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Monday, January 13, 2020

Matthew Lopez on The Inheritance and BAM

There's a reason there's more than one reference to BAM in playwright and screenwriter Matthew Lopez's four-time Olivier Award-winning play The Inheritance, which reimagines E.M. Forster's Howards End in present-day New York's gay community and is currently running on Broadway: Lopez himself is a member of the BAM Young Producers, a community of BAM supporters in their 20s, 30s and early 40s shaping the future of the arts in Brooklyn. Fellow Young Producer Liz Denys recently sat down with Lopez to talk about his work, his personal connection to BAM, and how he felt about last year's Next Wave.

Liz Denys: I enjoyed reading Howards End, but I was really struck by how much more I connected with the reimagined characters in The Inheritance, particularly how full and personal they were.

Matthew Lopez: It's the benefit of a century's distance from the novel. I had the ability to be more open about myself and my experiences than Forster was able to. When Forster wrote the novel, he didn't have many experiences. He lived a very, very closeted and protected life, so he often wrote about things that he had observed rather than lived. I didn't have that problem. I had the ability to really just write my life, write my experiences, and write my friends' lives and their experiences.

LD: Speaking of your experiences, in the play, Eric mentions that he's going to see a 4-hour play in German at BAM. I laughed so hard at that line, and I wasn't the only person in the audience who reacted strongly to it. Was there a particular production or experience at BAM that you had in mind?

ML: I made it up; there was no one specific thing. I figured the audience would understand that if there was anywhere to go in New York City to see a 4-hour play in German, it would be BAM. I wanted to capture what it felt like to go to BAM, the adventure, and Eric's adventurous spirit when it comes to being a theatergoer and audience member.

LD: I really feel that sense of adventure at BAM, too, especially this past Next Wave.

ML: Next Wave is the central event of our autumn every year. My husband and I always talk about “oh, it's our first BAM date of the season.” I didn't get to see a lot this season because I was in previews almost the moment Next Wave started, but my favorite was The Second Woman.

We had a preview that night, and I had a midnight entrance ticket. I got home around 11:30, and then, I met a friend at BAM. I watched for about an hour, and I was utterly transfixed by it. From the moment it started, I was just like, “I could have sat there all night long.” Then, I went home and went to bed, and the next morning, what was so powerful for me was realizing that it was still going on, that she [Alia Shawkat] was still doing it. My thoughts just immediately went to her. How was she doing? Is she ok? My husband and I had breakfast, and then we went and watched a little bit of it again. It just felt so special: you never get a chance to engage with a piece of work like that, to leave something and know it's still happening, to return and dip back into it. I came back at the end of the day to see it a third time for a little bit.

LD: I felt that same draw to it, and also to In Many Hands, where audience members passed each other all sorts of objects, everything from plants to used coffee grinds to chocolate frosting. I felt a little nervous about the participation element, but knowing I'd recognize so many members of BAM's audiences, being a part of that community, it felt okay.

ML: You mention seeing people you know at BAM and its community. One of the things my play so expressly investigates is what is a community? How is it formed? How is it maintained? What is the relationship and responsibilities between the members of a community? I think what you just described is the perfect example of what a community looks like.

There's a community of people for whom BAM is a central part of their cultural life in New York City, and more than any other place in the city, I run into friends at BAM. You never know who, but you're going to run into someone at BAM, and sometimes, you might be handing them used coffee grounds.

LD: So, obviously, I'm not a gay man, but I was really impressed by how not just accessible, but also immediate and present New York's gay community felt while watching The Inheritance. What's your secret?

ML: I feel the way to achieve universality is to be incredibly personal and very, very specific. I think the smaller something becomes, the bigger something becomes. And no one can accuse The Inheritance of being small, but it's also my least protective play of myself. My challenge to myself was to write as honestly as I can about my experiences as a gay man.

My fear was that the play would be received along the lines of "Well, that's weird, I never experienced that, therefore I can't relate to it." Actually, the opposite has happened across so many different kinds of communities, both within the queer community and outside of the queer community. I wrote about it feeling like my experiences were unique, and I discovered that they're not at all unique.

LD: I see myself seeing The Inheritance 30 years from now for exactly that reason. What do you hope for the future of the play?

ML: I don't know what age will do to the play as it is very much a play about now, but eventually, it will become a period piece. I'm hoping that the characters, if we are to believe that human nature is the same over time, will present endless opportunities for actors and directors and theaters to put their own spin on it. This more than any other thing that I've written wants to be demolished and rebuilt every time. I hope that people take up that challenge and that there are many opportunities in the future for people to come to this play at different points in time, different points in their lives. Maybe, someday we'll see it at BAM!

LD: I hope so, that would be so fun! One of the things I love about BAM is how you get to see so many pieces taken apart and minced up and put back together in so many different, modern, and relevant ways. I feel like The Inheritance is the first production I've seen on Broadway that really encompassed that type of energy.

ML: There's no greater compliment that I can be paid than people saying that seeing The Inheritance is like stepping into BAM. Broadway can be very alienating and expensive, and sometimes, the last thing it feels like is as warm and inviting an experience as BAM is. Which is one of the reasons Stephen [Daldry] has the actors sitting on the stage before the play begins. We want the audience to feel this convivial, welcoming quality to the production.

You know, for me, BAM is a very personal thing. I mean, I can't think of another cultural institution in my life ever that feels so personal. I mean, the only other thing I can think of is the Young Vic and that's for totally different reasons. [The Inheritance premiered at the Young Vic in 2018.] BAM becomes what every theater ought to be: a sacred space. The buildings are just so in service of whatever's on the stage. I walk into the Harvey, and I just remember Cate Blanchett as Blanche DuBois [A Streetcar Named Desire, 2009], seeing the Caryl Churchill play from two seasons ago [Escaped Alone, 2017], watching the Henriad three seasons ago all the way from Richard II straight through to Henry V [2016], which is just so exciting. I can remember all of the experiences I had in that theater. So I think of BAM very personally, almost to the degree of it's mine and mine alone. What are all these other people doing here?

The other thing I'd just mention, too, is that I love the film programming. Not only do I love the first run movies that they show, like being able to go see Parasite for the second time, but also the special programming that they do, the film festivals, and the series. I've seen a number of films that I've never even heard of before, and I'm a person who loves movies and works in the film industry.

LD: Honestly, I feel no FOMO in my life other than around BAM's movie programming. Every time that mailer shows up, without fail, I just feel so much FOMO.

ML: Absolutely, that's where I want to be. I just need more time. There's just not enough time! Maybe that's BAM's new tagline: BAM, there's not enough time! As we say in the play, the BAM Next Wave Festival alone, my God!

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