The Playwright’s Playground – The Playmakers CATF 2015: Part 5: Playwright Michael Weller on ‘The Full Catastrophe’

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This Special Edition of The Playwright’s Playground begins ‘The Playmaker Series: CATF 2015.’ In a series of in depth conversations, I speak with the artistic teams associated with the plays at this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival. Playwrights, and the Directors share revealing behind the scene insights about their inspirations and the development of their new plays.

Meet Playwright Michael Weller.

Playwright Michael Weller. Photo by Lia Chang.

Playwright Michael Weller. Photo by Lia Chang.

When did you write The Full Catastrophe and how many drafts went into what we see on stage today?

I just checked my computer files and see that the first draft is dated 9-11-2010.There have been 21 drafts since then, which is about average for me.

The comic genius of this World Premiere play is based on a novel (from 1990) by David Carkeet. Why now for the play version? What was the process and the steps taken over the years for you to complete this witty, funny and smart play.

First of all, thanks for the enthusiasm. The project was originally brought to me for a movie script. It had evidently had a rush of interest from Hollywood after its initial publication, but the screenplays they commissioned didn’t work. After reading the book I understood the problem, and knew how to fix it. But I also understood that once Hollywood has tried and failed to set something up as a film, it is laid forever in a dead file called “Coverage.” Picture a coffin with ideas inside.

So I suggested that I could solve the story-telling glitch of the novel, but that until we could demonstrate that my solution worked, we’d never get close to a film company. So by writing it as a play, and showing how my solution made the underlying point of this wonderful novel satisfying and clear, as well as lots of fun, we might help disinter the project from “Coverage,” and give it a second life. Only when I started working on the play proper did I realize how beautifully, naturally suited it was to the stage.

Why do you write? More specifically why do you write plays?

When I write for hire, I do it for income. When I write for myself, I do it to stay sane.

When in your childhood or later did you know that you wanted a life in the theater and the arts?

These are two slightly different questions. There was never a moment where I “knew” I wanted to spend a life in the arts. My parents were both artists, and I tried to flee their destiny by studying to become an airline pilot or a marine biologist. In other words, up in the air, or under water…anywhere but the surface of the earth where I’d watched their life unfold. But I’m basically a creature of habit, and a bit lazy, and I have no real exploratory derring-do in my nature, so I chose their habitat.

I don’t know that I ever thought about “a life in the theatre,” either. Broadway held no interest for me. People in the very few Broadway plays I saw growing up (two?) seemed fake and embarrassing, all those big gestures and those weird voices they use that you never hear anywhere outside a playhouse. But when my father took me off-Broadway (in the 1960s) to see Pinter and Beckett and John Arden and Brecht, and in particular Albee’s Zoo Story, I heard a music in the words that was new, and it got to me – something intuitive and inexplicable. I wanted to make sounds as exciting as that, and to tell stories that were unexpected, illuminating, with a pulse and a life that challenged while it entertained.

How was your artistic process different with this play than when you work on television, musicals, and film?

In this play, though initially a “work-for-hire,” the material quickly sneaked up on me and took me over. Its hard to describe, but the novel felt like something I might have written myself if I had a talent for prose (which I don’t). All that really mattered was that the author of the book was willing to let me impose my little tweak on the story so that it worked as I envisioned.

In film and television I’m a gun “for hire” and I must take notes from my employer. Also, I can be fired, because I’m an employee. But when I write a play, I call the shots. People can make “suggestions” for changes, but the final decision is mine. That’s the way I like it.

What have been your greatest challenges with this work?

The main challenge was to balance various elements of the comedy with the emotional journey of the main characters. The play is “about” learning from your mistakes, and if it became either just a lecture, or a series of giddy comic moments, we’d miss the lovely chemistry of the novel – its blend of surreal social comedy and romantic roller-coaster.

What I love most about the nature of the material is that it is both a wonderful “ride” and a subtle exploration of self-blindness. The conceit that drives it is handled in such a light-hearted way, it allows you to experience the work as a piece of pure entertainment, or as a deeper exploration of how we repeat our errors over and over.

One of my favorite plays of all time is She Stoops to Conquer, by the 18th Century British playwright Oliver Goldsmith – often forgotten these days. Goldsmith is one of those rare good souls who manage to be funny, incisive and moving at once. He’s able to entertain us and expose a certain nerve-end that exists where class confidence and erotic confidence intersect. You never catch him at it, but you walk away from the play enormously satisfied by an insight demonstrated with exactly the right spirit.

In the ninety minutes of the play, what do you hope is the take away for audiences?

Most of all I want an audience to feel they’ve had as much (as rich) a good time as they’d have had watching their favorite TV show, movie, or sports event. I told a friend when I began this project that I was about to make the most radical assumption I’d ever made in writing a play; I’d pretend that theatre is a popular art form. Which is what in fact I have tried to do…to entertain intelligently.

If the role of the artist is to tell the truth, what does The Full Catastrophe reveal?

I really don’t know what the “role” of an artist is. Do you? Does anyone? Are we really truth tellers? I know plenty of artists who are liars and frauds. But they make beautiful things. I prefer the notion of artists as artisans, makers of artifacts (in my case stories on stage), and if we manage to consistently achieve superior results, we can ask to be called “artists” (in the sense of superior artisans).

In that light, what The Full Catastrophe reveals is very simple; that humans beings often fail to realize that they are committing the same errors time and again, and that watching them do so can be lots of fun.

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The Full Catastrophe plays through August 2, 2015, at the Contemporary American Theater Festival performing in the Marinoff Theater – Center for Contemporary Arts/II – 62 West Campus Drive, in Shepherdstown, WV. For tickets, call the box office at (304) 876-3473/(800) 999-2283, or purchase them online.

LINKS
The Playwright’s Playground – The Playmakers CATF 2015: Part 1: Playwright Barbara Hammond on ‘We Are Pussy Riot.’

The Playwright’s Playground – The Playmakers CATF 2015: Part 2: Director May Adrales on ‘Everything You Touch.”

The Playwright’s Playground – The Playmakers CATF 2015: Part 3: Director Nicole A. Watson on ‘World Builders.’

The Playwright’s Playground – The Playmakers CATF 2015: Part 4: Playwright Sheila Callaghan on ‘Everything You Touch.‘

The Playwright’s Playground – The Playmakers CATF 2015: Part 5: Playwright Michael Weller on ‘The Full Catastrophe.’

Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.

Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.

The Playwright’s Playground is a monthly in-depth conversation with local female playwrights and artists in the D.C. theatre community. Female theatre artists make up more than 50 percent of those involved in the theatre, yet the number of female playwrights being produced is dramatically lower. In this continuing Column, I will also interview and introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights in the DMV area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and their motivations.

Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.

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