What is a #PLONY? Find out here, and also read an explanation as to why I’m writing a series of #PLONY Profiles.
In June, at the CityWrights Conference in Miami, Dramatists Guild Western Florida Regional Representative Dewey Davis-Thompson left briefly to attend the world premiere of Michael McKeever’s DANIEL’S HUSBAND at Island City Stage in Fort Lauderdale. [Editor’s Note: McKeever, coincidentally, had very recently taken over as Eastern Florida Regional Representative, but we’d not yet met.] When Dewey returned, he was all a-gush over DANIEL’S HUSBAND, so much so that I texted Javier Bustillos, Artistic Director of Buffalo United Artists, and told him to check it out. Turns out not only had Javier already seen it, but he’d also already booked it for October! That’s the power of both Michael and his plays. I messaged Michael congratulations, and when we did meet a month later in La Jolla, he was every bit the dynamic and positive force I’d anticipated. His career—which you can read about here—spans the globe, is consistent and prolific, richly deserved, inspirational, and every #PLONY’s dream.
How long have you been in Florida?
I was born here. My family’s originally from New York, and I was the first person in my family—and we’re talking a big Italian family of thirty of us or so living on one block—to be born in South Florida; I spoke with a heavy Bronx accent until my early twenties. I went to the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale for Advertising design, and landed a job right of out of school in the art department of the NBC affiliate in downtown Miami in film and video production. I have been in South Florida ever since.
You’re a purebred #PLONY! But how did advertising design lead to playwriting?
It’s a weird trip, but it kind of makes sense. I was an actor all through high school [Editor’s Note: He still is, and appears in PICNIC at Palm Beach Dramaworks this October.], and right out of high school, I was part of a touring group that did a lot of children’s theater. But I’ve always been able to draw and had a good sense of design and composition, so I had two loves: illustration and theater.
After about three years at NBC, I got a job as art director at a film production house in Miami, and, as art director, I oversaw set design, computer animation, every creative aspect of film from industrials to short films to commercials. And then our creative writing team was kind of decimated—one writer got pregnant, another had a breakdown—and, suddenly, no one was writing, so one of the owners asked if I could pinch-hit until they got the writing staff back up.
I started writing commercials and found I had a knack for dialogue and the ability to tell a story, even in a 30-second format. I realized I really liked writing, so here it is ten years later, I was about 28 or 29, making great money with major commissions and clients, but I was working 60 hours a week doing my job as art director plus writing commercials, so I said, “I’m really, really tired. I’m going to take some time off and do what I want to do, and start writing for myself, and write theater, go back to that love.”
But you’d never written a play.
It was something I always wanted to do; I just didn’t do it. So I sat down without having any idea how to format a play or write a play; I just went and bought a bunch of plays and looked at how they were structured and sat down and wrote a play. We had recently gone through hurricane Andrew, and I’d just broken up with a girl I was dating, so I took those two elements and married them; the play took place in South Florida on the eve of Hurricane Andrew, and the storm was a metaphor for the couple’s marriage. Then I had friends who were not actors—but they worked in television, so they understood structure and character—come to the house and read parts. I took notes, and that’s how the first play, THAT SOUND YOU HEAR, got developed.
And what happened to that play?
I sent it out to every theater in the region and one of them did a reading. The play got a very nice response and, through that, someone who saw it suggested it to New Theatre in Miami. Out of the blue, the artistic director Raphael de Acha, said, “We’d like to produce your play,” and I said okay. That was July 3, 1996.
And then, of course, you needed another play.
All I had written was this one play! And I discovered not only did I really love the process of writing, but I also thought, “I can do this,” so I started writing a second pay about a long drunken weekend in New Orleans, which again was based on a true story, and called THE NEW ORLEANS STORY. Folks down in Key West had heard about the success of THAT SOUND YOU HEAR, so one of the directors at Key West Theater Festival asked me to submit, and because New Orleans is similar to Key West, I sent this one, and they said yes.
The third play was THE GARDEN OF HANNAH LIST, a drama about a Catholic family in Nazi Germany in 1938, and these horrible things are happening all around you and it doesn’t impact you directly, but what do you do? And we learn that this beautiful matriarch in her sixties is quietly killing Nazis and burying them in her backyard. That play was done at the phenomenal Florida Stage, and that was the play that officially made me a playwright.
