In preparation for American Theater Company’s annual 10 x 10 Play Festival, I connected with the featured playwrights about their careers in the theatre, the relevant themes of the play(s), and the role of theatre as a tool for social change. Click here to learn more about the 10 x 10 Festival and please enjoy this wonderful interview with Matthew-Lee Erlbach.
Jacqueline Lawton: Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: Second City showed me you could make a career out of making people laugh. Then I found the theatre, really, in high school and undergrad. So, I had a lot of teachers and definitely my family inspiring me along the way.
The show that really did me in, however, was the Fiona Shaw/Deborah Warner MEDEA that toured from the UK. It was epic and intense. And expertly acted by Ms. Shaw. I’ll never forget that feeling of collective breathlessness—literally, the audience is at the edge of their seats: the light is this raw, stark, ugly, bare white; this loud siren or something is blaring; and she runs by with those limp, bloody kids under her arms like small dead animals. And then! Blood just streaks across that sheet out of nowhere. We were all just like, “What the fuck just happened here?” And the audience, we’re all looking at each other, laughing uncomfortably, there’s some chatter, disbelief, joy (at this murder!), but really just an overall shock that we had witnessed this moment in time of pure theatricality and total realism. It was magical. I became a witness that night and have never turned back.
JL: Next, tell me a little bit about your writing process. Do you have any writing rituals? Do you write in the same place or in different places?
MLE: I work out and I meditate. And I write whenever and wherever I can because it takes me a while to break in. And when I do, I just go. My typical full day of writing will be 9a at this one particular coffee shop, then I need to leave there by 1p or 2p to go to another one for a change of pace, then I’ll go home and write in bed from about 5p-7p, if I can, and try not to spend any more time in front of a screen, which is hard because I am quick to fall into a Wikipedia or YouTube spiral.
JL: Why was it important for you to be a part of American Theatre Company’s 10 x 10 Festival?
MLE: My whole reason for being an artist is to contribute to the conversation, affect it, move it forward, challenge it. So when the opportunity came up—and having had a great experience with the last one I did with ATC—it was a no-brainer. Also, I live in NYC now but I grew up in Rogers Park. Peterson and Maplewood. And it was a really diverse neighborhood. I mean, we had everybody. Just on our block, Peterson to Glenwood, were white families, black families, fresh-off-the-boat German, Swedish, Syrian, Filipino, Mexican, Pakistani, and Japanese families. We even had a cat lady. So right off the bat, the mythology I grew up with was one of multitudes and diversity. It was pretty incredible when I look back and really think about that because I don’t know if that still exists. Oh, and the kicker was, we all knew each other—we had block parties every summer. We were actually a community. I don’t mean to make it out to be a Utopia or anything but it bears mentioning because we have become so culturally isolated from one another. And we’ve lost that curiosity about one another. And with that lack of curiosity, we lose empathy. And with that lost empathy, we lose a fully dimensional representation of who we are as individuals and are instead rendered as flat groups: the Blacks, the Whites, the Jews, the Russians. We are having an existential crisis of cultural identity and kindness. So this festival is important because I deconstruct Representation in my play REPRESENTATION and I deconstruct Words in my play WORDS. Most importantly, I feel very strongly and have many ideas about what, exactly, Ferguson represents at this moment and in the arc of our national history and future.
JL: Tell me about your plays. What do you hope the audience walks away thinking about after experiencing it?
MLE: My plays are REPRESENTATION and WORDS. I hope audiences walk away with questions about representation and also words.
JL: What role does theater have in advocacy work?
