Lone Star Spirits at Festival Theatre opens this Friday at 7:30 (with an opening party featuring Lone Star Beer and tex mex style chips and salsa!) Marketing Director and actor playing the role of "Drew" interviewed playwright Josh Tobiessen via phone last Friday.
Originally from Schenectady, NY, Josh used an undergrad degree in philosophy and training from the Improv Olympic in Chicago to start writing plays in Ireland with a theatre company he co-founded called 'Catastrophe.' After having several plays - many of them site-specific productions - performed at such venues as the Galway Arts Festival and the Dublin Fringe Festival, he returned to the States to get a playwriting MFA at the University of California, San Diego. Now living in Minneapolis with his wife, Jungle Theatre Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen and their son, Tobiessen also occasionally teaches playwriting classes at the Guthrie.
From the Lone Star Spirits book jacket: "Marley is hoping for a quick trip home to the dwindling Texas town where she grew up, but she and her hipster fiancé, Ben, are in for more than they bargained for. Upon entering her estranged father’s liquor store, she’s immediately set upon by Drew, her football hero ex-boyfriend, who’s looking to relight a romance with the only girl he’s never cheated on. Then there’s Jessica, the former classmate and current single mom looking to drag Marley into a two-woman bachelorette party. By the time Marley finally manages to reveal to her father the real reason for her visit, things are further complicated by the ghost of the bear-wrestling pioneer who used to live in the store and who Marley’s father and Drew speak to on a daily basis. Lone Star Spirits is a fast-paced comedy with hairpin turns that takes a hilarious and sympathetic look at family, spirituality, those who stay and those who leave their hometowns, and the ghosts that haunt us either way."
FESTIVAL THEATRE: So first off, Lone Star Spirits been a real fun show to work on. I know there was a production in New York, and then a production about this time last year at the Jungle...
JOSH TOBIESSEN: I just recently found out there was something in Duluth (Renegade Theatre Company) so I think you’re the third or the fourth--
FT: Let’s say we’re third - we’ll take third! (Laughs)
JT: You were third when I found out about the other one. (Laughs)
FT: Awesome. So, let’s just jump in, if that’s cool. Where did the idea of this play come from? Are you from Texas?
JT: No, but I was living in Texas at the time because my wife (Sarah Rasmussen, Artistic Director of The Jungle Theatre in Minneapolis) got a job at the University of Texas at Austin. We had been living in Texas for three years, so at the time that I wrote this I thought I was going to be in Texas for here-on-out, so I decided to set the play, you know, down in Texas. Texas is a fun place storytelling wise because it is, in a sense, a real Americana kind of place. America turned up to eleven. I lived in Ireland for a while and since I've been back, I think I have a slightly different perspective, a little bit of an outsider point of view. So I’m always trying to write plays about our country and the American dream and whatever kind of philosophy is going on at the time... I mean, there’s a definite mood going on in our country right now... (Laughs.) A lot of people in our country understand Texas. When I write, I compare myself to (an Irish playwright and screenwriter - his script Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was nominated for a 2018 Academy Award) I mean… (Laughs.) There’s other playwrights I could compare myself to.People across the country can identify and understand Texas. The way he writes about Ireland as being kind of a heightened version of what Ireland is like I think Texas is like that or our country. But also in Texas, the dichotomy that the play works with, the rural versus urban - like urban dwellers and the people who never left their hometown. Wisconsin as well! When we were doing the show at the Jungle, a lot of the people working on the show were originally from a small town and I think that really resonates.
FT: Being in a small town, we definitely identify with the characters, like I know that person! Are you an urban person or more small town person?
JT: I’m probably more urban, my wife is from a very small town and I’ve spent a bunch of time in small towns in my life. As well as big cities, I’ve lived in New York City as well as towns as small as 1,000 people so yeah, I hope I’m able to relate to both sides of the story. Whenever I write a play, I’m always all of the characters in the play, I relate to all of them in a personal way. When writing the play, I think I most related to the father - Walter - I wrote the play while we were about to have our first son worrying about being a dad, if I’m a failure in life will I still be able to connect with my kids - you want your kids to be successful, but not so much so that you can’t relate to them. (Laughs.) The Ben and Drew characters are like two different sides of me as well. Drew is the side of me that had success early on and wants to hold on to it and live in that moment as opposed to moving on. Ben and I definitely have more of a similar background. Even Jessica, as a parent when she says things like “I have a babysitter tonight, I want to go nuts!” I definitely relate to those feelings.
FT: So Lone Star Spirits is a homecoming story centered around a father/daughter relationship, Walter and Marley. As a male writer, is your process any different writing for a female lead protagonist?
JT: I don’t really think about the gender of the character too much, I just try to write a strong character, [focus on] what they’re dealing with, different personality. Sometimes it’s more challenging than others. As a playwright, you try to put yourself in someone else's shoes - if you can identify with what they want honestly, it works out. A large part of her personality is shaped by her going home and seeing her friends who haven’t left - that’s something I can identify with. I visit home and I still have friends there. I think a lot of times people talk about how writing for the opposite gender is so different but it’s not, unless you buy into stereotypes. We all want the same thing. I’m not saying we’re exactly the same, But I do think there are accessible aspects of people’s personalities we can all relate to that can help transcend gender. And because theatre is such a collaborative art, there’s definitely stuff I've changed for some of the female characters based on their feedback, to help round out the characters. [But] even if the script doesn’t literally change, the female actors bring so much of their perspective and who they are [to their performance] - as a playwright, I feel I have more help than a novelist, you know?
FT: So as a playwright, how do you know when a play you're working on is done?
JT: Well, this play is done because it’s published. (Laughs.) There definitely comes a time when you need to start working on your next play. But when you’re writing a new play, you’re never done till the production is up and running. I had a play in New York that I was rewriting through previews, you know, audiences were seeing different shows because it kept changing. That’s part of what I like about writing plays, you’re alone so much of the time but then it becomes this very social thing… So you don’t be a hermit, you know?
FT: Is it ever stressful seeing your plays go up? Do you ever cringe and think “oh, shouldn’t have done that…”
JT: No, I’m always just grateful that someone’s doing them. It’s great fun to see someone else do your show, they always do things differently than you'd imagined. When I’m writing a play, I’m dealing with a question and try to deal with the question through the characters. Not trying to answer it, just trying to look at it from all sides. So when you see different versions of it, you see the different sides, the different perspectives [of that question.]
FT: It keeps the conversation going.
JT: Exactly. It’s never really about the answer, when you write a play, it’s more ‘I want you to think about this, too.’ You write a play and it starts off with you alone in a room, but then you give it to the director and it becomes their play, you give it to the actors and it becomes their play, and then the actors give it to the audience - you have to look at the audience as being a part of it, too. From the playwright to the audience, the audience plays their role as well. Asking them to look at this, think about it. The play is going to be different things to different people and that’s all part of the fun.
FT: You start with a question alone in a room - is that daunting?
JT: Not really, cause that’s when you’re just writing whatever you feel like writing, that’s when you’re playing, writing whatever you want. It’s when it’s time to share a draft with people, that’s when it gets a bit scarier.
FT: Okay, I have one final question for you... and it's a pretty important one.. Do you believe in ghosts?
JT: I’m not gonna answer that question! (Laughs.) Like I said, I’m not looking to change anyone’s mind, people come out of this production believing different things. It’s not about do ghosts exist...
FT: (Laughs.) Okay, fine. Well, thanks for talking with me, Josh. We can't wait to open the show!
Get your tickets now for Lone Star Spirits at St. Croix Festival Theatre by visiting us online at www.festivaltheatre.org or calling the box office at 715.483.3387.