Interview with playwright James Harmon Brown


Photo by Doree Glaser

Proscenium interviews James Harmon Brown, writer of “The Groyser,” the second play to be published in the fourth issue of Proscenium Journal.

James Harmon Brown is a Emmy-Award-winning writer who began his career on the iconic nighttime soap “Dynasty” before moving on to daytime TV as head writer for such series as “All My Children,” “The Guiding Light,” and “Port Charles.” He also co-created the ABC-TV daytime drama “The City.” As a playwright, Brown’s most recent work “The Groyser” was a winner at the 2014 Ashland New Play Festival which is held each year in Ashland, Oregon.

Prior to his television and playwriting careers, Brown was a staff writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Brown won an Emmy Award as a writer on “The Guiding Light.” He’s also a five-time Emmy nominee and six-time nominee for the Writer’s Guild of America award. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife Doree.

What was your inspiration for this play?

My inspiration for “The Groyser” is my wife and her family. She, like the title character in the play, is the eldest child of Holocaust Survivors.  And though the characters, circumstances and events of the play are entirely fictitious, some of the stories related by the character of Bess did, in fact, happen during my mother-in-law’s time at Bergen-Belson. She, too, had difficulty talking about those experiences to her family…and only later in life agreed to relate some of the horror she and her fellow survivors endured.

What do you want the audience to come away with?

What I want the audience to come away with is empathy and understanding for three generations of people whose lives were framed by the Holocaust. Bess because she endured it; Dinah because she assumed the burden of hope from a lost generation; and Dinah’s son on whom she placed her own dreams and expectations that could never be entirely fulfilled. It is basically a play about a family working very hard to understand–and be understood by–the people they love.

What projects are you working on now?

As for new projects, I’m working on a short film for Netflix entitled “Meridian” which we plan on shooting this year. I have a screenplay, “Fateful Detour,” which is in the process of securing financing with the plan of being shot in early 2017. And a new one-act play, “Searching For Neil Armstrong,” which we’re doing a staged reading of on March 20 at the Moving Arts Theater in Los Angeles.

What writers inspire you?

My writing heroes begin with Paddy Chayefsky who wrote with such heart, humor and prescience (take another look at “Network” and see how close he came to what television turned into). I’m also inspired by the work of August Wilson, Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller because their work still touches, resonates and informs no matter how many years have passed since their plays were first seen. While I’m open to–and excited by—theater’s unique ability to experiment…I’m mostly still moved by the well-told story and the beautiful language these and other great writers have given us.

Why did you start writing plays?

I started writing plays around ten years ago in an effort to find my own creative voice.  Having written for television for many years–mainly in daytime drama–one is usually writing to a formula and for a group of characters who’ve already been established for the most part. I loved the work and enjoyed the process but nonetheless felt a need to tell my own stories in my own way…and that has been a tremendous experience for me. Hearing your lines and watching your characters come to life in front of a live audience is as rewarding as it gets for a writer. There’s really nothing like it anywhere else.

To put it in perspective: I’ve written some very successful television shows, been nominated for and won an Emmy, but I think the biggest thrill of my professional life was watching a group of fine actors and an outstanding director do a staged reading of “The Groyser” in Ashland, Oregon, as part of the Ashland New Play Festival. They played it exactly as I heard it. And the audience responded in all the ways I wanted them to…with laughter, tears and I hope a little compassion.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

In terms of advice to young writers, I’ll give you the same one-word answer I got more than forty years ago: Read. Read everything… books, plays… anything that inspires you. And if you’re writing for the stage, see as much theater as you can. Because even the bad stuff will teach you something… and the good stuff… especially the great stuff… will inspire you.

Interview with Playwright Josh Wilder

unnamed-1Proscenium interviews Josh Wilder, writer of “Leftovers,” the first play to be published in the fourth issue of Proscenium Journal.

Josh Wilder’s work has been developed at The Fire This Time Festival, Playwrights’ Center, Pillsbury House+Theater, The History Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop, The Drama League, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and The O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. His play Leftovers was a recipient of the 2014 Holland New Voices Playwright Award at The Great Plains Theatre Conference. He is a former Jerome Fellow and Many Voices Fellow at The Playwrights’ Center and has been in residence at The Royal Court Theatre. Josh is a MFA candidate in Playwriting at Yale School of Drama and received a BFA in acting from Carnegie Mellon. 

What was your inspiration for this play?

 So many things inspired me to write LEFTOVERS. I think the pursuit of happiness and the struggle to achieving our dreams is what made me write this play. Growing up in the inner city as a young Black man I felt like my dreams and my environment were at war. Growing up, I’ve witnessed so many smart and talented people become casualties in this pursuit to be their ideal selves. Writing this play helped me understand why people in my neighborhood gave up and it helped me heal the wounds I accumulated in my pursuit of my own dreams and it made me understand why I loved The Cosby Show so much. 

What projects are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on a political comedy called SALT PEPPER KETCHUP. It’s a play about gentrification and food politics set in a Chinese Take-Out in South Philly.

What playwrights inspire you?

August Wilson, Thornton Wilder, Edward Albee, Steven Adly Guirgis, Quiara Hudes, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Anna Deavere Smith, Lynn Nottage, Tracy Letts, Marcus Gardley––that’s just the tip of the iceberg! 

Why did you start writing plays?

While I was at Carnegie Mellon training to be an actor I felt like I had more to offer as an artist. I felt like acting wasn’t the right outlet for my voice. Once I got past the bulk of my training, I wrote my first solo performance and performed it. It all just clicked. From that moment on I knew that my writing was something that I had to pay more attention to. When I got a Jerome Fellowship and moved to Minneapolis to be in residence at The Playwrights’ Center I knew that writing plays was the ultimate calling for me. I became a playwright at The Playwrights’ Center.

What kind of theatre excites you?

My first time seeing a professional play was The Pillowman, by Martin McDonagh at The Wilma Theatre. That play cracked my chest open, took me out of my seat and transported me to some crazy places. I’m always hoping for that kind of experience when I see or read a play. I want to do what McDonagh did to me on that fateful day.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

I think the biggest piece of advice I can offer is to be a radical listener. Language keeps our species alive and there are so many complexities to it, so developing an ear for rhythm and musicality is key. You can hear what’s working in your play and what’s not. My second piece of advice in terms of collaboration is to take an acting class. The playwright has to have an understanding of the acting process because ultimately actors are putting their bodies on the line in rehearsal and performance. Playwrights shouldn’t take actors for granted––they’re magic people. 

Can you tell us about your experience developing this play at the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference? 

The O’Neill was such an amazing development opportunity for this play. I was nervous to even apply because the odds are being invited are so low. When I got there I was immediately immersed in rewrites and that’s where the real writing comes in. The O’Neill provided the perfect environment for me to dig deep into the play and the collaborators I met there pushed me to be my best self. Everyone should apply for it! 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

 Produce this play.

Interview with playwright Dan O’Brien

Photo by Barney Couch.

Proscenium is doing a series of interviews with inspiring contemporary playwrights. For the second installment in this series, Proscenium Journal interviews playwright Dan O’Brien, writer of The Body of an American.

Your recent play, The Body of an American, has achieved enormous success. After premiering at Portland Center Stage, the play went on to win the Horton Foote Prize, the Edward M. Kennedy Prize, and the PEN Center USA Award for Drama. Can you tell us more about the journey of this play?

