Past Lives: Joshua Furst
Past Lives is an interview series with School of the Arts Writing faculty, students, and alumni who began their professional lives on different career paths. Here, we talk to Associate Professor Joshua Furst about his time as an eight-year-old dramaturg, commercial art vs. self-expression, and finding your literary voice.
Joshua Furst’s critically acclaimed novel Revolutionaries was published in 2019. He’s also the author of The Sabotage Café—named a 2007 year-end best book by the Chicago Tribune, the Rocky Mountain News and the Philadelphia City Paper, as well as being awarded the 2008 Grub Street Fiction Prize—Short People, a collection of stories, and with the illustrator Katy Wu, The Little Red Stroller, a picture book for children. His work has appeared in, among other periodicals, Esquire, Salon, The Chicago Tribune, BOMB, and The Forward, where he is a Contributing Editor. From 1993 through 1998, he was an active participant in the New York alternative theatre scene. Among other accomplishments in this field, he helped organize and run Nada Theatre’s 1995 Obie award winning Faust Festival and was one of the producers of the 1998 New York RAT conference which brought experimental theatre artists from across the United States together for a week of performance and symposia. His plays include Whimper, Myn and The Ellipse and Other Shapes. They have been produced by numerous theatres, both in the United States and abroad, including PS122, Adobe Theatre Company, Cucaracha Theatre Company, HERE, The Demarco European Art Foundation, and Annex Theatre in Seattle. He studied as an undergraduate at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, receiving a BFA in Dramatic Writing in 1993, and did graduate work at The University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, from which he received an MFA with Honors in 2001.
How did you first become involved with theatre?
JF: I acted in my first play when I was eight years old. I played the Boy in Waiting for Godot. This was in Wisconsin, a college production at Ripon College. After that, until high school, I acted in plays all over the Fox River Valley in southeastern Wisconsin—I was sort of the go-to child actor. Then I went to New York City Public High School and was in a magnet program for the arts, where I studied theatre, and I went to NYU Tisch for playwriting. I was deeply invested [in the theatre world].
How did you make that transition, from acting to playwriting?
JF: Well, this is interesting. I was always much more interested in the script than in the acting of the thing. When I was in Godot, I spent quite a bit of time doing what I guess would be called dramaturging the play—to whatever degree an eight-year-old is capable of parsing out meanings and sort of thinking like a writer. Then when I was in high school, I started writing myself.
While I was acting, it became very, very clear that I did not have the type of personality that actors [need to] have. I was not interested in smiling on cue. I was neither interested in nor capable of being the shiny happy person that actors must be.
So then I started writing and directing, and Tish was at that time—I'm sure it still is, but the whole theatre world has changed—deeply enmeshed in what I guess you would call the downtown scene. There was a lot of experimental theatre and “throw shit at the wall” theatre happening. Space was cheap and there was a lot of artistic freedom—the artistic energy was happening in the downtown theatre scene.
I got involved in that; it was a natural progression from school. It also became very clear to me while I was at Tisch that I had to write. For one of my classes we had to write an “after school special.” I had to write screenplays and television pilots and things like that. The difference between creating a commercial product for entertainment purposes and exploring the controlled aesthetics of a particular art form to see what would happen. . . if I had to make a choice between the two, I was firmly on the side of exploring aesthetics for the sake of the exploration. So that meant that I was pretty antagonistic toward the movie business and any money making ventures that might be possible with my dramatic writing degree, and so I just fucked off downtown for 10 years.
When was your first play mounted?
JF: While we were in school, we would do little things, but my senior year at NYU, some friends and I got together. One of them was an intern at La Mama, so La Mama gave us the space for a night. We put together a production that each of us had written certain portions of and just did the show. That's sort of the way that I did most of my theater. It was like, there's a space, I have the time, I have the willpower. We're gonna go do this now.
And you were also involved in producing a few festivals.
JF: I worked as a—worked is a laughable term for it—I donated two years of my time to a very small, 50-seat theater on Ludlow Street called Nada. And that meant I basically did everything, because the guy who ran it didn't do anything except take the money. We did a festival of variations on Hamlet. I think there were fifty of those, some of which went on to become wildly successful. There was one that was [called] Rap Hamlet, you might have heard of that. Rap Hamlet started at Nada.
