Al Sjoerdsma

Al Sjoerdsma
playwright

Tottered on: 20 July 2007
Temperature: 69F
Ceiling: sunny
Ground: still walnut strewn
Wind: WNW at 13mph


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TT with HD: Al Sjoerdsma


HD: Let's climb aboard.

AS: Alright! I think I certainly weigh more than you, so I'm not sure where I should be on this.

HD: Probably closer, but not maybe that much closer, I'd say. The Law of the Lever does apply, but--let me get get you photographed before we actually start tottering [Ed. note: photographs ensues.] Let's actually get some tottering motion going.

AS: Alright, let's see if I can get a little farther back here.

HD: Yeah, this'll work. So. Great day for fishing.

AS: Yeah, if you're a fisherman! [laugh] You know, actually I grew up on the east coast ...

HD: .. oh yeah?

AS: Yeah, and do a lot of ocean fishing in the surf. My father was big on fishing. But I've never been a lake fisherman, so I've never actually fished around here.



HD: Really??! Based on this play of yours, Gandhi Goes Fishing, I figured that you had some experience fishing off a bank, because that's what the two characters are doing.

AS: Yes, they are, yeah. So you read that.

HD: Absolutely. I ordered it from Playscripts.

AS: That's right, I saw that order.

HD: So they let you know, when ... ?



AS: They let us know, yes. They send an email, Another script sold! And then they say where it went. That idea came, actually, I was at a lake. And it was sort of a joke, actually, is what it originated out of. I was there with a friend. And there was a guy fishing on the banks, and he was sitting on this big sheet, and ...

HD: ... like a bed sheet??

AS: Yeah, like a bed sheet. A big white bed sheet is what he had underneath him. There must have been some dew or something on the grass. And it got a little cold as the time went on, and he sort of took the sheet and he kind of wrapped himself in it ...

HD: ... sort of swaddled himself in it ...

AS: ... sort of swaddled himself. And so I turned to the friend I was with, and just sort of making a joke, I said, Look, it's Gandhi! And I don't even remember if he looked at all like Gandhi, but he was fishing. That's sort of where the whole idea originated. And it just sort of sprang from there.

HD: [Ed. note: In the play, bloodworms are Gandhi's fishing companion's bait of choice.] So are bloodworms standard bait for ocean fishing as well?

AS: Yes, yeah, yeah.





HD: Huh. Alright. So Playscripts is, I dunno, this internet-based enterprise where you send in your play and they basically handle the sales of the copies and the performance rights?

AS: Yeah, they are. They're publishing scripts so you can send them things and see if they want to publish. But their deal is, if they're going to publish, they essentially become the agent for that script. So you're no longer allowed to submit it yourself. It all has to go through them.

HD: Okay, so if someone came up to you on the streets of Ann Arbor, and said, Hey, can you sell me a copy of Gandhi Goes Fishing, you'd have to direct them to Playscripts.

AS: Right. And if someone came up to me and said, Hey, I want to perform Gandhi Goes Fishing, I would have to direct them to Playscripts. Whereas every one of my other plays, if they wanted to perform it, I'd say, Oh, yeah! and they'd talk to me.

HD: Okay. I don't remember exactly, but I think the cost of just the small book format--the spine I guess it's not saddle stitched it's just stapled, but it's nice--that format, I think, it ran me like six bucks or something like that. How much of that six bucks do you see?

AS: Essentially none.

HD: Well, that's kind of too bad!

AS: I get a royalty. But it's very small.

HD: So I know that Gandhi Goes Fishing has been performed here in Ann Arbor by the Performance Network, is that right?

AS: No, no, it hasn't.

HD: Oh. Okay, which play is it of yours I'm thinking of that they did?





AS: At the old Performance Network--I used to have a very close relationship with the old Performance Network. And they actually did four or five of my plays. Well, actually even more than that. When I was first involved with them, whoop [laugh] ...

HD: ... you going to be alright?

AS: I'm fine, I just got distracted from what I was saying by the sudden shift in the teeter totter! When I was first involved with them--this was like in the early 80's--I was involved as a part of a playwrights group. And we did a lot of stuff, just like readings, so there was a lot of activity with readings and early stuff. So I don't necessarily count that when I think about what has been done at the Network. But the main thing ...

HD: ... now when you say a 'reading', is that a bunch of playwrights sitting around reading the stuff aloud, or?

AS: No, actually, I mean staged readings. You bring in actors ...

HD: ... so they've got the script, then?

AS: They've got the script. And they may actually just be sitting in chairs and reading. Or they may be up and blocked, so they're actually walking through. They may even have props. It may be as close to a full production as you can get, except that they're holding book. And usually there's not anything in terms of lighting effects or anything like that. But we did a fair amount of that kind of stuff.

