Infrequently Asked Questions
Occasionally I get e-mails asking about how I write, where I get my ideas, what my influences are – the usual stuff playwrights get asked. Rather than keep my replies private, I thought I’d share them with anyone who might be interested.
How did you get the idea for THE NAKED TRUTH?
Why did you write FUNNY AS A CRUTCH?
How did you get the idea for BIG BOYS?
Were you dating when you wrote ROMANTIC FOOLS?
How did you get the ideas for ADVANCED CHEMISTRY?
Are DAYS OF POSSIBILITIES and VIETNAM 101: THE WAR ON CAMPUS related?
How did you get the idea for THE WHOLE SHEBANG?
How did you get the idea for I DIDN’T KNOW YOU COULD COOK?
What were your intentions with I MARRIED A POPE: THE PILOT EPISODE?
How did you get the idea for PLAYWRITING 101: THE ROOFTOP LESSON?
Yep. I think a good laugh is almost as pleasurable as a good orgasm, and you don’t wait as long until you can laugh again.
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I’ll skip the temptation to be profound and instead approach the question as a craftsman. To create a successful comedic piece of theater entails all of the elements of any successful play: engaging characters and situations; a core journey which weaves through those situations with a logic consistent with the world of the play; a resolution which is emotionally satisfying and which, at its best, has elements of both surprise and inevitability; and the underlying sense that the playwright knows what the hell he or she is talking about. In addition, a comedy includes a certain perspective which can range from satiric and sardonic to compassionate and forgiving but which always includes an awareness of the humor inherent in the situations being dramatized. If one or more of the characters have a natural wit in their way to relating to life, all the better! The best comedies both delight in their dialogue and charm in their knowingness.
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My plays generally fall within two categories: Sometimes I want to explore the challenges and inherent humor of being human. In these slice-of-life plays (such as DAMAGED GOODS, GETTING LUCKY and RIGHT SENSATION), my main concern is that every moment fits the story and characters, and that the essence of the drama could work even without the laughs.
Other times I just want to celebrate the joy of funny. I want the audience to laugh as deeply and constantly as my talent can provide. These wackier comedies (such as TROPICAL HEAT, OEDI and PLAYWRITING 101: THE ROOFTOP LESSON) often include absurdist attacks on logic and language, including juicy wordplay.
Many of my plays are a blend of these two styles. Whenever I imagine a story, one of the first questions I ask is where on the comedic spectrum it belongs. Usually, the characters reveal the answer as soon as they open their mouths.
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At a New Year’s Eve party Maura Kosovski gave during my senior year of high school, Dede Endliss and I snuck into the den and watched A NIGHT AT THE OPERA on TV. I had never seen a Marx Brothers movie before, and I was in rapture. Nobody had ever told me that comedy could be such a relentless and anarchic attack on everything.
In my junior year of college, I saw my first Frank Capra comedy, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. After years of only wanting to write comedy as witty and wild as the Marx Brothers, I suddenly realized comedy could be a compassionate look at the minutiae of human behavior, and that comedies could simultaneously amuse and touch us, instead of stopping to get serious.
I like to think my plays mix those two schools of comedy, the mix varying depending on the play.
One other story, about me as a person:
One summer I was a counselor at a day camp in Chicago, and during a field trip, as all the kids were getting back on the bus, one kid started to run away. I chased after him, and he ran down an alley. I cornered him. There were lots of pebbles on the ground, and he started to throw the stones at me. I kept my distance, so I was unafraid. I didn’t know what to do, so I let him keep throwing stones. He kept throwing them and throwing them, until he was exhausted. Then he began to sob deeply.
Ever since then, I’ve realized that what a person is expressing and what they’re feeling underneath can be two radically different things.
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I really enjoy every part of it: getting an idea, playing with it (I make lots of notes before I start “writing”), writing a draft, hearing friends read it aloud for the first time, grieving over the gap between what I want it to be and what it is (so far), recovering, making changes, seeing the play develop, making more changes, getting moments to work that have resisted working, having multiple readings so I can hear different actors and different audiences, making still more changes, fine-tuning during rehearsals for a full production, and watching it finally come alive on stage.
