“A conversation until it’s a fight”: Playwright Jeff Talbott talks about THE SUBMISSION (Quince)

An explosive tale of race, sexuality, and prejudice, THE SUBMISSION won playwright Jeff Talbott the Outer Critics Circle Laurents-Hatcher Award and saw major productions in Off-Broadway New York, DC, and San Francisco. In it, a young Caucasian playwright pens a play under a pseudonym about growing up poor and African-American and hires an African American woman to “play” the playwright. Quince Productions opens the Philadelphia premiere of Talbott’s funny yet provocative play April 9-25, 2015, at the Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5. The playwright talked to Phindie about his critically acclaimed work.

Jeff Talbott

Jeff Talbott

Phindie: What’s the inspiration behind THE SUBMISSION?

Jeff Talbott: I started writing the play with a very different idea of what it would be. Plays are tricky beasts. If you’re willing to listen while they take shape for you, they are happy to tell you what they want to be, and THE SUBMISSION was pretty clear with me what it wanted to be. So it wasn’t inspired by any one thing—I had some questions about political correctness both in theater and in life, and some notions about how those questions might be asked in an entertaining, provocative context and I let the play tell me how to tell the story.

Phindie: Do you ever think about writing a play under pseudonym?

JT: I would never write a play under a pseudonym. It’s a terrible, terrible, terrible idea.

Phindie: Have you had any revelations or changes in perspective since the original production? Is there anything you wish you could change?

JT: I revised the play in some substantial ways after the New York production based on things I learned during the run in New York. The published, licensed version (that Quince is doing) reflects those changes. I was very lucky to get to see the play with many, many different audiences during the New York run, and I learned so much. And I applied those lessons and put the play away. For better or worse, it’s now pretty much what I meant for it to be.

Hilary Asare and Andy Shaw in Quince Productions' staging of THE SUBMISSION

Hilary Asare and Andy Shaw in Quince Productions’ staging of THE SUBMISSION

Phindie: What interests you about the comparisons between the civil rights movements for African Americans and the LGBT community?

JT: I don’t know that I have a horse in that race, actually. It’s a complicated conversation and it’s been going on for a long time; and it will continue to go on for a long time. That conflict in the play is between those two characters, and in fashioning their discussion, I tried to stay pretty neutral. I think they both make some pretty interesting, thoughtful points. And I think they both make some pretty awful, thoughtless conclusions. The goal was to make them both about 50% right and 50% wrong and let the audience decide where they stand. The play wants to start a conversation in the audience. I hope that it does.

Phindie: How did the success of THE SUBMISSION change your life or career?

JT: In almost every way imaginable. I write every day now. I have five new plays looking for homes, and have just finished a musical with an exciting New York composer named Will Van Dyke. I love writing, and am proud to say, I think I have things to offer; and the discovery of THE SUBMISSION by Stephen Willems at MCC Theater in NYC and subsequently by Arthur Laurents and the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation was, without question, one of the most significant turning points in my life. I always had wanted to write, but I was very shy about it. I am still humble about it; but I’m definitely not shy.

Phindie: Did you have any conversation with Quince director Rich Rubin and if so what counsel did you have for him? 

JT: We have talked a little; I’m coming to a rehearsal this week so we can talk some more. There are some common questions I have found people have when they work on the play – and I more often than not offer only theories as to their answers. I like interpretation, and am interested to see what people come up with. But I also know the play pretty well, and am happy to offer assistance if people ask. I try to be a good resource to people working on the play if they want me to be.

Phindie: What do you want directors to think about when they direct this play?

JT: I think a really important job for a director of this play is to keep the conversation in the play a conversation until it becomes a fight. There are two very strong personalities at the center of this story, and they really, truly like each other. And the play works best when they like each other for as long as they possibly can. They are fighting to stay friends, not to tear each other down.

Phindie: Will you have a chance to see this production after the rehearsal?

JT: I will! And I can’t wait! I’m so glad Rich and Quince are bringing the play to Philly. The company has such a great reputation, and I’m thrilled they are diving into this play with such passion.

Phindie: Thanks Jeff!

Quince Production’s Philadelphia premiere of THE SUBMISSION runs April 9-25, 2015, at Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5 [825 Walnut Street], quinceproductions.com.

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.