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Ashley Naftule: In Their Own Words
Jun, 29, 2021
Ashley Naftule: In Their Own Words
If you’re a fan of Space55 theatre in downtown Phoenix, you’ve likely seen the work of resident playwright and associate artistic director Ashley Naftule, whose stories often dabble in the absurd and elicit contemplation on the ways capitalism, technology, and otherworldly ideas effect our everyday reality.
In addition to a playwright, Naftule is a published poet, a short fiction writer, and an arts journalist who’s been published in Pitchfork, The AV Club, Phoenix New Times, Daily Bandcamp,Longreads, The Hard Times, Echo Magazine, and several other outlets. Naftule also creates chalk art drawings in their spare time and has been known to “mangle Billy Idol songs at karaoke” (their words, not ours). We spoke with Naftule recently to talk inspirations, motivations, new projects, and quarantine hobbies.
Here’s Ashley Naftule, in their own words.
“When I finish writing something and I can go back and reread it and it doesn’t immediately embarrass me, the feeling of satisfaction that fills me . . . I imagine it’s how a hammer feels when it strikes a nail.”
Ashley Naftule. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: When did you first know you wanted to be a playwright? Tell us about the first full-length production you ever wrote.
Ashley Naftule: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but it wasn’t until my late 20s that I began taking doing the actual work seriously. I went to see a play at Space55—it was a production of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi—and that one show so enamored me to that theater that I started volunteering and performing there on a regular basis. I had zero interest in playwriting until I saw that Kim Porter was teaching a workshop on playwriting at the Space. I attended one of her readings to get a feel for her work. The play was Blue Galaxy, and I was so blown away by it that I couldn’t give Kim my money fast enough. Taking her workshop lit a spark in me, and after years of acting in shows at the Space and producing late-night shows there, I finally had the chance to write and produce a full length show called Ear.
The inspiration for that script actually came from a song called “Ear” by the band His Name Is Alive. The song is about Vincent van Gogh and the infamous “gift” he gave his lover. I wrote this long monologue from the point of view of someone giving their girlfriend their ear, treating it as this dark comedy scene where you have this person bleeding profusely from a self-inflicted wound and they’re worrying out loud that maybe the ear-gift is too much too soon (in the same way you’d stress if you said “I love you” too early in a relationship or gave a gift that was a touch too extravagant). I couldn’t stop thinking about that scene after I wrote it. What happens to the guy? And more importantly, what happens to HER? What would it feel like to get THAT present from someone? Those questions gnawed at me, and I wrote my first play in an attempt to find answers to them.
Since Ear came out, I’ve written and produced four other plays—The First Annual Bookburners Convention, The Canterbury Tarot, Radio Free Europa, and The Hidden Sea—and I have a sixth one, Peppermint Beehive, on the way next year.
The First Annual Bookburners Convention written by Ashley Naftule. Art credit: Andrew Goldfarb.
PhxArt: What motivates and inspires you to keep writing?
Naftule: My motivation for writing is pretty straightforward: the feeling of accomplishment hits harder than most drugs. I write to communicate and share ideas and to explore nebulous concepts that I’m trying to get a handle on; I often write things because I don’t know where they’re going or how I feel about them, so the process of writing is also a process of discovery. But really I’m writing to get high on my own supply. When I finish writing something and I can go back and reread it and it doesn’t immediately embarrass me, the feeling of satisfaction that fills me . . . I imagine it’s how a hammer feels when it strikes a nail. I’m doing what I was made to do.
In terms of inspiration, I get a lot of juice out of working with prompts and constraints. I have a bit of a MacGyver brain when it comes to writing: I love taking three or four disconnected elements and then having to figure out how to combine them in a way that’s both compelling and logical.
PhxArt: What genres do you focus on, and what are the topics or subjects that you like to write about most?
Naftule: There’s a line by Philip K. Dick that I feel is pretty emblematic of my interests: “The symbols of the divine initially show up at the trash stratum.” I’ve always been fascinated by how the sacred and profane interact with each other—angels appearing over battlefields, state troopers spotting cryptids shambling in the woods, car radios picking up inexplicable transmissions from outer space, fish and frogs senselessly raining down from the sky. I’m also interested in the occult and the paranormal (though I remain somewhat skeptical as to how much veracity there is in either realm). So I often end up writing genre fiction because it gives me the freedom to explore these otherworldly subjects and see how they rub up against and complicate the real world.
I’m drawn to writing about capitalism and technology, specifically the ways in which they force us to make compromises and mediate our shared experiences. My recent work has also been touching more and more on gender fluidity and androgyny, subjects that have been very near and dear to me since my teen years (seeing Iggy Pop wearing lipstick on the cover of Raw Power was a very formative experience for me).
But I also like to write jokes and indulge in the absurd, so it isn’t all darkness and weirdness and “everything is fucked!” I’m not interested in being too didactic in my writing: if I wanted to write lectures, I’d write lectures. But I’m not one of those people who believes art is apolitical, or that it should strive to be so. As political bents go, I lean pretty far Left, and that outlook is represented in my work.
PhxArt: As someone who writes plays, fiction, satire, and poetry and has even worked as a freelance journalist, what creative space do you feel most at home in?
Naftule: I’ve been doing a lot more fiction writing lately, but playwriting remains my favorite sandbox. Since playwriting is so dialogue-heavy, it gives me this outlet to be loquacious in a way that I rarely am in person. I have a pretty bad case of what my French kinfolk call l’esprit de l’escalier, or “the spirit of the staircase,” where you end up thinking of the perfect thing to say in a conversation in retrospect. I’ve had entire scenes in plays emerge from those moments in which the perfect joke or rejoinder or flirtation occurs to me after the fact, and then I have a chance in theater to essentially write an alternate history of how things would have gone if someone in that situation said THAT thing at the right moment.
