Monday, June 24, 2013

Interview: Musician/Playwright Matt Sax

Matt Sax is in artist whose talents are impossible to define. He’s a playwright who’s able to cohesively let Shakespeare, Charlie Chaplin, 9/11, and rap music influence his work. He’s a musician who can’t read music, a one-man show who performs all over – he’s an artistic renaissance man who creates his own work and, as a result, lives his own dream.

Matt’s latest play, Venice, is described as an Othello-based play set in the future, scored to thunderous hip/hop music. When Venice played in Kansas City a few years ago, Time Magazine called it “the year’s best musical.” I spoke with Sax the night before Venice premiered at New York’s Public Theater. Here’s what he had to say about his unique body of work, his process, and the importance of finding inspiration from tragedy.

I understand your family was hesitant for you to go into show business. What was it like being a teenager in New York City, trying to make it?
Well my parents were never completely against it, they were just nervous like any family would be when their child wants to be involved in show business. My grandfather was a psychoanalyst and he treated a lot of child actors, so there was this notion in my family that being a child actor was entering a scary world. But I’ve known what I wanted to do since I was 8 years old. I’ve always known. And my parents have always been very supportive. 
Sax performing Venice (photo by Sara Krulwich)
The evolution of your one-man show, Clay, is fascinating. You raised the money yourself to produce it. It played all over the country. What was that experience like overall?
Honestly, I never anticipated that Clay would have the longevity that it did. I was inspired to write that play even though I hadn’t really found my voice as a writer. But I knew I wanted something with range, something with heart. I raised the money through grants, and I threw parties to gain more funds. It was really the first professional gig I did, and I did it on my own. And it was a dream come true. We did it in L.A., Michigan, Kansas City – it was amazing.

You just touched on something that I love asking people about, which is the artistic philosophy of if you can’t find work, you make your own.
I’m definitely a firm believer of that; I really encourage all artists to make work happen.
It’s a philosophy that’s been around forever. Charlie Chaplin was a huge proponent of it. But people seem to be embracing it now more than ever.
Well Chaplin… when I look at a career to emulate, it’s Charlie Chaplin. I’m so inspired by what he created and how he created it. He lived in a number of different worlds and always had so many roles. If you really want to create something, then create it. Don’t wait for someone else to want you to create it. There’s nothing more thrilling than finding your own voice through your work.

Your creative influences are vast and varied. I’ve heard you cite Outkast, Barack Obama, Biggie Smalls, and Shakespeare as influences. How much does the impact of others inform your work?
I really consider myself as part of a generation of kids who don’t need specific distinction. We don’t need to stay stuck in one genre. We can be on the internet listening to Mozart on one tab, reading a cookbook on another tab, and getting life lessons from Gandhi on the next tab. Everything is just a click away, and that is very representative of the type of artist I am. I always try to take many inspirations and form something unique from them. 
Sax and Eric Rosen (photo by Tammy Shell)
I understand that you can’t read music, which is really kind of fascinating. Tell me a little about your process… do you create the beat first, then write the lyrics later?
[Laughs]. It’s different for every project that I work on. My latest play, Venice, is the first real musical I’ve written. I don’t have any musical training, so for the play, I would make a beat on the computer, write the lyrics, then myself and Eric Rosen, my partner on the show, would shape the story of the song, then I’d record it on my computer, and someone would notate it on the page for the actors. When we started this project, we didn’t have someone who could notate the music on the page, so when we’d do rehearsals, I’d literally have to sing the songs for the actors and they’d sing it back to me. But now we’re a little more professional [laughs], and we have an actual score we can hand to actors.

Sounds like you’ve never let your inability to read music act as an obstacle for creating.
No not at all. But it goes both ways. On one hand, I’m not in any sort of box that may have been put up with very strict musical training. But on the other hand, there are a lot of things I can’t do that people with a breadth of musical knowledge can do. I just write how I know how to write.

I’ve never heard of anything remotely like your current play, Venice: a rap and hip/hop, Othello-like play set in the future. Where did the origins of Venice come from?
When Eric and I were doing Clay in California, we were offered a commission to write something new. We knew we wanted to take what we learned on Clay, which was to marry hip/hop with theatrical storytelling, but we wanted to expand it. We didn’t know exactly what we wanted it to be, but we wanted it to be inspired in part by Shakespeare and Greek tragedy. This was right around the time Obama was being nominated for his presidential candidacy in 2008, so we were inspired by that sense of hope, by that energy in the air. That was five years ago and we’ve been inspired by all types of things since: the Arab Spring, the Boston bombings, the impact of terrorism – things like that.

Sax with his Venice cast (photo by Tammy Shell)
It feels like a very brave piece of work.
Well we certainly hope there’s no lack of ambition in terms of what we’re trying to do [laughs]. We really were interested in marrying hip/hop music with this heightened sense of awareness in our country. This play is different from anything that I’ve ever been a part of and anything I’ve ever made. I’m really proud of it.

Venice opens tomorrow night at New York’s famed Public Theater. How are you feeling?
[Lets out a loud sigh of relief]. Good, really good. When you make something, and then you have all of these incredibly talented people around you, giving their full hearts to the thing that you’ve made… there is nothing more humbling than that. We have an amazing cast and an amazing creative team, and everyone’s been so supportive. As a kid, I always dreamed that I would work at the Public Theater, so I’m literally living my dream right now. 


  1. Wow, this play sounds so different and very intriguing! I especially loved hearing about Matt's process, given that he can't read music. What an inspiration!

    1. It does sound different, doesn't it!? I'd love to see his show in NYC, I bet it's a real trip.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Interesting interview and interviewee. I'd love to see the show as well.

    1. Thanks dude! Really appreciate you reading and commenting on these interviews.