Playwright-director John Rosenberg continues his series of long-form interviews of varied creators and theater peeps with Doug Williams, a playwright and member of recently disbanded playwright collaborative Orbiter 3. (Read other interviews in this series.)
John Rosenberg: Who are you?
Doug Williams: I’m Doug. I’m a playwright and I also write for a beer magazine to make money.
John Rosenberg: Why did you say it like that?
Doug Williams: I wanted to be direct instead of trying to be funny.
John Rosenberg: How many plays have you written?
Doug Williams: I’ve written eleven long plays, but I wrote four of them with other writers. Short plays, I have a bunch but they’re all bad.
John Rosenberg: Jesus Christ. Eleven plays is hella. How long does it take you to write a play or is it different each time?
Doug Williams: Yeah two of those are solo shows though which is maybe cheating. It’s different every time but I do work pretty fast which is nice. I’m pretty good about carving out time on a regular basis to write, I don’t know why I’m able to work quickly, but I enjoy the pace of churning out pages upon pages.
John Rosenberg: What is wrong with your short plays?
Doug Williams: I just don’t really like the one-act format. It’s really hard to start a story, introduce some characters and some conflict and wrap it all up in 10-15 pages without being super cheesy or crappy – I’ve seen really good one acts, but mine always end up feeling like skits and not stories.
John Rosenberg: What drew you to writing plays?
Doug Williams: My mom went to college for costume design so she was always taking me and my sister to theater when we were kids – I acted in a few plays growing up and then started making movies in high school because I wanted to be a famous director. I was only really writing so that I had something to film. Then in college I read Topdog / Underdog for a class which really kind of fucked me up and changed my life. So I decided to switch to writing theater because it was a lot more exciting than movies.
John Rosenberg: What were some of the films you made in high school? Does anything character or theme wise show up in your plays?
Doug Williams: I made a lot of films in high school. One I made that is probably the closest to the work I create now was about this older janitor at the local high school who like lives for his job and then gets laid off due to budget cuts.
John Rosenberg: Why is theater more exciting than film to you?
Doug Williams: Obviously theater can be formulaic, but film is like SUPER formulaic. I just feel like I see maybe one good movie every year. It just doesn’t feel daring or risky from a storytelling point of view. It’s mass media, which is fine. It’s just not as exciting as someone putting on a show in their attic, struggling to tell a story that MUST be told. I just get that vibe so much more often in theater than I do in film.
John Rosenberg: How many different versions of you are there?
Doug Williams: I think generally probably three versions with their own variations day to day.
John Rosenberg: Who won the NBA Finals in 2001?
Doug Williams: I believe Shaq and Kobe single-handedly won the Finals that year.
John Rosenberg: What routines do you have in your personal life?
Doug Williams: I work a day job so I wake up at the same time during the week and drive to work. And I don’t look at my email over the weekend, which is an accidental routine that I really enjoy.
John Rosenberg: Do you have routines you adhere to with your writing?
Doug Williams: I used to. I used to wake up an hour before I had to go to work and try to write two pages every day (not on weekends though). That was the best routine I’ve had, I like getting my writing out of the way at the beginning of the day because it sort of makes me feel like I’ve already accomplished something. I live in West Philly now so my commute is longer and so I gave up on getting up early. I’d really like to start doing it again at some point though, because I was able to finish a first draft in like a month and half.
John Rosenberg: What is your relationship with a play you are working on?
Doug Williams: I’m always trying to maintain a level of discovery and also not get too pissed off at the plot or the characters because it’s just so easy to give up on a story. So generally my relationship is just trying to be careful and remain positive about where something is going even when it feels like you’re writing into mud.
John Rosenberg: How do you bury exposition?
Doug Williams: This is really interesting question because I try not to think about it when I’m writing but am also obsessed with it when I’m writing. It’s a weird balance. I feel like I’m not completely horrible at writing dialogue so I try to kind of trick the audience into thinking they’re just listening to a funny conversation but sneak in some exposition. It’s like burying flags in the snow, which is a line I’m stealing from a writer-friend. Also I guess a little goes a long way, so if a character mentions the same thing twice over the course of a play – the audience is probably going to understand that that’s something super central to that person.
