A Conversation with Ethan Lipton
Watching The Outer Space is a little like looking in a telescope and a microscope at the same time, where the mundane is epic and the expansive is accessible. Mad scientist musician-playwright Ethan Lipton and his collaborators have mixed together science fiction, cabaret, twang, heart, humor, and humanity and created a piece that falls into a category all its own, reminding us that the small things in life are often what take up the most space.
Corey Ruzicano: I love the language that you use, I was really drawn to the way you’re telling a story about something so big and fantastic and so small and human at the same time – what has the development of your voice been like? What influences have been part of that journey?
Ethan Lipton: I like metaphor and I think one of the reasons why I’m drawn to it a lot of the time is because a lot of what I like to talk about is often quite small, so when you find the right metaphor for an experience, and for me it’s often about how something feels, then it gives you an opportunity to say those things that are the every day and explore them with a sense of awe and wonder. It also helps put everybody in the room on the same footing. When it’s nobody’s actual life, it’s everybody’s life. It opens up an imaginative space that I like. As an audience member, work that I respond to is the work that makes me lean in a little bit and do a little bit of work myself. For me, I guess that’s my expression of that same sort of thing where I’m trying to create a specific image or tell a specific story but one that will call attention to the negative space around it so that they imagine their own world and life. That’s the the best experience for me, when people are deeply engaged with their own life during one of our things.
CR: Absolutely, I read one of your other interviews with American Theater and you were talking about this idea of not wanting to let real-life truth get in the way of what feels truest in the telling of the story – how do you create a metric system for that; how you shape or gauge what’s going to be most truthful?
EL: I don’t know exactly what that is; I think it’s just a lot of trial and error. Some descriptions of things make it seem smaller – some truth, some details distract and other details or truths invite in or open up, and that’s just a kind of trial and error. Sometimes there’s a way to perform something that leans against what you’ve written a little and that can open it up, sometimes you have to really sell the thing that’s been written directly, and sometimes you have to rewrite. I’m not ever that interested in telling people things about myself or my own life – I do use my own life as material a lot because it comes from a sort of imaginative space mostly but it’s that thing of really wanting people to see a story about themselves, and so there’s some invisible line or where that detail can be positioned where people can get in, and you can kind of feel that. I also feel like theater is a public experience – obviously we’re at the Public Theater which was made to serve the public, but when there’s a sense of service in the words, particularly in a show where there aren’t multiple people talking, it’s really just one person. So if there’s some awareness of the audience’s experience – which is not the same as pandering or giving them what they want, but making sure that you’re communicating to people in a way that they are able to receive it – that’s a sort of compass, I guess.
CR: Yes, definitely. This is a story about a couple weathering a transition together and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about change – what endures in the story or in art in general and how have you learned to navigate change over the course of your career?
EL: Certainly for me, I started off as a playwright and I had a couple of plays produced and was writing plays really from my early 20s, but when I moved to New York I didn’t really know how to access that community. Theater is always local in some way and New York is no different even though it’s the biggest scene of them all. That was really when I started performing, singing songs, which I always just done for my own pleasure and the occasional mildly-stoned friend, but singing publicly for me was initially just for me to have a little bit of a creative outlet while I was trying to be a playwright and find opportunities. Then music became a kind of saving grace for me in some ways, it really was a relief from playwriting, the gestation period of songs is so much shorter, and I started playing with a band and for a long time I kept those things separate – the playwriting and the music – and then at some point it seemed like a danger idea, because I liked them separate, but also a good challenge to combine them. But there wasn’t really…whatever this form is, isn’t really a well-branded form. It’s not like everybody understands exactly what it is, and as a playwright I already come up against this thing all the time where I’m trying to explain my work in ways that people can understand and it’s hard to understand so this was a new thing that people wouldn’t necessarily understand…but it turned out to be a great experience and something that has ended up giving a lot back and in some ways has been––there was a time when having two separate artistic pursuits might be confusing for people or might make people think, Oh is he serious about anything? But now, I feel like the whole world does so many different things. When I started, that was not such an obviously good idea and now it feels like it’s been a very good idea. It’s been fine for the separate careers but it’s also helped create this other world of opportunity, and creatively I feel like songwriting has been good for my playwriting and playwriting is clearly a part of my songwriting. So that has changed, my outlook, however I self identify as a creative person has changed. I also had some fantasy of being some kind of weird hybridy-artist without really knowing what that was, but then it took a long time to actually do that.
CR: Yeah, in the program Oskar Eustis says you’ve created your own genre, and I’m sure that’s the kind of observation you can only make looking back, rather than while you’re in the process, but I wonder if you have advice for young people who have similar separated or disconnected creative interests.