It’s been a twisty road, as is often (usually?) the case. I was researching and corresponding in a pretty formless way with Paul Watson (the Pulitzer Prize-winning war reporter who is the subject of The Body of an American) for almost two years before I received the McKnight National Residency & Commission from the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, which provided some money and the opportunity for workshops. In-process drafts received grants from Sundance Theatre Lab as well as Theatre Communications Group, both of which allowed me to finally meet Paul Watson in person in Ulukhaktok, in the Canadian High Arctic, in February 2010, where he was covering the “Arctic and aboriginal beat” for the Toronto Star.

As a completed draft, the play entered the phase of readings and workshops at places like the New Harmony Project, Pioneer Theatre in Salt Lake City, and, most importantly, the JAW Festival at Portland Center Stage — important because Portland premiered the play the following season, in 2012, and we were incredibly lucky to find a first-rate director for that first production in Bill Rauch, artistic director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Despite the production’s strongly positive reception, and some of the above-mentioned awards, the keenest interest for a second production came from the UK. The Gate Theatre, in co-production with Royal & Derngate in Northampton, England, gave the play an outstanding second incarnation (with a script a good half-hour shorter). The Wilma Theater produced the play last winter; this winter it’s set to run off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre, following an opening in Hartford, in a co-production between Primary Stages and Hartford Stage, directed by Jo Bonney. Separate productions are planned for Theatre J in Washington DC, and Stage Left in Chicago, both in the spring of 2016.

Throughout this same period, I wrote two collections of poems about Watson, War Reporter (2013) and New Life (2015), both of which found publishers in the US and the UK. I also adapted The Body of an American into a one-act chamber opera with Stanford composer Jonathan Berger, entitled The War Reporter, part of a longer opera called Visitations that premiered at Stanford University, played at the Prototype Festival in New York City in 2014, and will come to Chicago’s Harris Theater in a new production in 2017.

I’m also writing a new play about Watson this year as part of a Guggenheim Fellowship, about his time in Syria and our concurrent, mostly tragicomic attempts to transmute those experiences into Hollywood gold.

Perhaps it’s best to say that I’ve come to accept over many years of writing that you cannot control who likes what you write, if anyone does, and that it usually takes time, often a lot of time, to find those people, or for those people to find you and your work. With The Body of an American I’ve been lucky: Paul’s story seems to have moved a lot of people, as it did—and still does—move and inspire me. 

What inspires you?

Writing inspires me, this gift of a life in which I can endeavor to live an examined life (it’s not often easy), to write about that which is challenging and changing me most. This has always been my goal. I don’t write well for others—that’s mostly why I don’t write TV or screenplays—and, perhaps as a consequence, a lot of what I’ve written remains unproduced and unpublished. But I lose my inspiration quickly if I’m thinking too much about a so-called audience or, heavens forbid, producers.

When I began, writing was as much an escape from life as a wrestling with it. This was certainly true in childhood. I wrote almost unconsciously and was often delighted and terrified by what seemed to arrive on the page. This self-therapy was basically the point. But about ten years ago I began to feel the immense solitude of this endeavor. Perhaps I was also disappointed with the “product” of writing literature, and literary drama, and I began to value even more the opportunity that art can allow for connection with other artists—other people in general who happen to be searching creatively. So I’ve been inspired lately by collaborations, with musicians, composers, painters, and of course with all of the artists whose talents must come to bear in bringing a play to life.

What kind of theatre excites you?

I try to write the kind of play I think I want to see. I doubt I’ve ever achieved that. But I enjoy plays that make me feel confused, provoked, delighted, dealt with honestly, provided with many moments of earned beauty. I want a play to wake me up. I’m thinking mostly about the writing here, but these qualities apply to everything involved in a theatrical experience. My God it’s complicated if not ineffable when it happens. And it’s all hopelessly subjective. I often seem to like theatre that many other people seem to dislike, and I dislike theatre that many people seem to adore. So perhaps I have bad taste.

You are currently working on a commission with Center Theatre Group, in addition to a joint commission with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater about the history of guns in America. Can you tell us more about these two commissions?

The commission for Center Theatre Group is also that Guggenheim Fellowship play I mentioned: about Paul Watson, Syria, the rise of ISIS, the demise of journalism, and “selling war” in Hollywood. While Paul was covering Syria, he and I were developing a cable TV pitch about Western journalists covering Syria, and this play is derived from both Paul’s experiences as well as our fictional ideas. Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions Cycle and the Public Theater recently co-commissioned me to write a play about the history of guns in the US, and I’m still in the research phase of things.  It couldn’t be a more timely yet timeless topic right now, obviously.

I’m also writing something new for Portland Center Stage about Sasquatch, UFOs, and cancer, with my old friend Kid Millions (aka John Colpitts) of the band Oneida, that’s shaping up to be a “percussion-based experimental chamber rock opera.” Or at least that’s what I’ve been calling it.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?

 It’s kind of cheeky but I mean it: don’t take advice. Or don’t take much. Art is so much more subjective than we want to believe, and artists can have their hearts broken, or just confused, by everybody’s heartfelt opinion. Most dangerous are the opinions of people you like, love, admire. Try to stay close to that aspect of your art that’s least conscious, to write about that which is most meaningful to you, which is often what you find most frightens you. I don’t know if I believe this entirely, but maybe read less, see less, while writing more. Or read and “see” that which truly instigates a meaningful creative response in you, and avoid all the rest.

What is something most people do not know about you?  

That I used to be funny. My two-year-old daughter thinks I still am. I met my wife, actor and writer Jessica St. Clair, doing improv comedy in our much younger days. My plays are often perceived as heavy or serious, and they are, but you can’t tell a human story without humor. Life is tragic and profound and beautiful and boring, and it’s also absurd and hilarious and silly—I hope my plays convey some of that.

You also write poetry and have written a libretto for an Opera. How does your experience working with other forms of art influence your work as a playwright?

I’m most inspired by work outside the genres in which I’m writing. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s simply reaching one’s forties and feeling jaded about one’s own forms, looking outside for inspiration, but I’ve felt rejuvenated by my recent collaborations with composers like Jonathan Berger and artists like Tom De Freston, who is a Brit creating paintings in response to my new poetry collection, New Life. The plan is then to see how his paintings will influence the composition of my play about Syria and Hollywood.

I’m a fairly obsessive sort: my subjects tend to get worked out over various projects, in various genres, with the boundaries between these genres inevitably, purposefully blurred. I’ve been told I write poems like a playwright, and plays like a poet, and that’s mostly okay with me.

 You have taught playwriting at Princeton University and a number of other places. How does your work as a teacher influence your work as an artist?  

I have loved teaching—the ambition and optimism of new writers can be a kind of stimulant for a teacher. I’ve always tried to find a balance, however, between my own time to write and my time to teach. I’ve been selfish this way, and luckily I haven’t felt forced, economically speaking, into teaching any more than I’ve wanted to. For the past eight years I’ve only taught for twelve days at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Sewanee, Tennessee. And Sewanee in and of itself has been an enormous influence for me, personally and artistically. Spending time with gifted poets and fiction writers (in addition to playwrights) has only enriched my sense of myself as a writer first and a genre-specific writer second.

