What is a #PLONY? Find out here, and also read an explanation as to why I’m writing a series of #PLONY Profiles.
When I first conceived this series, Eric Coble was one of the first #PLONY to come to mind, not only because he has actually had a play—THE VELOCITY OF AUTUMN—produced on Broadway, but also because when I saw that play in previews and introduced myself at the talkback (yes, a talkback—on Broadway!), he made a point of saying that #PLONY need to stick together (obviously, he didn’t say #PLONY, but given that I can’t remember the exact quote, I’ll use this as an opportunity to promote the hashtag). When I asked him, his reply was perfect: “Sounds great! I’m always up for reminding people that there is art and life and happiness between the coasts!”
Have you ever lived in NYC?
No. I’m from Scotland, and I grew up in New Mexico and Colorado, but came to Ohio University to get an MFA in Acting, and then to Cleveland Play House to do an acting internship. I had no intention of staying in Cleveland, but then fate did its magic. I wrote my first play in graduate school, and it was done as part of new play festival and it went well (or we wouldn’t be having this conversation). I thought maybe I’d do both acting and writing, but then I started writing more and more, my girlfriend [now wife] moved here, we had a baby, and we settled in.
But of course you’ve heard that, as a playwright, New York is the place to be.
Yes, and I heard that as an actor too. Most of my friends in my MFA acting studio—there were eight of us, and all but two moved to New York, I being one who did not, and what’s interesting is the two who did not are the most involved in the profession today. One friend is an actor who does national tours, and there’s me, who eased into playwriting, but the people who went to New York are all in other professions now.
Did you make a conscious choice not to move there?
I don’t remember there being a conscious decision not to go, as much as a conscious decision to stay in Cleveland. I didn’t see a reason to leave because I felt like I was building an artistic community here as an actor, and I’d started writing. I was getting work, which would have been my goal in NYC or anywhere else. Cleveland Playhouse was producing my children’s plays, and I was beginning to figure out how that worked. Then I started writing adult plays and Cleveland Public Theatre and Dobama produced those plays, so I had an outlet here to figure out what I was doing. I was enjoying myself and my friends and the cost of living, and didn’t feel enough of a tug to get to New York or Chicago or wherever. It didn’t weigh heavily on me that I wasn’t there. My life here was full enough.
I also had some role models here in the acting world, the astonishing Dorothy and Reuben Silver, who are the godparents of all actors in Cleveland. They were top-of-the-line artists who could have gone anywhere, but wanted to make really good art here (and go out of town occasionally to do films). I worked with them as an actor and Dorothy was actually in VELOCITY OF AUTUMN in Cleveland. This was their home base, and they were role models in how to live a full life and make great art. That kind of became the thing I was aiming at, to make good art and live in a place I wanted to live and a place I wanted to raise my children. Putting down roots and enjoying life; that was the thing. And I told myself I could still get to New York, or LA, or Chicago, or wherever I needed to go—on an occasional basis—and still make it here.
Reuben and Dorothy Silver
Has that meant compromises, career-wise?
Who knows. Because I’m trapped in this one lifetime, I can’t tell what my other lives could have been. I have no doubt there are opportunities I have missed, or doors that could have opened, and things that would have been different if I’d lived in New York City. It’s still the center of attention. If you want your name to be in the center of conversation, you stand a much greater chance of it in New York, and that’s part of the rules of this game; that’s not changing. But how you respond to those rules is up to you; that’s how you define your life, and what is most important to you. There are absolutely more opportunities there than in any other city.
So how, living in Cleveland, did you combat that?
Two things: doing the work and dumb luck. There is absolutely an element of “the person who happens to pick up the script at the right time.” A play falls through in an Off-Broadway theater’s season and the person looking for something calls a friend who happens to be reading my script while in a show in West Virginia… those kinds of things have happened to me. That’s beyond my control. What I can control is the hard work of writing the best plays I can and making each one better than the last and pushing myself to do something I haven’t tried before. Will they be embraced by the universe? That’s not my job. If I focused on that, I’d go insane.
Maybe ironically, I find more time for writing living in Cleveland than my friends find in New York, because they’re having to hold down more jobs to survive. So I could work less at a day job and spend more time writing and hone whatever skills I may have, and create more plays to send out and more chances of production. And more productions eventually tipped the scales to where I could quit my day job, which led to more time writing.
How many plays have you written?
Ninety-nine stage plays and a bunch of radio/screenplay/short story/comic book/whatnot scripts. Forty-one of my stage scripts are full-length plays, some are ten-minute plays, short stuff. I try to write four to seven pieces a year.
That’s insanely prolific.
I may not be good, but I’m fast. It’s really so I stay in the game. They can’t pick it if you don’t send it. For me, I’m also writing more as I’ve tried to branch out and write in different genres that I’m not always good at but want to try writing in; I find that opens doors. The kind of play that’s appeals to Cleveland Public Theatre is very different from what will appeal to Dobama, but if I’ve written both, I can hit the theaters around the country who are doing more experimental image- and word-based things, and then also theaters that are doing more realistic or dark comedies, and then also theaters that are producing children’s plays. Casting the net wide has also allowed me to survive, coupled, of course, with dumb luck.
