F.J. Hartland has been called “Pittsburgh’s most eminent playwright” and his plays have won numerous awards. His MOTHER TONGUE, about a different kind of love triangle, will be one of the highlight productions of this year’s GayFest! In the second part of this two-part interview (read part one here), Hartland talks about the themes and influences of his GayFest! production. [Plays & Players Skinner Studio, 1714 Delancey Place] August 13-21, 2015; quinceproductions.com.
Eger: MOTHER TONGUE is a moving story about a young painter who finds his life turned upside down when he must choose between his new lover with a mysterious past and his mother who dreams of a career as a stand-up comedian. Tell us about the genesis of this intriguing story.
Hartland: I began playing with the idea of someone who can’t stop hating someone who is dead. Then I added the opposite, someone who can’t stop loving someone who is dead. That took care of the characters of Cale and Bertie. I needed a forum where they come together, so that’s when Matt, the painter, became part of the story. He’s the one who is trapped between these two polar opposites. His life can’t move forward until the lives of Cale and Bertie move forward. It makes for a different kind of “love triangle.”
Eger: Your play deals not only with a lively presence, but a past that impacts all three characters: mother, son, and lover. Were any of them based on people you knew?
Hartland: To be honest, MOTHER TONGUE is probably my least autobiographical play. There are small elements that reflect things in my own life, but the three characters aren’t based on anyone I know—they are all from my imagination.
Eger: You wrote about a man who can go “full Monty” onstage but is unable to express his feelings with words.
Hartland: I think much of it is indicative of what society is like nowadays. People post the most intimate things on social media—things they would never say to a real person standing in front of them. In the case of Cale and Matt, they’re both looking for something to fill a need in each of their lives. The sex—while good—isn’t really what they’re looking for.
Eger: You began writing MOTHER TONGUE about ten years ago, with several productions along the journey. Tell us more about the “many changes over the years.”
Hartland: Originally, the play had a reading at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. I always find a reading is particularly helpful to me. When other voices speak the lines, my ear can hear what rings true and what rings false, what moments feel right and which ones feel rushed or too slow. Then I can go back and do a re-write based on those discoveries.
Next, the play was performed in New York City as part of Gayfest 2010. I had a marvelous director and cast who really challenged me and brought many nuances to the play. I loved watching it.
Eger: You said that you “like working with directors and actors to improve the play.” Could you give some examples of how such cooperation made MOTHER TONGUE even stronger?
Hartland: What’s so wonderful about working on a new play is that a director comes in and sees it with a new set of eyes. Actors, also see it with a fresh set of eyes. They all bring the playwright a new perspective, often asking questions about the play that I never thought of. At first,I thought I had such bad comedy material for Bertie’s routine, so I was surprised when the audience found her to be funny. Also, Rich Rubin [director of Gayfest!] had a good suggestion about changing the end of a scene in Act II that I think really helped to improve the act.
Eger: Your work has been produced a record-setting nine times in the Pittsburgh New Works Festival and other theaters. In New York, your work has been produced by Emerging Artists Theatre, Love Creek, 13th Street Theatre, Ensemble Studio Theatre, The Quaigh Theatre, Don’t Tell Mama, and five times in the Samuel French Off-Off-Broadway Short Play Festival. Fantastic. How did you manage to get your plays accepted in that many theaters?
Hartland: So much of theater is “who you know.” So along this journey I have met people who have people who have helped move my career along as well. And I do the same for them.
Actually, this September I’ll be making my record-setting fifteenth appearance in the Pittsburgh New Works Festival. I was named for Best Play in 2005, 2010, 2011, and 2013.
Eger: Looking back, how did those experiences shape your writing, especially MOTHER TONGUE?
I think everyone who has ever worked on MOTHER TONGUE, whether as a director, an actor, or a designer, has left some kind of mark on the play. As a playwright, I don’t take every suggestion that I am given, but I am always open to suggestions. I tell my playwriting students that you may have to listen to fifteen suggestions, but there’s usually one that is real gold.
Eger: How did audiences respond to your play?
Hartland: I love to watch and listen to an audience during a performance, then to eavesdrop on their conversations during intermission and after the show. That’s one of the great things about being a playwright. No one in the lobby knows they’re standing next to the person who wrote the play—so you hear some very honest reactions. Following one of the New York performances, someone leaving said, “There is nothing this good playing right now on Broadway.” I was truly overwhelmed by that.
Eger: Great. F.J., is there anything else you would like to share?
Hartland: I always try to challenge myself as a playwright and MOTHER TONGUE was my first “romantic comedy.” There are a lot of laughs along the way, but there is also a great deal of real feeling. Even though the story of Matt and Bertie and Cale is unique to the three of them, I think everyone will be able to relate to the play.
Eger: I’ll watch out for anyone who eavesdrops on our conversations during intermission or after the show. Who knows, I might actually meet you—not on Broadway, but at Plays & Players, one of Philadelphia’s oldest theaters.
GayFest! 2015 runs August 7-22, 2015, at Plays & Players Skiner Studio [1714 Delancey Place]. MOTHER TONGUE has performance August 13, 14, 16, 17, 19, and 21 (all at 7pm). Check quinceproductions.comfor the full schedule and tickets.