Faculty Q&A: Oliver Mayer

Oliver Mayer

Professor of Dramatic Writing Oliver Mayer

As part of a Q&A series with our faculty, the USC School of Dramatic Arts asked Professor of Dramatic Writing Oliver Mayer about advice he gives to young writers, the intricacies of sumo wrestling and his new play Ghost Waltz.

What are you teaching this year?

Oliver Mayer: I am teaching Playwriting One to my undergrads and Dramatic Writing Studio to my MFA playwrights. This time of the year is so much fun (and so much work), as all the writing work in both classes is building towards culmination. I’m particularly tickled by my undergrads because they are so honest and vulnerable and brave. Those are the superpowers that can help a young writer walk through walls.

Tell us a little about your professional career.

I had my first professional production at 19 and I’m about to turn 59 in a week or two. The only steady thing I’ve done over that time is write plays, pretty much one or two a year. A long time ago, I realized that if I asked my playwriting to make the rent for me, then I’d be unhappy, and the work would suffer. So, I write for love. Because I fall in love easily, there is no shortage of stuff to write about. It’s nice to think about the on-stage successes of the past every once in awhile, but I try to mostly focus on what I’m writing now, staying intent to enjoy the process and living in the moment.

Your new play Ghost Waltz opens May 4 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. What inspired you to write this play?

Ghost Waltz was a commission from The Circle of Imaginistas at the Latino Theater Company. I hadn’t planned to write this story, but I had a dream about the main character Juventino Rosas. When I woke up, I wrote a page of images and dialogue and showed it to my wife. We realized that the story had a hold on me. Once I figured out how to frame the story, it wrote itself. The music carried me like a surfer on a series of waves. It was fun.

What should people know about Juventino Rosas, the subject Ghost Waltz?

Juventino Rosas was a real person, a proud Indigenous Mexican composer, who even in his own short lifetime had to prove that he was the actual writer of his most famous tune “Over the Waves.” Why would anyone doubt him? Was it his brown skin, or the fact that he only studied a short time in conservatory? Despite the doubters, Juventino proved himself time and again and made lots of gorgeous music that influenced his musical peers and brought joy to people the world over. Yet to this day, his life has been largely whitewashed and his music attributed to famous Europeans. No more. I consider this play a recovery of a true artistic warrior and a forbear for all Americans, no matter who they are. I wrote the play from a place of joy, and hopefully it will spark those kind of feelings in the audience, whether they are avid theatre-goers or newcomers. The cast is so extravagantly talented and the music is so good!

What is the most rewarding part of teaching?

If you’re doing it right, the students teach the teacher. I’m constantly keeping my syllabi current and as open-endedly evocative as possible, but I’m always ready to shift course depending on what’s going on in the world – or for that matter, in my class. Dramatic Writing must be prismatic – that is, it has to take the light of the moment and refract or bounce it in colorful and unexpected directions. Every semester, there’s at least one moment when a student builds a moment in a scene that’s as good as anyone who’s ever written a play. Billy Wilder says “You’re as good as the best thing you’ve ever done,” and I try to celebrate and build on those moments in class, and feed the spark of creativity in us all.

What is your favorite advice to give to students?

It’s never done. I tell them that all the time. Even when it’s done, it’s not done. Why would anybody want their work to be done, anyway? If it’s not finished, then it’s still alive and growing and changing. Love the process.

Is there a piece of theatre, or a film or television show that has recently resonated with you?

It’s funny. All the hundreds of plays I have read and seen, but when at age 13 I saw Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum, it changed my life. I love the work of Annie Baker and Martyna Majok, and I’m just hoping that young writers and actors will have their lives changed the way mine was watching Luis Valdez’ play and seeing the possibilities for my own future.

Any fun facts we should know about Oliver Mayer?

I know a lot about sumo wrestling. It’s a beautiful, awesome and sometimes funny sport. Sports are my weakness. I was a boxer as a kid, a fencer in university, but although I don’t do sports anymore I’ll watch most anything on TV, if my wife will let me.