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An interview with Playwright Mike Folie

By Gary Wien

originally published: 05/01/2004
Mike Folie is a playwright currently living in New York. He is the Playwright-In-Residence for the New Jersey Repertory Theatre Company in Long Branch. Some of his recent productions there have included Naked by the River, Panama, An Unhappy Woman, Slave Shack and The Adjustment. I spoke with Folie about Lemonade, his current production being run at NJ?Rep now through June 6th.

Tell me about Lemonade. What is the significance of the title?
Well, it's a light comedy but it's got a bit of a bitter edge to it. So, I thought Lemonade was a good title because the play is like lemonade. It's like refreshing but a little bit sharp. It's not a heavy duty play. It's more of an (Alan) Ayckbourn kind of play.

An Americanized Ayckbourn?
Right, exactly. I only use that because I've heard people compare it to that. And I like Ayckbourn, so I take it as a compliment.

What is the actual setting of the play?
It takes place in any major or good-sized market city in the secular developed west. It could be outside of New York or Paris or England. It could be any place where it's a secular country and that's what I say in the beginning. It really doesn't take place in any specific place. The city that these people live in has a major art museum.

It takes place now and it's timeless in that it's about the eternal sort of dance between men and women. But it has a certain kind of contemporary feel to it because the men are a little bit "New Agey". They're acting the way men have acted all throughout history - trying to get as much sex as they can - but they're kind of justifying it with New Age psychobabble.

How involved do you get with the productions. Do you go to many rehearsals?
I'm very involved in this one - more involved than I usually am. It depends on the theatre and where it is. At NJ Rep, I tend to be fairly involved. At some theatres I'm not involved at all. Some theatres I don't even get to see the play. But I have a long working relationship with NJ Rep. I've worked with them since 2000 and this is the sixth play of mine they've done.

So, I tend to be very involved in the casting although I don't dictate the casting. I sort of reserve the right to say no if my instincts are screaming no. But I try not to use that if I can. And sometimes we do some rewrites before we go into rehearsal. I also work with the director if the director has any issues where there are places that could be better.

I've been working with Evan Bergman, the director on this, for a couple of years because his company had the Off-Broadway option on it. They couldn't raise the money to do it so their option expired, but I liked working with Evan. So when NJ?Rep decided to do it, they asked me if there was a director I wanted to work with and I said I've been working with Evan for two years so let's bring him in.

So, we did some work on the script and I was there for the auditions and the first couple of rehearsals and then I kind of stay away for a while. I'll back off and let them block and make mistakes and try to get to a place where they can sort of stumple through the play. Then I'll come back and watch that first very rough run through about a week and a half through rehearsal. And if it's going well - which it almost always is - I'll back off again. I won't come back for another week. Then I'll take another look. I'm usually in pretty constant contact through telephone and email communication with the director.

I never speak to the actors directly unless the director invites me to. The director is the boss and everything has to come from that person's mouth. So if there's issues the director and I discuss them away from the actors. And then the director speaks to the actors. I?don't.

You have had quite a few plays produced in the last few years. When you're writing a play, are you working on just one at a time or do you work with several ideas at the same time?
Usually one has focus. I've described it once to somebody as being an architect. You have lots of projects at different levels of completion going on. Some things are just ideas; some things are on the drawing board; some are under construction; some are almost finished and some have been up for a while and people are living in the building.

I've got plays out there that are being done and sometimes I have to do revisions on those plays depending on the demands of the production. And then there are plays that are fairly new - they've had a few readings or workshops - that I'm still working pretty intensely on. And plays that are very new, I don't even show them to a lot of people - I just have readings with small of groups to get feedback. And there are plays that I'm actually writing new that I'm working on and plays I'm just thinking about. I'll think about a play sometimes for two to five years before I start writing it.

I saw a quote from you where you said, "Characters come into my head and if I'm lucky they go away and I don't have to write about them. But if they're still talking to me a year later than I have to see who they are." I think that's a great way to describe the process. A lot of times I think the characters kind of write the story and we're just recording it.
Yeah, I'm very character oriented. I started out as an actor and it always starts with the characters. People walk into my head and start talking and they're in a situation. They may be in an office or on a picnic or something and I'll hear them talking. I'll say, "I wonder who they are, what's their story?"

Then I'll just listen for a while and I'll get an idea. And I'll let it go because sometimes these characters go away and I don't want to think about them anymore. It's like ok I don't have to write that play. If I start writing down what they're saying then I know that I've probably got a play coming.

After doing this for a few years, I know that if you write a play it's like marrying someone or having a kid. You're going to be with this thing for a while. So you better like it. you better have something invested in this thing because if you get sick of it forget it. It's not going to happen. It's got to be something that's going to keep your interest for years and years.

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

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