Interview with Drama Editors John Lyons and Cheyenne Mann about their new play: Light Hearted

The following is an interview between Drama Editors John Lyons and Cheyenne Mann on their new project Light Hearted. The play was written by Mann and directed by Lyons. Watch the full interview below! 

Chey: Okay. Is it recording?

John: Yes. 

Chey: Okay, great. Hello, welcome to my zoom call. As the host, I am in charge.

John: Yes. Okay. Well first, 321 go. Hi, my name is John Lyons pronouns are he/him/his, I am a senior, it’s my third year on earthwords, I’m a drama editor and English and creative writing major with some minors in theater and GWSS. And I’m a Gemini. What about you Chey?

Chey: Hi, my name is Chey Mann. I am a second year student here. This is my first year on earthwords where I am also a drama editor. She/her/hers. I study chemistry and creative writing, yeah, it’s a fun little combo there. And I am also a Gemini.

John: I didn’t know that, that’s very exciting. 

Chey: Yes. How did you not know that? I’ve told you this so many times. 

John: Oh, ok… I’m sorry. So yes, we are doing a couple of interviews, we thought it would be interesting—so Chey and I are working on a show together. She wrote it and I’m directing it. It’s my first time ever directing a show. And so we thought it’d be interesting to talk about—from me as a director to interview Chey, as a playwright, and Chey as a playwright to interview me, as a director. Anything to add?

Chey: It’s my first time being a part of a process of producing a show. So, we’re both newbies here and it’s exciting.

John: So I feel like hopefully it’s an interesting perspective for anyone who wants to know more about—we’re transitioning from lay people in the theatre into theatre makers, so to speak. So, for anyone else maybe thinking about that transition as well.

Chey: Ooo!

John:  I don’t know. Do you want to go first or should I?
Chey: I can start.

John: Okay.

Chey: John. Hello. Mr. Director. What expectations did you have when you went into directing this show? Have those expectations been accurate, different?

John: So some background on where we’re at. The show—it’s called Light Hearted, and it is a wonderful script—it’s a surreal story of a woman who’s trying to have her emotions surgically removed. And so one thing that I was anticipating that definitely happened is that, with a plotline like that, and its surrealist style, how it appears as a performed piece is such a different experience than when you’re reading it. Because with surrealist dialogue, when you’re reading it, it is kind of hard to sometimes see the full picture because a lot of the times production choices like lighting, actor choices, all that stuff really helps to create this world, whereas before it was just in my brain, so I was anticipating something that definitely came true. For the actors, and for you as a playwright, to have these visions for my ideas of what this surrealist world and everyone else’s ideas of what the surrealist world would look like, come together to make this completely new world that I hadn’t visualized. Does that makes sense? So—we’re a little early on in the rehearsal process—like three rehearsals—But nevertheless, I can already see this new world being formed. Does that make sense?

Chey: Yes very very eloquently spoken. 

John: Okay. Are we going back and forth? Am I asking you a question?
Chey: Whatever you want.

John: I’ll ask you a question. Chey. Describe to me the art of the 10 minute play.

Chey: Oh, God. (laughs)

John: It’s a very specific format and this is a 10-Minute Play that we’ve been working on. And so as a writer, as a playwright, what types of things did you think about when submitting it for production? So what types of things does a playwright think about in a 10 minute play in terms of: the actors are going to need this, I’m going to need a director who can do this. What are all those thoughts as a playwright going into a play like this, or this play specifically, Light Hearted

