Steve DiUbaldo: The Joy of Diversity and the Folly of Groupthink

Steve DiUbaldo lives in New York City. His plays include “Exposure” (The Middle Voice Theater Company, Page 73), “Boomer’s Millennial Hero Story” (terraNOVA Collective), “Wayward” (Clifford Odets Ensemble Play Commission with The Strasberg Institute), “Under the Water Tower” (Tisch School of the Arts), and “Coyote and the Origin of Death” (Last Match Theater Company, Lyric Theater).

His work has appeared in production and workshop in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Steve is a proud member of the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater apprentice company, The Middle Voice.  He was a 2014 terraNOVA Collective “Groundbreaker,” and a 2015 member of Page 73’s Interstate 73 writers group. Steve was the recipient of the Clifford Odets Ensemble Play Commission at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in 2015, where “Wayward” was developed and produced. “Exposure” was a 2016 finalist for The Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. His short film, “Couples Therapy,” appeared on the front page of FunnyOrDie. Steve’s short play “Two Cousins Fishing After a Rehearsal Dinner at a Lesbian Wedding” will be published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books in January 2017. He was awarded The Rita and Burton Goldberg Playwright Foundation Fellowship and the Excellence in Playwriting award at NYU, where he received his MFA (’13) in Dramatic Writing. He has been to the NCAA Tournament as a player and to the Grammy’s as a Beyonce dancer.

What have you been up to since graduation?
When I first got out of school, I was a dog walker for a while. [I] worked a bunch of different jobs. I got into a couple writer’s groups such as Terra Nova, which were really helpful. I was invited into Page73’s writer’s group, so cool theater things happened right out of school. I’ve made some great relationships that way. I got into teaching, which has become a way more amazing and beautiful part of my life than I ever anticipated. It was sort of out of necessity, but when I started I thought, “Wow, this is important.” It’s amazing to be around kids.

What brought you to New York and Tisch School of the Arts in the first place?
I wrote and directed my first play in college. Then I spent two years in L.A. working as a waiter and bartender. I tried acting for a little while, but I didn’t have that personality. So, I started writing a lot, and I was the very last person in our year to get into our program. I got in the day of orientation.

That’s wild. You didn’t have an apartment or anything set up, right?
Nothing. I was working as a real estate agent in L.A. and writing at night, then I got in and dropped everything to move to New York. I stayed in Hotel Pennsylvania for three or four days, then stayed on my friend’s air mattress until they said I couldn’t anymore, then finally I found an apartment.

Are you someone who can handle picking yourself up and starting a new chapter like that? Some people can’t do that.
Definitely. I technically moved nine times growing up, but I spent the majority of the years I remember in three or four places.

That’s still a lot, speaking as someone who’s moved around. It makes you resourceful, but you don’t have the same type of childhood memories as some other people.
And your experiences become your roots, in a way. People who grew up in the same place can go back home, and a part of me is jealous of that. It seems cool to have a base, and you have a built-in sense of who you are because you have these people who’ve known you your whole life. [But] it’s freeing in a way to re-imagine yourself and start over when you skip around.

Yeah, then it’s not as frightening when life demands that of you.
You just figure it out. As an adult, certain things are easier but certain things are harder [because of it]. What’s harder for you?

The benefit is that my perspective is often a little off-kilter from the way other people talk about certain things. That comes from not being able to follow any one community or culture. I’m not freaked out by change as a result of that. But a part of me is still seeking a foundation, and sometimes that’s hard to imagine.
It’s a weird push and pull of desiring that sense of community, but once I get too involved, I develop this aversion and start to shy away from it. I don’t love that tendency about myself.

But you’ve been in New York for about five years now. It seems like you like it.
I love it.

More than California?
Definitely more than California.

I’m always curious about this topic because people have very strong opinions about it.
People like to compare L.A. and New York because they’re the two cities you have to go to if you want to work in this industry. I always wanted to live in New York City. My dad’s from the South Bronx; my mom’s from Connecticut. Even when we moved a lot, we always came to New York every year. NYU was the only place I applied to grad school.

I don’t know that I would’ve moved here without the structure of something like grad school.
Me neither, actually. It’s nice to come in as a student, but you have to face a harsh reality after that. It’s just a great place to be, I think.

What are your earliest memories of writing or the arts? What inspired you?
I didn’t really grow up with the arts in my life. I was a very dedicated athlete. But my sister was a dancer, so I remember going to her rehearsals and that was an influence. I do remember putting together little sketches and shows using stuffed animals with my sister. When it ended, my parents would clap. It felt good, so we would do another scene, and my parents would be like, “The first ending really worked. You could’ve stopped there.” That’s really good advice and I still make that mistake when I’m writing. [Laughs] Let’s just keep writing this ending until it’s fucking dead.