Christine Jones in THE GARDEN OF HANNAH LIST at Hypothetical
It garnered a lot of attention, won a lot of awards. But it was also the first time that I was writing with purpose, wanting to make a statement and at the same time entertain; the first two times, I was just sharing stories. Word of mouth reached New York and Richard Frankel Productions was interested, and flew the cast and me to New York to do a backer’s audition. They passed on the play—they thought it would do fine with audiences, but didn’t think the critics would embrace it—but the beauty was that I had five different New York agents wanting to meet with me, so I met with all five of them, and that’s how I got my agent, Barbara Hogenson. That play was a turning point for me and, as a result, suddenly a theater called and said they’d like to commission me to write a play. It turned things around and I realized this is what I want to do when I grow up. And I never stopped writing.
With that success, were you advised to move to New York?
I think getting turned down by a New York producer at that early stage was a really good thing for me. It was a turning point, but it also made me realize that this is something you have to work at; the path to New York isn’t going to be a simple or easy one. At that point, I was just thrilled that my work was getting produced, I didn’t care where. When I got my agent, it became a thing: “Will you move to New York? When are you moving to New York?” But I have a great support system down here, my partner, my family, a huge network of theaters that I’m really comfortable with and love working with, and it’s been a very nurturing place to work over the years. My work getting produced around the regions and off-Broadway was a result of my work getting produced down here as opposed to my moving to New York and struggling there.
When my agent sent out HANNAH LIST, it got picked up almost immediately by Hypothetical Theatre Company, and they did a lovely production that did very well, financially and critically. There’s this wonderful excitement that happens when you’re in the City and you know that people are paying to see your work, and a great energy that surges through you. And then it was, “So now that you have this, will you move up?” And you know what? It was very tempting, Being up in the City, people see you more, you go to more parties, you make more connections, your circle is a New York theater circle, but my response is always the same: that’s lovely, but I’m really happy where I am and where my life is and with the theater people I’m working with. I considered it, but I didn’t have that feeling of “I absolutely must come here.” To this day, I don’t regret not going up. I’m extremely happy with the choices that I’ve made.
Happiness aside, do you ever feel that it’s been a career disadvantage?
I’m sure there would have been opportunities that opened up to me, but that’s not to say that I wouldn’t have been cutting across Seventh Avenue and gotten hit by a truck. I’ve never been one to look back and say should shoulda/coulda/woulda. I’m proud of the career I’ve created.
Trust me, there have been been years when I was struggling, but I always tell this to [playwriting] students [on an acting track at New World School of Arts] because they think they have to make it to Broadway to be a star: my car is paid off, my house is paid off, I live a comfortable life as a playwright working with people I love, at places I love, doing something I love. And to me, that’s what being successful is. Yes, it would be great to have a Tony and a Pulitzer, amazing, great, but sometimes you have to realize that when you’re able to feed yourself doing something you truly love, that’s pretty cool, too.
37 POSTCARDS at Racine Theatre Guild
You’ve been produced so much overseas. How did that happen?
Again, it’s how it works. I had a play written called 37 POSTCARDS that tanked in South Florida. The critics hated it and I thought, “There’s one that goes back in the drawer.” And then Florida Studio Theatre, on the west coast—I had sent it to them—wanted to do a reading of it, and it played like gangbusters. I tip my hat to them that they saw something in the play. It got done in Sarasota, and it was a huge, huge hit; it was crazy. A German producer somehow read these reviews and contacted my agent and ended up doing a translation and a production in Germany. And that was a huge hit, and from that success, it played in Vienna and extended and extended, and that got me a bit of celebrity in Austria and Germany. For three years, it did nonstop business, and then got picked up in Switzerland and Sweden, and, by that point, we’d sent over two or three of my other plays, and it was like dominoes. I think seven or eight shows have been translated into German and Polish and Russian and continue to get produced.
I always kind of pinch myself. If I had gone to New York, I may not have had that production down in Miami that led to the production in Sarasota that led to production in Germany.
How many full-length plays do you have now?
Twenty-four. I’m lucky that they’ve all been produced, and there are about seven that have continued life. Once a play gets published, in most cases, it’s more likely to have continued life. I have a farce called SUITE SURRENDER that was produced in 2008 and had a number of productions around the country and in Germany, and just when I thought it had run out, it got picked up by Playscripts and came roaring back to life. When a play is first published, you’ll get a wave of professional theaters doing it, and then a bunch of community theaters will embrace it, and then colleges and high schools, and if you can get a show that’s high school friendly, it’s astounding. I get eight to 12 productions a year, but when you include high school, it’s more like two dozen. That’s when I knew I could really say, “I’m a playwright,” — when a high school in Fairbanks, Alaska did SUITE SURRENDER.
