An Exclusive Interview with Gregg D. Garner about his newest play, HOMELESS
Gregg D. Garner has written another play, which will take the stage at the Arts at Center Street in less than a week. I sat down with Gregg to learn more about this new work, HOMELESS. Gregg hand selected his cast without holding auditions, and is working with simple costuming and nearly spartan set design. In so doing, he is perpetuating the reputation his work is earning him, as he brings to the stage yet another play that deals with a relevant social issue with anything but a conventional approach. Therein lies his genius.
I began with the obvious question: Why did you choose to write about this issue, and why now?
“Homelessness isn’t a new issue for any society. But it is one of those issues that seems to easily blend into the milieu of other considerations that people have on the day-to-day. I would say, experientially, that it’s the image of getting off of the interstate, along with the stop you have to make before your next turn, along with the natural scenery, you see a person soliciting some kind of help, because they’re in some kind of situation that requires them to beg. I think it’s real easy to begin to integrate that experience as a norm, and in that case, not think too deeply about it. To think too deeply is to be disturbed by it.”
Then, he turns it personal. “For me, I find that disturbance in looking into the person’s eyes. If you can avoid eye contact, then you can kind of avoid the considerations related to the tragedy of the situation—especially in our country, where such a phenomenon shouldn’t have to exist because of the kind of infrastructure or wealth that we have. But it still does.”
“So,” he continued, “I thought it was a noteworthy social issue to be addressed, but I didn’t want to address it in some conventional manner… where it’s like, ‘Look at the homeless guy. Gosh, he’s so dirty… probably strung out on drugs. He’s conning me. He’s going to take something from me,’ and then the character takes the time to listen to him and he turns out to be some incredible sage who has tons of wisdom to offer, and gives you some insight into compassion. That’s one route to the conventional. The other would be to show the dark world of homelessness—go into one of their side-of-the-road tent communities and learn about the heroine addiction and the distinction between tweakers and hustlers—and just explore the internal world of homelessness. That would be the other conventional route.”
“So in this play, and with any play I write, I just can’t do that. I can’t just take the conventional storyline and try to find a more interesting way to say it. I feel like there’s a lot of other people who’ve already done it, and probably better than I could. For me, I want to explore a different aspect. Rather than focus on all the ways that the homeless population is different than you or I, I wanted to show all of the ways that we’re the same.”
Gregg went on, “I wanted to tell a story that would make these characters more relatable to us, rather than characters who are far distanced. So, people might get surprised by that. There’s a wealth of considerations to make when we think of marginalized communities and how we are similar, rather than how we’re different. That’s why I wanted to write this play.”
Have there been specific situations that have informed your perspective on the mental state of those who find themselves homeless?
“Yeah… literally having travelled the world, to the different hemispheres and continents, I’ve seen a lot. But there’s a difference between, say, homelessness in Sub-Saharan Africa, and homelessness in our country. I’m not trying to address what you’d witness in an impoverished country. But I’m addressing what we witness every day here in the States. I know there are lots of programs — religious programs, secular programs, humanitarian and social programs that are available to people, so that they don’t have to live on the streets. And yet, there are so many people who are homeless… who sleep under bridges and live in makeshift tents in areas of woodland overgrowth near urban areas so they could, what they call, hustle.”
Global issues, out.
Local issues, in.
He also brings up another outlier that doesn’t make the story.
“There’s been a trend towards certain things related to homelessness, like dumpster diving or other things… People sometimes have access to funding, access to education and jobs and yet they choose to reject conventional societal norms and in their act of resistance they find alternative ways to survive because part of their philosophy is that there’s a lot of waste in our society, and they can salvage more and not have to put themselves into the anxiety and stress related to working the nine to five and the pressure of the rat race. I guess you could call them political homeless people. But I’m not addressing them in this work either. Because I’m trying to work with the idea that people are more similar than different, this groups is also left on the outskirts.”