It’s obvious, but the writing life can be quite lonely if not at times dispiriting, and, while usually I enjoy the solitude, teaching can balance things out a bit. It’s nice to see other human beings once in a while, other than the Trader Joe’s clerk, the check-in folks at my gym, or my neighbors as they’re walking their dogs, too.

That said, I feel I’ve written better while teaching less. Against my better intentions, over a decade of teaching in the early aughts, I started to feel hemmed in creatively by my own ideas about what a play should or shouldn’t be. I now feel freer to write strangely, idiosyncratically, to take greater risks in style and subject. Leaving New York City in late 2007 coincided with my departure from full-time teaching, and I’ve enjoyed this remove from NYC theatre as well. I love returning for visits, don’t get me wrong, but the distance, the isolation, has been a good thing for me.

What does the future look like for you?

I’ll be busy trying to write the commissions I mentioned, and traveling to take part, as much as I can, with the various productions of The Body of an American.  

And I continue to write poems, as well as a prose memoir of my childhood that maybe in a year, or ten, will feel something close to finished.

Read this interview, an interview with playwright Tanya Barfield and more in our fourth issue of Proscenium Journal, to be released this Spring. 

Interview with playwright Tanya Barfield

This image is copyright proctected. Please contact photographer, Bjorg Magnea, for usage.

Photo by Bjorg Magnea.

Proscenium Journal interviews nationally acclaimed playwright Tanya Barfield. Barfield is a recipient of the Lilly Award, the Helen Merrill Award, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her play Blue Door (South Coast Repertory, Playwrights Horizons). Other works include The Call (Playwright’s Horizons, New York Times Critics Pick) and Bright Half Life (Women’s Project Theater, TimeOut Critic’s Pick). She has written for the Starz series The One Percent and writes for The Americans on FX. Tanya Barfield also has an entire season dedicated to her works this upcoming year with Profile Theatre in Portland, OR. We talked with Barfield about her work, the current state of the theatre, and her upcoming season with Profile

You started out as an actor, saying that you “didn’t know there was such a thing as a living playwright.” You studied acting as an undergraduate at N.Y.U. How has your acting training and experience influenced your writing?
As an actor, one is keenly aware of when dialogue does not feel true to life – or when it doesn’t have the pitch, rhythm and ring of poetic expression. I like to blend colloquial speech and indirect poetry. The experience of words when verbalizing feelings, thoughts and ideas is important to me — the ways that language fails as a form of true communication – all this has been influenced by my early acting and solo performance career.

What inspires you?
Often my work is born out of a troubling or complicated feeling. The material that makes me uncomfortable is usually my best work. I’m interested in the gray areas of human interaction. I believe that this is what makes characters complicated and compelling. I don’t seek to portray the people in my plays as 100% likeable. I hope to make them real. Shortcomings and flaws, ethical dilemmas and the possibility of ascension drives my work.

What kind of theatre excites you?

Plays that mix up my thoughts and feelings so that I don’t know which is which. I appreciate both a well told story and formal experimentation. In other words, both thinking inside and outside the box.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?
Learn a skill and get a day job so you don’t have to worry about money. Once you’ve mastered the basics of survival, shoot for the stars. Write, write, write. Listen, listen, listen. Take everything in. Hold true to yourself and don’t give up.

You’ve taught playwriting (NYU, Barnard, ESPA and private classes) and worked as a literary manager for Juillard. How has your time working with students influenced your writing?
I love teaching. I find students and early career writers to be very inspiring. Anyone can learn craft. But, the pulse of raw talent is more rare and exciting. When you first begin playwriting, anything is possible. As your career rises, you become more keenly aware of things like “what’s producible” or “well made.” Even when coloring outside the lines, the critical voice of experience can emerge, hampering my initial burst of creativity. So, being around new talent shakes me up in a good way. Sometimes, I’ll have a very accomplished writer take one of my classes or workshops when they are grappling with a period of writer’s block. Watching someone that I admire work along side “beginners” is deeply inspiring in a wholly different way.

What projects are you working on now?
Lately, most of my work has been in television. Raising a family requires different financial demands. I also find TV to be an exciting medium because it’s a new form of storytelling for me. That said, I’m looking forward to the day when I have more time and can balance both theater and TV work. I have an overdue commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I’m looking forward to getting started on that script soon.

You have said that a common theme that runs through your plays is the unthreading of time. You are also interested in exploring causality in your works. Can you speak more about this? What other threads run through your work?
I write about people in a state of emotional crisis — people that teeter on the edge of discovery. The plays often contain a micro story that exists within a macro story or an individual within a larger social landscape (as in The Call). In both Blue Door and Bright Half Life, we look at experience from multiple points of view or perspectives; time doubles back and retracts, moments and memories collide.

You have also written for the TV shows “The Americans” and “The One Percent.” How is that experience different from your playwriting experience?
It couldn’t be more different. I love TV writing, but it’s not anything like playwriting. It’s interesting because my latest play, Bright Half Light, has numerous short scenes, and one might speculate that it was influenced by writing for television. But, I actually wrote it before I landed my first TV job. Nowadays, we see a lot of plays with ten page scenes. It starts to feel redundant. The Call opens with a twenty page scene that I’m proud of. After writing The Call, I encouraged my students to get out of the “ten page scene trap” and write a longer scene with multiple levels of conversation. Then, there was another trend I noticed – particularly with younger writers – the scenes got shorter and shorter and completely lacked a discernible event. So, I started griping, “Don’t bring in plays that read like they were written on Twitter.” With all this in mind, Bright Half Life came as a surprise to me because it contains over well over 50 short scenes, none of them exceeding ten pages. I’ve digressed… back to your question about scripts for the stage versus the screen.

In theater, the playwright is the final authority on their script. You figure out the story on your own. No one can change a single word of dialogue without asking your permission. (Sometimes, actors change the language unintentionally when they flub a line, of course). At times, playwriting can be lonely, but it’s ultimately profoundly exhilarating and satisfying.

Television, however, is very collaborative. It employs a team of writers. Scripts are often rewritten dozens of times by multiple people. One can’t be precious about the work in TV. As a staff writer, you’re getting notes from a million people and are ultimately in service of the creator and/or showrunner’s vision. For me, the pleasure comes from the exchange of ideas, breaking a story with other smart people and knowing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

What is something most people do not know about you?
I’m afraid of swimming and driving. But, last summer, I went bungee jumping (here in Oregon) and had a terrifying blast.

You have an entire season at Profile Theater (in your hometown of Portland, OR) dedicated to your works. Can you tell us more about this? 

It’s a dream come true. After almost two decades writing plays, I’ve been produced all over the West Coast — Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego – but no where in Oregon. It’s an honor to be at Profile. I hope to make my mother proud.

 What does the future look like for you?
I’m looking forward to finding out!

What do you think about the current state and the future of theatre?
I think there’s a lot of exciting writers in the American theater right now – both established and emerging. We are in an exciting time.

But, being a playwright contains old and new challenges. It’s very hard to get a play produced. The script can take two years to write and even longer to get in front of an audience. Playwrights rarely – even when successful – make a living wage. As more and more universities hire adjunct faculty, fewer people are able to support themselves as professional writers with teaching jobs. Hand in hand with the skyrocketing cost of living expenses, playwrights are making a mass exodus to Hollywood and we are losing some of our most promising and mid-career talent. But, the good news is that we are starting to see a handful of television writers come back to the theater, successfully balancing a career in both mediums. In this way, television is actually subsidizing theater – by providing income for the writer. Hopefully, the cross-pollination with the TV world will continue without causing the intrinsic artistry of theater to become more like the screen.