MLE: Well, theatre, at its core, is a form of community organizing. In that same regard, theatre is a social utility. And anytime you bring a community together in this public utility, you are pollenating ideas, emotions, and sometimes actions—which is all a part of advocacy. The audience, then, become advocates for the characters—they want them to win—so on a technical level, when you buy your ticket and sit down at a theatre, you are already going to be an advocate, you just don’t know all the details of what you’ll be asked to do. So I think theatre has a really important role in advocacy work because like WAITING FOR LEFTY or ANGELS, there’s great opportunity to have that social intercourse with the community. That said, I worry about theatre in advocacy work because I tend to tune out if I feel I’m being preached to ideologically. I’m not always in the mood for that. And I don’t know audiences, on a broad scale are interested in that either. Some are, for sure. But I think theatre is at its best when those ideas, those angry, passionate ideas, are dealt with nuance. That said, NORMAL HEART on Broadway beat the shit out of me emotionally, so. You know. I go both ways.
JL: What next for you as a writer? Where can we follow your work?
MLE: My play SEX OF THE BABY, a comedy, will be going up Off-Bway this year, directed by Michele Bossy. Beyond that, I’m working on a tragicomic peoples’ history of the American Revolution in verse with original music, called KING GEORGE III, which will have a workshop at Ars Nova. And finally, my play THE DOPPELGÄNGER, this farce about the division of a copper mine in the Central African Republic is in development with Moritz Von Stuelpnagel right now. If there’s any one play I write that I could get kidnapped for, I’m really hoping it’s this one.
About the Playwright
Matthew-Lee Erlbach is an actor and writer from Chicago, currently living in NYC. Most recent playwright credits include the Off-Bway world-premiere of his critically-acclaimed solo play HANDBOOK FOR AN AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY (Tony Speciale, dir) at the GYM at Judson, called "Revelatory, impressive, surprising, and beautifully rendered" by the New York Times; EAGER TO LOSE, A BURLESQUE FARCE IN RHYMING VERSE, extended Off-Bway at Ars Nova/nominated for Off-Broadway Alliance Award (Wes Grantom/Portia Krieger, dirs). Recent readings/workshops include THE DOPPELGÄNGER at Studio 42 (Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, dir); KEVIN LAMB at the Vineyard (Michael Berresse, dir.); and A NEIGHBOR IN THE AREA at GYM at Judson (Wes Grantom, dir). Upcoming: Off-Bway Premiere of SEX OF THE BABY (Michelle Bossy, dir.) and the workshop of his tragicomic peoples’ history of the American Revolution, KING GEORGE III at Ars Nova. He has received development, residencies, and fellowships at Williamstown, SPACE on Ryder Farm, The Vineyard, MCC, Primary Stages, Woodshed Collective, The Lark, Nuyorican, Ohio Theatre, Tisch/NYU Grad, Ars Nova, and the GYM at Judson, among others. He is the recipient of a Puffin Grant, thrice Finalist for Juilliard's Lila Acheson Fellowship, and a Finalist for the O'Neill, SoHo Rep. He is a member of Ars Nova's 2014/2015 Play Group. www.Matthew-Lee.com
10 outstanding playwrights tackle race, police brutality, and community in Ferguson, New York City, and around the world. 10 inspired directors bring their work to life.
Join us on March 9 at 7:30pm for a uniquely challenging one-night-only engagement at the American Theater Company, as we are proud to present our annual short plays festival, 10x10.
Tickets are free but seats will fill up fast. To make a reservation, send us an email at ATC10x10@Gmail.com. Due to high demand, we are only able to reserve up to two seats per request.
At the door, we suggest a $10 donation to help us cover the cost of supporting the festival, though we welcome you to pay what you can.
This Year's Playwrights:
Jeff Augustin. Kristiana Rae Colón. Matthew-Lee Erlbach. Jacqueline E Lawton. Bonnie Metzgar. Dominique Morisseau. Lucas Neff. A Rey Pamatmat. Akin Salawu. Aurin Squire.
Kaiser Ahmed. Grace Cannon. Amanda Delheimer Dimond. Matt Dominguez. Azar Kazemi. Reed Motz. Hutch Pimentel. Tlaloc Rivas. Samuel Roberson. Conner Wilson.
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!