Tuesday, May 10, 2016

2016 Interview with Phil Olson

Playwright Phil Olson, known for his popular, hilarious DON’T HUG ME musical plays written with brother Paul Olson and that are crowd favorites wherever they are performed, has re-imagined a new version of his first play A NICE FAMILY GATHERING. It is currently enjoying a run in the new UPSTAIRS at the Group Rep black box theatre on the second floor of the Lonny Chapman Theatre at the edge of the NoHo Arts District in North Hollywood.  Phil shares with us  a bit about his life as a writer and how A NICE FAMILY GATHERING came about.

by Steve Peterson

When did you first become interested in writing as a profession?

In 2010, I had four plays published by Samuel French and they were playing in theatres all around the country. I was also producing my own “Don’t Hug Me” musicals in the midwest.  I owned my own set, and I had a group of actors that toured for me. It was 2010 when I gave up my “day job” as a financial advisor and went into writing and producing plays full time.

What was your first paying writing job and what did you learn from that experience?

In the late 90s, I met a guy at The Groundings who had contacts in television. He got a job writing a treatment for an animated TV series. He asked me if I would help him. It was a two page treatment and it took us a couple days to do it. I was paid $800. I thought that was a ridiculously large amount of money for the amount of time it took us to do it. What I learned was, writing for television is like winning the lottery.  If anyone out there wants to give me crazy amounts of money writing for television, I’m available.

When did you start writing plays?  Do you have any favorites?

I wrote my first play “Crappie Talk” in 1997. I was 40 years old. I got a late start. I currently have 14 published plays, 8 of them are published by Samuel French. It’s hard to say which play is my favorite. They’re like children to me. With that, I have to say, “A Nice Family Gathering” is at the top of the list because it’s such a personal story. It’s about my family, and because it has played in 120 cities around the world, I’m thrilled that so many theatres have embraced it. It’s also been optioned to be made into a movie which is very flattering.

Did you have mentors and muses along the way, and if so who?

My inspiration to write plays came from Neil Simon. I performed in a bunch of Neil Simon plays in the early 90s in Tampa, Florida, and it was like taking a seminar in writing. I loved his comedy, his writing style, his characters. I came to Los Angeles, trained at The Groundlings, wrote and performed sketches with Maya Rudolph and other extremely talented people. I learned character development at The Groundlings.

Lonny Chapman gave me my first break as a playwright. He green lit my first play, “Crappie Talk,” to be produced at the Group Rep Theatre in 1997. He then approved “A Nice Family Gathering” for its world premiere in 2000. I can’t thank Lonny enough for giving me my start.
I also have to give thanks to Doug Haverty for being so generous with his notes on my plays. Doug is a great playwright and a wonderful dramaturg. He’s given me so many great notes on my plays and helped me keep focus in areas like story conflict and stakes, basically things that make a good story.

What generated the idea for A NICE FAMILY GATHERING?

“A Nice Family Gathering” is based on my Minnesota Norwegian-American family. My dad actually told us he was the Norwegian who loved his wife so much, he almost told her. I never heard him tell my mom he loved her, ever. In fact, I never heard him say ‘I love you’ to anyone, including myself. Part of the reason I wanted to write the play is because I wanted to see my dad say ‘I love you’ to my mom. When my mom came out from Minnesota to see the world premiere at the Group Rep Theatre, she saw herself on stage, with my dad, who had passed away a year earlier. It was a very emotional scene. I was playing the role of the son, ‘Carl,’ and I couldn’t help to look out and see my mom in the audience, tears running down her cheeks. My mom loved the play.

Many of your plays center around your family and the community of Minnesota Norwegians you grew up in.    How did the play come to be re-imagined with an African American cast?

I saw Robert McCollum and Cynthia Bryant perform in "Stories about the Old Days" and they were wonderful. I realized we had great talent but not as many opportunities for our African American members, so I asked Doug Engalla if he would direct a staged reading of "A Nice Family Gathering" with Robert and Cynthia as "Dad" and "Mom." They did the first act off book and it was very successful. As luck would have it, a slot opened up for a full production, and I'm very happy that we have such wonderful actors in the play and that my family comedy, originally set in a Minnesota Norwegian-American household, is so universally accessible.

Youve penned numerous plays and musicals, both solo and with your brother Paul Olson, among others, that have been published by Samuel French.    Have you been working on anything new youd like to share with us or have an event you might be attending in regards to your playwrighting youd like us to know about?

Because of the success of “A Nice Family Gathering,” I wrote a new play, “A Nice Family Christmas.” It’s the same family as “A Nice Family Gathering,” but two years later at Christmas. I’ve been doing readings of “A Nice Family Christmas” all around the country, and it will open in five cities this year, including the Group Rep Theatre. “A Nice Family Christmas” will be my 9th play published by Samuel French. My next reading will be in Port Clinton, Ohio, on May 17, and I’ll do another reading in New York in June.

Is there anything you wished had been asked about you or the play?

I have to thank Doug Engalla for his tireless efforts in putting this production together. Doug has directed three of my world premiere “Don’t Hug Me” musicals and he’s terrific to work with. I’m usually a little more involved in rehearsals and the production, but with “A Nice Family Gathering” Doug has done everything from directing to cast photos to set design. I’m very fortunate to have someone like Doug Engalla at the helm. He’s a blessing.


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