Pop-Culturalist Chats with Matt Cox
Matt Cox wears many hats. He’s an actor, does improv, sound design, and is a playwright. His current play is Puffs Or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic. What started as a small reading inspired by the Harry Potter series at the Peoples Improv Theater two years ago has grown into a heartwarming and hilarious production at New World Stages. We chatted with Matt about the development of Puffs and what he’s learned from it.
PC: Obviously, there was one big thing that inspired you, but what made you actually write Puffs?
Matt: I came to the idea on the subway. A group of us who developed the show—myself, our director Kristin McCarthy Parker, and our original producers—all worked on Kapow-i GoGo which was a four-and-a-half hour long nerd mega opus. It was really fun, and we were looking for something else that maybe more people would come and see. Then, the Puffs idea came into my head. I was like, “Oh, what about this.” As soon as I looked it up and saw that somehow no one else has done this idea yet I was like, “Oh my gosh, I have to do this right now!” It was a grand epic trying to do it before, magically, somebody else came along with the same idea. The [Harry Potter] series itself was so important. I grew up alongside Harry and everyone in the books, so it’s always been important to how I grew up in relation to stories. It was really neat to have an opportunity to play around in that world. Everything felt too good to not do it.
PC: How long did it take you to come up with the entire show?
Matt: I write very quickly sometimes, and I like to wait until the last minute. Those are two good things to go hand-in-hand. Once the idea was there, there were a few dates that were available at the Peoples Improv Theater that we would just get. It lined up. There was a date that was, like, in a week. One of the producers was like, “Do you want to try to put together a reading for it?” I put together the first half of the script in about a week—it was very different back then. Then, about a month later, we did a full script. That was around July of 2015. We did a full first production of it starting in December 2015. It [has since] evolved and evolved and evolved over the course of two years.
PC: Being inspired by something that is so iconic for so many people, what were your biggest challenges in staying true to that original world, but making yours fresh and different?
Matt: The thing that was most scary about it…the fan base just loves it so much. It’s so important to so many people. So, [Puffs] never steps too much in the world where it [would be] insulting to people. It was always [about] making sure it would be just as loved by the fan base. Also, making sure we never violated the rules of the world was another thing. That was interesting because right around when we started working on the show, that universe came back. The play [Harry Potter and the Cursed Child] came out and the new movie series [Fantastic Beasts] came out. They were both announced when we started working on the show; that was [a moment] like, “Oh no.” Any second something could come along and take away some of our validation about the things we had been working on for so long to make sure they fit into the world in our own little way. So, all that has always been tricky. The absolute biggest thing we always worried about was if people were going to like it, or if they thought we were being mean—which we never thought we were, but we were always afraid of [that perception].
PC: So with your first go-around at the People’s Improv Theater, how much of that production came into play with developing the script and the story?
Matt: The way I write, I like to play around with the actors in the room. I have an idea, throw it out, and they’ll perform some of the lines. Then they’ll say, “What if it’s like this,” and we play around for a second. Most of it was always scripted, but through play like that. But, there are some parts of the show, since we have several improvisers with us, that have been different every single performance. [For example,] there’s the Zach Smith character; the first time we ever did it in rehearsal [Nick Carrillo] improvised that—the whole scene. So it’s been different every single time. Then there’s little lines here and there that, as the show has expanded, change as well just to keep it fresh and fun for the actors. [They can] say whatever they want at certain points as long as it’s funny and not horrible.
PC: Is there something you’ve cut from the show? Like what was one of the hardest things for you to cut?
Matt: I would say that since from it’s inception of the first few drafts that we used at the readings and the first shows, it’s changed a lot. There’s probably the same length of script that’s now in the play that has been cut from it. There was a plot—this was way way back when—that [we cut when] it was clear the play was getting too long. The Leanne character had a wonderful little side plot where she was a detective in the fourth year. She knew the particular teacher who is not who he says he is, and she was the one who caught on. It was just her sleuthing around which I always thought was really funny. There’s a lot of little character plots like that that eventually went away. It’s been a lot of whittling down.
PC: Did you have a favorite character to develop and write?
Matt: Definitely the main character Wayne. It was just fun and very challenging. He was the one who took the longest to feel like a character on the page and the stage. There’s a lot to him that is my own growing up. It’s very particularly fun to have audiences laugh at things I thought I was alone in growing up. He’s great. And, I love the trio. There’s something about each of them that was unique to me that I tried to put in. My favorite thing to write in the show is the Victor character in year 4. The dialogue is very “the villian in Rocky 4” which still just tickles me.
PC: As the show has gotten bigger and gone to bigger venues, what are some of the things you’ve learned about the development process?
Matt: It’s so exciting and incredible. I definitely learned one: I really don’t like to leave things finished. Every single time we “up” the show—since I’m sitting in the rehearsal room anyway—I’m like, “Why don’t we change that?” I like to keep things alive and fresh which has been fun to figure out, especially with something that’s been running this long. It’s been amazing to see how the community has grasped onto it in a fun and interesting way. People come in costume, and they quote the show and have message boards. It feels really cool.
PC: Have you taken all the Harry Potter quizzes? What house are you in and what Patronus do you have?
Matt: Yeah, I did. I can’t remember the Patronus. It was one of the ones that was very normal, like a bird of some kind. I was proudly a ‘Puff, which worked out well.
PC: What are you working on next?
Matt: I have several different projects that I’m working on at the moment. One is a Western that is sort of a choose your own style revenge tragedy western play comedy. Then I’m also working on a Salem witch thing.
PC: What would you pick as your next “inspired by” source material?
Matt: This is another thing I am working on, but it’s a years’s long process: I’m doing a space opera, sci-fi adaptation of the Arthurian myth, but gender swapped. It’s a big space opera that’s four plays and about seven hours in total. It’s very complicated, but I think quite fun.
Pop-Culturalist Speed Round
Guilty Pleasure TV Show
Iron Chef America
City of Lights, the Charlie Chaplin movie and Wayne’s World
The Band by Stephen King
The last days…by stepehen addley gurgus
Go-to Karoake Song
It’s been a while, but I used to do “Under Pressure.” I would take the David Bowie part.
Someone You’d Like to Meet Someday