DRAMA INTERVIEW QUESTIONS FOR PETER MARINO [easy-media med=”8444″ mark=”gallery-SwBw1J”]
AC: We so enjoyed your one-act play, Ralph Smith of Schenectady, New York’s Coming-Out-to-His-Wife Options. It’s tremendous fun to read, and dripping with smart humor, but also unexpected poignancy at moments, too. Could you share with us a bit about how Ralph came to you – as an idea, a character, an image? Maybe it sprung from a writing prompt? Feel free to also share where and how you think writers can “find” their best stories.
PM: I am an Anne Lamott devotee and I use her Bird by Bird as my freshman comp text, partly because it is not a textbook. (Also, I suspect she and writing theorist Peter Elbow are spiritual twins.) Anyway, Lamott’s Kid Against the Fence theory centers on the idea that a writer—me in this case—needs to trust the mess and uncertainty, and then what I’m supposed to write about will be revealed. I didn’t know who Ralph was when I started him. He was amorphous, just a guy realizing he was middle aged and unaccomplished. One day while I was trudging through his pages, it came to me that a man turning fifty could have deeper regrets if he hadn’t reconciled himself to his sexuality much earlier on. So Ralph became a married man who lived very conventionally and respectably in his community. But he had an alternate—and very aggressively adventurous—existence that his neighbors (and wife and children) didn’t know about. I was fascinated by the parallel realities he had to maintain, the camouflage of normality and the wild subterfuge. Then I couldn’t stop writing, and managed to generate a book’s worth of short stories, all with Ralph as the protagonist.
AC: Many poets and writers of fiction and non-fiction can find drama (stage plays and screenplays) intimidating because of the very different form. We were wondering if you could walk us through your process of determining if a story belongs as a novel, short story, or play? How did you know with Ralph…?
PM: Well, about that book…I worked on those stories for years. But somehow I was never satisfied with them, either individually or as a collection, and I never sent them to my then-agent. The character had come to life and his stories were important, but the delivery wasn’t working. In the early 2000s, I needed to take more courses for my next promotion, so I enrolled in a graduate-level playwriting class. In rooting around for material, I realized that even though the Ralph stories were rather moribund in their current form, I had a cache of ideas for short plays. I started experimenting with the first story, where Ralph grapples with the idea of being honest with his wife because he hates the secret, though he doesn’t necessarily want to give up the contents of that other life. By chance, the prose from the stories gave me a lot of workable lines of dialogue, and Ralph’s story started to pop instead of slog along as it had been.
AC: On that note, could you share with us what you believe is the distinction between a skit and a 10-minute play?
PM: Funny you should ask… A skit depends on a comic set-up. The characters may be interesting or unique or even sympathetic, but the purpose of the skit is ultimately to get people to laugh at or with the character, not to reveal him or her in a moral light, as Lamott puts it. The ten-minute play, even with its time constraints, has to show us something about who’s on stage, and what their truth is. And if it can be done with humor, all the better. (Oy…we have all sat through very earnest but humorless pieces by playwrights who’ve invested deeply in their characters, to the point where the audience wishes it were a Two Minute festival….) Anyway, the playwriting instructor abhorred the first draft I brought in of Ralph Smith of Schenectady…, saying something to the effect that as a fan of my writing, he was advising me to delete the file altogether. The women in the class hated the way Madge was portrayed in that version, and one told me I would never find an actor willing to debase herself to play her. Usually I am torpedoed by such reactions, and in normal circumstances that would have been the end of Ralph. But maybe I was feeling uncharacteristically confident or philosophical, (or maybe indignant, because I was twenty years older than the next oldest student) because something potent in that landslide of hostility and ridicule registered in me: something about how dismissive I had been of Ralph and Madge, like I was making fun of them to get laughs. So I went home and defiantly rewrote, taking care to let the characters make the plot unfold because of who they were. I brought it back to class a few weeks later (again, not like me…) and the reception was completely reversed. I managed to get it into the university’s ten-minute festa, and it was a huge hit as far as audience response. As I write this I hear arrogance, which is pretty well the inverse of my self-deprecating soul; but the point is I trusted the philosophy that the process will make revelations when it’s good and ready. I can’t force it, no matter how much I want a skit to be a play.
AC: That’s a fantastic anecdotal reminder for our readers to keep at it – even after a particularly discouraging workshop. Thanks for that.
As you know, this particular issue of Mason’s Road showcases pieces that relate to the theme of transformation. Clearly, your play was an exceptional fit! As an author, have you ever struggled to find inventive ways to show how a character may evolve or transform throughout a piece? Do you have any thoughts on how we can (believably and creatively) convey a character’s arc in our stories?
PM: I don’t think a character has to have some amazing revelation, mainly because I usually don’t trust my own such moments—it takes a while for me to comprehend them, and even longer for me to trust them, if ever. (Also, the only thing I’m ever really certain about is doubt…) But something does need to change in a character. They don’t necessarily have to move from ignorance to enlightenment, but they can move closer to understanding (or rationality or decency or forgiveness). I always struggle with character transformation; in first drafts I tend to write stories that have character sketches rather than character movement. How many times has someone critiqued a manuscript of mine and said that the protagonist was appealing and funny, but nothing happened. It might be that I need to put my characters in the worst situation they can be in, so they can show me what they’re made of. For example, my boy Tristan in my young adult novel Dough Boy was incredibly self-conscious about his weight, way moreso than he needed to be considering how much anyone was actually paying attention to him. And the worst thing that could happen to him was clumsiness, humiliation in front of others. So for him, getting tripped carrying his tray in the school cafeteria with its huge audience was something like devastation. I didn’t initially want to get him in trouble…I liked him too much. But he needed to move forward, keep learning who he was as he experienced the things teenagers have to confront, and not be a museum piece.
AC: I love that. Thank you, Peter, for sharing your thoughts and experiences with such candor, warmth, and wisdom. This kind of dialogue, when stumbled on at the right time, is what always seems to reenergize me as a writer, and I’m sure many of our readers are the same.
Any one last thing you’d like to share with us?
PM: One thing about drama that I find thrilling is the benefit of hearing my words aloud, and not just out loud, but interpreted by actors and directors. Staged readings are the best for a work-in-progress, because every dead spot will be obvious. The potential laughs will stand out. But there’s nothing quite like watching a full production, where I’m sitting in the audience reminding myself that I wrote every word coming from the stage. It is a kind of validation, like being published is; it’s a reward for all the tediousness of day-to-day writing, and it’s the best addiction I’ve ever suffered.