You write a lot of satire. What is it about satire that appeals to you?
If I see something, even if I really like it, I immediately kind of make fun of it in my head. I’m thinking “this is really good and dramatic, but what if they did something just a little stupider?” Like, I just saw August: Osage County, which is wonderful – but I’m like, there’s got to be a way to make this bad. There’s got to be a way to make this really ridiculous. So that’s just where I naturally go.
You’re also an actor. What made you start writing?
I think some of it comes from my inability to land auditions. Since I hadn’t been able to get myself a really plumb role, I wrote The Poseidon Adventure [the Musical] knowing full well that I was going to play Reverend Scott.
When you first started out, you were writing as a team.
I wrote The Poseidon Adventure with Genemichel Barrera and I wrote The Towering Inferno [the Musical] with my buddy Steve Marca. The first musical I wrote by myself was Mulholland. Of course, I got tons of help. I like collaborations. I like to collaborate as a writer. I like to collaborate as a performer. Like, in the movie I just did, Scream of the Bikini, five producers were heavily involved in the whole process. It feels right to me.
You first wrote Mulholland for The Edge of the World Festival.
I’d thought about doing a story about William Mulholland for years. But I’m not really entirely sure when William Mulholland in a Christmas show came up. Anyway, they were doing the Los Angeles History Project in conjunction with the Edge of the World festival and they wanted LA themed history plays. So that’s when I wrote the first half of the first act. It went over really well. And then Theatre of NOTE put me into their next season for Christmas without me having written the whole play yet.
Was it daunting?
What did you do to keep from feeling overwhelmed?
Well, the subject matter’s really fascinating. And I was familiar with it. I had some really good resource material and I took a lot of notes. The more I knew the material, the more I got to know the characters. Then, other historical figures presented themselves as characters in my script. Like, I knew I wanted Teddy Roosevelt in there, that he was a natural for the Ghost of Christmas Present.
There’s a perfect parallel between the Panama Canal and the LA Aqueduct.
Yeah, and he’s the perfect progressive President. And Mulholland is the perfect progressive figure. It’s all the good things and bad things of Twentieth Century progressivism, which includes Manifest Destiny and the destruction of the land, but for the people, not for corporate interests. You know, white people. White men.
To me, there’s a weird parallel to the present: when the St. Francis dam breaks, it’s like the fall of Lehman Brothers. It’s hubris.
It’s taking over without thinking about the consequences of your actions.
Right. And at that point you become so confident, so self-assured, whatever questions you would ask at the beginning, you’re not asking anymore. Mulholland really did come to the dam on the day of the collapse. He saw water coming out near the base and said it was natural drainage.
And he knew that it wasn’t?
No, he thought it was natural drainage. But the guy who was there thought it was serious enough to call him out there, so Mulholland looked at it and left. That evening at midnight, the dam burst. Mulholland made a brief attempt to blame anarchists…
Yeah, ‘cause that was the thing in those days. He thought it was Owens Valley terrorists. But very quickly after that, he recognized that it was an engineering flaw.
A couple of years ago, you actually brought the show up to the Owens Valley and performed it there.
Yeah, we had something like 400 people in a valley that holds 4,000. So about 10% of the population saw the show. In LA, people say, “I didn’t know there was a dam collapse.” But in the Owens Valley, they know the story. When Mulholland and Lippencott walked down the aisle, people started hissing at them, which was wonderful. There’s a moment in the play where they go to the town of Keeler, which has a population of maybe 30. It used to be a shipping hub that would move borax and copper from one side of the lake to the other, but now it’s totally buried by alkali dust. Everybody in the Owens Valley knows it; you can see it at night, lit up at the edge of the lake. It’s a very sad little town. So when we started dusting potato flakes onto the heads of the actors and Mulholland said, “How is it it’s snowing and yet the ground remains dry?” people in the audience started applauding and laughing. And then he says, “You’re in the town of Keeler,” and the place went absolutely insane.
There doesn’t seem to be any sense of history in Los Angeles because everybody moves here. But there’s an incredible rich and dark history.
Very wild wild west.
Where did your interest in all of this begin?
When I was a kid we used to drive up to Mammoth Lakes to go skiing and hiking. Every time we’d drive up the 395, my dad would point out the Aqueduct, which you can see snaking along the highway.
That aqueduct is still in use?
Yeah. There’s two of them, but the one you can see is the original 1912 aqueduct. My dad’s a civil engineer and he pointed out to me that it spends almost no energy. It’s 100% gravity powered.
It’s like the Romans.
It is, literally, like the Romans. Water falls from the Sierra to Los Angeles. And my father would say, “over to your right is a lake.” All I could see was a big white and slightly powdery hazy mirage. And Dad would explain that the water doesn’t feed the lake anymore, all the water goes to Los Angeles.
A century ago, it was a very fertile area.
Yeah, and not only did they take all the lake water, they sucked the ground water out.
And this is still an ongoing issue?
It never ends. There’s still court battles. The battles have been going on for so long, that there’s a lot of people in them who are good friends with each other. A large proportion of the population works for the DWP. It’s an oddly civil civil war.
What is it that appeals to you about Los Angeles theatre-wise?
The quality of the actors. There’s a tight knit community of actors who are so talented. I would have to struggle to find a bad performance in any of the shows I’ve ever done. And the kind of shows I like to write, shows that are played close to the vest, done straight, but a little goofy, I think it’s very hard to find actors who can pull that off. But there’s about 150 friends of mine who can, so that’s the biggest advantage to my living in Los Angeles.
You don't use a lot of modern references in your plays. You don’t throw in winking nods to Beyoncé, or something cheap that might get a laugh, but isn’t part of the period. Instead, you stay on target. Is that a conscious choice?
I think the characters have to live fully realized lives. So, even if it’s going to be ridiculous and happily stupid and dopey, those characters don't really know that. We had a joke in one of my shows, it’s an old Western, in which a character says to the bad guy, “You cruel, hateful dirty Sanchez!” Okay, that got a lot of laughs every night, but one reason it works and doesn’t violate the rule of lowbrow is because when that character, Bonnie, says that line, she doesn’t know “dirty Sanchez” has any other meaning.
So the character is saying it for a reason that’s motivated, but at the same time, the audience brings another understanding to it. And the incongruity is what makes them laugh.
Yes! That’s it! It has to stand on its own in the characters’ world. They have to take it very seriously.
Bill Robens currently lives in Los Angeles. For information on his latest play Kill Me, Deadly,
go to: theatreofnote.com