MAX POSNER, Thespian alum of Troupe 5869 at Denver School of the Arts, was born and raised in Denver. He is a graduate of Brown University and recently completed a two-year Lila Acheson Wallace Fellowship at Juilliard. He’s also an alum of Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab, Ars Nova Play Group, Working Farm, Interstate 73, and Manhattan’s 52nd Street Project. His plays include Judy, Sisters on the Ground, Snore, Gun Logistics, and The Treasurer, which ran last fall Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. He also contributed to John Early’s episode of The Characters and wrote the libretto for Sixty Seven. Dramatics spoke with Posner during the Off-Broadway premiere of The Treasurer.

Max Posner

Max Posner

As many people in theatre, you started with acting.
Max Posner: I spent a lot of time doing plays in Denver during high school, and by playing the kid in so many plays, I realized how flat a lot of those characters are. I sometimes wished I had different words. Then I realized that someone decides what words everyone has. So, being a writer grew out of that frustration or that revelation.

You attended Denver School of the Arts, so it seems you and your family were on board early with your being in theatre.
MP: They were supportive — and a little helpless to change anything. My mom is a psychologist, so she is smart enough to know that you can’t turn your children into anything but what they are. I have an older sister who was interested in theatre. So much of my life was going where she went, and once I landed in the theatre, I didn’t want to leave.

One high school show you acted in was Brighton Beach Memoirs, and it was curious to read one of your earliest plays described as Neil Simon meets Samuel Beckett.
MP: That was Counting to Infinity, the first play I did at Thespian Playworks. I had an affinity for Neil Simon at that point, but that’s also where I was “born,” that’s the kind of play I grew up inside. For a young prepubescent Jewish boy in Denver, a part in a Neil Simon play is as meaty as it gets.

I didn’t have a strong sense of what a play could be, so I started reading, started to study the form. When I read Waiting for Godot, I fell in love with Samuel Beckett and the idea that theatre isn’t about engineering conflicts and climax, that theatre can be used to express more mysterious states of being. Trying to make waiting an activity, figuring how to put that onstage, that was exciting for me, because at that point I felt that life is not always like a Neil Simon play. It’s unresolved and sometimes boring. So, I got excited with trying to capture some feeling about how time passes, how thoughts come and go, something that felt more like Beckett.

When you started to write in high school, you were quite prolific.
MP: I wish I could do that now. It’s easier when your plays are 20 pages long. When I realized there are places you could send your plays, I started doing that, and it was amazing to feel that someone in a different state was reading something I had written.

You found the Curious New Voices program in your hometown.
MP: Yes, they are responsible for my having written a play at all. They had a free summer theatre program. I had nothing to do one summer, and I liked plays, so I signed up. That’s where I began writing Counting to Infinity.

How did you choose Brown University for playwriting?
MP: I was lucky to meet Paula Vogel when I was 16. She came to Curious Theatre Company, when they did one of her plays, The Long Christmas Ride Home. After one performance, she talked to the theatre’s adolescent playwrights. We all fell in love with her. I had never met anyone more articulate and charismatic. Being in a room with her is an electric experience, and I still feel amazed when I listen to her. I was so inspired that I wanted to go to Brown, where she taught. I knew I would go somewhere to study playwriting, but I was lucky enough to go to Brown.

What brought you then from Providence to New York?
MP: I just moved. Nothing brought me other than the desire to be a playwright and to be someplace where new plays are at the center of conversation. So, I moved to New York. I was a dog walker. I was cobbling together a living. I first joined the writers group at Page 73. After a few months, they gave me a fellowship. That was an amazing turning point, because even though my livelihood wasn’t coming from writing, I felt there was this secret knowledge — at least in one tiny Brooklyn office — that someone thought of me as a playwright and was holding me accountable to that. Outside of my various jobs, I was writing and trying to meet various deadlines. As I ambled through my early to mid-20s, it was grounding to know that there was somewhere to work on my plays.

How did you then get into the Juilliard program?
MP: I applied. I applied twice, actually. I didn’t get in the first time. At that point, I had started to have some workshops and readings, small productions of one-act plays in New York. Juilliard happened at a perfect time. I was ready for playwriting to be the center of my life in a way that, for practical reasons, it’s difficult to do in New York. Juilliard’s a free program, so it’s an incredible chance to do more writing than you think you can.

