5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Jan Buttram

Murder in Texas! No, folks, it’s not what you think, although some people may applaud you for merely thinking it. No, murder in Texas is the event at the heart of a new play, a thriller by Jan Buttram called Phantom Killer. Directed by Jules Ochoa, Phantom Killer is being produced by Off-Broadway’s Abingdon Theatre Company, which Buttram not only co-founded 17 years ago but has long served as artistic director.

It’s a curious thing, isn’t it, being the artistic director of a theater company devoted to developing and producing new American plays. It’s perhaps more curious in that Buttram is as subject to the same rigorous development process that Abingdon is known for as any other dramatic scribe. Her plays Texas Homos, Glory Girls and The President and Her Mistress, among others, have been produced by the company, but so have those of more than 200 playwrights thus far, so it’s good to know that at least one artistic director in that theater-mad town is humble enough to get in line.

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Photo by Kim Sharp

Buttram, truth to tell, is one of the nicest artistic directors out there, with a substantial resume as an actor behind her as well. But the leader of any organization, let alone one in the arts, is a moving target at times. Critics and bloggers and naysayers, not to mention the artless and the castigating, have sometimes taken issue with some of Abingdon’s work; in the blogosphere and elsewhere last year, there were catty whispers that one of its productions — a particularly good one, I thought — arrived on the programming schedule by virtue of so-called enhancement money, or an investment made in a nonprofit theater’s show in exchange for rights to transfer it commercially (and/or variations on that basic theme).

The negative tone on that, regardless of whether or not it was true, quite honestly offended me. All nonprofit theater companies look for enhancement funds. Most take them. Most should. Most need to. Most would if offered. And, frankly, who can blame them, operating within a business model about as healthy as an emphysematic lung.

Here we have an individual running an Off-Broadway theater company focused on new American works — arguably the most noble idea since, oh, the Magna Carta, but given the tastes of contemporary audiences, arguably the most idiotic idea economically since George W. Bush rammed tax-cuts for the wealthy through Congress. Yet Buttram, against all odds, locates dramatic diamonds in the rough. She helps to develop them and she helps to get them produced. Yes, at times she scores big and at times not. And she still pursues her own writing. Buttram’s a whole lot braver than we are.

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Phantom Killer runs Jan. 22 through Feb. 14 at the Abingdon Theatre Company’s Dorothy Streslin Theatre (312 W. 36th St.). For more information and tickets, call 212-868-2055 or visit www.abingdontheatre.org.

And now, 5 questions Jan Buttram has never been asked — and a bonus question:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Do I detect a social theme throughout your plays?”

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Who do you think you are that you could write a play? (This in my early days, I still see the guy periodically. Never will forget it.)

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Do you have sex in public bathrooms?”

4) Phantom Killer is set in a rural Texas town. Why is Texas a good dramatic setting? What should New Yorkers see in Texas (plays or otherwise) that they usually miss? What’s the best and worst thing about the Lone Star State that New Yorkers don’t know?
Texas has a frontier mentality, implying that you can get away with a lot. Phantom Killer is set in 1946, when Texas was even more of a frontier. The good citizens were such a dichotomy because they were “southern Christians” who supported rampant racial and economic inequalities. This is true today. Does that same dichotomy exist in the north? Absolutely. New York City is a much more liberal environment. I’ve made it my home because I don’t want to get lynched and there’s more live theater in New York! But Texas has a great storytelling tradition, that tradition is where my love of playwriting begins.

I don’t think New Yorkers miss much when it comes to well-written plays set in Texas or dealing with Texans. But there may be a tendency to pigeonhole characters as “stupid” because of their accents. Recently, I had 17-year-old Canadian schoolgirl say to me, “I can’t stand to hear a country accent.” I didn’t say, “I can’t stand to hear Canadians say ‘aboot’ for ‘about,’” but theater audiences rarely make snap judgments; that’s why they love plays.

Phantom Killer is set at the end of World War II, a dramatic time for the U.S. Our parents and grandparents were settling down for a long, peaceful reward after winning a world war. The social issues had been put on the back burner and were not addressed until JFK. Lots of women were forced out of jobs and “husbands” were the mode of travel. Unfortunately, low expectations for women are still status quo. It’s tough for young women with no social credentials, no family support and no education. The novel Push is real. The movie Precious is not a fairytale. It’s a reality. Once you’ve been pegged as an “undesirable,” a life of crime may be a considered and viable option.

The best thing about the Lone Star State that New Yorkers don’t know — most of the citizens are smart as they look and only a few are dumb as they look.

5) As artistic director of the Abingdon Theatre Company, who knows how many plays you’ve read or helped develop. But as a playwright, how do you keep other people’s voices out of your head? Do you ever look at your work and say, “That’s what such-and-so would write”?
I don’t worry about other voices getting into my head, but I do think, “I wish I had written that or thought of that story.”

Playwrights will sometimes write the same dialogue. How many ways can you write, “I didn’t see which way he went?” It’s in the character’s background where you achieve specificity. My actor’s instinct works well for me there because I always wrote a history for my roles. I use the same technique in my writing: what do they like to eat, biggest fears, best memory, favorite color, etc. You may not hear that information in the dialogue, but I have created a complete persona in my imagination.

Bonus Question:

6) Who are your three favorite playwrights? Why? How have they influenced you? Name one playwright — dead or alive, modern or ancient — whose work makes you want to spit.
Tennessee Williams, he loved the plight of dramatic ladies trying to “do better.”

Anton Chekhov, his female characters are so powerful and dramatic and his men are (for the most part) devoted to trying to control them.

Eugene O’Neill, his characters are the damaged, warped and expendable.

One playwright who makes me want to spit? Several live ones come to mind but only because I’m envious of their career, talent, money and fame. I like playwrights. I’ve dedicated the last 17 years of my life to producing new plays by American playwrights. So, speaking strictly as a playwright, there’s no one who truly makes me spit. Ok, maybe I’ll agree to a wry smile. I am awfully tired of William Shakespeare being revived, and revived, and revived. Heresy? Shakespeare was brilliant but there aren’t enough women in his plays. Talk about a lost cause! Looks as if I’m going to be spitting a lot!

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  • Jan Buttram

    This is a wonderful article! Thank you so much. I loved the opening comments. Truly grateful!
    Hope to see you soon. The play is going really well, audiences very appreciative.
    XO
    Jan