“It feels so intimate when you’re in rehearsal, like a little protected world you’ve created. All of a sudden you walk into the lobby, and there are all these strangers. It becomes a very social act.”
Daniel Pearle, 28, has recently opened his first professional production as a playwright. Written as Pearle’s graduate thesis at the New School for Drama in 2012, A Kid Like Jake (with director Evan Cabnet attached) quickly landed a production in Lincoln Center’s LCT3 series, where it runs through July 14. “I just feel really, really lucky,” he says. “I keep struggling to just stay in the moment and experience it.”
“Daniel’s transition from student to professional was obviously unusually swift,” says Pippin Parker, director of the New School for Drama. Over three years in the M.F.A. playwriting program, “much of his work circled around themes of birth, death, and dreams, and also the complicated dynamics between mothers and sons.”
A Kid Like Jake explores the powerful feelings children evoke in the adults who care about them. When a Manhattan couple realizes that their precocious four-year-old’s love for “gender-variant play” presents an unusual opportunity, they’re torn about whether to highlight it on his private kindergarten application or resist categorizing their young son.
Pearle based the play, in part, on his experiences tutoring high school students. “I’ve gotten into the landscape of this highly competitive education world,” he explains. “Whether it’s [preparing for] kindergarten or college, there are similar emotional precipice moments for parents.”
“I went through a Cinderella phase as a young child, so that had some personal associations for me,” Pearle says. He also read articles about gender non-conforming children, “comparing memories from my own childhood to the conversation we’re having now. There’s something about that age [4-5] that is so inaccessible to adults, so profoundly mysterious.”
More broadly, A Kid Like Jake explores “how traumatizing it can be to realize that other people that we love, whether it’s our partners or our children, have their own psyches that we can never totally penetrate,” says Pearle. “That’s one of the most painful things about intimacy. No matter how much you love someone, you can never enter their psyche completely.”
Pearle grew up in Studio City, California. Born in New York, he moved west as a young child after his artist parents, Gary Pearle and Mary Kyte (co-conceivers of the musical Tintypes, which his father directed on Broadway), left the theater. His father eventually trained to become a psychotherapist and his mother became a high school teacher. Describing his father’s career transition, Pearle offers, “Directing [plays] and doing clinical work have a lot of similarities: a creative challenge that takes place over a period of time, guiding people to integrate different aspects of themselves.”
“In L.A., I didn’t see a whole lot of theater, but I definitely grew up reading plays,” says Pearle. “My first memories of plays were actually on the page.” His parents’ bookshelf provided raw material for a self-directed introduction to the theater. “One of the first plays I read was a Chris Durang play. It was so hilarious and strange. That’s one I remember very closely. Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams. The big one was in college, when I really started getting into Chekhov.”
As an undergraduate at Harvard, Pearle wrote fiction, as well as continued his study of classical voice, piano, and composition. “I had grown up as a fiction junkie and was always more interested in internal worlds, in characters’ inner lives,” he explains. Eventually, he wrote a play, but, “I never had anything produced while I was there. I was very private when I was writing.”
“Sometimes playwrights seem sort of overwhelmed by how sensitively attuned they are to the world,” says Christopher Shinn, head of the M.F.A. playwriting department at the New School, “and they convey their vision through this exquisite sensitivity. Daniel seemed to me to have that ability.” After seeing a 2007 production of Shinn’s play Dying City, Pearle reached out to him for advice about playwriting and subsequently became a New School student.
“I felt a little bit behind,” says Pearle. “That was the first time I had ever worked with actors, or in a rehearsal room.” Despite Pearle’s seemingly novice approach, Parker says, the young playwright was “artistically ambitious, incredibly smart, and held himself to high creative principles.” By the end of his three years, Pearle had completed A Kid Like Jake, another full-length work entitled The Prodigies, and several shorter plays.
“Daniel has impulses to reveal the truth through non-naturalistic ways,” says Shinn. “I’m very curious to see where he goes with that as his work develops.” For Pearle, form follows from his interest in characters’ inner lives. He’s fond of quoting Treplyov’s maxim from the Seagull that “the point isn’t old forms or new forms, it’s to write and not think about form, because it’s flowing freely out of your soul.” When he thinks about the great plays of the past, he says, “It’s usually the people that stay with me.”
Currently, Pearle lives in the West Village, but figures to decamp soon. “I might make the inevitable switch to Brooklyn,” he allows. “The production has gone well enough that I feel like I’m in a great position to keep writing.” He’s continuing work on a play he started at the MacDowell Colony and exploring film and television projects. Also, The Prodigies has yet to be produced, and Pearle hopes it will find a life.
In the meantime, he’s enjoying the final weeks of a sold-out, well-reviewed run at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater. “I got a chance to see Daniel a few days [after seeing A Kid Like Jake],” says Parker. “He was characteristically modest, charming, and his usual boyish self. His primary attention has always been on the complexities of the world around him, and not himself, which I think makes him a very appealing person and writer.”