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“I really love the eccentricities of people”

Joe Iconis in conversation with Playwright-in-Residence Madeleine George

 Madeleine: I know that musical theater fans really make all other fans look like amateurs. Has anyone ever ripped your clothes off in the street?

Joe: (laughing) No, we’ve never gotten that far, but I have had people give me clothing in the street. People are really into giving me socks, which I love. I think the fans have perceived that I’m a fairly snappy dresser when I’m out in the world doing events. I definitely care about my socks. And because I play piano, people tend to be really aware of them—their eye level is right at my ankles.

Madeleine: Do you have a sense of what creates that kind of rabidity and passion and fainting intensity of musical theater fans? What is it about the form that makes people go crazy?

Joe: I think it’s a few things. For one, I think theater attracts a certain type of person—there’s an inherent strangeness and sensitivity in theater people. And theater is such a home, it’s such a community. I feel like when young people, especially, discover this community, it makes them double down on their weirdness and double down on their sensitivity. And musical theater is an explosion of different obsessions because you have the theater people, but then also the music people—the people who are going to know all the lyrics to the songs and go to the concerts and wear the T-shirts.

Madeleine: Is it different for you writing now post-Be More Chill because of the global scope of this intensity?

Joe: I’ve always occupied a very culty place in the New York theater scene; I’ve been lucky enough to have a good number of people who are aware of my work and who like my work. And age-wise, it’s been an across-the-board kind of thing. At the same time, I have done work in regional theaters, and those audiences tend to be older. So with Be More Chill it’s been really mind-blowing to see all these young people be aware of my work and get excited about it.

Madeleine: And so well-deserved.

Joe: Thank you. It’s the coolest thing and really kind of unexpected for me. Be More Chill is a show that’s about young people and there’s definitely a youthful energy to it, but when I wrote it for Two River, I wasn’t necessarily imagining that the audience would be filled with young people. I was imagining the audience would be filled with the traditional regional theater crowd. The fact that these young people came to my writing when I wasn’t trying to write for a young audience has been great. It made me realize that I don’t need to change my writing in order to keep the fanbase happy; what they dug about my stuff or what they connected to is something, I think, inherent in what I was doing. And I hope that Love in Hate Nation connects in the same way. The show is, technically, about young people in 1962 but the idea is that anyone can relate to it—whether they grew up in the era or not and regardless of age.

The other nice part of it for me is that I’ve met and interacted with so many young people who are fans of Be More Chill, who then got turned onto the rest of my work. And I do feel like I owe it to them to not let them down. Be More Chill deals with very real issues, like anxiety and depression. I’ve met so many people—and not just young people—who deal with those things in their day-to-day life, and would talk to me about how the show helped them. And I feel like I have a responsibility to these people if I’m writing something that interacts with those issues—which invariably, all of the things that I write do. I have a responsibility to make sure that I’m being authentic, and that I’m always aware that there will be human beings watching what I’m doing. It’s made me more aware of the art that I’m putting into the world.

Madeleine: I was thinking in terms of awareness that you write really good girls and women; it’s noticeable. What accounts for your insight?

Joe: Every time I’ve spoken about this, I feel like I oversimplify it, but I truly believe that people are people. I think that women are not another species (laughing) and so I feel like if I’m able to write a cis white male character, I should be able to write human beings who are not that. I really love the eccentricities of people, and I like to find the things that are universal in all of us. I think my writing really tries to find commonalities between people who, on the surface, might seem really different—from each other, from the rest of society—and find things that everyone can relate to and latch onto. That’s definitely the heart of it.

But another part of it is that in musical theater specifically, I feel like women almost always get the short end of the stick insofar as having good stuff to do. That’s such a musical-theater thing and it drives me insane. It’s like the female characters in musicals, even if they actually have something substantial to do, invariably, they have to take on this like noble stance or something. It’s like they have to be an angel or they have to save somebody or they have to be saved, and then it’s like their character becomes whatever their issue is, you know?

Madeleine: Yes.

Joe: And in my writing, I’m obsessed with actors. I love actors. I love collaborating with actors and, when I write, I try to give actors material that they can sink their teeth into. I hate the idea of ever wasting an actor in a show. I want to give every single human being who’s on stage something meaningful and exciting to do, and I want to be able to see women have just as much complexity and weirdness as the men, you know?

And then, as far as the songs, the women characters in musicals always get these songs, where, as soon as an intro starts, I feel like I always know, oh, this is going to be the ballad, the female song, and I know basically how she’s going to sing it because she’s not allowed to sing an up-tempo number. And I try to play against that as much as I can. Love in Hate Nation is pretty much all women, and the only for-real “ballady” moment in the show is something that the guy sings, and it’s not even a whole song.

Madeleine: A lot of your work has been you striking out on your own—writing book, lyrics, music—and then you’ve also worked with collaborators on adaptations of existing material. Is there like a zone where you feel like most at home?

Joe: No is the easy answer. Whether I’m writing on my own or writing with a collaborator is really based on the project, and dictated by the content. Be More Chill was based on a book by Ned Vizzini, and I loved the book and responded to it, but it was very immediately clear to me that I wasn’t the person who should write the book for the musical. Joe Tracz was a writer who I loved and thought, oh, that’s it, if he was into it, we could make a really cool musical out of this.

Love in Hate Nation was an idea that started with me and came together really organically. But when I first started working on it, I definitely had a moment where I was like, hmm, this show is really telling me that it wants to be a musical that is about a 16-year-old queer woman of color in the 1960s. And I could not be further apart from a 16-year-old queer woman of color in the 1960s (laughing) and so I wondered, should I get a collaborator who can speak to that point of view a little more explicitly? What ended up happening was I started writing and the show just kind of presented itself and it then became about trying to like populate the room and the process with many people who have a different life experience and different point of view from myself.

I truly love collaboration. I love being in a room and wrapping the writing around the actors who are inhabiting it. And I love a room that feels like anyone can say anything and things change based on what everyone is feeling. All I ever want to do is finish the draft or get something down on paper so that I can take it and collaborate with all the other people. And it’s cheesy, but anytime I’m ever writing something myself, it never feels like it’s by myself. All my writing is just to be able to get in a room with other people to start the actual work on it.