Do you ever regret not trying a move to New York?
Regret is such a strong word. Again, I have no doubt there are missed opportunities, things that would have happened, and, intellectually I’m curious, but there’s nothing I’ve lost sleep about. Like most playwrights, I have the little bouts of jealousy that this person’s getting something that I’m not, but who am I to complain? Ultimately, it keeps going back to the work being the only part I can control. If someone wants to do it or not, that’s the universe saying yes or no. I keep refining and rewriting, and I find it easier to do that outside of New York.
Are there other advantages, career-wise, to not living in New York?
For me, it’s led to more productions because there are more theaters in Cleveland who will read my script and put it on the top of the pile. I go to all their seasons and see everything, so they know my face and if I say, “here’s a new piece,” they read it quickly. Last season, I had one show here in town, the year before that, two shows. I’ve had commissions for theaters here, and, in fact just started work on a new one. The advantage is I have a working relationship with more theaters in Cleveland; depending on how New York goes, you could have the same relationships there, but there are a lot more playwrights competing for that attention.
Do you ever keenly feel that you’re at a disadvantage?
I don’t know if I ever let myself feel that way. If I ever thought about it, I might, but that wouldn’t help me write my next play. I try to think for the most part that I’m on my path and that’s enough mystery for my little brain. Location isn’t necessarily part of my career journey so much as creating the art.
What were some key turning points in your career?
There were several. One that has nothing to do with the inevitable gravitational pull of New York: I was asked to write a children’s play for Cleveland Playhouse [LAKE OF PANTHERS] that got picked up by New Visions/New Voices at the Kennedy Center in 2002, where I met Stan Foote from Oregon Children’s Theatre Company, who commissioned me to write SACAGAWEA in Portland, and that was fun for all involved, so he commissioned me to adapt the famous children’s book, THE GIVER, which changed my fortunes as a children’s playwright because that’s so popular [Editor’s understatement alert: it’s been produced in all fifty states and around the world]. That would never have happened had I not worked at Cleveland Playhouse.
And in the NYC realm, I also wrote a play called BRIGHT IDEAS, an adult piece that was going onto the mainstage at Cleveland Playhouse, and it happened at that time that an assistant to an agent at Gersh was looking to branch off with her own clients, so she was calling lit managers at regionals and asking who they were interested in, who she should be aware of. So Seth Gordon of CPH mentioned BRIGHT IDEAS, the agent read it, and signed me. My role in that was writing the best play I could write at that time—and the odd choice to live in Cleveland. But then eventually BRIGHT IDEAS ended up off-Broadway at MCC, which was a great production and big as a door-opener. I’m still not clear how they got the script; I have a lot of friends who claim they got it to them. But the thing is if it had not been done in Cleveland and got me the agent, it wouldn’t have been done in New York.
And then actually, VELOCITY being produced in Boise, Idaho was a major turning point. If it had not been running there, I would not have had the great production which led to a producer reading the script which eventually took it to Broadway. And the Boise production happened because I was a guest artist at Seven Devils Playwriting Conference in McCall Idaho, and I was there because Jenni Mahoney and I were in grad school together; there’s a quote about getting to know, love, and work with people while you’re all powerless because in ten or fifteen years you’ll have power and suddenly you know powerful people and you’re all part of the same team. There are people I grew up with in theater who are now middle-aged women and men who are running different small and large theaters and remember me.
Do you feel the need to do a lot of travel to producing theaters?
I can’t get to everywhere the plays are done, for family and money reasons; if someone pays, I can usually make that work. But traveling to new theaters who are producing my plays is how I’ve established different home theaters in Charlotte, Denver, Houston, Portland, places where they’ll now read my new stuff quickly, whether they decide to produce it or not.
What proactive steps do you feel like #PLONY can take in furthering their careers?
Conferences like Seven Devils and TCG are useful in meeting folks. A web presence obviously. Facebook has helped just letting people find me; if somebody needs a script immediately, they can reach me within minutes, and I can get them a script within hours.
I write as much as I can and as well as I can. Then I send the script out, either on my own or via my agent, to let people know it exists. And then I do just turn it over to the universe and move on to the next thing, so I stay sane instead of desperately waiting to see if the theater will do it, when they might not even read it. I throw a lot of messages in bottles into the ocean and hope a few get picked up. But I can’t wait for that one message in one bottle. I’m sure there are smarter, better ways. I don’t have a good road map other than to say keep writing. I don’t wait for the muse to strike; I’m not that kind of writer.
Is there a single decision you made that was instrumental to your career?
