By Brian Marks
Christian Levatino began his career as an actor, then director, but it’s his shift into playwriting that has revealed his greatest artistic ambitions. In fact, “ambitious” is the best way to describe his work; rather than writing individuals plays, Levatino has been creating chapters in his Black Bag Pentalogy, a series of interconnected works that dissect major periods of tumult during the mid-20th Century. Levatino has rushed head first into the thorniest socio-political events that continue to shape our politics and daily lives, often using humor as a balm against their white-hot intensity.
The first three plays in the Black Bag Pentalogy are currently being performed at The Complex in Hollywood, with all three productions directed by Levatino himself. The first play, A Sunny Afternoon, concerns the 46 hours following the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald’s interrogation (which was mysteriously not recorded). In King Dick, Elvis Presley is on the run from Graceland when he decides to make a visit to the President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon. Nixon’s influence is felt again in the last of the three, . . . Meantime at HoJo’s, which follows the men who would break into the Watergate Hotel in the five hours before they set American political history reeling once again. Audiences can see the plays individually, or as part of The Big Event, a staging of all three in a single day.
@THIS STAGE: I wanted to start by talking about the whole Black Bag Pentalogy. Where did the idea to do such a large combined work start?
Christian Levatino: It started as this one play, A Sunny Afternoon. And through that whole process of research, this whole world opened up. At first it was going to be a trilogy, and then as more and more information came to me, I thought, “This could be a really good five-part series.” I would say just about five years ago is when the seed was planted to just expand. All I wanted to do was write one play, but there was just so much information, and all these stories kept opening up.
@THIS STAGE: Of the three plays you’re doing for The Big Event, the Elvis one, obviously sounds comedic, but the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and the Watergate break-in — I don’t automatically think of those as comedic events, but it seems like some kind of black comedy is important to them. Where do you find that humor in tragic events?
Levatino: When Sunny Afternoon started, I thought it would be this very serious, hard-hitting piece. After a few weeks of workshopping it before the Fringe in 2013, I thought, “This could be a really funny black comedy.” And so we made it a little absurd, and then from that I thought it wasn’t really working. So I went back, but all the stuff that stayed from the absurdity helped pepper this tragic event with laughter. There’s this moment in Sunny Afternoon, and it’s a very interesting piece because the audience doesn’t know where to laugh. I can guarantee at every show there’s this one moment maybe ten or twelve minutes in where one character says something, and that kind of breaks the audience open to know they’re allowed to laugh. And it fluctuates back and forth in Sunny with laughter. As for HoJos, if you’ve looked into the Watergate, it really was a comedy of errors. These guys and what they were up to that night, it plays like a bunch of bumbling boneheads in reality. And they’re not idiots. They were guys who put their lives on the line. Howard Hunt with the CIA and the Bay of Pigs. These guys had done things where they could have easily died, so this one night where they’re doing a simple break-in with no guns, and they’re doing it acting under the president’s men — I don’t think there was any thought in their minds that anything could go wrong. And everything went wrong.
@THIS STAGE: When you founded the Gangbusters theatre company in 2001, what was your goal for the company? What kind of plays did you want to perform? And what were you looking for in your actors?
Levatino: At first it was just a matter of wanting to do some good work. I had worked in the drama library in college, so I had this catalogue of plays that I always loved that I would love to put on. It just started out like that, let’s just do some contemporary classics. I don’t think I ever had any intention of writing anything. I mean, I always wanted to, but writing is damn hard. I think finishing is the hardest part. Writing’s not that hard. Finishing is fucking tough. I wrote for years, I have so much stuff that’s not finished. For the first twelve years of the company, it was just trying to do some really good pieces that aren’t done a ton, like Balm and Gilead by Lanford Wilson, Streamers by David Rabe, great pieces that you don’t see done a lot because they’re complicated. And I was satisfied with that.
In 2010 I thought I would really love to write a piece, and I’d always had the Kennedy assassination in my head since I was a kid. I think everybody’s always been fascinated with it. So I thought maybe there was a story about Lee. It started off with: Lee Harvey Oswald, maybe he’s innocent, maybe I can figure out a way that he was. And that spiraled into him becoming the number two to Captain Fritz, the guy who interrogates him. He became the lead of the play, which is a really cool thing, because I went into that not even knowing who Captain Fritz was, and walked out thinking this was the hero of the piece.
@THIS STAGE: Are there lessons that you take from being an actor that can inform your writing or your style as a director?
