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Pillow Talking’s Interview with TERRENCE MCNALLY

Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are both proud and honored to present the following Interview with playwright Terrence McNally

TerrenceMcNally

 

He has been called one of the most important playwrights of our time. With a career spanning five decades, his list of awards is longer than most people’s biographies. He has won Tony Awards, Drama Desk Awards, Obie Awards, Lucille Lortel Awards, Hull-Warriner Awards, and an Emmy Award. He received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rockefeller Grant, and a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has penned plays, films, operas, and television programs. He was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1996.

This incredible artist speaks to all people through his work. He believes in humanity, community, and connectedness. We are thrilled that Terrence took time out of his unbelievably hectic schedule to chat with us about playwriting, the arts, Anastasia and life.

 

TM4PT: (Wayne) Before we begin, I must tell you that I pursued the arts, and particularly theatre, because of you. My high school brought in a ringer in my junior year to teach English and theatre and the first play I did in high school was Bringing It All Back Home in 1973. And I’ve been hooked ever since.

TM: Wow, that’s amazing. Well, good! I’m glad you’re in the theatre. Good for you.

PT: We know you’ve been interviewed many times, so we will try and mix it up. But let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and why you wanted to be a playwright?

TM: I think it was just seeing some good theatre when I was very young. A couple of times as a child my parents took me to New York City and I saw really good Broadway theatre.

PT: Do you remember your first show?

TM: The first show I remember seeing was Annie Get Your Gun with Ethel Merman. And then five or so years later I saw the original The King and I with Gertrude Lawrence. So that was my idea of theatre. Not children’s theatre. It was the shows they [my parents] wanted to see – but also shows that would have been of interest to children. I don’t think a child would enjoy Hamlet more than The King and I. And then they took me to see Pal Joey which I totally didn’t understand what it was remotely about.

PT: (Laughs) That’s great.

TM: But I did see good theatre. And I liked it right away. So I think if we want to get young people interested in any of the arts it’s encouraging exposure to it.

PT: Yes, absolutely.

TM: I think waiting until high school is too late. So I am all for music programs, art programs, theatre programs that introduce young people to the wonders of art. I know there’s an enormous cut back in funding of the arts in all schools.

PT: Yes, there certainly is.

TM: When I went to school, you know, you had to be in the little student orchestra playing an instrument whether you wanted to or not. I was never musical. I loved music. But I was terrible at it. But playing in a little orchestra you learn about cooperation, how to count time, you learn about all sorts of things – you learn life skills. And all these programs I understand have been cut back or cut entirely – or may not ever have existed, unfortunately, in some schools. But for me, that was a generous part of my public school education. I also include the visual arts [in the “arts”] too, painting and drawing and building things. But also doing plays and going to the theatre. It’s all such a good thing.

PT: So how old were you when you first were introduced to the arts?

TM: I liked the arts at a very early age – I think I was about six when I saw Annie Get Your Gun. Six or seven – but very young.

PT: Was your family in the business of heavily into the arts?

TM: No. I think they were products of the public school system, too, and also had a healthy respect for the arts and enjoyed going to the theatre once or twice a year which is what all “normal” people do. But unfortunately too many normal people aren’t going to the theatre at all anymore. When I think back, I think they considered it just being a part of a well-rounded, middle class family – that you went to the arts and you supported them. (Laughs) Not the way I go to the theatre now, five times a week. But they weren’t a theater family. I really believe that the arts have become more and more marginalized in our society.

PT: Why do you think that is?

TM: I think it just comes down to people aren’t being exposed to it. If 100 people see a good play, maybe only ten of them really get it and see that there’s this great world of the arts, but that’s a lot. That’s quite a return on your investment to get that high a return rate. It’s the scaling back of that “10” that really bothers me. I am sure that many public schools now have NO arts education at all and I think as a society we’re going to regret that.

PT: (Stephanie) Well we have seven children between us and we know how much the arts programs have suffered.

TM: Wow.

PT: (Stephanie) Yes. I have four and Wayne has three. Since the time my oldest, who is nineteen now, was in elementary and middle school there have been some changes as compared to today with my 11-year-old. They do seem to carry music education through. They offer instruments and everybody has to sing or be in the band, but as far as visual arts, that’s tremendously cut – that becomes an elective after elementary school (and it really is slim in middle school).

TM: Of course it’s the local public school systems. My parents went to school in the east, I grew up in Texas. But the public school situation – we are all part of the public schools, none of us went to private schools — and that’s what changed. I’m sure every state has different budgets and considerations, but it’s probably fair to say that in general in this country at the public school level there’s been an enormous lessening of support for the arts. The arts are the first to get cut when the budgets are made. That’s as opposed to the sports teams – there’s always enough money for new helmets and lacrosse sticks – but not so much for instruments and things like that.