John Rosenberg: Where did your style as a person come from?
Doug Williams: In terms of clothes style: I had a girlfriend in my early 20’s who I don’t think liked the clothes I wore so she had her mom buy me a lot of clothes until she broke up with me (perhaps because of the clothes weren’t helping). That was pretty much my wardrobe up until the shirts all started falling apart two years ago. I’m trying out a normie goth phase thing now with lots of black jeans from Target and weird T-shifts from my favorite Philly bars. In terms of writing style: I really love Annie Baker, Sarah Ruhl, James Ijames, MF Doom, Kanye West and Frank Ocean so I try to do what they do without copying too too directly. I’m really digging these questions right now.
John Rosenberg: What do you glean from MF Doom?
Doug Williams: I really love how MF Doom has all these different characters and monikers that he creates music for. MF Doom himself is semi-anonymous (he wears a gladiator mask when he performs) which I think is really cool and something I wish I could do as a writer sometimes. But then he also creates music as these other characters like King Geedorah or Viktor Vaughn, each with their own flow and story. I think that’s really cool. There’s a lot of ego in creating art and I think sometimes it can be a trap to seek recognition for who you are and what you’ve done as a person. Doom has kind of stripped that away and is able to create new histories and new mythologies for each project he starts. It feels like he puts the art and the music front and center. Plus he’s funny.
John Rosenberg: Being a fan of MF Doom, you ever listen to his work with MF Grimm?
Doug Williams: There’s a Best of MF album that was sort of the first MF Doom I listened to, pretty sure that has both their work on it. That’s about all I’ve come into contact from MF Grimm though.
John Rosenberg: What are you not interested in?
Doug Williams: I don’t really like old plays, which I know is general and kind of bratty but I just honestly don’t ever go out of my way to see a play that’s super old. They’re usually long and confusing and don’t seem to be about anything relevant to me or my friends. I also usually feel bad for not liking them because you’re supposed to like, pay them respect. I just saw Romeo and Juliet which is actually a pretty dope play because it’s direct and it’s about love. Most other old plays just don’t seem as direct. Like do regular, non-theater people enjoy sitting through Measure for Measure? If they do that’s cool but I think Measure for Measure is boring. I don’t even remember which one Measure for Measure is to be honest so maybe I should just shut up.
John Rosenberg: Do you have a code you live by?
Doug Williams: As a person, kindness and understanding are pretty important to me. As a writer, I think my code would just be clarity.
John Rosenberg: What haven’t you read that everyone has told you to read but you refuse to read?
Doug Williams:Catch 22, because everyone says it’s really funny but I just can’t imagine it actually being funny for some reason. It just seems long and boring. It has a cool cover though.
John Rosenberg: What are you seeking in writing?
Doug Williams: Clarity, always. Not necessarily in having a clear plot and all that. More so just clarity in choices and in character. Make it clear and serve up an honest truth and an audience will respond, I think.
John Rosenberg: Why are you interested in clarity?
Doug Williams: My favorite plays of mine have been the most clear. It sounds kind of obvious when I write it out, but I’ve written plays before where I’m not totally sure why a character does a certain thing or acts a certain way. That happens in real life all the time, but for me when I’m writing, it’s just so much easier if it’s clear to me what is happening and why. I try not to get fancy with it. I wish I could articulate it better, but some artists seem to enjoy creating work that’s cloudy and ambiguous. And I’m just not as good at that so clarity is king for me.
John Rosenberg: What is the closest you have come to seeing something in your head and then realizing it in reality?
Doug Williams: Kevin Glaccum and Azuka produced a play I wrote called Shitheads two years ago that was honestly almost exactly what I had in my head. I wasn’t sure it was possible until that show. Also, on a different scale but just as successful to my mind, Maura Krause and I did a basement show last year called Bon Iver Fights A Bear that was just about exactly what I was picturing when I wrote it. It’s nice that those are the last two things I’ve done so maybe it’s getting easier now. I don’t know.
John Rosenberg: What are you seeking in the performance of your plays?
