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Under Your Skin: An Interview with Burning Playwright Thomas Bradshaw

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Under Your Skin: An Interview with Burning Playwright Thomas Bradshaw

Don’t be misled by the warm smile and the fedora in the photograph; Thomas Bradshaw writes plays that can get under your skin in very uncomfortable ways. To be sure, his work can be suave and entertaining, but as anyone who has seen his previous work—Purity, Strom Thurmond Is a Racist, Southern Promises, Dawn, or The Bereaved—would attest, this is a playwright who charts controversial pathways; he has as many detractors as he has admirers. His latest work, Burning, is receiving his most high-profile production so far, by the New Group under the direction of Scott Elliott, and is currently playing at Theater Row in New York. The 14-character play comprises of intertwined stories that take place in 1985 and the present, involving, among others, two partnered men who set up an unconventional domestic/sexual relationship with a 14-year-old aspiring actor in the 1980s; a painter whose work is being exhibited in a gallery in contemporary Berlin; and a brother and sister dedicated to carrying on the traditions of their deceased parents’ Neo-Nazi philosophy. The characters in the play—black, white, gay, straight, and questioning—interact with sometimes explosive results. Bradshaw has often been called a provocateur and, given the uncompromising nature of his work, that’s a label audiences attending Burning might also readily apply. But the 31-year-old playwright doesn’t necessarily agree with that assessment.

What started you on Burning?

Writing any play is a little bit of a mystery. The storyline about the two men who take in the boy—that’s based on a true story. I’d heard that story quite a few times and I was always very interested in it because, by all accounts, everybody involved felt pretty good about it. I just thought that’s a different portrait of happy family.

And the Neo-Nazis?

I wrote part of this play in London, and had just spent like a month before that in Germany, because my play The Bereaved was being produced there. I absolutely love Germany, but, you know, there are skinheads around, and as a black guy, you would have to be a fool not to be aware of your surroundings. That being said, in Berlin, there are plenty of non-white people running around, so if the Neo-Nazis were going to beat up every non-white person that they saw, it would be almost impossible. So if they ever came after me, my tactic, in my mind, would be I’d say, “Look at that guy over there, you should get him,” and then I’d run off in the opposite direction! But I never present a character on stage with the intention of demonizing them. I actually thought what a challenge it would be to try to humanize some Neo-Nazis.

Do you still describe your plays as a kind of heightened drama with the “boring bits” taken out?

That’s certainly true. I often talk about my work as hyper-realism—like reality on crack. In my plays you are just seeing the important moments. I’ve cut out all of the banality.

It’s been said that your plays don’t follow the traditional rules of form and style. Do you agree?

Well here’s the thing, my plays are pretty much just well made plays as far as structure is concerned. It’s just that the content is subverting what we expect to happen in that structure. Where my work departs from traditional drama is the fact that my characters pretty much have no self-awareness and are almost acting on pure id. There is never any subtext in my plays. The characters are always saying exactly what they mean. In every instance when one of my characters says something, they are doing it in the next scene. They are quite reliable!

All the characters in Burning seem absolutely convinced they are doing right. There’s a certain purity in their evil, isn’t there?

I like that phrase—a certain purity in their evil. That’s because they don’t think they are doing evil at all. In almost all our media, when we go to the theater or to the movies, I feel like there’s an inherent dishonesty, in the sense that I feel like most of our narratives are concerned with how people should behave versus how they do behave. In a traditional drama if someone does a bad thing they either need to feel remorse and repent, or they have to face judgment from the outside—they need to get their just desserts. That is simply not reality. This idea that if you do something bad you will always get caught is ridiculous. Do you know what our unsolved murder rate in this country is? Fifty percent. So if you go and kill somebody, there’s good chance that you are going to get away with it!

And you wonder why they call you provocative…

[laughs] I’m just saying that reality is much different than our cultural and societal narrative. And I actually think that narrative is destructive, because what we do in our drama is you can feel the hand of the playwright saying here are the good guys and here are the bad guys, and you know exactly how it is going to turn out. And when we label people as bad the next step is to distance ourselves from them and say, “I’m not like that, I can never do something like that.” And, therefore, we invalidate that person’s humanity and think we are superior to that person. The place that I’m working from, when I am writing, is the idea that we are all capable anything given the right circumstances.

For my play Southern Promises, I read a bunch of slave narratives and then I created my own. Part of the reason why I wrote it was because almost every slave play is didactic: The white people are portrayed as evil and the black people as these noble martyrs. In my play, the white characters believe they’re good and just. This white character and his brother-in-law murder a black baby because the mistress of the household had this affair. For them it was the best thing to—for the reputation of the family and to keep things in good working order. It’s easy to take a modern perspective and say slavery is bad. Of course it is bad, it’s a reprehensible institution, but we can’t place our modern perspective on what people were thinking in a different point in time. I feel very confident that if I was a white guy born in 1827 into a white slave-owning family, I would probably think slavery was a fine institution. And then I’d take it a further step: I thought to myself, what would it be like if I had 100 people at my command, 24 hours a day, that I can make do whatever I wanted? That would be a corrupting influence, no matter how much you try to be a moral person. You would eventually start doing things that maybe fall outside of traditional morality. Because, how could you not?