I’ve been writing over twenty years, and I am still in awe at the whole process of writing. I have no idea where some of my ideas come from, and I often don’t know what my characters are going to say until they say it. Although playwriting takes both craft and discipline (mostly giving yourself time to write and not surrendering to excuses to avoid writing), there is no way to force creativity. At best I can create a receptive home for the juices to flow. And I’m still amazed each and every time creativity happens.
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Writing plays is wonderful, but the career of playwriting is difficult. To be a playwright is to accept an almost constant state of yearning. You yearn for theaters to produce your work, you yearn for good productions, you yearn for good reviews and then for more productions and royalties and recognition. I yearn at the level of ego (success!) and soul (connection). Success is an adrenalin rush, but few joys are as deep and amazing as when something I write connects with the minds and hearts of an audience. At its best, theater is a very intimate experience shared by a crowd.
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Oh, that’s a simple question. The plays I write come about because ideas pop into my head and I become enthused about exploring them. I write plays for one and only one reason: I want to.
The reasons behind that want can vary widely: to amuse myself, to exorcise demons, to explore a personal issue I haven’t yet resolved, to metaphorically kill people who have hurt me, because I’ve fallen in love with some characters, because every time I think about the play idea I laugh, because I’ve written five short comedies and need two more to make a full evening, because I’ve been asked, because my soul demands it, and because I love to write. I’ve written plays for all of these reasons, although I confess the last reason – I love to write – is always involved. I don’t write for any noble or altruistic reason. I’m selfish.
But I’m not only selfish. My hope is that if I do my job well, the audience will become involved in the world I’ve created and let me take them on a ride. I appreciate they’re giving me their time, and I want them to leave with a primal sense of satisfaction. To me, one of the worst responses from an audience is “Well, that was interesting”. One of the best responses is “Wow!”
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That’s a good question, which I thought about a lot when I was younger. Certainly, I don’t judge a play based on its popularity. I’m sure my audience varies from play to play, but my goal is always the same: to connect with that hypothetical group who will respond to that specific play if I write it well.
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Of course I’ve hit the wall writing! All the time.
Sometimes it’s just for a moment, and all I need to do is take a walk or go for a swim or do something to clear my head. More than once, I’ve tried to make a scene work, given up, decided to go for a walk, and had the solution come to me by the time I’ve put on my coat. Other solutions have come to me while swimming (as long as I’m not trying to think about anything as I swim) or showering or sitting in a park. Sometimes the subconscious just needs a little time to breathe, and you have to get out of its way.
Sometimes I’m not ready to actually write the play I think I should be writing, and so what’s coming out is forced and uninspired. If I feel I’ve made a good will effort writing a play and it’s getting nowhere, I set the play aside. Usually I come back to it, and some of my best plays have resulted from waiting until they’re ready to be written. My comedy DOMESTIC TRANQUILITY took three tries before I successfully entered its world. It’s now an award-winning, well-reviewed, audience-pleasing comedy.
Sometimes I’m trying too hard to fix a scene, and I’m getting nowhere. This is usually caused by not actually knowing how to fix that scene, and once I notice this, I shift from writing to thinking, even if it takes me many walks, swims, and time staring at the ceiling. I don’t return to the scene until I have a plan on how to fix it.
Once I found myself cranking a play out, and I realized I was writing out of habit and not inspiration. I took months off until the fire built up again and I had to write. It was a little scary to make that decision, because I didn’t know if the fire would build up again. But it certainly seemed like a wiser path than cranking out crap.
I don’t recommend any of the above as answers for every playwright; some need to write every day for X number of hours or X number of pages. Every writer finds a personal system that works for them.
