Playwright Brandon McCoy’s world premiere West by God, which he admits is semi-autobiographical, is onstage now at Keegan Theatre through October 20th. We caught up with him to chat about the play, and his first career in stand-up comedy.
Care to tell us about yourself?
I grew up in Lavalette, West Virginia, just outside of Huntington, and I grew up as a country boy. In the summertime I would go fishing all day. I would play baseball. I would do all the things West Virginians do. Sports were my thing for a while. I didn’t discover the arts until late in my high school years. I did three plays, I think. I asked my parents if I could go to school for it and they obliged. The deal with them was, that if I went to Marshall University, I could save some money and then I could make a move and go to graduate school. It was a great theatre school.
What brought you to DC?
I’d done a little bit of teaching and knew graduate school was a good idea. One of the schools that liked me was Catholic University. I was blown away by how many theaters there were [in DC]. I graduated in 2006 with a Master’s in Acting.
Home is a central theme for West by God. Where do you call home nowadays?
West Virginia. People have come up and talked to me about what’s true and what isn’t [in West by God].. And when you work on a play for a long time it becomes different versions of the truth. I can point to things in that play where I go, “I had that conversation.” I guess I was just stockpiling it all in case I ever wrote a play about it. I always say I’m from West Virginia.
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What is it like being a West Virginian living in DC?
You’ll hear people [talking about] taking a weekend trip to the mountains or the eastern panhandle, and they acknowledge its beauty. But it always come with this extra statement about the people, and how you kinda have to put up with them to experience this place.
Or sometimes it’s spoken about like it’s a foreign country. It’s an hour away! In an hour and ten minutes you can be in Harper’s Ferry. What is it about DC as a bubble that has created an elitism? Once you cross those hills, you’re in a different place altogether.
I’d say it goes as far as the river for some of us.
I don’t get it. It’s always bothered me.
One of the first plays I did, I was still in grad school. We had a student matinee one morning and they were bussing in kids from the panhandle. One of the actors, was talking about “Why do we have to get up so early, and especially because these kids are coming in from West Virginia. I didn’t say anything. I was the new guy. The entire half-hour before the show became a joke session. Everybody in the dressing room was firing off these quips; they were trying to make each other laugh, and they maybe meant no harm from it, but it didn’t stop.
We do the show, and the kids are great. They’re well-behaved. They laugh when they’re supposed to, they gasp when they’re supposed to. And when we’re going back to the dressing room, not a word, not any sense of what they had said about these people. No reflection after the fact that these people were actually pretty great.
I’d been holding onto that for a very long time.
[In the play], Dr. Matheson says: “The hypocrisy of the age of inclusivity is as clear as day. The marginalization of all people is off-limits, except the rednecks. They’re fair game.” I find that to that to be universally true, in television, in books, in plays. I find that if you’re someone from rural America, two dimensions is just enough dimensions.
Do you think people from other places will relate to the sense of home you’re describing?
Whether you define home as where you live or whether it’s the house you grew up in, or if it’s your family. It’s like trying to define ‘love.’ It’s impossible. You can’t do it. ‘Home’ is incredibly complex. It means something slightly different to each of us. And I think that anyone who sees this play is going to latch on to whether or not it’s a place.
How hard is it to get a new play produced?
Doing West by God is a risk. New plays in and of themselves are risks. The first show of Keegan’s 23rd season, right after Legally Blonde? I see that and I appreciate that. And they’re the kind of place that will take that kind of risk on an artist that they’re invested in…. The long game is that they created a home where I can write about whatever I want to write about, and I give it over to them and they nurture it, and they give it the time and thought that you wouldn’t get at a lot of other companies.
[Brandon McCoy is Keegan Theatre’s Playwright in Residence. A Free reading of his musical A Band In Search of a Name will be held on Oct 19, 3pm.]
On Sunday, Oct 13, you’re performing stand-up comedy to raise money to bring West by God to West Virginia. I can’t think of another playwright who could do that gig.
I was the third, the baby of my siblings. So I learned pretty early on that if I was gonna get attention, it was cracking jokes.
I got to travel a little bit, to some really cool places. I loved it while I was doing it. It was really hard. The travel is grueling. Sounds great: “We’re in Pittsburgh, let’s hang out!” When really all you see the inside of a comedy club. After I did that for a year, I liked it, but I really only liked the performing part. I think I really wanted someone else to write the words that I was saying.
I know. That was then, and so that’s when I started thinking hard about graduate school. Since then I’ve done like half a dozen gigs a year. Usually for a friend who needs an opener.
West Virginia is one of my soap box issues. Comedy is too. I feel it gets so undervalued in the arts, but also in our culture. When was the last time an out and out comedy won an Academy Award for Best Picture?
That time in stand-up taught me that you’re conducting a symphony, that you’re pausing for laughs, and then you pick it back up. That’s definitely in my writing.
[Tickets to see Brandon McCoy and fellow comic Kelly Terranova in a night of comedy are here.]
Is West by God attracting a lot of West Virginians?
There are a lot of people coming who have never seen a play at Keegan. I think it’s the title and the stage are up there on a poster. There’s a lot of people who want to talk to me afterwards. They want to talk about the hot dogs, or about how they [met someone] who didn’t know West Virginia was a state, or about their families. That’s incredibly rewarding.
West by God closes October 20, 2019. Details and tickets
This question comes from my friend, Zachary Morris: “What other perspectives do you think you could have added to the production?”
The answer to that is none. The story I wanted to tell was my family’s as a microcosm. All of these characters are based on somebody that I know very well. But what I’m well aware of are the things that make up rural America more generally, and West Virginia more specifically. It’s not that there wasn’t room, it’s that it wasn’t the point.
It’s a love letter to West Virginia, but this complacency that the play brings up, I think, is the hardest hitting argument that I make. I’m not letting them off the hook. The broadness of “It’ll be fine. Everything has a way of working itself out” is indicative of so all kinds of issues.
Anywhere in DC you can find good West Virginia food?
There was a place in Bethesda. You used to be able to get a West Virginia slaw dog. They discontinued it and they went out of business. [Laughing] Correlation? I don’t know. I went there a lot.
Soul food is essentially the same thing: a lot of collard greens, bean based dishes with a lot of pork, fried potatoes, corn bread. That’s very West Virginia. You can’t get a pepperoni roll in town. That’s a big West Virginia thing. They are really good.