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The Kid
Gets Into Pictures

The Kid
Gets Into Pictures

Adam_bock

With two new plays being produced this season by major New York off-Broadway companies -- and another soon to open in California -- the distinctive gay voice of Adam Bock has generated quite a buzz in contemporary theater circles. Now he's setting his sights on Hollywood

"I write about gay people or I write about people that are not usually the center of the story," says playwright Adam Bock. There are no gay characters or same-sex plotlines in The Receptionist--Bock's latest production, currently playing off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club -- however, the title character is a woman in her 50s. "I wanted to put an older woman in the center of the play," says Bock, explaining that he once worked at a receptionist himself for a temp agency. "I had so much power and no power at the same time. I knew everything that was going on in the office, and yet, when the office party was happening, I had to sit at my desk." He draws the parallel to his experiences as a gay man. "I'm a white man and I went to Ivy League schools and I've had the most privilege. And yet, at the same time, someone could call me a fag and I am dismissed."

Tim Sanford, artistic director at New York's Playwrights Horizons -- which presents Bock's other new work, TheDrunken City, beginning in March -- describes him as "deeply special, unique, sunny, trenchant, funny, deep." However, Sanford notes that there are seeming contradictions in Bock's work. "He writes about characters going through big events and transitions, but filtered through a decidedly everyday lens. His use of language is taut and jumpy but also expressive and rhythmically poetic."

Indeed, Bock's off-kilter approach to storytelling, as well as his acknowledgement of traditionally sidelined characters, is probably the constant in an eclectic series of funny and challenging plays he has turned out over the past 10 years. In Swimming in the Shallows (which won the Bay Area Theater Critics Circle award for Best Play in 1999) a man falls in love with a (somewhat literal) shark and tries not to sleep with him too fast on the first date. His Obie Award-winning The Thugs tapped into the unsettling and sometimes scary experiences of temps working late nights in near-empty office buildings. And The Shaker Chair, a coproduction by Shotgun Players and Encore Theatre Company in Berkeley, Calif., that opens December 12, focuses on older women and environmental activism. When he writes gay characters, they are full-blooded and sexy; The Advocate review of his 2004 comedy Five Flights singled it out for "the best gay male kiss" ever seen onstage. "I was very proud of that," Bock says with a chuckle. "I always thought it would be great to date a hockey player -- he'd say, 'Honey, we won the game, come to bed!' "

Bock's acute sense of the "other" has been fed by his experience growing up as an English-Canadian raised in French-speaking Montreal. Still, it's his sexuality that has most informed his interest in the outsider. "It's an immediate recognition when you are gay," offers Bock, "that the world isn't as the dominant narrative says it is." Of course, Bock also had the good fortune of being taught by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive) at Brown University in Providence. "Paula is not afraid of breaking the way things are done," says Bock. "She asks you to challenge the shape of the story. She said, 'If you change the way a story is told, the content will change too.' "

Bock tests her theory quite literally in TheDrunken City, a comedy about six people in their late 20s and early 30s. His script calls for the set itself to shift balance, bringing different groups of people -- including two gay men falling in love with each other -- in and out of focus. "The world tilts, and then the boys get into the center," Bock explains. "We have decided without thinking who gets to be in the center, and when that is challenged there are all these big fights."

Vogel recalls Bock as "writing wild and funny plays, plays with enormous theatricality, vivid language, and a fearlessness in embracing the strange." When I ask her about his evolution in The Receptionist -- written a decade after she first met him -- she adds, "We've got a writer who understands human manipulation and cruelty in an environment of government-sponsored suppression, and in this current stage he reminds me a great deal of Harold Pinter. I think we should all be watching him."

After he completed studies at Brown, Bock threw himself into AIDS activism, becoming involved with ACT UP and Queer Nation in Rhode Island. He also wrote plays specifically for the gay community in Providence. "I was a propagandist for a while, and I started doing this thing called The Gay Boy Nutcracker, a Christmas pageant." Writing queer-themed playlets set to the traditional Tchaikovsky music, he included such items as a lesbian marriage and a lesbian ballet in the seasonal productions, which ran over a four-year period. He subsequently moved to San Francisco, where he pursued playwriting while supporting himself with part-time jobs. Then five years ago he arrived in New York City, where he has managed to successfully launch himself as a full-time playwright.

Now in his mid 40s, Bock is ready for the next phase in his career. He recently signed a deal with producer Scott Rudin to work on a yet-to-be-determined film script. Looking back to the 1990s, he notes, "I think the AIDS crisis knocked a lot of people for a loop, and exhausted us. For gay men, in particular, who are into their 40s and 50s...we missed a whole group who never got to be that age. I think it is going to be really interesting to watch gay men take power and how we are going to use it. I can feel myself revving up again."

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