2014 Best New Work Nominee Interview: "The Whitmores" by Ben Ducoff

Before we announce the winners of the 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Awards, we are proud to present our Nominee Interviews.

NOTE: If you or your production was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in a Nominee Interview, please email us here.

Ben Ducoff, Boston University School of Theatre student, dazzled with his sharp wit, clever satire, and outrageous comedy in his play The Whitmores. An accomplished and breathtaking young voice, Ben discusses his history as a playwright (you won't believe what his first plays centered around!), writes a short play about a future encounter with LeBron James, and dishes about his upcoming new projects.

Ben Ducoff

Ben, pleasure to interview you after reviewing your stellar new play, The Whitmores.  Can you introduce yourself to our readers?

Thank you for having me! I am a playwright, actor, and comedian hailing from scenic Cleveland, Ohio.  I’m also a senior at the Boston University School of Theatre, where I major in Theatre Arts with a minor in American History.

How did you begin playwriting?  Do you have a background in acting, directing, or designing? 

When I was a kid, I used to write short plays about my teachers and lunch ladies—who usually met their demise by drowning in their own excrement.  Eventually, I enrolled at a performing arts high school, and, on the first day of classes, the director of the program offered the stage to anyone willing to write a play.  I haven’t stopped since—although now my work is absent of feces (for the most part).

How is the program at Boston University preparing you to be a theatre professional?  What courses and/or professors have been most beneficial to you?  What would you like to do after graduation?  Where do you see yourself working?

I will be forever grateful to BU for instilling in me a drive to create, collaborate, and question as much as possible.  Kirsten Greenidge, my playwriting professor and mentor for the past four years, is such an unbelievable teacher.  She has a heart of gold—the university should really give her an office with a window.  Michael Hammond is another mentor (and the director of The Whitmores); he’s helped me take the chaos of my work and shape it into bold, clear, and concise statements.

I’d love to stay in Boston and continue to work as a playwright.  I also see myself doing the same thing in Chicago, where the weather’s a lot warmer.

How did you develop and write The Whitmores?  What was your inspiration?  Did you have a favorite moment?  Did you have to cut anything that was particularly hard for you?  Give us an inside look!

I grew up in a wealthy community that sat on the precipice of complete and utter poverty.  As a teenager, I became fascinated by this reality.  When I got my driver’s license, my parents told me about places where I should never take the car—so, of course, that was where I ventured first, and where my friends and I discovered barbeque.  I’ve always wanted to take what I discovered on that side of town and bring it in to my suburban living room.  That desire became The Whitmores.

I don’t know if I have a favorite moment per se, but there are some direct quotes in the play that I took from a few of my parents’ friends.  As for cutting—let’s just say that readings of The Whitmores used to clock in at around three-and-a-half hours.  A lot had to go in order to make this play 90 minutes.  That’s always a hard endeavor, but it was definitely for the best.

A scene from The Whitmores. (Kal Zabarsky).

A scene from The Whitmores. (Kal Zabarsky).

Have you written other plays?  Have they been performed?  How would you describe your playwriting style?  Do you have any inspiration (other playwrights or writers)?

My last play to have a production, Nelson Saves Dinner, was about Nelson Mandela’s ghost easing the tension at an awkward swingers’ party and then joining the orgy himself.  As luck would have it, he died about three days before opening.

It’s difficult for to put a label on my writing style, but, when comes down to it, I’m a satirist.  The Whitmores was actually a departure for me—most of my work centers on Jewish identity.

I’m always looking to Martin McDonagh for inspiration—his plays and films are wild, messy, and hilarious.  Shel Silverstein has been influential since childhood. Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book was what made me want to become a writer.  It cracked me up and made adults look stupid.

What are some of your favorite stories?  Favorite characters?

There were a few years where A Series of Unfortunate Events was all I read or cared to read.  I think Violet Baudelaire was my first love.

If you could have a meal with anyone, dead or alive, famous or not, who would it be?  Feel free to invite up to 3 people.   Where would you eat?  What would you eat?   What would you talk about?  Bonus points if you can give each of them a line as if it’s a scene from a play!