I also really enjoy the collaborative aspect of theater. Writing can be such a lonely practice, and the beauty of playwriting is that I get to see how people respond to that work in real time. I can hear an audience laugh, I can see when and where they lean in and what moments make them want to check their phones. And by collaborating with directors and actors, I get the added bonus of seeing how other people interpret that work, and oftentimes what they end up reading into the work is more interesting than what I actually intended in the first place.
Radio Free Europa written by Ashley Naftule. Art credit: Dain Quentin Gore.
PhxArt: Who are your greatest artistic influences?
Naftule: On the local front, the two people who’ve been most heavily influential on my development and outlook as an artist have been Kim Porter and Shawna Franks. Kim’s guidance as both a playwriting and solo performance teacher gave me the confidence to pursue playwriting in the first place, and there’s not a day that goes by where my writing hasn’t benefited in some way from her wisdom. I learned so much about cultivating community from Shawna, and both she and Kim taught me (by example) that sometimes you just have to say “fuck it” and make art without waiting for the permission of others.
I’ve also been very inspired by the playwriting of Carrie Behrens and Annie Baker, the showmanship and aesthetics of The Slow Poisoner (aka Andrew Goldfarb, who was kind enough to do the poster art for one of my plays), the art of Henri Rousseau and Henry Darger, the music and shifting identities of David Bowie, the sci-fi novels of Samuel R. Delany and Philip K. Dick, the occult comic books of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, the theories of the Situationists, and the films of Luis Bunuel and Marlene Dietrich. Thomas Pynchon, Robert Anton Wilson, and Roberto Bolano are three of the faces on my literary Mount Rushmore. I enjoy the writings of Karl Marx, but I remain a diehard Groucho Marxist at heart.
PhxArt: What are some works or projects you’re currently working on or have recently released?
Naftule: My latest play, The Hidden Sea, recently ran as a virtual production at Space55. Like last year’s Radio Free Europa, it’s a full-length piece that’s meant to be performed in the virtual space. I had this idea about setting a play inside Gather.town, this platform for virtual conferencing that sets people inside a digital environment that looks like an old-school video game. So when you’re “Zooming,” you’re piloting these pixel avatars around maps and entering chat rooms to talk to people. I loved the idea of making a play where we could actually create representational maps of the setting and see the characters walking around in them. It also liberated me to get outlandish at times with the story, which alternates between two narratives: one about a modern woman whose vivid dreams about drowning at sea start literally spilling out into the real world, and one about a pair of sailors lost at sea contending with sharks and sirens. It was especially liberating since we didn’t have to worry about how to make things like “a flooded apartment” or “a rampaging shark” work in a live setting (or cramped Zoom box).
Our brilliant show designer, Aleks Hollis, took that initial idea and made it even better by using this program called RPG Maker that lets you make your own RPG games a la Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, and Secret of Mana. All on their own, Aleks created this incredibly detailed and immersive environment for the actors to explore. The director, Sarah Starling, coached an amazing cast to do live voice-acting for each performance. And Aleks set up all the dialogue for the show in text boxes (just like you’d see in a Final Fantasy game), which added a layer of accessibility to the show for Deaf and hard of hearing audience members. It was unlike anything Space55 had done before, and we’re very proud of it.
Screenshot from The Hidden Sea. Art credit: Aleks Hollis.
PhxArt: What can our community expect to see next from you?
Naftule: I’m currently working on an absurdist-comedy novella inspired by Spuds MacKenzie, the Bud Light dog. I’m also working on my play for Space55’s next season, Peppermint Beehive, which is about the gentrification of downtown Phoenix that’s also an homage to the work of John Waters, The B-52’s, and Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone.
We’re curious how creatives are navigating the time of coronavirus. Here’s what giving Ashley Naftule life as a creative during quarantine.
Naftule: Every Sunday, my friends and I get together on Roll20, this online platform for RPGs, and play D&D together. That’s been a constant for us throughout most of the pandemic. Another big part of my pandemic media diet has been wrestling. I started getting into watching it a few years ago, and now watching AEW on Wednesdays and SmackDown on Friday nights is something I look forward to every week. I’ve never been a sports watcher—I enjoy playing them, but I’d rather get my teeth pulled than watch someone else do it. But wrestling is great because it’s basically theater. It’s performance art with suplexes and chair hits. I love the absurdity of it, and I also really enjoy how chaotic it can be. Since the shows happen every week and they’re live, there’s always this element of randomness where someone could get injured, or they have to adjust storylines because it’s not working the way they thought it would. It’s that saying “Man makes plans while God laughs” in action. Watching this folk art that has to constantly recalibrate itself and improvise from week to week is fascinating.
In terms of reading, the short stories of Mariana Enriquez have been a revelation to me, as has the work of Rachel Pollack. Her novel Unquenchable Fire has been the best thing I’ve read this past year, and I would urge anyone with an interest in Surrealism, fantasy, and/or magical realism to check it out. Most of my music listening has been dreampop/shoegaze-y stuff—my comfort food of Slowdive/My Bloody Valentine/Beach House, etc.—but I’ve also been listening to some great hardcore music lately (like Closer’s “All This Will Be,” and Portrayal of Guilt’s “We Are Always Alone”) when the urge to hear something that gets the ol’ adrenaline going hits.
And finally: it’s incredibly dorky to admit this, but I’ve… *deep sigh*… gotten really into bird-watching. I saw a plump vermillion flycatcher land on a park bench a few weeks ago, and THAT was the highlight of my week.
“Lisa Frank’s The Iliad.” Art credit: Ashley Naftule.