HD: And not so much anymore, or?

AS: With the Network?

HD: Well, or with this group of playwrights doing readings.





AS: Well, the group of playwrights doesn't exist anymore. That was sort of how I got into the Network to begin with. There was a handful of us. And then eventually, I had a very close relationship with the people that were running the Network at the time, which originally were Jim Moran and David Bernstein. And then after that was Jo Broughton [Walker], Linda Kendall [Knox], Anne [Marie] Stoll. And when those three were in charge was when I was pretty much at my heyday with the Network. We did three plays that we ended up calling the Waynesville Trilogy--which were, That'll be the Day, Death Drinks a Beer, and Swing. Swing was probably the biggest hit at the Network.

HD: What was that one about?

AS: That was about this family--I got into this thing where I was doing these plays that took place in the southwest. And that's a whole other story how that ended up happening. They ended up taking place in this fictional town called Waynesville. And there ended up being four of them done at the Network that took place in Waynesville, though I've actually written five that took place there. Swing was the third of those. It was about the sheriff of the town and his family, his sort of dysfunctional family. And what happens when this young woman who is travelling across country car breaks down and is picked up by the son of the sheriff. She ends up spending a couple of nights at their house, and getting caught in the whole dysfunctional aspect of it. It's hard to describe more than that without going really into details. But it's a play that I wrote quite a while ago, and we did quite a while ago, and it's been sort of been in a drawer ever since. It's actually been done in Muncie, Indiana, too. But I pulled it out not too long ago though, and looked at it again, and thought, You know, this really is one of my better works. I mean, it really does work very well. And it was very popular here when it was done.

HD: When somebody performs something in another state, like in Muncie, now you'd certainly hear tell of it, because Playscripts will tell you, or is that ...

AS: ... no, Playscripts is only with Gandhi goes Fishing.



HD: Oh, that's the only one, okay. But I would assume that when somebody goes to perform one of your plays, you hear about it, they tell you, or something.

AS: Yeah, well, I'm the one that they contact.

HD: So you know that there's some production of your play going on, do you feel compelled to go down and supervise the script, or just at least out of curiosity to make sure that they're doing it 'right'?

AS: Yeah. You know when I was doing stuff with the Performance Network I was there, very hands-on. I wanted to be there, very hands-on, and I would try to go to every rehearsal. But that gets difficult, because you have to let the director run the show. And I had directors that I trusted very much, I thought they were terrific directors. But even so, I would have my own opinion on things, so you'd have to sort of work this thing out. The director's in charge, but you want to make sure you get your input, and so on. And I liked that very much, I was very comfortable in doing that. But when I started to get things done outside of the area, I had to completely let that go. And most of the time I have been not there at all during the entire rehearsal process. And if I do end up going to see the play--which I try to do--I never know what I'm going to see. So when I walk in on opening night, or final dress, or whenever I'm there, I don't have clue. From my standpoint, it could be a complete disaster, and it's too late to do anything about it, because this is the way that they've done it. But actually, I've never had that happen. I've never walked in and completely hated it. I've walked in and been surprised by some of the decisions they've made, but they've been fine. It's been a long time, actually, since I've been really hands-on with stuff. And I would like to get back to that.

HD: So is it ever at the level of the exactness of the dialogue? So Gandhi, one of his lines in Gandhi Goes Fishing is 'not as yet'. Which I think is probably, if you looked statistically at how often that shows up in British English as opposed to American English--in American English I think it's probably more often 'not yet'. I mean, 'not as yet' you'd find, but not as frequently as British 'not as yet'. So let's say the actor delivers the line 'not yet' instead of 'not as yet'. Is that the kind of thing that would rankle you, or is that the kind of thing you probably wouldn't even notice?

AS: It depends. I'm not sure I would notice that one. I think I might.

HD: But you would certainly notice, if for example, they decided to stage Gandhi Goes Fishing on say, an ocean fishing vessel--for whatever reason, I mean I can't imagine why, but just suppose they did.

AS: [laugh]

HD: You'd be appalled, I assume?