PT: Well, that leads into our next question. How have you seen theatre and the theatre industry evolve over the years since you did Bringing It All Back Home in the seventies and Frankie and Johnny… in the eighties to today?

TM: Well, I think that theatre reflects our changing society. I think that theatre is still healthy in this country. There’s a lot of it, although most people only know what’s going on Broadway, but I think that has always been true. Even here in Hartford [Connecticut] there are two professional theatre companies and in New York City we have an enormous amount of plays Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and even in Brooklyn, which is suddenly becoming a hotbed of new theatre companies. So it’s out there.

PT: What about Broadway? Has it changed?

TM: New American plays are not as frequent a visitor to the Broadway stages as they were when I first came to New York.

PT: When was that?

TM: I guess I came to New York in the late fifties. There were many more American plays on Broadway – probably thirty or so a year –easily. And now I would say we have an average of five or six [new] plays a year and usually half of them are British. So that’s a big difference.

PT: Yes it is!

TM: But new plays are being done at the not-for-profit theatres – so that satisfies the need for expression. When I first came to New York, theatre was Broadway. The fact that Broadway became less hospitable to new plays, people started doing them for less money at the smaller theatres Off-Broadway to keep that audience alive. In sum, there’s been a scaling back of teaching the arts in the public schools and there’s been a scaling back of a number of new American plays on Broadway.

show-anastasiaPT: As playwrights ourselves, we know how hard it is to get work out there. You mentioned Hartford. We did an interview recently with Darko Tresnjak [the Artistic Director of the Hartford Stage] and he was talking about the new play Anastasia. We know you wrote the book. Can you tell us about it?

TM: Well, it’s a Broadway-scale musical. It’s a big show. Another way that the theatre has changed – when I first started, a Broadway show would try out at Boston, New Haven, Philadelphia, cities like that. The road became prohibitively expensive for touring and they got rid of that. Then people tried opening shows on Broadway cold and most of those musicals failed. Musicals need a lot of fine tuning and development in front of a paying audience. Someone got the idea, that let’s see if we can collaborate with regional theatres on doing these new musicals. This is the second new American big musical that Hartford Stage has launched. Two years ago they did A Gentlemen’s Guide {to Love and Murder] and it went on to win a Tony.

PT: Yes. We know that Darko won a Tony Award for directing.

TM: Yes, so this is a new way of developing a musical which was not even on everybody’s mind. These regional theatres, when I first started in theatre, tended to do classics or last year’s Broadway hits – you know, the newest Neil Simon play from the season before would be in the repertory and the newest Tennessee Williams’ play. Next season the Hartford Stage is doing two world premiere American plays and only one Shakespeare and one George Bernard Shaw play and the others were all world premiere plays. That would not have been true when I started in this business. So playwrights, actors, and producers have turned to regional theatre to take up some of the slack that Broadway has created by its fear of doing new plays.

PT: And that fear is because of costs?

TM: Part of it is because it has become so expensive. The costs have risen astronomically. And plays are – well, I can’t think of a play that was ready from the time it left the author’s typewriter or computer printer that didn’t need some tweaking. Manuscripts are not like the Ten Commandments that Moses brings down (laughs). Plays need work. And they need work with living actors and people like Darko and the theatres’ collaboration. A playwright needs his collaborators after he’s finished. His job is to write his first draft and then continue to work on it – if it needs work – and most musicals, as I say do need fine tuning. So we’re very grateful and happy to be in Hartford doing this play.

PT: (Wayne) Do you have any funny stories you can share about the play? (Wayne sitting there thinking, You just asked one of the greatest and most important American playwrights the most idiotic question)

TMAnasTM: Funny stories? (laughs) The day before the opening? I can’t think of a funny story right now but we have been working very, very hard. Even though it’s a very romantic fairy tale with some suspense in it and some real drama, but it’s finally a romantic fairy tale. The audience leaves the theatre I think feeling really happy. They’ve been told a good story that involves them – psychologically and emotionally – and held their interest. The previews have been going really well. So we’re excited about sharing it with the world. We’re not in the midst of writing ten new songs and completely re-writing the book. We feel pretty close to getting the show to where we want it. But that took a lot of work and collaboration. I think hard work – the older I get the more aware I become of how difficult it is. And I’ve been doing this for quite a few years. So – fun stories are hard to come by, but hard work makes me happy and good work makes me happy. It’s joyful, I just can’t think of a funny story.

PT: (Stephanie) A little bird told us that you were dancing down the streets of Hartford one night. (Wayne thinking, Thank you! My wife came to my rescue!)

TM: I was happy that it is doing well. Yes, I was happy. But I’ll let the little bird tell you the funny story. (laughs)

PT: (Laughs) Fair enough! We’ll rely on the little bird!

