A Closer Look: Briandaniel Oglesby
LARISSA FASTHORSE: I am not familiar with your previous work, is this play typical or atypical for you and why? (Similar themes, style, tone or a complete departure?)
BRIANDANIEL OGLESBY: There are some themes I tend to return to — people and stories on the margins, queer folks, anything that isn’t the straight-white-upper-class-kitchen-sink play. I do try to vary my style. Ten years ago, my plays all had this gritty lyrical realism in aesthetic. I have found that lately my work has become more theatrical, living next to realism. This has coincided with my getting a job building a theater department at a tiny middle/high school, which means that I write two plays a year for and with teenagers.
It brings me joy that I can find ways that my work for teenagers influences the plays for adults. The kids love improv, so we use a lot of it, and improv is the most theatrical medium that exists — a room with a few people and a couple chairs instantly transforms into infinite permutations of wild realities. Half the joy in watching teenagers improvise is that they are drawing from the way they imagine things work, rather than the way things actually work. A teenager imagining how an office or marriage or NASA is organized is hilarious. And what they imagine becomes its own commentary on that world. This has informed my playwriting for teens — and now for mature audiences. Small Steps has a heightened, imagined reality. We have the Principal of NASA, which is not a thing, talking to Skip in the first scene. This sensibility becomes the backbone for the play.
Basically, Small Steps takes themes I usually reserve for my work for mature audiences — the lonely queer protagonist dealing with real things — and applies the theatrical storytelling of my work with teens.
LF: What is your favorite thing in this play and why?
BO: The opening line, after the prologue. “When I realize no one will ever love me, I volunteer to go to Mars.” I love that it takes the ache of being alone and says, Fuck you all, I’m going to Mars. I should get that as a tattoo. I love that it thwarts the impulse to be opaque; the audience doesn’t have to guess what’s happening or why, it’s the first joke of the show.
LF: Without giving anything away, it is a hugely physical play. As a playwright I was intrigued by the boldness of the physical world you have created. I just realized I don't have a question, I just wanted to say that. And this is harder than I thought because I don't want to ruin the script for people and know nothing about you.
BO: Unfortunately, I can’t picture the play when I write it. I can hear how it sounds, but I don’t know how it works in physical space. I see patterns on the pages, but I can neither imagine it in life nor in the theater. Not really. This means that the play becomes something of a canvas on which a director, a handful of actors, and designers make their work. I can give notes about tone — “That line is actually sarcastic” — but far be it for me to say whether a character is sitting or standing or how the director theatricalizes the lack of gravity. It means that I get to discover what the play looks like the same way an audience member does. So that’s cool.
LF: I’m a married, straight, cis-gendered female. I was often horrified by the internet dating world as depicted in your play. Do you have a personal worst/best story from that world?
BO: Let’s be fair — the play also presents heterosexual marriage and parenthood as horrifying, not just gay world. Within the first and last five minutes, the play shreds parents who’ve decided to have kids because they got bored watching Battlestar Galactica.
To answer your question, I downloaded the app and tried to meet someone, freaked out and ended up just talking about my feelings with him. Oh, and I am — at this exact moment — at a coffee shop sitting next to a guy I tried to flirt with on the app, and we’re both pretending that didn’t happen. Or he doesn’t remember.
I know people who’ve met husbands on Grindr, but yeah, many of my friends will agree, it can make you want to leave the planet.
LF: I am interested in the debate around population and procreation that comes up several times. Personally I chose not to have children for many of the reasons in the play. I am still told that I am missing out on the "most important thing in the world" and "incomplete" because of that choice. Do men go through that pressure? You may have ten kids, but I wonder how much time men spend pressuring each other to make more babies or to be a father?
BO: I don’t know if I can speak for man-world. That’s not really my game. You’d have to ask straight men. Men get tons of social currency when they become fathers, and we all get the messages that tell us parenthood is a virtue. Sleep deprived parents post pictures of babies on Facebook and the rest of us don’t say, “You do know that those kids are not old enough to consent to having their pictures on the internet, right?” Instead people say, “Awww” and praise the kid’s appearance, and the parent for posting.
That said, I imagine you receive the messaging differently when you actually have a choice to be a parent. Few people go around directly telling me that I should have kids, but that’s because I’m a single queer dude who doesn’t make a lot of money. My mom wants me to get a dog, but that requires more stability than I have.
Skip is critical of this impulse to have kids and the social conditioning that imbues parenthood with virtue. And he’s affected by the way this social conditioning becomes another way that straight world establishes dominance. He comments, “This is why straight people get love stories and gay people get tragedies.” He also sees this as the way that people try to leave their mark on the world, the thing they leave behind. His ‘great work’ will be going to Mars.
LF: I totally don't get space. I understand it exists, but I don't understand the fascination. Are you a space person? Can you explain the intense desire to spend billions of dollars on space instead of fixing stuff here? I'd love someone to help me get it.
BO: Let’s put aside the practical benefits of supporting NASA’s engagement with climate science for a moment. I ask the same question about space science as I do about art. Why do art when there are hungry people? Why make theater in these big buildings when there’s homelessness?
My dad just retired from years and years of public service. He worked for California at the Air Resources Board and then the Energy Commission. He passed good legislation, killed bad bills. And he was good at it. He made California a cleaner place to live, a better place to breathe. I like to think he added a little to humanity’s time on earth, pushed the doomsday clock back a few seconds.
When he was young and still Republican, he met an astronaut, someone who’d told him about looking back at the earth and seeing it entirely. I imagine the scene was like the opening of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. My dad told me how the astronaut became an environmentalist from seeing the earth so small and whole. That’s it, you know. That little blue marble is what we have.
I also like to think that this meeting was how Dad became an environmentalist.
I think we pursue space science and exploration because it gives us a chance to reach for something great, but I also think it brings a perspective on how small and fragile and human we are.
Join us at The Lark for a reading of Briandaniel Oglesby's SMALL STEPS on November 4 at 7pm, part of Playwrights' Week 2017. Click here to RSVP for your FREE ticket!