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Writing for Us
Thomas McCormack, a 70-year-young playwright, talks about his Off-Broadway debut play Endpapers
By Elyse Sommer
TM: I left Harvard to write a novel. I worked at it intermittently for seven or eight years without getting halfway through. In 1969 I reread it after years away from it, and the distance allowed me to see that the prose was lucid, supple,"graceful" -- and totally derivative (largely of Fitzgerald). The only aspect of any fresh merit seemed to be the dialog. Slow wit that I am, I finally grasped that what I ought to be writing is plays. I sat down and wrote a full-length play in sixteen days. That was practice. I then wrote American Roulette, a one-act play. This was 1969, the same year I joined St. Martin's Press.
CU: That one-acter gained you entrance to the Edward Albee-Richard Barr Playwrights Unit. Although you concentrated on your publishing career did you stay in touch with your colleagues in that group -- Shepard, Guare, Gurney, McNally -- and will any of them be coming to see Endpapers?
TM: I imagine some may come if the play survives -- but not because they remember me personally. I recall a party that Albee and Barr had in 1972 for all the Unit members -- by then there were about thirty. I wandered about in the room and realized I didn't recognize a single face.
CU: You mentioned that American Roulette is in print and still being performed. What, in a nutshell, was that about and where is it being performed.
TM: I think its major appeal to the Dramatists Play Service -- and to the Playwright's Unit -- was that it was timely, and it was bite-sized. It had only three characters -- a waspy man and woman, corporate types, and the black man they were, with hardly veiled condescension, interviewing as a job candidate. I suspect the Unit took it on because they had a bright young would-be director named Richard Lipset, and this quasi-surrealistic long one-acter seemed like a good initial project for him.
CU: When you did start writing again you were still working and so wrote more or less on the fly at airports and on vacation. Is Endpapers the product of that airport and vacation writing? Could you detail the timeline?
TM: I'd started Endpapers back in 1971 -- but that was just as St. Martin's began to soar in size so I shelved it. I began writing plays again in the mid-nineties and in 1999 took Endpapers off the shelf and began to revise it.
CU: Could you also give some details about the timeline of the play's evolution from page to stage? At what point did you show the script to someone who might help you to get it produced? To whom did you show it -- agents producing friends, other playwrights, etc.? Were there any readings, workshops, revisions? Did Paula Vogel whom you mention in connection with The McCormack Family Theater at Brown read it?
TM: No, I didn't inflict it on Paula, who I'm sure would have forced herself to read it out of gratitude for getting the theater. First I showed it to a playwright-friend who said wildly nice things about it. Then to Oskar Eustis at Trinity, who said emphatically this would be produced -- but not in its then-present form (it had nineteen speaking parts, 157 pages, 30,000 words). I showed it to a number of producers, most of whom rejected it without comment, but a couple of whom said they liked it but thought it unproducible. Then I showed it to Ben Mordecai, who perceived there was a viable play buried in here, and handed me a shovel.
CU: Getting a new play produced is not easy -- so tell us a little bit about how you managed to achieve this full-scale production at a major Off-Broadway venue? Did your connections and experience as a publisher help?
TM: My connections as a publisher helped not at all. To this day I don't have an agent. (I do have a lawyer to handle my contracts.) I had an agent -- Helen Merrill -- but when she died, the agent in her office who inherited me clearly felt I was hopeless and flatly stopped responding to my correspondence. So I sent the script to a man at William Morris I'd worked with -- as a publisher -- for twenty-five years, sometimes fairly closely. I never heard from him -- had an assistant in his office send me a form rejection.
In my tender, mature years, I decided I'd avoid this kind of experience hereafter with agents. I'd go directly to producers. So I enrolled in Fred Vogel's 14-week Commercial Theater Institute seminar for would-be producers. The plan was to eye the producers who came to talk to us. That's where I met Ben Mordecai.
CU: How would you liken and differentiate the process of getting a play seen with getting a book published?
TM: When I was in publishing, I used to think books had a long gestation period. Books now feel like newspapers compared to plays. Ben and I agreed 34 months ago to begin developing Endpapers. Books take, say, six months from the moment of accepting the final manuscript to publication. Of course, what "development" is to a play, "editing" is to a book. Books do sometimes stay a long time in revision.
There are many, many fewer new plays staged than books published. For one thing, a play is far more expensive. Endpapers is an Off-Broadway production, but still Ben tells me it will take about $1,000,000 to mount. A small book can cost less than $15,000. For another, there are far more originating publishers in America than there are originating theaters. There's lots more that might be said, but it would require researching statistics. At this accelerating stage in my life, I know I won't find the time to do that.