Levatino: Absolutely. Everything starts with the acting. It’s been the most important thing for me. It’s how I write. A lot of these things are written just with me walking around my room. You start talking and it’s like you freestyle. There are so many moments in these plays where I can remember the time I was walking around in my room and everything in this piece at this moment is just first-take material. That’s so exciting. I can tell you moments that just came out of being jacked up on coffee at two in the morning.
@THIS STAGE: Are you a pacer?
Levatino: Yeah. I mix it up. I don’t like to sit long, but I’ll start pacing. The mirror is huge for me. I know a lot of actors don’t use the mirror, but I need that mirror to see certain things. When I was a child I’d go in the bathroom and shut the door, and those would be my first acting classes. I’d just imitate De Niro or Pacino in front of that mirror. So I still use that mirror. It helps quite a bit when coming up with characters.
@THIS STAGE: When you were writing these plays, did you know that you would be directing them? And when you’re writing them, are you leaving blank space for a director to make his or her mark on it, or are you regimenting every detail the way you think it should be directed?
Levatino: When I’m writing them, I know that I’m going to do the workshop production, because that’s very important for the writer. Plus, these pieces aren’t complete. When I went into Sunny Afternoon, it was a 150-page script, and five weeks later it was 86. So I don’t think it would be smart — for the way I work — to give that to a director. It would be a nightmare for a director. For me, it’s best to do the workshop, direct it, cut it, get it where it needs to be, and then, once it’s polished, I’d have no problem giving it to a director. I think mostly it’s in the script. It’s definitely open to interpretation, but it’s in that script, especially King Dick. King Dick got into the Great Plains theatre conference, which is this wonderful eight-day conference in Omaha, Nebraska. They take about sixteen plays out of a thousand submissions, and when I saw them do it out there, they got it all. I knew they could do it, even just with talented community theatre actors.
King Dick has probably gone through 26 drafts. When I did it three years ago at the Fringe, it’s 50 percent different now. These things keep evolving, and I think it’s important that they do. I met a guy out in Nebraska, and I was telling him about these changes I wanted to make, and he said, “Aren’t you done with it?” And I go, “No, no, not at all, I can make it better.” And I go, “Why, when do you finish a play?” And he’s like, “When I finish that last line. I just put it in my drawer and it’s done.” And I’ll never forget that. I was like, “But what if you could make it better?” And he’s like, “Nah, it’s done.” And I could never do that.
@THIS STAGE: That’s pretty confident.
Levatino: I had seen his work and I wasn’t that impressed. That would be like raising a kid until they’re eighteen and then just turning your back on them. What if you had advice to give to your kid at 24 that you didn’t know when they were eighteen? You’ve got to give them that advice. I think it goes that way with writing.
@THIS STAGE: I think the idea of historical plays is interesting. The Greeks were writing what was their mythological history, and Shakespeare had his great history plays, but it seems like in the intervening centuries there was a greater focus on completely fictionalized plays — at least based on what’s regularly performed now. It seems new again to be doing plays built around these big historical events.
Levatino: And maybe it’s not new, but maybe the way that we’re doing them might be new, which is making them funny, comedic. I always say that if I could get one director (or directors), it would be the Coen brothers, because they have that sensibility where somebody might get their head blown off, but two minutes before you’re laughing your ass off. And I love that in any kind of entertainment. So I think that’s the one thing we’ve made unique with these plays, that there is laughter.
And I know that pisses off some people, especially with the Kennedy thing. You’re never going to please everyone. Five years ago at the Fringe, some guy stood up in the middle of the audience and yelled, “This is bullshit!” And he got up and left. The play was over, but it made me so happy that the work could make somebody get up in a full house and scream that.
A lot of times when you see historic pieces on stage, it’s somebody being like: [elderly narrator voice] “In 1963, John Kennedy was the president. . .” It’s fucking monologue after fucking boring monologue, and I love things that are in real time and just move.
@THIS STAGE: Is your goal to see all five plays done at the same time?
Levatino: No, never! I never wanted to do three, this was Monica Martin’s idea. She came up to me after the Fringe and said people had mentioned it to her. You’d be crazy to do it. A theater could do it with a whole company and crew, five plays over a season. That would be great. But just putting on these three has probably been the toughest creative time I’ve ever had in my life. You realize fast why people don’t do more than one play at a time. It’s like having three wives, three families. You have to split your time so much. I’m very happy because the scripts all got tighter and better for it. But Goddamnit, it was tough!
@THIS STAGE: When were you cognizant of developing a style of your own?
