Whatever the fuck it is, feel stuff: an interview with Brian Alford

For Decent Company April: beginnings & endings, Brian Alford will be performing a play about a young author who had the opportunity to meet his hero, which turned out differently than expected. Brian had a few good beers with Decent Company producing director Josh Boerman and opened up about his inspiration for the piece.

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JOSH BOERMAN: So, Brian, the piece that you’re doing for this month is a very— it’s a piece that has a lot of very specific visuals, for lack of a better way of putting it, and it sounds to me like those are drawn from very specific memories. And I’d love to hear a little bit about that.

BRIAN ALFORD: I mean, the whole thing is built off an image. This is my attempt at doing something sort of autobiographical. And I hate doing autobiographical pieces, because I’ll write it down and I eventually– like, I hate myself enough that I’m just like, “Oh, I wanna scrap this entire thing, erase all of it. And it’s just fuckin’ terrible, and fuck this, and fuck you.” (LAUGHS) And then it becomes that Reel Big Fish song that I like, and I don’t care who knows that I like Reel Big Fish.

JB: Congratulations.

BA: Because they’re fine. They’re fine.

JB: Proud of you, son.

BA: They’re fine in my book. (LAUGHS)

JB: They’re just fine.

BA: And so last time it began with an idea, and it was something that was very outside myself, and it was this very big, theatrical– just a very clear through-line, just very immediate, very fourth-wall-y.

JB: Right. Because for those who didn’t have the opporutnity to get caught up in February, basically the last piece that you did involved a man who was very deeply in love with an anime character.

BA: Yes.

JB: And was in a truly jealous, unhealthy relationship. But this is a much more realistic piece, in a way.

BA: Yeah. It’s more realistic, and it’s also more abstract, just in its presentation. I had this image in my head, and the image involved two people sitting on the hood of a car smoking, and looking ahead as they sit on the side of the Missouri interstate. Which is a very specific image.

JB: Tell me more about that.

BA: It almost sounds like something from a dream, which is great. So, I got into a car accident back in 2010. That happened on this particular stretch of the interstate that I reference in the play. Getting caught in some sort of pre-tornado weather. Winds and rain and weather just shifting from clear to downpour and back. And thunder and lightning, and the sky is green and things like that.

JB: You found yourself on the highway at that time.

BA: I was on the highway. And I had driven through some pretty inclement weather before. I was going to school in Grand Rapids, Michigan; I lived in New Mexico. And it’s about 24 hours on the road, so it’s like a two, three, four-day trip. And I was taking it easy this time. We drove for like nine hours a day before, stopped in St. Louis, then we were gonna drive another stretch, and we were just gonna take our time, my passenger and I.

And the rain was falling like hell, and I had driven through that sort of thing before. And it wasn’t a big deal, I didn’t think. The sky was dark. It was 2pm, and it looked like 8pm. It was so dark. And the semi trucks were actually kicking up so much water from their tires, they were blocking out their rear lights. So they were effectively invisible a lot of the time.

JB: And you were driving in this?

BA: I was driving in that, and I guess I just— I, like the other cars on the road, didn’t really properly estimate how dangerous it was to be driving in that weather at that point.

JB: So when you go back to that moment, you’re on the hood, there. You’re looking forward. Looking forward into what, exactly?

BA: I came back to it years later, only last year, to the spot where I’d crashed. And it was this bright sunny day. Everything was green, everything was clear. Not a cloud in the sky. And I wanted to make sure that I knew where it had happened. I hadn’t recorded that in any way. It was like, you know, it’s just any stretch of Missouri road, like any other. It’s just trees and grass and everything sucks. (LAUGHS)

And so when I drove past it, I recognized it almost immediately as the place. It was just so clearly that spot, and you could see a part where they had repaired some of the shit that I’d crashed through.

JB: And how far after the original crash did you say this was?

BA: This was four years. Four years and four months.

JB: So you’re there, and you’re seeing this.

BA: And I thought, you know, do I memorialize this? Do I do something? Do I stop here? Do I pull off the road and just sit with it?

And I thought— I don’t know. There was this, like, narrative that I played in my head after [the accident]. It was like, I don’t know, my life just got worse and worse for each subsequent year after that happened. And it was probably just because I was living in Grand Rapids for each subsequent year after that happened.

JB: The accident, were you injured?

BA: I wasn’t hurt. No one involved— there were no injuries, aside from a lot of muscle strain. Me and my passenger felt like shit the next few days. But something changed. Something very fundamentally, chemically in my head, changed.

I remember the first time I got home after that accident was the first time I ever slept past noon. I used to sleep pretty evenly on, like, seven hours. I hated sleeping as a kid. I always wanted to, like, read or do something or make something or whatever. After that, I became a lot more lethargic. When I got back to school, I let a lot of grades suffer. I would sleep for nine or ten or eleven or twelve hours.