I also hope that we find a way to have theater both publically and privately subsidized. Ticket prices need to go down while the financial compensation for artists needs to go up.

Is there anything else you would like to share about your work?
I hope it speaks to you.

Proscenium Now Available in PRINT!

COax6gTVAAAfTQwIn response to our demand for making Proscenium available in print, we are thrilled to announce that Proscenium is now an online and in-print publication! Starting now, ALL issues of Proscenium Journal are available to order in-print starting at only $16. Click here to choose an issue you would like to purchase. And of course, all issues are still available to read for free online. 

And if you would like to stay updated about all things Proscenium, including the release of new issues, our new works festival, and more, subscribe to our mailing list

Interview with Sherod Santos, writer of “Between Two Nevermores”

photo2We talked to Sherod Santos about his play “Between Two Nevermores,” his experimental writing style, and his advice to young writers. Read our interview with him before reading “Between Two Nevermores” in the third issue of Proscenium Journal, to be released September 8. 

What was your inspiration for this play?
As a poet I’m of course drawn to what is, in essence, the formative story of poetry and poets. It’s a story that evokes poetry’s deep-seated link to love and death and the erotic and, at the same time, its kinship with secrecy. In poetry as in plays, what isn’t said is always as important as what is. That’s a pretty heady combination of energies, and I was, as you say, inspired by the prospect of re-imagining them.

What do you want the audience to come away with?
First and foremost, I’m only interested in “lived” experience, not in “literature” and “literary traditions.” I think the worst that could happen would be for an audience to feel compelled to interpret the play, or to fix it in some scholarly context–the bone yard of the arts. My hope, in fact, is that that the audience would enjoy the play without knowing anything about the myth itself.

Can you discuss your choice to experiment with traditional play formatting with this script (i.e. leaving out character names)?
I wish I could say that I had even the vaguest sense of what I was doing in the early stages of writing, but I simply struck a small match in a very large cave, and it seemed to take forever to find my way. At times I felt like I was writing a play in verse, at others like I was writing a poem in dramatic form, and in each case I was unhappy with the either/or nature of that relationship. In your example, the conventions for formatting a script kept chopping up the poetry; at the same time, the continuities of a traditional poetic form kept redirecting the discontinuities between characters. What I wanted was a form that accommodated, on equal terms, both of those impulses.

What writers inspire you?
I’m afraid my reading is hopelessly unsystematic, and so far as I can tell it hasn’t over time shown any special loyalty to any particular genre or period set of authors. I’ve always believed that the books we need most find us, not the other way around. Certainly much that has been meaningful to me I’ve discovered largely by accident, stumbling on one book while looking for another. That’s the most compelling reason I can think of for preserving our used bookstores and libraries. In my experience, for what it’s worth, wandering aimlessly along dusty bookshelves shelves can lead to profoundly personal discoveries.

What advice do you have for writers starting out?
Look closely, listen closely, read closely, take it all in. Then work, work, work until you move beyond the difficulty of the work to a love for the difficulty. In my opinion, only then are you truly prepared to turn inspiration into art. Oh, and one other thing: don’t think you’re a genius.

Poet, playwright, and translator, Sherod Santos is the author of six books of poetry, most recently “The Intricated Soul: New and Selected Poems.” In 2005 he published “Greek Lyric Poetry: A New Translation,” for which he received the Umhoefer Prize in Translation. Mr. Santos has received fellowships from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Guggenheim foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1999 he received an Award for Literary Excellence from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Productions of his plays include: 10-minute play, “Star,” Algonquin Theatre, New York City, 2010; one-act play, “Coffee Shop,” The Flint Michigan Play Festival, 2010; full-length play, “Lives of the Pigeons,” The Side Project, Chicago, 2013; two-minute play, “Beginning of the Revolution,” Royal Court Theatre: “Grit,” 2015. His work has also appeared in literary journals and magazines including The Antioch Review, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Nation, Poetry, The Yale Poetry Review, The American Poetry Review, The New York Times Book Review, The Kenyon Review and Parnassus Books. His book, “The Pilot Star Elegies,” was a finalist for the 1999 National Book Award and he is a recipient of the The Pushcart Prize.

Interview with Wei He, writer of “My Birthday Party”

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 4.23.20 PMWei He talks about the inspiration for her play “My Birthday Party,” her image-driven writing style, and her advice for young writers. Read our interview with her before you read “My Birthday Party” in the third issue of Proscenium Journal, to be released September 8. 

What was your inspiration for this play?
I got the idea for the story on my twenty-sixth birthday. I was going through a weird phase back then. I was experiencing something strange yet familiar, something that I couldn’t give a name to. So I wrote this play to help me figure out what I was doing with my life, to help me survive youth. I felt very close to the main character. It was like witnessing the life of an imaginary friend through the ten years between age twenty-six to thirty-six.

Also, at that time, I was obsessed with monologues “Thom Pain” by Will Eno, “The Fever” by Wallace Shawn, etc. In a monologue, the entire world is constructed through the lens of the narrator. The narrator’s conceived reality is the only reality audiences have access to. Though the line between the character’s interiority and external world is blurry, the narrator’s impressions of the invisible characters convey distilled images of them that make them present and tangible. Conor McPherson said: “…But with one actor talking only to the audience, what we have in front of us is a guide. He’s telling us about somewhere outside the theatre, not trying to recreate it indoors. The theatre is simply where we meet him. And if it’s good, we’re reminded that we are in the theatre and we like being there.”

What do you want the audience to come away with?
The play received a public reading in Buffalo in August. After the reading, an audience member told me the play made him think about what happened to the person who did not make the current choice that was made. The decisions that were not made would veer back into one’s life. That sounds like a good answer to this question.

What projects are you working on now?
I am working with a composer on an opera right now. Our last collaboration went very well. We’re trying something very different this time. I’m also revising a full-length play about a thief. The story is set in China, but the play is in English.

What playwrights have inspired you?
I’ll just list a few names here: Chekhov, Harold Pinter, Annie Baker, Will Eno, Wallace Shawn, Paula Vogel and two Chinese playwrights, Guo Shixing and Ho Jiping.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?
I consider myself a playwright who just started out. The advice I would give myself at this point is simply to keep trying. No matter what you’re told, go read plays, lots of them, go see productions (when you have money) and keep writing.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
Writing in a foreign language has been quite an adventure for me, fun and challenging. Some people have pointed out that there are a lot of images in my writing. I guess the influence comes from my mother tongue. Mandarin is an image-driven language; each character looks like a picture of stick figures.

Wei He is a bilingual playwright and fiction writer who grew up in Inner Mongolia, China and now lives in Cleveland, Ohio. She holds an MFA degree in Dramatic Writing from Carnegie Mellon University. Her fiction, poetry and plays in English and Mandarin have been published internationally in the United States, Mainland China and Taiwan.  Her screenplay, Paper Dragonfly, will be published by China Film Press next year. And she is proud of her secret recipe of Sand-Wei-ch.

Interview with Aurin Squire, writer of “Defacing Michael Jackson”

me with a tieWe interviewed Aurin Squire about what inspires him, his advice for writing and life, and his play “Defacing Michael Jackson.” Read “Defacing Michael Jackson” in the third issue of Proscenium Journal, to be released September 8.

