Hometown: Gainesville, GA
This is my fourth interview in a series of eight that will introduce each of our 2012 National Playwriting Competition winners to you. This week I interview I.B. Hopkins, who won for his play,South of Someplace. In the play, the heirs to a crumbling southern dynasty must decide whether they will break with traditions that have been upheld by their families for generations.
So, Isaac, where am I reaching you?
I am at the University of Georgia right now.
Are you in the theater department? How do you like it so far?
English and Theater. I’m having a wonderful time. We actually just closed The Darker Face of the Earth [by Rita Dove], which I stage-managed, and I was also just cast in the spring production of the Scottish play.
Great! So you do other work in theater in addition to playwriting. I know that you have written several plays because I have had the good fortune to read several of them. When did you start writing and why is that a form that speaks to you?
I was raised in a household where neither of my parents are theater professionals, but they always took us to the theater. And two of my older brothers are theater professionals. And so I just was always raised in that environment and when I began high school, my theater director came to me with a contest run through the Educational Theatre Association and said that she thought I might enjoy working on a little play to enter for that. And that was ten or eleven plays ago, so… it snowballed from there.
You have been very prolific so far! You have a very distinct style of writing stage directions. Can you talk a little bit about what that style is and where that may have come from for you?
When I am working on stage directions I like the idea that the actor has a definite choice to make in interpreting the stage directions, but I also believe strongly in the power that we give our senses and that we take that for granted sometimes. Often…we don’t have the English language for an emotion or an inflection, but perhaps we have a sight, or sound, or smell, or shared experience that more accurately defines it.
Yes, it reminds me a little of—I guess it is a psychological condition—called synesthesia: the blending of the senses.
Where you might describe entrances like you do in the opening scene of South of Someplace: “A pebble ripples the tranquility,” or a little later on you describe another character’s first appearance as she “enters into the garden as if freshly birthed by caesarian section.” It’s not just a sound, it’s not just an image, but it is—
Yes, evocative! Do you have any writers—playwrights or otherwise—who have influenced you?
Well I am a huge Tennessee Williams fan, obviously, I don’t think you can be a southern playwright without being a Tennessee Williams fan… Eugene O’Neill is a favorite of mine… I have tried to read around as much as I can…Tom Stoppard… I try to get as much of a smattering [as I can] because I hate when I have been reading too much of someone and my writing starts to sound like them.
So you try to spread it around. Have you had a chance to see a Tennessee Williams in performance, or a Eugene O’Neill play, or have you mostly read those plays?
I’ve seen a few of them produced—I think I have only seen Mourning Becomes Electra by O’Neill, but a few of Williams’ plays, of course, and of course they are so different on stage than read.
I am wondering if you could talk a little bit about a time when you went to see a performance and you were really affected by it.
I went to see a production of Eurydice—Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice—that one of my brothers had built the set for. And I remember thinking to myself… just a few minutes into the play “wow, this is what theater should look like.” Just the total sensory engagement I found so compelling. And of course I left Sarah Ruhl off that list, but she is such an influence I think to all playwrights at this time… I can’t remember too many performances that I have thoroughly enjoyed that much on so many levels.
You actually said something earlier, and I am glad you did because I wasn’t sure if I was going to ask this: South of Someplace is set in the south and involves a fading social dynasty of sorts, and it does strike me, as someone not being a native southerner, as something that is distinctly southern. And I was wondering if you identified with that: being a southern playwright, but when you were taking about Tennessee Williams you did say that—that one can’t be a southern playwright without…
I don’t think you are allowed to be a southern playwright without being a Tennessee Williams fan.
Right! Can you talk a little bit more about South of Someplace and where that play came from for you and ways in which it is a southern play?
The idea was actually several years in the making, in different scraps and doodles, but I believe it was after the first time I read Jesse Stuart’s version of Hatfields and McCoys. And so I began thinking about if I look at this from a more deep south narrative as opposed to middle Appalachia. Looking at it from a further south interpretation, but also what happens when these characters are forced to interact. And the further south you go you have to look at the duality of language: in the south we say absolutely everything but what we mean, and so we dance around what we are saying, we use all this colorful language, but it’s really only at the breaking point that we say what we are talking about. I became fascinated with this idea, and what if there are several families, and what if this is something that goes way back…and South of Someplace just sort of emerged out of that. I think it is a play about a family, in the south, and using that as a treatment for where the new south is going. I think when you get down to it that is really what the play is about, is what is this new south and what is it doing to us.
I definitely get a sense of that tension between the new order/old order.
Yes, it’s definitely something that exists well beyond this play. Personally, my family has really been from the same two or three counties in Georgia for the last 150 to 200 years, so you get a lot of that sort of entrenched connection to your place and to your culture, and when these things are sort of pulled out from under you, and in the age of mass media in a lot of ways is homogenizing this culture. …Sometimes I feel like I am one of the last southerners left over, and that is what I am trying to get at with some plays.
What part of Georgia are you from?
North Georgia. Really the foothills of the Appalachians.
Have you ever been to New York before?
I have. I went last summer to see a number of shows and went around with a few people. My high school theater director, who is absolutely wonderful and has been such an influence on me, she and I and a few others went up and got to see Book of Mormon and a few others.
Do you want to give your high school theater director a shout out in the interview?
I would LOVE to. Her name is Pam Ware.
There is one other thing I wanted to ask you about the play. Is the full title still South of Someplace: An Allegory?
That’s actually in conversation right now. It will probably settle on just South of Someplace. It actually began as South of Someplace: An Allegory of Rich, Soft Wanting. Because the play was also inspired by a Carl Sandburg poem: “What Shall He Tell That Son?” that talks about that “rich soft wanting” is the only true desire, which I found fascinating and it drove a lot of the interactions between the characters.
That’s intriguing. Abigail Carney, another one of the winners, told me in her interview two weeks ago that her inspiration for writing her play also came from a poem. That is so interesting that you are both drawing on other genres.
It is hard to beat the condensed language of poetry. I think it was three or four a.m. one night and I was desperately trying to get a handle on this play because I really wanted to get it started, and I picked up a book and the first thing I turned to was “What Shall He Tell That Son?” And I read it and I think I cried some, and I just had this experience and I thought: this is what this play is about.
That’s great. It’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you.
Thank you so much, I am absolutely thrilled to be getting into all of this. It is sort of surreal.
We are very excited to have you and the rest of the winners come in January!
Isaac B. Hopkins will be joining seven other playwrights at the 2013 Young Playwrights Conference in New York City, January 9-17. This year we will be inviting members of the Young Playwrights family (like you!) to the readings of these talented young writers.
The deadline for writers in the United States aged 18 and under to submit a play to our 2013 competition is January 2nd.
Until next week!
Elizabeth Bojsza, Literary Manager