Tuesday, March 4, 2014

5 Questions with Benjamin V Marshall

Benjamin will have a reading of his play BUENAS SMOOCHES: PISCATAWAY NJ on March 27, 2014 at 7:30pm as part of the NJ Literary Artists Fellowship Showcase.

The reading will take place in the Chase Room
of the Madison Public Library
39 Keep Street
Madison, NJ 07940
Click here for directions

There is a suggested donation of $10. All tickets will be available at the door on the evening of the readings. No advanced ticket sales.

1. Where did you get the idea for BUENAS SMOOCHES: PISCATAWAY, NEW JERSEY?
I was teaching a course called Introduction to Theatre and the students, who were in their first or second year of college were confused about the differing styles of comedy. The students had no common frame of reference. None. Not just from theatre world or movies but even television. I would mention  Big Bang Theory,  Chappell Show or Family Guy and maybe two students would recognize one show or three students would remember another,  but there was not one thing that all could recognize. So, I started to improvise a scenario. ”Imagine that there’s a girl of about 19.” The students’ eyes widened with recognition. “And she kind of likes this boy who’s from the wrong side of the tracks. Maybe he’s been to Jamesburg.”  They became more intrigued with the local reference.  The students were aware of the correctional home in that town and become more intrigued.  “So one day the girl knows her parents are out of the house, and she invites the boy over. Her parents come home unexpectedly and she quickly hides the boy in the closet. The parents need to go to the closet and she distracts them so that the boy hides under the bed.”  

I knew that this was the oldest scenario in the book. It’s as old as commedia dell’arte, if not older.   But the students laughed, not with polite titters to appease the professor, but guffaws.  I wondered if this old saw still had any juice. 

I thought I would sketch out a few scenes to see if this situation of the young would lead to anything.  Other things began percolating on the mind’s back burner. I’ve noticed over the years a number of students who were raised in urban areas such as the Bronx and Jersey City then moved to the leafier suburbs of Edison or East Brunswick.  Some of them were still wild- eyed with culture shock.  You can almost hear them wondering, “Where did all these trees come from? What do you mean there’s no subway or path train?”  “ How did I get here?”  I used the situations of relocating from an urban area to the suburbs and the hesitation to learn about one’s new surroundings. The recent economic crisis, the parents’ imminent divorce, and the loss of a grown child all became part of this story.

What was just a temporal explanation of one farcical situation formed into a viable story.  The scenes unfolded the way they would in Restoration comedy.  The dialogue poured out in rhyme, without antique words or diction but with the polyglot vocabulary that comes from living in the New York metro area. The smatterings of Spanish, Yiddish, and definitely Black English Vernacular infused themselves into this lovely, funny verse. 

An actor friend who later read the first draft described the play as a mix of Moliere and Dr. Seuss.  That’s a description that is accurate and that pleases me no end. 

2. You’ve been in short play festivals from Atlanta to Australia.  What do you love best about these festivals?
Short play festivals provide a great deal of energy and creative fuel.  They are a way of hearing new work and new voices. They are ways for me to investigate themes and ideas. So I gain a great deal of inspiration for the shorter works. It’s like trying out appetizers and hors d’ouevres instead of experimenting with main courses.

3. You have taught English in Arabic speaking counties. Has your experience inspired any of your plays? If not, what was the greatest lesson you learned by doing this? 
The Middle East experience inspired me to write a great deal.  First, there were few distractions, so I read a great deal and travelled a great deal.   I wrote several plays where the traveling to and from foreign countries remained in the background.  Eventually, I wrote one play where those experiences became the main story. The play’s called The Balcony Goat. Twice it was a finalist for the O’Neill Conference, and it has received a few readings.  It’s not a comforting play politically and that makes theatre people nervous, especially since it requires   a large cast.   It is set before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the terrorist attack of September 11.   It has nothing to do overtly with politics or those military encounters. It is about being a stranger in a strange land. Most of the people I knew were expatriates of the United States, Great Britain and other European countries.  The social barriers that insulate people in the United States are stripped off in a foreign county.  The irony is that an educated African American man could feel more at ease in the restrictive societies of Kuwait and Libya than in America.     What was the greatest lesson?  Don’t believe the hype. Pay attention to details. Keep the passport updated. Terrorists’ attacks can be as random, frightening and disorienting as a car - jacking in Newark, NJ.  

4. You are an Associate Professor at Middlesex County College in Edison, NJ. What do you hope your students will take away from your class?
Since I teach courses in addition to playwriting, I have a wider variety of literary genres from which to choose. Also, since the students I encounter pursue a wide variety of majors, not always in the arts or humanities, I have a great many challenges.  I always hope for the same thing. I hope they find at least one piece of literature (poem, play, scene, line, or essay) that they will take to heart. I don’t always succeed with that. But I’ve got a pretty good batting average. It’s gratifying to see someone who doesn’t care a fig for poetry to become intrigued by contemporary poetry or play.

5. If you were offered a backstage pass to meet any band/singer/musician you wanted, who would that be and what would be the burning question you’d want to ask them?
This is the question I am most reluctant to answer.  Before the concert or after, the musicians are dealing with so many performance details that they’re not likely to give any real thought to an ardent fan’s search for musical or eternal truth.  I’d feel as if I would be in their way.  I mean, instead of marijuana, am I going to swap hits of Metamucil with Mick Jagger? Or trade hair style tips with Stevie Wonder?  And quickie groupie nookie?  I think those days are gone.

I love so many different kinds of music that choosing one style in order to answer the question, stymies me.  But music is really quite important to me. Family members and old friends know me as a pianist. I’ve played since I was a child.  Since I’m trafficking in meter, image and rhyme with writing BUENAS SMOOCHES . . ., I needed instrumental music to re - charge my batteries.  When I was writing, I played Mendelssohn’s music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” repeatedly. I mean over and over again, as if the music propelled me into some trance. Sometimes, I’d let the CD advance to Mendelssohn’s Octet in E Flat.  I would intersperse it with Ella Fitzgerald’s “How High the Moon” as a kind of chaser.   Her scat singing would be that slap upside the head whenever I got too precious or pretentious.  It was always a way of bringing me back to earth.

To learn more about Benjamin, visit our website 

You can also find additional information on our website about the Literary Artist Fellowship program.

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