Words are fun. They’re fun to play with, like a basket of toys cascaded around the living room. A play on words is itself a major presence in the Inhumana Festival, the name being a twist on the title another local world-renowned theater extravaganza.
Twist a word, throw on a prefix or suffix, take an alternate definition, and a whole world of possibility opens up. That kind of world opened up to playwright Daniel Guyton and fed the creation of “Bedford’s Sty,” one of the “Bits and Pieces” short plays in the second annual Inhuman:a Festival of New American Undead Theater. By turns twisted, surreal, cruel and hysterical, Guyton pulls out all the stops to craft a bizarre, fourth wall-breaking tale that, as he describes, came from the simplest origins.
Tell us about how “Bedford’s Sty” came into existence.
The idea for Bedford actually came about as a bad pun. I was speaking to a friend who lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and he explained how many people spell the town’s nickname wrong – calling it “Bedford’s Sty” instead of “Bedford-Stuy.” This, of course, made me think of a pig sty, and how my mom always used to call my bedroom a pig sty when I was growing up. So I thought of a really cute quirky story of a little boy named Bedford who refused to clean up his bedroom.
My initial concept was actually to write a children’s book called “Bedford’s Sty”. But as I developed the tale, I was instead struck by an image of Bedford as a grown man wearing footy pajamas, still refusing to clean his bedroom. That’s when the story became bizarre, and moved away from being a children’s story into a macabre examination of the mentally ill and the supernatural.
Like any story with a simple plot (man refuses to clean bedroom), you have to have complex obstacles in order to keep the action going. So… I added an abusive caregiver, a ghost, a murder mystery, and a Shakespearean-style Revenge Fantasy, all wrapped up in one simple story of a man refusing to clean his bedroom. It’s bizarre, funny, scary, surreal, and mysterious, and it all came about because of one terrible, corny pun. I’m very proud of that.
Is the play typical of your “tastes,” or was it a bit different for you?
This is a difficult question to answer. There are certainly aspects of the play that are familiar to me. I love dark comedy (which this is), I love putting likable characters in horrible situations, and horrible characters in likable situations, and creating comedy and drama out of the most unusual of circumstances. So in that sense, the play was comfortable for me.
However, there is a departure in that one of the main characters is a ghost. I very rarely write supernatural characters, or at least overtly supernatural (some of my characters are mysterious and might be supernatural, but never as overtly supernatural as in this play), so that was a definite switch for me. Also, there is some audience interaction, and breaking of the fourth wall, which is unusual for me as well. But overall, I think it fits into my catalog nicely.
What inspires your writing? Tell us a little about your process.
Also a very good question. This varies wildly from play to play. Sometimes I’m inspired by an event in my life, sometimes it’s a simply a silly pun (like with Bedford). Either way, I get an image in my head. Sometimes visual, sometimes it’s just a bit of dialogue. And then I start to explore: Who are these people in this image? (say, two people in a restaurant), or What a weird bit of dialogue. I wonder who would say such a thing? And then I set about figuring out why these characters would say or do whatever the odd image in my head has made them do.
As sad as this probably is, most of my plays are truly little more than extended justifications for the strange thoughts that occasionally pop into my brain. It is imperative to me that all of my characters feel believable, no matter how bizarre the circumstances that they find themselves in, and it’s also imperative that the action and the drama and the comedy flows consistently throughout the piece. (I hate dead air – no pun intended), so the challenge for me is always to explain and justify these images without boring the pants off the audience.
What is your favorite part of seeing a play brought to life?
I love working with actors, and directors and other creative people. Nothing gets my juices going more than watching a great artist hone their craft. And if I can assist that in any way, with my dialogue or my story, or with any other aspect of my play, I’m thrilled. I do write for an audience absolutely, but I think my first love is writing for actors. I won’t write a character that I wouldn’t personally want to play. I want to inspire great performances, and it’s crucial to me that NONE of my characters or dialogue are extraneous. Every character, every movement, every line of dialogue needs to have a purpose that not only moves the action forward, but also gives each actor something fun or challenging to do.
