrights of all time? And who are your favorite playwrights working in Indie Theater today?

TN: Samuel Beckett and Thornton Wilder for the way they pushed the form, the way they commanded the story and the room and really made you feel it in your bones. Arthur Miller for the same reasons, though he’s underrated for the way he tried to mess around with form as well. Odets because his people speak my native language.

I love all the members of the Scribe Tribe and being their colleague makes me feel honored. Anyone perusing Indie Theatre Now will not be disappointed looking over anything by Christine Simpson, Chris Harcum, Maggie Cino, Mac Rogers, Kelly McAllister, Carolyn Raship, Vincent Marano, Trav S.D., and Leslie Bramm, just to name a few. I’d leave my house to see any of their shows. Megan Condit and Nina Mansfield as well.

MD: What jazzes you in theater—what has to happen in a show to make you glad you went to see it?

TN: Feeling the air in the room. I heard a person describe impressionist artists as “trying to paint air.” And I think that’s what we do in theater as well… we try to capture the air. That’s what makes being in the room with the story so important. The immediacy, the way it gets under your skin. The kind of shows that you need a ten-block walk in the cold night air to come down from.

MD:What’s coming up next for you?

TN: More work with Variations Theatre Group, I hope. We have the Unchained Festival in May, and then I’ll be working more on helping put together their Harvest Festival in the fall and setting the next season’s schedule, which hopefully I’ll have something to contribute to.  My real goal is to help make the Chain Theatre a home for new plays in 2013 and in the years to come.

(April 6, 2013)