To explore the nature of first-time playwriting, two of our Bridge Award judges, Nat Cassidy and Nick Gandiello (themselves professional playwrights), sat down with Anna O'Donoghue, the chair of our reading committee, to discuss the process of creation, the culture of theater, and the ways in which writers process the world around them through their work.
You can read their conversation below.
Anna: Thank you so much for being here today. Can you tell me your names, and a little bit about your work, and your careers so far, and the first play that you wrote.
Nick: Wow, okay.
Nat: I'm Nat Cassidy. I'm a playwright and writer of other script type things and books. My career at large is basically, I was an actor primarily, I've been doing that since I was like five. And I wrote a lot of aborted books and short stories as a kid, but despite the fact that I was a child actor. It really wasn't until I was in my 20's that I realized that I could write a play, cause I'd been in a bunch of plays. And the first play I ever wrote was an adaptation of John Fowles' The Collector in 2007. And then immediately I followed it up with an original play which was called The Reckoning of Kit and Little Boots which is a metaphysical buddy comedy about Christopher Marlowe and Caligula.
Anna: How did you decide to make your first play what it was?
Nat: I'd been living in the New York City for about three years at that point. I'm originally from Arizona, I'd just moved to New York in 2004, trying to just hack it as an actor and I was getting very frustrated with my career and how difficult it is to get seen for things, especially things that were bigger, so I was like, "I really want an opportunity for myself," and again, it took me a long time before I realized I could create that opportunity for myself. So I was reading The Collector, the novel, and I was going through a really bad break up, and the book was speaking to my frame of mind at the time, which says a lot about me because it's a very disturbing book. But the main character was fascinating to me in a reader sense and an actor sense; he seemed like a really fascinating character to play. So I reached out to the John Fowles estate--I think he had just died a year or two before--and asked, "Hey, do you guys have any interest in a play of this work?" and they were like, "Multiple plays of this already exist, but go ahead!," so I wrote that for myself.
Anna: Do you remember what the first page was? How did you make the first words happen?
Nat: It was heavily monologist, monological, mono--a lotta direct address. The first line was almost directly lifted from the book. It's interesting, I just wrote my first adult full-length novel, and that was an adaptation of previously extant material, and I was describing that as my training wheels novel. And I was realizing that every time I've gone out and written in a new-to-me medium, it's an adaptation. It's a really helpful holding-your-hand sort of experience. You don't really have to worry about the plot, you just have to worry about how to make that plot fit the medium and its particular devices. So it takes some pressure off you--there's already psychological permission that the story is worth telling. Someone else already told it! So, go to town on your interpretation of it.
Anna: That's a really interesting point. Nick, how about you? Tell us about yourself.
Nick: I'm Nick Gandiello. I've been a playwright and sometime screenwriter and a teaching artist for the past, I guess, six years now professionally. The first play that I wrote, I was a sophomore in college, and I had been studying theater generally. I was getting over acting after I realized I wasn't good at acting, so I was transitioning away from that. And I had always known I wanted to tell stories. And then something happened in my family that was really upsetting, and almost deadly event. And I was really reeling from that. And I remember sitting down in my dorm room and just opening up a document and there were just two brothers talking to each other. And I just kept going, and eventually there was a two act play. And I got my friends together in my hometown over a winter break, and we staged a no-budget play based on the script. And I just kept writing and I ended up in grad school after that.
Anna: So, for you, it was coming out of a personal event and something that you needed to process through writing about it.
Nick: Yeah, I think that's still the way actually, though now I'm more patient. With that experience, I felt like I needed to do it Now and I hadn't thought through the impact it would have on me, or the audience, and I learned some difficult lessons from that. But now it's like, if I have a feeling of being disturbed or fascinated or preoccupied by something that's happened to me, I wait for something in the world to happen that resonates with that experience. It's sort of like what Nat is talking about with the hand-holding experience of having a story there already with adaptation; for me, I sort of wait till I find a headline or something happening out in the world that seems to speak to whatever feeling I'm having and then I attach my feeling onto that larger event.
Anna: So it's a sort of internal and external marriage.
Nat: It's interesting too, that your family event and the thing that kickstarted me was a traumatic breakup. And it strikes me that out of all the entertainment media, theater is the one you get into because you have to, you don't calculatedly get into theater. You do it because you feel, I've gotta share this, express this thing. It's a very cathartic medium.
