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How emerging playwright Alex Riad is using his hometown as fodder for a theatrical trilogy
Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Adly Guirgis may be Alex Riad's cousin, but Lucy Thurber's Hilltown Plays are what prompted him to start writing about his California hometown. "They blew me away," recalls Riad about seeing Thurber's five-play cycle focused on the downtrodden denizens of a rural Massachusetts village, reminiscent of where she grew up. "Even though I'm not from Western Mass, I understood what those people had been through. As an audience member, you almost felt like you grew up in that town. I felt inspired to do that myself."
This month, Riad, who's 29, debuts The Wild Parrots of Campbell at the Cherry Lane Theatre. It's his second play in a planned trilogy about Campbell, California, which was upended by Silicon Valley's tech boom.
Riad says he embarked on this project because "I wanted to see what sorts of things I'd discover about Campbell and the people I grew up with." The first play in the series, The Floor Is Lava, ran at La MaMa earlier this year and centered on millennials competing in the cutthroat startup scene. The Wild Parrots of Campbell explores those living in the shadow of the tech revolution.
"Parrots is very much Lava's spiritual sequel," Riad says. "It's about the unsuccessful people from where I grew up who don't work in tech—what do they do? My parents had their own business for 25 years and lost it in the recession. I'm always very focused on the American Dream because of that."
Produced by The NOW Collective, the slice-of-life drama revolves around two brothers, Charlie and Jack, who live together in their recently deceased mother's crumbing home along with two of their slacker friends. When Charlie invites a woman he met online to move across the country and in with them, the dynamics of the house shift in unsettling ways.
"Your relationship with your parents can be strained in a lot of ways, that's nothing new, but Alex explores the concept of chosen family," says John DiMino, who plays Charlie in The Wild Parrots of Campbell and previously acted in The Floor Is Lava. "I think Alex has such a lovely ear for the blend between family dramas of old and these new chosen-family plays."
Riad's famous cousin Guirgis also just opened a world-premiere play Off-Broadway. But while Riad counts him as a champion, he says Guirgis is not the reason he decided to become a dramatist.
"Stephen would visit, and looked after me like a kid brother," Riad recalls. "But I actually never thought about playwriting because of him. Then Marcus Gardley taught writing at my high school, that's when I fell in love with it. I thought, I gotta go to New York, and when I told Stephen he was really supportive. The biggest thing he's done for me is community: He taught me the value of creating theatre with your friends, people you care about and those you're artistically aligned with. It's how Stephen came up, and it's what I try to emulate."
Riad actually connected with Padraic Lillis, the director of The Wild Parrots of Campbell, because of Guirgis, who suggested his younger cousin participate in the LAByrinth Theater Company's Intensive Ensemble, a new play development program. "I met amazing artists there," Riad says, including Lillis, who's helped him develop the play over the past three years. "They're the people I've been making theatre with since I came here 11 years ago."
Riad recently started at Juilliard's prestigious playwriting program, where he's working on his third play about Campbell featuring the kind of nuanced millennials he wishes he saw more of on stage.
"When I first moved here, I was annoyed by how our generation was portrayed; it felt like it came from a place of judgment," he says. "We're one of the most educated cohorts in history, one of the most environmentally conscious, and most inclusive when it comes to race, sexuality and gender. And we also came into adulthood during the Great Recession. To me, that is a fascinating group of people to look at."
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Top image: Alex Riad. Photo by Molly Collier.
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