Friday, December 16, 2011

5 Questions With Peter Bonilla

The 21st reading in our FORUM series is A HUMAN EQUATION by Peter Bonilla. This reading will be held at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Dreyfuss Theatre, 285 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ. Click here for directions. Click here for a printable map of the campus (the Dreyfuss Theatre is located in Building 9).

Peter Bonilla was literary manager of Philadelphia's InterAct Theatre Company from 2005 to 2008. Originally from Washington, D.C., Peter received his undergraduate degrees in theater arts and economics from the University of Pennsylvania. For A Human Equation, his first play, Peter received a 2008 playwriting fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. A Human Equation was developed at PlayPenn in 2008, with Academy Award-nominated actor David Strathairn reading the role of Kenneth Feinberg. A Human Equation was also a finalist for the National New Play Network's Smith Prize, and received its world premiere in September 2011 in an acclaimed production by the Winding Road Theatre Ensemble (Tucson, AZ).

1. What inspired you to write A HUMAN EQUATION?
September 11 happened on my third or fourth day of college, and very soon after I worked on a college production of the first part of Angels in America, which was my first taste of theatre's potential to be a mirror of society at a particular moment in time. So for years after September 11 I would casually wonder about how the playwriting community would respond to the tragedy, but it never really did. I think this is for a number or reasons. Firstly, I think that things in America just moved exceptionally quickly after 9/11, and from having worked as a literary manager, I can attest to the fact that playwrights became far more interested in the post 9/11 American experience, writing plays about Homeland Security, the War on Terror, and especially about the Iraq war. We largely skipped September 11, though not out of any ill-intent; I think it was a confounding topic from a playwriting perspective, how to get something that could get at the scale of the tragedy without being cliched and obvious, and telling a story people already think they know.

The story of the September 11 compensation fund, when I learned about it, seemed to provide the perfect window into America's 9/11 experience, with the experiences of thousands filtered through the lens of one person having to try and make some sense of it all. Better, it was something that I think most Americans were only minimally aware of, and I know I wasn't aware of it at all, so it had the potential to be a genuine learning experience. I remember exactly when I had the idea for it--it was September 11, 2005, when I caught a retrospective of the fund and of Kenneth Feinberg's experience as special master on 60 Minutes. This was incredibly naive to think at the time, given that I had never written a play, but it never occurred to me that anyone else would write it.

2. This is your first play. Do you plan to write more?
I am in the very beginning stages of conceptualizing a new play, which I think is my favorite part. The working idea is that the next play I want to write will be on one level about the political and economic forces involved in getting a history textbook approved by a state school board, but on a deeper level about the politicization of history and the enormous (and largely unseen) struggle just to decide how it should be presented, and how we compromise our standards in the process. I have ideas for a couple of others, but this is what's on my mind now. We'll see if I'm actually able to articulate all the thoughts on it that in my head seem so promising.

3. You have undergraduate degrees in theatre arts and economics, does this make you both right and left brained?
Maybe it does, though I guess you'd be better off asking someone who has known me a long time. In high school I was more oriented in the classroom towards math and science-related subjects. I started doing theater at my parents' suggestion, because I was pretty shy and very introverted then (I'm marginally less shy now, and every bit as introverted still) and it seemed like a good way to meet people. It took, and I ended up doing theater through college. Economics I added later because I missed exercising my quantitative side and wanted to push myself a little harder.

When it comes to a fundamentally creative activity like playwriting, I'm not sure from only having written one play which side of my brain is the driving force. I sketch out everything longhand on notepads because I've found that to be more organic and conducive to bursts of creativity and general free-association (that blinking cursor on the screen is just the loneliest thing on Earth), but I also know that to a great extent with A Human Equation I had to be very analytic (especially later in the process) when writing it, because it has so many small parts and short scenes and each of them has to work just right with all of the others. At many times it certainly didn't feel like a very creative process; it was a lot more like problem-solving, and seeing how changing certain variables affected the whole piece.

4. What is your favorite website?
The Onion, whose satire I think has more content than almost any other news site there is. The quality of much print journalism and nearly all television news not produced by the BBC is so appalling, dishonest, and content-free that I don't generally make much time for it, though somehow through osmosis I manage to stay decently informed. There are some good sites I do read regularly (Slate, The Atlantic, The Economist, and Reason, namely) but no question The Onion tops my list; it simultaneously captures the zeitgeist and is great escapism.

5. If you could tour with any band, who would that be?
I became a huge fan of the band Boston when I was younger, and saw them perform live in 2003. I'd have to say them. I would love to be on the keyboards for one of their epic organ solos. This would require me to learn to acquire some musical talent, though. Otherwise I'd do some relatively low-skills backup work for the alt-country/folk singer Neko Case, just to be able to listen to her every night. Great songwriter, great musician, unforgettable voice, and a lover of greyhounds. If I ran the Catholic Church, she'd have been a saint yesterday just on that last point.

Click here to purchase a ticket to see A HUMAN EQUATION at FDU.

You can also find additional information on our website about the entire FORUM reading series.

$10 per reading
$25 for a FORUM pass (if you are going to attend at least 3 readings in the series---this is the best deal)

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