P = Playwrights
David Connolly (D) in conversation with Mark Crawford (M) for Matinee to Z,
a series of Instagram Live Master Classes developed in response to Covid-19.
D: Welcome everybody! This is a Master Class series, where we talk to people about things that we think you might wanna know, and today we have Canada's most successful contemporary playwright.
I can say that maybe you can't, but I can say that. Yeah, for those who aren't entirely clear. Let's do a little recap I'll do a little recap on the last... What is it five years? Not even. 2014 Stag and Doe, 2015 Bed and Breakfast, 2016 Birds and Bees, 2017 Boys and Girls and Other Mythical Creatures 2018 The New Canadian Curling Club.
D: Comma, Slash, Bracket, 2019 books Harry Potter as an actor and we’ll talk about that later.
So Mark, that's meteoric, unparalleled. It's just never happened before, right? There's no evidence of this kind of success happening to another Canadian playwright.
M: I don't know, yeah, I don't know, I think some people have had…. I think the thing that is my story is that I wrote five plays that premiered in five years, you know what I mean? And some people have had really enormous success with one or two plays in a short amount of time. But, yeah, that I just kinda like came out swinging and wrote a lot in a short period of time. You'll notice that there is no 2019 or 2020 Play... I was like, I’m tired. I don't know, my fingers hurt from typing, also, I have no ideas left …
M: Like, remember that guy? He wrote five Plays and then and then disappeared!
D: So the content of this is driven by your questions everybody, so please start typing those in as soon as you want. But I will start and say that everybody I meet has an idea for a play, right?
D: Yeah, do you find that? Do you find a lot of people or share with you, like the fact that they...
M: Oh yeah, and are you talking about artists or you talking about ..?
D: I'm talking about the world
M: Yeah, and I get that a lot and I've learned a lot of times people will come to the theater or they'll meet me afterwards, or they'll be at a Q and A, or it's just even people at a show who know my parents or whatever, and they'll be like... “Well, I've got a play for you” and it's so interesting because it's the same… so often it's just like, "Oh no, that's not an idea for a play that's just like a funny person you know. And so what I've worked on the past couple of years is taking that just as a compliment that people just wanna share, they just wanna share their funny thing, or the thing that they've thought about or the thing that they just wanna connect with you, they just wanna make a connection.
And what's interesting about it for me too, is for many, many years, I had a lot of false starts as a writer, and it's because I didn't know what actually made a play and I just thought like, oh, a good character and I would start to write a good character, but there would be no conflict, there would be no story, there would be no arc. Or here's a situation: People who work at an office together…but you’re like uh-huh, and what happens or what's at stake for them?
Yeah, so everybody's got an idea for a play and that Tweet about the watering my driveway, my cousin was like, “I see a play in here” on Twitter. He was just being funny, and I love my cousin he's great and super smart and everything, like he was like... “I see a play in here about two neighbors watering their driveways” and then I responded and I was like... “Or one neighbor who is washing down his driveway, and the other neighbor who moves in is a water conservationists.” And then I said, "And that is drama.” … I’m not going to write that play.
D: One never knows. Before we get to your question, Katrina, what is the bridge then, from your early days of thinking, or some of the viewers who think “I have this great idea”, but maybe it's just a great situation or a great character… What's the bridge from that stage of your evolution to where you landed?
M: I mean, for me, it took just being an actor, in a lot of plays and kinda paying attention to plays from the inside, but also going to see a lot of work. Like when I lived in Toronto I would see at least a play a week or if not two or three. I saw a lot of theater and I still do, and I think that that is like… I went to school, I have a degree in theater, and I went to UofT and Sheridan and all that, and it's great, but I think a real... 'cause I didn't study playwriting, I took one class on playwriting. So my education as a playwright, has been as an audience member, and as an actor, and then working with director dramaturg people who have taught me a lot about structure and stuff like that.
D: Okay, that's a great advice. So Katrina’s question, “Do you have any tricks to pitching your work to producers ?” …is that your job these days or not so much?