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After I finish a first draft of a play, I have readings in my apartment, so I can hear it aloud and get feedback from people I trust (and who I know will still like me even if the play is bad). After the inevitable revisions, I’ll have additional readings, in my apartment or at theater groups to which I belong. Along the way, I learn what engages an audience and what is confusing, longwinded or trite. But when I’m in the initial process of writing, I never know if the play I’m writing will work or not.
Twice I’ve worked on a play for a year, taken a good look at it, and put it away. Sometimes it isn’t until a play is fully produced that I can see, “Well, that doesn’t really work.”
So what? If I had a rewarding time writing it, that’s enough for me. Writing should always be an adventure. The outcome is never certain. For any playwright. Ever. Until a play gets a good production and one can observe its effect on an audience, its worth isn’t proven.
And sometimes, not even then. My comedy SOMEONE’S KNOCKING, one of my favorite plays, got a wonderful production in its world premiere, and it was still rejected by most of the audience. Apparently, absurdist comedy doesn’t always go over well in rural summer stock. Other productions of the play haven’t necessarily been better, but the audiences have been a better fit for the play, and they’ve loved it.
In short, don’t worry if the play is good. Maybe the play isn’t good. Maybe it’s simply the one you need to write now to learn the lessons you need to learn to write the next play. Maybe it’s one draft away from brilliance. Or maybe it’s five drafts away from being decent, but it’s the draft you need to write before you can write the next one.
In short, let yourself have fun.
By the way, I think the Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is a piece of theatrical mush. It’s probably good that he didn’t ask my opinion of it before deciding to get it produced.
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Let’s replace the word “commercial” with “practical”. Contemporary economics make it increasingly difficult to get a play produced with more than a few characters and almost impossible with more than six. Of course, this hasn’t kept me from writing a play with seven characters when I felt the play demanded it. It has, however, kept me from writing a play with more characters than the play absolutely needs.
I never know which plays of mine will be popular and which won’t be. I mean, I’ve guessed, but not with much accuracy. I only learn the answer in hindsight, when it’s moot. So I don’t spend as much time guessing as I did when I was younger.
My comedy ROMANTIC FOOLS has been a hit not only in the USA but also in Madrid, Belgrade, and around the world. When I wrote it, did I think it’d be a popular? I hoped so, but I didn’t know. Did I think that a collection of sketches about dating, sex and relationships would be popular in Madrid?! Never. I have quite an imagination, but it’s always humbled by reality.
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My plays have had thousands of rejections, often with good reason. As I’ve gotten to know people who run theaters, I’ve developed compassion for all they have to consider when choosing what to produce. A rejection may be caused by a play not fitting the theater’s mission, tastes, casting needs, economic concerns or tech limitations. Maybe the play is similar to another play they produced recently, or it reminds them of a bad play they once saw and they can’t tell the difference. Maybe the play reminds them of a traumatic experience they once had with a poodle. All of my plays have received oodles of rejections along the way. Other plays which got rejections before being produced include DEATH OF A SALESMAN and THE GLASS MENAGERIE.
Or perhaps they liked my play, but they liked another one just a wee bit more. I can easily accept than in any situation, there can be one play more attractive than mine.
Of course, one should never rule out the possibility that the person reading the play is a jerk. I know one artistic director who chose one play of mine and rejected another, and I still can’t figure out how that same person can be both a genius and an idiot.
Once, on the same day, a play of mine became a finalist for one festival and was rejected by another. But “I” wasn’t rejected – or chosen. In both cases, it was about the play and the needs (and the limits) of those considering it.
I accept the inevitability of rejection, even if sometimes it’s very disappointing.
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Although I don’t have specific figures to back this up, I think there’s a tremendous bias from some (not all) theaters against (choose one or more:) women playwrights, black playwrights, gay playwrights, straight playwrights, female gay playwrights of color, political playwrights, apolitical playwrights, and most importantly (at least to me), playwrights like me who write witty and humanistic comedies which aren’t edgy or cynical but which are well-crafted, entertaining and smart. I’ve actually known artistic directors who turned down plays of mine which were deemed “too commercial”. Ironically, some of those plays have been produced less than my “less commercial” plays.
