Dec 4, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 291: James McManus
Hometown: Donora, PA
Current Town: Long Island City, NY
Q: Tell me about Cherry Smoke.
A: I wrote Cherry Smoke as my grad thesis. I literally wrote over 100 scenes for the play and then put it together like a jig saw puzzle in order to make a play. I based the story on the boys and girls I knew growing up. Our area was ravaged by poverty and many were not able to take advantage of even a primary education because of worsening family situations. But even in the ignorance, there was a beauty in both the language and the dreams. Many of them didn't make it off of those riversides whole, but I guess that I'm bold enough to think that all of those lost souls got together and want me to write their story. Cherry Smoke is enjoying its 6th production and I am keenly aware that the boys and girls I write about never got a chance to see places like Sydney or Scotland or even New York City where it has been produced...and I get an unending kick out of thinking about how these kids who could see every place that they had traveled by climbing a tree are now jet setters. I allow myself that little thunderclap of hope in the brutal world of Cherry Smoke.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I'm working on a play about meth addicts titled Blood Potato. A screenplay that I can't contractually talk about. And I've recently started work on a musical set in the early 1900's in the world of the County Fairs of Western PA. It's my first time trying to write a musical and it's just tickling me to death.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: One day, I was eating a McRib sandwich, fries and an orange pop at the Donora McDonald's, the next day it was closed. The local paper said McDonald's left town because the townsfolk could no longer afford to eat there due to the mill closing down. I wish I was making this up.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I would love it to not be so cost prohibitive.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: As a kid near Pittsburgh, I knew nothing of theater until someone introduced me to free tickets to Two Trains Running by August Wilson. I've always had a soft spot for Wilson since then. I love so many of my contemporaries, but would leave someone out if I named just a few. I will say that seeing a production of MUD by Maria Irene Fornes 5 or so years back changed the way I look at theater and reading SCARCITY by Lucy Thurber was like taking brave pills.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Brave theater. I think the role of the artist is to not take one fucking step back from what the truth is no matter how it looks or how it makes you feel. I like theater that makes me uncomfortable. I like theater that turns a mirror on folks who I have never seen before.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Write all the time. Write about big things. A hundred years from now no one will give a damn about conversations you overheard about the 7 train in New York City.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: My play, Cherry Smoke, runs at The Side Project thru December 19th. thesideproject.net has all the pertinent info for tickets.