Most children have an idea of what they want to be when they grow up, but as they face reality sometimes that dream isn't always attainable. Young adults often find that dreams become out of reach and day jobs must be attended to. That is unless you're Phil Blechman and his team of producers, Glo Gambino, Danny Bateman and Katherine McCombs.
All in their 20's, these four aspiring theatrical professionals are presenting The Black Book, a coming-of-age play highlighting a few of the many issues college aged students face while trying to figure out who they are. Blechman, Gambino, Bateman and McCombs all have full-time jobs, but still managed to raise the funds and mount a first class Off Broadway production, which opened to rave reviews.
Fueled by passion and a devotion to raise awareness about suicide prevention, the team produced The Black Book at The American Theatre of Actors in New York City to tell the story of a troubled teenager and his navigation through a psychological chess game. The Black Book continues its run through November 22. I spoke with writer and director, Phil Blechman about his inspiration for the play, the process behind creating the piece and how being such a young professional impacted his experience.
TR: You work full-time in an office managing tasks and dealing with people, how did you get into writing?
PB: Writing is my outlet, my means of expression; I think people find that in different ways; some through hobbies, sports, games, etc. Mine is writing. I started out as a baseball player; a catcher. I, like many others, had dreams of going pro. That dream was cut short when a blood clot in my right leg sidelined me from ever playing baseball again as no doctor would clear my physical. So I got into theater as an actor as a way to stay active. I had no idea what I was doing, but was open to learning. I quickly found the combination of vulnerability and intense focus addicting. It was a way of connecting with people about things that mattered. A way to share an experience in an honest and open way. I found exploring the language to be the most compelling because there were always new discoveries to be had with every line reading. New interpretations or experiences keeping it fresh. Imagine the bliss when I discovered that writing enables me to do that for every character in a play. Turns out the worst injury of my life led to the passion that I aspire to do every day. So in a nutshell, I got into writing because of my blood clot. I guess writing is in my blood.
TR: What inspired The Black Book?
PB: The initial inspiration for The Black Book was when a former classmate of mine committed suicide. No one saw it coming. To my understanding, his life had everything going for it; good family, steady group of friends, a girlfriend, involved in activities outside of the classroom - on paper, his life was great. So when he did something so drastic, it confounded everyone. Everyone at school, both teachers and students, were clueless as to why he'd do that. It was the first time I had seen how large of an impact someone taking their own life can have on people. I was so curious to understand what his thought process was. I started writing The Black Book as a way to clarify those thoughts. The first scene I ever wrote was the very last scene of the play. It was a way to have multiple characters coming at the same idea from different perspectives, to talk to each other as a means to accomplish the same goal - to understand why. I wrote the play because I want to understand. Why would someone do the one act they can never take back? What drives them to that point? Are there mental illnesses that contribute to these things? I don't know. The Black Book was written because I don't know and I, still to this day, want to understand. I figure other people do as well. The Black Book is the best way I can start that conversation.
"I was on the edge of my seat, not wanting it to end." -Stagebuddy
TR: Explain the process behind writing and getting The Black Book produced while also maintaining a full-time job?
PB: The Black Book started in 2007 as a 36 page one act play. It scratched the surface of the ideas it fully delves into now - the struggles of mental illness (D.I.D., schizophrenia), suppression of feelings, expectations of others, obsession, responsibility, love. I was a playwright apprentice at Vassar Powerhouse Theater where I did a several developmental readings of the script. Then, during my time at Syracuse University, I continued to expand the play and used the opportunity of my senior thesis to produce the play for the first time. That's when my current producing partner, Danny Bateman, first saw the show. Together we took the show to The Araca Project in 2012. That production taught us that broader audiences outside of our network at Syracuse University were also captivated by the play. That gave us further motivation to build it to its current production at The Sargent Theater on 54th street in Manhattan.
Producing the show while working a full time job is essentially working multiple full time jobs in terms of time commitment. Compromising in order to make time is a difficult challenge but one that is easy to solve if you want something bad enough. We enjoy working in the theater and putting up the show, it's where we ultimately strive to be. Producing this show is a gift. One that the team and I do not take for granted. We hope to build enough of a following and buzz behind this production to move it to the next level, where it's message can be felt even further.