The first thing I wrote where I felt that writing was awesome and powerful was in high school. A friend of mine fell off the back of a four-wheeler and went into a coma. I lived in a very small South Carolina town, and the night she went to the hospital, 200 people from our town gathered around the hospital flagpole and prayed. Meanwhile, I got an assignment in English class to write about “an experience that changed your life.” I was sulking because I really didn’t want to write it with everything that was going on, but when I went home, I ended up sitting in front of the computer and writing a 13-page sprawling essay of everything that had happened. My English teacher encouraged me to give it out to people and it helped in some way to ease people’s pain. I liked that relationship with writing, that self-expression can inspire others. Somewhere in there, a little light bulb went off.

Did you know you would become a playwriting concentrate at [the Department of Dramatic Writing]?
I still feel I really want to write for TV and film, but playwriting is where most of my opportunities have come. At NYU, you jive with certain teachers and classes where you feel comfortable. It seemed like playwriting was the stronger pull even at school, and I leaned into that, especially in an environment like grad school. Grad school is an inherently competitive place and you want to rise and do well. It’s such a weird microcosm of the world. In the arts, everybody compares themselves to other people, but it’s impossible to find any happiness out of that. It’s easier said than done.

Who are some of your favorite writers?
Oh man, such a hard question. [Pause] I love Annie Baker.

Did you have Annie as a teacher?
No, but I had brief meetings with her. I also like Brandon Jacobs Jenkins a lot. “An Octaroon” is one of the cooler plays I’ve seen. Ron Shelton wrote all of my favorite sports movies. I’m interested in writing sports, particularly basketball movies that touch on race and culture.

It’s cool to try and combine all of your interests. Does coaching help with that?
To be honest, I have to do things outside of writing. Even teaching writing can get overwhelming if you’re keeping a writing practice, and then teaching it. This year, coaching basketball became a much bigger part of my schedule, and I’ve just become such a happier person. Teaching and learning about life through sports was always a part of who I was, and I kind of lost that. Getting it back has made me a lot happier. I’m less miserable when I sit down at a computer to write, and I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. It seems I’m less productive when I’m happier, but I ultimately feel more even and at peace when basketball is a central part of my life.

Our friend Eve Crusto used to say she wrote best when she was angry about something.
Anger is the best one. What do you feel about that?

[Pause] I think that’s part of the reason I’m not writing as much. When I tried to improve other areas of my life, I noticed my motivation for writing changed as well. Writing when I was suffering used to be a big motivator, and it’s become harder to grasp. I’m still trying to work that out.
I think it’s ongoing anyway. You have to figure out what’s going to work for that period of time. It’s a hard balance and it’s that quest to both be happy and have something you’re dying to say. I think the nature of writing is like the nature of life—you’re supposed to go through ups and downs and hopefully you’re writing about life in it’s true and changing form. Everything creative that you produce should be reflective. Maybe it’s a positive way to look at things with this existential view.

What’s your favorite thing about writing and what’s the hardest thing about writing?
The thing I love about playwriting is when you get to do it altogether. When you have actors and directors and it lives and breathes. The hardest part is that phase after you fall in love with your new idea. You try to execute that idea, start the first draft, and then you realize three-quarters of the way through that it’s fucking terrible. You have no idea what it’s about and it was so much cooler in your mind. Pushing through that is the hardest part about the physical act of writing for me.

I think it’s the reason why some people make outlines, but it’s never helped me in that way.
Me neither, because I never end up following an outline. It feels like school, like English class. I actually really admire people who are great at that element of writing. It’s a whole different creative muscle to me. Once you start the process of writing 50 pages, you already know from page one that you’ll get to page 50, and think it sucks. For me, there’s always that moment of crippling self-doubt, and then pushing through it.

What has been your experience like working with institutions like P73 and Terra Nova?
I love them both. Michael Walkup at Page 73 and Jen Darling at terraNOVA are incredible human beings. terraNOVA had me in for two workshops of my play “Boomer’s Millennial Hero Story.” We did readings in New York and Chicago. It was amazing. And I just finished a reading of my play “Exposure” with Page 73, directed by Wendy Goldberg, who rocks. And The Middle Voice Theater Company has pretty much been my home base since I got out of grad school. They allowed me the space to have the initial workshop production of “Exposure,” and I’m infinitely grateful to them for their support and love.

It sounds like overall you’ve had really positive experiences with theater institutions.
Yes, I have. But going back to some of the challenges—the hard thing with theater is that, as you get older, it’s hard to sit down and commit that many hours to something, and know that it’s not going to make you money. That’s never why you get into creative things, but the practical element of figuring out how to commit your time is hard. Sometimes the cult-y nature of certain places can really freak me out, which happens from time to time. In a medium that should be so free-thinking and independent, there is groupthink that happens. Like I said, I’m especially sensitive to that.

Do you feel like you start losing your sense of self?
As soon as multiple individuals start thinking the same way in any facet of life, I want to dodge it and challenge it.

