What is your name and where are you from?
My name is Matthew-Lee Erlbach, and I’m from Chicago. I mean I live in New York now, but I’m from Chicago.
How long have you lived in New York?
Seven years? Eight? Seven or eight. Yeah, seven years.
What are you working on at SPACE?
I’m working on a play called A Neighbor in the Area, and it’s about a woman in 1966 Westchester who is having a very unusual affair in this Jon Cheever like suburb. It’s a very Kafka-esque world they lived in.
Why did you choose 1966 Westchester?
I didn’t! It kind of chose itself. I was in Montreal last month, or earlier this month, and I was writing another play, and I was at this café really early in the morning, I had gotten up early to go to this café to write because it was in Old Montreal. Which is beautiful and the play I am writing takes place during the War of Independence, the American Revolution and being in Quebec was perfect because there’s a lot of history and I just needed to take a mental break from that play because it’s a dark comedy in verse and there’s a lot of history, so I just wanted to hear two people talking just to kind of cleanse my head and give myself a detour. I just started writing, and the first scene happened and I thought “Oh, this is really interesting, this is really great. I’ll write the next scene.” All of sudden I started writing this Kafka-esque tale of this woman in the 60s having a very unusual affair. It’s not the kind of play that I normally write either. So, it was very interesting.
What are the plays you normally write? What’s different about this one other than that it’s Kafka-esque?
Well, I like Kafka-esque. I’m a big fan of Kafka and his work, parables and all that. But I normally write satire, socio-political satires, drama. I write about the fringe and outcasts a lot, people on the edges of society in a socio-economic context, but I’m usually trying to digest the events of the world or history in some way. And this is not that at all. I didn’t start with an argument that I was trying to prove or not prove, or anything thematic. I just started writing and listening to what was happening and letting that guide me. Usually I take a little more time to story map out and then write, and take that and go back and forth, and this is new and it’s forcing me to be patient. Which is great! I feel like I’m being lead, in a way, and letting the characters do a lot of the work and telling the story. It’s very step-by-step. It’s cool. I’m really enjoying it. It’s going to be a good play, if done right.
How else are you spending your time at SPACE?
Hanging out with this awesome group! It’s been so fun. Having everyone together like this is great because in New York you come together, you go, you come together and go. Having time to bond in a group with other people is always nice. But of course, with other writers, it’s people whose work you admire and who you admire personally. Just having that time to get to know one another on this beautiful farm is a really nice rest. So we’ve been hanging out. I was watching a rooster yesterday, crow. I was just watching the chickens do their thing. Chickens are so interesting because they are kind of reptiles with feathers they have these very big dinosaur-like feet.
Did you know that the chicken and the T-Rex are close ancestors?
Really? Well, I’m not surprised.
Yeah! The T-Rex’s closest ancestor in this world is not a crocodile or anything, but a chicken.
That’s so interesting! That makes so much sense, and watching the rooster crow, heave in air and puff out it’s chest, it doesn’t sound like a bird it sounds like a (makes a rooster noise). It’s a groan, it’s a…
Yeah, it’s a…it’s a…it’s a crow!
I guess there really is no other word for it. It’s so weird that you thought of that without even knowing. It just shows how observant you are!
Yeah, I guess. It was so reptilian. Just watching how the chickens scratched and pecked…
They’re actually really violent creatures if you really, really look at them…
Yeah! And I was wondering, “Why was this rooster crowing? It’s the middle of the afternoon.” Is he trying to get the lady chickens to come back and lay eggs? Is he to say, “I’m here and I’m the alpha” or is he trying to socialize? It’s really interesting how they socialize, and they also just go wherever the fuck they want. I think that’s great. I was walking on the path, I heard a little rustle, and it ran across the path, and I was like, “You gotta be kidding me.” Chickens all over the place. It’s great. I like seeing chickens not in a factory pen like you normally do.
That’s interesting that you brought up animals because the next question is: If you were going to be a farm animal, if you were going to be reincarnated as a farm animal, which one would you be?
Definitely not a chicken.
Definitely not a chicken?
Absolutely not, they seem like…I would hate to be a chicken. If I were to be any farm animal which one would I be? I’ve been thinking about getting this honeybee tattoo. I like bees a lot.
I mean, you want to talk about infrastructure they have a real structure of living.
Yeah, and bees are very disciplined. They come back to the hive, and they work in the group, you know? I think it’s very much like what artists do: they pollinate ideas. I don’t know if I want to be a bee, though, because they are fixing colony collapse disorder.
Yeah, there are bees dying all over…
All over the place, yeah, because of pesticides. What farm animal would I be? The sheep seem to have it pretty good. Maybe a border collie. I know Suzanne (Heathcote) said she wanted to be a border collie, and I grew up with collies, so maybe I’ll say…no…you can’t ask me a question like that, it’s hard.
I know. Someone said a pig because pigs are very intelligent. They are actually clean animals.
They roll around in the mud because they have like no sweat glands, and mud keeps them cool.
Huh. I think I would be a dog.
Like Socks the dog?
No, I think Socks is sweet, but not like Socks. Everytime I walk past him, He growls at me.
He growled at me today, too!
Buddy, listen to my thoughts, “I love you!” I love all animals, especially dogs.