The most important part of what enables The Black Book to be produced is the team that believes in what the play is trying to do. People who are willing to invest time, work, effort, and emotion into it. The Black Book would be sitting on my shelf if it wasn't for my team - IJB Productions, the design team, cast, crew, and investors. We each have our own strengths that make up for each others' weaknesses. We support each other and most importantly are all striving for the same goal. That support system made The Black Book possible.
"Breathtaking and Ingenious." -Theater Pizzazz
TR: What advice do you have for aspiring writers, directors, performers and other aspiring theater professionals who are working full-time jobs outside of theater?
PB: How bad do you want it? What specifically is "it"? The struggle is real. It's how you go about it that matters. I have doubts all the time. Am I cut out for this business? Is the investment of effort and time going to pay off? What does "pay off" mean specifically to you? The thing that keeps me honest about it is reminding myself why I want it in the first place. I want to tell stories as a means to connect with people. I believe that connection enables people to share things they otherwise wouldn't. For me that's what theater is; a means for people to share and explore ideas, thoughts, beliefs, goals, uncertainties, problems, successes, etc. and know that they aren't alone. Bringing people together on a deep empathetic level. If you have a passion for the theater, whether it's as an actor, director, writer, designer, producer, manager, or anything else, articulate why. The odds are in your favor that a lot of other people feel the same way. There are a lot of people grinding through the struggle to make it in this business. When I studied acting, I was taught to always be striving to do something. What are you trying to do? Why? Is what you're doing getting you what you want or not? If it is, then keep going. If it's not working, try something else until you get what you want. Ask for help when you need it. Enjoy the successes, learn from the failures. Always strive for what you want. Be humble, be selfless, and be self-aware. You don't need permission to work in the theater. If you want it, do it. If you don't know how, ask someone you believe does. There's no right or wrong as long as you can answer "the why?" for everything you do.
TR: The cast and crew of The Black Book are considered "millennials" - what aspects of the millennial generation can be seen throughout the show?
PB: The topics spoken about are things millennials deal with every day. How do you handle presenting yourself to different circles and communities of people? How do you handle the stresses of going into the "real world" with the expectations of family, friends, peers, yourself, etc.? What's it like to be in the "real world" and feel that you may not be living up to those expectations? By "real world" I mean out of school when you are expected to provide for yourself. We have more outlets to express our ideas than ever before, which is a great thing, yet it still enables loneliness or a need for belonging and acceptance. What do you do if you don't feel like you belong? What do you do if you feel alone? How do you handle the pressures of expectation? What do you do if you can't or don't know how to express these things? I've thought about all these things. I've spoken to people both younger and older than me about them and everyone seems to struggle with these ideas. Everyone handles them differently but everyone shares the struggle. How incredible would it be if people could share those feelings without being judged? How amazing would it be if we felt it was safe to talk about those insecurities with the expectation of resolving them? The Black Book is a shared experience that will hopefully open people up to the conversation of these ideas that if not talked about can lead to tragic things.
TR: What are some of the benefits that come with having such a young cast and creative team?
PB: Passion. Everyone cares so deeply about each other, about the work, about the message. I'm humbled and grateful for it. It is the embodiment of what I hope The Black Book can provide for everyone who comes to see it. A huge factor is that everyone on the project understands and believes in the goal. Everyone could relate to question 4 in a capacity that compelled them to dig deeper into the material. I believe for everyone involved, this is the largest production they have been a part of and everyone is hungry to make it the most provocative and engaging story they are capable of making it. The willingness to take risks, to be bold, and to put faith in each other has been an incredible strength of having a young cast and creative team.
TR: The Black Book seems to be somewhat of a passion project, do you agree?
