An Interview with Paper City Phoenix Playwright, Walt McGough

Paper City Phoenix Playwright, Walt McGough

Paper City Phoenix Playwright, Walt McGough

Hello friends! In preparation for our upcoming reading of Paper City Phoenix, we have a fancy-schmancy interview with playwright Walt McGough for ya! And we hope to see you this coming Thursday at our There Will Be Words reading: 7:00 PM at Trident Booksellers & Cafe. You can RSVP to our facebook event here!

What was your first theatre memory and why did you decide pursue it?
I’m pretty sure I saw the touring production of ‘Cats’ when I was, like, five, but beyond a vague feeling of disquiet I don’t recall much of it. Practitioner-wise, I came to theatre relatively late (ie high school). I played the Priest in a production of ‘Twelfth Night’ and remember spending an entire Saturday sitting in the audience watching rehearsal in preparation for my one tiny scene, and just being enthralled by the whole thing. I think I went to, like, 95% of the rehearsals for that show, despite having maybe ten lines total, just to sit and watch and soak it all up. That pretty much sealed it for me.

How did you get started in playwrighting?
I knew I wanted to write, but in high school I thought I’d be a journalist because that’s a “respectable” writing job. Then in college I switched to wanting to write prose, but all of my stories were, like, two lines of description and then three pages of dialogue. I think around then I figured that playwriting might be the better approach.

If you weren’t a playwright, what would you do?
When I was five I told my grandfather that I wanted to be a paleontologist, and then between digs I’d be a stand-up comedian. I think that’s still pretty much the back-up plan.

When did the idea for Paper City Phoenix first pop into your head? What experiences have influenced its development?
I had just come off writing “The Farm,” which is fairly realistic (as much as possible when you have a ghost on stage) and very dark, so I wanted to change gears a bit and write something comedic and really big and crazy and theatrical. I got a picture in my mind of the moment that closes Act One (you’ll know it when you hear it), and had also just had a conversation with a friend about whether anybody out there has ever tried to make a hard copy of the Internet, as an archive. The two ideas kind of fused together in my brain and then a bunch of other things popped in there, too. At one point I surveyed my Facebook friends to get their favorite pieces of random trivia, and a lot of that found its way in there, as well.

Development-wise, I’ve heard the play a few times and last summer did a workshop with Orfeo Group, but it’s always changed pretty drastically from version to version as I gradually try to reign in the story and keep the characters consistent.

Any specific questions you want answered? What should we as audience members look for during the reading?
For this draft I’ve tried to make the logic of things as consistent as possible: the world of the play is pretty crazy and I’m curious to see if the audience comes out of the reading with a sense of what the rules are. On the character level, there are some arcs and conclusions that I’m happy with, and some that are still going to take some work, and so I’ll be listening for people’s opinions on where all the characters end up at the end of things.

What’s next on the docket for you? Do you have any upcoming projects?
I just finished a new draft of a swordfighting play called “The Haberdasher!”, and am working through a first draft of a post-apocalyptic mother-daughter drama called “Chalk.” In the meantime, my play “Priscilla Dreams the Answer,” which Fresh Ink produced last December, is being published by Playscripts, which has been a very fascinating process to go through. And lastly, I teach a Playwriting course at the Boston Center for Adult Education which is starting up next Monday (and can be signed up for at, plug plug plug).

What do you like most about the Boston theatre scene? The real sense of excitement that seems to permeate the scene; it’s young and it’s scrappy and this really feels like a time of definition where anything is possible.

What advice can you offer other playwrights?
1) Write your characters into situations that you don’t immediately know the solution to. If you can solve the problem in five seconds, then the audience will be able to, as well, and they’ll get ahead of you. But if it takes you a week of walking around and thinking and stressing to see the answer (and there’s always an answer), then you’ll write it into the play and no one will see it coming.

2) Don’t waste your audience’s time. They’re giving up an entire evening of their lives to listen to something you wrote, so make sure to include them on the experience. (This goes double for your collaborators: they’re dedicating entire MONTHS of themselves to your work. Their opinions matter.)

3) Realism, by and large, doesn’t exist. Nobody actually thinks they’re looking through the invisible wall of a house. This is a good thing, because it means you get to decide how the rules of your world work.

4) Do everything you can in the theatre and learn as much as possible about it. You can’t write for it until you know it, and if you can talk to a designer or a director or an actor or a marketing manager in a way that connects with them, you’ll be a much better collaborator.

5) Whenever it is humanly possible, start your scenes in the middle of a conversation. If you start at the beginning, you’ve damned yourself to a page and a half of small talk before anything dramatic starts happening.

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