Chey: Thank you for that question. I (laughs) think the 10 minute play festival here at Iowa has some specific challenges to it, specifically that part of the requirement when you submit a play, is that the script itself cannot exceed 10 pages. And as a playwright, I like a lot of snappy, one-line dialogue back and forth. But that, while being the same time as a “play” that’s more condensed on a page layout, it looks much larger because it’s: single word, single word, single word, single word. So I had to kind of rein in my personal style a little bit just to fit the page count. So that was my first little stylistic choice I had to make. And then secondly I had to think about what I wanted to tell. And then I had to think about how to contain that within 10 minutes. How do I have a start? How do I have a arc? How do I have an end? What is the issue? Is it resolved? How do I resolve it? I had to think about if I wanted one scene, two scenes, how to combine those scenes in a matter that wouldn’t be clunky. Because originally I just had two separate scenes, and I hated how they transitioned—I thought it felt so clunky—and that’s why I added the mime’s interlude in the middle. It was sort of like a surrealist transition into the next day to allow for the 10 minutes to feel complete. When it came to inspiration, it was (laughs) a little bit weird. I always would think of stories as a kid, but I never wrote them. And I always had this idea for this dragon slaying people who had to get their emotions removed so they could kill dragons better. And there was this one person who didn’t want their emotions removed. So I was thinking about that, and my roommate and I like to joke that we don’t want emotions, we hate our emotions, we want them removed. And I was like, Hmm, let’s turn that into a little play. That can be a self contained 10 minute thing that I explore. And then I had come up with an idea earlier for a 10 minute play where there was a character, and then two other characters: one character was the main character’s bones and the other character was the main character’s flesh, and I was playing around with that idea for a while but it just felt a little too “Inside Out”-ey to me, but I retained the idea of the flesh because I thought it was an interesting way to elaborate on the sort of unsaid words and deep thoughts—unfiltered thoughts of a character. Because your skin doesn’t have a filter. Your skin does what it wants, your skin says what it wants, and you have to just deal. I hope that answered your question.

John: It does. Flesh is this incredibly fascinating character in the play. The way I see it is like a conscious unconscious. Sometimes I think your body knows things before your brain does. I think that’s a sentiment that a lot of folks who take the movement acting class at the University of Iowa I’ve heard express. That there’s this kind of instinctual memory that the body has that your conscious mind might not always recognize and Flesh is this really interesting embodiment of that because Flesh is very almost childish… Almost… Yeah, super super fascinating character. Super great playwright, Chey. 

Chey: You flatter me so.

John: Only because it is deserved.

Chey: I will ask you a question now. So, John, you are a triple threat. You’re an actor, you’re a writer, you’re a director. What are the similarities and differences between the three? Do you identify as one over the others? Is there a particular favorite you have?

John: That’s a great question. So, obviously this is my first time directing so I’m very far from identifying closely with that. I think that in a hypothetical world, Who knows? I might do it more and more frequently. This could be the only time I do it, this could be the start of a lifelong career. Because I’m really enjoying it, I’m three rehearsals in. And I don’t definitely see myself—and I said this in rehearsal— I don’t see myself as someone who “directs people” or, when I think of directing, I think of someone saying “You do this”, and that is very much an uncomfy place for me to be in. But putting those jitters aside, it’s really great. So not director because I’ve only just started being a director, but writer is where my instinct is, but I’ve never produced a play.

Chey: You don’t have to produce something to be a writer. 

John: Yes, I should say playwright. I’ve never had a play be produced. I’ve had one play be published, but I was a freshman. So all of anything that I’ve written playwright-wise is just confined to the Google Docs. I also don’t think actor though, because I know people at the University of Iowa who are actors. They’ve read countless volumes of Stanislavski and Meisner and Grotowski and have done private acting workshops in New York and stuff like that. That’s definitely not me either, so even though I do act, I don’t feel like I have the credentials to say that I am an actor. But I feel the same way about being a writer because I haven’t had a play produced here, but I’ve had nonfiction and fiction pieces be produced so I’m a nonfiction and fiction writer and just not a playwright. No, I’m being facetious because you don’t have to have anything published. A playwright is someone who writes a play. And that’s all. Even if no one else reads it. Same with all those other categories. But, how are they different? So I feel like I’m flexing a different muscle with director that I’ve never flexed before which is you start to see a script, at least I do—if there’s any directors listening, let me know if this is the really wrong instinct to have—but I start to think of them more in terms of ‘how do we arrange this picture, so that the audience sees it as clearly as possible.’ You’ve created this amazing picture, this fabulous picture, that when you’re reading it, you’re like “oh my gosh this is a fabulous picture.” And so the director and the actors are like translators of that picture, and are trying to repaint it on a stage in a completely different forum. What’s the term for when you’re writing a poem about a painting? Acruis-, anaphrasis, anaphoris [note from future John: Ekphrasis]. I don’t know. It’s very much like that. And then when you’re an actor I feel like you also look at the script in a very similar way. I have when I act. Which again I’m hesitant to call myself an actor, but you definitely look at certain parts of the picture and you’re like, “how can I live these parts of the picture as truly as possible when I hop onto the stage.” I think as the director I might create this picture, but as an actor I think “how do I live it?” If that if that makes sense. And then by living it, by actually just doing the picture, whatever that might be, that part of the picture is your role, you do it, you live it, and then that necessarily paints a picture, so that’s just my interpretation of the three but I’m very not an expert on any of those categories. 

