Episode 159: Interview with Stephen Gregg
Lindsay talks to playwright Stephen Gregg (This is A Test, Crush, Small Actors, The New Margo, Twitch) about his start down the writing path, his writing process as well as his connection to drama education and theatre teachers. Sometimes, the place we think we’re going when we start our careers is not the place we end up.
Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and Theatre educators everywhere.
I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.
Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!
This is Episode 159.
You can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at theatrefolk.com/episode159.
All right. I am delighted to say that this podcast is a conversation with playwright Stephen Gregg.
If you’re an educator, you know his play, “This is a Test.” But you may not know about his long, long, long connection to Drama education and Theatre educators.
I’m going to link to this blog, Playwright Now, in the show notes. I encourage you to go over there and read an article on his site that he wrote called “Why I Love Theatre Teachers.”
I am also going to link to Stephen’s Twitter which is filled with awesome tips for playwrights – student or otherwise. He talks about learning to write plays one tweet at a time and it’s something your students can do as well. Have your student writers to go Stephen’s Twitter, pick a tweet, and use that as a reflection prompt.
Here’s an awesome one: “Story is what happens. Plot is how the story is revealed. Lion King and Hamlet have the same story but different plots.”
How would you students respond to that? How does it fit with their notion of story and plot? What are their examples? What examples could they come up with of story and plot?
See? See? Love it!
What else does Stephen have to say? Let’s get to it!
LINDSAY: All right. I am here, talking to Stephen Gregg.
STEPHEN: Hello! How are you?
LINDSAY: I am wonderful, and how are you?
STEPHEN: I’m doing fine. Thank you!
LINDSAY: That’s good.
Tell everybody where in the world you are.
STEPHEN: I’m in Venice Beach, California – an area that’s been appealingly funky for about thirty or forty years and, suddenly, has become a little bit of a tech hub. It’s an area that’s changing but, still, an interesting place to live and work.
LINDSAY: I like the phrase “appealingly funky” because, you know, funky has a range. You can go from, you know, it’s hipster or a forced hipster funky and smelly funky and all those kinds of things. So, I like “appealingly funky” as a descriptor. I like that.
STEPHEN: Well, twenty years ago – or even ten years ago – there were parts of Venice that were just dangerous.
LINDSAY: Oh, isn’t that funny how places, locations change? Because I live in the same – in a much smaller scale. For our folks, Venice, it’s outside Los Angeles, yes?
STEPHEN: Technically, it is Los Angeles. It’s just one edge of it.
LINDSAY: I live in the same kind in a much, much smaller scale, but the little village that I live in, its main source of income was closed in the 80’s. Our big city literally shipped their homeless and their low-income housing people to this place. So, there was about ten to fifteen years where it was just like desolate and just crime-ridden. You would never know that today. It is a beautiful little haven and it fascinates. I just find it fascinating how we ebb and flow, you know.
STEPHEN: Well, a lot of times, it’s the arts that lead the way, you know? The artists move to the slightly ramshackle neighborhoods and fix them up. That happens all over New York.
LINDSAY: It’s because we can’t afford to live in…
LINDSAY: How long have you lived in California in the LA area?
STEPHEN: I’ve been in California probably… I think it’s 24 years.
I remember driving out here, listening to the results of the ’92 elections. So, it’s 25 years or so.
LINDSAY: Does it feel like a blip?
STEPHEN: It does. It surprises me that this is, at this point, by far the longest I’ve lived any place. Los Angeles has a bad rep but I think it’s kind of a great city, actually.
LINDSAY: I actually follow a number of people who live in different pockets of LA and describe it much differently than my stereotypical Hollywood vision of it. Neighborhoods, right? You think of LA as not having any neighborhoods – you know, where people walk their dogs and children play.
STEPHEN: Right, but there are.
LINDSAY: Of course, there are – well, everywhere has them.
I want to start off with, let’s start off with your connection to theatre. What was your first theatre memory? Where theatre really was an important thing to you?
STEPHEN: Well, I think it was when I was about six or seven – and maybe not perfectly well-adjusted at school – I remember my mom used to take me after school to the Hayden School of Ballet but after 4:30, it became a little theatre school for kids who were actors. Mr. Hayden gave us an hour of instruction and then we’d tour to local libraries playing in these plays.