What was your inspiration for this play?
Long convoluted answer: I was in a workshop led by Rogelio Martinez and he made us write down a list of our childhood rituals. After reading them aloud, our peers voted on what was most interesting. So my ritual was kids coming over and watching Thriller in our house because we were the first family to have a VCR.  Each writer had their own and then we wrote an opening monologue in about two minutes with Character A discussing the ritual. After that we wrote a scene with Characters B and C discussing a threat to the ritual in about 5 minutes. Then we wrote a scene in which Character A is interrupted by Character B, who acts as a messenger informing A on the threat to the ritual, and this took about 3 minutes. Then we wrote a monologue in about two minutes which Character B or C has a monologue about the ritual being destroyed. And then we had a final scene of Character A along with B and/or C has a final blow-up or dissolution. And after about 15 minutes there is a beginning, middle, end of a play: the toughest parts. Rogelio told us that we could go home and fill in the rest of the play as either a full-length or one-act. I thought it was a cool exercise and I put the papers away for a week. I lived in a dorm on 8th Street and 5th avenue. On the last Sunday in June,  the entire Gay Pride Parade pivots on 8th Street and 5th avenue My block. This meant it was a logistical nightmare to get out of the dorm I took out those pages and -to pass the time- I began writing the in between scenes for a one-act play. I was entertaining myself until the crowd died down enough to walk outside. So after a few hours, the crowd was manageable and I had finished the one-act play. Vital Theatre had a one-act festival they ran and a few days later they asked me if I had anything to submit. I sent it in and the play ended up opening as a one-act at Vital. I didn’t show up for most of the rehearsals, tech, or dress rehearsal. I didn’t really think people would get the play and I was a little scared they would hate it so I busied myself with other plays and workshops at school. I got a voicemail from Liz Meriwether one night (creator of New Girl). She was a playwright in the festival who also did the ritual exercise with me. She was screaming ‘where are you?!?! Your play just went up and it was amazing!” I thought she was just being nice. Honestly, I thought it was a play no one would relate to, until I went to a performance. the play went on to win the Samuel French Festival and get published. I put it away for several years and people kept asking me ‘why don’t you expand?’ Finally after hearing it one too many times I sat down -almost in resentment- and said ‘FINE! I’ll write the damn full-length play and then everyone can shut up about it!’ When I sat down to write it, the voices came back immediately. I sent it into Juilliard and it got me into their Lila Acheson Wallace Playwriting Fellowship, got me an agent, won the Lincoln Center One Act Prize, got a workshop showcase at Nuyorican Poets Cafe. It would be nice to see it produced in a full production one day.

What do you want the audience to come away with?
I don’t know. It’s a personal play that I didn’t think anyone would care about or matter. I guess there are a lot of people out there who think their childhood – in some way – was embarrassing and doesn’t matter or deserve a place in any canon. Black kids, poor kids, gay kids, white kids who grow up in minority communities as the loser, girls of color. We’re told again and again that there is a set story that will be accepted by the mainstream. And in some ways I bought into that, which is why I was scared of the story, why I thought Liz was lying to me about the reception, why I didn’t want to expand the play. Despite the positive feedback, the belief system was so strong in my head, that I just thought people were being nice. But these characters, these stories were too strong for even my set beliefs and prejudices. It’s truly mystifying how I am self-professed storyteller who resisted his own voice. I didn’t tell the story. The story told me. Instead of defining the narrative, the narrative ended up defining me. Maybe it will do that for some people.

What projects are you working on now?
Getting out of the way and letting the stories define me. I’m a freelance journalist and I’ve been fortunate. In the last year I’ve written for The New Republic, Take Part, and Talking Points Memo, while continuing to review plays. I guest host podcast for news and theatre. On the playwriting end, I just graduated from Juilliard, was a US resident playwright at Royal Court in June for “Mercury Parallel,” had my play “Obama-ology” at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts that same month, finished workshop at the Kennedy Center of “A Family Manual for Kwanzaa” (also a one-act I resisted that finally became a full-length) for the National New Play Network. I have residencies at National Black Theatre and Brooklyn Arts Exchange that are going into their second year. For NBT I finished a rough draft of “Zoohouse” in the spring and that’s a dark dystopia comedy set in an asylum for the Black and criminally insane. For BAX I’m continuing to work on “The Gospel According to F#ggots” which is set in a sex-positive queer terrain of transformational spirituality. Both plays are in verse. Original Works Publishing is releasing “To Whom It May Concern” as a book this fall, and I spent a week this summer re-editing and revising a play I wrote 10 years ago. It felt like I was working on a new play because it had been so long since I’ve looked at the script.

What playwrights have inspired you?
There is the list of people I have never met, the list of people who helped me or taught me in some direct way, and then there are peers I have had class with or worked with in some way. For the first list: Maria Irene Fornes, August Wilson, Dario Fo, Sarah Ruhl, Suzan Lori-Parks. For the list of teachers there is obviously Chris Durang and Marsha Norman at Juilliard who have been great. And there’s Laura Maria Censabella at New School as well as Rebecca Gilman at Northwestern, Rogelio Martinez, Lucy Kirkwood at Royal Court, Michael Weller. As far as peers I would say almost everyone in the Juilliard fellowship and there are too many to name, But these were like the Jedi Knights of playwriting with their own voice and philosophy. You could pluck any one of those writers out and start a theatre company focusing on their work for a whole season. When I was at New School and Actors Studio (when the two were cojoined) I would say Carla Ching and Matthew Paul Olmos. Then at the Kennedy Center there were so many great writers and I really liked Will Snider (from UCSD) Eleana Belyea (National Theatre School of Canada). Elena then introduced me to her classmate, Cliff Cardinal who is a innovative storyteller focusing on First Nation people in Canada I guess the unifying threads running through all these artists are innovators in structure and storytelling with a purpose. I think there are theatre shaman in the world who are just channeling in these stories and voices from another reality. When you look and listen to Chris Durang in a class for two years and then you read his plays, you realize there is something else going on that can’t be explained logically and isn’t connected to the obvious psychological links. We love to do psychology 101 on writers and figure out how their dog dying influenced their great masterpiece and most of that is bullshit. The usual things that really inspire great writers and great works almost comes out sideways from places they don’t even understand, but are receptive enough to know they don’t NEED to understand. They just need to surrender to it.

Why did you start writing plays?
I had to take a playwriting class to finish my creative writing in the media minor at Northwestern. I wrote my first play there, got great feedback from Susan Booth, wrote my second play over the summer and submitted it to a small theatre on the south side of Chicago. They did a staged reading of my play and tape recorded it for me, which was just unbelievable. I’m not very smart when it comes to picking up on certain clues and I didn’t know the artistic director was flirting with me and intriguing on my ‘willingness.’ Can I say that? Well whatever. In my college student mind I just passed it off as ‘eccentric, touchy-feely middle aged man who likes to talk to me.’ I wasn’t shocked or horrified by it. But it’s funny because the first person outside of school who took an interest in my work was trying to sleep with me and I didn’t realize it until he came out and pretty much said that. I guess it’s comedy because nothing happened. If something did, then it would be tragedy. But thanks to that initial ‘enthusiasm’ I kept writing.