EL: I have to say, for me it was the only way I could have done it. I really recommend it, again I think it was good for the work itself – it loosened things up, it was more rewarding. I think there is probably a certain period where getting the work recognized is important and you’re building a career there’s a fear that doing many things will confuse people, but I wouldn’t give a shit. I just wouldn’t worry. People in the fine arts do it all the time where you’re working in different mediums. It just seems like you have to be doing work that’s giving you something back, so if that can be just one thing, that’s great, but if you’re a person that has wider interests, you should pursue them. And if you’re a younger person, then you already know that you’re going to have to do a million things in the course of your lifetime because there’s no such thing as single career track anymore. I think it’s awesome and people should double-down.
CR: I’ll make sure my dad reads this interview.
EL: Oh, sure, is he like, what are you doing as a journalist and a director?
CR: Well he went to college and then went to med school and now he’s a psychiatrist. He picked his path and then he had the answer, so it’s hard for him to understand that it doesn’t really exist in the same way.
EL: Right, well and to some degree in the arts I think it’s kind of always been this way. There’s always been a lot of overlap – Shakespeare was also an actor and Patti Smith was doing theater in the 70s.
CR: And you have to know about life to make something about life.
EL: Exactly, you have to have broader experiences. And even if you’re only doing one thing, career paths are never linear, especially in our field. So there’s no way to create cause and effect; you can make gestures and best practices and try to push things ahead, but you’re never totally in charge of what’s happening, so you have to do other things.
CR: Of course. I don’t know how the program was put together, but in it is that famous Milan Kundera quote that “happiness is the longing for repetition,” and I thought that this piece really spoke to that ache for familiarity we all sort of orbit around and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that and it’s affect on making work.
EL: Yeah, I feel like your well-being in the world is always one of those fluid elements you’re trying to manage. There’s your job, there’s where you live, there’s your relationships – I feel like the piece kind of looks at all your different relationships, like your relationship with your job, with your self, with your career and all these other things. And that relationship with yourself and whether or not you’re feeling fundamentally aligned with yourself or misaligned, that affects all of those other relationships and so for me, as someone who fundamentally – and I don’t know if anybody really likes change, I guess we all like the change that we’re in charge of…but No Place to Go, the previous play, dealt with this in a different way too.I’m not always the most elegant person at going through change and I think that that need to be kind of right with yourself is something that…if you’re okay with yourself, all that other stuff seems a lot easier. If you aren’t, it all seems harder. I like repetition. Even though I don’t live close to the city any more, I don’t come here very often outside of doing this show, but I always have these fantasies about New York, how I could eat so many different things and I basically go to the same two or three places every time I come back because what I really want is this feeling, and repetition lets you access that in a certain way.
CR: Yeah, and I’d love to hear about how you’ve come to find and create relationships with your collaborators and what you’ve learned from them.
EL: That also would have been so hard to predict when I was starting out. The guys in my band I’ve played with for twelve years. When I started, I had a rotating group of people I worked with and I’d play these two- or three-song sets in downtown variety shows and I remember my guiding principle with the musicians I worked with was that I didn’t want drama and I didn’t want to lose a lot of money. I was fine breaking even or losing a little bit of money, but I was not going to gamble my entire whatever part-time job I had at the time on some music thing. And so there was a kind of lightness that I approached that with and the guys I’ve ended up working with for so long had a similar something there, in addition to us having a shared sensibility, we’re all kind of silly but willing to take it seriously. I think they all got the joy, like a lot of my songs even outside of the show have a veneer of sincerity. I mean they are sincere, but they’re also silly or absurd or undercut that in ways, and they all knew how to own that. I think we just enjoy playing together. We never have had the pressure or opportunity to make it like a full-time career and in some ways that has been easier because it has meant that when we do get an opportunity, we’re into it; everybody’s excited and has been able to make time for it over the years which is fairly amazing cause they all have other lives too. And then on the theater side, Leigh [Silverman] saw the band play years and years ago and I met her afterward and she was super sweet and kind and funny, and I knew she was a director and I had just gotten into the emerging writers group at the Public, that was the first year of that, and I was like, I would love to work with you some day, can I send you something? And she said, totally, and I couldn’t believe, I still can’t believe I get to work with her. She is such a great collaborator in all of the ways that a good director is: she’s smart, she’s thoughtful, she’s really hardworking, she’s organized, she’s a fierce advocate, will fight for things that are important, is a good ally, has her own take on the thing, but doesn’t ever make it about that so you really feel like you’re talking to someone who has your best interest. And then beyond that, I do end up working with the same actors as a playwright, ‘cause I like that familiarity and also because there’s a certain approach to the tone that people need to be able to access, so if I find people who can do that, then I tend to go with those people. My fantasy for my band and my theater career is to be able to continue to work with the same people, not exclusively – it is always great to have new people come around a be a part of that mix – but to just have a creative family that you can go back to over and over again. And that includes designers; this is the third time that David Zinn has done something of mine which is crazy that he makes time for us, and Ben Stanton and even our production crew is fantastic – Shelley and Caroline and Hillary, they’re all great, and Dean, who’s our dresser who puts up with us, they’re all great.
