5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: August Schulenberg

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Gus For LeonardThe name August derives from the Latin, meaning awe or admiration. As a playwright, actor and artistic director of Flux Theatre Ensemble, one of the leading lights of the New York City independent theater movement, the awe and admiration for Schulenberg is well earned.

Schulenberg’s plays — Riding the Bull, Other Bodies and his newest, The Lesser Seductions of History, among others — are distinguished first by their exquisite construction, meaning that they’re dramatically watertight.

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They’re also reliable exercises in thematic exploration, and rarely moored to their big, expansive American themes without a strong current of curious, deeply imagined characters.

In an other era of American playwriting, Schulenberg, who seems driven by an acute sense of social consciousness, would be better known around the nation than he is currently, although that may be changing as his plays wind up on the desks of literary managers at regional theaters around the country.

For now, Schulenberg remains one of New York City’s (relatively) undiscovered secrets — unless you’re a member of Theatre Communications Group, that is, for which Schulenberg is, by day, customer service and circulation manager.

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As for Flux, here’s how I phrased its work several years ago for the New York Press: “The Best Underappreciated Indie Theatre Company Whose Work You Should Get Your Ass To.”

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The Lesser Seductions of History, directed by Heather Cohn, runs through Nov. 22 at the Cherry Pit, the sweet (and recently renamed) performance space at 155 Bank St. It follows 10 characters through each year of the 1960s and, per the press materials, becomes “intimate as a lover when the decade’s fracture points of race, sex and war break and remake the characters.” Pointedly, the press materials also note that Lesser Seductions is “written, directed and performed by the children of those who lived during the tumultuous ’60s.” That being the case, perhaps the play does trade on irony, fashioned by and for a generation perhaps unfairly tagged as having little use for careful introspection. Indeed, it would require a talent as great as Schulenberg’s to prove otherwise.

For tickets to The Lesser Seductions of History, call 212-352-3101 or visit www.fluxtheatre.org.

And now, 5 questions August Schulenberg has never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“If you’re an atheist, why do you write so much about God?” My friend and collaborator Keith Powell asked me this after we worked on my third play in a row that wrestled with God. He has a good point.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Is this really even a play?” By a dramaturg who shall remain nameless.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I’m not sure I’ve been asked a question I consider weird, but given the plays I write, I probably have been and just mistook it as normal.

4) Your title, The Lesser Seductions of History, seems to tip your hat regarding what you think, or how you feel, about the ’60s generation. Or does the title imply something else?
I’m fascinated by the ’60s and have long wanted to write about it. In talking to people alive during that decade, I was struck by how many felt their choices could really change the world for the better. Some did; some became the icons that we associate with the decade: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Andy Warhol; Richard Nixon, The Beatles. For better and worse, they made history.

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But most didn’t. Most struggled, failed; fell to doubt and exhaustion; reinvented themselves and tried again; or were simply too busy leading their lives to try to make the world better. Those were the people I wanted to write about.

The Lesser Seductions of History is set in the ’60s but really isn’t about the ’60s. It’s about the seductive kind of hope that seemed especially strong then, and the 10 characters who find and lose that hope over and over again. I have contradictory feelings about that hope — and the ’60s — and so wrote 10 very contradictory characters.

5) On a first-impulse level when you’re writing and developing a play, what do you need and want first, a director’s input or hearing it read? Why is that your first impulse?
Hearing it read. I am very lucky that I have a group of actors waiting every week for pages. The first thing a playwright needs to know: is it playable? Is there desire and surprise, clarity and conflict? Actors won’t tell you, they’ll show you, and you can’t argue with that, even if your new pages feel oh-so-precious.

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Also, at these weekly development sessions, I just love pairing actors with parts and seeing the occasional alchemy when I guess exactly right.

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Bonus Question:

6) You have 10 characters (at least?) in your play. Not quite “commercial,” hm? What do you think of commercial producers who believe all plays should have two characters, one set — or one character, no set?
Until Flux is able to pay its artists a living wage, I don’t have much judgment in the tank. They’re paying their artists a living wage, we’re not (yet). I’m grateful to anyone who creates that opportunity for an artist.

That said, I grew up doing Shakespeare, and there’s something about that energy, all those characters at contrary purposes, all that messy vitality, that feels more like life. That feels like more life. That’s what I want on stage, more life. I hope we can create that blessing with The Lesser Seductions of History.