Playwright, actor and screenwriter John Pollono has starred in multiple breakout TV hits—including currently starring on the wildly popular “This is Us” on NBC—but feels most comfortable putting paper to pen. The New England-raised playwright has had critically success with 2013’s Small Engine Repair, a comedic play about reunited high school friends. His latest, Lost Girls, opening this week at Theater Exile, is sort-of a companion piece to Small Engine Repair, dealing with similar themes and issues. In the female-centric Lost Girls, 16-year-old Erica goes missing after a winter storm, forcing her divorced parents, Maggie and Lou, to reunite and deal with the consequences of their past decisions. PW caught up Pollono from his home in Los Angeles to discuss the themes in his work and how he got into the mindset of a woman.
Tell us about Lost Girls. What inspired you to write the play?
Well, I wrote a play called Small Engine Repair which was a very testosterone-fueled masculine version of this neighborhood. Thematically, it was very similar. And I was kind of IDing how to do the female version of that. I come from a long line of teenage mothers and I was wanted to show that world and to explore those themes within the world I grew up in. I don’t feel that has ever really been accurately represented. To properly do these characters justice, you have to show them for how complex they are; flawed, amazing and fucked-up. The theater is a fine place to explore that space.
How did you get into that female mindset?
Well, I grew up with sisters. I love women, I have strong women in my house. A wife, and daughter, so I know that voice very well. I have that voice in my head.
It’s also set in New Hampshire where you grew up and where Small Engine Repair took place. Are the two stories related?
If you pay close attention, and if you’re familiar with both plays you see that there’s an overlap, they’re in the same universe. Lost Girls takes place just before Small Engine Repair. I mean, it’s like a silly thing, it’s not like a Marvel universe. I connected them spiritually, thematically. Same neighborhood, same socioeconomic standing.
What should the audience expect?
Well, I think, specifically in the neighborhood I grew up in New England, the aesthetic is ball-busting. The comedy there is like taking the piss out of stuff. It’s like busting balls, and a lot of the comedy comes from there. It’s coping with pain, through humor and through that sort of stuff. You know, other playwrights explore communities where they are much more reserved. New Englanders are more reserved in terms of sentimentality, but they don’t hold back in terms of letting you know if they disagree with something. But when life is at it’s most tragic, we always have humor. And I really enjoy that space. I think there’s always a combination of the two in life. You know, more than anything I’ve ever written this is a very vulnerable piece. And it’s very much about the emotions in the characters. And if you don’t like the characters, you’re not going to like the play. Because you have to go on this journey with them. And everything really is taking the notion, that you will respect and love these characters, and you will go to unusual, dark, fucked-up places with them.
Will you make it out to Philly to see the play?
We’ll see. I definitely have a lot on my plate, I would love to see it. I have a new play opening up in March out here [in LA]. That’s keeping me busy amongst many other sort of deadlines.
You’re definitely busy, your resume is pretty impressive. I know you’ve been staring on “This is Us” as well as other mega-hits. What’s that like?
It was kind of a fluke. You know, I definitely consider myself a writer and an actor. But I sort of hit pause on acting the last two or so years. Because the writing has taken off so much, I’ve been so busy. Especially writing features and working in TV. Then this acting job came along and I kind of lucked into it. And I’m a big fan of the show, but I haven’t been actively pursuing acting as much. And sometimes that’s what happens when you don’t actively pursue something, you end up getting the opportunities. That was certainly the case here. It’s been really fun. It’s a great set, I mostly work with Sterling [Sterling K. Brown] on that show and he’s just awesome. The way I originally met and knew him was seeing him in plays. And there are a lot of playwrights who write for the show.
So which do you prefer most?
Well, I love acting, but I don’t love auditioning. It’s a big pain in the ass. Writing is keeping me busy so that’s where I go. But acting in things makes me a better writer, especially when I act in theater. I’m creating my own opportunities by writing stuff that I’m in. Keeping that itch scratched. But I mean, it’s so fun being on a show as an actor. I don’t have the time I used to have to prepare for auditions. You know, in LA when you’re a professional actor you’re also a professional driver and parker, it’s all you do. I just don’t have the time for that.
Do you have any advice for young playwrights starting out?
My biggest advice is don’t write a play for two years and just sit on it. Write something and get it out. The audience will make you a better writer than anyone else can. Get yourself produced, self-produced, do readings. And you have to learn how to shape your material based on it. Get your shit in front of an audience by any means necessary.
So, what’s next for you?
I have a movie I wrote called “Stronger” coming out, which is about the Boston Marathon [bombing]. And I’m working on a couple of other movie projects. And I’m turning Small Engine Repair into an indie film as well. My career is attributed to theater, the theater has helped me create a voice as a writer. And it’s kept me out there. And now, there’s not enough time in the day for me to complete all the work I have to do. And it all started in a little 99 seat theater.
Lost Girls | Feb. 16-March 12. Studio X, 1340 S. 13th St. theatreexile.org
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