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Award-winning playwright John Fisher uses history to comment on the present – unless, of course, he's just after a few laughs.

By J.H. Tompkins

IT'S AN UNDERSTATEMENT to say that playwright-director John Fisher once took the local theater scene by surprise. He was still a grad student at UC Berkeley when he staged The Joy of Gay Sex in 1995. That play was well reviewed and had a long, solid run; nevertheless, no one, including Fisher and the cast, was ready for the success later that year of Medea, the Musical, staged by his company, Sassy Mouth, about a bad theater company attempting to do Euripides' tragedy as a pro-gay, feminist pop musical. Medea played to sellout crowds for months and won, among other honors, the prestigious Will Glickman Playwright Award.

Fisher – who, after getting his Ph.D., now teaches at Berkeley – won an unprecedented second Glickman for 1998's Combat! He has also created Barebacking: A Sex Panic! Comedy; Cleopatra: The Musical; and Partisans. And he's the stage director for the Golden Gate Opera Company ("Opera is the ultimate," he says). Fisher is currently working on a lesbian musical ("with original music," he points out a bit nervously, "not old songs with new words"). Along the way, Theatre Rhinoceros's Doug Holsclaw asked him to direct Noel Coward's Design for Living, and Fisher accepted. Directing another playwright's work is a change of pace, and in conversation, Fisher seems somewhat bemused by the experience.

Sitting in a debris-filled Bay Guardian office, Fisher explains that after weeks of rehearsal – with a cast of strangers – he's sure that Design will be funny. He thinks about that for a moment and qualifies the statement with a quick, slightly tentative laugh: he's pretty sure.

Bay Guardian: Did you take a patriotic stand on the retail front during the holidays?

John Fisher: I didn't shop for America; I shopped like I've always done. Is buying toilet paper a patriotic act? Is my Christmas shopping one year patriotic even though I did exactly the same shopping last year? And the "Open for Business" business, with that hand – I don't even know where to begin with that nonsense.

BG: You once said that acting is hard; comedy is being offensive.

JF: Oh, well, I shoot my mouth off a lot. I guess what I meant is that dramatic acting has such weight, it's so scary.

BG: Well, trace the arc between Partisans – about a serious subject, if not a straight drama – and the exuberant, campy Medea.

JF: Partisans is a musical; we'd do a battle scene and then do a song. That's just a basic structure, and in that respect I think both plays are the same. The whole idea of drama can be really straitjacketing – that you have to stare at people "being dramatic" on this set for three hours. Sometimes I want to express things in song or get a gun out. So my experience of these plays wasn't that different; both have to be entertaining.

I get bored a lot, especially with my own work. When I go see a movie, I'm never bored because the tech aspects are so overwhelming. It's amazing – I read a review of a film, and it says that the plot was bad or whatever, and I didn't even notice because the whole thing is just so sensually satisfying. And theater has to be like this, and that's tough. Onstage a face can't be 30 feet across. When I think about Medea and Partisans, first and foremost I think about a nightly effort to goose things up, doing whatever we could to entertain. I don't think of the plays as being different from each other.

BG: So if movies are so effective, what does it say about the state of theater?

JF: You watch previews before at a movie, and the same six or seven actors are in all of them. There are a whole lot of people in this world who want to act, and there aren't enough roles. And they all have relatives, so there's the audience. Theater will never die.

BG:The work you're known for was created during a period of prosperity and relative social calm. Does it feel any different to be working today?

JF: The world is pretty fucked up, and the state of the nation is pretty confusing. I can't watch the news; it's too hysterical. It's a good escape doing theater right now. You go into this little black room and forget about everything for a few hours. It's weird, but as an artist I don't feel any connection to the outside. Maybe that's wrong, maybe theater is supposed to address the world outside, but it doesn't seem to be able to. Entertainment seems to be lame when it addresses stuff in the moment.

BG:What about Combat!? Gays in the military has an implication in today's world.