Levatino: I think during Sunny. I noticed I love alliteration, I love snappy dialogue, I love sass, I love shit talk. If you look at all three plays, you’d definitely know it was the same person who wrote them. I think it all came together on Sunny. I’d been writing stuff for years that had a little flair to it, but it was definitely during Sunny. And there’s thirteen characters, so trying to write thirteen characters who all spoke differently was a challenge. I think the most important thing as a writer and being an actor is this: can I write a role good enough that’s going to get an actor to leave their home and come to the theater and play it even if it’s only seven pages? That’s the challenge. So every role I wrote I would play in the workshop in rehearsal. And that would make me write it better. So that’s always been helpful, being an actor and stepping into the role and seeing how you can make it juicier.
@THIS STAGE: I was curious about one of the things you’d written in the Gangbusters website bio, “. . . staging the imagined truth with speed and violence.” How are you defining the “imagined truth?” Does that relate to these historical events, or just any kind of truth that we imagined? And how does “speed and violence” factor into the theatre company’s work?
Levatino: With Sunny Afternoon, no one knows what was said. So are these plays based on truth? Yes, but nobody knows what was said. So that’s your job as playwright to make up this dialogue, make it fit, and make it timely. That’s the “imagined truth.” Especially for Sunny, you’ll have people who were in that room that say, “This was said.” This is one of the things that I love about writing historical pieces. If I can take what was actually said and fit it in the play, that is always a plus, that’s something I love. There are so many times where people will think I’ve made something up. The last line in HoJos is absurd. It wasn’t until maybe two weeks before we were going to open at the Fringe and the actors all thought I had written that ending. I go, “I don’t know if I’m witty enough to write that ending. That’s what he really fucking said to that guy.” It’s almost like I’ve lost if I can’t take real words. Anytime I can take what was said, I love that so much. But obviously you need filler, and research is what’s going to fill in the filler. So nobody knows what was said, and that’s the “imagined truth” part of it.
As for “speed and violence,” that was just something that came years ago, and it came from Orson Welles and the motto of the Mercury Theatre Company. When I heard that expression it immediately meant something to me. I only have one tattoo and it’s that. If you look into futurism, that’s where the expression comes from. It’s pretty fantastic. When I direct, if it’s boring, and we put speed and violence into it, it’s not going to be boring.
@THIS STAGE: Can you talk a bit about your acting career from college up through now?
Levatino: I did a play with the Padua Playwrights two and half years ago. But mostly it’s been with the Gangbusters. I’ve done 31 shows with them. I’ve worked with four or five other companies in that time, but it’s really hard for me to go act in anything now. I made a vow to myself that I wouldn’t do anymore plays if I didn’t write them. Life is too short, there’s too much that I want to do. I have friends who just go do six plays in a year, but that would make me miserable. I love acting and I love directing, but they’re fucking here and gone. But when you write, we’re not writing this for us, we’re writing a blueprint. When we’re dead and long gone, this work will exist. There’s nothing more special than leaving a blueprint for others.
I often ask people what they would rather do, write a great play or write a great book. A book is a singular experience; you read it alone then maybe you talk with a friend about it. But with a play, you’re putting people in the same room, and you’re forcing them to fucking unlock this mystery, this thing that you’ve left. Relationships are going to form, friendships are going to end, people are going to have beers. All this magic is going to happen over a play. So to me I’d much rather write a great play.
@This Stage: When you’re writing your plays, are you thinking of space for you to act in them?
Levatino: I’m not interested. One thing I don’t have a problem with is getting rid of an actor if they’re not up to snuff. So I never want to be in the plays, but in the end I always end up being in them, because I have to unload somebody. I know I’m going to show up, and I know what I’m going to bring, so that’s how I end up in them. But after this process, I think I really might just sit back and focus on the writing. The more time you’re doing other things is less time that you’re writing. It all informs your work, so you’re not wasting time. But you’re not being as productive as you can be. It hit me while working on The Big Event that I’ve worked on these plays, but I haven’t worked on anything new in months since HoJos. Maybe I’m being hard on myself, but now at this point in my life, it’s about writing.
A Sunny Afternoon, King Dick, and . . . Meantime at HoJos run through December 2 at The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Performances are Fridays at 8 p.m. for Sunny Afternoon, Saturdays at 7 p.m. for King Dick, and Saturdays at 9:30 p.m. for . . . Meantime. All three plays are performed in a row on Sundays starting at 3 p.m. For tickets, click here, or call 323-465-0383.