by Martin Denton · October 2, 2015
When did you first get the theater bug – and when did you realize that you wanted to become a playwright?
I had always been a big fan of theater, but it was rather late in life that I got bit by the participation bug. It all started with acting classes, which I took originally as a self-development effort. Perhaps it was a midlife crisis! Anyway, I signed up for a local class which marketed itself as “Acting for Non-Actors.” The idea was that you took a few classes and learned some techniques for overcoming stage fright, improving self-expression, and so forth. Somehow I got hooked on the classes, and kept taking them. I felt that I was learning something important, even though I didn't really see myself as a fabulous actor. Eventually I was invited to join a local improv troupe which performed at a neighborhood coffee house. I found I was pretty good at thinking up wacky scenarios on my feet, and I started to think about writing a script instead of improvising. I had worked on writing novels over the years, and one of the standard complaints I would hear about my prose was that people liked my dialogue but not my narrative passages. Well, it occurred to me that when it comes to writing plays, you don't have to write much narrative – it's almost all dialogue, with a few stage directions thrown in. So I thought maybe playwriting would play to my strengths as a writer. And I actually had an idea for a play, involving a guy who had gone to jail for trying to bribe a Mexican official. So I signed up for an introductory playwriting class at Chicago Dramatists, and began writing my first full-length while taking the introductory class. The script I was working on seemed to “play well” in class, including generating some laughs, so I kept going, signing up for a series of classes. At this point, you might think, “Ah, he really had the playwriting bug at that point.” But I would say I wasn't fully addicted until some years later, when I finally had a play produced professionally. That night, for the first time, I had the experience of sitting in a dark theater, surrounded by audience who didn't know me, and feeling my work generate the surge of communal feeling that arises from live drama. I'm not sure I can really explain that feeling, but I loved it, and from that point on I was totally hooked.
You do a lot of work at Chicago’s Dream Theatre Company (and you are on their board) – can you tell us a bit about this company: what is its mission, who are some of the other folks involved with it, what kinds of theatre does it produce, how did you become involved with them, and why do you like working with them?
I became involved with them as a fan, as a member of the audience. I admired their work, found it enchanting and enthralling, and I gradually got to know the principals of the company. Their artistic director, Jeremy Menekseoglu, is a very prolific playwright, and most of their productions, though not all, are productions of his plays. He writes intensely dramatic psychological plays that can be quite scary, or very funny, or often both. Their productions are wildly imaginative, and the acting always has an intimate feel that draws you in, pulling you through the imaginary fourth wall. I love working with them because they are real artists who enjoy what they do. Over the years they have placed particular emphasis on the need for more good roles written for women. In support of that, they've run multiple versions of their Theatre Of Women festival, a 10-minute play festival where all the parts are written for women. It's a fun festival to write for. Usually they've done it in the 24-hour format. Speaking of parts for women, when I approached Dream Theatre about helping me produce my first play, Jeremy suggested that I change one of the parts – the boss character - from male to female. So I did, and it worked out rather well. Sometimes people are surprised that I like working with them, because the company aesthetic seems a bit darker than my personal take on life, but Jeremy always says that there's some darkness in my own plays, lurking under the lightheartedness, and I imagine that he is correct.
How do you write your plays?
I do most of my actual writing on my computer, using Final Draft as software, mostly on weekends. During the week, I tend to do extensive note-making, jotting down ideas, in an odd fashion at the main branch of the Chicago Public Library, on my lunch hour. I will sort of half read a book, usually a book about drama, while writing intermittent notes to myself on folded pieces of copier paper. Eventually I toss these notes into a folder, rarely to be looked at again. But a lot of my ideas come to me there in the library. When I'm writing at home, I often listen to music, often the same song over and over, for months and months. I listen to it so much that the words of the song sort of fade and don't interfere with the words I am crafting. In the case of O'Brien & O'Brian, the main such song was Katy Perry's “The One That Got Away,” and there's a kind of thematic connection to the play, because most of the characters spend the play trying to reconnect with someone who got away. I don't pick the song, it picks me, but it's typically a catchy pop tune that grown-ups feel embarrassed to be caught listening to. I do a very sketchy kind of outlining, jotting some notes, mostly getting a rough feel in my head, mostly so that I know where the play is going – what the ending will be, at least in a general way. I leave a lot of the details to the writing process. It makes the writing more fun, more of an adventure. I feel that the characters emerge from the mist as I write. I usually have a sense about a character and their core motivation, but the particular personality comes out as I type the dialogue. Sometimes I am surprised by what these people say. I suppose inspiration is all around me. There's technical inspiration, in the form of other people's plays that I admire, where I say to myself “that was a clever set-up,” or “that was a deeply moving bit of self-revelation.” But there's also the emotional inspiration, which for me is often the everyday courage of people standing up for their own values, struggling to achieve their personal goals or to cope with their personal dilemmas. I am perennially fascinated by the human quest for love, and the varied forms that it takes.
