'Doctor Cerberus' and Mr. Aguirre-Sacasa

The triple-threat writer's tense, hilarious family drama is a highlight of SCR's Pacific Playwrights Festival

If you’ve ever dreamed of making a living at what you love to do, then you might find it very easy to envy Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa—and just as easy to hate him.

The New York-based writer—whose new play, Doctor Cerberus, is a featured production in South Coast Repertory’s annual festival of new plays this weekend, the Pacific Playwrights Festival—is a legitimate triple threat. Along with his theatrical success, he’s written for some of Marvel Comics’ top lines, including Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, and currently helms the 30-issue adaptation of Stephen King’s epic novel The Stand. And he’s a staff writer for one of the best things on television, HBO’s Big Love, the critically lauded series about a practicing polygamist.

Though millions more have experienced his work through television and comic books, it’s the theater that is Aguirre-Sacasa’s passion.

They can't do that on television
Henry DiRocco/SCR
They can't do that on television
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Courtesy South Coast Repertory
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

“TV and comic-book writing are terrific, and I love them both, but when I latched onto writing, it was through play-writing—and that is what still fulfills me the most,” he says. “And I’m usually working on a play whether I’m writing for Big Love or comics. If I’m not, I feel very agitated.”

It’s a passion that would have gone untapped had William Shakespeare not confounded his world. When Aguirre-Sacasa was a high-school freshman in the Washington, D.C., area, a literature professor assigned his class Shakespeare’s Macbeth. While the teenager was an avid horror-film-goer and comic-book reader, something about Shakespeare’s bloody, ghostly drama didn’t click.

“I just didn’t get it,” the 36-year-old recalls. “I really struggled with it. I didn’t understand the language, the plot or anything. But a theater happened to be producing the play at the Folger Library, so I asked my parents to take me in hopes that I might understand it better. It turned out to be an electrifying production. It was very sexy, violent and action-packed. But it was also very clear in terms of storytelling. It made me fall in love with Shakespeare and theater in general.”

Aguirre-Sacasa would go on to study to be a playwright at Georgetown University and receive his graduate degree from the Yale School of Drama. He wrote several plays that received productions on the East Coast, landing him on the radar screen of SCR, which staged a reading of his play Dark Shadows in 2007 and commissioned him to write Doctor Cerberus. His plays also caught the attention of the creators of Big Love, who saw a production of his in New York City and asked him to write for their show, which he joined for its third season.

He’s onboard for the show’s fourth season; continues to write for Marvel; and has a couple of major theater projects in the works, including the musical version of American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis’ satirical bloodbath of white-collar New Yorkers gone way wrong.

Not too shabby for a guy who admits that the lead character in Doctor CerberusFranklin, a 13-year-old horror-film aficionado who lives in a Maryland suburb in 1983 and yearns for Batman to take him to lunch—isn’t too far removed from the hyper-imaginative, if troubled, world Aguirre-Sacasa lived in as an adolescent. “It probably is the most autobiographical thing I’ve written to date, not in terms of actual events or characters, but in the sense of someone wrestling with issues of sexuality and the desire to be an artist,” Aguirre-Sacasa says.

Franklinwants to become the apprentice to the eponymous Doctor, who hosts a late-night horror show. But his desire stems as much from wanting to escape his own life as in discovering a new one. The real horrors of the play aren’t the films that Franklin is obsessed with, but rather the daily terror of living in a family on the verge of imploding, as well as the twin global fears that dominated much of the 1980s: the threat of nuclear war and the specter of AIDS. “So, this family is trying to figure out their relationship with one another in a crazy time at the same time this kid is trying to come to terms with his own issues,” Aguirre-Sacasa says.

While the play has plenty of fantastic elements, it’s actually a quite tense—if frequently hilarious—domestic drama, one that suggests, on the page at least, that even though his comic and TV careers are in full bloom, Aguirre-Sacasa will never roam too far from his favored mode of creative expression. “Good writing is good writing, regardless of the genre, but with a play, you really can create an entire world and it’s less formulaic,” he says. “There are definite rules in play-writing, but you can break them easier—and the more you break them, the more interesting the play becomes.”

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