Michael Eichler wrote S.R.O. It’s true. A fact. Indisputable – unlike most of the topics that Michael covers in the play. He prefers instead to chase dark questions out of the corner where they lurk in an area of our public consciousness that we’d prefer to close the book on. And then he leaves it to us to find the answers.
Now imagine you have the opportunity – it’s your job actually – to ask the playwright anything. Except you can’t quite figure out what you want to know, you just know the play made you think. A lot. In the time I sat down to write these questions I had no less than 3 philosophical conversations – 1 of which was with another human being. Needless to say, when I sent my questions off, I was ready for some answers. Not surprisingly, the S.R.O. playwright seems to be content to leave his audiences with a little gray area in their grey matter.
Kelly Iversen: Let’s start right off with something that struck me in your play: Do you think tolerance is ingrained and it has to be untaught for a person to be intolerant, or do you think we must teach tolerance?
Michael Eichler: Tolerance must be taught. Children fight in sandboxes. We have to be shown the results of our prejudices and unfair treatment of others. We all can lead lives of unawareness unless others work to get us to become more aware.
KI: Is this the first time you’ve gone through a process like this?
ME: This is the first time I’ve gone through this process in play writing. However, as a community organizer, I had to go through a similar process continually. In organizing, you work with low income people, public officials, business leaders, activists etc. and they all have different visions for what is needed.
KI: How did you get involved with Playwrights Village?
ME: I applied “cold”, didn’t know anyone, had little experience but was still awarded the honor of being chosen. As someone new to the profession, it looked like a perfect opportunity.
KI: Was there a decision to turn SRO into a play rather than a novel or short story – do you write in other formats – and does the type of story influence the format that you use to tell that story?
ME: I have written a book before but I saw SRO as a play. It had lots of dialogue in my head before it was written. I knew it would be about peoples’ need to be understood.
KI: Are you a computer, typewriter, or a pen & paper type of guy?
ME: I write on a legal pad with a pencil and then transfer it to the computer at the blazing speed of eight words a minute.
KI: Do you have a clear idea of what your story will be about when you start writing, or do you set pencil to paper (fingers to keyboard) when you have a shred of an idea and see where the story takes you?
ME: I start with a topic or thread of a story and write. I make each scene pretty lean, like a skeleton. I go all the way to the end, and then go back and put the meat on the bones.
KI: SRO deals with some difficult topics; when the idea for the story came to you did you resist it, or was it something you felt confident writing about?
ME: I like difficult topics. If something has shades and nuances to it, or different ways of looking at something, I am drawn more to it.
KI: There’s a rawness in SRO that suggests personal experience, do you write about your own life, or do you prefer to choose a topic and then imagine the characters and scenario?
ME: I will take a kernel of my own experience on something, think about some real people I know or have met and shake it around- kind of like breading on seafood. If you have the right ingredients in the bag, you enhance the flavor. In SRO, I have stayed in sro’s, I know many others who have, and have seen many families who divide up like Jim and Olivia. Mix all of that together, and the characters should take it from there.
KI: Do you find that you need to identify with one or all of your characters to write truthfully about their circumstances – and do you find yourself taking sides when your characters argue?
ME: I try very consciously not to take sides with the characters. In fact, I try to shift sides constantly. Our country is filled with people completely and consistently on only one side, and it is becoming more so each day. I think it is a terrible trend. I try to walk “in everyone’s shoes” when I write.
KI: One of the things that’s so powerful about SRO is that it deals with an issue that many people think of as black and white: sexual contact with a minor, and presents the gray area – was that a goal when you set out to write or did that surface through the process of telling the story?
ME: My goal was to show that everything has grey areas, even the things we assume do not. I felt I understood Walker better when I looked at the gray. Depending on your own politics and family history, you might see Olivia or Jim in the beginning as one dimensional. I wanted you to change your perspective of them at the conclusion and throughout the play.
KI: Do you think that we – as a society and during legal proceedings – are less likely to explore the gray area that can occur in sexual crimes because of the discomfort or embarrassment of discussing sex – an area that is typically private in our culture, or because of the subjective and intangible nature of a sexual encounter, e.g., it is harder to make a legal judgment on the ‘loss of innocence,’ than, say – the loss of a tv?
ME: I think we are much less likely to explore the gray areas that can occur in sexual crimes because it is a topic we resist thinking through deeply. I am writing a full length play where we even scrap having sex in favor of simulated sex through technologically advanced headsets. In that way, we can engage in sex without having to deal with people!
We can commit simulated sex crimes.
KI: SRO has few underdogs in it – do you as a writer and/or as a person, feel compelled to represent the people on the fringes?
ME: I love underdogs. I’m a Pittsburgh Pirate fan. I have watched the movie Hoosiers…you don’t want to know how many times. Community organizers work in devastated neighborhoods and fight overwhelming odds to help improve them. I remember being drawn to work in areas where the steel mills closed because so many people thought there was nothing you could do to help.
KI: Would you rather be blissfully ignorant or ruthlessly informed?
ME: As a current Social Work Professor I am bound to answer it is always better to be ruthlessly informed rather than blissfully ignorant.
KI: It can be difficult for highly intelligent people to submit to a career in a professional field as a way of life. In your play Jim and Olivia are both intelligent people, yet one of them is very successful in the business world and one could be considered to be “wasting” his life. Do you think it’s pride or intelligence – or something else: fear? that won’t permit Jim to achieve a publicly recognized form of success?
ME: I think some people are subconsciously trying to lose. Take most gamblers for instance. Others, like Jim “rebel” against standard definitions of success because of guilt or lack of confidence. However, there is a sizeable minority of us who have a different and more healthy definition of success. The interesting thing is to try to tell them apart.
KI: The character of Jim challenges the way his sister and her husband are raising their son – do you think society has a right to interfere with the way a child is being raised if the parents’ methods are perceived to shape that child’s worldview in a way that could lead the child to develop bigoted thinking?
ME: I think all of us should have some level of input into how children are raised, even those of us who have no children. In my neighborhood in Buffalo where I grew up, every adult stuck their nose in my business. Even though I didn’t like it at the time I was mostly better off because of it.
KI: So many of the topics that are raised in SRO are in the subjective realm – a never-ending gray area – are you comfortable not knowing all the answers – or were you searching for answers when you wrote SRO?
ME: I really enjoyed writing SRO because it helped me keep searching for answers. Every time Bryce, Olivia Jim or Walker said something, I got a little closer to the truth.
KI: Do you think there are certain offences that cross a line where the injured party is justified in refusing forgiveness and/or trust to the perpetrator?
ME: Well, if you asked me right now to forgive Joe Paterno, I couldn’t. In fact, I could imagine even forgiving Jerry Sandusky before Joe Paterno. But my Catholic education cuts both ways- I am supposed to forgive all (There but for the Grace of God…) but I am still working on it.
KI: What is it like to go through a process like this, knowing that you’re opening up your story and your characters to the scrutiny of others – do you welcome the collaboration or do you feel the need to protect your work?
ME: I think it a very healthy thing to open up my work to the scrutiny of others. Todd Blakesley, dramaturg, has been a godsend. The director, George Ye and the actors have been very constructive. (I said it was healthy, not necessarily easy!)
KI: Do you know why it’s called Neapolitan ice cream? No googling!!
ME: No, why?
And just like that, the tables have turned, and I’m suddenly the one with all the unanswerable questions… two can play at this game, Eichler.
Catch the workshop production of S.R.O. by Michael Eichler this weekend, July 27 – 29 at NVA.
Playwrights Village is a collaboration between Playwrights Project and New Village Arts.
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