Doug Williams: Honesty, which is a one word answer I’m stealing from you. But also I would say pace, a level of playfulness, uhhh not trying to get too fancy. I also like it when actors are interested in the evolution of a play and will tell me if they have an idea. Like, Akeem Davis wrote my favorite line in my play Shitheads.
John Rosenberg: What is the line Akeem Davis wrote in Shitheads?
Doug Williams: I’m not really that great or comfortable writing yelling scenes or confrontation scenes, but for the second to last scene in Shitheads we wanted Akeem’s character to kick one of his employees out of the bike shop all the characters work at. So I didn’t really know exactly what Akeem’s character could say and Akeem came up with this great line (the kid he’s talking to is a poser and has just betrayed Akeem in this big way so he really needs to cut him down and tell him to GTFO): “Well you can roll your pant leg up all you want but you’re no shop-rat. You’re a tourist. And your bike? Is a piece of shit.”
It’s sort of tough to translate out of context but it’s a line that fucking stopped the show. It was great. Just reading it now I can hear him saying it again, it was a great moment.
John Rosenberg: What has been your evolution as a writer?
Doug Williams: I started by writing very serious, dark plays because that seemed important, but I don’t think I was very good at it. It’s sort of easier to hide behind funny things, so now I tend to write super conversational, snappy plays about millennials and fuck ups. I feel like I’ve kind of figured out all the cheats for those type of plays though, so I’m trying to evolve into writing a different kind of play after I finish the one I’m working on now. Something with a little more space.
John Rosenberg: What are some of the cheats you have figured out for writing? I only ask cuz you put it out there.
Doug Williams: A lot of it is plot based. The way to get a story started, making sure the audience knows where we’re going as early as possible. Like Shitheads was about this crappy bike shop building this one super dope bike in hopes of selling it to save the shop. That’s like a pretty basic plot and I wanted to make it clear to the audience that that was the journey of the play they could expect to see. Over 90 minutes you’re going to watch these losers come up with that idea, build the bike, and try to sell it. That’s the whole play. I think if everyone knows where they’re going it makes it easier to tell a story. Another cheat is like how the best way to end a play is to just bring back something from the beginning. In Bon Iver we had this monologue about someone working in a Subway sandwich place and fucking hating it – when we didn’t know how to end the play Maura was like “Let’s just have him enter holding like 20 Subway sandwiches” and it worked. And if that doesn’t work just put music into the end because people love music. I have like three plays that end with someone dancing or singing. I think there’s also a certain type of character that I’m okay at writing that people like to see too. Quick, young people who are sort of pissed at the world. It can be funny and it’s comfortable for me to write in that mode, but I can feel myself getting tired of telling that kind of story.
John Rosenberg: What are some things you used to do that you don’t do anymore?
Doug Williams: I used to put myself out there a lot more, in terms of seeing shows and going to Quig’s and like really really hustling to meet people and have my plays read. It’s kind of nice that I don’t feel the need to do that anymore, I should go see more plays though.
John Rosenberg: Do versions of you show up in all your plays?
Doug Williams: Yeah and I’ve only just recently been getting better at making that character not super fucking boring. I think early on the character that most represented me in the play was more the observer or outsider which is just so boring. Like, do something man! It’s hard to take a close look at yourself and put an honest depiction of that on stage. I’m getting better at it though.
John Rosenberg: Are there themes you return to in your work?
Doug Williams: Plays about young people being broke and confused and struggling to communicate with each other, mostly. Uhhh substance abuse is in almost all of my plays – not that that’s a theme exactly. I sort of explicitly try NOT to write plays about love or romantic relationships but that’s more of a subconscious choice. Mostly I try to write plays for young people who think they don’t like theater.
John Rosenberg: Where have you traveled to?
Doug Williams: I grew up all over the country actually with my family moving ten times before I was in the sixth grade (Indiana, Texas, Florida, Connecticut). I want to make something profound up about how that’s influenced my writing, like not having a real home or interacting with wildly different communities – but that kind of mostly feels like grant-speak that isn’t actually true. I’ve never been outside the US except for one time we walked across the Texas border into Mexico when I was a kid. I don’t really remember what we did, it was a day trip my family took. I’ll be off to London later this year to see some theater and be a tourist with my girlfriend, which I’m really excited about.