Chey: Yes, a very humble answer too.

John: Oh, well, it is true. I know so many people who—like yourself that are like playwrights, who they’re in it, they’ve done it, especially some actor friends I know. And it’s hard for me to put myself in that category but [with] Writer I do. I’m about that. I do that. A  question for you. One thing that I’m curious about is people who don’t consume a lot of theater, usually surrealist plays are probably some of the last plays they get to experience and they’re so great. So I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about surrealism. Your definition of surrealism, why it appeals to you, and what you think a surrealist theater production does that only a surrealist theater production can do. So people may have read surrealist poetry, surrealist fiction or nonfiction, seen surrealist art, so what do you think a surrealist show can do that a realist show does differently.

Chey: Yeah, that’s a good question. Thanks for asking. I refer to it as abstract: abstract art, surrealist art—if you’re an art major don’t yell at me. 

John: Yeah, I’m sure there’s technical definitions in some art history dictionary, but for now, for the terms of this interview.

Chey: Yeah, so I didn’t know abstract theatre was a thing until I came into my freshman year here last year. Second semester I had Playwriting I with Dakota Parobek, and the first play that they had us read was God’s Ear by Jenny Schwartz and it’s a very very abstract play. And I remember reading it, and my mind was blown. I was like “what? You can do that? That’s theater? Question mark?” And then I got really into this one act musical called In Trousers, by William Finn, which is this one act musical from the 80s and it’s a prequel to the popular musical Falsettos. And it just blew my mind because I was like you can take these crazy, clever concepts that don’t fit together or are too big for the stage and you can cram them in there and you can make them fit and you can make them beautiful and you can make them into this touching story. The way I define surrealism and surrealist theatre is very much like an abstract painting. I think of it more as art than writing. I think of it like, How can I tell this story in a way that hasn’t been done before? How can I tell a story with the little nuances that live in my brain or the notes in my phone or the little musings I have day to day that I notice that I want to point out that I think tell beautiful things but aren’t necessarily noticed as much? How can I turn an allergy to birds into a love story? How can I, in the case of Light Hearted, create a story about accepting parts of yourself through a medical procedure while there is a piece of skin that walks around. I don’t think it’s a very grounded definition but I also don’t think there is a grounded definition for surrealism inherently, because surrealism is such a floaty thing. What was the second question, again?

John: What is your definition? Why does it appeal to you? And I feel like you’ve answered those, and then the third is: an audience walks into a surrealist show, what can that surrealist show do with that audience, for that audience that is really unique to surrealist theatre? As a playwright, what are the things that you think all of the audience will—XYZ will happen because of the surrealist element?

Chey: What I think about surrealism and abstract theater is that it’s like a puzzle. It seems very alienating at first. You first open a script or you first walk into the theater and people are talking in ways they’re not supposed to talk, people are doing things they’re not supposed to do, when you’ve been raised on realism theater. And so it’s very alienating. It feels very like pushing you back but then if you keep going and you don’t give up and you keep going through it, you start to catch on to these nuances, you start to connect meanings in your mind, you start to see the full picture, and so it allows you as the viewer to have that epiphany yourself. It’s not exactly spoon fed to you, not that realism theater is at all. But it allows an intimacy between creator, between actor, between audience member, because you’re all in this little club. You’re all watching this play that from an outside perspective, might make no sense, might be so scary, might put so many people off, but when you realize that it is a piece of art, that it is to be interpreted in one way or the other way. Those who interpret it feel this sense of unity, feel a sense of belonging, feel the sense of, “There it is. There’s the puzzle. There’s the bird bones.” And there’s the mouse skeleton and there’s the mime and there’s the piece of skin.