I get what you mean. What’s your biggest current challenge as far as self-care?
I guess [discovering] where I belong as far as my identity. My current existential issue is that I’m a straight white man. I know. Poor me. But I look at everything that’s going on in the world and I see people who look like me and talk like me as the big fucking problem. I want to be a voice for that. I can write within that system, but how do I provide a different voice that stands up for what I believe in, which is inclusion, diversity, and equality? I want to see a diversity of human beings in the arts. Who am I to be someone with a voice for that? It’s confusing sometimes to figure out where I belong. I don’t want to step on any toes, but I want to help.

I also want to write outside my own experience. It’s the whole fun of being a writer. I wish everyone had to live in New York City for three years and had to ride the subway every day, so these little white towns where people exist in their little, un-threatened bubbles would have a chance to see that America is as diverse as they say on TV.

As an immigrant, it was basically a given that I’d have to learn how to be around, live with, and love people who are nothing like you. I realized later that this was hard for some people.
Isn’t that weird? The whole point of this country is founded on immigration. Why do people have these crazy hang-ups? Why do they care so much about not changing? The whole point is to evolve and be around different things. It’s so boring to be in the same place with people who all look the same and like the same food. It’s not what the world really is.

When you think back to a really dark time in your life, what helped you through that?
I definitely think I have seasonal affective disorder. I really get sad in the depths of winter, so anything I can do to pick myself up from that, I will. Exercise and playing basketball definitely help. Talking to my family [helps]. I feel like getting a dog will solve all my problems, but I know it won’t.

I don’t know that all writers would conflate advocacy with writing, so why is this true for you?
When I write a play, it almost always has a why-does-this-need-to-be-exposed element to it. I guess I just come from that angle. Anytime a big institution takes advantage of individuals, I find it infuriating yet endlessly fascinating to research.

What were some of the most important things you learned at DDW, and what did you wish they touched on more?
[Laughs] I took a documentary filmmaking elective. She’d show us a documentary and sometimes the filmmaker would come and talk about the filmmaking process. I love documentaries as a result of that. I really admire someone’s tenacity to go out and find that story, that is equal parts storytelling and journalism. I think you might have already covered this, but all of us left with Cheri Magid’s enabling constraint. Charlie Rubin was awesome. So many. Who was your favorite professor?

Since I was a TV concentrate, I spent a lot of time with Charlie and he was a great mentor. Terry Curtis Fox said to me that the people who will change your life are your cohorts, and not the teachers you try to impress. I wished I had understood that more during my time there.
I know what you mean. Who I learned the most from was probably just our class. I think we were more inspired and influenced by each other than we even knew how to articulate.

Some of my most vivid memories of scripts are ones we workshopped together, some of which might never see the light of day.
Me too! Just hanging out and talking to someone about their story is a rare thing to find once you’re out of school. It’s that isolated time where [writing is] all you care about and everything feels super important.

Do you have a definition of success?
I think about this all the time. I really don’t know.

Has it changed?
Definitely. I used to think I’ve got to be on a TV show, flying back and forth, and writing plays. Maybe that lifestyle does exist and is still a possibility, but for me, success is more about doing things that makes me feel happy and helps the world in some way. That’s what will give me peace of mind. To me, that’s really important.

Unfortunately, we’re not in a career path where we will make good things if our moves are based on making a lot of money. I was much more of an idealist, and I’ve had to find a balance of idealism with practicality. How can I be an idealist when I’m writing and be a practical person when I’m living in the world? I was just watching this documentary about masculinity, and one of the big things we talk about in America is how much money you make. It’s one of the tropes of what we teach young boys about how they value themselves, and I feel some of that. So I’ve been thinking about that too: How much do I value myself based on how much money I make? I try not to equate the two, but it’s ingrained.

I recently went through several months of job hunting, and it really forced me to contend with my relationship with money. I had to answer some very uncomfortable questions for myself.
What did you figure out?

I never want to struggle to pay bills, but I can find a balance by lowering my cost of living, in addition to working towards a higher salary. I’m also a lot pickier than I used to be. Having tried different jobs and work environments, I have a better sense of what will work well for my needs.
I went through some of that with all the odd jobs I’ve had. Some days, your work is going to suck. But it’s important to find fulfillment in the present while still keeping an eye on your dreams.

If you see another writer struggling with things that you can relate to, what would you do or say?
[I would] just listen, mostly. [Pause] I’d ask a lot of questions but probably not give many answers. Do writers tend to keep things inside? Is that why we write? I feel this is kind of the same thing. I usually feel better if someone would listen and let me say what’s going on, and not jump to conclusions. Everything is relative to what that person is going through. And, writing is just really hard, and [we have] to respect that. No one who’s ever been a writer thinks it’s easy, so we should honor that and be able to bitch and moan to each other.

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