Saturday, March 27, 2010

I Interview Playwrights Part 135: Paul Mullin

Paul Mullin

Hometown: Baltimore

Current Town: Seattle

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I’m sort of half working on a play about consciousness. As soon as I say that I can hear someone saying, “But aren’t all plays about consciousness?” And the answer is, yes, they are; but this one would be literally about philosophical and scientific explorations of consciousness, which have sort of failed miserably over the last several decades. Or I should probably say, they failed brilliantly, since while they haven’t brought us any closer to explaining how consciousness works or even really what it is, they have succeeded in framing some mind-blowing questions. I want to find a way of dramatizing those questions and make an audience’s collective head spin the way mine has spun researching the subject.

Last year I finished a farce and it was the hardest thing I have ever written. So I’m not sure I really have the energy required to tackle a full-length play. That’s why I say I’m only half-writing it.

I am also currently involved in a community-wide effort to advance locally grown plays in Seattle and through that effort help bring the city to its rightful standing as a world class theatre town. I have begun a series of essays on the subject and am posting them at my blog called Just Wrought. (

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  Well as the youngest of a moderately large Irish Catholic family I got to watch my brother and sisters play parts in the church musicals that I was too young to join. I loved it. I also remember as a kid that I felt a particular thrill when I used my toy type writer to bang out short scripts that I dreamed we would perform in our basement. Later I loved seeing my sisters play roles in their junior high school productions. I still believe my sister Margaret’s performance of Gollum in THE HOBBIT is the best portrayal of that character ever. My sister Mary was one of the dwarves and I remember playing with the wooden sword that I believe my brother made for her in my step dad’s woodshop. My whole family loved shows and show business, but compared to my siblings I joined the game late, since it wasn’t until the 10th grade that I first got on stage as Puck in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Being on stage felt natural, powerful. I scored an acting scholarship to the University of Maryland, and within months of being there, I started working on my first full-length play, PHILOSOPHES, which my brother still maintains is my best. Maybe that’s because back then, I didn’t have a computer of my own, so whenever I had finished writing out a play longhand in some spiral bound notebook, I would catch a ride up to Baltimore county and spend an entire weekend at his apartment typing the play into his computer so I could then print out a proper script. He probably feels a strong ownership over the plays that were first typed on his computer.

Q:  On your blog you seem (as most every playwright I've ever met seems) unhappy with the role of the playwright in today's theater. If you could change one thing, what would it be?

A:  We need to rescue the role of playwright from that of supplicant. The very language around the process has grown poisonous. We are asked to “submit” our plays. We shouldn’t be submitting anything. We should be leading, not begging a relatively newly minted caste of artistic administrators whose job seems to be to watch what all the other artistic administrators are doing and hew as closely to that as possible. I would reverse the trend of placing artistic directors and directors at the top of the decision-making hierarchy and return playwrights to their rightful places as the premiere progenitors of plays.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I catch a huge thrill when I sense that the audience is galvanized by the ephemerality of the experience. When they experience not only the thrill of the performed story, but the understanding that what they are witnessing will never be witnessed in exactly the same way again. I love theatre that exploits this. Conversely, I am deeply bored by theatre that merely attempts to offer offer craft in place of heart, or stories better suited to a flat screen or the pages of a book. I love theatre where the audience gets that they are responsible finally for putting it together, where passivity is banished and replaced by engagement and community. So you could say my favorite kind of theatre is community theatre.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Work hard. Expect no success on terms other than your own. Ever.

Do not expect to make a living but do it any way. What if William Carlos Williams had whined about having to be a doctor for forty years? Well, actually, he did on occasion whine about it, but we got many amazing poems from him anyway, and the fact that he brought over two thousand babies into the world isn’t anything to shake a stick at either. (So fuck that traitor Ezra Pound.)

Understand the tradition you have joined. Never cede your place in the hierarchy. Directors did not come into existence until the 19th Century. Artistic directors not until the 20th. Only actors outrank you in seniority in the tradition. So treat them with respect. In fact, act on stage as often as you can, but at least once in a while, whether you are comfortable doing it or not.

Q:  Any plugs?:

A:  If you have a theatre that has any technical chops, consider doing my farce, Gossamer Grudges, because farce will kick your theatre artist ass as like a spin class in a sauna.

Keep an eye peeled for the next edition of Seattle’s Living Newspaper: The New New News. The last one we did about the death of the print version of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer got lots of national attention, both locally and nationally (here’s a link to story about It’s Not in the P-I on NPR’s On The Media:

And lastly, know that Seattle’s exploding. We will lead theatre where it needs to go. This is not empty rhetoric. I eat empty rhetoric for breakfast. Really. Ask around. Anyone who knows me will tell you I actually do. It’s not very nutritious, but it’s fun, like Fruit Loops.

1 comment:

Ian Thal said...

I just cited Mullin's note about actors outranking playwrights in seniority while talking to one of my actors during a post-staged reading conversation about my play.

I think that was one of the better bits of advice I've read in this interview series.