Well, he’s only two, so he’s still a teenager.
Socks has got to learn, he’s got to learn about being an adult. I thought he was much older.
Yeah, he’s got an old soul.
He does right? It’s in his eyes.
We characterize him as an old grumpy man living in the Bronx.
Totally! He’s kind of the grumpy guy on the porch.
Like all, “Fuck you! Get out of here.” Socks, Socks from the Bronx.
His full name is Socrates, so it’s even better.
Ohh! Well, if I was Socrates stuck in a dog, I would be pretty pissed off too.
Yeah, he’s probably thinking, “Oh, what did I do?”
Yeah, “What did I do to deserve this?” That’s like locked-in syndrome. Do you know what that is?
Locked-in syndrome is where you are mentally awake, but your body is unresponsive. So people are talking to you and you can’t respond at all. It would suck to be reincarnated and be aware of my previous life or be aware of all the information I gathered in a previous life and stuck in a dog, because that’s a version of locked-in syndrome. But, what they’ve discovered about it is: there was this woman in a coma and she was completely unresponsive neurologically. She could not respond at all, in any way, and so they hooked up her brain to a computer, to some kind of scanner. They said to her, to see if she could hear and process, “think about a tennis match.” It’s a very simple back and forth and in the exact place where that activity happens she was thinking about a tennis match. A scan matched part of the brain and the wavelength matched perfectly. Then they asked her to think about different things, and she was able to. It was a breakthrough because a lot of times, you know family members will pull the plug on a loved one in a coma because they think they are dead.
Oh, that’s heartbreaking. So they really were there on some level.
Mhm. So be in a position to be able to hear you family members talking about you…
But you can’t respond.
But you can’t respond. It’s very frightening, and what’s worse, too, is if you’re in that position and you’re around family talking around you and they think you’re a, forgive me for saying this, a vegetable, and they’re saying things around you that you normally have a voice in the conversation about or want to respond and you can’t correct or you can’t you know…yeah, communicate at all and then they pull the plug on you. I feel like that’s the worst way to die because you’re alive and you are completely unheard, and to know that you had no choice in the matter, but you are totally present. Now you have to prepare for your death…that’s just…
Do you like being a part of regular plays or solo shows more?
I like doing both. I think they serve different purposes especially since I’m writing the material I’m performing so it allows me to have a pure theatrical experience in terms of storytelling. Yeah, but I love being in plays. Being an actor-writer is tricky, especially in NYC, because people like to compartmentalize you. Until you can prove that you can do both, and that you are actively doing both, you just have to keep doing the work.
How do you prove it to them? Do you do a show that’s really excellent? How do you get people to stop compartmentalizing you, is the question.
I don’t think you stop people compartmentalizing you. You just do the work, and the people who get it, are the people who are your advocates and who are going to perpetuate the truth of what you’re doing which is, “Oh, this is a person who does both.” But because both paths are so exclusive like the acting world is the casting directors, and the network, that’s one world. The literary world is right nextdoor, but it’s a whole different group of people. So you’re deciding what hat to put on when you’re at each party. You’re with the literary managers and you’re talking about the play you wrote, not the one you’re in. Word gets around. New York, unlike L.A., is an is an echo chamber, if you’re doing something in New York, people are going to know about it. That’s why Ars Nova is great, and SPACE is just wonderful. I was here for a fellowship the second year (of SPACE’s existence), and the first year they were doing a fellowship, and Emily (Simoness) has created a community. Being a part of a community is the best thing you can ask for. Those are the people who are going to recognize and love you, and support what your mission is.
I don’t know how to ask this question, but, do you like to talk to actors or writers more? Who would you prefer to sit down and have a meal with? That’s a tricky question… it’s a weird question.
No, it’s not a weird question. I think actors and writers think a little differently. I was doing a lot of regional theater when I graduated, and a lot of Shakespeare—being around people who are gypsies. Actors who do regional theatre go around from theater to theater, and maybe they’re based in New York, but they’re going around. So when I graduated, several years ago, seven years ago, whatever, that’s what I was around. It’s a different conversation than one with writers. But I don’t know, I love talking about the work, and not everyone does. I love talking about process, because that’s what we do. That’s what our life is. I love talking about story structure, and theme, and characters, and what you’re working on, and how you’re working in it, and learning, because I want to learn as much as I can. But, they’re different conversations. This (Erlbach’s time at SPACE) has been really great hanging around writers. Writers are socially awkward, and actors are typically very extroverted. When I was at Williamstown, it was so funny the difference between the writers and the actors. In acting school, everyone wants to be the center of attention, but everyone finds his or her place in the group, it’s different thing. It depends on what you are in the mood for. They (writers and actors) are all the same, because everyone wants to be relevant at the end of the day. Everyone wants to know what they are doing is being witnessed by somebody.
That’s true. Because then what are you writing a play for? To do it alone in your room? You want the shared experience.
It’s a church, it’s why people go to church. You’re writing a blueprint. It’s a weird duality because the writer is the observer and the participant. The loner and the collaborator. We’re on the outside and then we bring the blueprint. I’m sorry I’m thinking out loud. It’s interesting.
Interviewed by Raquel Loving.