Anna: So now that you both write for multiple forms, what makes you think about an idea: this is a play, as opposed to a screenplay, or a short story, or a poem even. How do you know?
Nat: Budget. Is a part of it. If it's a story that's gonna traverse a lot of space and space that needs to be experienced in a visceral way, not just a suggested way, or if it's gotta have a cast of like multiple lead characters or people that can't double, all the production logistics that you have to consider, or should consider at some point if you're writing a play that you want to see produced--those things might steer me into another medium. But what's interesting is that I've been finding it very fulfilling, even for different media, as a play first. Like, right now one of the manuscripts that I'm writing, I'm attacking the scenes as play dialogue first and then essentially adapting my own scenes into prose. Because there's something about, you don't want to waste time with a play. If there's a scene you want that scene to have a reason to exist. And when you're just writing prose, it's easy to spin your wheels. With theater, you have to be that much more economical about what you're saying and how you're saying it and the stakes.
Nick: Nat, you're talking about traversing lots of space. It's interesting, I think in theater there's something about the confines of spending a lot of time in one space with a particular character, a particular human being. To answer the question, if I'm very moved by a certain person's experience, or troubled or excited by what it would be like to just be alone with them for a long time? It feels like there's something theatrical about that. Whereas if I want to follow them through image and sound for a long time, I'd probably think screenplay or tv format. But what's it like to just be in the kitchen with this person who's going through this terrible thing. Or this wonderful thing! You can be there intimately with them, and that's very theatrical to me.
Anna: Do you remember the first play that you ever read or saw that woke you up in a special way? That made you either want to make something like it or challenged your concept of theater? Any pieces of writing that have been particularly formative to you?
Nat: I have a two pronged answer.
Anna: Great! Give me a limited fork.
Nat: Okay! Tine one: I was a really awful kid. I was a nightmare, a disciplinarian's worst encounter day by day. They had to invent all sorts of accountability for me as a small child. For instance, I had to take home either a red or green piece of construction paper to get signed by my parents to show whether I had been good or bad that day.
Anna: That's very inventive.
Nat: Yeah, I inspired a lot of new thinking as I was lighting fires in the back of the classroom and shouting out curse words. But one the side effects of that, was that in first grade--the teacher was named Mrs. Schmidt, she was just this gremlin of a woman--this tiny angry woman who hated me. Angry in that she hated me, I should say, I don't know if she was angry in her life, but I brought something out in her. Let's just say we did not get along, at all. But one day, she was showing slides from a trip she'd taken to Greece, and she was showing a slide of an amphitheater, and she's seen a production of Macbeth there during her vacation. And I don't know why she did this, but she started telling us the story of Macbeth (don't know why she felt compelled to do that with a bunch of first graders) but as she did, I was just like, What?? There's murder and witches and things like that??? And she noticed that my antenna had just gone up. So, after that lecture or whatever you wanna call it--whatever addressing a gaggle of six year olds is--she went up to me and challenged me, she literally dared me. She said, I bet you can't read this play. And I said, "Screw you Mrs. Schmidt, I can read this play!" So then I started a year long project in first grade to read Macbeth. And I was obsessed with Shakespeare from that point on, and just consumed--very slowly--all the works of Shakespeare from that point on.
Tine two! Was a play I saw by a New York downtown playwright named Jeremy Dobrish when I was 12 or 13, because my cousin who was a director in the city took me to see it. And it's this wacky, wild play about a private detective who's trying to track down the third of a triplet, and there are angels who are obsessed with MacDonald's french fries, and my jaw was on the floor watching this as a 12 year old. It was this balls to the wall crazy indie theater show. I was obsessed with the play and with Jeremy from that point on; when I got back to Arizona I just kept telling everyone about this play and that was the first time I ever really realized that the thing we think of the theatrical canon is this living thing and anyone can contribute to it. And it took a long time for that to percolate with me, but I eventually came obsessed with that idea: that I wanted to contribute to this body of work and enjoy other people's contributions to this body of work, these contemporary breathing things.
Anna: I love the idea of you going back to Arizona and basically being Mrs. Schmidt for people.
Nat: Oh yeah, if I'd have slides I would have clicked through them all.
Anna: Nick, what's your memory?
