The Writer’s Hot Seat: Wendy MacLeod on Playwrighting, Good Writing, and Teaching That Keeps You Honest

18 March 2014 on Blog, The Writer's Hot Seat   Tags: ,

Interview by Sarah Earle

I’ve known Wendy MacLeod since I was little and splashing around in the New Hampshire lake where Wendy also spent summer holidays.  She had a beach ritual: while her sons played, Wendy sat on a low folding chair in the shade and plowed through books. As a kid, I was bewildered: why wouldn’t someone want to spend the morning—and most of the afternoon—yanking freshwater mussels up from the lake bottom?  Now that my vacations are best spent lounging with a dog-eared paperback, I wonder how these precious hours could be spent not reading?  Wendy had it right.

Wendy MacLeod is the playwright-in-residence at Kenyon College and the artistic director of the Kenyon Playwrights Conference.  She is the author of the play The House of Yes, which was made into an award-winning Miramax film starring Parker Posey. In the fall of 2013, her play, The Ballad of Bonnie Prince Chucky, premiered at Aberdeen Performing Arts in Scotland and will premiere this summer at A.C.T.’s Youth Conservatory.  Her play, Women in Jeopardy! will premiere next season at the GeVa Theater in Rochester, NY. Wendy MacLeod’s prose has appeared on Salon, The Rumpus, All Things Considered, and in The New York Times, among other publications.

This interview occurred in October, 2013.

Barnstorm:  Hi Wendy! What are you working on right now?

Wendy MacLeod: I'm working in a variety of media right now.  I'm developing an idea for television, I'm revising a screenplay of my play Schoolgirl Figure, and I'm writing a new play that asks: what if Jesus were born today?  And what if Jesus were born a girl?

My play for young actors, The Ballad of Bonnie Prince Chucky, is about to premiere in Scotland and then I'll do an American version for next summer's production at the American Conservatory Theater's Youth Conservatory in San Francisco.

B: You’re known for writing humorous—sometimes darkly humorous—plays, as well as plays that are politically driven.  Are the ideas for your pieces often inspired by real life experiences? Novels? Pure imagination?

WM: Many are inspired by stories that I hear.  For example, The Ballad of Bonnie Prince Chucky was inspired by the story of two players with the same name on the Kenyon rugby team. They battled for the rights to the name and the victor got to name the loser.  The loser was dubbed Trixie, but he went on to own his new name and became captain of the team.

B: You’ve said that comedy is hard to write, and that the art of writing comedy is to make it look easy.  Have you had to work on this over the years?  What is your secret?

WM:  Writing comedy comes naturally to me, and theater audiences are primed to laugh, so the challenge is to go for the deeper laugh, the truly surprising laugh, as opposed to falling in to the familiar rhythms of set up and joke. And ideally your comedy is grounded in emotional texture and truth, so that the laugh is one of recognition.

B: You are a playwright who also writes non-fiction essays and humor pieces grounded in fiction.  Have you always been so cross-genre savvy? How do you feel the genres influence each other?

WM: Good writing is good writing.  Many of the same principles apply.  Good writing demands specifics, inverting the expected, and the willingness to pare down and select.  And good writing in any form takes time and multiple drafts. But those new to playwriting often don't understand the form; playwriting is not about language.

At the same time, I'm humbled by novelists who delve into the complex process of seeing the world through a variety of points of view, and who are able to capture their characters' internal and external lives. I have actors to help me find the characters' inner lives.  I'm also humbled by screenwriters who conceive of the world visually, and understand how very little needs to be said.

I considered MFA fiction programs, but went to Yale School of Drama instead.  A few years ago, I realized that I didn't have to abandon my earlier literary ambitions, that I was allowed to write fiction, non-fiction, and plays.

B: How has teaching writing helped and/or hindered your own creative writing process?

WM:  Teaching keeps you honest.  You have to hold your own work up to the standards you've set for them.  The catch is that teaching is satisfying, meaningful work, which can leave you with less energy and ambition for your own writing. And of course anything that you want to do well demands time.  But still, teaching is one of the best jobs there is.  Those teacher/student relationships often grow into deep friendships.

B:  You’ve mentioned that as a teacher, you stress structure in your students’ plays. Why do you think that it's important?

WM:  I think a reader or an audience member has a right to feel they are in capable hands, which allows them to give themselves over to the experience.  I cannot fully enter a book or a play if I don't trust that the writer knows where he or she is going.  There are television shows where I suspect they don't have a clear series arc—week to week, they're pulling it out of their ass.

B:  What does the office look like where you do most of your writing?

WM:  It is a lovely second floor room with a fireplace. The only downside is that my dog cannot climb stairs, and she gently woofs at me from the first floor below. It is not lined with books because I was briefly obsessed with feng shui and was convinced that the spines of books were "shooting arrows."  I keep only a few books nearby, the ones relevant to my current projects.  I have a small, golden, carved ibis, which is the Egyptian god of writing and a framed letter from theater director Lloyd Richards in which he says:  "You must write, you must write."  In an antique/junk store I found the least-inspired architectural drawings ever; the buildings are basic rectangles with flat roofs, and I hung them on the wall as a cautionary tale.  I used to have a favorite painting of Chesil Beach done by my husband—and it is a sore point between us that he sold it out from under me.

B:  What are you reading right now?

I'm actually reading a book a colleague recommended called The Power of Habit, because I noticed how regular I was about walking the dog or going to yoga, yet I struggled to find that same faithfulness in my writing schedule.  I'm also reading Peter Taylor, a Southern short story writer who has a legitimate claim to being America's Chekhov.  I'm about to read a former student's non-fiction book about an international high school in Brooklyn: The New Kids by Brooke Hauser.

B:  Any parting words of advice for aspiring writers?

WM:  Concentrate on your writing, not your career.  Do not send things out too soon.  My first published essay came about because I decided to work on the essay for a long time, as long as it took, and I showed it to friends along the way to get constructive feedback.

Consider rejections the beginning of a conversation.  Even if an editor hasn't accepted your piece, you are now on their radar and they might be interested in your next piece.  Take note of who is publishing interesting work.  Go to readings.  Meet people.  Follow up with emails.

And most importantly:  read.  You'd be surprised at the number of people who want to be writers when they aren't readers.

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