PB: Absolutely. I've began working on it in 2007. It's evolved overtime as my understanding of things grew, as more experiences were gained, and the perspectives of others weighed in. The Black Book explores mental illness in a way today's audience, I believe, will be compelled by and then inspired to continue to explore afterwards. Fast paced dialogue, innovative design, strong performances, it has all the makings for a great night at the theater while also igniting the fire needed to get these topics on people's' lips. I am extremely passionate about this project, more so than I have ever been about anything. I have spent nearly a third of my life developing The Black Book. The subject matter it discusses doesn't discriminate. I truly feel that everyone can relate to the show on a deep enough level that it's worth seeing and worth talking about. I'm interested in others' opinions. Maybe one person has an idea, and someone else has another, and so on and so forth and eventually we have a substantial enough understanding of mental illness that we can do something about it. We can help those who struggle with mental illness, even if they aren't directly curable. We can give opportunities to those who are seriously questioning their mortality to talk about what they're feeling and perhaps find a solution. I don't have the answers. I don't know if anyone has the answers. But as long as the problem remains unsolved, I'll keep asking the questions.
TR: How has working with people in an office setting affected your view on wanting to pursue your dream as a writer/director?
PB: It's strengthened it. It's reinforced my desire to make the dream a reality. I get that office life works for some people, it has been my means of sustaining myself financially in the city, however, it's not what I aspire to do. My current job, which I have been at for a few years now, is my first job in an office. It's an office that works with theaters and venues all over the world. But it can be lonely sitting at a desk and a computer screen for a large portion of the day, even when surrounded by people. Writing with purpose and exploring ideas in a rehearsal room and ultimately a stage with others who dream of similar things inspires me to work harder. Working in the office is great for day to day stability; it's reliable, it's routine, but it also is a daily reminder to keep striving for that creative outlet and that connection with people that I find through writing and directing.
"One of the most gloriously twisted plays that I have had the privilege of experiencing." -IN New York
TR: Do you see writing as therapeutic?
PB: Of course. I imagine it's similar to how anyone's means of expression is therapeutic. It's a way to get all your thoughts and ideas out of your mind and onto pages where it can be analyzed from an outside perspective. Seeing words on the page is very different from how they look in your head, and speaking your words is very different from how they read on paper. You can hear rhythm, syllabics, inflection, intent, all of which serve as a form of therapy because they are a vehicle for emotion. I love writing. I choose plays because words speak volumes. It's vulnerable. Being vulnerable is frightening. Writing is my way of overcoming fear. I find overcoming fear to be very therapeutic.
TR: Do you believe that The Black Book can help other young people deal with their own mental health issues?
PB: I believe it can with all my being. I want to help other people with those struggles. My first blood clot was when I was 14. My second was when I was 23. Both times I was potentially on my death bed. Both times I questioned whether or not the suffering was worthwhile. The effects it had on me socially, mentally; questioning where I belonged. Do I matter? Am I worth anything? Feeling alone is terrifying. Feeling worthless is terrifying. Not knowing how you fit in the world is terrifying. Contemplating if life is worth living leads to really dark places. But you're not alone. There are other people dealing with similar things. It's being brave enough to share those thoughts and feelings. I believe The Black Book can and will inspire people to have those conversations; give them the confidence to speak. I believe it can make a difference. I want that for everyone who has ever shared a similar experience of those feelings. The Black Book helped me and I'm confident it can help others too.
TR: Why should audiences come to see The Black Book?
PB: Content-wise, all the reasons listed above. Production-wise, it's unlike anything you've ever seen before. We transformed the space into "a chess game of the mind". The mind is a mysterious and seemingly infinite place and The Black Book physicalizes those intangibles. This production is an exhilarating, thought provoking piece. A ticket to The Black Book buys you the whole seat but I promise you'll only need the edge.
TR: What do you see in the future for The Black Book?
PB: Publication and the means to move it to a larger venue that can sustain it for an open run for more audiences to see. The more people who see it, the larger the discussion can be, and the closer we can get to making a difference in regards to understanding and/or healing mental illness and issues related to it. Ideally, it becomes successful enough to be performed on college campuses around the country. I feel colleges and regional theaters near college campuses are where The Black Book would have the most immediate impact.
The Black Book
American Theatre of Actors
314 W 54th Street
New York City