M: I have an agent, I have a great literary agent, Collin Rivers who represents lots of great playwrights and also composers and lyricists and so Collin does a lot of that work, but we do a lot of it in collaboration with each other, and we have a kind of constant dialog going on about going, “You know these people better”, or he’ll say “you have a personal relationship with this person. Do you wanna be the first one to reach out or do you wanna invite them to see this show? You can get them tickets”, whatever or...
And then he'll do the follow-up and send them the script in a couple of months or often, he'll be having conversations like long in advance of productions, and he'll come to me and say, "Hey this company is reading this play. They might be interested, they're looking for a smaller show for their season or something”. And so there’s lots that he's working on completely on his own. And then there's some stuff that we work on in collaboration with each other. And then there was some productions that... Because I do have an existing relationship with companies or with directors, artistic directors, maybe that stuff sorta comes through me.
So do you have any tips for pitching to a producer? I guess the question is, are you talking about a new idea that you wanna develop, or are you talking about an existing play? And I would say for a new idea, there's lots of great ways to do it, but I would make sure that you're approaching a company for whom that play is a very specific fit to develop and Premiere or something. I have, I have some friends who are artistic directors now and sometimes tell me about things that get pitched to them that they're like... I don't think that person even has any idea what our company does or what we produce. I think somebody has just sent a mass email or copied and pasted an email to say, “Dear Mr. Connolly, I think that this play would be a perfect fit for Drayton Entertainment”, and I'm sure you get those emails and Alex does, and everybody and that you're just like, Oh I don't think you know what our company does.
So I would just make sure that whatever it is that you actually have done your research, and yeah, especially if it's something new that you wanna develop and that you wanna have a relationship with that theater and with that audience, I think that that's a big part of the conversation.
And if it's an existing play, most companies have a play submission thing on their website and to actually play by the rules, and not just show up one day with your play in an envelope and say, “Hi could you read this now”.
But also to use what you have. If you have existing reviews, if you have show photographs, if you have... Yeah, stuff like that. Or if it’s a play that you've been working on on your own, but you've done, maybe you've done a private reading, just with your friends, in your apartment that you have some feedback from that or you can at least say I've been working on this for two years and I'm on my third draft and I re-written it, based on feedback I had from certain actors then use what you got.
D: How many productions did you have last year? Running an insane number, right?
M: Uhm yeah, 2019 was a pretty busy year. I, I don't actually know the number... Yeah, lots. And what's cool, now is that Stag and Doe, we're licensing it to amateur companies. So there's like they'll just be stuff… Because most of that goes to the Playwrights Guild and through Collin I don't really have a lot to do with those contracts or whatever. Collin will just send me an email and be like, "By the way, this is happening on these dates in Huntsville, so that's really cool, and that adds… I mean that's not an enormous income stream, an amateur production, but if you get enough of them, it's great and it's just great to continue to have the work produced, and seen and enjoyed by companies and to have people working on it and hopefully having a good time working on it. That's really cool too.
D: What's your advice for pushing through writer's block?
M: Great question. Hmm pushing through writer's block.
I just did this Playwrights Guild video, and I'm just working on a little email interview with a blog guy. And part of what I'm thinking about, especially right now during this pandemic thing is when to slow down and when to take a break and when to walk away from something and give it some time to… the idea of just like pushing through and barreling through your writer's block… uhm is maybe not always the best thing to do. Although it's good to give yourself goals and deadlines, and even if they're self-imposed to say by the end of September, I wanna have a first draft of this thing, or whatever. As long as they're achievable goals, that you're not saying by Friday afternoon and I'm gonna have a new play, it's ready to hit the stage.
I think sometimes, especially if it's rewrites or something like that, just actually sitting down and doing a bit of work every day, even if it's rereading that scene, if it's re-reading it really carefully a couple of times and then going, "I don't really know what I wanna change, I know it's not there yet, or I know it's not how I want it to be yet, but that is work right? And the work of a play it is not exclusively sitting at the keyboard, creating, typing new dialogue. Sometimes the work is sitting with a notebook and going like, Okay, this character's journey starts here and ends here... And those points do not seem very different from each other. And so, at some point I've gotta give this person a journey.
For me, I go on a lot of walks and it's sometimes that hour-long walk, I'll just be like Okay, who is this person and where do they start and how do the events of the play like shift who they are and if you have an ensemble play not everybody has to have a major massive life-altering journey. But you don't want people to be the same at the end as they were at the beginning.
