Aug 7, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 374: Wendy MacLeod
Hometown: Arlington, Virginia
Current Town: South Conway, New Hampshire
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a play that asks the question: What if the second coming of Christ happened in contemporary suburbia?
I’m also working on a screenplay for a thriller, and I have some ideas for future essays…I’ve started to write about books.
Q: What could a student in your playwriting class expect?
A: Students can expect to read great stuff. I don’t teach a play unless I love it, or feel very strongly that it has something to teach them. They can expect a heavy emphasis on solving the structure of a given play. They will be pushed to write something interesting in a voice that is distinctly their own. Comedy will never be dismissed as lacking in ambition because it’s a comedy.
They will receive an intelligent, thoughtful critique from their classmates. I think the tone of a writing workshop comes from the teacher so I don’t allow the students to merely like it or not like it—they must articulate what they’re responding to. And if they’re going to be allusive I insist on their using a theatrical frame of reference. How are they going to learn how to write plays if all they’re seeing and talking about is Will Ferrell movies?
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: When I was in first grade, a classmate was cast as Wendy in Peter Pan. This struck me as a grave injustice given that Wendy was my name. So I offered her a ring in exchange for the role. I can still see it; it was a silver ring, from India, with little bells on it. She made the trade. I hope this speaks to my determination and not my lack of a moral center.
A few years earlier, I worked steadily on a flattened refrigerator box in the garage, drawing on the steering controls for what, in my head, was going to serve as a magic carpet. That combination of the imaginative and the practical was good preparation for being a playwright.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I wish that people could afford to take their families so that children could discover the theater, real theater. My sons saw the entire Shakespeare history cycle, all eight plays, at the RSC, complete with bloody decapitated heads and battles with bows and arrows and Frenchmen descending to the stage on trapeze horses. They know that Shakespeare isn’t boring.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: I can tell you which canonical writers I admire—Chekhov, Pinter, and Caryl Churchill.
But the heroes these days are the writers, directors and actors who continue to work in the theater when it sometimes seems irrelevant to the culture.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I often see things that feel made-up and I leave the theater feeling unmoved because I didn’t believe a word of it. If I believe the play has articulated some truth about the human condition, however big or small, that excites me, whether the vehicle is straight-up realism or a more formally inventive play. I want to hear an original voice and enter a world that I might not otherwise have access to.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: If they’re just learning to write plays, I would have them eschew most how-to playwriting books and go straight to Aristotle’s POETICS. (although Julie Jensen, Jeffrey Sweet, and Jeffrey Hatcher do have helpful guides). I would tell them that acting is great training for playwriting. I would tell them that plays are not just a series of conversations. Something has to happen.
I would tell them to read plays and go see plays, even the plays they think they know. I remember rolling my eyes at the thought of going to see that old chestnut OUR TOWN, and then spending the entire third act in a puddle of tears. I dismissed Alan Aykbourn until I went to see THE NORMAN CONQUESTS at Manhattan Theater Club and then I wanted to watch the plays again and again. I always tell my students not to say they don’t like a play until they’ve seen at least two productions of it.
Young playwrights should also know that they are not just playwrights, they are writers, and should be reading all kinds of great literature.
As for career tips, I would tell young playwrights not to send their plays out too soon, because most theaters will only consider a play once, even if you go on to write a brilliant new draft. I would tell them to proofread their work. And I would have to tell them that they will be taken more seriously as a playwright if they have film and television credits too. People always want to hop on the train.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: My new play FIND AND SIGN opens January 13 at the Pioneer Theater in Salt Lake City.