PT: So, how do you think the advent of social media has affected the industry?

TM: That’s a good question. I’m not the best person maybe to ask. Common wisdom is that social media can help you a lot – that people are Twittering, tweeting, Instagramming and all of that. If they loved your show that can create enormous anticipation and actual ticket sales. Consquently, a lot of people tweeting negatively can reduce that anticipation and discourage people from buying tickets. It certainly has impacted on waiting to see what the newspaper – the critics – have said. I guess we feel the quote power of the press has been somewhat lessened by this. I think everybody feels empowered now to speak up and say, I liked it or I didn’t like it. I still think a good review from an intelligent critic whose opinion I respect – that is still very much part of the world I operate in. I don’t tweet myself but I’m happy when someone shows me a very positive tweet about a play I’ve written. But it means also that people are talking about the theatre and taking pleasure in it, which is really the main thing we intend to do – is to keep you entertained for the two and half hours that you’re sitting in the dark listening to our story. So it’s a very good indicator of how the public out there is reacting.

PT: That’s a great analysis.

TM: I think the impact – The New York Times has their listings – if you thought those were what was running in the New York theatre, you’d think there were only about twenty plays run. A lot of people don’t advertise anymore. They think the way to attract an audience is with an email blast. Most producers are advertising their show in blasts. When I go to get my mail there will be eight ads there for different shows. The New York Times has lost an enormous amount of revenue. The size of The New York Times – there’s an old joke about how I broke my arm carrying the Sunday Times – now the Sunday Times is the same weight that a daily issue used to be. And sometimes a daily issue feels like one section of the old Sunday Times. I can’t believe how thin The Times has gotten. But it’s not just theatre that’s stopped advertising, it’s Macy’s, Chevrolet, and Cutty Sark Scotch – they are all reaching the public in a different way than just print or TV advertising. So, the theatre scene always reflects what’s going on in our society. Same with the political campaign. I’m getting an enormous amount of email blasts from Hillary and Bernie and Donald Trump. They all have access to your email address.

PT: (Laughs) Right. That’s so true.

TM: So the world has changed enormously in that way – in how we reach people. I think the full extent of how it’s changed really hasn’t been understood fully yet because I think we’re still very much in the middle of this upheaval and how we find and reach an audience.

PT: What advice would you give to aspiring playwrights and people trying to break into the business? Someone trying to get their work out there.

TM: I would say just to get it out there. If there is a theatre company or just a theatre in your town, take your script to them, get them to read it, and then ask them, Can I borrow some actors? just to hear it read to you. It’s very important to get your work off the printed page and start hearing it. That’s what I do with my plays. I just have some actors come over and read them to me in my living room. And you get a sense of, Gee that works, that doesn’t work. A play is either alive or dead from a reading. But the main thing is to get your words into the mouths and bodies of the actors and that can be done anywhere. Your family can read the play. They don’t have to be great actors, but you will still hear what’s going and the exchange of thoughts and ideas between the characters. And I think that’s really important. I’m a great believer in that theatre is a group activity. You do one thing by yourself – write the first draft. But after that you are in a room with a lot of other people and it’s a collaboration. You as the author have to protect your script and know what you want to say and work hard to make sure that what you want to say is clear and being heard. But if you think it’s just literature alone in your room, then you’re not really a playwright, you’re a writer. And a playwright is someone who plays well with other people. I’m not being sarcastic—

PT: No, we totally understand that. That’s great!

TM: But you have to enjoy hearing people read your lines and misread them and say, No that’s not what I meant and you have them tell you why they said it that way. Get involved. It’s not for people who just want to have a clean piece of manuscript. It’s a page that gets marked up with notes and annotations very quickly. So I call theatre a body contact sport. If your idea of literature is an ivory tower and you’re alone with your precious words – and, again, I don’t mean that sarcastically – but a novelist or a writer is very different from a playwright. The novelist deals with his editor and that’s it. I deal with a director, stage manager, actors, set designers, choreographers, and then the audience. A novelist doesn’t have an audience. Stephen King isn’t with us when we read his new book.

PT: (Laughs) That’s a good point!

TM: He [Stephen King] doesn’t know whether you like it or not. A playwright sits back in the theatre and knows damn well if it’s going well or not. You don’t need a critic to tell you. But a lot of people enjoy that – writing is very personal and they don’t want other people to touch it. I understand that. For them, the novel, the poem, the essay, or the non-fiction book is probably their best means of expression than the theatre. In theatre you have to be willing to listen to a lot of other opinions while you work.

PT: Speaking of different types of work, we know you’ve done films, operas, and TV. How do you approach the different mediums and what is your process if you have one? Everyone always wants to know an artist’s method or process.

