Rosen’s Review – Graham Techler is one of Brooklyn’s best young comedic minds.
The writer’s latest play, The Panic of '29, captures the absurdity of the present through the lens of yesteryear.
What does Graham Techler know that we don’t? Apparently quite a lot about the 1920’s. And ’30s. And ’40s. The 28-year-old playwright and master of satire has enjoyed a sold-out run of his latest off-broadway foray – a decade-spanning screwball comedy about community and class struggle that mixes wit with wacky cynicism – and he’s just getting started.
You may have seen his previous work on TV shows like “Fairview” (Comedy Central) and “Tooning Out the News” (Paramount+) or on the stage as part of the (now-defunct) UCB house team “Characters Welcome,” as “The Guy Who Was Already in the Dungeon When You Got There” or “J.R.R. Tolkien freaking out over Hobbit Milk”. His writing is also frequently featured in the New Yorker, with pieces like “Dissertations Written By My Cat, Oscar” and “Some Different Scary Things to Dwell on All Day.”
Techler’s latest play, “The Panic of ‘29,” was in collaboration with the independent theatre company Less Than Rent and debuted at 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan. It’s a risky reimagining of the stock market crash and subsequent fallout, focused around a specific cast of characters, one being the real life figure of former New York Stock Exchange president Richard Whitney. The play benefits from excellent direction on the part of Max Friedman, a stellar cast of comedic players highlighted by Will Turner, Julia Knitel and RJ Vaillancourt, and scintillating music written by Barrett Riggins.
It’s the second time Techler’s teamed up with Less Than Rent (his first being the 2019 play “The Tycoons!”) and the partnership is proving to be a fruitful one; a vehicle for Techler to dive deep into bygone eras and flesh out his complex and humorous musings in artful fashion. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with the writer to discuss this latest project as well as his budding career and life in Brooklyn. Here is that conversation:
We’re basically at the end of the run for (“The Panic of ‘29”). What has the process been like and what has it been like seeing this play come to life?
It’s been really exciting. It’s been a long time coming; this was something that started shortly before the pandemic. Late 2019 was when we started doing readings of each of the three parts of the play. And then when the pandemic hit, we got this grace period where I felt like the story of the play actually came into much sharper focus. Everyone went through this experience and had the perspective now of living through compounding crises that don’t really have a beginning, middle and end, but which kind of go on forever.
I wanted to talk about that because it seemed very timely in many ways. Where did the original idea come from to focus on the stock market crash?
Yeah, it started from conversations I had with one of the Artistic Directors (James Presson) of Less Than Rent after we did “The Tycoon’s!” in 2019. They started kicking around the idea of commissioning something about the Great Depression and we landed on an idea of a loosely alternate Great Depression that never ends. There isn’t a Roosevelt, there isn’t a New Deal, and what was really interesting to me, was it would allow me to cover so much time – this idea of elliptical storytelling where four years have elapsed, and then eight years – how has the status changed, how do you reintroduce these characters after just forty minutes of stage time? That was an exciting challenge to me. The other real thrill was collecting data about how things were working as we went along. Of course, you can you do that whether you’re alone in your bedroom reading aloud to yourself or if you’re in a rehearsal room or if you’re in front of an audience, but the opportunity to have a proper run at a theater with eight preview performances to hear how things are working has been totally invaluable and really exciting for me. I’ve never had that experience before.
It also seems like you took a pretty deep dive into researching this specific time period. What was your research process like?
Well I love films and that era of the early-’30s through the mid-’40s. There are certain filmmakers, like Preston Sturges, who feel very contemporary to me – something about his writing hits my brain in a way that is funny the same way contemporary things are funny to me. I don’t feel the distance of decades and decades of time with him. I will say I am not a historian and I certainly don’t claim that the play is a rigorous historical analysis. I was thinking, “what can I reasonably expect everybody to know about this time?” That was far more important, because we wanted it to serve the themes of the play and the story of ordinary people for whom the chords of power are very far away. Ultimately, I focused on these notions of power changing hands over the course of the play, looking at the people who are affected by it and who have no say. All they have a say in is how they live their lives in response to it.
And of course, these themes were brought to life with a great cast and creative team. How did you get involved with the theatre company Less Than Rent?
So, they originally started as a group of students coming out of Fordham (University) and when I moved to New York in 2016 a friend of mine from high school was directing one of their plays and I was looking at their website and got extremely excited about what they were doing. It just seemed like it had that sort of high-energy scrappiness and a real kind of edge to it that I wasn’t really feeling from other companies at the time. RJ Vallencourt was friends with my roommate at the time and he introduced me to James Presson, the Artistic Director, and he is now one of my closest friends and we’ve been developing stuff together for years. I’m very grateful that it’s really a collaborative experience and I have to give credit to James and Rachel (B. Joyce, Co-Artistic Director) and Jenna (Grossano, Producing Director), as well as Max Friedman, the Director. It was a group effort in many ways. It’s actually been one of the least lonely writing experiences in my life.