John Rosenberg: What are some of the anecdotes that put you in a good light you share with people at some point to impress them?
Doug Williams: Probably the thing about me moving a lot as a kid. It makes me sound nomadic maybe. Telling stories about me and my sister and how we get along with our family because healthy friendships with your family probably make you look balanced. I don’t know, I might have to come back to this question.
John Rosenberg: What are some things you can do that surprise you?
Doug Williams: I’m really good at waking up in the morning, even if I’ve only slept like four or five hours. It feels like my super power sometimes, I just get up and go. Hmm what else. I don’t really ever get sick which is cool. I’m a good defensive driver. I can go shot for shot with Chris Davis.
John Rosenberg: What do you experience in your head when you feel negative?
Doug Williams: A feeling that all my good luck has run out and that I’m finally getting what I deserve. The feeling of being a fraud as an artist or friend or significant other.
John Rosenberg: What do you experience in your head when you feel positive?
Doug Williams: Just general good vibes. I’m a pretty positive dude, I feel like I can find happiness in small things which is maybe another super power. Like just chilling with my cat or getting tacos with my girlfriend. I guess it’s just an easiness in my head that feels really good. Feeling content.
John Rosenberg: Is your self-worth tied up in your writing?
Doug Williams: I want to say no but yeah I think it is. It feels good to be validated by audiences or theaters or whatever. I just spend so much of my time thinking about writing so I would definitely say they’re tied. Feels like a huge part of my identity.
John Rosenberg: Why are you interested in writing plays for young people who don’t think they like theater?
Doug Williams: This is where people are going to stop reading the interview because this answer is going to be so long. Oh well. I write for them because I was one of those people who thought I didn’t like theater. And then in college I was lucky enough to understand that theater is an incredible medium that can tell stories that are more relevant and interesting than you might think. I mean, who doesn’t want a diverse, young, vibrant and engaged audience? We talk non-stop about wanting it but we keep programming the same shit and wonder why it’s not working. theater gets a lot of flack for mostly being patronized by older white audiences. And we throw up our hands like “Ugh kids today just don’t want to get off the couch, they just don’t want to turn off Netflix.” But those are the stories that are speaking to them! And I bet if those young people turned on Netflix one day and most everything on there was an adaptation of William Shakespeare or Chekhov or even Harold Pinter, they probably wouldn’t watch Netflix either! I don’t think we should make the equivalent of Netflix shows for the theater, and there’s still space for old plays if that’s what you’re into, but I think we can do A LOT better at making theater that is relevant and applicable to young and diverse audiences. We can’t keep programming Chekhov and waiting for young people to realize that it’s important art. If they don’t want to come see Chekhov, and if you really want to find new audiences, maybe we should do more new plays! Seems simple to me, but I don’t run a theater so who knows. There was a whole Facebook discussion slash fight about all this that was really interesting to me, I’m sure you saw it. Okay, end of rant.
John Rosenberg: Do you remember the first time you realized you were going to die?
Doug Williams: I was watching an episode of the Wonder Years as a kid and Fred Savage’s buddy realizes that he’s going to die. And I was like “Oh fuck, me too.”
John Rosenberg: Is there a word or are there words you constantly misspell when typing?
Doug Williams: I’m really bad at spelling so there are a bunch. Convenient is one that pops up pretty often.
John Rosenberg: Can you trace or point out the evolution and stages of you as a writer?
Doug Williams: Stage 1: I lived in New York City for two years after college. I was sort of just trying to learn how plays work and copying good plays I was reading and seeing. Moving back to Philly and making a bunch of solo shows with Drew Carroll was Stage 2. That’s when I was able to actually put a 45 minute story on stage and write for a specific actor who was really good at translating my words to an audience. Stage 3 was Fringe collaborations. I co-wrote a play with Bruce Walsh and Chris Davis and then another with Emily Acker and Emma Goidel. Then there was the Azuka residency / Orbiter 3 stage where I was writing full length plays that those theaters then produced. I guess I’m in a kind of post-Orbiter stage now where I’m still trying to get my plays produced in Philly, but now a few theaters and development conferences outside Philly have become interested in my work, which has been a trip. Not sure how long that’s going to last.
