“To be a or not to be a playwright” has crossed the mind of more than a few scribes. For Petaluma’s resident playwright, David Templeton, a recent accolade affirms that writing for the stage has indeed been the right choice.
Templeton was recently honored by the 2022 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) New Play Award and Citations for his play Galatea—a sci-fi think piece that is by turns comedic, heartrending and ultimately cathartic. The citation for the work (which our own theater critic called “Excellent”) came with a sizable cash prize. What follows is a Q&A with the playwright.
What does a recognition of this caliber mean to you as a playwright? I’d imagine it is extremely validating. How have you kept alive the faith and drive to create throughout your career, which just seems to get better every year?
David Templeton: It means a lot, and I’m deeply honored by it and grateful for it. It means, I’d like to think, that I’m writing plays and telling stories that people are excited about, that are engaging enough and unusual enough to inspire people to talk about them, and remember them and, in this case, nominate them for national playwriting awards. As you point out, I’ve been doing this for a while now, and this is by far the most significant validation I’ve received. As for how I’ve kept the momentum going, I think it’s a combination of inspiration and stubbornness. I have ideas for new stories all the time, and when one really grabs me, the way the core idea of Galatea did, that’s the spark of inspiration I need to start writing it, and when the writing goes well, each new discovery I make as I tap away at my laptop seems to inspire more ideas and more discoveries. It’s kind of intoxicating.
Why plays? You’ve written prose and journalism of all sorts but what keeps bringing you back to the stage?
DT: I’m not sure I have a clear answer why. I just love the theater, the way stories on stage are often told through dialogue and conversation rather than primarily action. That feels magical to me. The first professional play I ever saw on stage, when I was 9 years old, was James Baldwin’s “Blues For Mister Charlie,” in Los Angeles in 1969. It was produced by a friend of my mom, and she was involved in doing box office and publicity and stuff for it. I actually was brought along to rehearsals, some of them held outdoors by the director’s pool. I’d sit there mesmerized as they ran lines, some of which were pretty scathing and eye-opening to a 9-year-old. Then I saw at least three performances of the play, and spent a lot of time with the actors during that period. I imagine that experience gave me a sense of the power of theater that was strong enough to stay with me as I’ve dabbled in other forms of writing, which I also love. But theater will always carry a special spark of magic for me.
I think it’s fascinating how you take an ancient art form and, with Galatea, use it to explore the future. From where do you summon the inspiration and courage to push the boundaries of the stage into genres like sci-fi?
DT: I love all kinds of genres, and I never want to write the same play twice. Though “Mary Shelley’s Body” has science-fiction-adjacent themes, it’s more of a straight-ahead horror story with touches of gothic romance. So though I’ve written science fiction short stories, “Galatea” really is my first science-fiction play. I think the fact that it’s done so rarely on stage is part of the appeal because I really do want to bring something new to the stage every time I tackle a play. Once I had envisioned the key ideas at the heart of the play, which came from questions I started playing with about robots and everyone’s assumptions that synthetic life forms would inevitably view themselves as superior to humans, I felt obligated to see the project through, because as far I know, some of the things I explore here have never been done exactly like this. That’s pretty exciting, and for me, it fueled the long effort of creating something as complicated as a science-fiction play.
How has being a theater critic and culture writer informed your creative pursuits?
DT: I was a reviewer for 16 years. That’s at least one play a weekend, often more, for 52 weeks a year for over a decade and a half. I estimate that I’ve seen between 1,000 and 1,500 plays on stage. That’s quite an education. I’ve seen so many new plays that basically do nothing original. I think that adds to my drive to always tell a story in an original way, or bring something new to a familiar set-up. In “Drumming with Anubis,” I loved the idea of incorporating an actual drumming circle around a campfire and then introducing characters who at first might seem like stereotypes, but quickly shred the audience’s assumptions about these guys and what they’re about. In my next play, the plot incorporates competitive jigsaw puzzling, so I get to have actors rapidly building puzzles as part of the action, something I’ve never seen on stage before. I think all of my years as a reviewer and an arts writer have given me a pretty clear idea of what kinds of things have been done to death, so I have a strong awareness of where to go as I attempt to tell stories in new ways.
DT: I’m currently working on the aforementioned puzzle play, which is actually about a parrot and its relationship with two of the humans it knows during its long life. It’s titled “Featherbaby,” and with any luck, it will be produced in about a year or so. It’s the hardest thing I’ve done so far, but it’s going to be funny, and sweet and heartbreaking and make us all think about the true meaning of friends and companionship. This November I will be performing my one-man show “Polar Bears” in New York City at the United Solo Theater Festival. And if things go according to plan, there will be a book collection of four of my plays coming out this year or early next, presenting my genre stuff as literature, since it’s something of an open secret that reading plays is a blast. The book will be titled “Monsters, Gods and Robots.” Meanwhile, I’m researching two other plays I hope to do, one of them a ghost story, of sorts, set in the world of female boxing. As I said, I never want to write the same story twice.
This November, Templeton will perform his one-man-show ‘Polar Bears,’ at New York City’s United Solo Theater Festival. A collection of four of his plays, ‘Monsters, Gods and Robots,’ will be published next year. A longer version of this interview is available at bohemian.com and pacificsun.com.