Flavorwire Interview: Meet the Director of the Tucker Max Off-Broadway Play

Literary frat bro Tucker Max has sold millions of books and seen his escapades depicted in a (poorly received) film. One wouldn’t expect that his brand of humor would translate to the vaulted halls of a Broadway theater. So when the news broke that I Hope They Serve Beer on Broadway by Tucker Max, a stage adaptation of Max’s book, would be staged off-Broadway, plenty of bloggers (myself included) reacted with skepticism or, in other cases, outrage. Jezebel writer Katie J.M. Baker’s response to the play sparked an email from its director, Chrisopher Carter Sanderson (pictured above with the play’s star, Abe Goldfarb), who revealed that Tucker Max had relinquished creative control of the post-structuralist production, through which Sanderson intends to spark a dialogue about gender and sexuality. I spoke with Sanderson this week about his adaptation of Tucker Max’s book, the transformative nature of theatre, and the surprising reaction from the blogosphere.

Flavorwire: When you started working on this project, did you expect the response you received?

Christopher Carson Sanderson: No, I didn’t expect that [anyone] would care. I was quite surprised that they gave a damn, much less that they gave such a very detailed damn, which really forced me to actually play my cards. I was really expecting my dramaturgy to become apparent on opening night, but when bloggers went to town, I really had to put on my big boy pants and write out my dramaturgy [in a] letter to Jezebel and send it out into the world. I guess in these days of media, that information which might’ve been revealed on opening night is more appropriate to reveal ahead of time, as people engage their thought process so much more.

Did you expect people to come to the play and have the rug pulled out from under them when they figured it out?

No. I think that that’s cruel, and that’s a kind of theatre that I’m uninterested in. What I wanted was for a lot of people to have a lot more fun than they thought possible on the face of this planet by coming in and laughing their asses off at not a bunch of them up on stage acting out these stories, but a bunch of gay, lesbian, musical theatre-loving theatre fags like me enjoying themselves on stage [while performing] these stories and feeling like the dialogue on sexuality in this country just took a huge step forward, happily while everyone’s laughing very, very hard. That’s what my goal is.

In terms of the source material, you describe it as entertaining, if troublesome. Did you want to keep that raucous entertainment value in there?

I wanted to keep it, and I wanted to expand it to include its already extant audience and a much larger audience as well. I don’t want to pull any punches. I’m not interested in hiding anymore. Certainly this experience taught me that I should be as honest and forthright with everyone about what I’m doing as I possibly can because it’s part of the entertainment. So the simple fact is that no one would compare Tucker Max’s writing to Shakespeare. However, my production is attempting Shakespeare’s project of making a show that’s [as] incredibly hilarious for the groundlings as it is for the queen — making something that’s hilarious for every strata of class, both in education and sophistication, but not abandoning [Tucker Max’s intended audience]. They’re a part of it, and them having this [public] experience of what had been a very private reading experience is actually an opportunity to grow a bit more.

You described Tucker Max’s involvement as very minimal. Has that changed at all since Jezebel picked up this story, or do you continue to have full reign over it?

I think it continues to make him laugh more, but it should. It’s funny because you use the word “minimal,” and it’s like, a bullet that kills you is a very minimal amount of lead. Tucker’s willingness to, for some reason, take a flyer not just on me, but on our art form, is actually kind of miraculous, especially to the point where he got that I have complete creative control and he would have his deal of what he makes from it, and that’s set. He has never once attempted to violate the sacrosanct nature of that complete creative control, so I have to say, all that he is still deserves a thanks for letting me do what I do best.

I read William Goldman’s The Season recently, and in it he complains about how Broadway is too commercial. That was in the late ‘60s! It’s a frequently revived complaint, and after seeing so many movies being made into musicals, for instance, the news of a play based on a Tucker Max book seemed like a grab to get frat boys to spend money on theatre. That’s probably why a lot of people reacted to the project the way they did.

Well, what I would give you is that you didn’t have, in that moment, a need to plug it into my identity, and I understand now that the media can strip you of your identity and kind of rob you of the dignity inherent in that. I mean, I went to the Yale School of Drama and I have over a dozen New York Times reviews, nine of them are for Shakespeare, two of them are by Ben Brantley. I went on a Fulbright last year to develop a musical and so on and so on, and I think that if you and everyone had known that and then seen this, I like to think you might’ve been prompted to ask a question and wonder if something was up here. I think that the nature of the media is that it takes these little bits of information and pulls them way out of any kind of context and blasts them out there in large amounts. So do I understand the response? I understand it, absolutely.