Yeah, so that stuff can be work. In terms of writers block sometimes that thinking of things in those terms can maybe help that it's not just being like... I need to write this, I need to write act two, and I don't have an act two yet. Maybe the reason you don't have an act two yet is because you haven't left act one hanging in such a way that it leaves room for an act two-or anything like that.
D: There's some questions about timeline. Is there a generic timeline in that what you're talking about the process of..I do a grand sketch of something and that moves to an outline and the outline moves to a draft. And how many drafts you do? Is that the same for each project or does that change based on the script?
M: No, yeah, it changes for me, yeah, it changes from play of play.
In the example of those five plays that you mentioned all of the turnaround time was relatively quick on all. Stag and Doe I started writing in 2011, and it premiered in 2014 and I really worked on that on my own for a while, and I applied for what was... I think it's changed its name slightly, it was called the Theater Creators Reserve, now it's the anyway… its through the Ontario Arts Council, you know what I mean, that program.
And so I applied for a bit of money. And that money is recommended by theater companies and it goes directly to the artist, it's not an OAC jury who's deciding those things.
So yeah, I got little bits of money from a couple of different theater companies to continue working and basically buy myself time to work on, on that first play and... Yeah, and like I was saying about my suggestion earlier I got a bunch of people together in a room and just had them read the play and made a bunch of changes and then started sending it out. And when I sent that out to people, that was when Blythe, at the time, that season was being run by Marion de Vries. Marion really liked it. You know, we knew it needed a lot of work, but that's what Blythe does is work on new plays and so she programmed it for the 2014 season.
So from the time that it was programmed to the time it hit opening night, it's not like it's like, "Oh great. The play’s programed and I'm done, I'll just sit and collect my money. I really worked hard on that play and re-wrote it and was in rehearsal every day and re-wrote scenes, and cut stuff and re-wrote lines and all the way up to opening night.
D: Terry Barna, one of your actors, is asking when you go to see a show that you wrote, do you find you spend more time watching what's on stage or the audience reacting to the show?
M: Oh, that's a great question. It's interesting, it's a mix of the two. Maybe. I know when something's brand new and in previews for its premier production, I will spend a lot of time focusing on the audience and what's happening around me and what people are, especially in the world of comedy, what people are finding funny and if there's times where you feel like the energy in the room really dip. And is that something that's happening, is that based on something that the actors are doing, is that the writing, is it, is it a pace thing, whatever. And then, when I go see yeah, when I go see a subsequent production of a play. I'm always, always interested in the audience and what is happening in the room, but I'm also I'm genuinely interested and fascinated in interpretation of text and how a production of a play is the group of people who are doing it and how it's just like a series of choices about how they've decided to approach this thing and play individual moments, but also play the whole character and play the relationship.
And in the case of, what's interesting is in the case of the Birds and the Bees for example, which Terry has been in a couple of times, it's like... That play, you can look at production photos of many productions of Birds and the Bees and it always pretty much looks the same. There's always kind of... There are a lot of things that - there are a lot of marks you have to hit. The certain number of doors. There's those two bedrooms, like one of them always has the yoga ball and the blow-up mattress. So, which room is on which side or where the bathroom door is. Those things change, but in terms of the... You need two people at a certain age and two other people of another certain age.
So in terms of that stuff, it's like that plays isn’t wildly interpretive, it's not like somebody's gonna take that play and the set is just a shiny black dance floor and four light bulbs. I mean they could.
D: I’d go to that.
M: Like the Berlin Ensemble production of the Birds and the Bees.
D: Yes, Please.
M: And so really the thing to watch is how the people interpret the text and how they interact with each other and who they are as people, and what that brings to the characters. And so that stuff is infinitely fascinating, especially being an actor as well as a writer.
D: And does that experience influence upcoming work? Does the lack of control I guess sitting in an audience where you can't fix or change anything out of your hands, does that influence the evolution of your writing so that you'd have moments like that will never happen again, I will always write in or not?
