The following interview was supposed to be conducted between your reporter and the playwright/performer Martin Dockery in person, preferably in the dark corner of a bar in Brooklyn. The interview was to concern Mr. Dockery’s two works that are coming to Piccolo, his one-man show Exclusion Zone, and the two-person play (co-starring his wife, Vanessa Quesnelle) Moonlight After Midnight, both at Theater 99. Unfortunately, Mr. Dockery spends six months out of the year traveling the theater festival circuit, and was at the time on the other side of the planet. What could be salvaged was salvaged, and your intrepid reporter, drinking by himself at said bar, managed through a lagless Skype miracle to squeeze some answers from Mr. Dockery concerning his two shows, and life as a festival-touring thespian.
City Paper: Where are you right now?
Martin Dockery: Varkala, a town that’s on a cliff above a beach in Kerala, India. It’s a tourist town for Indians, but the season has pretty much ended. It’s the middle of their summer, so it’s weirdly abandoned. And hot, as one would expect. What one wouldn’t expect is how much the Indians themselves are talking about how hot it is. Which is to say that it is hot, indeed.
CP: So what’s it like being on tour half the year? What do you see as being the positives for this sort of life? What are the costs?
MD: First off, it’s amazing that it’s possible to do this at all. That there are these forums, the festivals themselves. Through them you’re able to get word out about your show and your art. Without the festival, there’s no way I’d be able to tour. I don’t have a budget for marketing, or for anything that could promote what I was doing. Some are huge and overtake their town, and others are tiny and people barely know they’re there, but the fact that these performing arts festivals for live theater exist at all is a huge positive.
On the other hand, it’s taxing. Doing the show for a festival isn’t just about showing up and doing it. Six months ahead of time, you have to arrange your place there. As it gets closer you have deadlines for program copy and pictures. They all have to be in on time. You have to book your tickets and be your own travel agent. Keep your website up to date. All while constantly applying to new festivals down the line. Oh, and creating new shows. Every year I write two new shows: one solo, and then a two-person play that my wife and I can travel with easily. We were just rehearsing the new show up on our roof. And there’s something surreal about being in this exotic environment and having to order fliers for a festival in Orlando.
CP: Also, if it’s not too personal, how do theater actors afford to travel to so many fests?
MD: Budget. Keep costs as low as possible. We sublet our apartment in Brooklyn. Hopefully somebody rents it. What a lot of North American festivals do, and when I say the festival, I mean people in the community, they’ll put you up. Every time we’re in Charleston we stay with Lisa and Mark Ellison. Also, it goes without saying that no one is getting rich doing this.
CP: You’ve won a lot of Best Play awards at these festivals. Do you have a favorite moment or time you’re most proud of?
MD: Of course awards are great. But you get an award at the end of the festival, it doesn’t really help you financially while you’re there. What’s funny is that you go to the next festival, and people don’t care. They don’t even necessarily know the city that you just won an award at.
****Dockery just won Best Play at the Adelaide Theater Festival — the second largest theater festival in the world. Your reporter had to Google Adelaide. It’s in Australia.****
CP: Exclusion Zone is a one-man show and true story about a journey you took to both Burning Man and Chernobyl. “Burning Man And Chernobyl” sounds like the title to a clever Flaming Lips song. Are there connections here I’m missing?
MD: There is something about abandoned spaces that I think is interesting to everybody, and the idea of going to an entire city that has been abandoned. It was evocative for me to go there and have my imagination tickled. Burning Man is kind of the opposite, in that people flock there for a week, this city in the desert, and then it disappears forever. The show also concerns this late ’70s Tarkovsky movie, Stalker, a work that weirdly anticipated the Chernobyl disaster. An invisible malignant force overtakes a town, military patrols, all that. And it also references a novel by Jeff Dyer (whom I met at Burning Man), that was about his experience watching that movie. So it’s a play that references a book about a movie that’s about an event that had yet to happen. Different forms of art reflecting upon each other, and from where we get our inspiration.
CP: Moonlight After Midnight is your two-person play with your wife Vanessa Quesnelle. You say that you write plays that travel well. What do you mean?
MD: Well, we take it to these festivals where you have no idea what kind of venue you’ll be performing in. Sometimes it’s a big proper theater and sometimes it’s like in the converted backroom of some store. But it’s good because the nature of the show — it’s the story of a man and woman meeting in a hotel room, she’s been called there to act out the part of the man’s wife. They start role-playing scenes from a relationship, but are they actually in this relationship? It’s a play that toys with the audience’s understanding of what’s going on. There’s a game between what is occurring onstage and what the audience expects. So it is itself about adapting to a space and putting on a show.
CP: I’m a too far-gone grad of CofC’s theater department. Traveling around the word hitting up festivals would have sounded like a dream to undergrad me. Do you have any hot take fest vet tips for aspiring theatrical world travelers?
MD: This might sound like putting the cart before the horse, but a great way of forcing yourself to create some theater is to apply for a festival before the show exists, then if you get it, you are bound to create the show. Don’t worry about finishing it first, just apply to the festival. And this works even if it’s not a festival. Book a slot at your local theater, promote it, and you will create the show. Because you have to.