SUITE SURRENDER at Beaverton Civic Theatre
Of the plays you’ve written, how many are comedies and how many are dramas? It seems the comedies do very well.
Fourteen comedies, ten dramas. I tend to write what I write when I want to write it. I’m co-founder of Zoetic Stage in Miami, and every so often Stuart [Meltzer, partner and co-founder] will commission me to do a comedy and I give him a couple ideas; that’s usually the only way I specifically write comedy over drama, But the seven published plays are all comedies.
Interesting and scary.
Is there a playwriting career decision(s) you made personally that you feel has been instrumental?
I try to constantly the break the boundaries in which I find myself most comfortable. I’ve made a concerted effort to not write the same play twice, so I’m constantly exploring new ways to write and different topics to write about, which is hard for me because I’m not comfortable with change, so it’s a good thing to challenge that in my writing and not be constrained by it.
What is your writing routine?
I don’t write every day. People assume because I’m as prolific as I am, I’m writing all the time. I’m always thinking about plays and focusing on a new one, what it’s going to be and the structure of it, and then when I actually sit down to write, I handwrite a very broad, very cursory outline, beginning, middle, and end, where I want it to go, and then I sit down at the computer and start writing. I used to start writing at 11 at night and write until two or three, but since I’ve been with Stuart, I’ve actually started waking up early at four or five when the house is quiet and peaceful and write then. After Stuart goes to work and I have the house to myself, I continue—if it’s going well. If it’s not, I won’t try to force it. It usually takes a month to get a first draft done.
McKeever and Meltzer
And it’s definitely a first draft. The world is filled with unfinished plays. The hardest thing to do is finish; it’s allowed to suck. The first draft has to be allowed to be awful; if you want perfection in that first draft, you’re going to have a hard time finishing it. Write the end. If that’s good, then you go in, and go in, and work it. I’ll spend the next month or two polishing it and cutting it or whatever I need to do to make it better. I really just started to appreciate working on rewrites and polishes, as opposed to hating it and then wanting it to be done. I’ve learned to embrace that process.
Given that you are a self-taught playwright who has been at this more than twenty years, what have you learned and how has your writing changed? Where has your education come from?
I’ve been accused or complimented of being an old-fashioned writer and that makes perfect sense because I don’t have a formal education and learned storytelling from old movies—Bette Davis movies, classic films of the thirties and forties, and movies of the seventies. I used those as my guide, and then once I started writing and wanting to get serious, I started really reading plays and looking at the structure of everything from Mamet to Pinter to Lillian Hellman as references, just to see how they addressed things like structure and character. It became important to me to hide the theme, and I really started to learn when my exposition was showing, when characters were being less than subtle.
More so, in the past five years, instead of writing just a solid, funny play, I really have tried to make my work something that’s more than just entertaining. And I’ve gotten better because I’ve matured, I have more life experience under my belt. It used to be very important for people to like the work; now it’s become more important that they like it for more than simple entertainment.
Do you write ten-minute plays?
Yes! We have a lot of festivals in this region that are all about ten-minute plays, so I sat down to write two or three of them just because I found them harder to write than full-lengths. With so many events that put out ten-minute plays, I learned to embrace them, and even had one published in Great Short Plays Volume 10 from Playscripts. (Here’s a freebie: “Sarah Stein Sends A Selfie”)
“Splat!” at Summer Shorts 2007 (City Theatre, Miami)/Photo: George Schiavone
What advice do you have to offer fellow #PLONY?
Keep writing. That’s important. I’ve heard of playwrights who take home a Pulitzer and then hit this brick wall, like, “How do I top that?” I never do that. However well a play is received or critically reviewed or whatever awards it wins, you just say, “that’s great,” and move on, and keep pushing as hard as you can to do the next one. I have friends who write in this region who will have a play picked up, and they’ll be thrilled, and they stop to celebrate—and it is important to acknowledge and embrace every moment—but you can’t just sit back and say, “I’ve done this; let the world come.” You’ve got to keep moving. And if a New York production is offered to me, I will embrace it, and I will dance, and be incredibly proud to have my name on it, but I’m not going to die if I don’t get another New York production. Don’t think you can’t work as a playwright without a New York City address. I was told you have to be in New York if you want any kind of success, but it’s a matter of ambition and tenacity and having the gumption to try to make things happen.
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.