What kind of theatre excites you?
It seems like such a cliche to say ‘dangerous’ theatre. Ohhh, scary. Theatre isn’t dangerous. Coal mining is dangerous. Reporting from a war is dangerous. But theatre can be freeing and vulnerable. Theatre can make people storm out in a fury or reduce someone to a sniveling wreck. I am all in favor of that cathartic fury or intestinal unraveling. When “Bootycandy” was at Playwrights Horizon people walked out. I found the play not only hilarious, but observing the temperature of the room wonderful when it exposes odd contradictions. I bet some of these same people will clap and bounce in their seats when Rambo decapitates an entire platoon, but will storm out when someone makes an anal sex joke. I find that hilarious, freeing, vulnerable.

What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?
Read the book “Drive” by Daniel Pink. He explains the different motivations that drive people and the strongest being intrinsic motivation. This is the innate motivation people have to fix things, solve puzzles, edit Wikipedia, do code for free systems like Linux. This is the “Sherlock Holmes” drive that almost seems to carry the human being along, despite their character defects and flaws. And most things in society are built to destroy that intrinsic drive and reroute us to ‘fear drives’ of external motivations of material comforts or internal drives of accolades and approval amongst our respective tribes. Resist the drought of fear, replenish and rain the intrinsic rivers. You don’t have to build the streams and deltas. They flow naturally. You just have to let it not be walled up and rerouted. Whatever you can do, let that intrinsic river flow. It will lead you to your passions, it will tell you what issues make you “Sherlock Holmes” and want to get in their and figure it out. The things that motivate you might be a social issue, it might be global warming, it might be relationships between rich WASPs in the Hamptons (Lord hammercy!), it might be anything. It might be the things your mind is running from because you think no one will care.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
Read plays, see plays, talk about plays. Read poetry and every year write something that scares you. Get involved in community building, listen to anything you find repugnant and question yourself. Don’t be polite. Stop being polite. Write from a vigorous place of conflict, and not a whimsical need to be thought of as smart or a wordsmith. Stop reacting in Pavlovian outrage over Tweets and status updates. Start being outraged at real injustice. Save your power for things you have a say in and not celebrity beef online. We are more powerful than we know. Meditate, contemplate, go to that quiet place. This is what these stories have taught me.

Aurin Squire is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and reporter. He is a two-time recipient of the 2014 Lecomte du Nouy Prize from Lincoln Center and a recent graduate of The Juilliard School and its Lila Acheson Wallace Playwright Fellowship. In 2014-2015 he has fellowships at The Dramatists Guild of America, National Black Theatre, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and the Royal Court Theatre’s US Writers’ Residency in London. Squire is the winner of the 2014 Act One Writing Prize Lincoln Center Theatre. He graduated with honors from Northwestern University and has been a reporter for the Miami Herald, The New Republic, Talking Points Memo, ESPN, and Brooklyn Rail. Squire’s enjoys long-term collaboration and new challenges. There’s not enough room to include everything, but several of his projects have received multiple development and productions around the world. His comedy “Obama-ology” was developed at Juilliard New Play Festival in September 2014, before receiving a critically acclaimed European premiere at London’s Finborough Theatre in December 2014, and being remounted in May 2015 at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. “To Whom It May Concern,” a dark comedy won LGBT awards for best play and best playwriting at Fresh Fruit Festival before being optioned and remounted off-Broadway at Arclight Theatre. “Freefalling” was first produced at Barrington Stage, earning a Fiat Lux Award with the Catholic Church in New York, was published at Dramatist Play Service, and won the grand prize in InspiraTO Theatre’s International Play Festival in Toronto. Defacing Michael Jackson won Samuel French International Play Contest, was published as a one-act, expanded into a full-length play that was workshopped at Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and earned an Act One Prize from Lincoln Center in 2014. His play “African Americana” started at Brooklyn Arts Exchange before being produced at Theatre 503 in London. In the fields of film and multimedia, Squire adapted the novel ‘Velocity’ into a screenplay for Moxie Pictures, and has served as a writer/producer for numerous web and multimedia projects. Squire wrote “Dreams of Freedom,” the installation video about Jewish immigrants in the 20th century for the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. “Dreams” won 3 national museum awards and is currently in the permanent exhibit at NMAJH. Squire’s plays, movies, and multimedia art has been produced across Europe, the United States, Great Britain, and Canada. His plays have been developed and produced at venues like Ars Nova, Abingdon Theatre, Cherry Lane, Lincoln Center Lab, National Hispanic Cultural Center. He lives in New York City. Welcome Back, Aurin! 

Interview with David E. Tolchinsky, writer of “Clear”

tolchinskypicWe talked to David E. Tolchinsky about his new play “Clear,” his advice for young writers, and how teaching informs his writing. Read our interview  with him before reading his play “Clear” in the third issue of Proscenium Journal, to be released September 8. 

What was your inspiration for this play?
I was thinking about ambivalence. What is it exactly? To like something and not to like something at the same time. And I was thinking about clarity, that I’d like to be clear in my own life and writing. And I was wanting to write something contained and therefore cheap to produce, with no special effects, no flying demons or giant stadium crowd scenes or implications of child abuse, elements that have led some of my earlier screenplays to attract interest from all kinds of studios, producers, and directors, but at the same time have made them difficult to get produced.

Also, my dad was a psychiatrist and a professor of psychiatry (see my essay and play “Where’s the Rest of Me?” for more about him) so we’d have a lot of psychiatrists hanging around at the house when I was a kid. So while not an inspiration for this particular play, in general psychiatrists tend to show up in my work.

What do you want the audience to come away with?
To quote Maximus (as written by David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson) after he slaughters a bunch of guys in Gladiator: “Are you not entertained?” And after they’ve been entertained, I want audience members to talk about the play, to think about it, to dream about it, for it to burrow into their brains like some kind of hideous parasite. But if they’re just engaged and not bored for 90 minutes, then great, I’m happy.

Much of your play is shrouded in mystery and ambiguity. What was your goal in leaving aspects of this play open-ended? 
We just had a preview screening of The Coming of Age, the screenplay I was commissioned to write for Fork the Man Productions, and someone in the audience asked me the same question. Am I detecting a pattern in my writing?

I intended to write something contained, but I didn’t intend to write something open-ended. I just tried to amuse myself, to write something that would be cool to see, to create interesting twists and turns. Along the way, maybe I left out the boring parts (too little conflict, what I’ve seen before, something stupid and on the nose or what I couldn’t stand to write for whatever reason). And maybe I’m a little more interested in questions than I am in answers. The first half of horror movies is always the part I like best because the first half contains suffering people who think they’re going crazy or dying from a strange medical ailment. The second half contains what is usually a dumb, disappointing answer that we’ve seen before – demonic possession or angry ghost or pissed off house or alien or whatever. (Although a few horror movies do have awesome and unexpected answers.)

Thinking more about your question: Ironically (or maybe not), what I teach mostly at NU is story structure – four-act structure, mythic structure, sequence structure, scene structure, beginning, midpoint, dark moment, and ending. But, the movies  that affect me the most are the ones where the structures do not easily reveal themselves and are similarly open-ended. Mulholland Drive comes to mind and so does Ju OnJu On didn’t really affect me while I was watching it, but it gave me nightmares because on the surface it didn’t make any sense. My brain had to keep rolling it around.

