A Fiendish Conversation with Spike Friedman
The Satori Group playwright discusses his new play Returning to Albert Joseph and sportswriting for Grantland.
Timidity isn’t in the Satori Group’s vocabulary. The Seattle theater group strives to produce works that tweak the typical theater experience. Playwright Spike Friedman’s new two-person play Returning to Albert Joseph explores the power structure of language in society while offering the audience shifting senses of perspective throughout. Returning to Albert Joseph makes its premiere run at the Lab at Inscape from May 2–25. The play's cerebral tone showcases one of the many facets of Friedman's writing repertoire. To contrast, his day job involves writing daily comedic sports recaps for the popular sports and pop culture website Grantland.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Friedman about the Satori Group's collaborative process, writing about Calvinism in Switzerland, and struggling to make hockey jokes.
What would you say is the thrust of Returning to Albert Joseph?
From my perspective, it’s about somebody who has lost the capacity for language. It’s a two-hander for the most part, and it’s sort of following that thread through their relationship of being retaught language. Although, that is maybe a misleading description of the action of the play, which is partially quiet teaching, but also other things as well. I don’t have a great elevator speech about it. (Laughs)
Where did this idea of relearning language come from?
I was writing—what I guess became this show—about Calvinism and predestination and looking at that in human relationships and then looking at how we learn to relate to each other. And I don’t know where at some point it crossed over into being about language. I was in Switzerland, weirdly, this was like four years ago, and everything just took a left hand turn and the show became less about fate and more about how we learn to interact with each other.
The Satori Group is known for atypical theater experiences, how does Returning to Albert Joseph fit that bill?
There are shifts in perspective for the audience, and a major shift that happens between acts. It is a play, in a way that some of our work has been plays and some of it has been more installation performance, like when we did Spookhaus or Microdramas. This is more along the lines of reWilding, where we’re building an immersive setting that ideally engages the audience and then we play around with that as locations transition.
What do you enjoy about working as a part of the Satori Group, as opposed to being a more traditional, independent playwright?
We’ve worked together so much now that we actually have a strong common vocabulary with each other and common set of values and culture in terms of how we work, what we value in the room, the ways in which mutual respect exists, the ways in which we can therefore take certain types of risks. Like on this show, like I said, I started working on this four years ago and we workshopped the first half of it. I had a second half that no one was really excited about, so we shelved it for like 18 months, then pulled that first act back out and just completely started from scratch on the second half about a year ago. And that was pushed by one of the actors in the show, Quinn Franzen, and one of the co-directors, Alex Matthews, being like, “Look, we want to work on this text. This is where our work is right now. And how can you as a writer meet us there with that work?” That is a gift, in a way as a writer, to have anybody be like, “Not only do I want to do your words, but I want you to push this forward.” That would never happen for me anywhere else in terms of making theater, or it hasn’t been my experience where it’s been that specific.
Do you have a favorite show you’ve seen over the past year or so?
I would say the show in Seattle that stuck out to me the most was Saint Genet’s show at On the Boards, Paradisiacal Rites. That blew me away in just the level of artistry and rigor from designers, performers, and then just the holistic experience it created. It’s very much the opposite laying ideas into humanity, it’s much more laying them into gestures and form, but that show is the one in Seattle over the last year that really blew me away.
Are there any up-and-coming local artists that you think people should check out?
Oh man, Horse in Motion, a lot of those guys in that new company have helped us in the past and their show is really great. Also, I got to work with the APRIL Festival this year, and I don’t know if they qualify as up-and-coming exactly, but it’s only their third festival and I really like what those guys are up to in terms of marrying literature, performance, and really making it both exciting and also really accessible in a bunch of different ways.
If you weren’t a writer is there another line of work you would have wanted to pursue?
Not wanted. There’s a thread in this show and couple other shows I’ve written about how, when I was in school, I kept getting pushed—because I was a math and econ major—toward taking a bunch of actuarial exams. And I really didn’t want to do that, but they were like, “You have the skillset! You could be an actuary!” I don’t want to do that.
I really enjoy the “About Last Night” sports recaps you do over at Grantland. How did you initially get involved writing for Grantland and what’s your process for writing humorous takes on sports on a daily basis?
I was writing a different sports comedy blog with the guy who was doing it before me, Shane Ryan. We met years ago doing comedy. We were on an improv team together in New York, actually with someone who’s recently gotten super famous one of the girls from Broad City (Abbi Jacobson), back in like ‘07–’08. Shane and I stayed in touch because he did sports, and we put together our own little projects on the side. And then he moved to writing about TV, and I basically auditioned to take over (“About Last Night”) based on this fake blog I was writing about Olympic athletes.
The daily process is so much about having to A) just know everything and have all the references at hand and B) building recurring bits but also being able to react to the day’s news. And then the hockey playoffs start and I just get busted up. (Laughs) I just read my comments today and I was like, “Ohhh no!” I do not know hockey. I like try to watch it, I’m like, “I don’t understand what’s happening.” I know all the other sports I need to know, and I get railed by commenters every time I write about hockey. Like, “What is this? Why are you making shitty pop culture jokes?” I’m like, “Ahhh! Because I’m trying, I’m trying so hard, but I don’t know hockey jokes!” (Laughs)
Returning to Albert Joseph
May 2–25, The Lab @ Inscape, $15