I also love to add in quirky design opportunities, and fun directing challenges as well. So for me, the entire rehearsal process is tremendously exciting, along with the (hopefully) huge payoff at the end, as the audience gets to see everyone’s hard work come together. It’s all very rewading – especially when it’s done well.
What do you think accounts for the fascination with inhuman phenomena – zombies, vampires, ghosts, monsters under the bed, etc – in popular culture?
This is a very good question. My wife is obsessed with vampires, for instance. I keep saying I want to write a vampire story just for her. But I feel like all of the good ones (and the bad ones) have already been told. So I’m not sure where to go with that. But people love superheroes, we love super-villians, we love monsters, murderers, serial killers, anything that breaks us out of the monotony of our everyday boring, suburban (and urban) human lives. Of course, you turn on the 6 o’clock news, and many of these things seem to come real, which is terrifying. (Homeless people eating other homeless people in Miami? Seriously?)
But in the movies, and in fiction, and in our theatre houses, these non-realistic elements are very exciting. Anything is possible. There are no limitations to what a supernatural character can do, except for the limits of our own imagination. In an age of reality television (Is it just me, or is Snooki’s bathing suit far more terrifying than anything on “The Walking Dead”?), it is absolutely a breathe of fresh air (again, no pun intended) to watch the unreal come to life before our eyes.
Do you have a particular favorite pop culture creature? Why that one?
I find the Devil to be a fascinating character. He was God’s favorite angel at one point, and now he’s Mr. Evil. What happened there to cause that switch? I love that he’s powerful, and yet incredibly needy at times. He’s strong compared to humans, but weak compared to God. He’s usually very witty in a lot of pop-culture depictions, but at times he’s sadistic, at times he’s pure evil, and at other times he’s the most rational person in the room. He or she (or it) has been written about for millenia, and yet the depictions are almost always fresh and fascinating. He is the ultimate bad guy, and yet there are many pop-culture depictions of the devil as simply misunderstood. I just love all of the potental conflicts that exist within a character like that. He is complex, challenging, daunting, and endlessly terrifying. I love that when you see a play or movie with the devil in it, you never quite know which side of him you’re going to see
Is there anything about “Bedford’s Sty” particularly or your plays in general that you hope an audience walks away with?
I think we spend most of our lives trying to live “in the light”. We’re told that “being happy” is the most important thing. Pharmaceutical companies make millions trying to sell us little blue pills to increase our happiness. We’re told not to cry when we’re children, we’re told that depression is a weakness, that fear is “for sissies”, and that mistakes are for losers. I think this is terrible. We all have emotions, and I believe they’re all there for a reason.
Fear is a good thing – it keeps you from touching a hot stove, or walking in front of a moving school bus. Mistakes help us learn and grow as human beings (everything I know today can be attributed to a mistake I or someone I know made in the past). Depression can be very helpful (it can be deadly in extremes, of course), but analyzing your depression can also help you get in touch with your deepest wants and desires. We all have a yin and a yang – a dark side and a light side – and by completely ignoring one side in favor of another, we run the danger of completely shutting out very important aspects of our personalities and our souls. How can we grow as people without at least trying to tap into all aspects of our personalities – on the dark side, and the light?
I think “dark” plays and stories help us reach into this more primal side of our existence. Whether we’re discussing mortality, death, sadness, fear, or even finding humor in any of these subjects, we are ultimately trying to bridge that gap between the yin and yangs of our souls.
Daniel Guyton has won numerous writing awards, including two Kennedy Center/ACTF awards for his plays Attic and Where’s Julie? He received his MFA in Dramatic Writing from the University of Georgia, and currently resides near Atlanta with his beautiful wife, two dogs and a cat. His plays have been produced around the world, including London, Iceland, LA, NY and more, and a number of his plays have been published. For more information, please visit: http://www.danguyton.com.