What is it about then? The things we begin to see as normal, as part of the landscape, so long as we don’t look it in the eyes. Though tempting to look away, Gregg hasn’t taken that approach because of his values, he explains:
“What’s informed me in writing this work is related to the values I have: to be benevolent and caring. I’ve not only given money to the guy, or food to the guy on the side of the road, but I’ve tried to give him rides. As dangerous as that is, and I definitely don’t recommend it, but being a man, I try to size up a character and whether or not they’re harmless. I’ve had conversations with them, I’ve gone with guys into their makeshift housing areas, I’ve served at rescue missions and helped people move out of their cars and into alternative housing situations. I’ve had a lot of those experiences, on the social work side of things. Then on the personal, individual exploration related to my own values and wanting to help and serve, I’ve had even more. But I’ve also had people that I’ve known personally—relatives even—who’ve gone into the homeless lifestyle. What I’ve seen is that a lot of people are in our country who are in this situation of homelessness is likely because of some sort of personal tragedy or trauma that triggered the situation.”
An example. “Last year I met a guy—his wife and four kids were killed in a car accident. Sudden death. And he, he just … couldn’t get back to who he was. Everything he did reminded him of them. He didn’t have anyone help him. He told me he even went to church group… and how he went to go see a counselor and therapist. And most people kind of listened to him, but he said that they appeared to have pity for him more than give him any sort of tools, or ways, to get through it. He was very lucid at moments when I talked to him… but he’s got a long scraggly beard and matted hair. He stinks, he’s not bathed. He’s pushing a grocery cart. I met him in the Wal-Mart parking lot. He’s not healthy. But he was very lucid in his communication along these lines. But then all of a sudden there’d be a switch, if I’d ask questions that were related to those times, and it was like…I can’t tell you exactly what was happening, but it seemed like he just reverted back to a different moment in his life where he was casting onto our current situation memories and experiences that I could no longer engage in because his context was so high. I’m not in his mind so, I could see why a lot of people would consider them mentally unstable or derogatorily say, ‘he’s crazy.’ But I felt real intensely compassionate for the guy. I don’t know how I could survive if my entire family was killed.
“I know another young man who had such a terrible upbringing with his dysfunctional parents that it caused him to fear moving into adulthood…because he feared that he would potentially screw up someone else’s life the way his life was screwed up. So he was stuck. That’s one of the themes I explore in the play—the deterioration in the human soul, the dehumanization that moves people towards this cyclic loop where they’re stuck, they can’t get past this insurmountably high wall of anxiety related to what they perceive to be their inability to integrate with the world around them.”
The answer is yes, he’s had plenty of firsthand experience, and it’s found its way into this play.
He went on, “I think as I’ve done that kind of research and thought through it, I see how easy it would be for people to find themselves in a position where they loop back to trying to figure out what went wrong, and how to fix it, and just getting stuck. I think that’s why people enter into the homeless scene through drug abuse, to anesthetize themselves from thinking through all of it. It’s just—they want to escape it. and whatever drug of choice may be, they’re numbing themselves from something, they don’t want to face it. I try to address those things in the play, but again—it’s not a conventional approach, it’s not a direct approach.”
In Nashville, homelessness is on the rise. It rose almost 10% from 2015-2016. In the U.S., there are only five other cities that are having such dramatic increase in their homeless population, and one of them is Los Angeles. Having lived in both LA and Nashville, do you think your experience has given a certain flavor to this production?
“Probably!” he replied. “That’s so interesting to know that statistically. That’s where I’ve lived my life— LA, then Nashville—I guess it’d be a different experience living in different places. I’ve done work in Los Angeles, on Skid Row and it’s definitely impacted me. In college, I had so many conversations with people who chose—it was their choice, they could have done other things, but they chose to be homeless. Sometimes it was because of a psychological dysfunction, other times it’s like I said earlier, more of a political response. But then other people, who have addictions and their life was driven by addiction into this devastating state of existence, and then other people who just couldn’t negotiate the expectations of their life due to anxiety and stress of traumatic experiences and they’re … just stuck.
What can you tell me about the cast? What is different or unique about them?
He laughs, “Well, a lot of them are first timers! They’re people that I know. A little background on me is that I like to help people realize things that they might not know they can do. You know, there’s just something there and you can tell they’d enjoy this. They’d enjoy the expressive activity of communicating a story, and becoming a character, and the lessons learned through that experience, and the gift of being able to offer that story to people who have open hearts and open ears. So, for this cast, a lot of them are people who have never acted before on a stage.
“For this play, I just approached them individually… I didn’t hold any open auditions. I didn’t really have much time. I just finished BREATHE the other day,” he joked.
“So, I just approached them…based upon the characters that I wrote and what I would consider a natural aptitude within them, I thought I could work with them to help them realize this character, and I really enjoy that.