LINDSAY: How long did you do that?
STEPHEN: I would say probably three or four years – until there were legitimate theatre outlets in a slightly larger context – before you had actual school plays.
LINDSAY: Why is that the memory that holds onto you years later?
STEPHEN: I think, for me, adrenaline and memory are often linked and you’d have these sort of scary moments when you’d stepped out onto the stage and wanted to make sure that you did everything right. I think that little jolt of mild anxiety helps really seal and experience into you.
LINDSAY: I can see that, totally. Did you ever want to be an actor?
STEPHEN: At about that age, I did.
LINDSAY: Okay. What changed?
STEPHEN: Well, I think the real thing that changed was that I didn’t… I was in a few plays in high school but I didn’t study any theatre at all in college and I did start, I tried to get into a sort of college theatre summer program – I think after my junior year – and I realized that all of these kids – some of whom I had known for a long time and had been a better actor than they were at 9 and 15 – suddenly, they had all of this training that made us really not peers. There was really no reason I should have been auditioning because I was nowhere near the sort of technical facility that they had and it was a good lesson in understanding that actors actually have lots of skills – that it’s not just natural talent. I don’t think I really realized that until late college.
LINDSAY: That’s really funny. What did you study in college? I have almost the exact same experience in that I had a large connection to theatre as a young person. High school, sort of – maybe one or two plays. I had a minor in Drama from college but I didn’t go to college for theatre in any way.
What did you study in college? What was your trajectory?
STEPHEN: It was English Literature.
LINDSAY: Ah, me too!
STEPHEN: Was it? Yeah, it was something that I had really gotten to love in high school and then continued on all the way through college. I was also very interested in the sciences so I was pre-med for a while and, I think, like a lot of people, the moment when you decide, “Am I really pre-med or not?” is – at least down here – organic chemistry. You know, are you going to take organic chemistry? Because the only thing you know is that you’re going to be miserable. All of it seemed like crazy memorization. It just sounds awful and that was sort of the decision point which might have just been cowardice of like, “I really don’t want this to be my year since I’m probably not going to med school.”
So, I ended up being a microbiology minor and that was a discipline that I happened to really like.
LINDSAY: Okay. When did playwriting then come into the picture?
STEPHEN: I had written a play – actually, this is another science memory as I think about it – I had written a play – most of it, one night, when I was supposed to be studying for a high school chemistry exam and I really do think that some part of my brain was saying, “Chemistry is not really your future. Look elsewhere.”
And so, I wrote a chunk of a play called “Why Do We Laugh?” The next year, early in my senior year, I gave it to the new Drama teacher – who is still there, Mickey Prokopiak – and he read it with a class of his without telling me. I’ve just always remembered the conversation that we had when he came to tell me how much he liked it. You know, he was so enthusiastic.
And so, they produced it and then they took it to the International Thespian Festival which back then was in Muncie, Indiana and that sort of hooked me.
LINDSAY: That’s awesome! So, your relationship to thespians is long.
STEPHEN: It is long.
LINDSAY: Also, your relationship to Drama educators is also long.
STEPHEN: That’s true as well.
LINDSAY: Well, you must have had to have really found some trust in your high school Drama teacher to hand over your work. What was your memory of it? How did you know that it would be okay to give your work to your teacher?
STEPHEN: Oh, I don’t think trust was really an issue. I was giving it to him privately. It seemed like the worst thing he would do is not read it which certainly happens to writers all the time. When, all of a sudden, he’d said, “We read it and we liked it,” it was pretty thrilling, I have to say. It was definitely one of the more vivid moments in my entire career because it came out of nowhere. I didn’t think of it as a submission. I just handed it to him.
LINDSAY: And then, what was it like to be a playwright and see it performed and you’re an audience for the first time?
