Has writing always been an interest of yours, or were you initially more focused on other areas of theatre?
It has. I was writing as a small kid. I used to make little stages out of shoe boxes and act out my “original works” with my troll dolls and Lego people. (Don’t judge me; I was an only child!) For added theatricality, I’d place my sets on my Crayola brand record player and turn the whole thing into a revolving stage, though I never really learned how to control the speed on the revolve, and whenever I tried to spin the stage, all the pieces and characters would go flying off the stage like some sort of melodrama play set in a tilt-a-whirl. These plays were always high drama kitchen sink situations with all the pathos and gun-wielding, vengeful lover characters of your every day telenovella… only with troll dolls. Listen, my early work was very conceptual.
As I got older, I got very into acting. I acted professionally and for the love of it from the age of about nine through maybe 25. I loved every minute of it, and I wouldn’t take it back for anything. I’d always thought I would pursue both acting and writing, with writing taking a back seat. But as I started writing more seriously (with roles for actual people, instead of plastic, pug-Faced, hair creatures) I learned that writing takes backseat to nothing. Also, I found writing a lot more challenging. It tugged at me and demanded more of me.
While at Loyola, the theater gods blessed me with an amazing mentor, Nick Patricca, who remains a dear friend and mentor to this day. Under Nick’s guidance, I was able to sneak out my very first full length play (besides TROLL! THE MUSICAL), and Loyola ended up producing it in the Mullady Theater under the expert direction of Sarah Gabel. I mean… what a HUGE opportunity. I don’t even know if I appreciated at the time just how generous and risky a choice that was for the Loyola Theater Department. I’m pretty sure every move I made during that entire process was wrong, but it taught me so much, gave me a safe space to fail and make the silly choice, and then learn from it before being kicked every so gently and Ad-Majorem-Dei-Gloriam-ly into the world.
At that point, I was still thinking I wanted to pursue acting as well as writing. But shortly after college, Sarah Gabel recommended I check out this month-long writers retreat in a Castle outside of Edinburgh, Scotland. I applied thinking there was no possible way I would be accepted.
I used the time at the castle (Castle. Seriously. There was a dungeon.) to test whether I could spend every working hour of the day writing, researching, reading, creating. I learned that not only could I use every hour, but that there weren’t enough hours in the day to dedicate to the all-consuming craft of writing a play. After the castle, I returned to Chicago called my acting agent, politely broke up with him, and threw myself head first into writing.
Where did you find the inspiration for your pieces in Illuminating Voices: “Lake is East” and “Ex Libris”?
For Ex Libris, I’m not sure. I’m a huge bibliophile, and I’m that most likely had something to do with it. I’m also constantly trying to guard against turning into a cranky old dude who damns every piece of technology based simply on the fact that it’s new and different. My New Year’s resolution for 2012 was to identify things from modern technology that I actually appreciate. So far I’ve come up with Penicillin and the Delete Key. I still have a few months to come up with more. So, you know, I have to be careful not to slip into nostalgiarrhea, and I value the people in my life who aren’t afraid to pull me into this century kicking and screaming.
Lake is East had two points of entry for me. One: I used to be a Lake Shore Campus tour guide when I was a student here. Though, the campus I toured was MUCH different than the campus now. When I was given the prompt to set the play somewhere on campus, I realized I no longer knew the Loyola Lake Shore campus. So I decided to take a tour to familiarize myself with Lake Shore Campus 4.0. And then it hit me that, rather than pick a spot on campus, I could just pick the whole campus. My second inspiration came from the theater’s namesake. I have always been a huge fan of Bob Newhart, especially his stand-up. I think it’s fascinating how he lets the audience do half of the work. He never delivers a punch line, only set ups. It’s up to the audience to fill in the unheard punch line on our own, and it’s deadly funny. It takes Magician Level Five expertise to pull something like that off, but I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to attempt it. Originally, I’d imagined Lake is East as a solo piece, but as I went on with it, it started telling me it wanted two voices, two bodies that needed to interact at some point. I tried to maintain that original Newhart stand-up spirit. Though it grew into something very different, the seed for Lake is East definitely came from there.
How did your time as a student at Loyola did impact you as an artist?
Loyola was comforting, it was safe, accepting. I needed that. I needed that in order to be the theatre artist I wanted to be. I got hit with super-sized love and acceptance, and it came at me from every corner of this campus, not just the theater department. I desperately needed that acceptance.
Also, as far as my education, I really appreciated that core curriculum. I teach now, and I always tell my students, “There is no class you can take that isn’t a playwriting class.” It’s our job as writers and artists to throw ourselves into the world. So many of my first plays sprung out of snippets I learned from my Philosophy teachers and Math professors. I have a play premiering next year that’s based on something I read in a history class at Loyola. That was twelve years ago. It stays with me.
My Loyola mentors and teachers played a huge role in helping me along my artistic journey, and they continue to do so. I’m so proud and pleased and humbled to be back on a Loyola stage, a new one. A new journey, for all of us.
What were your thoughts when you were approached about taking part in the Illuminating Voices project?
“Where do I sign?”
Also “Don’t put me after Ledo. I can’t follow that much funny.”
The credits and accolades for your work are vast, what advice would you give to aspiring playwrights?
My advice would be: Write. Write, write, write. And be patient. I have to remind myself of that ALL the time. The theater is a slow-cooker. If you want bing-bang-boom, you might want to do something else. This thing takes time, heaploads of time. And while you’re being patient, continue to write.
Also, take care of your whole self. Don’t be afraid to feed your soul. If a scene isn’t working, and Isn’t working, and ISN’T working, the problem might not be on the page. The problem might be that you hate your haircut, or that you skipped yoga, or that you haven’t seen your best friend in a while. Every playwright needs something outside the play that centers him or her.I’m not advocating for finding distractions, but keep your self in good working condition. If the mind isn’t healthy, the script won’t be either. Eat a sandwich.
What impact do you believe the opening of the Newhart Family Theatre will have on the arts at Loyola?
I think it’ll be huge, especially if it finds a way to integrate itself fully into the Rogers Park community. I think this theater is an excellent new venue for the entire neighborhood, not just the campus. I know the Jesuit spirit that fuels this university won’t let this place stagnate, it’ll share it. Bring the world in, be a true venue. And that’s exciting.
Also, I think the particular design of this space will be a great training ground for Chicago theatre artists. This theater more closely resembles the type of theater students will encounter in Chicago when they graduate. Odds are, you won’t be acting or designing in huge auditoriums straight out of the gate. You’ll be working in spaces like this. I think it’s the perfect training platform for young, soon-to-be Chicago professionals.