Well, lately I’ve been wishing for just a few minutes with LeBron James so that I can tell him to embrace his baldness—but I don’t know what else we would talk about, so it would have to be something quick, like the new fish sandwich from Carl’s Jr.

It’d probably go something like this:

LeBron: Wow, Ben, I’m usually really apprehensive about fast food’s maritime options, but Carl’s Jr. has changed my whole perspective!  Thanks for the recommendation.

Me: Of course.

LeBron: Anybody that can change my mind about fast food fish is obviously very wise. Or manipulative.  You know what? I’m going to go shave my head before tomorrow’s game!

Me: I’ve got my clippers on me, let’s go into the bathroom and we can shave it right now!

(they kiss)

What is your favorite part of Boston?  What is your favorite thing to do while at Boston University?

I love Allston-Brighton.  It’s dirty, loud, and crowded, but I think that just contributes to its wonder.  There’s never a dull moment, and its residents have a strange yet warm communal disposition that I don’t see anywhere else in Boston. 

My favorite pastime as a student has been walking down Brighton Avenue late at night, stopping occasionally to people-watch or a buy a candy bar from one of the various creepy convenience stores—all of which seem to have a resident cat.

Why do you think that The Whitmores was so popular with audiences and reviewers?  Have you received many accolades for the work?  Do you have future plans for the play?

I think The Whitmores was so popular because it pulled off being relentless and funny at the same time.  It attacked all pieties—from the far left to the extreme right.  Nothing was spared.  And when every viewpoint is stripped naked, all we can do is laugh.   And, of course, the production was filled with talent, both on and off the stage.  Ben Salus’s performance as Tom Whitmore (an ArtsImpulse Nominee for Best Student Actor) was an absolute tour de force.  Lucy Farmer’s jarringly hysterical portrayal of Mary Whitmore will influence my writing for years to come.  And no one dies like Christian Santilli—he played Frank with such terrifyingly hilarious bravado.  I almost felt bad for him.

Along with ArtsImpulse’s nomination for Best New Work, The Whitmores was also invited to be remounted at the Kennedy Center’s Region 1 American College Theatre Festival in January.  Ben Salus was abroad, so I got to take over as Tom!

I’d love to see the play get another production—although no opportunity has presented itself just yet.  I’d really love to have a production in Cleveland.

How can the Greater Boston theatre community support university or conservatory students?  What gaps do you see in the transition from university student to theatre professional?

Give them a chance!  There are plays that no theatre company would ever attempt to produce because they present such a financial nightmare—but no one’s getting paid here so we can experiment, fail, and go crazy without having to worry about fiscal uncertainties.  Whether it’s good or bad, you’re guaranteed to experience some HONEST, breathtaking work.

There are gaps in the professional transition in Boston just like there are everywhere in the country.  For the most part, there are no entry-level positions for recent graduates that allow for growth, especially on the artistic side.  Also, it seems that theatres offering new play development are few and far between.  Yes, it exists, but the opportunities are scarce.  How can our generation have a voice if its playwrights aren’t producing work?

Do you have any other upcoming projects or productions?

My senior thesis, UpLyfted, is a play that I co-wrote with Matthew Welch and premieres on April 24, 2015, at the Boston University College of Fine Arts.  It’s an adaptation of our comedy routines, combined with a whole lot of product placement from the ride-sharing app Lyft.

On March 22, 2015, also at the College of Fine Arts,  I have a reading of another one of my plays, Louis Farrakhan has a Dirty Little Foreskin.  I’ve wanted to write about Louis’s foreskin for a while, so I’m very excited to have this opportunity!  This reading is a part of Kirsten Greenidge’s Sunday Sit-Down Series, which is two weekends of readings by BU playwrights.  More information can be found here:https://www.facebook.com/events/953226514710146/

Do you have anything else that you wish to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

Thank you so much for supporting The Whitmores, and for supporting new work in general!   Follow me on Twitter @BenDucoff for updates on readings, productions, and complaints about the MBTA.