Nick: Well, the first play that I participated in was an A.R. Gurney play, The Middle Ages. I was really lucky, there were great theater teachers at my high school on Long Island and they picked challenging work. So, it was really exciting as a teenager to play a character over his whole lifetime, who's dealing with issues with his father, and speaking out to the audience, which was of course and audience of my friends and my family, so it was really exciting and I got hooked from there. And then there was a paradigm shift which I think is really analogous to what you were talking about, Nat, in terms of the canon, which was reading Caryl Churchill and Sam Shepherd in college, when I was like: You're allowed to put that kind of stuff on stage?
Anna: What particular Caryl Churchill or Shepherd play?
Nick: We did Far Away in the studio at Ithaca College. And it was like, Caryl Churchill's writing about everything that's going on right now but also writing something totally alien and totally new and I was just blown away by that. And like, the absurdity of silly hats standing in for, genocide? And it was purely theatrical and we did it with balloon hats and it was this very difficult and eye-opening piece of theater to be a part of. And then reading Buried Child was just like--because I was studying theater history and all of those old stories, you know Ibsen, and Shakespeare, and whatever, and I realized that when those folks told those stories they were like, shocking and disturbing. And they had been forcing people to look at their culture in a different way. So, getting to that final image in Buried Child, and just being like, oh my god. So, it did something to me.
Anna: Yeah, that's an amazing thing to be affected by a script like that. When you read a play, what draws you in? What makes something leap off the page for you?
Nick: My gut reaction is that, when there are desires that are driving behavior. Cause there's a lot of different genres and aesthetic that I respond to but, if the character is wanting or needing or desiring something, and is doing something to try to change their situation, then I can get into it. It can be a tragedy or a comedy or whatever, but it's knowing that there's need under the behavior. And, more and more, I respond to dramas of good intentions. And they could be Richard the Third, or they could be Macbeth, but when folks think they're doing the right thing for the people they love, think they're doing the thing that the world needs, then I can get into it. I think there's a 101 myth that conflict is about antagonism or hostility. But I'm really moved and I really want to get from one page to the next when a person is doing what they think is a positive change that is needed.
Nat: For me the thing I find myself being compelled by when I'm reading a script--because it's so different to read a play than to attend a play--is the stakes, is just the need coming off the page. And another thing I fall in love with more and more is when a play has an interior logic. There's a lot of plays where the logic is taken for granted because, it's a bunch of people in a living room, talking about their lives. But then I'll read another script that makes no apparent sense at all, but I'm super compelled by it because I can tell that there's something at work there, whether or not I understand it. When plays find that sweet balance between dream logic and realism, that's really exciting--it's a thing theater does particularly well and can incubate really nicely.
Anna: It's interesting to hear from both of you because you both grew up, it sounds like, steeped in theater and exposed to that really early in your lives. I'm wondering about if you can imagine if that weren't the case, if you were speaking to someone who didn't have the kind of background in it that you do--how would you describe theater to them? What is a play? If you were talking to someone who had never seen a play before, what would you tell them?
Nick: It's a story that moves through time and space for an immediate audience. That's formally what it is, but it's important to keep in mind because you can only do it for the people who are immediately around.
Nat: A play to me is a dynamic shift. A war of dynamics. I'm drawn to how we, even as a culture, we talk about geopolitical stuff as theater--good actors, bad actors, politics as theater--because when you boil it down, that's what we're looking for in drama: a moment or a series of moments of change and struggle. To make it more technical, it's something that has to be repeatable and performable.
Anna: How long does it usually take you to write a play? How many drafts do you go through, how do you know when it's done? Or, done enough?
Nick: When the artistic director kicks us out of the theater?
Nat: What's the quote, plays aren't finished, they're just abandoned?
Nick: It tends to take me two to three years to write a full length play. But I'm usually in year two or year three of one play while I'm in year one of another. And year one tends to just be like, being preoccupied and ordering a ton of books off of Amazon and reading a bunch of articles and following my fiancee around the apartment talking nonstop about certain ideas. And being preoccupied but not really knowing the form or structure is, how I get from point A to point B.
Anna: It's like an internal research phase.
