Josh Tobiessen

Josh Tobiessen

Pioneer Theatre Company‘s second annual Play-By-Play Reading Series — exploring new plays in intimate script-in-hand presentations with professional resident and guest actors and directors — began Feb. 16 in Salt Lake City with the gathering of artists for Speculator Spirits by Josh Tobiessen. The play is set in a haunted liquor store, so it’s a pretty good bet that it’s a comedy.

Here’s how PTC bills Speculator Spirits: “When a young woman brings her fiancé to her estranged father’s haunted liquor store, she’s hoping for a quick visit. But she finds that the past, and old boyfriends, have a way of catching up with you.”

“I like to write comedies,” Tobiessen told me. “That’s how I try to explore ideas — even serious ideas — that I’m curious about. I write plays to gather people in a room to laugh and think, and in that regard Speculator Spirits is similar to my other plays. But in this play I also wanted to spend more time exploring the characters and the various real issues that they’re dealing with, so I think there’s a little more introspection going on.”

I threw a few questions at the playwright. Scroll down for more.

Five days of rehearsals at Pioneer lead to three public reading presentations Feb. 20-21 in the Babcock Theatre in the lower level of PTC complex on the campus of the University of Utah. Regional and New York City director Wes Grantom (Slant Theatre Project’s The Steadfast and The Cloud) directs the reading.

The reading cast includes Cody Thompson, Max Robinson, Susanna Florence Risser, Emily Walton and Mike Brown.

Grantom directed a New York City reading of Speculator Spirits in 2014 and recommended it to PTC artistic director Karen Azenberg, who is always on the lookout for new work for the Play-By-Play New Play Reading Series. (For the series, PTC accepts agent submissions and scripts on professional recommendation.)

“Karen and I had a great conversation about the lack of great new comedies, so I had a feeling she’d like it and was glad when she responded positively,” Grantom said.

Michael Ray Escamilla and Lorenzo Pisoni in Second Stage Theatre's production of "Election Day." (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Michael Ray Escamilla and Lorenzo Pisoni in Second Stage Theatre’s production of “Election Day.” (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Originally from Schenectady, NY, playwright Josh Tobiessen used his undergraduate degree in philosophy, and training from the Improv Olympic in Chicago, to start writing plays in Ireland with a theatre company called Catastrophe, which he co-founded. After having several plays, including site-specific productions, performed at such venues as the Galway Arts Festival and the Dublin Fringe Festival, he returned to the States to get a playwriting MFA at the University of California, San Diego.

His recent plays include Election Day, Red State Blue Grass, Spoon Lake Blues and Crashing the Party and have been produced or developed at such places as The Alliance Theatre, Atlanta; Mixed Blood Theatre, Minneapolis; The O’Neill National Play Conference, Connecticut; Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland; Second Stage Theatre, New York; The Zach Scott Theatre, Austin; and AiShangChu Theatre, Hong Kong. Election Day (which played Second Stage Theatre’s Uptown Series Off-Broadway in 2007) is published by Samuel French and in the Smith and Kraus anthology, New Playwrights, Best Plays of 2008.

For tickets and information about Pioneer Theatre Company’s 2015 Play-By-Play New Play Reading Series, visit

I’m interested in that first moment when an idea for a play comes to a writer. What prompted Speculator Spirits? What first popped into your head? A character? A conflict? A setting?

Josh Tobiessen: I wanted to set the play in a run down liquor store and I wanted to write about ghosts.  But I also wanted to allow the idea of ghosts to include anyone whose best days are behind them and can’t bring themselves to move on. This is even true for the town they live in.  With that in mind the characters started to come into focus.  And, of course, the conflict comes when we throw in some characters who seem to have no problems moving on.

When I see the term “haunted liquor store,” I think “comedy.”

Josh Tobiessen: Pretty much everything that’s good that I write is a comedy.  Comedy is really important to me because it strips away the barriers to honest communication. Laughter is an involuntary act, and it’s an inclusive act.  If you find yourself laughing at the same thing as a room full of strangers you realize what you have in common with them pretty fast. These days a lot of people think of comedy as a form better suited to television or film, but for me laughing alone in a room, or while watching your phone with your ear buds plugged in, works against the power of comedy. That power being the ability to tear down walls and allow communities to know each other. This will always work best in live theatre.

Wes Grantom directed a reading of Speculator Spirits last summer for Slant Theatre Project in NYC. What did you learn about the play then, and did you rewrite after that?

Josh Tobiessen: We learned some good things about the characters as well as how each of their stories tracked throughout the play, and, yes, rewrites were made.

Pioneer Theatre Company's home in Salt Lake City, UT.

Pioneer Theatre Company’s home in Salt Lake City, UT.

Are there specific things that you will be listening for in Salt Lake City? Certain things you know you want to address?

Josh Tobiessen: One of the great gifts of the reading at Pioneer is that we’ll have three different opportunities to hear an audience respond to the play.  This is essential for a comedy, because you start to hear what’s working and what’s falling flat. But I’ll also be listening for those moments when the audience is holding their breath while they listen or shifting around and looking for the exits. Over the course of a few readings we’ll have the opportunity to make adjustments and see how the next audience responds.

Also, every time I get a new set of actors to read your characters they bring their own truth and background to it and often reveal new things about characters that I hadn’t noticed before.  All of my characters are comedic, but I also love them all and want to make sure that there’s a humanity to them that comes from being challenged and embraced by actors.

When was the moment that you thought you might be a playwright?

Josh Tobiessen: When I lived in Chicago I wanted to be an actor, and I took a lot of improv classes, which was a blast. Nine times out of ten an improv show will be pretty mediocre, but if you see great performers really nailing it, it’s amazing. One thing that I realized while I was on this track though, was that I was having more fun coming up with the stories than I was performing them. I started writing to keep that buzz going when I was offstage. After Chicago I moved to Ireland and eventually started a small theatre company there to produce and act in my own plays. It was kind of self-serving, but as an actor in my own plays I learned the hard way what was working and what wasn’t because if something fell flat, I was up there onstage listening to the crickets. I still write plays with actors in mind. I never write a character that I don’t think would be fun to play.

What’s next for you? What are you working on?

Josh Tobiessen: At the moment I’m writing a play about a failed songwriter and failed poet who decide to rob the restaurant they both work at to improve their circumstances.  Despite their best efforts they fall in love.


The 2015 Play-By-Play Series by Pioneer Theatre Company also includes readings of Slow Food by Wendy MacLeod and Mr. Wheeler’s by Rob Zellers. Last season’s Play-By-Play title, Alabama Story, seen in April 2014, went on to get a full world-premiere mainstage production at Pioneer in January 2015.