Raisedin the rural outskirts of Port Huron, Michigan, playwright A. Rey Pamatmat “grew up in the middle of nowhere — like nowhere nowhere,” he shares in an interview with writer Adam Szymkowicz. “Wonderful things came out of the way I was raised. I read and wrote as much as I did as a kid to entertain myself and, obviously, that’s been paying off lately,” he reflects. Though his boyhood isolation initially inspired Pamatmat, he has centered his adult career on connection and compassion.
After earning his MFA in playwriting at the Yale School of Drama, Pamatmat’s immediate priority was joining a community of other writers. He’s now been a member of the Ma-Yi Writers’ Lab — trumpeted as “the largest collection of Asian American playwrights in the history of recorded time” — for over a decade, and last year he became co-director. “I still bring all my first drafts to the Lab,” he says, where they benefit from feedback from peers he trusts, who “know me so well artistically that they can just dive right in.” Building a community is still the first piece of advice he would offer young writers, urging, “Find your people. You need them more than anything else in the theatre. Not only will they support your work, but the right ones will make you a better artist, a better business person, and (more importantly) a better person-person.”
Pamatmat places this high value on compassionate relationships not just with his collaborators but in his writing. As bullying made headlines, “I was reading all the articles that led up to the It Gets Bettercampaign,” says Pamatmat, “and what surprised me was that there was never any real analysis of what in our society actually encourages bullying.” He felt compelled to add to the conversation — and to uncover how classroom harassment is not an isolated phenomenon, but stems from the larger absence of kindness in our national values. “We have prioritized being the best, most competitive, and happiest over being the humblest, most generous, and most understanding,” Pamatmat believes. “We’ve done it to the degree that division, acrimony, and even violence have become the standard in our politics, our jobs, and our schoolyards.”
Exploring the extent of this ethos, he began to realize how cruelty and aggression permeate more subtle, seemingly normal behaviors. “Part of writing this play was identifying how a heightened
behavior like bullying and harassment is actually rooted in everyday actions and circumstances,” he shares. Staging this sensitive observation required a stylistic departure for the writer. “I’m not always interested in examining the everyday,” he admits. “I prefer things to be more theatrical and heightened,” as in his other plays that feature clones, spell-casters, and shadow puppets. “But kids are getting attacked on playgrounds, not in time machines. People are facing discrimination in the grocery store, not in pre-historic human settlements,” he says. In the familiar, comfortable setting of an independent book store and grounded in realistic dialogue, his new play after all the terrible things I doforgoes the extraordinary in order to illuminate uncomfortable complexities within the ordinary.
Taking this magnifying glass to the mundane, Pamatmat drew inspiration from authors he admires. Discussing his influences in The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Pamatmat writes, “I love Virginia Woolf’s novels. The first one I ever read was The Waves. I like the way she writes about small moments and instants of life when the psychology surrounding them accumulates and builds into a whole story.” Another favorite, Frank O’Hara, shares this gift for dilating small, quotidian moments. O’Hara is known for pulling imagery from pop culture and his daily landscape as he dashed off poems on his lunch hour — even titling a collection Lunch Poems to flaunt his signature nonchalance. O’Hara’s poetry peppers the play, offering not only stylistic kinship but a source of comfort for Pamatmat. “Including Frank O'Hara in after all the terrible things I do came from a need to fill the play with familiar things I love, since I knew I was heading into unfamiliar territory with characters that I was struggling to understand.” Exploring homophobia and harassment challenged Pamatmat’s own capacity for generosity. By seeking nuanced insight into bullies, “I had to learn to have empathy for people who hurt people,” he reflects.
For Pamatmat, finding the humanity in bullies is part of a larger effort to find the personal in the political. As he explains in an interview with playwright Jacqueline Lawton, “I’ve never considered my plays to be advocacy; I just tend to frequently write on questions, issues, and ideas that are political. Theatre can humanize events,” contributing “to the development of empathy.” Echoing this emphasis on compassion in The Courier-Journal, he admires how, “in the midst of all of Tony Kushner’s polemic, you can hear that he has the softest heart. I hope my plays are similar.” Pamatmat’s heartfelt approach cracks open difficult subjects and invites the audience to join in conversation. “I like the idea that anybody can come in and watch my plays for the first time and have an experience that’s personal to them and very, very real, hopefully emotional, hopefully moving,” he shares. "There doesn’t have to be prep. They can come in, just who they are, and see what I’ve put up today and experience and understand — or argue with it.”
- Molly FitzMaurice