So maybe in some cases it’s better to imply than to state. Leave the audience to fill in/discuss/dream. And Clear is about scraping past the conscious mind and defenses to the unconscious, so it makes sense that the play is open-ended because the unconscious is open-ended. Similarly, in The Coming of Age, a woman is slowly suffering from dementia: does it make sense to have such a movie make too much sense? Shouldn’t the form reflect the content? That is, as the character loses her mind, shouldn’t the movie? So linear becomes non-linear, pieces start to be missing.

As a side note, my colleague Rebecca Gilman read my play and asked: do you know Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman? I didn’t, but luckily Redtwist Theatre – everything I’ve seen at that theatre is great by the way – was running it. I felt like I was . . . home. Interrogations, mysterious characters, memories, dreams, and you’re not quite sure what it all means. But you feel the feeling. And you’re into it until the very last moment. And you’re thinking and talking about it afterward. And even if you can’t articulate it, you know there’s some kind of logic at work. So The Pillowman didn’t influence me since I saw it after I wrote Clear, but it definitely told me it’s okay to leave things open for interpretation.

Anyway, to me, Clear is clear – I understand why everything happens and what it all means, but I understand that to audience members, it may not be completely clear and the play may feel open-ended. And by the way, I should say I think I understand what it all means, but it’s usually someone else – my wise spouse and sometime collaborator Debra Tolchinsky, for example – who tells me what a particular screenplay (and now play) is really about – and usually it’s hard to take because there’s some ugly truth in there I wasn’t aware of.

What projects are you working on now?
Currently, I’m co-creating a film-based installation/performance/lecture series about historical and new radical therapies entitled: Wilhelm Reich: An Attempt to Heal in the Modern World. Dan Silverstein, artist and Associate Director of Collections and Exhibition Management at Northwestern University’s Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art, is responsible for the sculptural aspects, including fabricating an interpretation of an orgone accumulator. Melika Bass is creating a film for the project. Debra Tolchinsky is curating. I’m writing something to perform in the space of the installation – a play? A monologue? Who knows, but it will involve a protagonist suffering from some kind of illness; even though his medical tests are normal, he just doesn’t feel right, he knows that something is terribly, terribly wrong. He finds little help from talking cures or other conventional therapies. Desperate, he encounters psychologist Wilhelm Reich in a dream — there is something compelling about Reich’s claims that all health and illness stem from “orgone energy,” that he is suffering from armoring caused by blocked orgone. But then he encounters Reich’s detractors – Sigmund Freud, a former female patient, and an FDA agent, all who question Reich’s theories, ethics, and sanity. Indeed, according to Reich, orgone is not just in the body but is responsible for movement in petri dishes formerly thought to be bacteria, the blue in the daytime sky, and all matter in the universe! Our protagonist is forced to probe his own beliefs about Reich and his subjective sense of his mental and physical health.

Anyway, I’m excited to see how it turns out and how the space of the installation adds meaning to what I write and vice versa. And I’m excited to see how it stands on its own, produced at a more traditional venue at a later date. And I’m excited about the questions the overall project is meant to raise for our audience members:  How do I think about my own relative health and illness and what constitutes health and illness in the modern world? Ultimately, how do we examine radical new theories with a critical yet open perspective?

Along the same lines, in the spring, Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre is hosting a night of plays around the idea of health and illness in the modern world as part of their incubator series. I’m cocurating the three-week run with awesome playwright/NU RTF lecturer Brett Neveu. We’re including my play Where’s the Rest of Me?, as well as new plays by Brett, Lisa Dillman, Shannon Pritchard, Grant Varjas, and Marisa Wegrzyn with regards to visions of healing in unexpected ways; strange modern illnesses (mysterious or ignored or illnesses where doctors say there’s nothing wrong); explorations of  alternative, unexpected healing/therapies; unexpected healers; unexpected patients; psychiatrists; suicide; phobias; and movies.

Finally, I’m doing tweaks on my latest horror/thriller feature screenplay, Cassandra (what – the same name as the character in Clear?). I’m going to direct a 10-minute short based on the screenplay and then the feature itself. I’m working step by step as I gather resources. This script is giving me nightmares while I’m working on it. Scary, scary stuff coming out of my brain!

And of course I’m chairing Northwestern University’s Department of Radio-TV-Film and running our MFA in Writing for Screen+Stage. Both fun and challenging.

What playwrights inspire you?
Martin McDonagh. The Pillowman as mentioned above, but before that, I saw The Cripple of Inishmaan performed by the Atlantic and Druid Theater Companies in 2008. It was like I finally understood what all those people who loved theatre were talking about–ironic and hateful and then emotional and sweet, turn after unexpected turn. Up until that point, I was mostly a dedicated movie guy, although in college as a composer, I was also deep into experimental music, the avant-garde, and performance art. And in grad school, I was making films that seemed like documented installations, but I never was into or knew much about what most people think of as theatre.

Colleague Thomas Bradshaw, for being disgustingly playful and making us laugh even when we don’t want to. His play Mary is brilliant. Carlyle even better.

Colleague Zayd Dohrn, for taking us into dark and disturbing worlds, for forcing us to think. His plays Sick and Reborning in particular are profound.

Rebecca Gilman –  Luna Gale should have gotten the Pulitzer. The way Rebecca rotates through scenes, in a theatrical yet hyper-real way. The way she tackles social issues head on, with humor and a heart.

Doug Wright – I Am My Own Wife (which did get a Pulitzer – the world worked as it should) blew me away in the same way that The Pillowman did – what? This is what theatre can be? The author can be a character in his own play? What?

Sarah Kane – Blasted.

Henrik Ibsen.

Kenneth Lonergan.

And somewhere between writing and performance:
Key & Peele – I appreciate the smart way they use comedy to probe race and relationships.
Spalding Gray. A great loss. . .
Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Tina Fey.

And I just re-watched the film Dirty Dancing written by Eleanor Bergstein.  I don’t know Bergstein’s playwriting, but her screenwriting in this film is fascinating, with a lot going on in terms of sexuality, class, Judaism, race (in the background, but there), and of course adolescence. Insightful and tricky. And oh yeah, there’s some great dancing too.

Why did you start writing plays?
Because Rebecca Gilman told me to.  I tend to do what people tell me to do. And maybe I started to write plays because cool playwright Wendy MacLeod, who we had come as a visiting artist to NU many years ago, made me a list of plays to see.  And then Rebecca, Zayd, Thomas and my other colleagues gave me more great plays to read or see and soon I realized theatre, rather than being unbearable torture, could be as fun, disturbing and profound as movies. Anyway, other than the Ibsen plays I had seen in college which were pretty great, most of the theatre I had seen was bad.  I will say though I still hate that I can’t make snarky asides during live theatre, which is hard for a moviegoer like me who likes to offer up annoying commentary along the way. I also hate when actors look at me, talk to me (hey, Bald Guy! Yeah you!) or sit on my lap.  The fourth wall is a pretty good thing.