Then the next year—I feel like this was insane—we did around 200 or 250 productions of Faust. It was called the “Faust Festival.” I had a puppet troupe that I was sort of in charge of. We were a collective, but we were a collective in which one person (me) seemed to boss everybody around all the time. That's how most of those go. We did a Puppet Hamlet, but during the Faust Festival, I didn't do any of my own shows. I did design lights for some of the shows—[productions] would show up and they would not have even considered the staging. So on the fly, I would do lighting design for a show.
There were people who came from all over the place. Basically, the deal was that you bring your audience, we provide you with the space, and we take half the box office. That was how it was structured. Whoever walked through the door—we only sort of vaguely curated it. The bar for admission was not high, which made for some really interesting [productions] and for some really confusing [productions]. You learn what art is and what it isn’t very quickly when you're subjected to things that are clearly not art with that kind of frequency.
Did it feel like being part of a community?
JF: There were a variety of communities that overlapped and came in and out of that space. I was involved in some. I worked with the Cucaracha Theater, I did my own stuff there, because it was a more legitimate theater company. Everything that went on at Cucaracha was actual art. I was a Cucaracha member for a couple years near the end there, and I worked with a variety of other groups.
But at Nada, there was no community. I discovered, in the middle of the Hamlet Festival, that Nada was kind of a grift created by the guy who owned the space—he never seemed to manage to give the companies their half of the box office, or give me any money, and I was there every day from noon to midnight.
But Ludlow Street has a long, long history of arts happening on it. There's a lot of energy on the Lower East Side below Houston Street. . . and so there was kind of a, I guess you could call it community. I wouldn't have called it community then. I feel like that word has become a tainted, confusing word and I don’t know what it means anymore, but there was a scene, and we were all part of the scene.
Did you have your scene “costume”?
JF: We just looked that way. When you were a punk, you were a punk all the way.
How did you make the transition to fiction writing?
JF: I was always writing plays and poetry. When I was in college, I was writing a lot of fiction. So throughout that entire time, I was also writing fiction. And then, just like you guys do, I was sending it out anywhere that I could. The Chicago Tribune had a yearly blind prize. It was pure slush pile. One of my short stories won it—the Nelson Algren Prized—and I discovered that sometimes, rarely, you can make money [with fiction]. There was some incentive to continue to work more toward my fiction.
After that, I put some stuff together and I started one of the graduate programs, in large part because I had grown disenchanted with the theater, where the relationship between the art form and commerce was changing. That wide open artistic space that I was just talking about was very quickly disappearing.
What was it like going from such a collaborative art form to a field that's so solitary?
JF: I felt very good about making that change. One of my problems in theatre was that I was a perfectionist and a control freak. If I was the writer of the play, it was very hard for me to accept that the director seemed to want to be the author of the production. Especially if the play had not been mounted before, I wanted the play to be the thing that I had envisioned. Maybe this is because I started with Beckett, who was also like that, or maybe it's just my demeanor, but I did not necessarily play well with others unless they were very clearly working toward the exact goal that I was also working toward.
Frequently I would start out not being the director of my plays, and then it turned out that if the play was going to happen, I was going to be the director. I had a habit of firing my directors, which does not necessarily make for a successful life in the theater.
How does it affect how you think about craft elements like scene and setting and atmosphere, having worked in a medium where those pieces are in some ways out of your hands?
JF: Well, I would flip that, actually. In a play, those are the only tools you have to work with. You describe the set, you describe the setting. We're in this location, and that location is immutable because it's on stage, unless there's some way that you've constructed it so that it can be fluid. All you have is words in time. All you have is action contained within this time and space.
Those particular types of tools which are necessary for creating a piece of narrative fiction—I have a very strong sense of how we use those basic tools of craft, because that is all the writer gives to the production. All the other more nuanced elements of the aesthetic vision come through what the actor's doing, what the director's doing, what the sound designer’s doing, and so on.
Are certain types of stories more suited to one medium or the other?
JF: Oh, totally. One of the other things I discovered while I was writing plays is that I was much more interested in characters’ psychological motivations than I was in their external action, and psychological motivation was very hard to enact on stage, because, you know, it can't be seen. In a work of fiction, if it's a work of psychological fiction, the types of things that fiction allows one to do and the contract with the reader are such that you can enter the depths of what's hidden in the human, in ways where there's no parallel in the theater. You can do it through monologue, but it creates a very different contract.
My plays were very monologue heavy. There was a lot of talking to the audience. I would do other things to create a dramatic experience on the stage, but when a work of theatre grabs the audience in that particular way that you imagine when you think about a play, it's two characters in conversation, in conflict with each other. I've always been more interested in how characters—how people—are in conflict with themselves.