CR: Yes, that definitely sounds like the dream. Certainly there are always a lot of reasons to move away from the arts – how do you keep sticking with it?
EL: At some point, when I was younger, there was a question about discipline, like how do you keep working at it, how do you actually keep putting in the work, and then how do you hang out long enough for stuff to happen – because that’s definitely part of it, just hanging on long enough for opportunities to arise. I was fairly disciplined, but I think I was compelled and I think pretty early on it has to be a compulsion in some way, where it doesn’t really feel like an option not to do it, where you don’t feel good or okay if you’re not in some way making stuff, and if that’s the case, if you’re compelled, you’ll find a way to make it. If you’re not getting the career opportunities, you’ll pivot and make different stuff, or you’ll find different ways to get your voice heard. Because I think if it is a choice, like for me, going to the gym is always a choice, and so I usually choose not to do it. For some people, it’s a compulsion, they have to do it, and I think if anything stays a choice for too long, then eventually I think you’ll choose not to and that’s totally okay. There have definitely been moments in my career where I was at a crossroads, where I was like, do I want to keep doing this enough, or do I have to do it, because maybe having to do it is too hurtful or too frustrating, but somehow you push through those moments and keep going. I do sometimes joke that in my next life I would like to something that didn’t require so much of one’s self, but that’ll have to be the next life because I’m enjoying this life.
CR: I’m happy to hear that. Later on in the story, there’s sort of a decision to become politically active in the community of the characters, and there’s an introduction of a reference to the Dark Lord, and I just wanted to talk a little bit about that and about making art in our current political climate.
EL: Yeah, well most of the piece had been written before the election and that event of a new administration seemed to change just everything in the world, and I thought about different ways to integrate that in the periphery of the piece and what I realized, why it was worthwhile to try to put it in for me, was that the character, the main character that’s being discussed, before then is really a prisoner of his own self-interest, he can’t get out of his own head, his own way. He is situationally or otherwise, despairing and it seemed like by the end of the piece he is less stuck and he’s more aware of the world, so it seemed to fit in that he could be impacted by that event. I feel like if that event had happened earlier in the piece, it wouldn’t have taken, because he’s not really able to be impacted by anything. One of the nice things about doing the show, I feel like everyone I know in a small, understandable, self-centered way, has had this question of: what are we doing right now, how is any of this art relevant and what should we be doing and how does the work I’ve already been doing, look in this light, all these questions. It’s been great to do this show and to experience people needing to feel things, particularly things that are not directly related to the chaos of the world. That is something that art is supposed to do – to make us feel empathy and go on journeys and expand us, and I know that there is going to be a lot of pointed, political, angry, really useful art in the months and years to come and that will be really important, but my experience of doing the show is a reminder that we also need to keep looking at our humanity and accessing that and that’s important. If you’re making stuff that doesn’t feel directly political, that’s going to feel like a risk every time and you won’t ever know until you get it in front of an audience whether it’s something people can use. But that’s sort of always true, you never really know. Theater has such a long gestation period that there’s always that kind of panic when you’re doing something that gets planned 18-24 months ahead that you’ve maybe been working on for five years, the moment always informs it. I feel like if you are true to the project, then you just don’t know when what you’re doing will be something people will really need at that moment. The next project I have is something very outward looking, it’s about the privatization of public education and I’m excited about that because it feels timely in a different way, and this piece was much more inner looking, so it’ll be nice to have that change; but doing this thing has reminded me, or at least made me aware in a certain way, that people still need to feel things, they still need to access their humanity.
CR: Yes, absolutely. My final question is about your questions – if you have any that you’re grappling with in your life or in your art these days?
EL: Yes. Lots of them. I mean I think that question of how to move forward, where to direct one’s energy. I think there’s always a lot of concern about… you have to have a lot of projects in the hopper once you get a seat at the table. I feel like I have a seat at the table in a way that is satisfying and I feel proud of, but you really have to keep going, so I never know how that’s going to unfold. Whatever sense there is of getting to a place in your career where you feel like you know how it’s going to go from here on end, I just don’t think that ever happens or it hasn’t happened yet, so I am full of questions. I guess that is as it’s always been.
Ethan Lipton’s plays include Tumacho; Red-Handed Otter; Luther; Goodbye April, Hello May; and Meat. His musical No Place to Go (Obie Award) was a New York Voices commission and produced by The Public in Joe’s Pub and has toured widely in the U.S. and Europe. Lipton is an alum of The Public’s Emerging Writers Group, a Clubbed Thumb associate artist, and a Playwrights Realm Page One fellow. Ethan Lipton & his Orchestra (featuring Vito Dieterle, Eben Levy and Ian Riggs) has been a band since 2005 and has released four studio albums.