8/12/11- The Gershwin Hotel, New York City
Derek Ahonen may not be a name you’re familiar with unless you follow the hyper-local scene of New York City off-Broadway. However neither were names like Terrance McNally and Sam Shepherd before they got their due. Heck even William Shakespeare died a relative unknown and didn’t rise to his current level of acclaim until well in the 19th Century. Ahonen may not yet be one of the Kings Men but he does sit poised to capture an important generation he sees as ripe for the plucking; the Internet generation. Speaking about the theatre renaissance he sees ready to launch, and the way to reach ‘the young people’ Ahonen says that he and his own quasi-avant-garde company The Amoralists are waiting; “they’re going to come on their own.” With a whole generation of kids making up and breaking up via text message, Ahonen likes his brand of in-your-face live theatre as a medium to convey his message. I recently got a chance to sit down with Ahonen and talk about his work as a playwright and a director, his long history of growing up around theatre, his hopes for the future, and his follies today.
Ahonen is an interesting name; what’s your ethnic background?
“Finnish. I came from a long line of Italians and my grandmother decided to switch it up. She didn’t want to be with an Italian man because they’re all so dominant and aggressive. She went with a Finn because they’re ‘quiet men.'”
When did you come to NYC?
“1999 to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I was 18 and I went through that three year program. Everyone in the company (The Amoralists) comes from that program.”
What got you involved in the theatre?
“My mom did work with a children’s theatre company from about 1984 until 1997; she just put me in all the plays so much so that we were doing like 5 or 6 shows a year.”
Plays or musicals?
“Both. Musicals mostly.”
Right because your style of drama is very; ‘non-musical theatre’-
“-Sure but I think there’s a real musicality in terms of the rhythm of the action — “
-There’s great rhythm I just mean I couldn’t really picture anyone ever breaking out into song.
“Yeah. But I don’t know; I like musicals so — .”
-You know it’s funny because, just thinking now about it, a lot of moments in your plays require the audience to take a leap of faith that’s not as great a distance in standard drama. But during a musical it’s where they would break into song to allow for all kinds of fantastic things to happen.
“Where a song would take place in one of my plays, instead there’s a big comedic nudity scene or an over the top fight scene that takes place (laughs). Which is why I think I could do a musical if I found the right musician because I know where all those moments come in terms of the book.”
Your company’s credo is to tell theatre “without judgment.” Yet The Amoralists mission statement says: “[the company] explores complex characters of moral ambiguity — plunging the depths of the social, political, spiritual, and sexual characteristics of human nature.” Doesn’t that exploration come with implicit judgment
“Sure. The contradictions of our mission statement and the word “Amoral” are pretty relevant and easy to see. I look at it from the standpoint of the characters and not so much the themes (in the play) but the characters themselves are looked at with an objective eye; from the actors and from me as a writer; in the sense that there are no good guys and no bad guys; there is no protagonist there is no antagonist.”
Both the plays you write and the classic selections you direct really push the envelope; your players also seem to add their own bit of dramatic gravitas to their roles. Yet in your mission statement you say that you’d like to make theatre at the forefront and accessible: Doesn’t that straddling the boundaries of social acceptability push the average theatergoer away?
“Accessibility is defined by whatever era it’s operating in. Our plays would have been very successful and made a great deal of money were we operating in the 70’s or early 80’s or even points in the 90’s. More or less I don’t know if we’re living in a Mickey Mouse era; I’d certainly say we were a few years ago. I honestly think if someone gave us a chance on a big stage with a [great deal] of promotion, I think the plays would be big and a lot of people would find something so familiar in these characters — the spirit of the plays is human and I think that people are trying to gravitate towards something that they see in themselves even if they don’t know it — We’re really just trying to show something that you can identify with onstage. “
The partnership with [The Amoralists and] Adam Rapp has been pretty good for you guys; are you working as closely with any other playwrights?
“It’s been great working with Adam; his involvement has kind of raised the awareness of the company 10-fold, but with that being said we take a lot of pride in introducing actors that we discover into the theatre community and in the forthcoming season we are definitely going to try and introduce some new playwrights that we find and we develop. Not the kids coming out of Yale or Juilliard or Tish or Naked Angeles because everyone else has already got their hands in that and they have a lot more money than we do. What we’re goning to do is work with that 50 year old guy who’s always had this play on his shelf and we read the first 10 pages and we really find something special in that. Or maybe even the 30 year old woman who just came out of a divorce and is really motivated to write a play; absolute unknowns is what we’re trying to do. I guess if we could do my two plays every year and then a new one from an unknown and what you’d call, for lack of a better word, a power-collaboration; then I think that would be a very nice balance for this company.”
Your seating mechanism for “Pink Knees on Pale Skin” [audience members were all seated uncomfortably close to one another on free-standing chairs; if they moved, they were instructed to return the closeness] was pretty interesting; care to share your motivation for that?
“I think it’s like a subway. Why are people willing to accept the seating on a subway but then in the theatre they’re expected to be able to be given a certain amount of leg room and be able to kick their feet back and pitch their head back and yawn if they want to? I mean, all the other plays, you’re able to have that [space], so with this play, if we’re going to do it like that, let’s do it like that, you know? You’re on top of the actors, you’re on top of each other, and if you’re going to yawn then everyone is going to be able to see it.”
What’s next for the Amoralists?
“Three to four shows next year; two will be mine; two will be from other people. It’s crazy because it went from me Matt and James five years ago to now we’ve got 35 people working for us.”
Who is Derek Ahonen?
“I’m just somebody now who wants to give meaning to my life; I’m just looking for a way to justify my time here, have a really big extended family, and try to operate out of a part of my heart that’s full of love and not out of the part of my brain that’s telling me I’m not getting certain things.”
At the end of the day Derek Ahonen is just a guy; like any other guy; with his strengths and his weaknesses; his insights and his confusions. Ahonen seemed a little nervous at times, still prone to huge outbursts. Hearkening back to one of my favorite dramatists, he seemed “sprung like a cricket bat.” Engaged in and embracing the ascent; one more step to the top of the city. Ready for fame and fortune and power and glory just as much as he’s ready for his whole world to come crumbling down all around him at any moment. The perfect balance of ego and self-deprecation; a theater man indeed.