Interview with Playwright Sylvan Oswald

This week, the Undermain launched rehearsals for our first show of the season, Profanity by Sylvan Oswald. The playwright graciously traveled to join us for rehearsals and share invaluable commentary about the play and its origins. I had the pleasure of interviewing Sylvan about Profanity, his other works, and his plans for the future.


From L to R: Brittany Johnson, Ryan Lescalleet, Dylan Key, Alex Organ, Bruce DuBose, Shannon Kearns-Simmons, Katherine Owens and Sylvan Oswald at the first rehearsal for Profanity

Your plays (Profanity for example) are often set in Philadelphia, your hometown. What is it about Philly that repeatedly inspires you?

My family’s roots in Philadelphia go back about eight generations so there are always tons of stories to draw from. And since those are usually stories that have some distance or strangeness, I’m drawn into their unknowability. I write plays to investigate what I don’t understand– emotional states or choices or catastrophes.  And in families or with history you can never really get the whole story of what happened or why someone acted the way they did. So there’s lots to explore. 

Profanity is the last play in your mysteries trilogy. How are the three plays (Nightlands, Sun Ra, Profanity) linked?

All three of them turn on someone working something out spiritually. So they’re mysteries in an agnostic way. In SUN RA, I’m tracking how the avant-garde jazz composer fuses his history as an African-American with ancient Egypt and outer space into his legendary persona. In NIGHTLANDS it’s the story of an astrologer in 1960s Philadelphia who falls in love with her teacher. And in PROFANITY it’s a little more subtle because the spiritual question is kind of the whole play and not as much a window into a protagonist (Because, is there one? Not really – though maybe we could say Leo). I’m kind of asking about what it means to be the descendant of people who acted badly. They were technically Jews but these particular guys were spiritually and morally bereft. I’m really asking myself through all these plays how I’m going to orient myself as a human on earth, how I’m going to find some kind of centered-ness that’s sustainable. I don’t know.

What are you working on now?

I just wrote and directed my own web series! In two weeks! In my bedroom! It’s a low-fi mock-doc semi-improvised web series called OUTTAKES. It’s about two trans guys making a web series in my bedroom. It was awesome. A real quick-and-dirty experience. I worked with two actors I’ve written tons of roles for over the years and who inspire me big-time: Becca Blackwell and Zuzanna Szadkowski. It should be launching in the next month or so. Stay tuned! I’m also developing a production of SUN RA with director Charlotte Brathwaite for LaMaMa in 2015. We’ll be doing some showings at Joe’s Pub along the way.

Is there anything in particular that you look forward to doing while in Dallas?

Going to out of the way tex-mex and bbq joints! Also just the simple act of driving around is liberating since I don’t have a car in Brooklyn.

Profanity runs September 12-October 12 with Previews on September 10 and 11. In the meantime, watch out for more posts about Profanity and Sylvan on the Undermain blog and on our brand new website.