And that’s something that still is the case. Like, I sleep quite a lot now. And the more time that I spent in those years, I don’t know, the things in my life just kept getting worse, until finally I was diagnosed with depression like two years ago.

And then, this is where it gets a little weirdly cheesy, but after I left Grand Rapids and after I went to an apprenticeship in Williamstown, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival last year, it was like, “Oh, there’s an actual path. There’s a career path for me. There’s all of this light. There are good things that can happen. I can make friends. I can enjoy being around other people.”

JB: I mean, it sounds to me like, at risk of sounding hokey, that incident was the ending for you. It was the ending of one part, one epoch of your life. And then there was, like, a transitory period where just nothing was happening.

BA: Yeah.

JB: And then you were finally able to find a new beginning.

BA: Yeah. At the same time, there are still definitely things that I’m holding onto from that. And I remember using a device in a solo performance class that I was taking that I didn’t use here. ‘Cause then I went and saw youarenowhere.

JB: Yeah, at 3LD?

BA: Which is the same idea. And I was like, “Well, fuck it.” It’s this idea that every time you come to a point where you could have died, another universe gets created and you end up in that one. And it’s not a concept that actually makes any sense, because how do you account for things like mass? You can’t just create mass. And it’s just, like, any moment where someone almost dies, an entire fucking universe is created that is just as massive and just— it’s stupid as hell.

But it’s a fun idea to play with. And it definitely plays a lot off of the idea of going through a near-death experience that changes some aspect of the chemistry of your brain, is that the universe starts to feel uncanny. And starts to feel like the entire existence that you’re part of isn’t supposed to be here. And it is a real feeling.

JB: And to sort of piggyback on that and go back to the show that you’re working on, it is about a man who is attempting to relate his account of events that happened to an audience that maybe is less interested in how things really happened and more interested in what they like to think could have happened.

BA: Right. And so I had this image that was based on me not actually stopping and looking at the place where I had crashed, and just driving past it. And thinking, “Well, what if I did? What if there was someone with me who didn’t know this story? What if it was someone from Williamstown who I had just met and we were driving across the country, but things were fine now and all of that?”

And then that image wound up creating this entire other story that in some ways has so little to do with that image. Now I’ve created this story that is about these two authors. You know, one is this sort of reclusive, prolific author who in a six-year span has created, in the world of this play, masterpiece after masterpiece after masterpiece, and really challenged people because he went through a near-death experience.

And then there’s this other author who doesn’t quite have any sort of experience at all.

JB: And that’s you.

BA: And that’s my character, yeah. Alden Linder. He’s not an untalented writer, and he’s not necessarily a bad writer. I mean, that’s what I want to say, because he really writes the way that I write. (LAUGHS) I’m not really doing a lot of pastiche when I write him, so some of the stuff he writes is terrible, and it’s like, “I just wrote something terrible. That’s pretty great.” Because then it’s authentic.

JB: You don’t edit yourself.

BA: Yeah. It’s actually terrible, which is pretty amazing. And I can hide behind this layer of disconnection, because it’s like, “Oh, my character wrote it,” but now the cat’s out of the bag.

JB: Do you feel like working on this has helped you come to terms with this part of your life in some way, shape or form, or find some peace with it?

BA: I don’t know. Like J.H. Fracz, the other author [in the play], it’s something that is so mysterious and so defining to me. And it’s also something I don’t share with a lot of people, because, I don’t know, what is there to share? I got into a car accident and nobody got hurt, but it fucked me up. (LAUGHS)

And I don’t know. I don’t know if it helps me to tell this story in this slightly disconnected, fictionalized fashion, or to tell it outright, or to live with— whatever it is, it’s still a part of me. It’s still something that causes problems for me. I mean, maybe sometimes I do definitely blame more things on it than I should. I don’t know.

I blamed myself for everything, and then I just recently was like, “Oh, maybe this was actually, like, a thing. Because I have not, like, worked properly since May of 2011.”

JB: But I’m still glad that you’re telling it.

BA: Yeah. And I think that’s what I liked about it, is that image of two people sitting on a hood of a car, looking ahead at the mile marker sign, not talking. One person doesn’t quite understand what’s happening. There’s just an enigma to it.

And I guess in that, and in me presenting these three layers of telling the story, where it’s, like, me writing this play, my character reading his book, and then from that passage, quoting J.H. Fracz talking about the past, it relates the enigma.

What this car accident means to me, and whatever it’s supposed to mean to me, is an absolute fucking mystery. And I have no clue. And it creates this enigma. It’s not like me telling a story about a car violently ripping off of the road through metal cables and having all of my clothes run over in a bag and strewing them across the trees.

