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Adam Answers With "The Receptionist," playwright Adam Bock uses his own experiences less for autobiography than for exploration.
Adam Bock was once a receptionist, which is one reason he's a playwright.

Or is it the other way around?

"I was the temp receptionist at a temp office," recalls Bock, whose new play The Receptionist is now in previews at Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center space (it opens Oct. 30). "Then I got a job as a receptionist at a design firm in San Francisco and worked there for three years. I discovered I have a facility for it. Most people can't do it."

At least, most don't do it well.

"It's exhausting to answer phones, because you're constantly picking up in the middle of something new," Bock says. "You have to be able to be interrupted and keep a train of thought going. It makes sense that I'm a playwright--I have a lot of voices in my head at once that I'm listening to."

It was also an ideal position from which to receive a crash course in office politics.

"I find it fascinating, the rules of an office, and how it ends up being like your family but not like your family, and when is the person your boss and when are they your friend," Bock says. "It's like a minefield, and it's just assumed that you'd know how to do it when you start.

"I remember, when I first at the design firm, I heard that a company was on the phone, so I just announced, 'So-and-so is on the phone.' Afterwards they came to me and said, 'Don't say that over the loudspeaker, because their rival's in here, too.' I was like, 'How was I supposed to know that?' And they were like, 'You have to know everything.'

"And it's true, the receptionist does need to know everything: who's good, who's bad, who's in trouble, where all the bodies are buried, who's calling who. It's a very powerful position, at the same time as you have no power--when an office party's going on, for instance, you have to stay at your desk."

The Receptionist, directed by Joe Mantello and starring Jane Houdyshell, Josh Charles, Robert Foxworth and Kendra Kassebaum, is the third in a series of Bock's workplace-set plays, which also include The Typographer's Dream and The Thugs. Bock has another vein of writing, represented by such plays as Five Flights and Swimming in the Shallows, and later this season by another new play, Drunken City, which goes up at Playwrights Horizons in March, 2008.

The workplace plays are based in part on his own office experiences, but they're meant to be more than strictly autobiographical.

"These plays have all been about how people work, and how your work impacts you," Bock says. "Most of us spend eight hours a day at work or more, and yet when we write plays we write about family or about love. There's this whole other world where you find out a lot about yourself. And I also think to a large extent what work you do creates who you are."

That would certainly be true of Bock, who began writing plays in part out of irritation: Offended that he was cast as a lowly Oompa-Loompa in a grade-school production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Bock instead wrote and starred in his own production of another Roald Dahl favorite, James and the Giant Peach.

"I always did it," Bock says of playwriting. "At school whenever I had an assignment where you were supposed to write a poem or a story, I wrote a play."

He's come a long way from those humble beginnings. He studied playwriting at Brown with Paula Vogel and Mac Wellman, and developed many of his early plays with and for San Francisco's acclaimed Shotgun Players before relocating to New York.

He says that what interests him most as a playwright these days is "the landscape of language onstage." Particularly terra incognita: "There are so many more kinds of sounds than the ones we use in writing a play. The completed sentence is only one type of sounds, and yet it gets used over and over again-lines where there's a period at the end of the sentence.

"I'm starting to write sounds that aren't actually words. I'll do things like, in response to a line, someone might cluck or open their mouth instead of making a sound. They might rub their shoulder; that's their answer."

That goes hand in hand with the polyphonic writing required by The Receptionist.

"I wanted to write about somebody who had to manage a whole bunch of different kinds of language," Bock says. "She has to talk one way to someone she doesn't know, another way to someone she knows but doesn't like, another way to a friendly person, another way to someone walking in. I thought it would be great to watch an actress have to quickly shift between all those different languages."

Not least because we're watching a bit of Bock himself.

The Receptionist is in previews, and opens at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage 1 on Oct. 30. For more information go here.