By Cathy DeDe, Chronicle Managing Editor
Dan Castellaneta is the voice of Homer Simpson, but all he really wants to do is write.
He and his wife Deb Lacusta are coming this week to the Adirondack Theatre Festival in Glens Falls, where they will workshop an unlikely little play they wrote together, as they typically do.
This one, The Banana Tree, is a “zany” comedy that stars a talking tree. It is the story of a convenience store clerk who dreams of becoming Las Vegas’s first African-American female magician — until she is sidelined through a mad series of run-ins and blunders that place her in the middle of a robbery and kidnapping, all masterminded, it turns out, by a telepathic banana tree.
A one-time-only staged reading of the new play is set for the Wood Theater on Tuesday, June 30, at 7:30 p.m. Tix: $20. Box office: 480-4878.
Mr. Castellaneta and Ms. Lacusta are arguably a “power” Hollywood couple. They live in L.A. He voices the lead character (and others) on Fox’s long-running animated series The Simpsons, and both write for the show. Both have won awards — but…
‘We’re very Midwestern’
“We’re not in the Brangelina world,” Mr. Castellaneta told The Chronicle this week in a phone interview from Los Angeles. He referred, of course, to celebrity power couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
By contrast, he says, “We’re very Midwestern.” Both come from the Chicago comedy scene; he was born in the suburbs, Oak Park; she’s from Detroit.
“I’m not a celebrity, so to speak,” Mr. Castellaneta insists. “I am associated with a very famous character, but I’m not living that kind of lifestyle. It’s nice. Some people who are more in front of the camera, they can’t go to a restaurant or go get groceries. Occasionally somebody will notice me and know I can do the voice of Homer Simpson. More likely they’ll notice me from some other sitcom I’ve done, and they wouldn’t even know to bring up The Simpsons.”
Ms. Lacusta agrees, “Low profile is nice. Our friends are actors, directors, writers, but they’re all from other places. That keeps us very grounded. We just want to do good work.”
“Sure, we’re in Hollywood and we have some friends who are well-known actors and writers, but we are just doing the work,” Mr. Castellaneta says.
Besides The Simpsons, both are very active partners in writing, are regulars with an improv comedy troupe they started there, and she writes a lot, including an indie movie about Marlon Brando. Not all their work is high-profile, but they are clearly very busy.
The couple does just fine, thank you. Mr. Castellaneta reportedly earns $300,000 per episode for his work on The Simpsons (down from $400,000 at the show’s height), according to the Website Celebrity Net Worth.
“It’s kind of great to have a good job, and be able to take the time to do theater. It is a blessing to have that,” Ms. Lacusta says, “to explore your work without the pressure of it.”
“We’ve always been theater people,” she says. “We’re doing the same thing we did in Chicago.”
She says she grew up watching the TV credits for names of writers, wrote comedy sketches for her high school variety shows, even tried her pen at journalism. “I’ve always loved language and words.”
Mr. Castellaneta had an interest in acting, performed in his high school plays. “What inspired me to write was Monty Python, watching these comedy performers who were writing their own material. I remember thinking, gee, how did they come up with that idea?”
Second City comedy alums
The couple met while taking classes and performing at Second City Comedy in Chicago. They have been working partners ever since, and married in 1987.
The big break? Tracey Ullman hired Mr. Castellaneta as an ensemble member for her self-titled sketch comedy TV show in the early 80s.
He and castmate Julie Kavner were asked to voice the husband and wife for a short animated cartoon written for the show by Matt Groening (until then best known for his quirky comic strips in alternative weekly newspapers).
The cartoon was about a dysfunctional family. That was the birth of The Simpsons. Picked up as a full-scale prime time animated show, it became a cultural phenomenon and, arguably, changed the face of television programming forever.
“It was a little one-minute animation, but people liked it,” Mr. Castellaneta recalls. “Matt Groening and James Brooks (the famed producer) managed to sell Fox on the idea of doing it as a half-hour show.
“I don’t think anybody thought it would be the hit it was. People felt it would be successful. A five-year run would be huge. But something like this hadn’t been done for years. The only other prime time cartoon like it was The Flintstones. Nobody had any idea it would have the staying power it did.
“I remember looking at the ratings at that time, and we were number three,” he says. “I thought, for the local market? No, for the whole country. I was taken aback that people were relating to this animated cartoon, and the offbeat sensibility it had.”
Mr. Castellaneta has won four Emmys for voicing Homer, Krusty the Clown and other characters on the show.
He and Ms. Lacusta have also written four episodes, including one that won a Writers Guild of America Award.
