Emergency Management: Spotlight on Playwright Jason Grasl

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There are many actors that become writers.  It's natural to want to tell a story in your own words - to work on so many projects for other people, only to have a spark of inspiration in your own brain.  But Jason Grasl is no ordinary actor-turned-writer.  Jason probably doesn't know this, but he was one of the most involved playwrights that submitted last year.  He emailed me, a lot.  Now I say this not because this is the reason why his play Emergency Management, was chosen (by no means is this some kind of criteria).  I say this to highlight that Jason is thorough, attentive, and detail-oriented.  He was excited about his play, and you knew he worked hard on it.  You could tell it had been gestating in his head for a long time and he was passionate about it.  And well, in turn, we became passionate about it too.


Staged reading of Dawn Jamieson's On the Mangled Beam

The first time I met Jason Grasl was at the 2010 Playwrights Retreat.  He was cast in the workshop of On The Mangled Beam and at that point I had only known him as an actor. Later, I once asked him about his headshot, and he told me that he "broods".  And that often he gets cast as the "jerky ex-boyfriend or broody professional".   But like most actors, he hopes to play a range throughout his acting career (see his reel to below), venturing into maybe darker roles in plays like Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, or being able to work on some of his favorite shows on TV, like Boss, The Newsroom, or Homeland.

And with shows like those on his mind, it's clear to see where he got his inspiration for Emergency Management, a play about rising political star, Lanford Walkerton (played by Robert Vestal), on the eve of his announcement as a Flagstaff mayoral candidate.  Along with his sister Mena (played by Marisa Quinn), he was adopted into a non-Native family, and struggles with issues of identity, belonging, and family.  But if TV political dramas have taught you anything, it should be that everyone has a secret and the stakes are high, and in the case of Jason's play, it's life or death. 

Marisa Quinn
Rob Vestal
It is certainly an exciting play, with characters that are unique and complicated but down to earth at the same time.  You might see someone you know in one of these characters, or might even see a bit of yourself in them.  It's a compelling story about a specific cast of characters in Flagstaff, but the themes are universal and all the nitty gritty information doesn't go over your head.  As Jason says, "While it involves a lot of politics and hopefully sheds some light on issues that might not be as well known, ultimately, I think it’s about how these people deal with their own personal politics and issues and how that ends up affecting the greater community politics at large."

Jason Grasl is a really smart talented individual (in part probably due to his beautiful wife, Jessica Rieder, who is a fabulous writer as well, and has encouraged him throughout the process).  He's well spoken, well informed, and humbly executes both his crafts always trying to do his very best.  He really fleshed out his characters, has stepped into their shoes and explored their psyche.  And, from my point of view, it has been exciting to see how these characters have changed over time.  But I wanted to learn more about Jason's psyche (maybe even his deep dark secrets), so I was delighted when he agreed to answer a few of my questions.  And he sent them back to me, in record time (like all of his paperwork).  Although there were no skeletons in his closet revealed (this time), it was interesting to hear what this new writing process was like for him.


What inspired you to write Emergency Management? What made you want to write something for theatre?

I was a big fan of the TV show, TheWest Wing.  So I guess that’s a bit of inspiration, for the feel/tone.  I’ve also always been fascinated by the idea of the people who are in charge of “emergency situations” and how they got to be in that position; what would their personal life be like?  At some point during the 2010 NativeVoices Playwright’s Retreat, Kimberly Norris Guerrero and I (both of us were participating as actors) were talking and she commented on how she thought the two of us looked like we could be brother and sister and that we should do a show together...even if we had to write one.  Well, I put those two things together (fascination with emergency management position, brother and sister play), and that eventually became the first draft of Emergency Management that I submitted last September. Theatre is usually considered the actor’s medium, over film or TV, so it’s a chance to have more of an influence over the type of work I might be able to personally perform.

Describe what it has been like to work with Bernardo Solano, Director/Dramaturg for Emergency Management, and what the editing process has been like.

Bernardo Solano and Jason Grasl at the first table read
Bernardo is great to work with.  He likes to ask questions before giving notes/feedback, not just to make sure he completely understands my intention as writer, but also to invoke thoughts/inspiration that, I think, he instinctively knows exists somewhere within the character/world I have created, but haven’t fully considered.  In this way, he respects the world in the play as still being wholly mine, just trying to make sure it’s as fully colored as it can be.  As far as the editing process, I’d like to think I’m pretty open to notes.  There are a couple of things that go to the root of what I want this play to be about, so I’m a little more protective of that, but in creating this world, I have had no problem slashing, rewriting, etc. to make this the best story it can be…tragic though those slashes may seem at the time.

Describe your ideal working environment? What objects do you need with you when you write?
Laptop, internet connection, the following distractions: Words with Friends app, my dog, Grantland.com.  I see a lot of people writing at coffee shops, but for me that’s too distracting, plus then I feel like I’m responsible for performing the act of writing, so for me, I feel more comfortable writing at home.

What do you do when you hit a writer’s block, if any?
See above distractions.  I’ll also try daydreaming about the world I’m writing.  Occasionally that leads to a breakthrough.

Do you have a favorite character in your play? And why?
I like them all...though that’s the boring answer.  I have really enjoyed how the character of Paul has evolved from where he started at to where he’s at now.  No one else gets to see that evolution, other than the final product that gets performed at the reading, but Paul has been very interesting to develop.  Lanford is a bit closer to my heart, with the adoption parallels and living in the tension, caught between different cultures.

What other projects are you working on at the moment?  Are you planning on doing more writing?
I have a couple of story ideas, but I really have to be “fully mused” to write something.  This was only the second full-length I’ve ever written and the first one I wrote was about five years ago, so you can see there’s some gestation period.

Well, hopefully we won't have to wait another 5 years before Jason churns out another play.  There are those people who email you constantly, and interrupt you with details and questions, but with Jason it's not a chore, but more like traveling with him on this journey towards a great creative piece.  You can see the wheels turning in his head, the building blocks of something awesome.  He's animated when he speaks, with hand gestures and a fire in his eyes, and he's enthralled which in turn draws the listener in and this kind of passion comes across in his writing.  But don't take my word for it, read below for what he says about the craft.

So, in the meantime, we're reveling in his wonderful writing in Emergency Management, which is sure to go places.  So don't miss out, Thursday, October 25th @ 7:30 p.m.!    


"Writing is having all of the verbs...inventing them and grounding them and making them believable.  I remember Paul Newman saying on “Inside the Actor’s Studio” that what he wanted from a director was a ‘verb’.  Meaning, if you’re giving me a direction, give me an action to do, not an emotion to be.  Similarly, with writing, (at least for me, coming from the perspective of an actor) I see myself being responsible for coming up with all those actions and motivations, those ‘verbs’, within the world I’ve created.  With Emergency Management, it’s an origin story and I think many of our driving motivations in life are so influenced by where we come from, culturally, familially, even just circumstantially...so writing and exploring those types of origins fascinates me.  On top of that, what I really like is that my investment is no longer with one character, it’s with all of them, there’s no good or bad, it’s just finding the reason to fight for each one.  In a way, as playwright, I get to play each character over and over in my head, each one colliding with the next until it all makes sense in some chaotic fashion.  But I love it and hopefully I’m creating a story that makes sense and people will enjoy."  -- Jason Grasl (Blackfeet)


Jean said...

Great feature article! It's been a pleasure watching Jason's play and his writing talents evolve! Can't wait for the reading tomorrow night -- and for what's next for this terrific and exciting work!

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