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Meet Scott Austin!
Scott teaches and directs theater at a high school in Brooklyn. He performs improv comedy at the Magnet Theater and writes plays to stay involved in theater as a practitioner. He has also created ethnodrama pieces for Ping Chong + Co. and Rarely Done Productions. He studied Education, theater and English at Syracuse University and NYU Steinhardt School.
Your work passes the Bechdel test (or we wouldn’t be having this interview), but is meeting the criteria of the test something you set out to do when you write? If not, how has seeing your work, as now identified through this lens, changed or informed your writing?
I’ve been teaching high school for 13 years and am always looking for interesting material for my students. For three of those years I was at a small all-girls public school where Drama was a mandatory class. I was constantly looking for scripts where the women were allowed to play vulnerable, dynamic characters. When I couldn’t find them, I started to write some. The Bechdel Group has allowed me to find other writers who are concerned with how women appear on stage and screen, particularly Ramon Esquivel. Esquivel’s play The Shahrazad Society has been a wonderful addition to my curriculum. [A note from Gina: we were honored to workshop The Shahrazad Society in our first reading series, back in 2014.]
The Bechdel test is, by its existence, a kind of political rubric – and now identified in film and theatre theory. Are there any other politics or rubrics that influence your work? Is it important to you to identify as a feminist writer?
Until recently, I was a less traditional playwright, concentrating on devising. My methodologies were based on the works of Moises S. Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project as well as Ping Chong’s Undesirable Elements series, which puts marginalized communities in the spotlight. So, most of the plays I have “written” have been interview theater, which is inherently political. I have directed and devised pieces on sexuality, education, and immigration. I think it’s a theater practitioner's role to entertain, but also to be part of a socio-political discussion, so it would be strange to think of my work as not feminist or apolitical.
How important is getting feedback for your writing process and what do you hope to get from feedback at a reading?
Getting feedback is tough, but necessary to make sure my work is landing the way I want it to with audiences. As a white man, I think it s particularly good for me to hear if the female roles I am creating feel realistic to the actresses they are meant for, particularly for women of color. Getting feedback helps me make sure my characters are humans, not archetypes.
How is the feedback you get from a live audience reading different from other types of feedback you seek?
Getting feedback from a live audience is less cerebral than getting it from someone who has read the play. I find the experience of hearing what gets laughs, what’s too wordy, seeing where audiences start to lose focus is a lot more valuable than asking someone for written notes.
Tell us about a woman character you’ve written who surprised you, or took a turn you didn’t expect.
The first play I wrote for Bechdel’s 24-Hour playwriting challenge was meant to be a comedy and I realized that the character of Meg was a lot angrier than I thought she was going to be. She ultimately had the most interesting conflict, and some if it was in her head. The play is about a group of women who are on a bowling team to escape their lives. Meg feels offended that one of the other women on the team doesn’t give her a “plus one” to her wedding, which Meg takes to be a slight because Meg is a lesbian. Writing the piece brought up a lot of my own issues toward the convention of marriage. As a gay man, I am always happy for friends when they get married, but there is apparently a part of me that resents the heternormativity of the ceremony. What was meant to be sit-com level humor in Meg came out as a lot heavier.
What comes easily, and what challenges you in your writing?
I like banter. I think I write banter well. I can sit down and write a page that flows easily. The challenge is in turning the banter into a piece with a focus and direction. I often have a hard time finding a protagonist when I start writing. I’ve done a lot of improv, so I am trained to think that all characters matter equally, but to make a streamlined story, it’s often necessary to pick a character to follow. I’m not Annie Baker or Sarah DeLappe, but I think they both do a great job of writing plays that make you feel for the entire ensemble, and hope to combine my love of group dynamics and group banter with the ability to make a point or show some truth.
What are you working on now, or what can we look forward to hearing about next from you?
I am working on two pieces. One is storytelling and personal, so it probably will not pass the Bechdel test…sorry. The other piece I want to keep developing is the play I started for the most recent Bechdel 24-hour challenge. It’s about a Blockbuster Video in its last days. The employees are struggling with what to do as they lose their jobs. As Amazon.com, Netflix, and online retail grow, what does that mean for the suburban life? As a country, we are starting to look at factory town and how that is changing. We will always be able to see a play about New York City, but there’s a lot in between. I want to keep exploring that.
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The Bechdel Group
Working to challenge the portrayal of women in film and on stage.