STEPHEN: It was also quite fun. It happened a couple of times and the same play, “Why Do We Laugh?” was produced a couple of different times at my high school. So, you could compare productions which my family did all the time. “Well, that girl isn’t nearly as good!” It gave you a sense of the difference that a cast and a director can make. It also gave you a sense of places where you relax because you know it’s going to kind of play and places where get a little prick in the back of your neck because you just think, “Ugh! I wish I’d rewritten this.” Honestly, that was one of the lessons I learnt the hardest, I think – I really hate sitting in a theatre and watching something that I don’t really have confidence in.
LINDSAY: Absolutely. Also, because that work is your representative.
STEPHEN: Of course, yeah.
LINDSAY: I always hated workshop productions – like, the performance part of a workshop production – because, usually, the work came in the workshop and that I knew what I was going to go do, but then there was still this performance and you just sat at the back and went, “Okay. Now, at this point, maybe everyone could just cover their ears, that’d be great, and then we’ll move on.”
STEPHEN: You should try that, Lindsay!
LINDSAY: Yeah, I’ll just do that. I’ll just stand up, “Okay! Everyone in the audience, put your fingers in the ears, all right, you’re good.” No, I’ve never done that.
So, you had this wonderful high school experience. Didn’t follow through with in college. So, when did you become a playwright?
STEPHEN: Well, you know, what I did in college, it barely crossed my mind to try to major in theatre and I only took a very little bit of it but I did, I think, the summer after my junior year start a follow-up play. It was also a one-act and I knew that the structure of “Why Do We Laugh?” had allowed me to cheat some things. It’s four different couples so you can hop from couple to couple to couple and I knew that, in some ways, I was using that to flex a little bit if I didn’t have anything more to say or if I ran out of how the scene was working.
I set out to write a full one-act that was essentially just two characters. That actually ended up taking me about two years just because I could tell I wasn’t getting it right. And so, I didn’t really have anyone to give it to in college because I didn’t actually finish it until after about a year after college. Yeah, I just wanted to see if I could do this sort of perfect unities play – perfect being modified unities, not play, you know?
And so, that also was received. It was published but it was pretty clear, relatively seen, that people liked “Why Do We Laugh?” better. I don’t know if you’ve had this experience but you kind of assume your artistic arc is going to be vaguely steadily upwards but sometimes you really crash, you know?
LINDSAY: Well, some things are just better ideas than they are executions. They just are and it’s just like that moment is always I find the most troubling is when you are in the middle of an execution and it’s like, “Okay, well, we can go forward or we can not.”
STEPHEN: Do you squish the difference?
LINDSAY: No, I go not. Sometimes, I go not. I’ve got drawers of things. I think it’s very helpful for me, I do quite often work on more than one thing at the same time. It’s never traumatic other than the loss of my time, I guess.
STEPHEN: Yeah. I think there’s actually more and more research that shows that the way you approach that is exactly right – that you don’t want all your cliché “eggs in your basket” and that you really do learn so much by working on piece and piece and piece instead of trying to hold it all in one vessel as it were. I think that’s what I would advise young playwrights to do that I didn’t really do – to force yourself to finish, like it or not, and then keep moving on.
LINDSAY: I think that absolutely is the whole notion of finishing is crucial to making this more than an extracurricular activity.
LINDSAY: I don’t know who said this, I think it was Seth Godin, just that whole notion of shipping. Like, you have to ship. You have to get that stuff out there. Now, I really can’t imagine what it was like any time before the computer. You know, changes are always… Once it’s out there, I really resist changing but it is possible. You know, it’s not like things are set in blood and stone as they used to be.
STEPHEN: True. I do have that same thought. Just the idea that, for example, Shakespeare wrote these plays and you realize, “He must have written them A to Z essentially.” How do you do that?
LINDSAY: Well, he borrowed, I think because there was a lot of borrowing and I think there was a lot of collaboration, too. You know, those actors were there as I’m just imagining, and then everybody was working really quickly. I think he finished, didn’t he? He was a complete finisher. He was like, “I’m here, we need to make money and we’re on.” I’m sure it was way less romanticized than we think of it today and way less, you know, there’s no dramaturg there’s no preview. There was just like “on” and – I don’t know – maybe we overthink things sometimes, you know? Like, we get into a whirlpool where things get overthought.
Let’s talk about “This is a Test” for a second. I didn’t realize it was like 25, 27, 28 years young?