Nick: Yeah, and then there's usually a flash point where I go, Oh, that's where everything goes, that's the structure. And then I try to fill in that structure and that usually takes me another year or two. And as for rewrites, there have been different tracks. There are some plays where it's been workshopped, which is when a theater gives you time and space and actors and developmental ideas and feedback and the opportunity to work on a play with other people, and then it's gotten pick up for a production and I rewrite like crazy during rehearsal. And that's my favorite way to do it because you have a team of actors who are excited about the new pages that are coming in and are excited about helping to figure out what the new pages are going to be. And then there's this other model, where you bounce from one workshop setting to the next, and that's tough because you have to figure out how to balance the feedback you're getting from the various sources, all of whom want the play to be something that will serve their particular audience and mission. And that's great, they should want that, but the play can end up turning into a sort of Frankenstein's monster, with all these different notes incorporated. And my least successful--or, I don't know how you define success--but my least presented plays have ended up being the ones that have taken the most notes, from different workshop environments.
Anna: How about you, Nat? How long does it take you to write a play?
Nat: It tends to take me a few months, like three to six months. I'm a deadline dependent writer, so I only really write under a panic, and generally way to close to that deadline. So, I've written some scripts over a weekend.
Anna: And then do you revise?
Nat: That's changed for me. I used to not rewrite that much, I used to just kind of fire a draft out and be much more confident, and be like "This is my vision!" And I tended to direct the first production myself, and I would rewrite in the room and address the needs of that production with the script, and that would be the script and I would move onto the next one. But the more I've matured as a writer, I've a) gone back and read those scripts and been like, oh my god that does not work at all. So, now that period where I thought I was writing the play in six months, has become the time that I'm writing the first draft. But it's not The Play, it's just the raw materials that I'll later sculpt and cultivate as the years go by.
Anna: So what I'm hearing is that it can take a really long time to write a play and that's okay.
Nick: Absolutely. It's hard in the moment to be like, I'm going to have patience with myself as a writer and a person, but when you reflect, you realize that your growth takes time. It took me a while to realize that I couldn't write a good father/son relationship because I hadn't figured out my own issues there, or I can't write a good act one break because I'm too neurotic or whatever. It takes a long time to learn these things.
Anna: Are you are a better writer today than you were when you started, what was it, seven years ago?
Nick: God, I hope so.
Anna: So what has been that growth for you? What are the things you would tell your younger self if you could? Though, of course, maybe your younger self wouldn't listen and that would be the right thing for them to do.
Nick: Yeah, It's hard, because your mistakes lead you to where you are and you kind of have to make them. Like, one mistake I kept making and learning from over and over again, is that. How do I put it? Is that dreariness is not theatrical. My first play that I got produced was like, such a bummer. And it was about subjects I really cared about, and I thought it was an important pla, you know? But it was like two hours of people being really sad. And it's almost impossible to enjoy that. Because it's different from people being tragically motivated to change their circumstances, it's just two hours of people being bummed out. So, I guess one thing I've learned is that I actually really enjoy laughing, and I really enjoy that delicious tension of, Oh no, what's going to happen? And I wasn't writing that way. I was trying to emulate some sense of French sad, melancholy, and I don't know where that came from, I guess I just thought it was poetic and good. But then I looked around and thought, oh, the most moving situations in my life have been when everyone is trying their best, and when they're laughing through the difficulty. So this is more a psychoanalytic answer to your question but I guess I, hmmm. I just realized that I wanna have fun when I go see stuff, so even if I'm writing about something that's sad, I still want it to be fun in some way.
Anna: What about you, Nat? What would you say to younger you?
Nat: The biggest thing is, don't feel pressure about the first draft. It seems so obvious, but it is such a drastically freeing thing to just commit to let your first draft be a piece of garbage. Just let it be garbage. I've seen so many people get stuck on the one thing that they're writing and never move on from it, or think it means that they can't write because it's not as good as the finished thing they're seeing in their head. So I just decide my first drafts are going to terrible, and I just finish them, get to the end, embrace that it will be wrong, and bad, and terrible, and fix it later. Fixing it later is so much easier than coming up with it.
Anna: So a sense of permission in a lot of ways.
Nat: Yeah! Permission, and a weird combo of public privacy. Let other people see how terrible it is, but know that it's terrible and embrace that it's terrible. Don't apologize for it, don't be like, "I'm so sorry this is terrible, this sucks," but just be like, This is a part of the process. This is a thing that people have been doing for thousands of years and the process has always been, you write the garbage thing, you bring it to you friend, you read it in the living room, you fix it some more you fix it some more you fix it some more.
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