TMNLTM: I don’t really have a process, no. But I think anybody who has a really successful process is going to keep it to themselves. I don’t know what Nathan Lane’s process is. He’s a good actor. How he got to be a good actor is his secret and his business and he’s not going to tell anybody else. My process is my own but I don’t particularly think that I have one. My process is to keep working and have something to say.

PT: And how is it working in different mediums?

TM: Well, you write a film and you know that a scene probably should have about ten lines of dialogue. You write a play, you write one act, maybe it takes place in one place. They are all different. The form of a screenplay is different than the form of a musical which is different than the form of a play and there are many different forms of plays. You have to know what you want to say and tell the story truthfully and then the style. So there’s no lesson to be learned. There’s no one way to write a play, write a musical or write a screenplay. Everything is different, but what you have to bring to it is intelligence, integrity, and talent. Some people who want work in the theatre may not really have the right talent for theatre and should be writing novels. But there’s no secret that I can share anybody other than work, write honestly, and get your work off the printed page into the mouths of actors. And that can be done, as I say, anywhere. You don’t have to wait for your Broadway debut. It’s really important to get your work out of your study and into the practical arena of theatre. That’s my main advice. Stop being in an ivory tower, get your script to actors.

PT: (Stephanie) My background is in psychology and one of the things we talk about is creativity. There are some theories that creativity has its limits. That an individual maybe starts young and then peters out in middle age and other people start later and go longer. But everybody’s bounty varies – it is different, some people are more prolific than others. Obviously you’re very prolific. How do you see yourself in terms of being a creative person?

TM: Well, I think I’ve always felt that this is a very interesting time and world that I was born into to try and write about and understand – my little corner of it, maybe. So I don’t understand when writers say I‘m stuck or I don’t have anything to write about. Whether my creativity is waning or not it’s something I don’t want to think about (laughs). Obviously, as we get older things probably do come a little harder, maybe they’re not as fresh, or people get a little used to the sound of our voice. But I also think you can keep challenging yourself. The main thing I’ve tried to do is not repeat myself. That’s why I’ve written many different kinds of plays and I don’t think anyone can say I’ve written the same play twice – ever. And I think the musicals I’ve done are pretty different, too. That’s how I keep it interesting for myself and I challenge myself at the same time.

PT: What’s on your future agenda? What are you doing after Anastasia?

TM: I have a play I’m working on called Fire and Ice – that’s really the main thing. I have a couple of plays in my head still. But the one I have a draft of that and we will probably do it in the next year or so is called Fire and Ice. I just want to finish the work on Anastasia, take a little time off, maybe, and then see what comes up when I turn on the computer

PT: Excellent!

TM: I’m not going to live long enough to write all the plays I want to write. That I know. That saddens me a little bit but I’ve got at least three more I want to write.

PT: And we know you will. One last question that we really like to ask all of our interviewees. If you were to sum up your life in one word to date, what would it be?

TM: Sum up my life in one word?

PT: That’s right. We know it’s difficult sometimes, on the spot.

TM: Can I have two words? (laughs)

PT: (Laughs) For you, Terrence, we’ll make an exception!

TM: Interesting is not enough. VERY INTERESTING in bold letters and italics!

PT: (Laughs) You got it! Terrence, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with us. It was a VERY INTERESTING, engaging, and incisive conversation and we can’t wait to see Anastasia and whatever is next for you!

 

20160526120502-60f9f4a7-meSee Anastasia at the Hartford Stage

For information and tickets

 

 

 

 

 

Mr.Terrence Mc Nally

Mr.Terrence Mc Nally

See An Evening with Terrance McNally at The Bijou Theatre

To get up close and personal with Terrence, mark your calendars for June 13 at 7 p.m. at The Bijou Theatre in Bridgeport, CT! Terrence will be there for conversation and a book signing and also in the audience for the reading of the two finalists’ work in their inaugural short play festival. 

For information and tickets

 

 

 

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Stephanie & Wayne

About Stephanie & Wayne

Stephanie is a journalist, writer, editor, and has had several hundred articles published in various newspapers and magazines, many of which still are available online under “Stephanie Lyons Schultz”. She has a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology and was a practicing psychotherapist. She currently is a professor of psychology at WCSU and NVCC in Connecticut. Wayne is an Emmy-Award winning writer, producer, and director. He has produced many programs and documentaries that have appeared on television, and have been distributed to schools, libraries, and home video. Wayne also is a practicing attorney with a Masters degree in Law from NYU. In addition, he is a professor of communications at WCSU. Together, this recently wed couple write, produce, and direct as many of their stage, screen, and TV projects as they can with a full house -- their combined brood of seven! Some of their work has been featured this summer and fall off off Broadway; other work currently is under option. They hope to continue to promote more of their projects in the coming months! Feel free to write whatever comments you like! We want your feedback!