Ian August has a legion of people in his galaxy. A prolific and indefatigable writer (at least six full-length works and several shorter ones), he has been part of the theater as an actor or playwright for half of his 37 years. It has made him a close observer of individuals and the characters they project. While writing his plays, he says he often thinks of people he knows and models his characters’ traits, quirks, and turns of phrase after them. Some of the characters bear the names of their models.
He is also a part of a large network of theater professionals in New Jersey and Philadelphia that serves as a sounding board for his ideas and compositions. He cites several writers’ groups that have nurtured him and helped his plays to germinate, most notably two associated with Trenton’s Passage Theater, where August’s play, “The Goldilocks Zone” enjoys a world premiere run from Thursday, May 14, to Sunday, May 31. His primary collaborator in theater and life is his husband, Matthew Campbell, a performing arts master at the Lawrenceville School and a set designer who will dress the Passage stage for “The Goldilocks Zone.”
In August’s case, familiarity bred respect at Passage. “The Goldilocks Zone” is debuting at the theater that helped August most to develop it. In a telephone conversation from his apartment at the Lawrenceville School, where Campbell is also a house master, August talks about twice-a-month sessions with Passage community programming director David Lee White and playwright Hope Gatto. He says the three bring their newest stuff to Joe’s Mill Hill Saloon and talk about their work, asking each other questions and narrowing into specifics. A more structured monthly group moderated by Princeton professor and playwright R.N. Sandberg, and participation with groups based in Philadelphia, further honed “The Goldilocks Zone’s” edge. A last reading at Passage, with artistic director June Ballinger gauging audience reception, made Trenton the sweet spot where all conspired to result in a full production of August’s play.
“I became interested in the idea of the Goldilocks zone while listening to an NPR broadcast in 2011,” August says. “The author of a book about the astronomical condition by which a planet is perfectly situated to have liquid water, an atmosphere, and food enough to support life fascinated me. I wasn’t interested in astrophysics or the Goldilocks zone as a scientific phenomenon. I was drawn to it as an astronomical metaphor. Think of all of the people on this planet and how likely a relationship between any of them is.
“We’re all like planets moving about in our own orbits. Only when circumstances are exactly right does an encounter turn into something else, perhaps a lifelong friendship, a partnership, marriage, or a pact that binds you to another person. The alignment of individuals and what can happen when two intersect in a significant way interested me, and I thought about how I could make a play based on the Goldilocks zone metaphor.
“At the same time, something remarkably consistent was happening in my life. Many of my friends were settling into conventional adulthood. They married and had their first children. As a man in my mid-30s, I was cognizant of another scientific metaphor, the biological clock that was chiming all about me and ticking loudly in my mind. My husband and I discussed having a child and whether we would want to work with a surrogate mother or adopt. We decided the time wasn’t right for us to consider children then, but the idea was in my head about what couples who cannot have children without outside assistance have the option to do.”
In “The Goldilocks Zone,” August creates two couples, Franny and Ray, heterosexuals unable to conceive a child together, and Matt and Andy, a gay couple biologically barred from creating a child without the assistance of a woman. The couples are not in each other’s orbit. The straight woman, looking for someone who can help her conceive a child, and one of the gay men, looking for a possible surrogate to carry his or his husband’s child, find each other on Craig’s List.
This would be dramatic fodder enough, but August adds to the complications by having Andy and Franny consent to go ahead with an arrangement without consulting their significant others or considering the ramifications, legal or domestic, their decision might foment. “The Goldilocks Zone” examines a contemporary world and a contemporary family, the one Franny and Andy are, in a way, creating and the one they are just as certainly exposing to uproar.
“The four characters are all based on actors I know,” August says. “The actors aren’t in the same situation, but they have the personalities I give my characters. All four actors were asked if they wanted to play their namesake roles. Some are not acting any more. Some were busy. But a friend I’ve acted with and have known for 10 years, Andy Phelan, is actually playing the character of Andy.” The other cast members are Trent Blanton, Jessica DalCanton, and Dan Dominguez.