At what point had you given up being a dog walker?
MP: I had given up the dogs or the dogs had given up me. Either way, I realized that I needed a more stable income, because moving to New York without money is a challenging thing to do. So, I got a job as an office manager. Answering phones became my life. I was working 40 or 50 hours a week, but I knew that between 8 p.m. and 9 a.m. I could be a playwright.


Your first Off-Broadway production, Judy, dealt with a family dynamic in unusual circumstances. Was that you projecting your fear about the future?
MP: That play is about imagining an emotional future for me, my sisters, and the people of my generation who have grown up with technologies that allow us to be connected to each other, without being in a room with other people.

Judy is set in the winter of 2040. Three siblings have lost touch with themselves and the world in various ways but are in constant communication with each other. This family has seen one play over and over again — A Christmas Carol — and they’re nostalgic for it. Theatre plays don’t exist anymore in that world of 2040. Many things don’t exist anymore.

One thing I was excited about in Judy was that, even though plays don’t exist, people are pretending to be other people. To communicate, they take on other identities. Performance is integrated into their basic suburban lives. The play satirizes different things, but in many parts of our world, plays are not part of people’s lives. So, in some ways it was absurd, and in other ways there are parts of even this country where plays are far from anyone’s lives.

It seems your recent play, The Treasurer, also may have come from a sense of worry.
MP: Both of these plays are about family in a way and not about family in a way. They’re about relationships inside of families and about the chasms between people in families. One thing that plays in America have done is to reflect the American family back to itself. I’m interested in trying to continue that tradition but also to reflect back a family that looks modern, that looks the way families are now.

Did any of your mom’s work influence how you think of human motivation and relationships?
MP: As a young person, I would tell her about a teacher or another kid or their parents or the neighbors, and my mother had this compassionate but incisive ability to diagnose them. Not with specific mental illness — but we each have our unique way of going through the world and are limited by our experiences. I feel attuned to the variations among people, the different personalities that make up the world I grew up in, and my mother played a huge part in that.

You’ve said that you work between tradition and experimentation. How does the way you choose to present a piece influence its topic and vice versa?
MP: They come hand in hand for me. Of course, I’m a student of plays. I love plays, and I come to playwriting because I believe in that history. But there’s also a danger when you start accepting formulas. I’m not interested in accepting any existing formula. I want plays that destabilize, that the audience has to learn to watch as they’re learning the story. I hope I’m generous to an audience and give useful guideposts, but it’s fun to be dropped into a world that has rules that aren’t immediately recognizable. This unique, difficult, and mysterious process has to happen where people give themselves over to the mystery of the play, so by the end, they feel like full citizens of that world. That’s what I’m trying to do with my plays. I don’t want to write the same play twice.

Paula believes playwrights should make the familiar seem strange, so that we can observe it again. A play is a chance to give everyone new eyes for an hour and a half. So, I’m not thinking about stylistic choices, I’m focusing on how the entire thing is unrepeatable.

I’ve become more interested in problems that are hard to summarize. We live in this moment about the summary of things. Everything in 140 characters. Plays are a unique form of writing that you can’t describe in a sentence or even in a paragraph. The only description of the play is the play itself.

That sense of destabilization is a quality in the theatrical language of writers you like: Wallace Shawn, Caryl Churchill, and even Anton Chekhov.
MP: One amazing part of a playwright’s job is to create a new language. In every play you have to do that. So, I focus on language itself, how people speak, particularly how people speak in my plays, which I’m told is different than how people speak in real life. Although, if you listen to human speech, there’s such variety in how different people form sentences, how thoughts come to them, and how they struggle to articulate dense problems. Across my plays, I’m trying to express that activity of trying to articulate things, which leads my plays to have a specific language. I want to be precise with the words in my plays.

You have come back to the International Thespian Festival and been a Playworks mentor yourself. What two or three pieces of advice do you think would best guide young writers?
MP: I want to take their play on its own terms. With students, I’m not interested in trying to turn their plays into my plays or into any other play. The best thing I can do is to help them be as specific as possible in the choices that they make and that their play demands. Above all is surprise. Theatre is best when it surprises. How can you not quite do what you or other people expect you or the play to do?

Surprise happens at every level in the best plays. It happens structurally, when the play ends somewhere both inevitable yet surprising. It’s also how a sentence ends. I’m interested in having the words that end sentences not quite be the words you thought the sentence was moving toward.

So, I would primarily advise young writers to never become complacent, to never fulfill the expectations anyone has about where a line is headed, where a conversation is headed, or where a relationship is headed. Try to stay off balance as much as possible. 

This story appeared in the December 2018 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine. 

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