In the latest episode of our exciting new blog series, Playwright Chronicles, we chatted with playwright, Tom Attea. Tom is a long-time member of The Dramatists Guild and has so far written 14 shows (both musicals and plays), which have been produced in Off-Broadway theater.
Tom is an inspiring voice in contemporary New York theater, and we were keen to find out what inspires him to write new works, as well as how his writing style has evolved over the years.
Q: Why did you start writing?
A: I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was 14. I just heard an inner voice that said I could and should be one. I think that’s the way our talents speak to us, subtly but persistently. I still can’t imagine anything that’s more fun than writing. It’s right up there with a wine-graced dinner and two-way love.
I spent much of my time during my years in undergraduate and graduate school reading literature and studying writing. So by the time I had earned a Bachelor of Science and a Doctor of Optometry degree, the latter of which included a year as an intern in the biggest eye clinic in Philadelphia, I felt I was ready to begin my career as a writer. The irony of my preposterous miseducation is that, while I disliked studying all the science I had to, I found later in life that the process had made me more logical than many other writers. Best of all, the unusual education for a writer has also enabled me to have insights about how science has provided a new foundation for us to see ourselves.
Q: What was the first play that you read or saw that made a significant impact on you?
A: Seeing a reading of my first play, called A Bend in the Stream, at the screenwriting workshop of The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. I watched the audience lean forward when what I wrote proceeded with a sense of truth and watched them sit back or leave when I violated it. I realized that every little cheat I indulged in while writing a piece would be magnified when staged.
Later, when I studied acting and directing at HB Studios, so I might write better for actors and directors, I came to appreciate even more the art of playwriting and performance with an inviolable dedication to a sense of truth.
Q: How many hours a day do you write?
A: I think more than I write, because I’ve discovered that the mind is the most adept editor. I’ve also discovered that, if I think clearly, writing simply requires me to be the good secretary of my mind. I do, however, make notes as I think and place them at the top of the document in which I’ll write the play or musical. During the work week, I usually write for the theater about half a day, because I have to reserve the afternoons for writing that, as the phrase goes, “supports the creative habit.” When I’m writing a play or libretto, I do try to reserve the weekends for the work.
Q: How do you find the process of getting your plays produced? Do you work in collaboration with a theatre company?
A: My first produced piece was done when I was a member of the Playwrights Unit at The Actors Studio, but since then, New York’s Theater for the New City has been my creative home. Crystal Field, the executive director, has consistently supported my efforts.
So far the theater has presented 13 of my works, with a new play scheduled for March of 2019. Since the theater is the cultural center of the Lower East Side, in fact, the home of the annual Lower East Side Festival of the Arts, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for presenting Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, as well as the winner of over 40 Obie Awards, I feel very fortunate to be able to call it my creative home.
I suggest that any playwright try to affiliate with a producing theater. Here’s why: In America, the average theater that presents new works receives–I once read in a guide to the theaters–, 1,500 to 2,500 new scripts a year and produces maybe 1 to 5 original works. At the same time, the theater may have up to 25 affiliated playwrights. So the hopeful playwright who submits a work without being affiliated can appreciate the odds of having it accepted for production.
Q: How involved are you in staged productions of your shows?
A: Over the years, I’ve worked with the same composer, Arthur Abrams, on what is now 12 musicals, and with the same director, Mark Marcante, on what is now 11 musicals and 2 plays. By now we’re pretty much all on the same page. Basically, when I get an idea for a play or musical, I send them an email with a sentence or two about the idea and ask them what they think. They always seem to like it. Then I write the piece and email it to them. One reason for the way we work is that the theater is in Manhattan, and, after many years in the city, I’m now recuperating in Connecticut.
Arthur writes the music and whenever he wants to, he calls and sings whatever he’s working on over the phone and asks for advice. The only changes I’ve ever know him to make in a lyric is if I happened to make a typo. Mark then studies the script and begins to imagine the staging. The casting calls go out, and I may go to see the callbacks or I may just look at the photos and resumes of the callbacks.
If the script seems long, I may go to a readthrough to make suggestions for edits. But I generally give Mark the freedom to stage the play. He’s an inspired director. He’s also a set designer. He invariably delivers an exceptional staging, with a surprisingly elaborate set for a publicly funded, nonprofit theater. One reason is, he’s also the head of production at the theater, so he has all its resources at his fingertips.
I go on opening night and see what they’ve done. I’m always pleased with the overall presentation, but will give Mark’s assistant director, Danielle Hauser, any script notes I feel are urgent, indicating lines the actors may be misspeaking or staging events Mark has created that I may not find consonant with the work.
One finally learns to work with talented people and invite their contributions. If you make too many suggestions, especially early on, you turn the actors and the production team into marionettes. You attach so many strings to them that all they can do is mimic your vision of the play. As a result, you deny yourself the inspirations they can add to your work.
Q: How did you find the process of adapting Bertrand Russell’s autobiography into the stage play, Bertrand Russell: This Has Been My Life? What were the challenges involved?
A: I had read most of “Bertie’s” philosophical works and have long recommended his popular A History of Western Philosophy to anybody who wants a clear and enjoyable overview of philosophical thought from a scientifically minded modern. I decided the basic source for the play would be his Autobiography.
When I felt in control of the material, I began to write it as a drama, or character in action, that opened with his meeting his first wife-to-be in a London park he frequented as a child. As I wrote more of the play, I realized the other characters were primarily serving to ask him questions, so he might provide answers that would cover the valuable content I felt he could contribute to the present. In other words, I realized the other characters were functioning in inauthentic ways and the form was getting in the way of the most valuable content.
I decided that Lord Russell was a character who had the ideas, wit, and humanity to hold the stage for an evening on his own. So I wrote a one-man play called Bertrand Russell: This Has Been My Life.
To give it some dramatic magnitude and provide a surprise toward the end, I staged a debate about the nuclear threat. The debate actually took place, between him and Lord Gladwyn, an especially acute English diplomat.
Q: What are the different challenges that arise when writing either a play or a musical? Do you prefer one genre to the other?
A: Good question. I always begin the same way. I write a play. If it’s a straight play, I’m done. If it’s a musical, I go through it and look for, in Ira Gershwin’s phrase, “lyrical occasions.” They’re developmental moments or emotional epiphanies that cry out to rise to lyrical expressions. When I’ve selected enough of them to complete the libretto, I go through them, opening to end, and write them.
Q: You write about a wide range of topics. Where does your inspiration come from?
A: I’m always thinking about the times and wondering what character might be able to express something with high social value, that is–and I say it because I believe it–for the benefit of humanity. I find that from time to time I realize what I feel is the most urgent thing that needs to be staged and, once I do, I start to imagine the character who would be appropriate to personify the metaphor I create to express it.
The media fills our lives with information. The theater provides a unique opportunity to get beneath it and reveal the effects of it on us.