AS: I'm not entirely sure I would be appalled! I can't see any reason to do it. But I'm willing to have a give and take. If people come up with things that are sort of off-course from what I have in mind, I'm not necessarily opposed to it. Now, I want to be told about it, you know. And usually--I'd say more than usually, I'd say every time, actually--that I've had something done out of my range of vision, I have at least a phone conversation, some sort of rapport, with the director. I've talked with them maybe two or three times, so I'm not completely out of the loop. So I have had calls where the director will call and say, You know, we'd like to do this, we'd like to change this, and so on. And I'll say, Sure that's fine, no, don't like that one. So I do have some input. But even so, there's always things going on, so if somebody wanted to change it to an ocean liner or something, I think they would probably call and ask me that. And I don't know if I'd say, No, actually. I mean, I think the play could work. Although it'd be a little bit odd to have a truck driver on there. [laugh]

HD: Yeah, how did the long-haul trucker wind up on the ocean liner? [laugh]

AS: You do get good conversation. If you have good directors, they will ask you about the littlest things, which is nice. I had a short play done at New Jersey Rep last fall, and in the play ...

HD: ... was this WMD?







AS: No, this was Regularly Scheduled Programming. And in the play, somebody sings the jingle, the old jingle of McDonald's, 'You deserve a break today'.

HD: Oh, let's see [singing] 'You deserve a break today, so get up and get away--to McDonald's!

AS: Right, they only sing just the very beginning of it. The play was all about being saturated, and dominated, and submerged by pop culture. What happens in the play is that people come home and discover that there's nothing on TV anymore. Everybody's decided they no longer are going to broadcast any TV, no movies, there's no mass entertainment and what do we do? It's a farce. But one of them decides they're going to just sing to keep themselves busy, and all they can think of is a TV jingle. So I get this call from the director, and the director said, My actors, who are in their 20's or whatever ...

HD: ... they'd never heard it? ...

AS: ... they'd never heard this jingle. So they wanted to change it to what was the current McDonald's which is that 'I'm lovin' it' thing.

HD: Aw.

AS: So I said, Fine, that's okay. So I'm willing to do stuff like that. But it was nice that she called, too. That's something they could have just changed and not even bothered with.

HD: I'm thinking--this isn't in the same category of change, I mean, that one's more about updating--but in Gandhi Goes Fishing, one of the stage directions has Gandhi 'reeling in' his line, and I thought, you know Gandhi, he seems more like kind of a cane-pole guy to me.

AS: [laugh]

HD: So how about that as a suggestion--we've gotta have Gandhi with a cane pole.

AS: You know that play's been done probably more than any of my other plays, and I'm trying to think now. I think that almost--I think possibly every-- time it's been done, they've used a cane pole. So I've never really noticed. I don't think I ever even realized it says he 'reels' it in.

HD: Alright, fair enough. You ever been sent ... [Ed. note: A woman appears in the corner of jude's backyard, waves, and calls to HD.]



JC: ... oh, cool!

HD: Hey!

JC: Hi, I just wanted to take a picture and I was thinking I could maybe do it, but I wasn't sure.

HD: Yeah, come on back!

AS: This is my friend.

HD: Oh, man, I was hoping it was just some random person walking through jude's backyard! That would have been great!

AS: No, she said she was going to go over to jude's house and watch!

HD: You can't really watch [from there], unless you're standing right in that corner.

AS: This is Judy, and she's my friend, actually, I was referring to when I got the idea for Gandhi Goes Fishing. We saw the person covering up under the big sheet.

HD: [Ed. note: Waiting for JC to make her way over to the backyard with the totter, HD figures to use the time wisely by continuing.] So for performances you can't attend, do people ever videotape the performance, or is that considered sacrilegious to videotape a play and present it in video form? Because I haven't been able to find a lot of staged plays on things like YouTube, say.

JC: Hi, I'm Calhoun, how are you?

HD: I'm good!

JC: I'm jude's friend

HD: Nice to meet you.

AS: And my friend!

JC: Oh, yeah, that's right I'm Sjoerdsma's friend. I'll just take a picture and then I'll leave you all to your devices ...

AS: Just cutting right in! [laugh]

JC: Oh boy, this is a hoot! Okay, okay, Goodbye!

HD: Nice to meet you!



AS: [laugh] It's not sacrilegious. And it is done occasionally. But most of the time, I'll have people tell me, Oh, we'll videotape it for you! And then I never get it, I never see it. So I don't know if they're really doing it or not. But they don't seem to have any qualms about saying they're going to do it.

HD: Have you ever considered taking any of your plays and rendering them in a different medium, say, like in the form of a graphic novel?









AS: Yes, I have. I'm not sure it's ever going to happen. I'm not an artist. But I've considered it.

HD: So if you could get somebody like Steve Ditko to illustrate Gandhi Goes Fishing, ...

AS: [laugh] ... yeah, right ...

HD: ... he's still alive isn't he?

AS: He's still alive, yes he is. And I don't think he would come close to illustrating anything that I wrote. But oh, yeah, absolutely. I've thought about ways to present certain things. Because I have some things that it's not that they'd be difficult to do on stage--for instance, my latest major thing is this huge play that I spent several years writing, that if you performed it on stage it would take like over six hours.

