Playwright Chronicles: Influences and Inspiration

In the next edition of our Playwright Chronicles blog series, we spoke to several of the new playwrights featured on StageAgent to find out who, or what, influenced their own work. We were fascinated to discover which playwrights had inspired them, along with key productions that have had a significant impact on their style of writing.

So, without further ado, let’s get chatting with Mark Stein, Juan Ramirez Jr., Edward Chapman, Con Chapman, Wayne Doyle, and Gloria Schramm!

This diverse group of playwrights cover the globe, from New York to Boston, on to the UK, and finishing up in Australia. Their dramatic interests and themes reflect their diversity and so, first up, we asked our writers who, or what, were their major influences when they started out on the writing trail.

For Gloria Schramm, there was one obvious choice.

 

Playwright, Gloria Schramm

August Wilson inspired me. I saw Fences on Broadway in the late 1980s. I left in tears. I love dramas. These are plays with “substance”.

English playwright, Edward Chapman, found his inspiration in Alan Ayckbourn, Alan Bennett, Woody Allen and Willy Russell.

Playwright, Edward Chapman

I have always loved long words too, from an early age, long words and alliteration before I knew what it was, according to my parents…

Boston-based playwright, Con Chapman, was influenced by his college studies.

Playwright, Con Chapman

I took two courses in the French Theatre of the Absurd in college to fulfill a language requirement.  Their sense of humor appealed to me, particularly Ionesco. If the yardstick is whose plays do I read more than any other, Shakespeare, but his plays hold up as poetry apart from performance.

For Mark Stein, his early influences occurred in his teens, but he is curious about the idea of inspiration and influences on the writer.

Playwright, Mark Stein

At age 17 (which is to say, 1968), I saw a play called Indians by Arthur Kopit.  I’d never seen a play as inventive–and I distinctly remember thinking then and there: ‘That’s what I want to do’.  A year or so later I saw John Guare’s House of Blue Leaves, equally inventive in its way, and that sealed the deal.  For the next several years, I often sought to write like these and other playwrights I admired.

In time, I came to learn about influences. After some of my early plays were locally well received–and others not–I was puzzled as to why, in some instances, the negative reviews depressed me but, in other instances, merely disappointed me.  Until I spotted the reason. When the review criticized a play I had tried to write in the style of someone I admired, it was as if I’d been caught naked in New York. On the other hand, when I received a bad review for a play that was my voice, my view, the sting was only skin deep since, fortunately for me, my self-esteem is not entirely vulnerable.

So while I continue to be influenced by others, I’ve come to attach the question: why am I influenced by this or that?  Therein lie insights–since ultimately, if a play I write is even to have a chance of success, it can only have that chance if it is, alas, a Mark Stein play.

All of our playwrights have been inspired by a wide range of playwrights and genres, so for our final question in this edition of the blog, we dug a little deeper to find out the production that had the greatest impact upon them.

First up, New York-based playwright and actor, Juan Ramirez Jr., told us about five key productions that have stayed with him, beginning firstly at school.

Playwright, Juan Ramirez Jr.

I read Hamlet in high school. It was probably one of the only books I read then. He is extraordinarily complex. His indecisiveness is active and his vengeance is powerful. It wasn’t until I saw Mother Courage and Her Children at the Public Theater (NYC, 2006), with none other than Meryl Streep, that I got to experience theatre at its best. I was already involved in theatre and saw other shows, but this one stays with me to this day. Mike Nichols’ version of Death of a Salesman (NYC, 2012) with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Linda Emond was like a watching a master class. Kenny Leon’s A Raisin in the Sun  (NYC, 2014) with Denzel Washington, Sophie Okonedo, and Anika Noni Rose did the same thing to me.

I have to say though that I was in awe with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen’s performance in Waiting for Godot (NYC, 2013). Sir Ian McKellen picked up a chicken leg that was thrown on the floor and ate it. When I saw that, I swore to never take any crap from an actor again.

Death of a Salesman was a key production for Mark Stein also, but he recalls how his experience of watching an earlier televised production of the play had a staggered impact on his life.

While seeing it preceded my thoughts of being a playwright (I saw a 1966 television production that starred Lee J. Cobb), never before had I seen a play that depicted people from my own kitchen.  My father, like Willy Loman, was a salesman to department stores and clothing stores. When Willy says, “I did five hundred gross in Providence and seven hundred gross in Boston,” I knew that talk; I’d heard it. The initial impact was frightening.  I remember asking my father if he, like Willy, could have his clothing lines taken away from him. He assured me not and gave me reasons (though, in time, they were).

The play’s secondary impact occurred years later when I realized I  needed to learn to write a “Mark Stein play.” Death of a Salesman assured me that my kitchen did indeed have a well-stocked pantry.

For Con Chapman, the realization of the connection between his high school studies and a touring theatre production, opened his eyes to the power of theatre.

I grew up in a small town in Missouri (think of Christopher Guest’s “Waiting for Guffman”).  I recall a theatre troupe from Kansas City performed a Chekhov play at my high school.  The concept of dramatic irony—the sense that the audience and the other players know something about a character that he doesn’t know himself—that an English teacher had taught us became clear to me in a little epiphany.

Finally, Australian playwright and composer, Wayne Doyle, brings us right up to date with the show that had the most impact on his musical aspirations.

Playwright, Wayne Doyle

The show that had the most impact on me was a version of Hairspray that I saw in Melbourne, Australia. It wasn’t just the story or songs, but the huge animated LED backdrops that were used. Finally musicals had entered into the 21st century and I wanted to be part of it’s innovative direction. Five years ago, I decided to write a full length musical and have it staged. 30 rewrites, 40 songs and 1000 hours of animation projections later, Hey Jude – The Musical was staged to sold out performances. “Hey Jude” and recent “No Strings Attached,” mini-musical feature multimedia animations throughout the entire shows.

Has our exploration of inspiration and influence got you thinking about the productions that have had the most impact upon your life? Drop us a comment and let us know! Next up, we will discuss the writing process and a day in the life of a playwright.

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Alexandra Appleton

Alex is a freelance writer and editor with a PhD in theatre history. She is also a performer and director, previously running a successful theatre company and youth theatre company in the north of England. Alex is from the UK and lives just outside London with her young family. She is enjoying introducing them to the theatre!


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