Interview With Brett Epstein: I Loved Sam Stone
Interview with BRETT EPSTEIN
By: Elizabeth Crowder
Although at first glance he may seem like an incessant string of stereotypes (gay man runs from stifling suburbs and arrives in Big Apple with fresh face and theatrical dreams of grandeur), do not be fooled. Brett Epstein is not, under any circumstances, your average guy. This playwright, actor, stand-up comedian and future SNL super-star is a huge contender in the wild, unpredictable world of theater.
While proficient in many forms of creative expression, from sketch comedy (winner of TAPNYC Sketch Comedy Challenge; co-founder of Six Gents Sketch Comedy) to improvisation (long-form with Harry Houdini’s Box of Doom – 1st in set, 3rd overall at the Providence ImprovFest), his writing may be one of the things that really sets him apart from his fellow actors& actresses. A play he penned, entitled Your Mother the Tramp, was one of seven new works chosen for the PlayMakers Festival in the summer of 2010. His next, highly anticipated endeavor is I Loved Sam Stone (winner of the TANK Theatre’s SLAM playwriting competition); a play he wrote and is starring in. He possesses a palpable passion, and devoted energy to his craft, claiming that showing up is so easy, and half the battle.
“The reason I Loved Sam Stone is being produced is because I dragged my ass out of bed, went to Kinko’s, printed out a five minute sample, and showed up at the TANK’s competition with my fucking latte and my sunglasses on. And one month later, my play is being presented to a standing-room-only crowd at the TANK.”
Brett generously paused his whirlwind life to sit down with me and discuss further the secrets behind his burgeoning success.
E: What are the predominant inspirations for your writing?
B: I think it varies. I think no matter what the inspiration though, the writing is always about human relationships. Two people, or a group of people who have contrasting opinions and why they aren’t on the same page. Or what they’re feeling vs. what they’re saying. All my stuff is about that. Also, the plots are so simple. Like, how I advertised I Loved Sam Stone the first time was: Ben is gay. Sam is straight. They’re roommates. See what happens. And then people go, and I want them to experience more than that, and they will.
E: What inspired I Loved Sam Stone?
B: I wrote this play right after I graduated college in May 2009 based on an experience I went through when I was a senior. I wrote it the summer I graduated. So, it is based on a true story.
E: Is I Loved Sam Stone based more on real life than it is imaginary?
B: There are some word for word dialogues I’ve had with people I know. There are some scenarios that never happened. That was the thing about not writing, for instance, a journal about my experiences. Instead of boo hoo, I’m mad, I’m sad, I wrote a play. It had to make sense, it had to follow a story, and that was the struggle because it did feel good to write it out, but it also couldn’t be a shit show. So, some of it never happened, and a lot of it is based on the emotion of the experience.
E: What’s your writing process like? Is it hard for you to compel yourself to sit down and start writing?
B: Once I have the idea, it’s not hard for me to sit down and do it because I’m excited about it. This play wasn’t hard for me to sit down and write because I had the idea, I said, I want to write a play based on this experience. And with this one, I wrote the structure of the play first, and I don’t usually do that. I knew how I wanted this play to go though, except the ending – that surprised me
E: Does it take a long time? Like can you sit down and knock it out in a night?
B: Not a night, it doesn’t take a night. My short plays and scenes, maybe like an hour. Things that are now being produced, it’s crazy. A play? No, a play, weeks to a month. Probably I Loved Sam Stone took the longest because I graduated in mid-May and I had a reading of it, in my apartment in July. So I was working on it for two months. It’s not hard for me because that’s where my priorities lie. I will do that first.
B: I did about 0 to 1 % editing with my other works once I deemed them ‘complete’. But this play has been evolving like crazy. I was never that writer. I was like, I have it all figured out, from my head to the paper, that’s all I have to do. Then I met with the guy I cast as Sam at a bar, and I said, can you read some of this out loud? And when I heard it from someone else, I was able to say, that’s not right, or that should be changed. When I won the competition and had a reading at The TANK, I got back so many pieces of paper of audience feedback and I was shocked that it helped. Shocked. They’re just Joe Schmoe’s from the street (laughs). And that’s new to me but I think I’ll carry it over to my next play.
E: You have written this play, and are acting in, co-directing and promoting it. How do you manage to do all of that effectively?
B: It’s not easy because you don’t know what the rewards are going to be. I’m one in so many actors in NYC. So it’s challenging to dive into the emotional vulnerability of acting it out, and then stopping to say, wait a minute, I also have to book a venue, I have to work out a budget with my producer…I accept that challenge, but there’s just always so much on my mind.
E: Do you prefer it? Do you like to do it all yourself?
B: I guess I’d have to say I do. I like the control and the power of it. Maybe next time I’ll challenge myself to direct a play that I’m in. I think I could be that person. There are no limits. I sometimes let other people define reality for me. People say, that’s crazy if you direct a play and are in it as well, and I’m like you’re right and then later I think, why is that crazy? It’s not crazy. I love it. I’m thrown off guard every day by this project. But it’s still going to happen, it’s still going up, the writing is still solid. When I believe in the acting and writing, I truly feel that the rest of the project will come together. It will work out, I’m ready to present this piece. Where will it be? We just figured that out today. Who will come? Well, we’ll see.