As frustrated as I can get by the prejudices which keep my plays from being produced more, I’m also aware that every time has its prejudices, and that every playwright who has been around awhile has good reason to be frustrated.
I’m also grateful for all those theaters and schools which choose to produce my plays, even if my name lacks marquee value. Long ago I gave up wanting life to be fair; I’ll settle for it being wonderful.
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Several, but one quickly pops into mind: When I was working on the umpteenth draft of my comedy VERONICA’S POSITION, I faced a dull stretch in the middle of the second act which I just couldn’t solve. The act worked fine up to that point and after that point, but the middle was bleah. For several drafts, every scene I wrote to fill that hole was contrived and unengaging. Finally, I just told the two main characters to start talking to each other, and I took notes. For over an hour, everything they said was totally boring, but I just kept writing it down and not judging. Finally, one of them said something which amused me (“I expect more from you than I expect from most of my ex-husbands”), and the scene took off. I trimmed the numerous boring pages which led to that moment to about three sentences. I knew the new scene would work beautifully, and it has.
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Several years ago, one of my plays was produced at the Key West Theatre Festival. At a party one night, I met a guy who worked as the front desk clerk at a local clothing-optional resort. The more he told me about his job, the more I knew there was a play there. In fact, over the next few days, ideas for scenes, characters and dialogue began spewing out of my head. I love when that happens.
Three years later, the Key West Theatre Festival (which, alas, is now defunct) produced another play of mine, and so I spent a few days – and nights – at the resort. I love when I can do literary research and tan at the same time. Seeing what went on at the pool at night was quite an eye-opener… and helped clarify what the play should explore.
On the surface, THE NAKED TRUTH is simply a fun sex comedy, which I’ve tried to tell with clever wit and a few surprises. But I wanted to go beyond what we expect from such comedies and create moments in which characters have to face the ramifications of decisions they’re both making in the play and made long ago. From the best comedies, I’ve learned there have to be moments when the laughter stops.
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Actually, I never intended to write FUNNY AS A CRUTCH; the project was a confluence of serendipity and opportunity. In the late 1990’s, National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped (which no longer exists) invited me and a few other playwrights to a two-week retreat in Maine. I had already written two short plays for them over the years, I DIDN’T KNOW YOU COULD COOK (see below) and TOES. I didn’t think I had anything else to write about disability, but I was honored by the invitation and decided to go.
For two weeks I was surrounded not only by playwrights but also by a group of talented, charming and inspiring actors. I was the only non-disabled writer, and I hadn’t spent much time around people with disabilities. So the experience was fresh and intense, raising lots of thoughts and questions. I looked at my own fears and prejudices (especially the ones I didn’t want to admit) and, as trust developed, I gained the courage to ask others about their disabilities and their lives.
Almost every day something inspired a new play. Trying to reconcile the significance of their disabilities with not wanting to define them by their disabilities lead to the thought, “Okay, so everybody has a thing.” The next day I wrote JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS. One of the actors was very physical, despite having one leg, and for him I wrote ALL THAT HE CAN BE. One of the actresses was adorable, and I wrote DUTCH TREAT for her. Two Irish actors inspired A NEW LAND. One night I made a long list of films with disabled characters, and that became POSITION AVAILABLE. The theater had a puppet stage, and so I wrote NELLIE (a parody of a 1953 MGM film called LILI).
And so it continued for two glorious, feverish weeks. I got the idea for CRIPPERELLA the very last day, because by then I had learned that everyone just wants to be invited to the party. By then I had developed enough short play ideas to form a full-length work.
Of course, all of the plays went through many drafts after that, and I discarded one along the way and added another (TOTALLY ACCESSIBLE, as I wanted a relationship play in a different tone than the others). Among the joys of writing FUNNY AS A CRUTCH is that I never set out to convey a message or even to write it. I just showed up and allowed myself the adventure of exploration.
