There is theater outside of NYC, my friends, and I recently discovered Burlington, VT to be a thriving arts community with fresh ideas, innovative expressions and fascinating creators. Karen and The Happiest Medium have always inspired and encouraged us to think outside of the NYC box and bring topics and people located outside of the concrete jungle to our faithful happiest readers.
A New York filmmaker – saved maybe by premonition – packed his bags a decade ago for Burlington, VT and is now ready to present his evocative and important play The Bus at 59E59 Theatres in Manhattan, premiering October 4th and playing through the 30th. James Lantz answered some questions about his work and Vermont life.
How long have you been in Burlington, VT?
We’ve been in Burlington almost 10 years to the day; I moved my family here from NYC just days before 9/11. We had planned on leaving the city for months but weeks before our move, my wife kept having dreams of burning cars and buildings so we had this feeling that we couldn’t get out of town fast enough. As a commercial filmmaker, I sometimes worked for American Express in a temporary office in the World Financial Center that was destroyed during the attacks. It was all very surreal. In so many ways, we felt lucky.
What’s the best thing about Vermont life?
Oh gosh, there are so many things: the lake, the mountains, the hiking trails, the air. A couple of weeks ago I saw a moose standing in the middle of a field. Plus Burlington’s a great town; I walk everywhere. The people are great — we’ve got a great group of friends here. There’s a vibe in Burlington that’s completely different from anyplace else that I’ve ever lived before — very engaged and open-minded and concerned about Things That Matter. And yet everybody’s pretty cool, too; nobody gets too uptight. It’s a great place to raise our kids.
How did you get into play-writing?
I left filmmaking when we moved to Vermont — I had been a commercial filmmaker for nearly a dozen years, wrote scripts on the side, and produced a number of shorts. It was very expensive and frustrating to spend so much time and effort and money and rarely see the fruits of your labor. Finally I said, that’s it — I’m outta here. I left New York with the idea that I’m never going back to film. Well fast forward a few years later and, even though I’d left filmmaking, the urge to tell stories never left me. Then one night I saw a play by a friend and it occurred to me (this might be heresy to some theater-makers and so I apologize) that a play was really like a live movie. And so that got my wheels turning and in a very short time I had written a stage play which turned into The Bus.
Who is your biggest influence as a writer?
Wow, I have so many influences that I draw upon that, I suspect, many playwrights draw from the same well. But I guess one of my influences that’s not so ordinary for a playwright would be Alfred Hitchcock — I adore his craft of telling stories. He was brilliant at playing an audience and moving emotion just where he wanted it — he was like a magician and I study him frequently. Rarely do you see a Hitchcock film and say, ‘I know where that’s going.’ Another unique influence is Carl Jung — I’m an armchair student of his and some of those who followed him. I’m fascinated by Jung’s writings on dream imagery and archetypes. When I write something, I want it to have some of the same qualities as a vivid dream (Paula Vogel speaks about this, too, how that a play should always be just a bit ‘off-kilter’ … just a little bit odd.) I have to be careful though not to get too deep with Jung — it’s easy to get lost in depth psychology — with Jung, I have to restrict myself to the shallows.
Tell us a bit about The Bus?
It’s hard for me to talk about my plays. I’d like to ask other playwrights if they have the same problem — for me, the worst is when it comes to writing a synopsis — oh vey! — I can never write those things.
Here’s why it’s hard for me to talk about The Bus: I wrote that play five years ago and spent several months writing it. We then worked many months to produce it at FlynnSpace in Burlington. Wow, that was my first experience in theater — I saw all the work that went into producing a play and I though, ‘Holy crap, what did I just get into!’. Afterward, I was exhausted. Then a couple of years later I wrote The Bus as a screenplay. I probably spent another couple of months writing it as a film. Then last year I spent many more weeks doing a re-write of the play and re-submitting it which is how we ended up being invited to play at 59E59 in October. Now I’m working on producing The Bus in NYC and fundraising — these days I’m probably spending 60 to 70 hours a week on this play. Add up all those years, months, weeks and hours and it adds up to a lot. My relationship to The Bus is similar to my relationship with my children — if you asked me about one of my kids, I’d smile, show you a picture and say, ‘He’s a great kid. You gotta meet him sometime.’ I feel the same way about The Bus.
Having said that, The Bus is the story of two boys who, late at night, regularly rendezvous in a parked church bus just to be close. When their secret meeting place is in danger of being discovered, the boys find themselves in the middle of a family conﬂict between a large church and a small-town gas station — and the clash proves explosive.
Okay, can you tell that I just cut and pasted the synopsis from the play’s website? Sorry. But if I had written something fresh, it would’ve taken too long. I’m talking hours.
Has the thought of doing a site-specific production – Say a park and an abandoned bus ever cross your mind?
Yes. However, I have to say that I’m not a big fan of site-specific work — I understand it and applaud those who are pushing the boundaries and doing some great stuff in some very cool places. However, for me, it always feels like site-specific places are lacking in a certain spirit that comes naturally to a physical theater. Since I was a little kid I’ve LOVED walking into theaters — just about any kind — they always felt holy to me and they just hummed with some sort of invisible spirit. And they do — to me, it’s archetypal — we’re wired to be ready to ‘receive’ a story in these sanctified places. As an artist, I can’t imagine achieving that same spirit in a site-specific production, it just wouldn’t feel complete.
To me site specific work feels like sex on the kitchen floor — spontaneous and thrilling, yet lacking something important.
Are you using the same cast and creative team as the Burlington production?
No. Unfortunately, because the show is playing for a month in NYC and then we’re taking it on the road, many (if not all) of our original production team would just not be able to devote the time necessary to take it to the city.
What’s after 59E59 for you?
Oh wow … just getting through November is where all of my energy is being focused now. After that I want to get back to writing – three or four projects are calling to me. I write best in the winter, so the timing is good.