Those Secrets? There's more to them.

Some Questions… for Thirst Playwright Jacob Cox

With Thirst coming right around the corner, (Tickets, anybody?) we thought it’d be nice for you to get a peek inside the minds of some of our creative team. We introduced you to our director, Scott Olson, yesterday. Today it’s our lovely playwright, Jacob Cox’s turn.

Thirst’s subject matter – men trapped in a mine – is really compelling and interesting to watch. What brought you to write about that?
I’ve probably been asked that question by fifty different people now, and I’m a little embarrassed to say that I don’t remember. Maybe I should start telling people that it’s a true story about my own mining experiences in 1940’s West Virginia.  The fact is that I started working on Thirst back in the winter of 2007. That’s last decade.  My mind doesn’t go back that far. It’s possible I saw coverage of the Sago mining disaster (2006) and was curious about the drama unfolding below, but I couldn’t say for sure. I’m drawn to plays that take place in one location, so perhaps that was a subconscious prompt. There aren’t a whole lot of places for those boys to go once the roof comes down.

Tell us a little bit about how you write? What does your process look like? How best do you work?
First off, I am a very goal-oriented individual (read: crazy). I try to find time to write for at least a half-hour every day. If I don’t feel the ambition to write, then I tell myself to just get the 30 minutes in. What normally happens is that I quickly get enveloped in whatever project I’m working on and I end up quitting an hour or two later. Sometimes all the time I have is 30 minutes so that’s all I put in. Some days I don’t get anything written and I sink into a deep and comfortable self-loathing.

I am a very slow writer. I tend to write by hand and then type my pages later. This used to be because of personal preference, but now it’s mainly because I don’t own a laptop and I don’t always like writing from home (I’m the guy sitting in the coffee shop with three reams worth of paper stacked next to him.) With Thirst, before I wrote a word of the script, I wrote a 4-page synopsis of the play to help a). clarify that there was enough of a story there to warrant a full play and b). to help me work out the structure a little bit. I used to create elaborate outlines for every project before I even started on a script, but I’ve found that once I start writing, the stories go in much more interesting directions than what I put in the outline. So now I keep the outline vague – a beginning, a turning point, an end – let’s see where this ride takes us. BTW it often takes you down elaborate dead ends, which is one of the reasons why I am such a slow writer. Many of my second and third drafts are page one re-writes that bear little resemblance to the first draft. Thirst was originally a vaudeville-style musical set in the lost city of Atlantis deep below the sea.

That’s a joke (?).

What’s something you’d like to see more of in the Chicago theater scene? In the worldwide theater scene?
Besides my plays on stage? Uhm … I should probably say more female writers and writers from minority communities. I suppose that would be nice. There are more white guys at a gathering of playwrights than there are at a Tea Party convention. Must be because we’re all just so damned talented.

Oh! This doesn’t really answer your question, but I’m going to change your question to “What would you like to see LESS of on the stage?” My answer to that question is: scenes. I would like to see less scenes in plays. I feel like modern playwrights are constantly jumping from one scene to the next without giving them the time they need to develop. I’m talking scenes that are just a few pages long. I don’t know if that’s because we don’t trust that the audience has an attention span or if it’s because we’re too lazy to take the time and develop a twenty, thirty, or forty page scene. It annoys me. I’m tired of going to see shows that have light transitions every three minutes to denote the passage of time or the change of location. Whew! Good. I got that off my chest. Now that the world knows my opinion on this matter, things can begin to change. That said, I currently have a fifteen-minute one-act up at The Artistic Home that has four scenes in it.

When you write, do you have a particular audience in mind?
Not really. I do try to imagine who might go see the show I’m writing, but I don’t try to direct the play toward that audience in any way. I think I try to write plays that I find interesting and hope other folks will find them interesting too.

If you were trapped in a mine, how would you make sure you survived?
I’d be sure to make good friends with the guy with the most water in his canteen.  Oh! And lay down low. There’s more oxygen down low.

Do you have any advice for a playwright getting their piece produced for the first time? What challenges have you come up against in working this play through to a full production?
My advice for a playwright getting their first piece produced is to invest in Alka-Seltzer. Lots of Alka-Seltzer. I come from a visual art background where I always had complete control over the final presentation of my product. This whole collaboration thing is relatively new to me. You need to have a whole lot of trust and a whole lot of faith in your fellow creators. Working with the production team and the actors has been a wonderful eye-opening experience. Scott has adapted the staging in ways I hadn’t thought of and the actors have given me unexpected insight into my very own characters.

The biggest challenge for me in this process is to know when to speak up and when to bite my tongue. For the most part, I’ve been a silent observer in the rehearsal process. Not because I don’t have opinions (check, check, and check), but because the rehearsal room is the director’s realm. It can be hard to gauge when it’s appropriate to speak up. I tend to play it safe. If something is worrying me during the rehearsal, I’ll hold off until the end and talk to Scott. If I’ve forgotten what it was by the time rehearsal is over, then it clearly wasn’t important. Sometimes, over the course of the rehearsal, I find that the actor or director’s “worrisome” choice turned out to be a wonderful discovery.

And sometimes it turns out to be an absolute train wreck and I laugh and laugh and sit back in my chair bathing in the warmth of my self-righteous smugness.

Ah, collaboration.


THIRST runs from January 19th-29th at Stage 773 (1225 W Belmont).  For tickets, call 773-327-5252 or click here and order them online.  See you there!



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