Q&A With Playwright and Director Joe Calarco 

Having just published five new plays at TRW, Joe Calarco took some time to discuss his newest works as well as pieces still in development. Read on to learn about Calarco’s approach to adapting Shakespeare, his passion for theatre education, and how sometimes restructuring your entire play the day before a reading can save your show.

by Katie Stottlemire

KATIE STOTTLEMIRE: A MEASURE OF CRUELTY follows a trio of men, all different ages, over the course of a tense 80-minute play as they grapple with a recent and horrifically brutal incident. What's so compelling about the play is that each of the characters has his own history of violence that he is trying to reconcile or forget. And while there is much regarding masculinity that is explored in this play, the relationship between masculinity and violence is central. Why is this relationship so important to unpack? 

Joe Calarco: The play was a commission from a theater asking me to write about a very specific and violent bullying incident in the town where they were located. The commission dictated that the play had to be written and produced within a year. Well, that is fast. I think the theater initially imagined that it would be a piece of documentary theater. That timeline made that idea impossible on a practical level, and honestly, I wasn’t particularly interested in going that route, but I also wasn’t interested in writing a docudrama where I would put words into the mouths of real people. The theater was very generous in allowing me to approach the subject matter however I wanted. A lot of my work deals with definitions of masculinity, and it wasn’t until I started to look at the incident through that lens that the play cracked open for me. Depending on who you are, it’s either very easy or virtually impossible to ignore the fact that we are a country constantly engaged in military actions around the world, if not full-out war itself, and I asked myself, “If we so easily ask young Americans to engage in violence around the world, why are we so shocked when it happens in our own backyards?” Now, military service and violence aren’t determined by gender of course, and even as we, happily, are shattering the gender binary, I do think that many still long for, encourage, and applaud hyper-masculinity, in some ways now more than ever. I made the three men of different ages to show that those definitions continue to be passed down and taught with or without the knowledge that it’s even happening. I also wanted to write three characters who have each committed “unforgivable” acts and “trap” them together, along with the audience, to see if growth, change, forgiveness, and grace are possible. I hope the play shows that they are.  

Ethan Miller (Derek) and Nick Torres (Teddy) in A Measure of Cruelty from 4615 Theatre Company (Photo: Ryan Maxwell Photography)

KS: In SEPARATE ROOMS, we follow the chaotic aftermath of the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one. We get an intimate look at how each character, with his or her own specific and significant relationship to the deceased, deals with his death immediately following the memorial service. You explore perspective and time in this play, weaving between various moments and characters to encompass the full spectrum of their loss. What inspired you to approach this story with a fluid lens? 

Joe: Interestingly, it was originally structured totally differently. When I first wrote the play, the first act took place in the bedroom and then the second act covered the same time frame as the first, but showed what was happening in the living room during that time. We were doing a workshop of the play, and the night before the reading I decided, “This doesn’t work. The audience doesn’t know the conceit until the second act. It’s too late. It’s a clever idea, but that’s all it is.” Also at that point, our guide through the evening, Him, only had a monologue to start the show and then a short one at the end. He wasn’t our conduit into the world of the play. So, I totally restructured the play, and the cast and director got a new script the next morning. Of course, I went back and did much more rewriting after that reading, but that experience really saved the play. Time is key to this play. The piece asks, “How are you spending your time while you’re here and are you appreciating your life as you’re living it?” Him is getting that rare gift to see how those he’s left behind think of him after his passing, and he wants to see all of it, so he manipulates time to make that possible. And like George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life and Emily Webb in Our Town, he gets to see his longer history with those with whom he spent his life.  

From left, Jenna Berk, Alex Mills and Stephen Russell Murray in Joe Calarco’s “Separate Rooms.” (Ryan Maxwell)

KS: You’re currently adapting A Midsummer Night’s Dream into your own play, WELL MET BY MOONLIGHT. When you adapt Shakespeare, where do you begin? How do you negotiate leaving your own artistic imprint while keeping reverence for the source material? 

Joe: This is my second major Shakespeare adaptation, and with both I have focused on amplifying Shakespeare’s play itself, not changing the piece into something totally different. There are certain plays of his that everyone knows pretty well, so we have preconceptions about them. My goal is to come at it through, not necessarily a different lens, but from a different angle. This adaptation was originally conceived quite some time ago when I was asked to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C. I’d always wanted to tackle this play because whenever I’d seen it, it always seemed so “cute,” which confused me. The play contains much deeper rivers than what I had seen in my exposure to the play. When I was talking to my set designer, Michael Fagin, he said to me, “Joe, there’s a question in the title we need to answer.” Now, look, I was young and I was still in that place where I thought the director had to have all the answers, and I didn’t understand what he was saying, but didn’t want to admit it. So, we were sort of circling each other until finally he passionately asked, “Joe! Whose dream is it?” My brain rent open in the best of ways. We kept talking about the story and we couldn’t help but focus on the fact that Hermia is literally running for her life in the play. The more we talked about it, the more I realized that my desire to focus on Hermia would require some adapting; we are at Hermia’s rehearsal dinner for her marriage to Demetrius, and when Bottom, her dressmaker, is corseting her into her wedding dress at a fitting, she passes out and we follow her through a surreal dreamscape. I loved that production and have always wanted to return to it, so over the pandemic I thought, “What if I adapt it even further for eight actors?” Besides the smaller cast, I dug even deeper in this adaptation; other than the lovers’ scenes, there’s not a page where I haven’t either restructured Shakespeare’s work, reassigned text, cut text, rewritten text, or added text.  And here we are. I couldn’t be more excited about it.   

KS: What themes are you currently exploring in your work? 

Joe: I’m working on a few pieces currently. In terms of genre, one’s a musical, one’s a comedy, and one lives in the world of horror. As to themes, I think they all explore what it means to be haunted by something to some degree.  

KS: You’re also passionate about theatre education and working with students. In fact, you have five plays for students at TRW Plays: 295-N, SMILE LINES, THE SPOKEN WORD, UNRESIGNED, and 12 MILLION FOOTSTEPS. All center on complex social issues, such as racial inequality and violence, and gender inequality. But while these plays are for students, you don’t water down the reality of these issues; instead, you dig into how young folks engage with the issues of our nation and how those issues show up in their own lives and the lives of their peers. When you write for students, do you approach your writing differently? How do you navigate writing about devastating reality while cultivating hope? 

Joe: I don’t approach writing for young actors any differently. I’ve been fortunate to write for students and teen audiences for the past twenty years. The only way I censor myself is with profanity. I figure rather than having some schools ask for edits when it comes to language, that I should just try to keep it relatively unprofane, though as you say, the subject matter doesn’t pull any punches. I have to approach everything with hope. Believe me, in life, it can be a struggle some days, which is why working with students all these years and seeing their passion for change has been a great gift. But I will also say, we can’t just leave it up to them. I think when people say, “Oh, the future is safe in the younger generation’s hands,” it does them a disservice. We have a responsibility too. We need to be working just as hard to strive for hope and change.  

Read Joe Calarco's BioHERE


Article by Katie Stottlemire