CU: You mentioned having other theater projects in the pipeline, all different genres since you are still finding your voice as a playwright. You say that you deliberately chose an orthodox, straight-forward story-with-characters play to launch your second career -- a rather practical attitude that seems to contradict the frequently heard comment from writers about a story and characters choosing them rather than the other way around?
TM: The idea of writing a "recognizable" play set in a book publishing house came from a theater-savvy friend who read two other full-length scripts I wrote in the nineties. Both of those are what I'd call "theatrically adventurous." One of them-— if you can believe this—- is a father-daughter play, with a father who is a mathematician and the daughter who is "damaged" in some way, and the core action is driven by a mathematical proof. When I showed it around three or four years ago, everyone said the likes of, "Intriguing, but a play involving mathematics -- are you nuts"
The other one -- the most fun to write -- is a Restoration Comedy set in the twenty-first century. Word-play galore, farcical events, even a mild touch of reckless surrealism. Happily, lots of folk read it, claimed they loved it, and gave me heady optimism about it. It was actually on its way into development when, in a CEO's high dudgeon, I fired the director for not showing up for appointments. Just then I was given responsibility for half a dozen publishers besides St. Martin's, I was buried in work -- and I decided to retire. So I postponed finding a new director.
Meantime the savvy guy said this thing is very funny, inventive, unlike anything else being attempted -- and that's the problem. Best get your name established by writing an orthodox play about, say, a book publisher. Well, shucks, I happen to have right here a first draft of just such a play. thus I pulled Endpapers off the shelf.
CU: You mention some concerns and opinions about age -- yet, wouldn't you say that your timing is especially good in this season of older writers and thespians in the limelight-- not only Miller and Foote and Albee but actors like Elaine Stritch being the toast of the town?
TM: Yes and no -- mostly no. All those folk were established long ago. We KNOW they've been capable of great things. I can't say that skepticism about a seventy-year-old debuting writer is unreasonable. "If this guy had any talent, where's he been? Is he a geezer who, in his retirement, just took up playwriting instead of basket-weaving to pass the time? And let's face it, sure, some writers continue after they're seventy, but how many of them are really any good? There's always something hobbled-with-age about their stuff, no? What we want most of all from debuting writers is something fresh and new, and -- forgive the political incorrectness -- what are the chances of getting that from a relic who's actually now in his eighth decade? Get real." In sum, if you're already a very famous old guy, with a built-in devoted following, that's one thing. But if you're an unknown? Who's never had a full-length play produced before? "That's no doubt the only funny thing about this guy's efforts."
CU: Also, since you bring up the subject of time, you retired to write plays -- to do what you always wanted to do before it was too late. Yet, you spent spent two years writing a PW column when you admittedly had a lot of catching up to do. While this probably didn't take up an enormous amount of time it nevertheless must have diverted you somewhat from your retirement goal. Could a touch of writer's block have been at play here?
TM: No, happily, no writer's block. I wrote two full-length plays, and a bunch of shorter things, all waiting for me to prove, with Endpapers, that I'm not theatrically clueless. There is a huge amount of down-time while you wait by the phone either for news about whether or not someone is interested, or for the next step in the "development" process to go forward. For example, Ben Mordecai said flatly in July of 2001 that we'd produce Endpapers in the coming season. It's been eleven months since then till opening night. Besides, the PW assignment required one 800-word column a month. I could jig that out between breakfast and lunch.
CU: Aside from the straighforward kitchensink format you mention, how would you classify Endpapers? Comedy, drama, problem play? How would you define its theme?
TM: Well, it's distinctly not kitchen-sink. Because publishers are people who make their living with words, they're a fairly sophisticated gang -- extensive education, hyper-articulate -- and employed. My own passion is for high rhetoric. I confess I prefer Stoppard to Mamet. In a fit of megalomania, I took as my original structural model a Shakespearean play about the succession of kings. (In Endpapers the grand old Chairman and CEO is dying, and a successor must be chosen.) It's important that this play evoke a goodly number of laughs because in many ways, it is "tragic": Josh, Grover, Ted and Griff all lose their way in life. It's a tale of immense potentials gone wrong. I need humor to leaven that, and a hopeful ending too because I honestly don't think all lives are misspent.
CU: You mention preferring Stoppard to Mamet. Which playwrights overall would you say have made the deepest impression on you 1. as a theatergoer and 2. as a playwright? TM: Except for seeing my daughter Jessie as Reno Sweeney in college, the single most stunning night in theater for me was when I was eighteen and saw Death of A Salesman. Also when I was young, Zefferelli's Romeo and Juliet had me levitating. And Albee's The American Dream, Van Itallie's America Hurrah. When I first encountered Pinter, it was his The Caretaker, and I was speechless (Pinter's effect has worn off for me over the years).From this past generation whole plays are hard to name. One of my heresies is that, of all the plays of the past twenty-five years, I think the one most likely still to be staged a hundred years from now is Frayn's Noises Off. Still, there have been marvelous moments recently. The first act of McNally's Lisbon Traviata. The scene in Friel's Transalations with the guy and girl speaking different languages but understanding one another perfectly was magic. So was the moment when they broke into the dance in his Lughnasa.
