A Playwright’s Work is Never Done By M. Yvonne Taylor, University Marketing
In April 2009, John Boulanger, a recently graduated master’s student in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Texas State, was catapulted into the spotlight by the success of his play, House of Several Stories, which earned him the Kennedy Center’s National Student Playwriting Award. His play was one of only four plays from across the country selected for presentation at the American College Theater Festival’s national showcase in Washington, D.C. The production was a resounding success, playing to a standing ovation.
But Boulanger had little time to savor his victory or rest on his laurels.
Immediately after the performance of his tragicomedy about a dysfunctional family and its secrets, Boulanger and a group of four other Texas State students headed to the William Inge Theatre Festival in Kansas. They had won the Region VI American College Theater Festival competition held at Texas State earlier in the year, a win that landed them the opportunity to attend the festival and perform in the noted late playwright’s home.
But still, Boulanger could not rest.
Back at Texas State, there was that master’s in playwriting to complete, and finals week was upon him. And then there was the business of the speech he had yet to write — the commencement speech.
“I wrote it the day before,” says Boulanger. “I was supposed to cut it down from six to three minutes … but I forgot,” confesses the recent grad.
And how was it received? Well, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the official commencement speaker, referenced it. Twice.
So, surely, with his awards on their shelves, his second Texas State degree on the wall, and the summer ahead of him, Boulanger has taken some time off? If you think that’s the case, then you don’t know John Boulanger.
Time off simply is not in his vocabulary.
The Education of John Boulanger
Boulanger’s entry into theater began when he played percussion in his high school band. “I played mallets, and a drama teacher approached me to play a sound score in a Chinese melodrama,” explains the playwright. “I sat in the wings with all these instruments and played my own stuff.” By senior year, he’d get the opportunity to direct a whole play.
“The teacher also sent me to drama camp at Texas State,” he says, “and that’s when I knew that not only would I be involved with theater, but I would be at this school. Texas State was the only school I applied to when I got out of high school.”
Boulanger entered Texas State and stayed for two years, then decided to put his academic career on hold — but he didn’t take time off from his education in the theater.
“I did community theater, and I wrote a two-person show and performed it. I did every sort of theatrical outlet,” he says of his multiyear hiatus from education.
But Boulanger would eventually come back to Texas State to finish what he’d started — and then some.
Intuitive and Innovative
Following his own intuitive path is a theme in Boulanger’s life. Neither his educational career nor his writing process traverses a linear course. “I don’t read, read, read plays, even though that’s what you’re supposed to do,” he admits.
Instead, he listens to voices — the voices of those around him, those of his characters and his own: “I’m fascinated with what people say … what they say without thinking. Or what they say without saying enough. My scripts are driven by dialogue, and I shape them into a structure that suits the dialogue.”
For example, with House of Several Stories, affectionately nicknamed, HOSS, once the dialogue was written, Boulanger recognized its form: “I read the dialogue and thought, ‘Oh, this is an absurdist play.’
“It wasn’t until I took the dialogue and shaped it into what it was trying to become,” he explains, “that it became a two-act tragedy versus a three-act comedy.”
It’s Boulanger’s Zen and zany thought process that also has helped him develop his unusual theatrical ideas. He credits Texas State Professor Charles Ney with giving him the freedom to actually stage them: “Chuck Ney was an amazing directing mentor. He really allowed and encouraged me to think freely and creatively, which was crucial at that time for the growth of my artistic voice and vision.”
For example, Boulanger staged the Greek tragedy, The Bacchai, as a fashion runway catwalk. He took Molière’s comedy, The Would-Be Gentleman, and transformed it into a White House parody. And a scene from Shakespeare’s Henry V? He set it in a 1960s-era nail salon.
Boulanger says of the Terrence McNally work he recently directed, “I removed everything that was Terrence McNally except the words. I stayed true to the text, but I ended up creating this fun-house asylum. Most places would have thought I was pushing the envelope too far, but Ney allowed me to do it.”
And how did it turn out? Says Boulanger, smiling, “That’s the scene that won regionals and went to Kansas.”
When Inspiration and Opportunity Meet
This year, HOSS debuted on the regular season schedule at Texas State. “They usually don’t put student works on the regular season,” Boulanger explains, “but this time they did. Who knows if the play would have made it to the Kennedy Center if that hadn’t happened?”
This summer, he’ll get the chance to workshop HOSS at Robert Redford’s Sundance Theatre Lab, another perk of the Kennedy Center award. It’s a tremendous opportunity, he says, “because I’ll get to network with and view the works of the playwrights-in-residence there.” Several Sundance playwrights-in-residence have seen their works, such as Spring Awakening and Light in the Piazza, make it to Broadway.
But in the meantime, Boulanger still has more to do.
Right after graduation, he and a friend brainstormed the idea to self-produce a professional production of HOSS in Austin. Within 10 days’ time, says Boulanger, he’d signed Laura Lane (a Texas State Theatre Department professor and a former star of TV’s hit series, The Nanny) to head a professional cast of actors, assembled a production team and reserved theater space for a three-week run in Austin.
All of this may sound like an awful lot of work, but according to Boulanger, “This seems more like play than work. And shouldn’t that be what theater is — play?”