Interview with Fully Committed playwright Becky Mode
Playwright and Screenwriter Becky Mode is currently making her Broadway debut with her comedy solo show Fully Committed, starring five-time Emmy nominee Jesse Tyler Ferguson, at the Lyceum Theatre until 24 July 2016.
I caught up with Becky today to get the lowdown on her first Broadway outing, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and, of course, fancy pants cuisine...
Thomas Hayden Millward: Firstly, congratulations to you on your Broadway debut!
Becky Mode: Thank you so much!
THM: I actually missed the previous incarnations of ‘Fully Committed’ off-Broadway and in London, but I finally got to see the show here on Broadway and what a hilarious, fast-paced, theatrical juggernaut it is!
BM: And as you’re a Brit, I’m guessing you belong to the select few who actually know who Heston Blumenthal is, right?
TM: Yes, I know he plays an important role in the play and I was actually wondering how well known he would be to general New York audiences.
BM: Well, in the old version of the script it used to be Tim Zagat and with the explosion of foodie culture over here, various people questioned whether his name had the charge that it used to have, so there was a lot of discussion about who the modern day equivalent of Tim Zagat is. Who would make our chef really quake in his boots when he walked through the door? He wouldn’t really care about what a big A-List movie star thought of the food, but the biggest celebrity to a celebrity chef is another celebrity chef. That’s how that came to pass. But deliberation did go on for many months.
TM: Yes, he’s definitely a good fit. I saw him on TV recently preparing cuisine for outer space! So, if we go back to 1999, where ‘Fully Committed’ was enjoying successful off-Broadway engagements at the Vineyard Theatre, followed by the Cherry Lane Theatre, did you ever imagine that over 16 years later, and via a couple of stops in London on the way, you would be here on Broadway?
BM: No! This was never an intentional thing. It was actually the producers' idea and it was also their idea to update it. I just thought it had had a wonderful life and I was grateful for that and I never thought this would happen! It’s just incredible.
TM: When did you know for definite that it would indeed be receiving a Broadway staging?
BM: I can’t remember the timeline exactly, but it began about a year ago. Last Spring the producers were looking to do something with Jesse [Tyler Ferguson] and at first I was slightly worried because the play is supposed to be about Sam, who is kind of an anonymous drone and I felt that a star with celebrity would overshadow the truth of the character. But Jesse is such a skilled actor and performer. Although he has got a huge following and he’s extremely well-known, it’s true that the character comes first before his celebrity. I don’t see Mitch – his character on “Modern Family” – I see a very fluid performer, performing all these different roles. As soon as I heard Jesse read, I just knew this was the perfect idea. So I worked on re-writes over the course of the year and Jesse understood how challenging the role actually is – to memorize all the characters and sequences and internal calls. Jesse, the director Jason Moore, the producers and I intermittently worked on it from September of last year until opening. It’s been a really interesting, long process. Jesse is very smart and generous and Jason had some wonderful ideas about the script. It was such a privilege. The first time around it was like a dream – it was just a little play that emerged from our experiences working at various restaurants. It was discovered and did unexpectedly well the first time out of the gates. I felt a bit superstitious going back to the pot, but fortunately I had great collaborators and it was fun making the changes according to those intervening years.
TM: And during those intervening years, as you say, do you think the high end restaurant industry has changed much?
BM: It’s so funny – I sometimes feel unworthy talking about the restaurant world because I don’t know a lot about it really. I have two kids and I get take-out sushi mostly (laughs)…
TM: I’m with you there! I’m not seen in classy restaurants much myself either. I’m happy eating Fish & Chips out of a bag made of newspaper…
BM: Right! (Laughs) But obviously there has been the rise of the celebrity chef as a kind of Rockstar and its explosion onto popular culture. It feels like since 1999 they are becoming more and more like a global brand. They have books, publicists, television shows and even the television shows have television shows. In terms of the cuisine, back in 1999 they called it ‘global fusion’ and now it’s ‘molecular gastronomy.’ What we understand to be “fancy pants” food has changed so much. I remember thinking at the time that wilted spinach was so hilarious to us and now that’s kinda ordinary at this point, right?
TM: And now we’ve escalated things all the way up to ‘edible dirt,’ which now features in your play!
BM: Exactly! (Laughs) And even during my research of molecular gastronomy, people would tell me that that’s so passé now. It’s like everything else – everything changes and evolves so rapidly.
TM: I also wanted to say that I was a big fan of “Smash” and I know you wrote a couple of episodes for that, which aired in 2013. How was that experience for you?
BM: Oh, it was incredible! “Smash” was as action-packed and theatrical behind-the-scenes as its subject matter. I was only on the second season, but they had assembled the most extraordinary group of writers and directors and, of course, the actors were all incredible. It felt very star-studded but in the best kind of way. When I was on set, there was some Broadway royalty everywhere I looked - from Angelica Huston to Megan Hilty to Bernadette Peters and Brian d’Arcy James. The list goes on. And it was a real education for me too. It was very hard to do a show about Broadway on network television, where there are so many commercial breaks. It was a complicated scenario. That was definitely a challenge, but I was in the safe hands of some incredible people.
TM: So finally, what would you like audiences to take away from an evening at ‘Fully Committed’ at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre?
BM: Oh I just hope they are entertained. It’s not a hard play to interpret. I guess I’m happiest when people come away really feeling for the guy at the other end of the phone. Whether it’s working in a restaurant or in some lousy customer services job, it’s so easy to behave poorly on the phone. I’m ashamed to say I’m sure I’ve done that myself. But somewhere on the other end of that phone line is somebody who is getting paid $8.95 per hour and doing a job that is frequently unpleasant. So if my play inspired a little bit of empathy for that guy, then I’m delighted!