5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Derek Ahonen


Photo by James Kautz

Derek Ahonen is a playwright and, with actors James Kautz and Matthew Pilieci, a co-founder of The Amoralists. The company, together with P.S. 122, is presenting a return engagement of Ahonen’s play The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, running June 5 to June 28 downstairs at P.S. 122, 150 First Ave.

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I am particularly fond of the Amoralists mission statement:

The Amoralists is a theatre company that produces work of no moral judgment. Dedicated to an honest expression of the American condition, our actor driven ensemble explores complex characters of moral ambiguity. We seek to initiate a dialogue between artists and audience, putting theatre at the heart of our community. Rollicking, rebellious, and raw, our work will go home with you…Boom!

And I am equally fond of its “Points of Artistic Unity”:

  • First, let it be said that The Amoralists will never attack or try to dictate the method in which an artist works. An artist’s process is his or her own to wield as they see fit.
  • The Amoralists demand loyalty. We enter into a production as a family. Who you are becomes a part of this company.
  • Ours’ is a process of constructive challenging: every facet of an Amoralists’ production will demand input. Players are not merely hired and then relieved of accountability to the story’s inception. We demand artists who dig in. Who ask questions. Who experiment.
  • We seek out artists with swagger-(swagger: when confidence meets talent meets individuality).
  • We demand Artists who possess:
    • a willingness to facilitate a story that is larger than themselves.
    • a willingness to live within the work.
    • a willingness to invest all of themselves in the creative process.
    • a willingness to be fearless.
    • a willingness to be courageous.
    • a willingness to be dangerous.
    • a willingness to give up control.
    • a willingness to be uncomfortable.
    • a willingness to get dirty.
    • a willingness to be rattled.
    • a willingness to demand spontaneity.
    • a willingness to bleed, sweat, and cry.
    • a willingness to take another step when they assume they’ve taken their last.
    • a willingness to never retire at their peak-to always strive for more.
    • a willingness to be a vibrant color in a white washed scene.
    • a willingness to trust.
  • Finally, when working with us, know that The Amoralists work on the edge of the cliff, not three feet back, not three feet over. Yet we promise to construct a safe working environment for honing and shaping the creative chaos that our process will unleash.

Here’s the synopsis of The Pied Pipers:

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An extraordinary gathering of young idealists live as a modern day urban tribe above a vegan restaurant in NYC. Billy, Dawn, Dear and Wyatt are an extended sexual family battling their fears and addictions in order to live their utopian dream. The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side is a celebration of love and the search for human grandness.

So far, The Amoralists have produced five full-length plays. For tickets to The Pied Pipers, click here.

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And now, five questions Derek Ahonen has never been asked. And a bonus question.

1) What’s the most perceptive question about your work anyone has ever asked you?
Perceptive question? I don’t know if anyone has ever asked me a perceptive question. Maybe the most relevant question anyone has ever asked me about writing is if I felt comfortable gutting my personal truths and the truths of those close to me in the name of comedy. The answer of course is yes.

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2) What’s the most idiotic question about your work anyone has ever asked you?
“When do you plan on throwing in the towel on this whole starving artist thing?” I’ll quit when I get some dough or hang myself. Whichever comes first.

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3) What’s the weirdest question about your work anyone has ever asked you?
I don’t remember. Nobody asks me anything nearly as weird as the shit I ask myself. I find myself wondering stuff like, “Does this sequence of words give me the feeling of 1983 PBS blue?” “Can I trade an actor in my theater company to another theater company for draft picks?” “Is it possible to ever write anything I enjoy as much as the musical numbers from The Muppets Take Manhattan?” Maybe none of that is even that weird. Oh well.

Mandy Moore as Dawn
Sarah Lemp as Dear
Photo by Larry Cobra

4) From its description, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side sounds like Hair without music — and maybe without the imposed idealism. If not, what would you compare it to?
I’ve never seen Hair, so I don’t know about Hair. I hear it’s a fun musical. But Pipers doesn’t take place in the ’60s. It’s a story that deals with modern dilemmas. If it has anything in common with the themes of the ’60s that’s because some of those ideals are cyclical. But I don’t show stoned-out hippies passing around a reefer and having minor epiphanies. My characters are far too vulnerable and high-strung to kick their feet up. This isn’t pussy shit like Moonchildren. My characters all have one foot in the nuthouse! And, on another note, I feel like a lot of modern playwrights are too sedated with either their casual upbringing, their sterile education, or their up-to-the-second modes of receiving information to allow a certain vulnerability towards love to shine through their work. I guess people feel that loving violently is no longer chic. Fuck chic, baby. My characters will kill in the name of love and I’d like to believe that I would as well. I don’t care how dated that is. I will never see a therapist and neither will my characters! So I guess you could call The Pied Pipers of The Lower East Side a cross between Noel Coward, the novel Ishmael and a drunken night with Ike and Tina Turner.

5) According to your mission, the Amoralists “produces work of no moral judgment.” A lot of people, however, would argue that theater, by definition, is both a moral as well as a political act. What’s your response?
The way an audience member views the characters in a play is always conditioned by their own personal morality: “This woman killed her husband. Good! He deserved it!” or “That bitch killed him and she should burn.” The morality of it all is what the audience debates and struggles with during and after the show (assuming it’s a relevant work). But what we mean by producing work of “no moral judgment” is that as artists, we don’t try to teach an audience our own morality. We don’t assume that bad guys need to be punished or good guys win in the end. We’re more fascinated by the grey areas of humanity. Good guys and bad guys are irrelevant. Maybe the embezzler is a really good guy to his kids. Maybe the rapist writes wonderful children’s books. Humanity is far too mysterious to assume you know how it works. I’m more interested in behavior than in teaching. Teachers don’t know shit about struggle. Real people are too busy struggling to teach. You have to learn things the hard way in life.

Bonus Question:

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6) Of the major playwrights in the U.S. and around the world that everybody knows, who would you say is most immoral playwright writing today and why?
If you’re asking me who the most immoral playwright is, I’d have to say anyone who has ever used mental retardation to create a sympathetic character. It’s the only time I feel my humanity is being exploited. It’s like dumping Mr. Clean on ants… it’s not fair. Whoever wrote The Boys Next Door should burn in hell. Now, if you’re asking me who the most amoral playwright is, I’d have to go with my hero, Edward Albee. I mean the guy’s in his 80s and he still can write an honest play about man/goat love. Brilliant!