“Artistic death can happen at any moment”: A Day in a Playwright’s Life

Matthew Gasda (in beige shirt) oversees rehearsal at Rockwall Studios. / B. G.

“I’m not nervous. It isn’t good for the play if the director freaks out. Well, actually, I’m going to take a walk around the block.” And Matthew Gasda leaves Rockwall Studios at dusk to wonder around the desolate and dim neighborhood in Queens where the play he has written and directed is about to start.

Two hours earlier, Gasda, 28, baby-faced handsome and shielded by a corduroy beige coat, came to the rehearsal carrying snacks for the cast. Charlie Munn, one of the actors, was rearranging the chairs in front of the stage.

“Tuesday was people standing, even though we got extra seats. It was a surprise because we are in Ridgewood,” Gasda explains. Today, Munn instead removes two rows, leaving exactly one chair for each of the 19 tickets sold. Meanwhile, Melissa Nelson, the assistant director, cleans up the food scraps from the previous day’s performance with a vacuum cleaner.

“By Morning” is the fourth play Gasda has written, and the sixth production he has been involved with in the past year. Last fall, he staged a 16-day run of “Ardor” in a Russian church in Manhattan, where parishioners prayed right after his company rehearsed. This summer, he plans to direct “Bloody Poetry,” by Howard Brenton, in Avignon and Edinburgh.

Until half an hour ago, actors were rehearsing across the room, shouting at each, but Gasda seldom acknowledged them. “Directing doesn’t always mean giving attention to something,” he said. “A lot of times, it’s strategically withdrawing attention in order to see different sides of your subject.”

He raised $5,000 to mount this play, which he started writing in October, while “Ardor” was still on stage. “The anxiety produced by one play only gets cured by writing another one; it’s a cycle,” he says. Gasda began working with the cast to refine it — buying drinks, reading lines and then going home to rewrite.

After six weeks, he decided he was done. “With the first draft, actors will say, ‘OK, I did a good job and you made me look bad.’ When I think it’s their fault and not my fault, I’m done rewriting.”

In January, they started rehearsing four nights a week in a studio on 29th Street, and four days before the premiere they moved into the Rockwall Studios, rehearsing while building the set.

Every afternoon, when he takes the subway to the theater from the middle school where he teaches drama, Gasda plans a new exercise for the cast before the evening’s show. Tonight, he had them recite their lines as they walked in parallel, not looking at each other, screaming until they hit the wall at the end of the stage, gesturing and contorting like asylum inmates. Then, he told them to place love in one object in the room so when they need love they can have it just by walking over and touching the object. Then he left for his walk.

The actors touch a door, an armchair, a table, turning them into their emotional fetishes for one night, and then leave the stage. Minutes later, the doors open and the audience begins to enter. The L train’s periodic rattling echoes in the theater as the lights dim and the play begins.

* * *

Gasda has also been writing a play for his 10-year-old students at the Brooklyn Lab Charter School, where he teaches from 2 to 6 p.m. To find inspiration, he sat them in a circle and asked them to share things about life that they think but never tell anyone.

“I remember what it’s like to be this age,” says Gasda. “Nobody talks to you as if you matter, they just tell you what to do. But they need someone to talk to.”

His students did talk with him: “They asked me, ‘Why I don’t have a father?’ ‘Why do people bully me?’ ‘Why does no one care about my feelings?’ ‘Does God exist?’ ‘Can I use curse words?’ ‘Am I allowed to fart?’”

The job barely pays Gasda’s bills, but teaching has proved a very good way to be a director. Both roles involve authority and respect. He strives to find a balance between being friendly with his cast and students, and having control over their lives.

“I have to have tricks,” he says. “You are not a magician if you don’t know something that they don’t know. If actors get too comfortable with you, they won’t respect you. It’s a weird tension.”

“It’s a mutually beneficial relationship,” says actor Michael Johnson, backstage changing his clothes after the play. “We are only as good as Matthew allows us to be, and Matthew’s work is only as good as we are. There’s mutual trust. We only push each other forward.”

It’s his first experience with Gasda, whom he regards as a new challenge every day. “Matthew comes with exercises that challenge you to think about yourself and your character in a way that you couldn’t without him. And you get frustrated, you get discouraged, but then you wake up the next morning ready to go back to work and discover something new.”

Charlie Munn, on the other hand, has worked with Gasda for more than two years. “We demand a lot of each other,” he says. “Nobody else is telling us to put a play up in Brooklyn. It’s so much easier to go home. But for some reason we give each other energy and we force each other to push the bar up.”

Munn feels satisfied with their performance tonight: “We have experimented a lot.”

Rambling around the theater, Gasda is also happy: “It went really good.” But he did take some notes during the play: “They switched a lot of words,” he says. “It’s something that happens. Ideally they would be robots… It doesn’t matter if the lines are better or worst, it’s about the tempo.”

Backstage is connected to a bar, and part of the cast heads for drinks. Gasda remains the man behind the curtain, introducing friends who have come to see the play, building and breaking up conversations between strangers and acquaintances.

“Matthew likes to move quickly; he makes his own opportunities,” says his friend Kelly Swope. “He’s very good at integrating art and life. Like this event, I think in his mind this is a integral experience, and he’s still directing right now.”

* * *

Gasda always carries three notebooks, one each for poetry, drama and prose. He writes at home on a typewriter with a cup of tea or on a laptop at the Caffe Reggio in Greenwich Village, where he’s spending this morning after the show. Born and raised in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, he got a philosophy degree while reading a lot of literature, and a masters in literature while reading a lot of philosophy. He wrote a novella in college, then killed it. “Anxiety showed, I could see the ghost of others writers in it.”

His first job after graduation at a small press paid him a few thousand dollars a year just to read poetry manuscripts: “Most of them were horrible, but I enjoyed the process of editing. We all are, at some point, horrible, but I’m not afraid of failing. And publication doesn’t mean that the work is always good.”

In 2013, he started his own publishing house, Serpent Club, with his sister. “I’m trying to do a lot of thing before I get knocked out, before I have to compromise or leave New York City,” Gasda says.

Drama doesn’t pay the bills – “By Morning netted $400 in ticket sales– and neither does teaching, writing or publishing. He shared an apartment for a while with his sister, but it didn’t work out. “She is a brilliant writer but a very tortured person.”

Now he lives with his girlfriend. “If I’m hungry, my parents will send me money to buy groceries, but they are not going to pay for my apartment,” he says. “I’m very good at cheating the system, but it’s going to catch up to me.”

“I ask myself every single day for how long I’m going to endure it,” he adds. “Artistic death can happen at any moment. It’s like a heart attack: You are a living artist one day and a dead artist the next morning, just a regular person with a job who watches TV at night. Exactly the same person you were the day before, but without the ability to write a poem.”