Sitcom writers around the table
“It’s so helpful,” Ms. Lacusta says of writing for The Simpsons. “We’ve learned a lot about writing and rewriting.”
Mr. Castellaneta sets the scene.
“Generally,” he says, it really does look like it’s depicted on TV shows: “It’s a room full of guys around the table. Usually you have some who are stronger on jokes, some good at the visual stuff, others at character or story, and one person running the table.
“A lot of time it’s real quiet, people are not saying anything. It goes at a slow, arduous pace, there’s a lot of intensity, then somebody throws something out, a great joke, or a passage of dialogue.”
“In a way,” says Ms. Lacusta, “it’s a lot like the collaboration of improv. Everyone’s trying to make it the best it can be.”
How do they work as a pair? “A lot like the sitcom,” Mr. Castellaneta says. “You heavily outline a story. After we’ve talked it through, we’ll go and individually work on it. You might work on some dialogue or I take one scene and work on it. Writing is so much work — to make something look so effortless.”
“It’s like putting a puzzle together,” Ms. Lacusta says. “Banana Tree is very plot-driven. Most plays are that, plot- and character-driven. You may lay in some information early on that does not seem important but will be very important later. You’re choosing where to put it that it’s not so obvious, but that the audience will remember when it happens.”
“Anything you put in,” Mr. Castellaneta adds, “has a consequence. One thing can ruin it all. If you add this, then this happens, and if it’s not right, it all falls apart.”
Banana Tree literally came to Mr. Castellaneta in a dream, about a talking tree, a funny convenience store clerk. “I dreamed that Deb and I were on the West Side of London and the marquee said Banana Tree, by us. I didn’t remember writing this play, so I said let’s go in and see it.”
Sure, trees can ‘talk’
Turns out, there’s validity to the idea of plants with consciousness. Mr. Castellaneta points to a radio program on “Spiritual Gardening,” books and other research he’s done. “So, obviously, the banana tree can talk and has an influence on people.”
“It started with that notion and a small, contained cast,” Ms. Lacusta says. “Then we extrapolated and it became kind of a caper story, extremely funny.”
They participate in a weekly writers group that uses improv techniques — start with an idea and play it out, record it all, watch it later and use what works.
“Improv is so helpful for the writing process, to make sure something sounds more authentic,” says Ms. Lacusta.
She notes that Second City’s improv had nothing to do with jokes when it was founded in 1959. “It was developed at first to help immigrant children communicate with each other. It’s about being present and in the moment, and connecting with each other.”
How did Ms. Lacusta and Mr. Castellaneta connect with the Adirondack Theatre Festival?
When they were accepted to workshop Banana Tree at the Telluride Playwrights festival in Colorado in 2013, they were assigned to work with a director unknown to them. That was Chad Rabinowitz — now the new producing artistic director of Adirondack Theatre Festival.
“We liked working with him,” Ms. Lacusta said. “The play went well there.” His background as a magician was “a big help.”
Mr. Rabinowitz brought Banana Tree to workshop at his other company, Bloomington Playwrights Project in Indiana. The one-day workshop here will test changes that came about after the Bloomington run.
Tuesday in Glens Falls
Founding ATF artistic director Martha Banta will direct Tuesday night’s staged reading at the Wood.
The heady cast of performers includes Tony nominee Johanna Day (Proof) and David Beach (Urinetown and Mama Mia on Broadway). Both are ATF veterans.
Ms. Lacusta says, “We’re excited to work with Martha, and to see it done at that level, with those actors.”
Bonus, Simpsons fans: The tree is voiced (offstage) by an accomplished voiceover actor — Mr. Castellaneta himself.
They’re hoping to work out any kinks — but also, they said outright, to maybe be invited back for a full production next year.
“We hear they do that,” Ms. Lacusta says. “Chad was so helpful. He really helped us with the magic that is part of the story, because he knows that, and he even gave us alternatives that made it better. We’re hoping they’ll do it and then someone will see it and take it to New York. It’s a fun show — and it’s got magic. What could be better?”
What’s next for Mr. Castellaneta and Ms. Lacusta?
“Our focus now is The Banana Tree,” Ms. Lacusta says. “We are working on a couple other plays too.”
One, called Empire Burlesque, is described as “a musical satire about the Spanish American War.”
“It has everybody in it,” they say. “Mark Twain, Emma Goldman, Teddy Roosevelt.”
Laura Hall wrote the music. Fans would recognize her, also a Second City alum, as the music director of the improv comedy TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway.
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