On Stage With Joseph Zettelmaier

What you're about to hear from It Came From Mars is not a discovery of moth-eyed space punks. It's one of the human condition, played out time after time, stage after stage.

QUENTIN: You're the greatest actress of a generation!
JULIA: I'm not! I never was! You saw this woman, this wreck of a woman, and made her into Mary Magdelene. Orson saw me for what I was. Just a member of the company.
QUENTIN: The boy is a fool. He wouldn't know talent if it had its mouth around his…
JULIA: I've always wondered if you hated him for sleeping with me, or because he had the gall to be your better.
QUENTIN: What?!
JULIA: No need for histrionics, Ducky. You know it just as well as I do. He's a genius. He's a genius, and you're...
QUENTIN: Why are you doing this!?
JULIA: Because if you can't face the truth on your last day on earth, then when?
QUENTIN: And what truth is that, Julia? I'm dying to hear your take on it.
JULIA: That being a good artist has become more important to you than being a good man. So you've become neither.

This tenuous pair bond was forged not on Mars, but rather by Milan, Mich. playwright Joseph Zettelmaier. It Came From Mars is a national award-winning play about a group of radio actors in the 1930s trying to rehearse the same night that Orson Welles does his "War of the Worlds" broadcast.

"They panic and freak out and everything goes horribly wrong. That one is largely about the way we as a people handle crisis and how rapidly we can turn on each other, even in the midst of a completely imaginary threat," Zettelmaier describes.

Paranoia and tiger instinct are just some of the emotions Zettelmaier has evoked in his 30 plays, which have been performed everywhere from North Dakota to Ireland. "The number one rule is to never write the same play twice," he says.

After majoring in theater at Shorter College and landing an apprenticeship at Chelsea's Purple Rose Theatre, Zettelmaier has been at it for the past 15 years, while still holding a full-time data entry job in the music and video game departments of Ann Arbor-based online entertainment company Rovi, Inc. He teaches playwriting, too, as an adjunct lecturer at Eastern Michigan University.

And after after-hours, he puts in at least 14 hours a week working on about three plays at any given time, he says. Some take years before getting to the playbill stage, but if everything's a go, he can finish a first draft in about two months. He frequently attends rehearsals and in an iterative process will revise work based on an actor's interpretation of the lines.

"That's why when a play of mine gets picked up, I love to be in the rehearsal process because I will just slash and cut and burn throughout the whole process until I get the best possible version of the script. I will frequently lose stuff I normally love," Zettelmaier says. "You've got to be able to watch it on the stage."

Concentrate's Tanya Muzumdar gets the dramatic picture from Zettelmaier. Edited excerpts follow.

You were a theater major in college. What drew you to playwriting in particular?

It was one of the only things that ever felt natural to me once I started doing it...I've acted, I've directed, I've stage-managed, I've done play choreography. I've done everything I can think of, but once I found writing I was like, really this is all I want to do now.

Every play has a different story line, with protagonists from astrophysicists to ballerinas. How do you develop the ideas?

I've discovered over the years, there's just no telling where an idea's going to come from. Sometimes I decide I want to write in a genre that I've never written in before, like last year they did a play of mine called Dead Man's Shoes, which is a Western. So I thought to myself, I've never written a Western before but I'd like to, so I literally hopped on line and started looking for stories about the old west...

A lot of my stuff has been historical. I've been doing a lot of stuff set in the past. The older I get, the more interested I am in doing what came before. Not even just in stories, but in style as well. There's a lot of different tones and styles that we don't use as much today and which I've been fascinated by.

I haven't wholly put the play together yet, but there was an older style of theater called Phantasmagora, where images were projected on smoke, like if you ever saw the old Wizard of Oz, the big floating head of the wizard, that was phantasmagora. They had these special cameras to project images onto smoke and they made it look three-dimensional. I'm trying to find a story in that because I just want to do that on stage.

You've won a number of national awards, including the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association Award for best new play in 2012 for Dead Man's Shoes, which also won the Edgarton Foundation New American Play award.

[The Edgarton Foundation award] is great, because on top of getting the award it also gets money for the theater that's producing the shows. For example, with mine it bought the theater an extra week of rehearsal for a new play, which is just huge. That makes all the difference in the world. Both Dead Man's Shoes and It Came From Mars won that one.

Looking back on your career, what would you call your signature play?

The two plays of mine that get produced the most are It Came From Mars and All Childish Things...They're big comedies and everybody loves a good comedy. All Childish Things deals with a group of adult men who are still obsessed with Star Wars...It's all about a group of fanatical enthusiasts who try to commit a crime, and as you can probably imagine, they should not have tried it.

Especially with my comedies, I really do enjoy going balls to the wall and going nuts with my comedies. I'm always trying to say something with it as well. With All Childish Things, it's a wacky, zany comedy, but it's about friendships, especially the long friendships we've had all our lives and how they change as we become adults.

That's fun when you can present the message in a humorous way.

I think it makes people a little more receptive. I hate it when I feel like theater looks down on people or assumes that it's smarter than the audience. I would rather they come along with me rather than me stand up at a podium and lecture at them.

What's next for you?

The 2013-14 season is proving to be my big year so far. I've got three plays going up in Michigan and in Chicago and one in Atlanta. Salvage will play in Chicago. It was originally produced at the Planet Ant in Hamtramck. And in Atlanta, All Childish Things. There's a new one at the Jewish Ensemble Theater called The Scullery Maid, which is kind of a medieval drama. In the summer 2014 I'm going back to my old stuff at Performance Network. They're producing a new play of mine called the Renaissance Man, which is a reimagining of Shakespeare's MacBeth, all set at a Renaissance festival.

I'm working on a few plays now. I've got a new two-person comedy that I'm working on. I've got a drama all set in the south. And I'm working on a southern Gothic. I've never done a southern Gothic so I figured I want to try that. Then I've got those five shows going up next year, over the course of  year, so I'm going to try and be involved with those as much as I can be.

And what else would your audience like to know about you?

I'm a cancer survivor. I was actually born with cancer. They had to haul me out like a pumpkin. I lost a kidney, an appendix, an adrenaline gland. That would be the most distinctive thing about me...It's been a  big motivating factor for me throughout my life, especially when it comes to the writing. This type of cancer killed most people at that time. I've always felt like I'm living on borrowed time, so I might as well do something with that...I have this huge scar across my abdomen, and it's like, "OK, remember why you have this, and get to work."


Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer and the Assistant Editor of Metromode and Concentrate. Her last feature was "MASTERMIND: Chalk Talk With D'Real Graham". Her poetry appears in The Dunes Review.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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