Ok, that was a perfect segue because I want to talk about your life as well. I’m going to take you back a little bit.
Take me back.
Ok. Where are you from originally?
Originally from Newton, Massachusetts, which is right outside of Boston.
And how did you first get involved with theatre or writing?
So, I had a really great high school theater department which really gave kids as many opportunities as it possibly could. It was run by this guy named Adam Brown who’s still a friend, who just had the kind of genuine trust in students to be able to take on challenges that a lot of other high schools probably would not have allowed. There was a dedicated improv team, a sketch comedy troupe, a young playwrights festival and a cabaret group. Because of that, I was sort of thrust into the deep end, and I was certainly not ready. I was always feeling like I was scrambling to keep up with my friends and like I was interested in different things. I liked plays and I really liked musicals, but I wasn’t the best actor or singer. I really liked the sketch comedy troupe but I never felt like the funniest guy in the room. I liked writing but I never felt like the most insightful writer. It felt like I was second place in six different things.
Wow, ok. And you know we have to talk about it, because we both went to the University of Michigan – what changed when you got to Ann Arbor?
When I got to Michigan, I was in the theatre and drama department but very quickly wanted to start taking their playwriting classes and I got involved with (the student improv group) Midnight Book Club. I also began writing for the Every Three Weekly (student humor magazine), although I was possibly the laziest contributor who has ever been on the staff of that magazine.
I like that title.
If I might lay claim to that. But yeah, I think I started combining the strands of all the different disciplines I was interested in, incorporating more of a sketch comedy aesthetic and attitude into the stuff I was writing. And also beginning to write things like (“The Panic of ‘29”) where I had no idea how someone was going to stage it, but I guess that’s someone else’s problem down the line. That was very liberating. But I think when I left college I still felt like I was trying to figure out how to knit together a few different disciplines, where I’m not sure if I’m the best at any of these individual things, but maybe I could combine them in a way that someone wouldn’t think to.
It’s true, you do so many different things. Between humor writing, acting and writing in your own sketches, writing plays, etc., is there one thing that you feel is your main art form? Do you consider yourself mainly a playwright?
That’s a great question. I think part of the fun is not feeling too comfortable being any one thing. I’m also very grateful to not be one thing because it’s allowed me to meet all different kinds of people. I do think that scriptwriting is the thing I feel the most affinity to because it feels the most personal, and theatre is a place where the written word is really respected and taken seriously. But I don’t want to take away from the comedy and sketch comedy part of my life because I think it informs so much of my writing and what I’m asking these actors to do. I’m not asking them to do anything I wouldn’t go out and do myself. And with that experience performing for UCB, I think the comedy and the writing parts of my life are more of a circle than a venn diagram.
I want to talk about another aspect of your life – where you live. Because that’s part of what we focus on with our Brooklyn publication. How long have you lived in Brooklyn?
Let’s see. Since 2018 I believe. I moved from Hamilton Heights because I was spending a lot of time in the East Village and Brooklyn for indie comedy stuff. I live in Bushwick now, I’ve been with the same roommate for many years and I love it. I really can’t imagine moving.
Is there anything about Bushwick or about Brooklyn that you feel helps you with your art?
Yeah, I mean with the major caveat that this all ties in to larger forces of gentrification that affect the city, with artists flocking to cheaper areas – I don’t want to treat that lightly. But, I like all of the stereotypical Bushwick things. I like going to a comic store, I like going and seeing my friends perform on a rooftop or in a coffee shop. I have a friend who’s opening, like, a yarn store. That’s what it is. It’s not the neighborhood of a hundred comedic playwrights, it’s these people who are doing things I could never do and I would never think to do – the astonishing variety of that is why people flock to these areas to expand their horizons.
That’s a great answer. I know we’re running out of time, but I would love to know what’s next for you. If people want to see what you’re doing next, what should they be expecting?
Sure, I’m writing a screenplay with James Presson right now (Co-Artistic Director of Less Than Rent), that we’re really excited about. I’ll describe it as a rom-com in the world of automation. I’m also working on a musical with Brooklyn-based songwriter/performer Barrett Riggins, that we’re hoping to share in some way before the end of the year. But we have a couple different ideas bouncing around for that. There will be another play, but I don’t know what it is. I hope I will soon!
Nice! Well those were all of my questions.
Well thank you for giving me the excuse to talk about myself this much. It’s rare and it’s appreciated. This was really fun.
Of course, I really enjoy your work and I’m excited to see what you do next!
Thanks man, I really appreciate it.
You can follow Graham Techler on Twitter and instagram: @gr8h8m_t3chl3r .
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