Daniel Talbott called me from his house in LA, where his wifi was down and he was taking calls from the writers’ room about his episode of The Mist, adapted from the Stephen King novel for Spike TV. He spoke passionately and hilariously for almost 2 hours. Daniel’s wife, Addie Johnson Talbott - an actor, writer, producer and associate artist of his bicoastal theatre company Rising Phoenix Rep - chimed in to make sure we spelled his name correctly. Here’s hoping we did.
THE DIONYSIAN: How did it all start for Daniel Talbott?
DANIEL TALBOTT: I moved around with my mom a lot as a kid. Things got pretty crazy and I ended up moving in with my grandparents. I was a baseball player - that was the one constant thing in my life. Everything else was pretty chaotic and insane. So I played baseball a lot, but I was never a jock, I didn’t really fit in. I had a girlfriend who had done classes at A.C.T. in San Francisco so I went over there and it was like finding my life, you know? My life made sense for the first time ever. I suddenly had a home. It was like finding the person you want to marry and have children with. But I was an athlete, and all I understood was training. I was so fucking bad! They were so patient with me, but I was so bad! There was this wonderful Bay Area theatre magazine, Callboard, which had all the auditions, headshot stuff, articles about the local Bay Area theater, and info for classes. So I started reading it religiously. Someone would say Neil Simon, or Ionesco, and I’d be like, “who’s that?” Then I’d go buy all the plays I could find at a used bookstore and dive in. I started reading, seeing, doing everything I could to learn about it, to learn about theater. I’ve always tried to be of the mindset that you do everything you can, and hopefully it pays off.
THE DIONYSIAN: You then went on to study acting at Juilliard. Did you already plan to write, direct and produce then or was it just acting for you then?
DANIEL TALBOTT: I’ve always wanted to do try to do as many things as I can in the theater, whether it’s acting, directing, hanging lights, or cleaning the bathrooms. I love being in a theater more than anything. A theater, at the ocean, or inside an old movie theater – that’s it for me. I think of all of them, I’m most naturally a director. I love to act, I still want to act, I just haven’t had the free space to do it in a while. I always wanted to have a small theatre company. I wanted it to stay small and be nomadic and be a home base for theater artists that we can work within but also do work outside. It’s hard for me to be in large groups of people! I do well with my small kinda tribe/family in a room, and my happy place is rehearsal. When a show goes up, I never watch opening. I’m there. I’m there to support everyone and sweat out the nerves with them, but I want to keep working. It’s hard for me to just sit and watch something. I’d love to stop and start and be able to keep working with everybody on something, even in performance - it would be really fun to watch a show like that. To stop, jam on something, and have them watch it again.
THE DIONYSIAN: Has it been important to you to create your own work and not be at the mercy of others?
DANIEL TALBOTT: Yeah, you know what it is, is I just want to be working. I’m a workaholic. I feel healthy when I’m working. When I’m not working I have too much time to think! I figured I never wanted to wait around for someone else to tell me I can work. You know, if I’m working in a bathroom or a street corner or a park, or I’m lucky enough to be working at a huge theatre, all of that’s good to me, you know? I’ve never felt like one is better than the other. To me, work is work. It means just as much to me, I respect it just as much, and what’s important is that my heart’s in it just as much. That’s kind of a yardstick or touchstone for myself. I have to love working for $5 in a back alley as much as I love working in a theatre where I’m being paid a weekly salary, or I’m not on the path I want to be on.
THE DIONYSIAN: You often work with the same collaborators across different projects. Is ensemble important to you?
DANIEL TALBOTT: Absolutely. I think trust and loyalty and history is something you can’t buy; it’s priceless in the theatre and in life. It’s like at theatre school, you’re with a group of people for a few years and you become like a repertory company, and even if you piss each other off, or you fuck each other or stop fucking each other and start fucking other people, there’s just so much history with each other and again, you just can’t buy that. It all shows up in the work, everything does. I love working with the same people, seeing the same people change, watching each other grow. Sometimes as I get older, you’re on a journey for 6, 7, 8 years and the friendship shifts, so now you have to go, “okay, so now this isn’t happening,” but for those years it’s like a repertory company. Things change, people leave the company and go down different paths, but you have to love and respect the work, the successes and the failures that you create together. It’s a beautiful, intimate thing. There’s such a massive thing for me about family and history in the theatre, and traditions and things being passed on. Taylor Mac says theatre is a church, which I love and couldn’t agree with more, and for me it’s a home. It’s the search for home, the search for church, the search for family in a way. Obviously I love working with people I don’t know, because you need both, but there’s something so special for me about working with the theatre family we’ve created. People like Lucy Thurber and Sam Soule and Will Pullen, Wendy Vanden Heuvel, Seth Numrich, Charlotte Miller, my wife Addie, and a ton of other folks. Each time we work together it gets deeper and richer in a great way. I believe in company and I believe in ensemble, and the difficulties of that and the beauty of that, and I think in the end that’s what’s profoundly great about theatre – that collective history and how it plays out in action on stage.