Are there any works of theater that effectively engage with that internal conflict?
JF: Of course. There's Hamlet, there's all kinds of works that do that, but you have to find a workaround from the expectations. Especially in American theater. American theater is even less amenable to that type of thing. American theater is very much issue driven, and about the individual in society.
Do you think the idea that theatre is more suited to external conflict and fiction more suited to internal, affects the way we conceptualize plot in these different art forms?
JF: Well, there's a whole history of fiction that's about external conflicts. The majority of English fiction seems to me to be about external conflicts. But yes, a “man vs. self” conflict is going to create a different kind of plot, right? Notes from the Underground could never be the Bonfire of the Vanities.
Ideally, in a powerful work of social fiction, fiction that is about people struggling and flexing and fighting their way through society, there's a balance between the internal conflict and the external conflict. And in good works of theater, the internal conflict is present in its absence, by which I mean, you can see in the action that the characters have taken the depths of that character's personality and that character's internal tensions that lead them to do whatever they're doing.
As students, we hear a lot of writing advice that seems to be based around how something would present as a theatrical production, or even a film. How do you feel about using theatrical or cinematic shorthand for techniques in fiction-writing?
JF: Sure, those tools are useful to understand how narrative works, but I think that flattens the difference between the art forms. Each of those three art forms uses different tools to achieve their ends, and the different tools that are being used in each affect what can and can't be done. And it affects the audience or the reader's experience. They provide different experiences, and in providing those different experiences, they are capable of communicating different kinds of nuance. To ignore the differences between the aesthetic tools is to lose out on the beauty of the art form. That is central to the way that I think about what fiction-writing is, or what theatre is, or what film is, and it's probably because I've dabbled in all three.
How is your writing most influenced by your experiences in these other areas of storytelling?
JF: One of the things that spending so much time in theatre has helped me with is understanding voice. Voice in fiction is an especially difficult thing to pull off convincingly. Having to enter different characters’ spoken argot in the theater, because that's all you've got really, gave me a leg up in terms of being able to pull off characters’ voices. Learning about how dialogue in theater works was a great boon in terms of more quickly understanding how to manipulate voice.
I think writers should be thinking more about character motivation and less about how to get to [the next plot point]. Any work of fiction that is driven toward its plot point, you can tell that it's driving towards plot point, and that becomes a detriment. It needs to evolve toward that plot point via the characters, working through their motivations. And if the plot point doesn't line up with the characters and their motivation, then the thing that has to go is the plot point.
What other lessons should we take from the theatre?
JF: Besides that the aesthetic tools determine what is possible in the art form—that's the big one—the difference is that in the theatre you're working with sound, and you're working with visual image, and you're working with human beings trapped in space in front of other human beings, who are there to witness what they're doing. Those are the tools that you have. It's a very different thing from words on the page.
Do you mean the fact that you can put down a novel and then pick it back up again? How do you think that affects the way that stories are experienced?
JF: One hopes that, if the book is engaging enough, you get one sentence into wherever you left off, and everything else that's trapped inside of those pages locks back into place, and you’re fully inside of that artistic experience, fully inside that world. If that's not happening, you need to figure out why that's not happening.
The psychological nuance of fiction allows the understanding of what's not seen, because the words are silent and the act of reading is silent, so it's communication through silence. It's coming from one person's head into your head with no mediation, which allows fiction to soar in ways that theatre can't.
Have you stayed involved in the theater scene?
JF: I mean, there's not much of a scene, you know? I have friends who still do theater. There's an international circuit of people who are doing the kinds of things that I was doing downtown in the nineties. If they've been lucky and if they've had the infrastructure and the patronage, they've been able to keep doing what they're trying to do. And then there's a commercial theater. And there's some stuff very far on the fringes that happens every once in a while.
But it's not a lively way of life. It's not an artistic way of life that you could just choose, because it’s not attuned to that sense of how to be in the world in the way that it used to be. This is something that's been lost.
It's all commerce. We've got certain theaters here that exist within the realm of that international circuit. BAM is part of that, there's a theater in New Jersey that's part of that. I guess you could generously say that there's an international exchange of ideas, but all that means is that the same people who are performing in Amsterdam are performing at BAM are performing at, I don’t know, the major theater in Hong Kong, in Sydney, Australia. Trends come and go and different aesthetic styles, but I don't know if I could attach ideas to those. I'm sure that a lot of people do attach ideas to those. I just question whether that's a good faith act.