John: So interesting, I’ve never thought about it like that. Surrealism as community building experience. I think all theatre is kind of a community building experience. Everyone gets entered into this world that they’ve never been in, but surrealism, you’re right, has this unique element of that community building where everyone walks in and at first, you get thrown off. Everyone is talking in full sentences all day, everything makes sense, everything is grounded in reality. You all walk into this room and get entered into this new world where you’re flipped upside down and there’s walking flesh that talks in half sentences. But then you start to learn the rules of this world and you’re all in it together. That’s really interesting. Surrealism as community building. That’s so insightful!

Chey: Thanks!

John: Is it my turn?

Chey: Yes.

John: This might be the last question. 

Chey: Oh I have to make it count then.

John: It’s been probably like (under breath) fifteen minutes? We could always do more of these if folks want. Email me at john-lyons@uiowa.edu if you want more. 

Chey: Send fan mail to my p. o box. Can I ask you two questions? Can I break the rules?

John: Yeah, go for it. 

Chey: I have two separate things that I really want to ask, less about directing, I hope you don’t mind, more so about your experiences as a theater person in the pandemic, as well as your position on earthwords. So firstly, when you read drama submissions, what are things that clue you in that you want to push it forward, what are things that stand out to you? And then, how is directing/acting/playwriting going different due to the pandemic? Do you think this is a permanent change to the drama industry? Do you think it will go back to exactly how it was before? Do you think it will sort of shift that will merge?

John: Oh, that’s a good question. And I’m sure much smarter people who know more about theatre than me, have been thinking about that as well, but to start with the earthwards question. I think a lot of times with earthwords in fact every—So I’ve been there for three years—every single year the majority of plays, I want to—we have so many good submissions. And so it’s really hard when all the technicalities are there. I’m thinking, maybe this is a pretentious way to look at it, but thinking of a script as a blueprint for an experience. What experiences does it leave you with and so did that experience make certain images stick to your head that you can’t forget? Did it have certain sentiments that you can’t forget? Did it have an image or a sentiment that I’ve never seen before, and therefore other people may not have seen before? So a lot of times you’ll have a script that is, absolutely hilarious, knocking it out of the park, all the technicalities are there, they’ve set up the blueprint for the experience so that in the reading experience you’re laughing at the jokes and everything’s going super well. And when it comes time to publish, you do have to think of things like Is this the type of really really good that I’ve seen before? And if so, looking for the type of really really good where the experience that it left—and the thing is, that kind of sucks too, is all of this is so subjective. When I’m reading a play, and the experience that it evokes in John is going to be so different than the next person. But if I read a play and the experience is hilarity and it’s so funny I think they [the author] do, just an example, a comedic piece really well. Then there’s this second question of, Is it doing something important in terms of the message it’s… all messages are important, but I think some important messages get said more often than others. That is something I think a lot about. Is this something that people need to hear, especially because not a lot of people are saying it? And who am I to judge that? So I can only use my experience of, What have I heard a lot? And what haven’t I heard a lot? When it comes to perspective of ways of seeing things that I haven’t encountered before, different backgrounds that might not have been, published historically, at earthwards before or just magazines generally. So that sort of stuff I think is really important to me, and at the end of the day there’s always: oh man, we have two great pieces that are so similar. So which one feels like it’s doing something… Sometimes I use—another pretentious term—”fresh.” I say familiar [rather than cliche], because I don’t think… Another pretentious thing: I push back on this notion of cliches. I don’t know if there are cliches. Isn’t everything cliche? I don’t know who knows? But familiar. I think to myself, “oh is this a familiar type of thing.” And then in terms of technicalities, in order to nail the technical aspects of a story or a play? I mean, gosh, whoever can figure that out is the… million dollar question. You can say, “oh three dimensional characters, oh the pacing is good, and this and that,” but I think at the end of the day, things that we try and posit as objective analysis is just subjective experience with the play. And so I try and approach it saying “you’re just John. You’re one person.” And using my emotional reaction [based on] what I’ve seen before, and what I haven’t seen before as the guiding light, because at the end of the day, that’s what we’re all doing. There’s no guidebook of what makes it good or bad, it’s not a math equation so we are—I see a lot of opinion in the publishing world. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing but something to navigate mindfully, and it’s not a bad thing because it’s the only thing there is to do, how else do you consume art if not by analyzing your subjective opinion? And then—

Chey: Checklist how many big words does it use. 