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Several years ago, I was stuck on a Greyhound bus, traveling from New York to Massachusetts. I was in a lousy mood, both because I was on a Greyhound bus, and because I had had a big fight with a friend the night before and was still very angry. I tried to relax by reading a biography of Joe Papp, founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival, an extraordinary figure in American theater who could also be a grandiose, egotistical bastard. My mind wandered (one of the few things you can do on a bus), and I began exploring an idea about the relationship between a grandiose boss and a meek assistant. By the end of the long bus ride, I had the basic foundation for BIG BOYS.
I loved not just the characters but also the relationship between them. I spent much of the next few days taking walks, hearing the play’s dialogue, imagining situations and making notes, captivated by the crazy, extreme and tantalizing world emerging before me… oh, and skipping most of the very mellow yoga retreat to which I had journeyed.
Did you aim for social commentary and satire with the play?
I never have intentions of making a statement when I write. If something meaningful emerges as a result of the writing, great, but that’s not the goal. Nor did I initially set out to write about the business world. But I quickly realized the business world was the best place for these characters; it seemed to be a great environment for the power dynamics I wanted to explore.
How did you end up with the play’s over-the-top style?
It was never a conscious decision. From the beginning, it’s how the characters talked.
As I love vaudeville comedy, it was exciting, but it was also a challenge. For example, when I was making notes one day and Victor said, “I lick you very much” (instead of “I like you”), I knew I had the basis of a fun routine. I was also afraid the sequence was too silly. Which is why I knew I had to include it in the first draft. And allow my imagination to go even further.
Was the play produced quickly after you wrote it?
Are you kidding?! That almost never happens. It took several years. Before the play was produced, it had eleven readings and workshops.
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Actually, I was going through a divorce. I had written numerous sketches over the years dealing with sex and relationships, and I liked the challenge of weaving them together into a full-length piece. I had to write several new sketches, but fortunately I’ve had enough problems in relationships to give me plenty of material.
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Separately, but I would’ve never written MOURNING GLORY if I hadn’t written GETTING LUCKY.
GETTING LUCKY is one of my earliest plays. Inspired in part by an article I read about a ninety-year-old woman about to have sex for the first time in years, her story both amused and touched me.
Then several years passed. I was in rehearsals for a play with two wonderful older actors, Eugene Elman and Dona Hardy. One morning, lying in bed, my mind wandered and I began to hear them saying some the dialogue which became key moments in the play. Over the next few months, at different times, more dialogue entered my head. This is one of the most fun parts of playwriting: not working, but just imagining. It’s not too different from playing “Let’s pretend” as a child.
Finally I gathered my notes and wrote the first draft of the play. Like all of my work, it’s gone through several drafts since, aided immensely by feedback from Eugene and Dona and other older actors and friends.
Although a few people suggested expanding the play into a full-length piece, the play felt complete to me as a one-act. The characters’ journey came to a place where I was ready to say goodbye to them. I hoped one day I’d come up with a compatible one-act so I’d have a full-length work. But for years I didn’t have any ideas, just hope.
One morning, while trying to come up with sketch ideas for my comic revue OY!, I imagined the dialogue which became the beginning of MOURNING GLORY. I realized it covered similar territory to GETTING LUCKY but had a distinctively different tone. Over the next year or two, while working on other plays, I just thought about the idea on occasion and made notes (the “let’s pretend” phase once again). When I had gathered enough notes to have a sense of what the piece would be (not an outline, but lots of moments along the way), I wrote the first draft, hoping it’d become not only a fun one-act in itself but also a good companion piece for GETTING LUCKY.
Since then, the plays have won awards both individually and together. ADVANCED CHEMISTRY isn’t just a pair of one-acts; they combine to make a diverse full-length evening of theater – and an opportunity for older actors to show off both their comedic and dramatic acting skills.
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I’m a proud and grateful graduate of Oberlin College, where my education has continued long since I received my diploma. In 1989, I was part of a planning committee for a special alumni weekend focusing on the Vietnam years on campus. As committee members discussed who the keynote speaker should be, I pointed out that it seemed ridiculous to ask students who were part of a tumultuous and fascinating period in our nation’s history to return to campus to hear someone else lecture them about it.