August is one of three children and grew up in Franklin Park, where his father had a management consulting firm and his mother was an elementary school teacher and reading specialist. Both, he says, were supportive of his career path.
His initial aim was to be an actor, and he pursued that profession for several years before turning full-time to the keyboard and note pad. He says it is a wonder it took him so long to think of it as a career. “I wrote the whole time I was in college. I wrote stories and poetry and a lot about how depressed I was when I finally came out of the closet as a gay man. I wrote about a play about Picasso and how a genius is not necessarily a warm or benevolent person. I wrote a lot of things, and though I was writing, I gravitated towards acting as a primary career choice.”
Yet at Rutgers August performed at the college’s cabaret theater, worked with a children’s company, and traveled New Jersey and elsewhere acting. Then, he says, “After a while, I didn’t enjoy it. You’re always being told what to do. Your costume is chosen for you. Your lines are given to you. When I was in a musical, I found the process to be long and difficult. The more I acted, the more experiences become increasingly horrible.”
Then there was a breakthrough. “A play of mine, ‘Missing Celia Rose,’ began to get positive attention. It was a full-length play, and it took place in Southwest Georgia in 1921. Celia Rose is a black woman, a preacher’s wife, who steals the town’s only car and drives off a cliff. A 12-year-old boy and his confidante try to figure out why Celia Rose did that and learn a lot that disturbs them, and not necessarily about race. It’s more about the limits of tolerance and a unique environment.”
“Missing Celia Rose” earned a berth in Arielle Tepper Madover’s inaugural Summer Play Festival in 2005 and August an agent. It has appeared around the world with productions in Bermuda, Toronto, and Seoul. “’Missing Celia Rose’ also taught me a lot about theater production. Under Arielle’s plan, I worked with a casting director, we hired a producer, held auditions, and did a full rehearsal and performance schedule. It was an eye-opener, and I saw how much I enjoyed the writer’s role. Among the best parts was the amazing feeling seeing the audience respond to my work.”
The conundrum about whether to be an actor or writer sorted itself out. August says his more arduous struggle was coming out as a gay man.
“It was my sophomore year at Rutgers, and I was 20 years old. It was a difficult time for a young man to be gay. Matthew Shepard had just been killed in Wyoming. People were dying from AIDS. The epidemic was recent enough to create concern. I was writing about my feelings, but it was in the form of short stories, mostly fantasies. I focused on a make-believe world. In 2005, it was as if the stars aligned. I had come to terms with any struggle, any anxiety I had about being gay. I was more satisfied with myself and more confident.”
Today, August thinks about how gay characters are portrayed on stage and in the media. “Old stereotypes are gone. Gay characters can take all kinds of forms. One thing that interests me is when you read gay media, the question is raised about whether gays are becoming too hetero-normative. I guess that’s a comment on wanting to marry, to have children, and to live in suburbs and just blend it. I think it’s a sign that gay people have become more diverse. Being gay is not the weird thing anymore. It’s just a matter of simple fact.
“In ‘The Goldilocks Zone,’ Andy is a man who wants to be a father. He is also someone who wants to make his relationship with Matt work. The different perceptions from when I came out and now are interesting and it will be interesting to see how gay characters are portrayed in future plays.
Asked how autobiographic “The Goldilocks Zone” is, August says, “Except for a few conversations that are similar to ones I had with my husband, it’s mostly fiction. My husband read the play. He has to be familiar with it to design its set. He’s not totally comfortable with the piece, but he understands the gay couple is not supposed to represent us. ‘The Goldilocks Zone’ goes so far beyond who its four characters are individually to ask general questions about what a parent is, what a spouse is, and what it means to be either or both.”
August says he doesn’t quite know what an Ian August play is yet because he likes to experiment and deal with different plot lines and characters. “I’ve set stories in a zillion places,” August says. “Plays are works of the imagination. I make up the plots and invent the characters. I never want to write the same play or in the same style twice. There’s too much to explore.”
The Goldilocks Zone, Passage Theater, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. Thursday, May 14, to Sunday, May 31.Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m., and Sunday, 3 p.m. $12 to $35. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.