M: Yeah, that's a great... On one hand I like I feel like two things simultaneously happen maybe. On one hand, I think that I've written some stuff that is like really up for interpretation, like Bed and Breakfast is two guys, they play 22 characters. I make a suggestion of what the set could kind of look like, but it's like how you do that play and how you play those characters and how you switch between them and stuff is not in the script. There is a couple of notes being like...I think in the interest of time, I don't think that you should use a bunch of different costumes for the different characters like or props. I think this is a mime show and stuff and often when the plays being produced, I'll have a conversation with the director and she will say, he or she will say, "Hey what works best props or no props? This is what I'm thinking about how we sort of approach the play, but yeah.
And in the case of the new Canadian Curling Club there are sort of sports montage sequences that I've just sort of written and said have fun, I and I really do mean have fun with this, please, and please interpret it in the most inventive theatrical way, you can... And yeah, so on one hand I have that going on, where I love directors and designers and actors to be creative and come up with their own production.
On the other hand, there's certain things that I don't know, I'm sure that there's certain things even about pace or punctuation or stuff that I have seen certain productions may be not be as successful or certain... Just certain approaches to my work, as I know more about my writing, I kind of go... Oh, that's interesting and that will... That influences... I think how I sit down to put something on the page, even subconsciously.
D: Segue, Bed and Breakfast segue, subconsciously, you've written a gay couple who owns a Bed and Breakfast, you've written the new Canadian Curling Club which introduces a new set of cultural diversity to theater that hadn't existed, really. And you've written in Boys and Girls, and Other Mythical Creatures, you wrote the character who was experiencing gender identity.
D: So to my knowledge, those things haven't been around. Am I wrong?
M: Well, I don’t know. I think we've had lots of...
Okay, here's what I think; We've had a lots of plays about gay people, I think we've had very diverse casts, so I think we've had lots of... I think we have had lots of theater, actually, about gender identity and stuff. I think what maybe what I've tried to do is take some of those things.. I take some of those conversations that are happening in other theatres in urban centers or specifically in queer theaters and I put them in a theater for young audiences show or a show that does the Arts Club tour to Courtenay, BC. And as an actor I’ve worked in lots of those regional companies and really loved those theaters, and love those audiences and think they're really like they are the life blood of the Canadian and North American Theater. And I also think that those audiences are really smart, and they live in the world and they live in… and they wanna have content.
And so, so yeah, so I guess I've tried to take those conversations and package them in a way that they're very producible and plays that people hopefully see in a brochure or whatever and... Or see in the newspaper and go, Oh, that would be fun. We would wanna see that.
And then you have a chance to within that construct to have a conversation about something. And so that's really cool and exciting and is not something that has happened by accident. It’s happened by design.
D: Right. Yes. I hear that. And I also need to commend and applaud you on behalf of people who champion inclusion to say that your commitment to that has been really extraordinary.
M: Thanks, thanks David. That is really nice.. Yeah, honestly, part of it comes from a frustration. I think that often as artist that can be a really good source of …that can be good fuel, is going to see stuff. I know that I have seen stuff on stages as a gay person and I've been like... Fuck you, you can't... You're not... Or it's 2020, you know the... And whatever it is, and it's just so remarkable to me it's still happening. And also to know the people involved and all of that, and know that they're good folks. I don't think that anyone who programed those plays or who is in those plays, hold any ill will towards me or our community, but it's like, Yeah, so I gotta write a new play, we gotta have a play up there that represents people in a way that's three dimensional or that at least is contemporary art. Like hopefully both... Yeah, so... So if you are watching this and there is something that you feel... if you go to the theatre... You're like *exasperated sigh*” You can’t do that!” then even if you feel that way, about my own work, please, please write something.
D: That is awesome advice and I love hearing that you experienced a hole and you filled it. That you saw this dearth of content that needs to be... I need to help. That’s Amazing. Because you have.
M: Yeah, that's a major... Yeah, I always come back to the audience, and I always come back looking around and having grown up in a rural community and just knowing that those folks that they're good people and they do - I keep saying they do live in the world, right?
So yeah, I don't know, I think sometimes we don't give people enough credit or we underestimate people I think we underestimate people's desire to go to the theater and not only be entertained, but to have a sort of intellectual and emotional experience. I think for me that's a great... That's when the great stuff happens, it's like... And you have a great night out and you did think about something and you get to feel something. The magic trifecta.