E: Do you prefer acting to writing?
B: I really think I could never give either one up. I love the feeling of not being an actor who waits around for work. Whenever there’s a drought in my career, I make my own shit happen. That gives you a leg up. Acting is a selfish endeavor because it’s all about how I can get myself out there, but writing is something I give away to other actors. I will never give up the acting, the comedy, the stand up, the improv… but I’m loving the fact that my writing is so interesting to other actors. That just hit me as a compliment. A thousand actors submitted for the reading at the TANK, equity and non-equity, there were just so many people. It was just me in that room, at a theater…I felt a little powerful but also it felt like it was mutual in the room. Just like, thank you actors for being interested in my work, and thank you writer for writing it. That’s kind of beautiful. It was a really good feeling. Maybe I should just be a casting director.
The day I realized my comedy could be taken seriously, changed my life. Because it was so hard for people to cast me, so hard for teachers and professors to really find my niche as an actor. With my writing the response was always, that is seriously funny and good enough to take you somewhere. Not just a hobby, but like, you had better do something with that writing. And that was always so validating,
E: I remember you mentioning that you are more proud of this play than any of the others. Can you say why?
B: It has just evolved so much. I can’t believe that 2009 was an actual year in my life. It just keeps evolving and changing and growing. I’ve gone through 4 different casts already, which is so exciting. Writing a skit, I feel is easy. Writing a play, about something you’ve gone through that is painful…I feel proud of the voice that I have in this play. It ties back into the selfish thing. I thought I’m going to write a play about a gay guy who falls in love with a straight guy. That’s what it’s about, those are the main characters. But people who are complete opposites of me, will come up to me and say, I like the play because of this, or that. Literally, an older, black woman came up to me at the staged reading and said, “I liked your play because my son’s going to college, and it made me so emotional about the fact that he’s growing up and about to leave home.” That is one of the most rewarding and beautiful things for me, I think. It’s not just about a gay guy liking a straight guy. It’s complex. It’s about college, and growing up, and love and pain… Those are things people can relate to and I love that about the play. I’m just really proud of it.
E: What do you think are the keys to your success?
B: It’s literally as easy as making my art a priority. It’s my job as an actor and a writer. That is what I tell people I’m doing, and you can’t second guess that. You can’t do that thing that people do, ‘What do you do in the city?’ ‘Oh, you know I mean, I act. But I work in a restaurant. What I mean is, I act when I can, and I do the writing thing but no one really likes it…’ How many people do that? You are…not what you think, thoughts don’t get you anywhere, actions get you somewhere. Showing up is so easy and half the battle. Show up with something good. Go to an audition, and be good. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. All you need to know is the answer to this question: do you think you’re the shit? If you don’t, then what are you doing in New York City? I don’t want to live in fear but at the back of my mind I keep thinking, I don’t want to hit forty and not have accomplished any of my dreams. You can’t be paralyzed by fear, and so I’m motivated by it. I know what I want, so I go after it.
E: Would you say that fear then, is your biggest motivator?
B: I think my biggest motivator would have to be when I see people proud of, or enjoying my success. In the near future I see myself doing an Off-Broadway show, or one day, Broadway or being on T.V and I know when that day comes I will get 50,000 phone calls from people saying, ‘Brett! You’re on T.V!’ And it’s not that I’m on T.V that’s the best part, it’s that I have so many people excited for my career, and I want more to share with them. There’s always more. I’m like guys wait, I know you’re proud now, but just wait.
Because of my priorities of course, other parts of my life slow down. Things like finding love slow down which is ironic because this is a play about love (laughs). Career is just so important. Once I’m on SNL, my boyfriend? I’ll find him.
E: Do you think if you had a boyfriend it would distract you from your work?
B: No, I think you can probably have it all. But I’m just not going to seek the boyfriend with the same energy I’ll seek SNL.
E: If you had six words to convince someone to come see I Loved Sam Stone, what would they be?
B: Real life is hard but beautiful.
The Buzz: Audience Feedback
“It reminds me of a hybrid Woody Allen/Josh Schwartz creation sprinkled with Epstein’s nuanced experiences and perception…Epstein recreates human experiences with such poignancy.”
“Life isn’t perfect and I’m glad you didn’t pretend it could be.”
“Funny, light-hearted with a dramatic thread running through it. Very relatable, interesting and engaging throughout.”
“It hit really close to home for me. Truly touching. Loved the dialogue — both hilarious and sad.”
I LOVED SAM STONE
Written by Brett Epstein
Directed by Daniel Durkin
Produced by Susan Barr
Stage Managed by Jake Simon-Gersuk
Sam –> David Jackson
Ben –> Brett Epstein
Jordan –> Blaire Carson
Derrick –> David Rosenblatt
Thursday, Oct 6 at 7pm (*complimentary beverages to follow opening night performance only!)
Friday, Oct 7 at 7pm
Friday, Oct 14 at 7pm
Sunday, Oct 16 at 7pm
Saturday, Oct 22 at 9:30pm
Sunday, Oct 23 at 7pm
The TANK Theatre
151 West 46th Street (8th floor)
Between 6th and 7th Avenues
$18. In advance: Credit card. Go to http://www.thetanknyc.org/theater
At the door: cash only.