On "Pho," Donuts, and Death:
A chat with playwright George Soete as his new play premieres as part of Scripps Ranch Theatre's "Out on a Limb" program
By Donnie Matsuda
In its inaugural year, "Out on a Limb - New Plays from America's Finest City (OOAL)" is a new play development program designed to create, develop, and stage new plays that are penned by local playwrights with stories that have ties to San Diego and its people. From submissions received by program producer (and award-winning director) Robert May, three San Diego playwrights were commissioned to write and revise their own one-act plays and their finalized products are now ready for full-out stagings at Scripps Ranch Theatre. The three plays are "On Air" by Lisa Kirazian, "Pho Donut" by George Soete, and "Green Flash at Sunset" by Tim West. All three plays are being performed on all three days of the OOAL festival, which runs Friday, June 29, Saturday, June 30, and Sunday, July 1 at the Scripps Ranch Theatre on the Alliant International University Campus.
|OOAL Directors and Playwrights: (front row) Robert May, Lisa Kirazian, Antonio "T.J." Johnson. (back row) George Soete, Tim West, Don Loper. Photo courtesy Scripps Ranch Theatre.|
DONNIE: How long have you been writing plays?
GEORGE: Almost 20 years.
DONNIE: I understand you've also been involved in the San Diego theatre scene as an actor, director, and producer. How do you see your role as playwright fitting in with these other identities?
GEORGE: I’ve actually been involved in theatre for more than 40 years, in Cincinnati, Trenton (NJ), Phoenix, and now San Diego. For me, all of these identities are great cross-training opportunities. Every time I act, I learn important lessons about writing and directing. When I read a play, I can imagine visuals, tones, etc. When I write plays, key concepts of acting keep pushing into my mind.
DONNIE: Of the plays you've written, do you have a favorite?
GEORGE: Pho Donut is my favorite at the moment. I have had a wonderful time editing and revising the play, which I wrote a first draft version of in 2004. Otherwise, yes, I have some that I think work better than others. I prefer to write comedies, though I have written a few serious plays. I love to write about older people, and I’ve written two plays with Mafia overtones. Wherever my spirit guides me….
DONNIE: Do you have a specific approach to writing plays?
GEORGE: I usually start with characters. With Pho, I started with monologs to flesh out the characters in my mind; some of the monolog content was retained in the text which will be performed at SRT. I started one play with a tiny incident in a supermarket. I started another with the image of a man sitting on a bed singing a song. I write and rewrite incessantly when I’m working on a play. The genesis of a play is always interesting, but the real work that makes a decent play is rewriting.
DONNIE: Any particular playwrights who have inspired you or whose work you attempt to emulate?
GEORGE: I am crazy about David Mamet, whose spare, rapid-fire dialog I shamelessly imitate. Neil Simon is an underrated genius; I always hope to be a tiny bit as funny as he is. I read a lot of plays, and I learn something from all of them.
DONNIE: How did the concept of "Pho Donut" come about?
GEORGE: There is a donut shop in my neighborhood. I used to see a group of old folks gathered there every morning, having coffee, donuts, and cigarettes. I modeled three of the characters on four of the actual people (well, they probably would not recognize themselves, but…) The other three characters came out of my head. I wanted to write a comedy in which old people were taken seriously, not as caricatures. As an older person myself, I wanted characters who still sometimes behaved like teenagers, who were often lonely, who needed each other, and who were funny people.
DONNIE: Tell me a bit about the play's premise.
GEORGE: Five oldsters gather each morning in front of a shop for coffee and donuts. The owner of the shop is Vietnamese, and he has added pho to his menu. One of the old guys (not seen in the play) dies, setting off a crazy plan to hold a memorial service in front of the shop. The plan is complicated by a love triangle among three of the oldsters. The memorial service finally takes place, but not until the cops arrive and two of the men nearly come to blows.
Donuts and pho are, in my mind, the yin and yang of food choices, and I also tried to mirror the yin/yang concept in the characters of the two men in conflict. But that is not mentioned in the play; it was just a game I played in my mind. I don’t like overt symbols or messages in plays.
DONNIE: What do you hope audience members will take away from "Pho Donut"?
For more information about OOAL and Scripps Ranch Theatre, visit: www.scrippsranchttheatre.org.