The incidents in your plays tend to shock audiences quite a bit. Do you consciously pick hot-button topics like pedophilia, incest, and the like?

As an artist I just follow my interests whatever they may be. You’re talking about these subjects as being provocative, but these are the subjects we’re being presented with every day in our media, constantly. Look at an episode of Law and Order or To Catch a Predator—it’s always about catching a pedophile. I feel like these subjects are just part of our zeitgeist right now, but the reason why my work is singled out as being different is because [unlike my work] the morality is so crystal clear in To Catch a Predator or Law and Order. I had this play called Purity where these two professors go down to Ecuador and rent a nine-year-old girl for a week. And you watch the rape. I present the sex naturalistically on stage. I think the thing that got people so angry was that the characters never felt remorse and they never got caught for what they did. There was kind of this accusation that by not putting moral condemnation in the play that I was somehow endorsing the behavior. I already presented the image, but people need me to tell them that raping a child is wrong. I think that’s disturbing. Clearly raping a child is wrong and I don’t see how anyone could come away confused about that—especially since the scene was so horrifying. There are so many issues in Burning, but all that people will pick up is only one issue and they’ll be like, “Oh my God, that was reprehensible.” And it’s like, hey, if you’re going to angry about this one thing, you need to angry about 14 other things in this play also! The things that get people riled up are their own issues. The play is actually just confronting them with an issue that strikes a nerve with them.

When did you decide you were going to be playwright? Is it true that you touched some raw nerves even with your very early efforts in school?

I always wanted to be an artist. At first I thought I wanted to be an actor; I played Macbeth in the seventh grade and Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the eighth. When I was in high school I thought this writing thing is really where I wanted to be at, so I wrote a play for an advanced theater class; this is at one of the top prep schools in New Jersey. They banned the play from being performed and they wouldn’t allow me to be in the spring musical that year because they felt like I was out to shock people and needed to be punished.

What was it that bothered them?

This is going to sound provocative…I honestly at the time thought, “This is a play and I don’t see how it is hurting anybody.” It’s the first time I realized the power that writing can have. The play was about a teacher who is having sex with his students and the wife finds out about it. She says, “Look, it’s okay if you have sex with your students, but you have to promise that you are not going to have sex with our daughter.” He says, “Okay, honey, I can do that.” And then, of course, he has sex with his daughter. And then the wife is in this conundrum, “Oh my God, should I leave him, should I not leave him? He violated our agreement.” And then the wife decides that she’s going to stay with him, but for real, he can’t do that anymore!

Let’s talk about the sex scenes. Is it difficult to get actors to perform the fairly graphic sex that’s shown on stage in plays like Burning?

It is getting easier now. With my first plays, people were like, “I’m going to have to do what?” Now it’s not much of a problem. But before we audition people we say read the script, know that you are going to be fully nude, that all these acts are going to be staged, and if you are uncomfortable with that then we don’t want to see you. We make sure their agents go over this with them and make sure they fully understand what’s happening. Because, you know, the sex is integral to the storytelling. Burning cannot function without the sex. Peter [the painter] has his big epiphany right after the sex act. Actually, in many of the sex acts the characters are discovering their true selves. It’s also that these characters are feeling freedom for the first time. In the case of Peter, he’s expressing so much of himself, engaging in this behavior which is taboo in his mind, it’s very freeing—too freeing as we see at the end of the day, because it leads him down a destructive road. There’s never any moral judgment placed on my characters, but I find it hard to believe how anyone could look at the trajectory of any of my characters and think, “he’s promoting that.” Clearly it’s not, if you want to lead a happy life do these things.

Do you feel that you are expected to write a certain kind of play? What are your thoughts about that?

I’m really glad you asked that question. I reject this politics of identity that’s often placed on writers. You see so many writers—let’s say black writers writing about race—who pretty much write the same play over and over again because they’ve got some sort of a claim for doing that, and I think this is probably because of the way theaters talk to, especially minority writers, about their work. They want to know about your struggle, to talk about the adversity that you face and the racism that you endured. First of all, I’m an upper-middle-class kid from New Jersey. I went to private school my whole life. Sure, I’m interested in writing about race, but I’m also interested in writing about 30 other different subjects. I feel that as an artist I should be free to talk about the full human experience. The experience that we so often see on stage is so limited and narrow and isn’t actually reflective of the lives that we actually lead. I think we’re painting with just four colors right now in the theater and I refuse to be limited. I will use the 20 colors that are at my disposal.

What would like the audience to take from Burning? Who is your ideal audience?

I want people to walk away and think and talk about what they saw. Most of our theater is interested in preaching to the audience, so that when you leave the theater there’s absolutely nothing to talk about because the play told you what you are supposed to think. My play does deal with very serious issues regarding the world that we live in and I’d like people to question their own beliefs about their own reality and the world that we live in. People who are angry about my plays and then confront me about it generally only get angrier once they have talked to me, because I tell them their point of view is valid. And nothing makes an angry person angrier than being told that! The only reaction that I don’t want is boredom. Clearly if someone is angry, the play has reached them and is forcing them to deal with something. I can’t say what that is because I’m not that person. Quite a few people have told me that they met themselves during the play, suddenly they saw themselves in a stark way. But those are the people were really enjoying the journey. They want to be challenged and they want to be prodded intellectually.