Diversity and parity are important topics in the world of theater these days. How important is diversity to you in the creation and production of your own work? How important is it in the theater you see and enjoy and are inspired by?
I've had the good fortune of getting to know a lot of people, from all walks of life, from many countries and cultures. Their varying perspectives and experiences have always fascinated me. Terence, the ancient Roman playwright, said: “I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.” I strongly identify with that statement. I love to talk with people who come from a radically different background than my own. I learn a lot just by expressing an interest and listening. I have a tendency to write an “outsider” part into my play – a character from a different culture who offers an outsider's perspective on the action – not necessarily a correct perspective, but a different one. Much of the drama within life arises from conflicting perspectives, whether the conflict is purely personal or embedded in cultural variation. In O'Brien & O'Brian, some of that is provided by bringing in a traditional Irish point of view. We live in a society where there is so much intercultural churning going on, where people are so baffled by one another's behaviors, and I enjoy stories that deal with intercultural confrontation. It's not that I object in principle to “monocultural” plays. Those can be interesting, too. Even within one culture there is amazing diversity of viewpoint about the most ordinary things. Male and female perspectives are often sharply divided. Human life is never short on friction, and most people actually enjoy generating a certain amount of it.
How did O'Brien & O'Brian come to be written? What inspired you to write the piece?
I had been mulling over a story about a divorced couple who nonetheless kept “dating” each other, but it wouldn't take shape as a drama. I had also been trying to start a completely separate play involving lawyers in a romantic triangle, involving a case about a password protected laptop, but I felt like it was hitting a dead-end at page seven. Then, one February morning, I read a Chicago Tribune story about a fellow who was engaged in a lawsuit over a suburban strip of land involving a retention pond. And it struck me as a funny story, and it occurred to me that a vast number of lawsuits revolve around minor land disputes, and that they drive people crazy. I thought that such a lawsuit would provide a good conflict for structuring a comedy, and best of all, it immediately pulled my two story ideas together – a divorced couple as clients of these lawyers in a romantic triangle. I feverishly wrote 2 pages of notes that morning, which in retrospect contain the basic structure of the play.
What was the writing/development process like? How long did it take to write, and how many drafts have there been?
O'Brien & O'Brian felt like an easy play to write. I often had the feeling that it was writing itself. But it did take nine months to finish the first draft, with a lot of revisions along the way. I showed it to my wife when the first act was done, and again when the second act was done. She thought it was funny, and she's actually a tough audience, so I felt pretty confident. I polished it for another month, and decided it was more or less ready to go. I actually skipped my usual step of doing a preliminary reading with actors and a test audience. I went straight to my friends at Dream Theatre and asked if they'd like to help me put on the play. In the process of rehearsal, working with my director, Anna Weiler Menekseoglu, we did make some more revisions, but they were fairly minor. At one point, at Anna's instigation, we were all debating a particular word in the script, a word I had hesitated over because it was potentially offensive. Anna had a different word in mind. So right in the middle of rehearsal, Anna picked up her cell phone and called an outspoken lesbian friend for her opinion. She thought Anna's word would be fine, so we went with it.
What changed/what did you learn between the initial Chicago production and the NYC production?
After our Chicago run was done I made one more revision to straighten out a small plot kink that the audience never seemed to notice, but that we had noticed after running the play over and over. The NYC script was almost identical to what we ran in Chicago. That's not to say the productions were the same – far from it! Moving the play to New York, I learned lots of little things. Different lines were funny. One character has a line that is just two words long: “Oy vey.” In Chicago, that never got a laugh. In New York, it did. I guess it just means more to New Yorkers! The scariest part about bringing the play to New York was not being a part of the rehearsal process. The first and only rehearsal I saw was the technical rehearsal, and by then of course a production is mostly locked down. So it was an exercise in trusting Robert Belchere, a guy I had only met once, to produce and direct the play. And maybe the biggest thing I learned was that the script could sort of stand on its own, without me there to help with interpreting lines or motivations.
What’s your favorite moment in O’Brien & O’Brian?
I'm very fond of a quiet moment in the first scene between Darlene and Brenda, before the story gets complicated, where you get a sense of what the earlier relationship was like, and where you learn that despite her displays of competent professionalism, Darlene is still vulnerable and struggling to find her way.