Tuesday, November 22, 2011

I Interview Playwrights Part 406: Sean Abley

Sean Abley

Hometown: Helena, MT.

Current Town: Los Angeles (with mad love for Chicago)

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  Well, I really need to get back to the next draft of ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGH, a book musical about the Afterlife, but rewrites are so daunting. So procrastination is pushing me toward finishing DRACULA IN WONDERLAND, which I'm writing on spec.

Q:  Tell me about Plays to Order. How did that come about? How does it work?

A:  I've always been interested in quality theater for high school kids, but until recently hadn't really written anything for that particular demographic. Then a couple summers ago I accidentally wrote a script that high school drama groups latched onto - DRACULA'S DAUGHTERS: A FAMILY COMEDY. That was written for a summer stock company, but after it was published high schools started producing it over and over again. I started poking around on the internet (and renewed my International Thespian Society membership) and found that the most common cry from drama teachers was for appropriate material, especially addressing cast size, male-to-female role ratios, and content. I'm a fast writer, so it struck me - Why not approach high schools to write something for them specifically? They get a World Premiere, and I get a first production of my script. Because I'd be writing on spec anyway, I keep the prices low - I figure the first production to work out the kinks is of value. So far drama teachers think the idea is great.

Q:  How has your TV writing influenced your playwriting and vice-versa?

A:  TV (and film) writing sent me back to playwriting! After a decade chasing opportunities, being incredibly underpaid for some of the gigs I was getting, and writing spec after spec that would never see the light of day, I was exhausted. An opportunity presented itself at exactly the right time and suddenly I was a playwright again. As I sat through rehearsals, I had this thought - "Oh, right, THIS is what it's like to actually see your work produced..." I'd certainly do more TV and film, but I'm really, really happy as a playwright.

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

A:  I wanted to be an actor from as far back as I can remember. I was (am) a huge horror movie fan as well, so at some point I started peppering my parents with the question, "If I were in an R-rated horror movie, would you let me go see it?" I asked them this question so many times my father finally put his foot down. "Until you go out and start acting, I don't want to hear about this any more." So I found out where my local community theater was, auditioned, and acted for another couple decades, through college and eventually starting my own theater in Chicago. I guess this is a long "Put up or shut up" story, but that's my basic philosophy. (I actually still do act occasionally, but writing is my focus.)

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  I was at a Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers (SSDC) recruitment meeting ages ago - I've had the fortune to direct quite a large percentage of my original scripts, which made me the one "double threat" in the room. The conversation turned to the piece of the royalties pie directors get when they stage an original work, and the tone took an adversarial turn at some point - directors vs. playwrights. I asked, "Don't you see this as a collaborative process with the playwright?" And every single person in that room, including Julianne Boyd (the President at the time) dismissively said, "No!" Theater is infinitely better than TV/film in this aspect, but I'd change the perception that writers are expendable, or irrelevant once the show goes into rehearsal.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Sam Shepard - like all actors, I ended up with both SEVEN PLAYS and FOOL FOR LOVE AND OTHER PLAYS, two great collections. His work completely changed my idea of what a play could be. Charles Ludlum - THE COMPLETE PLAYS OF... is required reading. (I just realized he died at 44, one year younger than I am now.) Charles Busch - Love the "film on stage"genre, at which he excels. I wrote him a letter when I put up my production of REEFER MADNESS back in 1991 (beating the musical version by a good decade, thank you very much.) He was sweet enough to reply and give me some good advice. All three of these playwrights not only inspired me as a writer, but showed me you could find ways to stage your own work and be successful. I'm a big fan of DIY theater. And lastly, Josephine Forsberg, who created The Players Workshop of the Second City in Chicago. I learned to improvise there, which is basically writing without the paper. I wouldn't be the writer I am today without Jo.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Off Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, 99-Seat Equity Waiver - basically any play done in a small house, preferably where the first row of seats is on the same level as the stage.

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

A:  My first advice would be all that same advice you read over and over - writing is writing, make a deal with yourself to sit in front of the computer for X minutes each day, cut what you love, etc. But I think my real advice is more of an admonishment - If you've written a play, and it hasn't been on stage somewhere, you're either lazy or stupid. There are countless ways you can get your play up on its feet that don't involve waiting for a theater company to produce it, even if it's just a reading in a living room for friends, renting a theater for one night on an off night, etc. If you want your work produced, and no one is taking the bait, produce it yourself.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Although I'm no longer an active ensemble member, the theater company I co-founded, The Factory Theater (http://www.thefactorytheater.com) in Chicago, is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Plays To Order is humming along (www.playstoorder.com). If you're gay and you like horror flicks, check out my "Gay of the Dead" blog on Fangoria.com - (http://fangoria.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=48&Itemid=162) And of course, my website - www.seanabley.com


Anonymous said...

fascinating story about the SSDC. not shocked. would love to hear more about exactly what else was said.

and good for you directing your own work! that's how we'll keep theater a writer's medium.

Sean Abley said...

It was almost 20 years ago, so I can't remember all the specifics. But i do remember directors and artistic directors from all the big theaters in town were there - Steppenwolf, Goodman, etc.