DUCK: Interview with Playwright Tom Block

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by Meagan J. Meehan
HVY.com/October 6, 2019

 

DUCK is a new play by Tom Block that focuses on an ex-CIA operative who has gone off the deep end. Spending his days in a public park, he quacks like a duck to communicate; an unfortunate side effect of a downward emotional spiral.

Duck frequently hangs out in the park with his older brother, Crumb, who is also an ex-CIA agent. One day, a woman named Abbie stumbles upon Duck in the park and decides to befriend him. Although Duck initially only quacks at her, Addie finds a way to communicate with Duck using Crumb as a translator.

This quirky play comes from the mind of playwright, author, and visual artist Tom Block who is also the founding producer of the International Human Rights Art Festival whose work has been produced all over the world.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get into writing and what drew you to playwriting in particular?

Tom Block (TB): I have written all of my life, since my first poem at sixteen: “Hope, Hope, Better than Dope.”  It remains unpublished and is lost. Since that time, I have written, with my output being in various forms. Keeping in mind that I was also an exhibiting artist (painter) for 25 years, and that the two activities cross-pollinated (I attribute a lot of my non-linear theatre aesthetic to my drawing practice).  More recently, I have moved out of the studio and concentrated entirely on writing. I began my writing career a features journalist (published in major markets such as the Dallas Morning News, Denver Post, Newsday, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Denver Post and many others from 1884-1990); I published five books between 2010 and 2014 (four non-fiction and one novel). I had my first play produced in an art gallery in Washington DC (in conjunction with an art exhibit of mine) in 2012. This garnered some acclaim, got a very interesting review and was brought to Theatre for the New City (June-July 2013).  At that time and immediately, I was hooked on live theatre.  Since then, I have written
50 short plays, 15 full-length pieces and have had numerous readings and productions in NYC and Washington DC.  After spending 25 years in a garret painting and writing, the collaboration, the passion, the energy of theatre was completely intoxicating to me.

MM: How would you describe your style and what are some of your most outlandish plays about?

TB: My plays are way out on the edge — I describe them as “Absurdist-Philosophical.”  I would hold that they are more realistic than today’s “neo-realism” theatre (all you need for verification of that is to watch/read the news every day). This play, “Duck,” definitely fits into my aesthetic, with fluid time, a Virgil like character who is generally unseen except by the main character,

abundant dark humor.  However, there is deep significance to my work, and I use the absurdism  and humor to wrestle with life’s deepest (and unanswerable) questions: “Who are we and why are we here?” I have a handful of plays which are even more out on the edge, and have yet to find a home.  Comic Book, Jung’s Chair, Bankus, Language of the Birds and Oud Player on the Tel have all been through many rewrites, some readings and are honed to my personal aesthetic.  These treat everything from the nature of reality (Comic Book) to our banking/financial system (Bankus) to the Palestinian/Israeli situation (Oud Player on the Tel).  But in all of these, absurdism and dark humor offer the framing for the exploration of ideas.

MM: So…quack! Why “quack”? Why not chirp, or tweet, or meow, howl, bark, etc.? Did you get the idea for this play while near a pond or duck?

TB: True story: I knew a guy in college who walked around campus quacking. He demanded that we call him Duck.  And then, within a year, I had met and was dating a woman with sensual lips who my friends affectionately referred to as “Duck Lips.” So I guess Duck was stuck in my craw somewhere. In terms of the play, the Duck motif sprinkles throughout, as Duck (the main character) spent two years at Swarthmore only quacking (the mark at that college not of insanity, but of an iconoclast). Additionally, when Duck receives his promotion at the CIA due to his stellar work “rounding up,” his commanding officer informs him that his code name is now “Duck.” And it’s also really cool to see how many different meanings our actor, Michael Sean Cirelli, can give to a quack!

 

MM: As funny as it is, “DUCK” explores some deep themes. Was it tough to layer the piece?

TB: This piece went through a lot of development, dating back to 2013, when I began it. Here is the true joy of theatre — there has been input from numerous actors, several directors and a few theatre companies, all of which helped me develop and hone the piece, find the right pitch for the humor, clean up inferences and meaning yet still retain the absurdist framing.

MM: How did you go about getting this play cast and staged?

TB: I was very fortunate to be accepted into the IRT 3B Residency Program for four weeks, a strong supporter of developing new works.  It is always easier to attract strong talent when there is a great venue for the production. The first thing I did was reach out to Katrin Hilbe, a director who not only “gets” my strange work and the mystical and philosophical ideas behind it, but has a deft hand for the subtle humor and pacing needed to make this play really shine.  Katrin is extremely well respected in our community, so she reached out to the crew for the play.  Then, we held five days of auditions at the end of July to put our cast together — and after going through more than 700 submissions for 5 roles (one role — Weigert/Doctor of Euthanasia –was already cast with Annemarie Hagenaars, who had been in the most recent reading of the play at Dixon Place), we came out with an extremely strong, seasoned and professional cast.  Gotta love New York!