Note: This is a repost from June, 2015. Michael has returned for summer break from his first year of graduate studies in playwriting. A reading of his play, World's End, is June 21, at the Burgdorff 7:30PM.
August 2012. The weather is uncharacteristically cool for mid-summer but I am sweating anyway. What’s got me dripping is not heat but nerves. I’m a 43 year-old man who is trying to remake himself as a playwright. After dreaming for years about writing a play, I’ve finally summoned the courage to go ahead and do it. And now here I am, sweating like crazy, holding copies of my play as I prepare to enter my first meeting with the playwriting group affiliated with The Theater Project. Wiping my brow, I go inside and affect the attitude that I know what I’m doing, even though I doubt that I’ll be able to fool anyone.
May 2015. I’m sweating again, but this time it’s because the heat. I’m in Tempe, Arizona, visiting the campus of Arizona State University. People tell me that the temperature today has broken 100 degrees for the first time this year. “This is nothing; just wait for summer,” they say. I’m here because I’ve been accepted as a student in ASU’s graduate playwriting program and I’m attending orientation. As I think back to that first experience in August 2012, I note that the sweat now bothers me far, far less. I go to meet the chair of my department feeling something like an actual playwright.
This August, I will move to Tempe and thus end my involvement with The Theater Project after three very fruitful years. My tenure with the group has been an incredible period of growth and I am very appreciative for what Mark and my fellow writers have taught me. As I get ready to say goodbye, I thought I’d reflect here on what I’ve learned during my apprenticeship. Fellow aspiring playwrights, make what use of this that you will:
1. I’ve learned to listen.My first meeting with the group was very painful because my peers did not particularly care for my play. Ouch! My first instinct was to reject the critique I’d been given. What the hell do those idiots know, anyway? However, the pain I felt was so sharp, so much sharper than I had previously anticipated, that I forced myself to ask an even more painful question – was it possible that their critique was so painful precisely because it was right? I soon realized that that was indeed the case.
Accepting that I had been wrong was the first step I took toward growing as a writer. If I’ve progressed at all since then, it’s because I’ve learned to listen closely to every critique my work has been given and then adopt that criticism whenever merited. My general process is to listen sincerely to everything that people tell me about my plays, no matter how painful it may be to hear. Then I will purposely not think about it for about a week or so. If that particular piece criticism stays with me after a week’s time, I figure that that must mean something. I will then rewrite accordingly. There’s been nothing in my life as humbling as trying to write a play, but I know that writing from a position of humility has made me better at my craft.
2. I’ve learned to trust what actors give me.The first time I heard actors perform something I had written, I found it hard to not cringe in revulsion. “My God,” I thought, “why can’t those morons say the lines the way I hear them in my head?” Since then, I’ve learned how foolish and insulting my initial reaction was. Actors are not the playwright’s puppets; they are fellow collaborators who play an equal role in crafting a piece of theater. Good actors will deliver what they find on the page; if what they deliver doesn’t work, then the problem often lies with the script. I’ve learned to listen attentively to what actors give me. If an actor’s delivery seems off, I immediately ask if the problem lies in what I’ve written. More often than not, that is indeed the case.
3. I’ve learned to become meta-cognitive about my ability to fix problems.With each play I’ve written, I’ve had at least one experience where I’ve encountered a problem that seemed insurmountable. How can I have a character do what the plot needs him to do even though doing that seems contrary to his nature? How can make what a character says in Act Two seem believable when she had said the exact opposite thing in Act One? Each time I feel stuck, I’ve managed to find a solution that resolved the issue to (at least) some degree of success. Becoming aware of my ability to solve problems has been important to my growth because it’s made me more willing to acknowledge and then diagnose problems when they arise.
All too often, writers will insist on seeing what they intended to write rather than what they actually have written. I’ve been that writer in the past – the guy who comes up with elaborate rationalizations to explain why something that palpably is not working is actually one of the most brilliant things ever written by a human being. I have learned (or, rather, I am learning) not to be that guy. I am now much more ready to recognize problems in my plays because I’m always ready to tell myself, “Well, I’ve been here before – if I’ve fixed it then, I can fix it now.”
It’s been a thrilling three years with The Theater Project and I would like to thank all the writers and actors I’ve worked with during that time - I’ve learned a great deal from all of you. I’d also like to thank Mark Anthony Spina for his generous gift of time and spirit. Mark, you have been a great influence on me and I could not have made it to Arizona without you. Thank you so much!
Michael McGoldrick is the author of 7 full-length plays. His comedy By the Shores of Alluvtoomey is currently one of six finalists in Playhouse on the Square's NewWorks@TheWorks playwriting competition; winners are still pending. His short play The Chinese Life Force is currently a semifinalist in Little Fish Theatre's 2015 Pick of the Vine competition; winners are still pending. Aside from his work with The Theater Project, his plays have received staged readings from Sundog Theatre, Monarch Theater and StrangeDog Theater