Six days a week, playwright A. Rey Pamatmat rises before the sun to attend a Mysore-style Ashtanga yoga class that lasts for more than two hours. He wants it to be clear that this is “real” yoga, not “fancy aerobics” bookmarked with three deep oms.
“You put yourself into stressful poses to preserve your focus and your breath,’’ he says. “You understand that there are a lot of stresses in the world, but they don’t have to change your core self. And if you can remain focused, you can navigate a lot of the more difficult situations in life.”
That clear-eyed focus, combined with the belief in perseverance and transformation, comes in handy in Pamatmat’s plays, which often feature imperfect people in predicaments that are seemingly out of their control. A self-described “Filipino-American queer playwright” with a distinctively new voice, he is an up-and-comer whose work has been produced at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and the Actors Theatre of Louisville, among others. But he has yet to receive a production in Boston — until now, that is. In a rare alignment of the planets, two of his plays will premiere locally in the next few weeks. The Huntington Theatre production of his two-hander “after all the terrible things I do” begins previews Friday and runs through June 21 at the Calderwood Pavilion’s Wimberly Theatre. Company One’s production of “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them” runs June 4 through June 27 at Deane Hall at the Calderwood.
The timing is not coincidental. In 2010, the Huntington, Company One, and SpeakEasy Stage Company produced simultaneous productions from Annie Baker’s “The Vermont Plays,” and this time, the two productions aim to introduce Pamatmat to Boston audiences and celebrate his work. The two theaters are sharing marketing for the double bill, which increases exposure for a writer who is unfamiliar to local audiences. “For me, it gives the audience a chance to engage with a living writer and to see similarities in his work over multiple viewings,” says Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois, who is directing “after all the terrible things I do.”
Company One artistic director Shawn LaCount finds the collaboration between “one of the largest institutions in town and one of the scrappiest institutions in town” refreshing. “It legitimizes a new playwright to Boston who doesn’t need any legitimizing,” he says. “The work is valuable from two entry points.”
The two plays are quite different in style, structure, and story, but Pamatmat hopes they complement each other. “Instead of a jarring split, I hope people will see them as two ends of the spectrum, rather than two completely unrelated experiences,” he says.
He was inspired to write “terrible things,” which premiered at Milwaukee Rep last fall, after reading repeated stories about the tragic effects of bullying on gay teenagers and hearing about Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign to empower young gay people. In the play, a recent college graduate returns to his unremarkable Midwestern hometown and takes a job at a mom-and-pop bookstore run by a Filipino-American woman named Linda. He is a struggling gay fiction writer, and she harbors deep secrets about her life with her son.
Things get heated when they discuss cruelty inside and outside the gay community, and the details of bullying they recount are painful and raw. One scene is particularly harrowing, even for the man who wrote it. “It is painful to watch,’’ he says. “It is like smashing your head against the wall repeatedly.”
The play, he notes, is not autobiographical. He didn’t have a hard time with friends or family when he came out, and he was not bullied. But he has trouble wrapping his mind around abject cruelty. “It was quite a distance to understand and develop empathy for people who would hurt other people on purpose,’’ he says. He came to the conclusion that unforgivable acts stem from fear, and he believes that American culture rewards bullying behavior.
“When people are always encouraging you to win and to defeat people and be the best, it becomes easier to cross the line,’’ he says. “American exceptionalism is very much about not just being the best, but showing other people that they are not the best and never could be. Once you buy into that, you are very, very close to bullying.”
DuBois says that when he came out to his family, it was “so easy it was ridiculous.” His father went into therapy to make sure he didn’t harbor any residual homophobia and also left the Roman Catholic Church when the Episcopal Church opened the door to gay marriage. But despite the acceptance of his family, DuBois does know what it’s like to be bullied in school.
“I was never beaten up in high school, but I would get made fun of because I dressed flamboyantly,’’ DuBois says. “I experienced it verbally, and my whole freshman year was filled with nausea.”
The play exposes a different side of the gay experience — who is bullying whom? — which was difficult for Pamatmat to contemplate. In order to feel comfortable placing two extremely flawed people in a confined space, he had to find ways to make it familiar. The gay character is fanatic about the poetry of Frank O’Hara, and so is Pamatmat. And the playwright once worked in a bookstore while he was an undergraduate at New York University, and the environment was familiar to him.
He is also intimately connected with the world of “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them’’ which, according to the stage directions, is set in “a remote non-working farm outside of a remote town in remotest Middle America.” Pamatmat, 39, grew up outside of Port Huron, Mich., not coincidentally on a non-working farm in the remotest of the remote. He and his sisters were left to their own devices. They had bows and arrows and air rifles and generally entertained themselves.
But he found the environment isolating and boring, so he took up writing to fill the void and eventually left the Midwest for NYU and, later, the Yale School of Drama. As a boy, he was a dungeon master in games of Dungeons and Dragons, so he was responsible for creating the scenarios. “You have to come up with your own story, which is a gateway to playwriting,’’ he notes.
The Filipino-American brother and sister in the play are left on their own, but not by choice. At 12, the title character carries both a gun and a plush froggie named Fergie, and at 16, her brother Kenny is coming to terms with his homosexuality. Their mother is dead, and their deadbeat father leaves them alone in the middle of nowhere, sending money only when he remembers (and he often forgets). In their own way, they learn to survive and get by, until their world is upended when Kenny begins a first-love relationship with a boy named Benji.
Edith and Kenny “come up with their own way of doing things that isn’t harmful to anyone, but it isn’t typical,” Pamatmat says. “But outside forces try to shut them down.’’ He was not by any stretch of the imagination an abandoned child himself, but as a gay man raised in the Midwest, he relates to the way unseen adults judge the youngsters in the play.
As a young man coming of age, particularly at NYU, he existed in a world where gay people lived their own productive lives, had a community, and got along fine. “They weren’t harming anyone, but the world was convinced that the mere existence of gay people was harmful.”
The play resonates in a completely different way for LaCount. His mother died when he was 21, and his stepfather died when he was 26. His sister, Terri, is five years younger. His stepfather, he says, disengaged after the death of his mother, so he stepped in to parent his younger sibling. “I can draw from personal experience,’’ LaCount says. “The older brother defends the father for much of the play until he has an eye-opening experience and realizes he has to stand up to the father.”
By directing the play, he is channeling a younger version of himself. “Watching Edith reminds me of watching my sister and trying to make the best decisions,’’ he says.
Both plays have a dramatic crescendo (yes, Edith shoots, and yes, someone gets hit), and characters in both have a moment of powerful self-recognition and change. “There is a very clear catharsis, and that is the shared experience for people with different points of view,” DuBois says of “after all the terrible things I do.”
For Pamatmat, that catharsis is similar to what happens in yoga (the “real” kind, mind you). The goal is to find peace and balance and to connect with one’s core self despite the distractions and disappointments of the outside world. “What causes change in my plays is a moment of self-actualization when a character realizes that there are illusions in the world and learns not to be attached to those illusions,’’ he says. And that, he adds, is the essence of yoga — and playwriting.
AFTER ALL THE TERRIBLE THINGS I DO
By A. Rey Pamatmat
Directed by Peter DuBois
Presented by Huntington Theatre Company
At: Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts,
Friday through June 21
Tickets $25-$83, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
EDITH CAN SHOOT THINGS AND HIT THEM
By A. Rey Pamatmat
Directed by Shawn LaCount
Presented by Company One Theatre
At: Deane Hall, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, June 4-27
Tickets $25-$38, 617-933-8600, www.companyone.org
Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.