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Theater Is His Medium; Playwriting His Seance

Playwright Jason Grote is up to metaphysical and meta-literary tricks again in
Playwright Jason Grote is up to metaphysical and meta-literary tricks again in "Maria/Stuart," which opens this week at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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Adding in a supernatural element might have been irresistible: Grote says he loves "to watch each of the mediums do things that they're not necessarily great at: film that follows a theatrical logic" and theater that requires some version of cinematic special effects.

Such writing strategies and obsessions have worked well for the New Jersey native since New York University awarded him his master's degree in dramatic writing. His plays -- including one called "Moloch and Other Demons" and another titled "The New Jersey Book of the Dead" -- have been staged or developed at numerous venues across the country.

Recently, he decamped to the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference, the renowned creative incubator in Connecticut, to work on "Box Americana," his play about Walmart. Fearing that he'd write "a bad piece of agitprop," Grote tried "to embrace the absurdity" of the world's largest corporation, he says. His play -- set in Sprawlville, U.S.A. -- features a chatty phantom named Sam, who happens to be the spirit of late capitalism.

As that description might indicate, there's a political side to Jason Grote. He confesses that he was once arrested in a demonstration that involved releasing 10,000 crickets in downtown New York to protest the city's sale of community gardens. The civic consciousness displayed in that episode tinges some of his plays.

"I don't think you're ever really aware of how deeply political his writing is, because he is so gifted at grounding it in the social aspect, in the domestic aspect," says Wendy C. Goldberg, artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference (and former artistic associate at Arena Stage). "That's one of the main gifts of his writing, that it never feels didactic. It always feels theatrical."

So does Grote consider himself a political playwright? "All narrative is political," he replies, but then adds that art is "an awfully ineffective form of activism."

"In the final analysis," he says, "its only responsibility is to be art."

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