Far more valuable, I argued, would be some sort of presentation which told the history of that time in the students’ own words. I believed there was no better way to honor the students of the Vietnam years than to give them a chance to have their stories told.
The committee agreed, and the result was my first full-length play (well, not counting a few which quickly got put back into my file drawer). With the support of the alumni association and theater professor Jane Armitage, who directed the original production, I blended articles I researched, interviews I conducted, and letters I received from over a hundred Vietnam-era Oberlin students. I kept shaping and pruning this wealth of material through draft after draft, until their mosaic of stories became the tale of one campus’s journey through that turbulent, sometimes amusing, and deeply dramatic time.
Using a phrase used by one of the students who wrote me, I chose the title DAYS OF POSSIBILITIES, which captured the optimism and commitment of students in the play.
A producer was interested in presenting the play in New York, but wanted a title that evoked the Vietnam war and college. I came up with VIETNAM 101: THE WAR ON CAMPUS. Although the production never happened, the title stuck when Playscripts published the play.
I like the energy and specificity of the latter title, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realized DAYS OF POSSIBILITIES captured the essence of the play. So I’ve gone back to the original title.
Anyone producing the play is welcome to use either title, although I’d prefer DAYS OF POSSIBILITIES. It’s how the play began, and of the two titles, it’s the one much closer to my heart.
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In the 1980’s, as I was starting out as a playwright, I lived in Los Angeles, trying to support myself writing for TV. Five times I pitched ideas to a new version of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Invariably my ideas made the producers laugh heartily, followed by the comment that the story wasn’t right for them. One idea, they agreed, would be better as a one-act play. A year later, I found myself with free time when a TV series which offered me a job decided to rescind the offer. Faced with a large amount of free time, I wrote the one-act play and called it THE WHOLE SHEBANG.
I submitted the play to the prestigious Ensemble Studio Theatre One-Act Marathon, where it became a finalist but wasn’t chosen (which has happened a half-dozen times there). Six months later, a new theater group in New York was looking for a one-act comedy and found my play in EST’s file drawer. THE WHOLE SHEBANG became my first New York production, and since I had moved to New York two months earlier (to forget TV and focus on playwriting), I was there to revise it until it shined.
The play began winning contests, was televised on A&E cable’s GENERAL MOTORS PLAYWRIGHTS THEATRE, and was published in Best American Short Plays 1994-1995. The play has also been published by Playscripts, Inc. and has had 200 productions around the world. I would have never gotten the idea had I not been given a chance to pitch to THE TWILIGHT ZONE. My pitch struck out, but I got a hit instead.
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I’ve almost never “chosen” a subject for my stories. Usually a moment – a situation, an action, or a line of dialogue – pops into my head and attracts me. I start exploring the situation, wondering what might come before or after, or pulling back to look at the larger picture. If more ideas for the situation enter my head, I write them down. Sometimes these ideas grow into a play.
I DIDN’T KNOW YOU COULD COOK came about because the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped asked me and several other playwrights to write short plays for them, all involving a disabled character and set in a kitchen. I was both honored and annoyed by their request. “What can I write about disability that isn’t clichéd?” I wondered. “I don’t want to waste my time.”
Nevertheless, I decided to think about the challenge when I walked. Not special walks, just the usual walks we all take to go from Place A to Place B. All the ideas that ran through into my head seemed unoriginal. During one walk, out of frustration, I thought, “Perhaps if I don’t focus just on being disabled.” Disabled and female? Disabled and Black? Disabled and left-handed? Disabled and gay?
Without effort, I suddenly imagined two brothers at a dining table, the older one giving an ultimatum to the younger, “You can be gay or you can be disabled, but not both.” I loved the line, and I knew I could write a play to that line and extending from it. I quickly felt a sense of who would say such a line and who would be hearing it. I was no longer writing about disability or about gay issues. I was writing about two brothers.