D: you've been such a huge part of that evolution in regional theater. You just have... I'm gonna keep saying it. Laura, Caswell, Neptune theater school, “We cannot wait to do your show as part of our tour”.
M: Thanks Laura. Yeah, they had just started rehearsals when the old covid hit, ya know.
D: There's a question about balancing your career between being an actor and a writer, because Mark you're gonna be in Harry Potter. So does that mean in the...
D: Are you going to shelf? can you shelf? Or is it not that cut and dry and not that back-and-white?
M: So okay, here's what I know it. I find it impossible to write when I’m in rehearsal for something that's just..when are you gonna do that. You can barely do your laundry, and learn your lines, when youre in rehearsal 10am – 6pm everyday, you know.
So yeah... And then sometimes when I'm in the run of a show, I can, I can do kind of playwright admin work, I can apply for grants, and I can continue to keep up on email and have conversations with my agent and with Theatres, and do press or if there's a phone interview or whatever. But I've found it pretty difficult to do rewrites and stuff when I'm running a show, but most of the shows that I've run, run for three weeks or six weeks or whatever. In those cases, unlike Harry Potter, if that show goes, please God. Like if it really goes then I could be in it for a while. And so I think that that would be a different experience of how you structure your day and how you structure your week and if you're able to work on stuff, or work on new stuff or continue a longer development period of something while running a show.
So I will see, I will see. And because we don't... I don't think it's a secret. We don't have a start date right now, we know it's gonna happen in 2021 or... That's the goal. And so it'll be interesting. I will have different writing projects in a different place when I start that when we start rehearsals that I would have had... We started in July so... So I don't know, I haven't even really wrapped my head around that because if we don't start until summer of 2021, I could have written, I don't know, I could have a new idea and have written a full draft of something, and have had it read by the directors by the time that comes around, it’s almost a year and a half way, so so I... So, I don't know.
Well, just in terms of balance, I don't know, I'm really grateful that I have both things because as an actor, part of why I think I started writing was as an actor...I felt like I had a lot of artistic energy in me that I wasn't getting out. Right, and because you're like... Well, yeah, I have a play that I'm gonna do five months from now, or I don't have anything like I might never work again, and this Tim Hortons commercial, commercial audition, isn't really like feeding me or anything, so... So I think that I'm so grateful to be able to write and think as a creative person when I'm not acting 'cause I know that that can be really hard on performers. I know that firsthand, but I love I do love acting, I love actors. I love being in a play, I love running a play, I love rehearsing a play, and I just learn so much about writing and structure and dialogue and pace, and the relationship with an audience and all of that every time I’m in a play. So, they really feed each other.
D: I think that’s so inspiring to people who are watching that are actors and hearing that they don't have to decide, they don't have to pick.
M: Yeah, and I think people, I think people really weirdly really want you to decide. People for the past couple years, people have been saying, “do you act anymore? You don’t act anymore, do you?” uhh, it's really weird, right?! In a profession where so many people wear so many hats it's still the desire is to really put people in their little box, and like he's a playwright, she’s a dancer, he’s a singer. Like yeah… You know, that thing that I think so many of us fight against and I don't know, I think it's just in people's desire to have a clear understanding of who you are and what you do.
D: And do you think it has anything to do with the desire to want you to be focused solely on what they need?
M: Oh, maybe... Yeah, maybe yeah, that you're useful to them as you use them as playwright. You're not as much use to them as an actor, whatever. Yeah, that could be... That could be within the business, in a... Yeah, yeah, and I think it's also people, some people just lack understanding of how long a play takes to write and how many drafts, it takes and then it's not just like... Just sit down at your computer and write a play and print it off and go like there you go... Or the fact that as an actor you work in five to eight to twelve-week chunks and you try to put a year together based on those, so some people don't even within the business, some people don't have a very firm grasp on that. Weirdly.
D: Well, we're coming to the end, believe it or not. I know it’s incredible how time flies when we're being inspired. Do you have any, do you have a prompt, or do you have anything that people who are watching now or will be watching in the future could maybe take away to their blank journal?
