Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Career in the Theatre: A Profile of Tom Dudzick

Tom Dudzick may be the most successful playwright whose work you've never seen. His first play, Greetings, opened off-Broadway in 1994 during a blizzard. Even though Clive Barnes called the play, "a comic jewel," the blizzard won. The play has become a Christmas staple in regional theatres, and his subsequent plays (including the Over the Tavern triology, Hail Mary, and Don't Talk to the Actors) have had long and frequent runs across the country. Dudzick went global in 2009 when Over the Tavern was adaped for a production in Ireland (called Over the Pub). His backstage comedy Don't Talk to the Actors is currently running in Bucharest, Romania. Many of his plays are set in his hometown of Buffalo, New York and feature characters inspired by relatives or locals from his youth. His latest work, Miracle on South Division Street, has been mounted in readings and a production in upstate New York. It could be your next opportunity to discover Tom Dudzick, who is hoping for an off-Broadway production of that play in the near future.

Seeing the sublimely hysterical production of King of the Moon at the Majestic Theater in West Springfield, Massachusetts, I became an instant fan. So, when the Showshowdown gan started talking about people to watch, I thought of Tom and took the opportunity to ask him a few questions, so you could be introduced to the man in advance of being introduced to his work. 

RS: What has been the difference for you between pursuing a career in the theatre and really making a living in the theatre? 

TD: The pursuit of a career in the theatre was filled with angst, worry, sweat, non-stop writing, meditation with creative visualization and the constant striving to “make it!” Don’t get me wrong, I loved the entire trip. Now that I’ve “made it,” I’m more relaxed and I can channel most of my creative energies into just the writing, because I’ve now made the connections, I have a network of producers who will read what I send them. So much energy in the beginning went into making it over that hump.

The fact that I’m a success with the regional theatres tells me something about myself – these are my people! I think I will have a play in New York (and it will probably be “Miracle on South Division Street”) but the people in that play, and all my plays, are so middle-America. Just regular uncomplicated people trying to make a living and eke out some happiness. And it’s so exciting when I stop and think that, on any given day, one of my plays is going on somewhere in the country. It’s a real kick for me. 

When did the transition start to happen for you, and how did it change your approach to writing? 

The transition from struggling to making it started with “Greetings!” The right person showed up at the right reading (a sit-down reading of “Greetings! with open scripts”) and said, “I’d like to produce your play at my theatre.” That was Greg Houston at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey. That led to off-Broadway. And that started the whole ball rolling. I don’t know that it changed my approach to writing. But it gave me confidence and encouragement to continue. Back then I was still trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to say. Which I’m still doing, come to think of it. 

What is your theatrical point of view, and how has it changed over time? 

My theatrical point of view is – tell a compelling story, clearly. It’s really that simple. Make sure the audience knows quickly who they should care about, what are the stakes, who wants what and why, and who doesn’t want him to have it, and what happens if he doesn’t get it. And make sure the hero’s quest is “playworthy,” as they say. It should be worth the trouble of getting all these people up on stage to tell the story, worth an audience paying $45 to come see it. How has it changed over time? It hasn’t. That will always be my rule – get their attention quickly and be clear. 

What are the influences that have shaped your point of view most? 

Watching TV since I was old enough to sit in front of it influenced me. Watching old movies and then eventually seeing plays. Then reading lots and lots of plays. Writing plays coincided with me being in plays – because I wrote plays to appear in. So I became very mindful of what makes people laugh, because I was experiencing it directly. That “being mindful” part is very important. I paid attention and used what worked. Then I just fell into a natural niche. I started emulating the playwrights who impressed and entertained me. Plus I read a million “how to write a play” books, which I still get out and refer to each time I start a new project. 

Your plays are often about family, faith, and mysticism. Is that coincidental? Just common context? Or intentional? If intentional, what's the larger message? 

My plays are about family because it’s what I know best. I can write about it with some authority. And the mysticism you mention – that’s another biggie with me. I love the idea that there is more to life than what we experience with our five senses. And the stage is a fun, exciting place to develop that idea. I can make the “magic” happen in real time, right before our eyes. Everyone loves to spook people out by telling them a ghost story. It’s the same kind of thing with me and the plays. Do I have a larger message? I guess that message would be, “I think there is more to life than what we’ve been led to believe, and I offer you this two-hour glimpse of how I see things. Do with it what you will.” 

What are the theatrical trends that drive you crazy? 

Things within the art form itself don’t really drive me crazy. It’s the show “business” that does it. The idea that we must have a STAR in the play or the audience won’t come, is an example. I don’t see that one going away soon, I’m afraid. Theatrical trends? I used to dislike this trend of 90 minute plays with no intermission. Because it was different. Now I’m writing 90 minute plays with no intermission. Because it still works. I don’t know how the theatres put up with it, though. Aren’t they losing a lot of candy and booze sales during intermission? 

What is your next project? Where could people see your work next? 

My next play is called “Miracle on South Division Street” and I’m hoping for an off-Broadway production soon. It’s a comedy based on a local legend in my old neighborhood in Buffalo. When I was a kid there was this barber who claimed that the Blessed Mother appeared to him. He built a shrine and had a life-size statue of Mary put inside and the whole thing stood next to his barber shop. It was a mini-Lourdes, except the Catholic Church never sanctioned the “miracle.” But the ironic thing is, my old neighborhood is pretty much in ruins now. The church has been torn down. The barber shop is gone – but the shrine is still there! The denizens of the neighborhood keep it in repair. And that’s what my play is about, this family who holds on to this old family “miracle” legend. 

You've had works commissioned. How is the process/approach different for you when you are writing a commissioned piece versus an idea of your own? 

A commission is lovely and extremely encouraging. Someone is paying you to write a play. But with it comes the pressure of having to perform. There’s the time pressure, there’s the idea that it had better be as good as they expect. But I’d never turn one down because of that. “Yes” is always the more interesting answer. 

You are possibly the most disciplined writer I have ever met. Can you talk a little about the balance of discipline, talent, luck, and whatever else you think is key to creating a career in the theatre? 

If I did 100 push-ups every morning, then I would accept the “disciplined” compliment. But as far as writing goes it doesn’t apply because I love to write. I don’t have to force myself into a schedule or any of that. I just wake up in the morning and I want to do it. So I’m very fortunate in that way. Now, you asked about discipline, talent and luck. I don’t believe in luck, so we can cross that one out. To me luck implies “random-ness,” and I don’t believe the Universe does anything in a random fashion. But that’s another discussion. For me, discipline comes into play when I market my work. Because it’s not as much fun as writing. Compiling lists of theatres, submitting, updating, cross-checking, keeping in touch with Artistic Directors, all that good stuff. What motivates me there is common sense, i.e. theatres aren’t going to come to me; I have to reach out to them.


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