THE DIONYSIAN: You mention the idea of ‘passing on’ and I feel a great deal of your work fits with the kind of downtown, New York aesthetic of Caffe Cino and its like. Was it important to you to continue that kind of movement?
DANIEL TALBOTT: It’s really important to me. I’m a total history freak, I’m a total theatre nerd, and I’m really nostalgic. I love sitting on the floor in front of an old theatre person, hearing their stories and learning from them. But I think the most important thing with Caffe Cino, and La MaMa, is that they were theaters built on trust and work, plain and simple. They were run by artists for artists and there was never any delusion of grandeur in any way. They were workrooms. So much in the theatre and in our country now is tied to budget and to marketing and to publicity and reviews and awards - especially if you have to fill 150, 300 to a couple thousand seats and compete with everything else that’s going on in entertainment and culturally. I get it, and I’ve worked on shows were you have to think about that stuff, just to get people to come and see the work and sit on the floor or in a seat and see the play. It’s the world we live in and again I understand that we have to worry about that stuff, and as long and it’s about supporting the work and doesn’t become about anything other than that, which sometimes it does, then you do it. What I love about Caffe Cino is if there were only 5 people in the audience, then that was a special thing. If those 5 people wandered in off the street into your strange-ass little space – that is a beautiful, powerful thing. It’s like going to bed and making love with someone you really fucking love. It’s that intimate, in a funny way. What I love about those traditions is that no one gave a rat’s ass about the Caffe Cino! They were doing work because they wanted to! Again, work is work. Great work can happen anywhere. The play has to be the thing, you know? If you’re putting it out into the world and asking people to show up it better be extraordinary, or at least the attempt better be extraordinary and you all better fail together like a fucking mountain on fire. Stanislavski’s ‘Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art’. Not the idea of art, not the idea of success. I try to live by that. The Caffe Cino to me was such a great reminder of that, you know it was just a fucking weirdo space! He curated by your astrological sign, he didn’t even read the fucking plays! But all these amazing people passed through those doors. He made it a home. Robert Patrick, who was part of it, talks about giving an artist a floor. A floor to create their work. For me, that’s what theatre is. Everything in our culture can get wrapped up in so many other things, but it’s on you to bring it back to the work. To make sure that’s why it’s being done and that everything in the end is about that, or you don’t do it. It’s on us to ego check and make sure the work is the heart pumping all the actions, and not our wanting to be able to say we’ve won something or it’s good because a critic at the Times who none of us respect said it was good. A place like Caffe Cino takes all that shit away, all the money, the budget. If you’re there, you’re there because you love the work, because you’re not gonna get anything else from it! If all that’s taken away, you better get creative. You don’t really need that much in the end to tell a story in a radical, human, lived-in, full way.
THE DIONYSIAN: It’s been very interesting following the Fair Wage On Stage campaign by Equity members recently. What will we do if our artists can’t afford to live?
DANIEL TALBOTT: The big thing I’ll say is that, in the end, to be a theater artist you have to be working. Everyone I know in the theater works like a fucking dog, but we also all know that no one owes us anything and that we all chose to do this. I think the theater is beyond essential, and for me I don’t know what the world would be without it, but a lot of people don’t agree with me and I have to respect that. I don’t agree with them, but I get it. I wish everyone in the theater was paid a living wage and I think artists should be paid for their work, but while we fight that fight, we all also still have to be working. You have to work and do the work no matter what in the end. Jeff Weiss, Harry Koutoukas, Maria Irene Fornes (among many others) are some of the greatest American Theater Artists we’ve ever had, and they worked on many plays that they were never paid for, but like warriors, they continued fighting and carried on. They were and are artists first and foremost, and all that makes an artist in the end is their work, the work we all create together and separately. We have to fight for our rights and have that be part of our work and fuel our work, and in the end always find ways to be working, whether we can afford to or not. We couldn’t pay our light bill and phone for a month more than once, because it was that or put up a show. We chose to do the show and I’d always choose that again. I figured anyone who really needed to get ahold of us knew where we were and they could come to the theater and tell us what they needed to in person. We need to look at ourselves as theatre artists and go “what do I really want here? What is most important?” If it’s enough for me to put on the play and give the best theatrical experience I can with what I have and what I’m given – you know Shakespeare was given torches, and a bare stage. Productions didn’t cost hundreds of thousands dollars. There’s a lot of ways to get innovative. There won’t always be a Tony award, but there’s always a way to be working. A big reason I’m working in film and TV alongside theater is so that I can do both. Pay for Bailey’s school and our rent and also be able to hopefully one day buy a theater space and an apartment building to give my friends free rent a permanent roof over their heads. I love doing all three, and doing all three feeds each other and lets me worry about the work and also the financial. You absolutely have to fight for fair wages and if I was in NY right now, I’d be there and I love that people are. I have this idea of building a flex theatre with 5 to 10 seats in it a night, something like Christine Jones’ Theatre for One, which I love. I could go fill that by walking down the fucking street, the tickets would $5 dollars if it was five seats and $10 if it was ten. In this scenario you’ve eliminated marketing, you’ve eliminated awards, you’ve eliminated the need for reviews, if filling seats is really what that stuff is about in the end for your theater. You’d have a fucking line out the door if you had a hit show and then all that money allotted to those things could back into the work and to artists creating the work. At some point there were something like 3 administrators to every 1 artist in theatre buildings, in professional theaters. It may still be that way, which is crazy to me. If you can’t pay your fucking artists, who are generating your work, that’s fucking crazy. Cut the seats in half and pay your artists. The quality will go up, it will become a more intimate, exciting experience. My friends work their asses off and they should be paid for what they’re doing, but no matter what you can’t stop working in the end or let anything get in the way of that.