Because in one sense, it’s a very violent moment, but in another sense, it’s not how I experienced the accident myself.

JB: Right. It’s smaller.

BA: I almost entirely disconnected from the moment when it happened, which is, I think— you know, people talk about Jewish guilt and Catholic guilt. There’s a lot of Protestant guilt too.

JB: Oh, I know that feeling, Protestant guilt. Absolutely.

BA: I think the one difference is there are a lot of Protestants who are like, “We’re on the right side,” and so they’re able to sidestep the issue of guilt. But, you know, I definitely am a person who constantly hates myself. And I don’t like the fact that I don’t think I was entirely in control of that situation.

JB: And you wish you could have been?

BA: And I wish I could have been, because I had— specifically because I had another person’s life in my hands. I mean, I almost smashed the right side of the car, her side of the car, into a semi truck. Because I was passing it when the car started hydroplaning.

The only semi-conscious thing I know that I did was I just pulled the wheel left, which can often accomplish the exact opposite of what you want it to accomplish when your car doesn’t actually have traction. I’ve taken defensive driving courses and things like that, but that’s what I did.

I guess it wound up being— and it fits that quantum idea. For seemingly no reason, we went left instead of right, and we crashed into the median and the car got scratched up. And the bags that were on the roof were destroyed, and we were both alive. But I don’t think I ever gave up on the idea that we very clearly could have not been alive.

And that she, specifically— like, I could have been maybe hurt, but she very definitely in almost any other case could’ve been killed. She never saw it that way, which is the funny thing. She always said, “Well, I mean, we didn’t, so you did something right.”

And I was like, “I didn’t do anything right.” (LAUGHS) You know, if I did something right, I wouldn’t have gotten back on the road when I saw what the sky looked like. And so it’s like I have this weird survivor’s guilt complex, even though I’m not—

JB: Even though nobody died.

BA: I’m not surviving anyone, you know? Everyone’s still here. And yeah, it’s fucked me. I have issues talking about it because again, nothing happened. No one even got hurt. Not even a scratch.

JB: But things can impact you in ways that you don’t expect, and that’s just something that can’t really be understood or explained. It just is the way it is.

BA: Yeah. It’s that feedback loop. It’s like, sometimes I feel guilt because I think this thing has ruined me, and then I meet people who have gone through far worse shit, who are surviving and who are doing well for themselves. And it’s like, what business have I to bother anyone with my troubles? And then I wind up becoming a recluse, and— (LAUGHS)

JB: Well, I think ultimately really what it comes down to is just a willingness to take whatever emotional impulse you get from those moments, channeling it into something that is understandable in some way, that really expresses what it is that you want to put out there and reaches people in a meaningful way, you know? And I think that’s what you’ve done with this play.

BA: And I hope I’ve made people uncomfortable with this play. And maybe it doesn’t. But hopefully people get something out of it.

I took a playwriting class, and I didn’t write anything in that class; I really didn’t start writing until last year. But I took this playwriting class, and I think you mentioned in your interview, with the Hungarian national playwright of Romania, Andras Visky.

JB: Ah, yes. I, too, took a class with him.

BA: Yes. And he said— he’s a very Christian man, but he has this very bizarre Hungarian idea of what Christianity is today. And he said, “You must make the audience beg for a savior. And then not give it to them.” Because to him, that was blasphemous.

Because a playwright can’t be a savior. A playwright only gives people what the world is, which is something that’s in dire need of a savior.

JB: So that’s what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna throw it out there—

BA: So I’m gonna throw out— and it’s not like this very miserable play. It’s not this very unhappy, horrible thing. Like, it’s kind of masked in awkwardness and some humor. Ludicrously flowery language. References to the Patterson-Gimlin film. And just that at the end, an enigma that maybe is at the center of it all and maybe isn’t, but it’s there.

And this play is, for me, it’s a big risk. It’s the one that I’ve done so much rewriting on. You know, the last play stayed in pretty much the same form throughout. Like, we changed a device at one point, we gave it a couple more images at the beginning, and we cut it down. This one, I finished the first draft, hated it, I sat staring at it flipping it off, and I said, “What do I do? Because you’re an asshole.”

And I just scraped out the first three pages and completely rewrote them, and have just constantly been like, “Okay, what do we throw in? What do we take out?” And for the first time, I managed to write something that is so very, very different now than it was at the very beginning.

JB: Well, I’m excited for everybody to see it.

BA: Yeah. And it’s an exciting process to take. I hope that people get something out of it. Whatever the fuck it is, feel stuff. (LAUGHS)

To buy tickets for Decent Company April: beginnings & endings, click here.

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