by Martin Denton · March 16, 2016
I am very intrigued by your political background: you’ve worked in the White House and the Senate. Can you talk briefly about that career path? What made you decide to leave politics and move into the theater world?
Growing up, the only thing I wanted to do was work in theatre. I never paid much attention to the outside world. That changed on September 11th, 2001. I went to high school right outside New York City, and could literally see the smoke and debris from the attack.
My grandparents both escaped the Holocaust, and I had always viewed great historical events as just that - historical. In September 2001, I realized that historical events were happening right now. It's embarrassing to admit, but I didn't know anything about the outside world. Places that I now spend countless hours thinking and writing about - such as North Korea, Iran, and China - didn't matter to me at all.
After 9/11, I wanted to make a difference and play a role in the events that were happening around me. This eventually led me to The White House, where I spent three years. It was the most rewarding experience of my life, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.
After that, I spent a year working in the Senate. That was more than enough time to know that I didn't want to spend my life working in politics. At the time (and even more so today), there were so few politicians that I respected, I couldn't imagine dedicating my life to someone or something I didn't truly believe in.
While in Washington, I still attended theatre and started writing. I knew that it was now or never to pursue that as a goal, so I came back to New York and started acting and writing plays.
What are the differences between being a political speech writer and a dramatic speech writer? What lessons from your political career have you applied to your theatrical career? And what lessons could current politicians learn from the world of theater?
I think the main difference is that no one wants to see a play with a "message" - or at least a play that beats you over the head with its message. If there is a message in an exciting interaction with people onstage, that's great. But it must always come second to the characters, the storytelling, and what's happening in the play.
In politics, of course, the main thing you need to deliver is your message. I constantly find myself cutting away the "message" in my plays - it needs to speak for itself, and be received through the audience's reaction to what they're seeing.
I think the biggest lesson that I've taken from my time in politics is that so much of what determines career "success" is out of your hands. I worked really hard to get to the White House and did everything I could to set myself up for that opportunity - but in the end, getting the job I had, which was more than I ever dreamt of, came down to luck and timing. I was prepared and ready - but all of that preparation and hard work would have meant nothing if the right factors hadn't aligned.
In theatre, I've seen so many talented and deserving actors and writers struggle, whereas others who are equally (or even less talented) find that combination of luck and preparation. It's allowed me to take pressure off of myself to "succeed."
As far as lessons politicians can learn - I think our country would be in a very different place if politicians attended the theatre regularly. They'd be more thoughtful, introspective, and have greater empathy for the world around them.
Who taught you to write plays? (This could be teachers, or artists you’ve worked with, or artists you’ve never met.)
My fellow writers and collaborators. I've never taken a writing class, but I've been in countless writing groups and workshops, and I learned everything I know from them - along with the people who have directed and dramaturged my work, and from reading and seeing other plays.
When I was just starting out, I paid one of my mentors to read one of my scripts and give me extensive written and verbal feedback on it. It was the only time I ever paid for a writing class (or something like it), but I still think about the conversation we had when I sit down to write.
Your play THE BUS TEST is about a young man making some life changes after a high-pressure career in NYC. What was the genesis of this play? Why did you decide to set the play in Iowa?
The play was based on my own experience of being a "success" in Washington, yet still missing many of the things I wanted out of life. To me, it made no sense. I had everything society told me should make me happy, but I wasn't. This sent me on a long journey that resulted in a huge shift in my life priorities.
I could easily be making a six figure income right now, yet I'm earning a lot less money than I was in politics six years ago. I realized that my time, energy, and passions were my most precious resource - and that once I had the basics of life (housing, food), etc.), money wasn't making me any happier.
The Bus Test is about that struggle. And it's a universal one. I saw a play about Marilyn Monroe recently, where she said "I have everything I dreamed of, but nothing I want." And I thought - "exactly."
Your play BROKEN is about a young man who goes on a shooting rampage in a shopping mall. What was the genesis of this play? What kinds of research did you do to learn about the personality of the shooter?
Broken tells the story of a mass shooter, from the shooter’s point of view. Instead of trying to vilify him, or simply write him off as crazy, the play looks into his psyche, his motivations, and what (if anything) society could have done to stop him.
I wrote the play because I think it’s vital to understand the mentality of those committing these acts if we ever hope to truly stop them or show them another path.
I also wrote the play because I could relate to the seeds of what leads people down this terrifying path - the social isolation, the sense of abandonment by society, the frustrations of being told we need to achieve material success, when this is so hard to achieve. And I think everyone can relate to these feelings.
That doesn't excuse or condone what a shooter does, but I do think it changes how we look at them. The play rose out of my exploration of that. I didn't do any research until I finished the first draft. At that point, I did do research - and it was incredibly rewarding, because the research lined up almost entirely with what I had written. The sense that everyone had wronged Kevin, the spiraling of grievances, the career and romantic frustrations - it mirrored my work almost exactly.
Who are your theatrical heroes? Who are your heroes beyond the world of theatre?
I am constantly inspired by everyone I know who is still pursuing a career in theatre despite every reason in the world not to. Seeing other people continue to write, act, and produce their own work in the face of an industry that is constantly telling so many people that they shouldn't be doing this is truly inspiring.
Outside of theatre, my grandparents - especially my grandfather.