“I think that’s why I like to write and I like to direct. In writing, I get to formulate the story, and ensure that the quality of the plot line is intact, and develop characters in the ideal. But then in directing, my ideal synthesizes with this real person who has to actualize that character, and I really like the product that comes out of that. It’s very enjoyable for me to help that person realize this thing that they didn’t know was in them. It’s wonderful.” He laughs. “I like it a lot.”
This cast… that’s what’s different about them. It’s made rehearsals go a little slower than I’d like, sometimes I think, “Wow, we’re doing this again,” but it’s totally worth it. And I love them. I hope they don’t feel bad about me pushing them real hard, but I refuse to let them have an amateur performance. These guys are going to blow everyone’s mind. It’s going to be a professional performance, they’re talented people—it’s going to be great.
Has the storyline been affecting your actors? What have you seen?
“Yeah. They are being affected—I’ve heard them talk.
“I think one of the things that’s come up is how what would seem like trivial experiences, or even normative experiences, like listening to your parents argue or figuring out roles in a family, how those things can just stick with people into the future.
“One of the questions that this play asks, is when it comes to one generation and the next , when does one generation end and another begin? Is it fair that when the next generation comes up, even though the other generation is co-existing and living at the same time, that they should all of a sudden make their life about the next generation—so that their life ended when the other ones began? Is there room for both of them to actualize an individual identity, or is one supposed to serve the other? Should the father serve the son, or the son the father? And when does the son get to become a self, and when does the father get to become a self—did the father already get a chance? But you know, he had a father too. So it’s like this generational consideration that I think is impacting a lot of people in the cast, thinking about what part of them is a carry-over from another experience, an interaction with someone, or the way in which they grew up.
What excites you about this production?
He laughs again.
“This is my fourth major production that I’ve now been able to write and direct, outside of numerous one acts that I’ve done. I’d like to think you get better every time you do it—you learn the craft.
“For me, I try not to allow the norms of the craft to dictate how I tell a story, so I feel rather free to tell the story in the way I think is most effective. I’ve really enjoyed the creativity I’ve been able to implement into the telling of this story.
“I’m not a big costumes-and-sets person. Because, I feel like if you don’t have a good story, what’s the point? But I feel like a lot of people go to shows because the costumes and set are so elaborate and so wonderful. They can tolerate a not-so-great story because they think, “That was a cool set, those were cool costumes.”
“I just don’t ever want that to happen with anything that I’m doing. I feel like…if the actors can’t just sit on the stage and read the script, and it not be totally engaging, then I haven’t written a good play.
“So when they start moving, and I start giving visualization and blocking choreography to the communication, it should be exponentiating the potency of the communication—those other things shouldn’t be necessary for the communication to be powerful.
“So, I’ve enjoyed implementing creativity to enhance the communication. It’s been a lot of fun with this production, and I hope that people will enjoy it too. They’ll have to pay attention! Because there are just some fun things you can do as a director. You know, you develop these “tricks-in-a-bag.” One of my tricks is the slow-mo. I like the slow-mo, the reverse. In Mental, I did some memory revisits through the same lines and the same thing happening twice and not telling anybody. Flashbacks within a flashback…I did that in Breathe. I just like those kinds of things.
But I think with this piece, people are going to really see that my main prop is the person—the people themselves, the actors.
I hope it’s compelling. I think that there is no greater case study than the human being. People are fascinating. When I was younger, I used to think that people were problems you could solve. Like, “Oh yeah, that’s his problem. That’s what needs to be done for him to fix it. Oh yeah, she’s doing great, she just needs some help here, this is what she needs to do.” As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that people are too fascinating and they’re not problems to be solved. They’re very live beings that just need loved, cared for, listened to, discovered, enjoyed.
“That’s going to find it’s way into this play. It finds a way into a lot of my plays. As I write more, I’m also finding that certain themes resurface. From what I’ve heard, that’s what happens with writers. You can’t go too far from where your heart is anchored.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know?
“I hope everyone comes out. It’s totally worth it. I think it will leave people spinning. I try to write so that people are like, “I’ve gotta see that again.” I hear that a lot from people who come to my shows, so hopefully this will have that same impact. Bring your friends—it’s going to be a great evening of storytelling.”
He didn’t have to ask me twice. I’ll be there.