When I was writing that letter, you have to understand that was the dark midnight of my soul. I was literally at three in the morning trying to tweak it so that it would say exactly what I meant, not because I thought that anyone would give a damn, but because I wanted to go down with dignity. I wanted to fail with honor, and so the response that I got once it was sent out was like… I mean, I suddenly felt welcomed back into a theatre family that I felt that I’ve been a part of since I was seven years old and first played a part in a show. The embrace has not stopped being amazing, and that is something I’m deeply, deeply grateful for, and I’m just glad that I’ve stayed engaged with it and didn’t get enervated and just quit, and I think that if there’s a message in what’s happened to me, it’s that artists have to stay engaged in this incredible, new, dynamic information world. Try to throw the rehearsal room open wide and get everyone in that you possibly can. I mean, the German definition of “dramaturg” is “in-house critic.” It’s basically exactly the same as a critic, but they’re there from the first rehearsal all the way through and writing about it, writing about ups, downs, ins, and outs.

It’s an excellent way of taking popular source material and not just transferring it onto a stage, but giving it a more meaningful layer.

Thank you. That thoughtful approach that you described, to me, is the very essence of our art form. Theatre is transformative. In ancient Greece, the actors were the only people allowed to cross battle lines between the warring city-states because it was understood that what they did was transformative — communicated directly to the gods — and was something that everyone needed to see and understand. So if you imagine in our current place: the warring states of the frat guys who are, for all their faults and all their lack of parenting and so forth, are what they are, and this whole group of people over here trying to have an open, inclusive dialogue about sexuality and yet finding it ghettoized, because it doesn’t really count when only the oppressed people are having a dialogue about sexuality. That’s not exactly what they mean, you know? The actors can be the ones that bring both of these warring city-states, if you will, together to laugh at the same thing. This is the holy and transformative truth of our art form.

I fell into the same trap that I despise watching other bloggers fall into, but it’s sort of how we’ve trained our brains to work: creating outrage to get attention. It’s nice to have the chance to dive deeper into a more thoughtful reading.

I have no grudges or anger remaining about any of it, and I never really did. Actually, my feelings were deeply, deeply hurt, and in that moment, I made that decision to try to be brave…. If you’re generating rage and it incites dialogue, then that dialogue is the very nature of theatre. I mean, Alec Baldwin published that big letter, right, about dialogue with the critics and, like it or not, we are in the dialogue age. It’s instantaneous. I feel like I should be publishing my rehearsal reports on a blog or something,

Have you learned anything else from this experience?

I don’t want you to feel like you’ve interviewed somebody who went through the fire and is now happily, complacently creating. It’s continued to be extremely challenging, but I learned the lesson of addressing the challenge, and certainly the most recent challenge, if you’re interested, is the accusations [that I’m] supporting rape culture, which I really had to think about. First of all, I never would’ve agreed to adapt material that depicted rape, and it doesn’t. And second of all, I went through a phase of being like, well, if you play a Nazi on stage, it doesn’t mean you are a Nazi. Hello, this is the theatre. But then what I really got was — and this is a great thing about the blogging world — is this has actually pulled me out of my theatre-centric space and made me go, “Wait a damn minute.” When someone asks me whether I am defending rape culture, then the next thing out of my mouth should be, “Before we answer that, could you tell me how you’ve answered the charges that you’re the Central Park murderer?” Because that’s the logical thing they’re doing. It’s a logical fallacy. They’re accusing me of something that has nothing to do with this material at all, just to generate that rage and to get those clicks. So I would say that that was deeply troubling. I thought about it and then I realized there is a lot of great dialogue here, there’s a lot of great things to talk about, but accusing this of supporting rape culture is just a stupid logical fallacy and a dumb trick, and I’ve learned to not fall into it. So I’m staying engaged. I’m sure I’ll screw up some more. Hopefully our screw-ups will generate clicks.

I Hope They Serve Beer on Broadway opens June 5 at The Cabaret at Roy Arias Studios and Theater. Following the sold-out run, the show will open July 5 at Theatre 777.