THE DIONYSIAN: You got to work at the Royal Court in London. How was that?
DANIEL TALBOTT: When the guy called me, I thought my Juilliard classmates were fucking with me and I didn’t call him back! I didn’t think it was real. They knew how obsessed I was with the Royal Court. That was one of my dreams come true. It was so cool. Addie and I got to be over there and it was like we were living in a dream. That theater is one of my favorite theaters in the world, and I really hope I get to work for them again one day. They’re brilliant.
THE DIONYSIAN: You’ve talked about your nomadic existence as a theatre artist. Do you feel your writing goes over differently in different places?
DANIEL TALBOTT: I’m definitely not everyone’s taste, no matter where I go. The kind of playwright I am is to build a jungle gym for actors to play around on. There’s a lot of looseness and a lot of open space for them to play within what I lay down as a playwright. I’m not literary. How I write plays is to create a theatre space to play on. I think about it like that. It’s literally creating a space where you can tell a story, like the architecture of a jungle gym.
There are people who really dig my work and there’s a lot of people who don’t quite know what to make of my plays. They don’t get them or me as a writer or like it. I’m not a playwright in the sense of what I write goes. I don’t write kinda rhythm plays, where you have to find the rhythm or the notes to make the play work. If you don’t play the punctuation or if you miss a word in my plays, I don’t give a fuck about that. I’m so much more interested in the experience of something, of the action of what’s being played. I actually encourage the actors I work with – not to improv or become self-indulgent – but if they need to add a ‘fuck’ or shift something to play the action better in real time on stage, I trust the people I work with to do that. We have a symbiotic relationship with that.
I know there’s others out there who are like “why the fuck does he get plays produced?” But I love writing plays and creating a world that is fun and changeable and alive. I want that experience in the theatre. I want to sit down and not know what the fuck is going to happen. Like I’m going to engage with, you know, animals. When something is great to me, it’s like I’m turned on by it. My body’s vibrating and I can’t stop thinking about it. You have to be willing to be surprised and shocked and be willing to go “I signed up for this, so here we go.” The people who like my kind of work tend to like that kind of theatre . Usually every production I have has one or two reviews saying “I love this, it’s different” and then the rest are like “Eww, he put sand on the floor, it’s so dry!” They don’t like it or know what to do with it, and they aren’t willing to get in the roller coaster and go for the ride. I just try to go as deep into something as I can with everyone I’m working with, and together we try to tell the most alive, experiential, active, true show we can. I kinda want to take them by the hair and, you know, butt fuck them a bit. I don’t want to sit there and be pretty and whimsical, and smart in the way where we all feel little bit smarter than someone else in the room. I hate sitting around being self-congratulatory and patting ourselves on the back for being liberal artsy and intelligent. I hope we have a blast while we all do it together, and I hope it hits someone and that they love it in the end, but I can’t ever create work worrying about whether someone’s going to like it, or get it, or if it’s going to be well received. I’d love everyone to love what we do, but that’s never going to happen. That’s life and it’s what we all sign up for. I always hope you’re going to open the paper and have someone really get what you’re trying to do, but if they don’t, and I’m proud of how we’ve worked on the show and how hard we’ve fought for it, then that’s what matters in the end. That’s what I focus on and there are shows that have been disasters that I’m really proud of and always will be, and then there’s a show like Scarcity, which got great reviews and I loved so much too – that show was family to me and so personal and important , and it felt great that we were all happy and proud of the work and that other folks loved it too.