What kind of theatre excites you?
Theatre-making is all new to me, so recently, directing my own short play Where’s the Rest of Me? excited me. It was like magic – four actors up there on a stage with a movie screen behind; suddenly we were in a different world/different space/some of the audience was laughing and/or crying, and honestly and unexpectedly so was I. It was like a dance and a dream and a personal catharsis. P.S. You should cast my lead Greg Peace in your next play – you won’t be sorry.
What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?
Be fearless. Be persistent. Be a nice person in real life, but be a total monster in your writing. Write monsters. Write monstrously. Write the scene you can’t see in real life but it would be great to see. Write a dark wish. Write something that will change the world. Write something that you get up in the middle of the night to reread. And reread and reread. And don’t let the bastards get you down. And I like what Thomas Bradshaw said to me (paraphrasing): “Dave, you just got to get these plays up.  Don’t wait. Just do it yourself if you have to. You’ll learn as you go regardless of the result.” I also like what Rebecca Gilman said: “Dave, be careful; you only have one premiere. Make sure it’s something you’re proud of.” Both are paradoxically right. Writing is built on such dichotomies that you — and your characters — have to negotiate. Conflict, always conflict.

And I’d give young playwrights starting out the same advice I give our MFAs: find a creative community to support you, and think about art. Why are you writing what you’re writing? Why is your writing important? Think about craft and think about business (not a dirty word) including how to talk about you and your work. Learn transportable writing skills like character and conflict and, yes, structure — whatever that means to you — so you can ask interesting questions: am I a playwright? Maybe I’m a TV writer.  Maybe I’m both. The story I’m writing – is it a play? Maybe it’s a pilot? Maybe it’s a screenplay or a radio play or a monologue or videogame or an installation with performance elements. Maybe it starts out as one but depending on creative and business opportunities becomes something else. Be open and be ready.

And I’d tell a playwright who’s starting out, if it feels right: apply to my MFA program. I’m very proud of the faculty we’ve gathered together – the playwrights mentioned above (all of them also TV writers and/or screenwriters; clearly, we practice what we teach) as well as our other cool writers (Bill Bleich, Erik Gernand, Kat Falls, Mia McCullough, Laura Schellhardt, and Zina Camblin), and our cool filmmakers and our cool screen cultures/performance studies/theatre scholars.

And regardless of the outcome (the program is competitive): keep writing, keep pitching, keep applying to as many opportunities as you can (each time you do, you learn to talk about your writing and yourself in a new way), keep knocking at the door, and if one door doesn’t open, find another one that may or ignore the door altogether and just do it yourself, whatever that “it” may be, however you can. This is what I teach. This is what I practice.

You founded Northwestern’s MFA program for Writing for Stage and Screen and are Professor and Chair of the Department of Radio/Television/Film. How has your time as a professor influenced your own writing? 

Because I teach writing, I think a lot about my process and craft and my students tell me things about craft I never would have thought of, so I keep learning more and more. But the more I know and teach the more I don’t want to know, the more I want to forget. I used to plan out my writing with detailed outlines. Now if I just know four structural points or even just the ending, I’m ready to go and write. This thing I’m writing now about psychologist Wilhelm Reich – as I said above, I don’t know if it’s going to be an essay, a monologue, a play or maybe a hybrid movie/play, and that’s OK. Letting it go where it wants to go. Not planning too much, letting my characters and the voice of the piece tell me. The latest draft of my feature, Cassandra, is the best I’ve written because I threw away the outline and just let it go, waited for the scenes to come while I walked, while I dreamed, etc. That’s another piece of advice – writing happens in odd places and times, while walking, taking showers, staring at the wall, or watching a bad movie; the computer is usually not where you get your best ideas.  And while often we work on deadlines (especially when doing writing for hire or when in school), sometimes our best writing happens when we have the time to put drafts away or let the writing come slowly. So I try to balance having some work that needs to be done with a particular deadline in mind, some work I let just percolate.

Less directly answering your question:  I’ve been running this MFA since 2005; at the same time, it’s like I’ve been enrolled in an MFA, being educated in a whole new art form.  So besides being infected with the impulse to write plays, I’m sure my screenwriting has been influenced as well but I really don’t know how. Similarly, I don’t know if my writing is influenced by my students, but I’m definitely inspired by my students (undergrads and grads) and by what they’re achieving now as alums . To name just a few —  Dave Holstein (staff writer, The Brink), Jen Spyra (former writer forThe Onion and now staff writer, Late Night with Stephen Colbert), Eoghan O’Donnell  (creator of The CWs The Messengers), Marisha Mukerjee (staff writer,  Heroes Reborn), Sarah Gubbins (playwright, The Kid Thing), Erik Gernand (playwright, The Beautiful Dark), Andy Miara (former head writer, The Onion News Network; writer, several Comedy Central pilots) and J. Ryan Stradal (author of the New York Times best selling novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest). Two of my students were recently picked by Variety as “film students to watch.” Several of my students have formed a cool theatre company here in Chicago.  Anyway, on and on – too many to talk about here. But inspired by them all.

Finally, I’m so busy with my NU commitments, I’ve had to learn to write whenever, however, wherever. So how I write probably influences what I write.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I’d like to thank Debra Tolchinsky, Raisa Tolchinsky and Zane Tolchinsky, who inspire me with their own artistic creations, who put up with me and my evil little stories, who realize you can write evil stories without being evil, who give me invaluably honest, sometimes painful feedback, who put up with my intense ghostliness when I’m lost in some story and especially when it’s not going well. I also want to thank writers Charles Harmon, Taras Otus, Ron Ward, and David Bradburn (who directed The Coming of Age) for making time to read my screenplays and now plays and for giving me great feedback. And I want to  thank Brett Neveu for arranging a reading of the play at A Red Orchid Theatre; I’ve definitely incorporated feedback that came out of that experience.

David E. Tolchinsky is the Chairman of Northwestern University’s Department of Radio-TV-Film and Founder/Director of Northwestern University School of Communication’s MFA in Writing for Screen+Stage. Some of his work centers on teen subcultures, particularly in relation to social decay. He is also interested in horror, mental illness, and psychiatrists. He has been commissioned by such studios as Touchstone/Disney, MGM, and Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Pictures to write screenplays, and his feature film Girl (screenwriter, associate producer) is distributed by Sony. He has designed the sound for interactive computer environments and video installations seen internationally, and was nominated in 2003 for a Motion Picture Sound Editors Guild Golden Reel Award for his sound design for Dolly. He has cocurated gallery exhibits including The Horror Show in 2009 at Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs in New York City which explored horror in film, video, installation, photography, sculpture and painting and which was featured as a “Voice Choice for Art” in The Village Voice and on their blog, and which was accompanied by a 32-page catalog. He co-produced Debra Tolchinsky’s 2011 feature documentary, Fast Talk which investigated the accelerated speed of argumentation in college debate and which is available on iTunes. More recently, he published “Where’s the Rest of Me?” a reflective essay about Spalding Gray and monologue writing in Paraphilia Magazine and cocurated The Presence of Absence sponsored by the Contemporary Arts Council at Hairpin Arts Center, Chicago. Most recently, he was ranked #14 on New City’s Film 50: Chicago’s Screen Gems 2013, was the recipient of a 2014 Illinois Arts Council Artist Fellowship in Literature (Poetry, Prose, Scriptworks) and made his premiere as a playwright and theatrical director at the 2015 Strawberry One-Act Play Festival, Hudson Guild Theatre, New York City, with Where’s the Rest of Me?, an adaptation of his essay. His play was nominated for Best Play and he was named Best Director. He is a graduate of Yale (BA, magna cum laude) and USC School of Cinematic Arts (MFA). Read more at