I haven’t tried to write commercial stuff; the plays that intrigue me and that have paid off more often are the ones I create when I try to write stuff I didn’t know how to write. VELOCITY came about because I wanted to try to write a two-person play that occurs in real time on one set. Let’s try to write a realistic drama and see if the audience won’t be shrieking from boredom after 15 minutes; that’s what the whole goal was. Many of what I write are those kinds of experiments. And if I enjoy the process and I get positive feedback, then I can hopefully step through whatever doors open by being ready with another script. If someone is intrigued, you have something else to send.
Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella, VELOCITY OF AUTUMN
Are you seriously like the only non-London #PLONY to have a play on Broadway?
I don’t know. I’m sure it’s rare. Off-Broadway is easier that way. But still it’s easier for New York playwrights to get plays produced in New York. And if it’s done in New York, we’ll all pay attention. The sun will forever be the center of the solar system, right, whichever planet you choose to live on. I just enjoy the little moon I’ve settled on, with occasional visits to big hot orb.
What other NYC productions have you had?
One off-Broadway, and three or four off-off-off small little theaters. My living has absolutely been made in the regional theaters and small regional theaters for the most part. New York is not my bread and butter. It’s a fun playground and, again, all the attention is there and it has its own set of rules, but I don’t try to put all my attention there.
Given that, what was the Broadway experience like?
I think I missed out on some part of the playwriting experience because being on Broadway was never part of my dream. I never felt that hunger in my bones. So when it happened it didn’t feel like I’d finally achieved a major milestone; it felt like a big opportunity to play and see how it worked. I think people who have chosen not to live in New York don’t have a lot of illusions of ever getting to Broadway, which may temper the response if one happens to find oneself there.
Producer Larry Kaye and Eric Coble
Once I was there, I was struck by two things. One was that the enormousness of the machine was different from anything I’d ever experienced working with either little theaters with four-person staffs or big regionals with 100-person staffs. Those theaters have so many irons in the fire with education and public outreach and building maintenance, whereas the Broadway machine was all focused on just this one production of this one play. So this gigantic machine has nothing to focus on, nothing to feed on, but that production. There’s a person for every possibly activity—prop design, prop creation, prop maintenance, then marketing video vs. marketing print vs. marketing radio vs. marketing websites vs. viral marketing etc.—and it’s so huge and you’re just a small part of it. There are constant commercial stakes that I’ve just never experienced working at regionals. In the rest of the world, they say they’re producing a show from September 8 to October 15, and hit or bomb, that show is going to run those weeks. But on Broadway, we’re going to open on September 8… and who knows? We could close tomorrow, the week after, we could be running two years from now. So day to day, everyone was constantly checking in as part of the machinery. That was a different mindset with its own ups and downs. It was thrilling but definitely different, and mixed with a bigger spotlight and more people paying attention, coupled with all the good wishes from all my friends around the country who were genuinely excited and rooting for me; it was just a lovely feeling of support from people I know and love in the midst of a hurricane.
That said, the other thing that surprised me was that doing VELOCITY on Broadway felt not like the show, but the next show. I knew after I opened VELOCITY that I’d be coming back to Cleveland to work on STRANDED ON EARTH, a one-woman show in a church gym with artists I love and respect. And that would be the next show. And then another in Milwaukee. For all the giant machinery and hoopla, VELOCITY was the next in long string of plays that have made up my professional life; it was not the beginning of anything or the end. So I felt, as I do for every show, “How do we make this as good as possible?” My role felt exactly the same as it feels in Miami, New Orleans, so on a fundamental level, it was the next play to do. It didn’t feel like I had hit the pinnacle and everything was make or break because of it. My job was the same as with the one-woman show in the church.
Derdriu Ring in STRANDED ON EARTH
When it closed, I felt disappointment but not regret. I’d love it be running and running and be a huge hit, though it was enough of a hit that it’s being produced around the country and the world now. But I felt like we had done what we could do for that show. The producers did their best, everyone did. There’s no part I look back and say “if only…” There’s no sense of regret that we had missed something. The universe said “not right now,” and that’s where it was. But there are ongoing conversations for other scripts which may end up living in that city, so the ride isn’t over yet.
So a playwriting career outside of New York is possible?
It is possible. In some ways more possible. You have the world telling you “Go to New York,” there is a strong tide to pull you, for you to accept the common definition of career and success, but then you have to figure out “is that my path?” It’s tough. Of course there’s that mental pull: what if? But you know what? The odds are against us as artists, no matter where we are. So how do you want to spend all the hours when you’re not in production—not writing? Where do you want to be, who do you want to be surrounded with, what kind of work do you want to do in the world, and where? There is a theatrical light shining so brightly on those working in New York, that’s it’s easy to think no one can see you when you’re not there. But that’s not true. Most of us get into playwriting to make the world better, to entertain, to challenge. Every single community needs that, perhaps even more than New York.
Playwrights, remember to explore the Real Inspiration For Playwrights Project, a 52-post series of wonderful advice from Literary Managers and Artistic Directors on getting your plays produced. Click RIPP at the upper right.
To read more entries in this series, click here or #PLONY in the category listing at upper right.