Playwright Patricia Milton is known to San Francisco theatre followers for last year’s very successful premiere of Reduction In Force at Berkeley’s Central Works Theatre Company. Her work has been produced all over the United States, winning numerous awards.
This month Milton joins forces with Wily West Productions to bring us yet another premiere: Believers. When Milton read an article in The New York Times about the biochemistry of love and how drugs might induce love affairs, she wondered what would happen if a drug company developed a product that would prevent those changes, a “love vaccine”. In Believers, heartbroken drug developer Rocky Wise sets out to create such a vaccine. This premise allows Milton to explore many themes related to romance, science and even religion. Is it ethical to play God in matters of love? Is it really better to have loved and lost than never loved at all? In a world where psychiatrists routinely prescribe psychoactive drugs that improve people’s personalities and social skills, it isn’t difficult to imagine a prescription to make adjustments to one’s love life. Interesting themes, indeed.
Milton likes challenging themes. Reduction In Force explored class warfare and ageism. Solving Sunflowers is about a young widow’s struggle with grief while protecting the habitat of a threatened species of sunflower from the encroachment of development. Solving Sunflowers won the 2009 Eudora Welty New Play Competition. Many gay theatre fans will recall with delight Milton’s successful collaboration with playwright Andrew Black in the New Conservatory commissioned gay murder mystery, It’s Murder, Mary.
As Milton is a prolific playwright, past president of the Playwrights Center of San Francisco no less, it is not surprising to see her work produced by Wily West Productions, who have been producing new work in San Francisco since 2009. Wily West is committed to producing new work by local playwrights, with local actors, presented in local theatres. Their list of associates includes many of the best and the brightest of San Francisco’s directing and playwrighting talent.
Without new work, our theatre becomes a dusty old museum. The production of a new play by an award winning playwright under the auspices of Wily West Productions is news to which we should pay attention.
The Storming Bohemian (cest moi) recently met with Ms. Milton at Stage Werx, where the Wily West company has been rehearsing Believers. In the interview that follows, the Storming Bohemian’s remarks are in boldface while Ms. Milton’s are in regular type.
Patricia, as a playwright, you have been involved with a number of organizations devoted to new plays. I’d like to ask you, what is the importance of new plays to our theatre scene?
Well, let me say that I feel lucky to be in San Francisco, because new plays are definitely a huge part of our theatre. We have a whole lot of wonderful new playwrights. I’ve been involved with the Playwrighting Center of San Francisco, which is a play development organization that has been around for 40 years. I get to be involved in new work all the time. There is something vibrant and risky about new work. When you are in the process, as I am right now, of bringing a new work to the stage, there are constant discoveries and it is very exciting. Of course, I know you get that with established plays, but it is a whole new level with new work. There are things going on in our world right now that need to be commented upon artistically. I want to comment on the world we live in, and you need a new play to do that.
Really? You don’t think Shakespeare, for example, comments on the world we know?
I think he does, of course. But I also think there are changes happening in our world that need to be commented on by the people living through it. Shakespeare brings his own commentary about the monarchy and what it means to be a king. That’s less relevant today than what current playwrights are writing about, like what it’s like to be a modern citizen. I think that’s important.
Tell me about Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco.
Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco is a membership organization, and they have a support process. They offer occasional workshops, but it is more like peer support. For example, if you’ve written some pages of your play, you can bring it on Thursday nights and they have actors there who will read the pages for you. You can hear it. And from there we have what we call developmental readings. We’ll cast your play with actors and they’ll read your play all the way through. Then we have staged readings which include a director. You can actually develop a play all the way to production using the Center’s process. It’s great.
Can you tell me about the developmental process for Believers?
Oh yes. Believers received a developmental reading at Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco in 2010. And it’s going up now. So I’ve had several readings. It took basically two years to write it.
You were inspired by an article in the New York Times about the biochemistry of falling in love and you wondered if it’s biochemical, couldn’t there be a vaccine to keep from falling in love? How did you develop this into a play?
Well, initially I had the character of the heartbroken lover who wants to keep his heart safe. Then I wondered, who would be the antagonist? Well of course, it’s his ex lover, the one who broke his heart, who wants the opposite of what he wants and would be determined to keep him from making his vaccine. I’m interested in commenting on our current world and there are some really interesting things going on around prescription drugs and pharmaceutical companies. So I wanted to bring in a little bit of satire about pharmaceutical companies. I mean they can do so much for people, make such positive contributions, and then there is the shadow side, the side effects of drugs, the marketing, the invention of diseases to cure. I thought that was all very interesting to explore.
And is the result funny or dramatic?
Oh! Its definitely funny. You know, just a few years ago I spent eighteen months with a group of playwrights writing about the United States and torture. One short play after another. It was really serious stuff. And since then, I’ve mostly wanted to write comedy. Although, of course, there are some serious things that I’m saying here. But I have stuck to comedy. I can say what I want to say best, I think, through comedy.
Believers will open at the Stage Werx theatre on Valencia on August 2 and continues through August 25. For further information click here.