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Theatricalizing Theory: A conversation with the inimitable David Greenspan

November 9, 2011 |  9:30 am

David Greenspan

To say there is no one in the American theater quite like David Greenspan is an understatement. An Obie Award-winning actor, director and playwright (“She Stoops to Comedy” is a force of giddy hilarity), Greenspan has developed an underground following too large to remain below the radar. Los Angeles audiences will get the chance to encounter his sui generis style in “Poetics and Plays,” a double-bill at the Getty Villa this weekend that finds ways of theatricalizing the antithetical theories of theater of Aristotle and Gertrude Stein — something only Greenspan could dream up and dare to perform on his own.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks that Aristotle is totally cool, but how did the idea of doing a theater piece about his “Poetics” come about? Can a theory of drama be dramatic?

A number of years ago, I came across [classics scholar] Gerald Else's translation of the “Poetics” and was startled reading his introduction to learn that contrary to what I remembered from college as a treatise on what makes a perfect play, the “Poetics” was really a coherent rebuttal to the attack on poetry made by Plato in “The Republic” — and that further, Plato had once been Aristotle's teacher. I thought that would be an interesting play — there is an inherent conflict, a debate between a teacher and his former professor.

Also, I am interested in the performative possibilities of non-theatrical texts — in the case of “Poetics,” a lecture. Of course, a lecture is a performance, and I have fond memories of professors who were extremely engaging lecturers — performers in their own right. So that's ultimately what I set out to do, create a play in the form of a lecture, incorporating the first half of “Poetics” and integrating material from the critical essays Gerald Else wrote on the subject, especially his long commentary, “Aristotle's Poetics: The Argument.”

The bill at the Getty Villa also includes a theatrical presentation of Gertrude Stein's lecture “Plays,” which isn't very Aristotelian. (Stein doesn't need a catharsis to feel complete.) Whose idea of theater do you feel closer to?

I feel close to them both — and I try to learn from them both. And I don't think they're mutually exclusive. Stein says early in “Plays” —- in a particular context, but I think it's applicable here — that difference is not necessarily a contradiction, but a combination. The “Poetics” is an imperfect analysis of tragedy — tragedy of its time. Stein's “Plays” describes the specific evolution of her feelings about theater and her approach to playwriting. Neither has definitive resonance for me. I just appreciate their ideas and want to give them theatrical life.

You're something of a cult figure in New York's “downtown” theater scene, but if I'm not mistaken you have Southern California roots.

Yes, I was born and raised in Los Angeles and I attended the University of California at Irvine. A few of my plays have been produced here in Los Angeles and up in San Francisco. But this is the first time I've performed in Los Angeles since I was a student.

Do you have any theories of drama of your own that you'd like to share?

No, I defer to better minds.

When I think of my fantasy theater troupe, those talents I'd love to be trapped with on a desert island, I always reserve a spot for you. Who would you include in your castaway cabaret?

Thespis and Shakespeare. They wouldn't have to perform — they're just the two I'd most want to meet.


Theater review: 'Twelfth Night' at A Noise Within

Theater review: '9 Circles' at Bootleg Theater 

Theater review: 'Peace in our Time' at Deaf West Theatre

Theater review: 'Next Fall' at Geffen Playhouse

 — Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

“Poetics and Plays” runs Friday to Sunday at the Getty Villa Nov. 11-13. For tickets call (310) 440-7300 or visit

Photo: David Greenspan. Credit: Aaron Epstein