HD: Hmm. That's brutal. I'd advise against it!

AS: Very brutal. So there's not even too many people who would even look at that.

HD: Right.

AS: Besides just cutting it way down, which I may ultimately do, I have thought occasionally, that it might be nice to get it out in some other way. And one possibility is a graphic novel series of some sort. So that might be the only way that something like that would ...

HD: ... reach a wider audience.

AS: Right, exactly. So you know I'd always be willing to entertain that. I have a friend, I haven't seen him in a long time actually now--Jason Little, who's a cartoonist, a graphic novelist, very successful actually--and there was point in time when I was trying to interest him in illustrating some of my stuff. He was far too talented in terms of composing his own work to even consider illustrating anybody else's stuff, because he writes his own stuff. But I was certainly trying to nudge him. So I would certainly nudge somebody else if given the opportunity.

HD: So you are the guy behind the SpiderFan site, is that you?

AS: Oh, I'm not the guy behind it. I'm one of the guys.

HD: So what do you think of the Spiderman movies? Or is that something you've even seen?

AS: Yes! Oh, I like them! I think they're great fun. And they've done a very nice job, I think, compared to what they've done with some of the other comic book characters over the years.

HD: Like Batman?

AS: Well, some of the Batmans are good, too, you know. I like the Michael Keaton Batmans. And actually, this last one, with Christain Bale, I thought was quite good. But it seems like inevitably, if they keep going with these series they start to fall apart. And somehow what Hollywood thinks comic book characters should be seeps in, and the next thing you know, you have the 60's Batman TV show--which I love, too, but for different reasons.

HD: I was wondering if it had ever occurred to you to make a series out of the Gandhi Goes Fishing play. This first one, you could rename as Gandhi Goes Fishing--with Bob.

AS: Uh huh?

HD: And then you could have Gandhi Goes Fishing--with Spiderman.

AS: [laugh]

HD: Gandhi Goes Fishing--with the Incredible Hulk. And so on. Because to pull that off, you'd have to have the kind of detailed and intimate knowledge of the character, Spiderman, or these other superheroes, which you have.

AS: [laugh] Have you seen the short film Bambi Meets Godzilla?

HD: I've not seen it. It's a part of my cultural repertoire in that I recognize the title.

AS: That's how I picture Gandhi and the Incredible Hulk. In Bambi Meets Godzilla--I don't know if you know--it's like a two-minute film. It's pastoral music in the background and it's Bambi--it's crudely drawn as I recall, I haven't seen it in a long time. It's Bambi just sort of in the meadow grazing. Just a shot of Bambi grazing for about a minute or so. And this huge foot comes down and just squashes Bambi, this big Godzilla foot. And that's it. The end.

HD: It sums a lot of life up, actually.

AS: Yes, it does.





HD: So have you visited the Art Fair, this year, or the Art Fairs.

AS: Not really.

HD: Is that something that's on your agenda to make sure you do, or is that something you try to basically avoid?

AS: No, I do it. In fact, I'm going to do it later today.

HD: Today's a better day than yesterday.

AS: Because of the storms?

HD: Yeah, well, yesterday was just really humid and then with the thunderstorm, it seemed like a bad day to do it.

AS: Yeah. Well, it's looking like a pretty nice day today. I have these friends usually that almost every year have come into town for Art Fair. They live in Coldwater. And they like to go through the entire Art Fair. So I usually spend a day with them, and we go through everything. Before they started to do that, I used to be one of the people who avoided Art Fair. And once I started doing that with them, you know, there's a lot of intriguing things there, and there's a lot of fun things to look at. And I started to really enjoy it. But they're not coming this year.

HD: So you'll be on your own.

AS: I'll be on my own.

HD: Do you typically include the non-profit tables in your ...

AS: ... to some extent, yeah. I mean, we definitely go through that area.



HD: Well, here's a tip for this year. There's a table--I think it's called Keep Alaska Wild--and if you utter the secret phrase, oh, now shit what is the secret phrase, um, "Every anarchist is a secret dictator". Or something like that. [Ed. note: the actual secret phrase was "Every anarchist is a baffled dictator"]

AS: Well, if it's 'something like that' it's not the secret phrase!

HD: You know what, I think they'll probably give you credit.

AS: Okay!

HD: Anyway, you get a free cup of RoosRoast coffee.

AS: No kidding!

HD: That's something to try out just for entertainment ...

AS: ... to see if it works, or if they just sort of stare at you like you're a crazed anarchist.

HD: Listen is there anything else you wanted to make sure we covered before we dismount?

AS: No, I don't think so.

HD: Well, listen, thanks for coming!

AS: Thank you!