John: Yeah, that’s how you know it’s good. Count the number of large words. Is it written in meter? Meter’s great. It’s cool. That 100% a joke. People who can write in meter are superheros. That’s a very long-winded answer to say: The first thing I do is just see how I feel. And then, keeping in mind that this is just John’s subjective opinion, no matter how many literary devices you can read and identify to try and make it seem like an objective fact, it’s not. It’s just John’s subjective opinion, and be mindful of that. How’s it gonna change up the pandemic? Geez Louise. Zoom theater isn’t bad. It’s good.

Chey: A controversial opinion!

John: I mean, nothing, in my opinion, beats being in person, but I was amazed when I started doing zoom theater that some of it—I shouldn’t say—it is so far from a replacement from actual bodies breathing together in the space. But I do think in extreme situations, I’ve been able to feel a sense of community, nothing like—it will never replace, nothing ever could replace the actual theater, but—at least from my perspective—I was surprised to find that, and maybe it’s just like a coping mechanism for quarantine, but some of the moments in rehearsal where you say something so funny that you can’t stop yourself from laughing, or the joke that the playwright wrote is so funny, or you feel that sense of community, or you feel that shiver when a moment hits right. A lot of that stuff still is happening. And so I think in extreme circumstances like quarantine. I think that zoom will never replace the theater. But I think people, myself included, are realizing that it is a tool within theatre makers’ tool boxes of things to use, that a zoom play, a play done over zoom, is now an experience we’ve all tried—or so many of us I’ve tried—And… again, , thinking of theater as like blueprint for experience. For creating experiences within audiences. Zoom isn’t completely incapable of doing that. It’s not as good as in-person, but you can imagine in extreme scenarios where people use it. And you can imagine that a lot of theatre makers, who generally value community, are really feeling lost of that. And so I think that one healing moment for me and for I think a lot of theatre makers will be when they can see a show again in person. And I hope I don’t forgot how special that space is. I don’t think I will. Because being without it for the longest I’ve ever been without it since I was a kid… sucks. So, the magic of theater, cannot be replaced by zoom. I’m sending mixed messages. Zoom’s good but you can’t replace it, but like, movies are good too. It’s just another storytelling tool in our toolbox, but it’s not being in person. I kind of sent a lot of mixed messages in that answer. 

Chey: No! I think it was a good answer.
John: Ask me after I’m vaccinated my actual—after we’re all vaccinated I’ll see what my opinion about Zoom theater is. I might never turn on the software ever again.

Chey: I think it’s good for accessibility.

John: Yes.

Chey: And I think it allows people to just create without feeling pressure. You can just be like, “Oh, I’m going to go sell producer Zoom play, get six friends, here’s a script. Let’s do it.”

John: Especially if you’re in a community that doesn’t have a theater within access or the vast majority of us don’t have a theater they can access. I think that’s a really great point. That it makes the theater making world so much more accessible. And so, thank goodness that it is good. Zoom works better than I thought it would when I first did my first Zoom play back in March. Yikes.

Chey: Do you want to ask one last question because I do believe our coworkers are waiting?

John: Oh, I feel like that’s a good place to end it. I feel like.

Chey: Okay. Yes, I agree. 

John: I think you asked more questions than me but that’s okay. Again, email, if—we can do another one! If you want hear more. This is just an installment on something that might be more, just conversations about theatre from a director, asking his playwright questions and the playwright asking her director questions. If you have ideas of stuff you’d like us to do, just as a staff, you can email john-lyons@uiowa.edu

Chey: Don’t forget to click like, share, and subscribe. Ding the bell for notifications.

John: Yeah, I don’t know if we have a like button. But I’ll ask our web editors.

Chey: That was just a Youtube quote.

John: I know, but now I kinda want one. Okay. Thank you all so much for listening. Thank you so much everyone. Go read earthwords