John Rosenberg: Why did Orbiter 3 have a cut-off?
Doug Williams: It was really hard to run the company. We were all writers, not theater administrators. So when the mission was complete I think we were all excited to go back to just being writers. It’s also hard to fight with other local companies over the same grant money.
John Rosenberg: What advice would you give yourself in the future?
Doug Williams: To just be happy and content when things slow down. It’s okay to sit back and work on a project for a year or two. You don’t always have to be busy.
John Rosenberg: This is a loaded question, but is there an inherent value in something you now write?
Doug Williams: I really honestly don’t know. I think there is inherent value in art and in writing. But sometimes my plays feels so small or about such casual things, and it’s like hmm where’s the value? I hope there is. I think recognizing something in a character that you also see in yourself, knowing you’re not alone – or learning about someone that is NOT like you but is still true and honest, I think that has so much value. I’m just not sure my work always does that. I hope it does. It’s hard to answer this question.
John Rosenberg: I was surprised when you agreed to be in Cana of Galilee. What made you decide to act?
Doug Williams: The day before you asked me I had just been turned down for a really big writers group I was a finalist for. I was sort of obsessed with this theater and wanted so badly to be admitted to it and was really sad I didn’t make the final cut. And so I just decided to try to really double down and like immerse myself in theater and writing in a way that I hadn’t for a few years. I’ve kind of slacked off recently and when I didn’t get into this group I was like, okay let’s go fucking crazy with this again and see what can happen. And then you happened to ask if I wanted to be in the play and it felt like a really great thing to say yes to. I really appreciate your company and the tenacity and the immediacy of the plays. I like the attitude and wanted to be part of that. I also wanted to challenge myself which I did because I hate acting forever now. It’s really hard.
John Rosenberg: What did you learn to not do after working with me?
Doug Williams: I learned not to take the bravery of actors for granted. Our rehearsal process was super lax which I liked and was surprised by. But as performances got closer you sort of flipped a switch and became so gracious and thankful to the actors and that really felt like exactly what I needed at that moment. For someone to be like, what you’re doing is hard and you’re doing a good job. That goes a long way and I don’t think I realized how important it is to tell that to a performer as often as you can.
John Rosenberg: What book are you reading right now?
Doug Williams:The World As It Is. It’s a memoir by one of Obama’s speech writers.
John Rosenberg: This is a version of a question I asked someone else and am interested your thoughts… A few years ago, I saw a German Expressionist art exhibit where one of the pieces was a German DADA magazine. The magazine was from the early 1930s and on the cover was a photo collage lampooning Nazi belief in phrenology with a joke about cheese for brains. I doubt that magazine made someone take the swastika off their arm. What is the responsibility of art within society? Do you think of art as a weapon? Do perceive art as a means of effective change?
Doug Williams: I think art can change people, for sure. The whole “art as a weapon” thing is interesting to me, I don’t know. That seems so aggressive and, like, dramatic. How effective does something have to be to be considered a weapon? Is it a weapon if it makes people uncomfortable? If they walk out of the theater? Lots of art does that. Do they have to take the swastika off their arm for it to count? I think we spend so much time and energy and money-making art and we really want it to effect change, but it’s really really hard to actually do that. I think art is good at creating conversation and helping people to realize something about themselves or their community more vividly. But that’s also my perspective as a cis white boy who has never tried to make art in an attempt to create real, actionable change among a group of people.
John Rosenberg: How do you see yourself in the Philly theater community?
Doug Williams: It’s kind of nice to be a playwright because you can step in and out of the community as you need to. It’s not like an actor who kind of has to be present and top of mind to get work. Like this conversation has been really fun, because I don’t actually have a show I’m trying to promote right now. We can just talk about theater and it can be whatever. It’s nice to not feel that pressure.
John Rosenberg: How much money do you think I have?
Doug Williams: I would assume at least a few hundred dollars because you told the actors in your play we would get some money.
John Rosenberg: Do you want to know what happens at the end of Catch-22?
Doug Williams: Yeah sure. Does he die? Is it as funny as everyone says? It’s my dad’s favorite book.
Learn more about Doug Williams at douglaswilliamsplaywright.com.