M: This is a really weird time as a creative person 'cause I’ve had conversations with other writers and playwrights especially, and I'm just like, like texting my friends, being like... Are you writing?... and they're like, "No” you know, it's just, I'm sure there are some people who are writing and may God bless them, and keep them, but I find this this particular time, to be hard and I'm sure this is gonna go on for a little bit so I think we'll find rhythm in a way to make some stuff.
One thing that I had a conversation with a friend, and he said, "I'm not writing 'cause I don't know what's important” and I thought that, that was really, really, really interesting. So anyway, I just say that to let people off the hook. If you feel like, "Oh my God, I lost my serving job. I should be writing that play. Maybe you should be. And if you wanna give it a go, Please, please give it go. But if you come up against you come up against a wall that's like that's cool, and you have permission to hit that wall.
And, but in terms of writing prompts... Well, it's like a way back to the very beginning of what is a play versus what is a situation or what is a character or what is just a snippet of dialogue and sometimes plays can come out of those things that you can think of a great character. But then it's like, I like to really think, I often like to think in terms of classics or look at the great plays and go like, "Okay how does that play work? How…
D: give us, give us authors give us playwrights?
M: I'm always going back to Shakespeare. Arthur Miller is a good go-to guy in terms of how to condense time and how to squeeze. I saw that production of Death of a salesman, at Drayton Entertainment and I was like, "Oh my God. Dealth of a Salesman takes place over three days? You know, if somebody had been like... How long is “Dealth of a Salesman?”like “Oh I don't know, I...”
D: A decade.
M: A year- probably a decade ... And there's flashbacks and stuff, but from the moment he comes home at the beginning, to the time that Linda is talking to his grave, it’s, it’s like a weekend right. So that's an amazing study, in structure and the unites. All that classic, all that stuff seems real nerdy and boring about the unities of time, place and action, the classical structure of a comedy, it begins in chaos and ends in unity, classical structure of a tragedy that goes in the other way.
And, but it's like that stuff, I can find in my brain, I can find that stuff very useful.
And it's just in terms of taking like your character or your little seed of what might be a thing and spinning it into something that is like a 90 minute or two-hour play.
Sometimes I will, this would be my tip that I've used in little writing sessions or like workshops or something, that I led. If you can somehow write your, the six sentence or four sentence brochure blurb, right? For the brochure for the... When this play is in the theater season. That sometimes can be so useful, and just like write it as though you're the marketing manager at some theater. So it's like, in the case the New Canadian Curling Club, you go like “four new Canadians sign-up for a small town learned to curl class. When the organizer has broken her hip, the only person... Like to coach them is her ex-husband, who has lots of inappropriate opinions of immigrants, like watch as four unlikely athletes turn themselves into a real team and a heartfelt comedy about national identity and a crazy sport…like whatever it is, right?
Use the language 'cause you'll get a sense of the tone as well that you wanna write. So if you wanna write a searing drama about two brothers, whatever, then you go, Okay. I wanna write a searing drama about two brothers that you kind of have a little... You have a little touchstone to go back to, and go like, Oh, I've gone off the rails. This is there's a boring drama that I'm writing, it's not searing or whatever, so that is a little thing that I sometimes do even if it's just on page three of your note book that you can turn back to sometimes and it's gonna change, it's totally gonna change, but it might get you started.
D: what a great idea, what a great way to end and thank you so much! everybody clap for Mark and send hearts and send clap emjois. And mark I know I speak on behalf of all of us to say Thank you for your time and thank you for your work and for pushing the envelope. I know it's only the beginning, it's not an anomaly that you're gonna continue to create characters that we see that more people see themselves on stage, and that's I think where we're headed out of this 'cause I... Its time, this time is about empathy, so the more you can write to support that idea, and these feelings, we're having right now and that kind of resilience than the better the World.
M: Yeah, yeah, I think we're in a big... I think in a big time of change like I really... And I think if we can somehow grasp it we might actually tilt the axis... towards something better, I hope so, man, I hope so.
D: Me too. Thank you, thank you for your time, thank you, thank you, okay we’re saying goodbye to Mark.
M: Thanks everybody! Bye!