For a long time, I just made lots of notes, imagining what they might say and do. One thought lead to the next. I used the ones that appealed to me and threw out those which bored me or didn’t fit. Writing is highly instinctual that way.
As I’d been asked to write a short play, I condensed the material I had into a ten-minute piece. (It was a big hit and inspired me to write more pieces for the group, which ultimately became the comic revue FUNNY AS A CRUTCH.)
Meanwhile, I liked a lot of the material that didn’t fit into the short play structure, and I thought the characters and situation could be further developed. So I wrote the longer one-act, which is about 25 minutes. It’s been fascinating to have two versions of the some story.
Oh, and if you’re wondering which version I prefer, I can answer that easily: I prefer the shorter version to the longer one, and vice versa. But for different reasons.
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When you wrote I MARRIED A POPE: THE PILOT EPISODE, was your intension to make fun how religion looks at homosexuality? Or were you more focused on the fact that the play is supposed to be a sitcom instead of the conflict dramatized in the play within the play?
It’s not either/or, it’s both. In style, I was parodying the sitcom form, especially the classic sitcom style of Norman Lear comedies. In content, there are certainly various satiric comments about the Catholic Church, including how it views sexuality (be it hetero or homo). But I don’t have an agenda, at least not consciously. I just focus on telling what I hope will an entertaining tale. In this case, I got what I thought was a funny idea, and I ran with it.
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The play was originally produced as part of a series of short plays produced on an actual rooftop in Manhattan. When I was invited to submit a play to the festival, every idea I came up with seemed completely clichéd. So I gathered the clichés into one story and satirized them. Voila, an original play!
I don’t discuss “themes” of my plays; I like to think the play speaks for itself. Besides, if you or anyone finds a theme in it different from what I was thinking when I wrote it, that’s fine with me. I hope people will be engaged by the story; everything else is gravy.
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No, but he’s certainly been an influence. We also have an unusual connection.
In 2008, South Walton High School in Florida planned to stage BLITHE SPIRIT, the Noël Coward comedy about newlyweds haunted by the husband’s deceased first wife. When the play was first produced in London in 1941, it ran for 1,997 performances. It also became a smash in New York, and it was turned into a hit movie with Rex Harrison. BLITHE SPIRIT has had thousands of productions all over the world, from community theaters to Broadway, entertaining millions along the way.
However, it was never seen at South Walton High School, despite a production being in the middle of rehearsals, because of a complaint lodged by a group calling itself Concerned Walton County Parents. According to the complaint, the play’s content “hurts students’ view of marriage and monogamous relationships,” and “encourages young people to explore occult/witchcraft.”
“This is nothing but a demonic action that is happening and reaching and spreading through our schools,” said Destin Assembly youth pastor Brad Odom at a school board meeting. Odom admitted he hadn’t read the play.
The county’s superintendent of schools canceled the production.
In a show of support for both the students and the First Amendment, the artistic director of the local professional theater, Seaside Rep, decided to host the production. The play was a big hit, and to the best of my knowledge, nobody in the audience became a devil worshipper. The success of the production inspired Seaside Rep to start an annual “intern production”, where local high school students could produce plays which weren’t likely to be acceptable to the conservative school board.
By pure coincidence, in early 2009, I was at an artists’ residency program in Seaside and met the folks who run the theater. As they were looking for a play for their second intern production, I suggested my one-act comedy THE WHOLE SHEBANG. The play has had 200 productions, including at high schools and churches in all areas of the country. I’ve also met a few religious conservatives who are offended by the premise:
What if the entire universe was just a college science project of some nerd on another dimension?
Seaside Rep decided to produce THE WHOLE SHEBANG, and once again, nobody in the audience became a devil worshipper, although I did hear a rumor that one impressionable student entered a science fair. I was not only pleased Seaside Rep produced my play, I was also thrilled to be part of their fight against censorship and the fear of ideas.
