by Martin Denton · February 16, 2016
How did you first get interested/involved in the theater? From your bio, it sounds like theater and film were interests of yours at college, along with medicine. What made you pick biology to major in?
Growing up, I never wanted to be just one thing, or have just one occupation. I held ridiculous over-the-top aspirations- like winning the Nobel Prize and the Academy Award (in the same year). There’s a term for this inability and aversion to career confinement that I recently heard on a TED talk by Emilie Wapnick, a term that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue: multipotentialites. This tendency is a strength and a weakness, the strength being the ability to bridge and sometimes combine disparate fields, the weakness is the inability to commit. So in school I always took science classes while signing up for every writing and film class I could. I was lucky to have a great theater department at my high school and also an incredible film series. I saw films like 8 ½ and Repulsion at a tender age, which set me on my current path. My first love was film, and while attending medical school I made bizarre black and white Super 8 films. And like everyone, I wanted to direct a feature. But I still really didn’t know much about filmmaking. After my year of internship at Boston City Hospital, I took a year off to figure out what I wanted to do. I did some medical research while taking a screenwriting class at Harvard and a number of film classes at the Boston Film and Video Foundation. More bizarre films ensued. I realized I couldn’t leave medicine and I couldn’t stop working in film. After my residency, I worked part-time as a doctor in East Boston, and interned as a small film studio in Cambridge- Heliotrope, working as a grip and PA on documentaries, TV shows, and local independent films. Around this time, I started taking screenwriting seriously, and one of my early scripts Anna Blue came in second at the Austin Film Festival. I got a bunch of calls from producers, agents, and optioned the screenplay. Which went nowhere. While my filmmaking attempts were often frustrating, I found great satisfaction in writing. And what I loved about screenwriting- and then playwriting- was the honesty and energy of it, of two or more characters in conflict and the energy of that interaction. I have tried writing short stories, and I while I admire great fiction writing, I think there is almost a falseness to description, too much of a third party present, while the beauty of dialogue and drama is that the writer steps away, and it’s the characters who write the drama. This is a very powerful thing. And then the process of that written word becoming a live thing on stage or film only increases the power of that dynamic. During this period of writing I began attending the American Reparatory Theatre in Cambridge, which sparked discoveries of many great plays and playwrights. So now I spend my time equally between film projects and theatre - another split path.
I am pretty sure you are the only one of our 700+ ITN playwrights who is also a medical doctor. How does being involved in the theater affect/influence your practice as a physician? How does being involved in medicine affect/influence your practice as a playwright?
When I first started my medical career, I was fairly clueless about the human condition. And the wonderful privilege and responsibility and burden of medicine is being involved with people in a very intense manner at very intense moments in their lives, and often with people who come from profoundly different life experiences. I spent most of my training in city hospitals, after a fairly white bread upbringing in New Jersey, and I’m very much an American, but have done some work overseas. I’m thankful for these experiences. But for the longest time I kept my medical work and artistic work separate. Part of this was out of fear. I thought if I told people in the medical world I was a filmmaker and writer it would be a bit like your dentist telling you they wanted to be in the NBA- you’d just get that condescending ‘oh, really’. This was at a time when film was prohibitively expensive, and mostly the domain of Hollywood- now with inexpensive digital cameras and the accessibility of the web, this might not seem as much of a pipe dream. On the other side, I avoided telling people on the sets I worked on that I was a doctor, out of fear that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as an artist. [And when people did find out I was a doctor, I found myself on set looking at moles and calling in prescriptions for asthma inhalers.] But with time, I’ve realized the two worlds are one in the same. While I have rarely written about medical topics, it’s clear to me that writing is grappling with the human condition, and medicine is the human condition. In addition, writing- the process of trying to get into someone else’s head, i.e., empathy- has informed my medical work.
Who are three playwrights whose work matters the most to you, and why?
The three playwrights whose work matters the most are Sam Shepard, Anton Chekhov, and Shakespeare. I’ve always had this natural affinity for Sam Shepard’s work, partly because of his wonderful mix of the bizarrely comic and deeply tragic. But I don’t have his Western background, and while I’ve had some craziness in my own upbringing, the world of the families portrayed in his plays is often alien. But you can’t always explain why some artists’ sensibilities click. Why did white British musicians find a powerful resonance with black blues artists from the US? There’s just a bone-deep connection. In terms of Chekhov, I first fell for his short stories: his incredible humanity, the air of melancholy and quiet humor that carries you like an undertow. And then his plays were and are so revolutionary in their understated intensity- like jazz, with all these incredible tones running through them. I’ve been working on a full-length play The Last Words of Anton Chekhov about Chekhov and Stanislavski working on The Cherry Orchard shortly before his death, and I’ve tried to take that play ‘apart’, and it still amazes me. I’m not quite sure how he did it.
And Shakespeare is Shakespeare.
You say that THE PRESENTATION’s genesis was your attendance at a boring lecture. Can you talk a bit more about how the play came to be? What was your initial idea about what the play would be like, and how did that idea grow/evolve as the play developed?
I imagined the main character having had this intense inner experience, and then feeling the relief and shame of opening himself to people he knows on a professional level. At the time, I had also seen a Robert Frank exhibit at the Met, and his pictures evoked the rawness of such experience; I wrote the piece with The Americans book open. I did envision the play as an American story, and a bit old-fashioned at that. Now with social media, reality TV, people share their inner worlds on a much more frequent basis, but this was a man of a slighter older generation, not as comfortable with mining his soul. [Not to say that current media always digs deep.] Working on the project with the director Bob Walsh, and the actor Bob Pemberton, the nature of the speaker’s relationship with the audience- that is, his co-workers- came to light. We saw him as mid-level/upper management, but still close enough to his audience to know them on a personal level, having hung out at barbecues- not only at work. Which made the swings in the mood of the piece more natural- at one moment light, and even joking around, at other moments just plain dark.
An important aspect of THE PRESENTATION is the idea that people sometimes ‘glamorize’ mental illness. Why is that something worth writing about, and how does THE PRESENTATION help to set the record straight about this topic?
In my medical work, I’ve worked with many patients with mental illness, but it wasn’t until mental health issues in my own family came about that I really understood the pain and suffering. But I don’t think there is one ‘correct’ way to portray mental illness, because like anything, it can be approached and explored in different ways. There are nominal comedy/dramas (like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or Silver Linings Playbook) that have valid things to say, just as there are literary and other serious works about mental health that don’t fully capture the whole picture. You need a lot of different frames to approach such a complex illness.
Why did you decide to present THE PRESENTATION at United Solo, and how was the experience for you?
I was excited to have my work shown in New York, and especially at a festival devoted to monologues. Everyone was very supportive, and the best part was hanging out with some of the audience afterward.