A. Rey Pamatmat doesn’t want to tell me anything about his new play, after all the terrible things I do.
But he has a good excuse: It’s a world premiere production — the first in several years for the Milwaukee Rep — and this is the only time it’s going to be staged before an audience that has no idea what to expect.
“There’s a purpose for remaining a little cagey,” he says. “We’re really hoping to preserve our one chance to surprise people.”
What little he will reveal is enticing. The play features two characters — a young gay author-in-the-making named Daniel and a Filipino émigré named Linda, who owns the bookstore where Daniel goes to work. The play is set in the Midwestern town where Daniel grew up and where Linda has lived much of her life.
And the two characters share a tragic connection, buried so deep that neither initially knows it exists.
The play comes to Milwaukee almost by chance. Pamatmat met JC Clementz, now a Rep artistic associate, when they were both working at a play festival in Colorado. When Clementz joined the Rep, he asked Pamatmat if he had any plays in process. Pamatmat sent over an early draft of after all the terrible things I do, which Clementz shared with Rep artistic director Mark Clements. When Clements learned that Pamatmat was a frequent collaborator with Rep associate artist May Adrales (on plays like Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, which premiered at the 2011 Humana Festival), the deal was sealed.
In the course of its development, the play has changed quite a bit, Pamatmat says. While the overall narrative has remained the same, working with actors has helped him to restructure individual moments. “The emotional lives of the characters are so large and complex that the way things happen has changed dramatically,” he says.
The play’s origins spring largely from Pamatmat’s response to articles about the “It Gets Better” campaign, launched in 2010. “I noticed when reading those articles that a lot of the anti-bullying initiatives focused on victims and not on bullies,” he says, “and so I was curious about why we weren’t trying to solve that half of the problem.”
Pamatmat says writing the play gave him an opportunity to step out of his comfort zone, working with just two characters in a confined space. The challenge with that sort of construction, he says, is that in real life, if a two-person conversation isn’t going the way you want it to, you can just leave. In a two-person play, you have to figure out what makes them stay.
His solution, which he found while working with Adrales, hinges on a rejection of contemporary society’s tendency toward polarized opinions. We expect people to adopt a staunch position and attack or defend it without ever considering our counterpart’s views, he explains.
“I hope people come away from this play understanding the value of empathy for people they don’t understand,” Pamatmat says. “Because I don’t think that’s necessarily about divesting your own principles or giving up your points of view, to recognize the validity of other people’s points of view.”
I push one more time for a little more detail about the plot, and Pamatmat thinks for a minute. “What the play is asking the audience to do or contemplate is: Is there such a thing as a truly unforgivable act?” he offers. “And is it possible, if you are the person who has performed that unforgivable act, is there any chance that you can come back from it?”
The Milwaukee Rep’s world premiere production of after all the terrible things I do opens on Oct. 3 at the Stiemke Studio and runs through Nov. 9. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.org.
Stiemke Studio SEASON
Pamatmat’s after all the terrible things I do is the only world premiere play coming to the Stiemke this year, but it’s far from the only exciting production in the theater’s season lineup:
The Amish Project (Feb. 11–March 22): In the spring, the Stiemke will provide the platform for this powerful one-woman show. Inspired by a school shooting in an Amish community, the play explores grief and forgiveness in the wake of an unimaginable tragedy.
Rep Lab (April 10–13): Every year as its season comes to a close, the Rep’s interns unite to produce this short play festival showing off their talents to the city of Milwaukee for a single weekend.