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Is there one particular mistake or misperception about playwriting which bugs you?
My biggest pet peeve is those who think that playwriting is about dialogue and not structure. Dialogue is an essential ingredient, but it’s never enough to make a compelling work. The best plays follow a journey, with a clear sense of cause and effect. The cause can be psychological, social, political, religious or a mix, but it should always be logical (even if it’s a warped logic created by the world of the play).
Is there a “modern classic” that you think can “infect” a young playwright with the wrong lessons? Are there canonical plays you’d advise young writers to avoid?
I think any play can steer a budding playwright in the wrong direction. The works of Sam Shepard and David Mamet come to mind quickly, as they have specific (and attractive) styles that can disguise whatever craft lies in their construction. I think the key is not in avoiding certain plays but making sure that playwrights become aware of the rules of playwriting (whether or not they choose to break them later) and that they don’t prematurely seek safe haven in a tone already established by another writer. Writing like David Mamet doesn’t make one another David Mamet; it just makes one an imitation. Writing in a distinct, fresh and compelling voice makes one like David Mamet. (Not that Mamet’s voice came from nowhere. It has roots in Harold Pinter, who has admitted being influenced by Noel Coward. The best playwrights are but fresh variations on those who came before.)
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A high school student in Tallahassee, Florida once wrote me a fan note and asked five questions:
1. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the little fishing village of Shmendrick, in lower Slobbovia, just near the border with Franistan. It was an odd place to grow up, for despite the local population’s insistence on being a fishing village, the town was completely land-locked. Thus most of the fishing was for canned tuna in the municipal pool.
2. What sort of education have you received?
I was home-schooled. Starting at the age of five, each morning I would knock on the door of a new home and ask the inhabitant, “Tell me everything you know.” Usually I was done by noon, including a break for recess.
3. Exactly how many plays have you written, give or take?
I’ve written many, given several and taken one.
I’m a big fan of Ferenc Molnár (Hungary’s most famous comic playwright), and I once took a collection of his plays from the LA Public Library. I liked them so much that when the book was months overdue, rather than return it, I claimed I had lost it and paid for it. I felt guilty about this (it was the library’s only copy), but my desire trumped my ethics.
Years later, the library burnt down. When the library was rebuilt, I decided to return the plays anonymously. So the library ended up with a copy which would’ve been otherwise destroyed. I later found another copy at a used book store, and so it worked out well for everyone.
4. Do you enjoy writing your plays?
I love playwriting. I love the inspired moments, the frustrations, the challenges, the revisions, the aspirations, the collaborations – everything. I love playwriting.
I also enjoy banana pudding, but not as much as playwriting.
5. Have you ever watched a play you’ve written?
I’m usually involved with rehearsals of initial productions of my plays, as I’m still revising them. I learn a great deal as I listen to the play over and over again, hearing what keeps my attention and what bores or confuses me, what words and phrases the actors struggle with and what is easy for them. Even when a play starts performances, I revise, as I learn from audience response what works and what doesn’t. And then one day I think, “I’m sick of this play.” And I start another one.
Occasionally but not often, I’ll watch a play that I wrote and “finished” years earlier. Sometimes it brings back great memories, and sometimes I’m reminded of all of the moments which I never got to shine as successfully as I hoped. In those situations I always try to remember a basic rule of playwriting: Whether watching your play is pleasurable or painful, it’s always an excuse to go out drinking after the show.
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Although I’ll pass on your request to read your play (I always decline such offers), let me recommend what I usually do when I finish a draft of a play: Invite friends over one evening and have them read it aloud. Ask basic questions afterwards, such as:
1. Did you believe what was going on?
2. Were you ever confused or bored?
3. Did the story engage you?
Although some of the feedback may not be helpful (I’m sure if you had a reading of DEATH OF A SALESMAN, someone would say, “Can’t you make Willy and Biff get along better?”), see what stays with you. I’ve learned a great deal from such evenings, and my plays have always improved because of them.
Best of luck,