I'd love to stun you with surprises about who has influenced me as a playwright, but I can't: Shakespeare, Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde. Later, Ionesco and Orton. In its fast-cut, multi-scenic structure, Endpapers was no doubt influenced by film.
CU: At what point of the play did you come up with its title? Will there be anything in the program notes to tell people not familiar with the double entendre of a title that applies to a bookbinding term and your lead character's exit from the publishing world?
TM: Tender point. The play's title was House -- and then Alan Ayckbourn beat us to the New York starting gate with his House. I had other thoughts, but the commercial voices weren't taken with them. Since one of my hopes is that Endpapers will survive and prosper, I went with the alleged experts. Endpapers came not from me but from the advertising agency. No, it won't be explained in the playbill. ( Note: The play's trial run as House in Los Angeles was reviewed by our own Laura Hitchcock -- e.s.). CU: Now that the play is being readied for prime time can you talk a bit about your input into the process with director, actors, stagecraft people.
TM: Another tender point, perhaps. Protocol requires that the playwright never talk to the actors -- except to say how great they are. During rehearsals, I'd see them struggling with a "meaning" or where the emphasis is supposed to be, and I'd know the exact answer, so I'd sit there nearly bursting with frustration. It was gratifying to see how often they finally found the thing.
There are lots of gifts I don't bring to being a playwright, but one that I do is this: I HEAR every line in my head. And I know why every single thing is in there. If this sounds like I think I should be the director, no -- I shouldn't be. Pam Berlin can do all sorts of things I can't, and she was extremely valuable early on in her comments on the script -- getting me, for example, to make cuts. Writers can fools about their own material. Since I'd revised the play many times on my own, I was aware there were lots of things I didn't get right on first try, or second, or. . .. So I listened to suggestions, and accepted many -- though not all.
CU: Has there been a lot of rewriting since you first finished the play?
TM: Tons. First draft had nineteen characters who appeared onstage. I feel like the 007 of playwrights -- licensed to kill -- and I did it eight times. We now see eleven chracters. The first draft's 157 pages is now 97. There are two reasons for all this -- one general, one particular. The particular one has to do with the specific play in front of me when I begin. Novelists and playwrights will often talk about the necessity to "find" the thing, and that's what I had to do. The original title was actually "G", in quotation marks. Because Griff signed his rejection letters with just a G. But then other characters began to grow -- especially Ted and Sara, it was no longer Griff's play, and so I changed the title. And the action. And the words. And the play.
The general reason for the amount of rewriting was that it is my first full-length produced play, and I had to learn many aspects of the sheer craft of theater -- and that's what the writing of "Endpapers " did for me. It was my art school.
CU: What do you hope audiences will take away from the play?
TM: I know damn well I haven't written Death of a Salesmam or Streetcar. And it isn't Noises Off in its hilarity. Prokofiev was already well into creating the revolutionary compositions that advanced serious music in the twentieth century when he sat down and wrote his Classical Symphony. He wrote it to appeal to those who still longed for the sound of the Golden Age in music -- and to show that he could do it. I want people who see Endpapers to feel they've spent an evening at theater that engaged them throughout with a gripping story, intriguing characters, high wit, and a level of rhetoric that pleases -- and shows them the writer does not feel they have to be dumbed-down for. It's strange that filmmakers allow for intelligence in their audience to a degree theater today seldom does -- I mean filmmakers whose repeated source for material over the past decade has been Jane Austen, Henry James, Edith Wharton, E.M. Forster -- and Shakespeare.
If I succeed with this play, then, if and when my "more adventurous" plays are mounted, audiences will know they come from someone who's not merely flying on amateur instinct. If they depart from the classical, it isn't because I'm ignorant of how to do it; if they fail, it'll mean I simply lack the talent to do it.
CU: What are some favorite lines from the script?
TM: Authors get stupidly infatuated with their darlings especially when they think they're being funny, so I'll skip my alleged laugh-lines here. Here are a few others that come to mind:
"Saints make lousy CEOs."
"Tragic heroes are almost always tragic fools."
"In biography, there are no lessons -- only stories."
"That's when I grasped the absurdity of heaven."
And the lines key to the "theme" of the play:
"There are," he said, "demands from and effects on CEOs you may never grasp.What it takes. . .and what it takes away."