JF: I'm not a political playwright, but I am a historical playwright, and I use history to comment on the present. That was historical, but now it's suddenly topical. We have all these analogies for WTC – Pearl Harbor and all that. I think that's where historical theater comes in: what can we dig up from the past to address the present. People fucking hate us; what does that mean about us? You think about why you're hated, and maybe we've earned it somehow. I wonder what's going to happen to this country if we start to lose, or if a couple more skyscrapers come down. Do we start opening Manzanar so we can keep an eye on people? Look at the minority groups – we're all on some list somewhere. When crisis hits, people seem to go to their corner. That's a real scary, dangerous thing.

BG:What do you do after having a hit like Medea? Does it spoil what comes next?

JF: Well, Joy of Sex was the best experience. I just couldn't believe it was happening – people just kept coming to see it. Straight couples! And I thought I'd created this offensive thing, but everyone was coming to see it and liking it. Maybe everyone was just sick of being heterosexual and being whatever they'd been, and it was like, "God I've been straight for 20 years." The country was rich, and people felt self-indulgent and were looking for something different, looking to put a little Nero in their lifestyle. It was a big time for bisexuality. Sex informed everything in those plays – the experience of doing theater, friendships, everyone was promiscuous with each other. Sex shoots through everything, really, and I wanted to put these totally sexual beings onstage.

BG: Did it bother you that you wanted to be offensive and instead you were loved?

JF: Yeah, it did. I was like, "Wait a minute." I thought I was really on the edge, and then people would come up to me and say, "Oh yeah, I've done that." I guess I'm really square; it's like my idea of what is offensive is just square, white-bread offensive.

BG: There was an obvious connection between members of the cast in Medea. How much of theater for you is the freedom to work with those friends?

JF: I used bits of people's real personalities in the characters I wrote. Those actors are like my family; we loved each other, and on some nights we wanted to kill each other. It was a hit, and no one was really ready for that. I'd say, "Come on, this is the big time; this is what we wanted." I was like papa, the villain. But we're still in touch, and we're all close friends.

BG: Is it an advantage being connected with the university?

JF: I have access to the tech staff, and though the students may be green, they're energetic and enthusiastic. And there are many talented people connected to the department. So it can be a great setup.

BG: I'm about to see a documentary film about the Cockettes at the Sundance festival. I'm wondering if you trace the roots of the theater to groups like them?

JF: I grew up on TV and watching old movies. The first time I remember experiencing the arc of an artist's career was with Woody Allen. I missed out on the whole radical theater movement. My parents took me to see Broadway plays like Annie and The King and I. What the hell does that have to do with what I'm doing? So I've read about all this stuff, and in theory I know about it. It would have been cool to have lived through.

BG:As a Ph.D. and professor, do you pay a lot of attention to the academic dialogue in and around theater?

JF: Yeah, although academic theater is notorious for being really heavy and having nothing to do with anything. Brecht's interpreters have done so much to bore audiences – I was taught all that, and I was insanely bored acting in those plays. But it taught me not to be a boring director, and it taught me that there is more to plays than just strict narrative with people talking to each other. What's interesting to me is theater that talks to the audience, that talks to itself, theater that lectures, presents, educates, and uses all the possibilities of performance.

BG: Why do Noel Coward?

JF: The idea came from Doug Holsclaw. I wrote about Coward in my dissertation, so I knew about the play. So I figured if I'm going to direct someone else's play, why not this? Coward knows how to turn a phrase and get a laugh; he's a pretty smart cookie. And the situations are pretty funny – there are a series of affairs, and the wrong people always wind up in the bedroom together. It reads like an old chestnut, but no one really does it, I think, because it's a little too much, a ménage à trois. I mean, a lot of people have a problem with this. I'm not sure I buy it, but these characters earn it. They spend two hours trying every conceivable combination and finally decide to become a three-way.

It's the first time I've done a play where I'm sitting around casting with auditions and callbacks like every other director. So I feel very much like a normal director; it's good for me. Usually it's me and my codependent friends. I think it's entertaining, but I never know – I sit around at rehearsals and laugh my head off, but on opening night the audience might not laugh at all. And of course that'll fill me with bitter resentment, and I'll want to lock the doors and scream at them for hours.