STEPHEN: It came out in January… It is 26, no, wait, it came out in January of ’88, I think. 28, actually. This test was the third play that I wrote.
LINDSAY: And so, what was the inspiration for that?
STEPHEN: I was teaching in Brooklyn. I was teaching English and Math because that’s how much they needed teachers. I wasn’t certified in either. It was tough times in New York City. And so, really, you just walked in and said that you’d graduated, you could teach for up to a year. And I met one of the other English teachers who was delightful and she had a background in Theatre and she showed me a concentration exercise that I just loved and it shows up in the play. This is a rock. Have you ever seen it? You know what it is?
STEPHEN: And then, one night, I was jogging. I think I was in Washington DC for a wedding. This does not happen to me very often. Essentially, the whole play fell into my head and I jogged for much, much longer and farther than I realized that I had. I got completely lost. At about midnight, in DC, I realized that I essentially had the play and I was able to write it in about three months which is relatively quick for me. Instantly, it was clear that people responded much, much better to it than they had to either of the first two plays. One of the things that it took me years to figure out is that that response was not necessarily a reflection of my own genius but that, in fact, it had so many characters. It was this giant flexible cast. It did not cross my mind that that was the secret but that was a big part of the secret.
LINDSAY: Well, there’s more than that because plays don’t hang around for 28 years unless they resonate, you know? There is a connection too, I think, because these characters, they do go through something that we’ve all been in this situation, right? We’ve all been there.
STEPHEN: Of course, that’s right.
LINDSAY: Is that the secret to this play? Do you think it is the cast size? What else do you think is its staying power?
STEPHEN: I do think that’s part of it but I also think that, for sure, what you’re talking about resonates with people. Test anxiety is something that everybody suffers from and that chemistry test that I was avoiding by writing the first play, actually, high school was very stressful academically for me. It was a tough high school and I was a good student and, yeah, that was a very hard combination because I got a lot of C’s and I didn’t think of myself as a C student but I was wrong. And then, honestly, “This is a Test” comes back and forth a little bit according to the political climate.
STEPHEN: Well, during the (I’m blanking out) what was the Bush era, largely loathed education mandate?
LINDSAY: Oh, is it “no child left behind”? Oh, no, that’s Reagan. No child left behind?
STEPHEN: Well, I think it was “no child,” I do, actually.
LINDSAY: They’re all loathed, aren’t they? What are they all doing?
STEPHEN: And why is the government interfering with your classroom, really? Yeah, there was a lot of backlash and the play spiked and teachers would explicitly say they have these awful mandatory tests they were having to give kids and the play in some sense was palliative.
LINDSAY: Well, then we circle around quite nicely to the role of theatre in an education setting and you have had quite a close connection now to educational theatre. Did you ever see that for yourself when you started out – that that would be your…?
STEPHEN: Not at all. I mean, honestly, it didn’t really exist thirty years ago. The idea that you’re writing a play for high schools, I knew they were landing there but it was mostly because the first one was written when I was that age. And so, it took a fair amount of time – like, twenty years – to figure out actually what I do is to write plays for high school students to perform because, before that, you kind of tried to split the difference, you know? Write a play that you could do in a high school but an adult theatre would do – that just never worked.
LINDSAY: When I was going up, it was amateur. Like, you would never write for schools because that wasn’t being a playwright. It took me a good fifteen, twenty years to realize that making a living was making a living.
STEPHEN: Of course.
LINDSAY: And what was actually the most rewarding – and let’s get right down to it – what is the most rewarding experience, you know? And I think educational theatre kind of wins that.
STEPHEN: Huge, sure.
LINDSAY: Hands down.
So, you’ve determined that that was your bend. Did you just go forward with writing plays for schools and student performers? Did you leave adult world behind? Do you still have a finger in that?
STEPHEN: Oh, I think it’s good to have at least a finger, yeah, in another discipline. The more I realized that I was writing plays for secondary schools, the more I started to see the huge advantages that one had, particularly in cast size. You don’t write a play with a big cast because it’ll hit the market. You write it with a big cast because there’s so many things you can do with twenty people that an adult theatre can’t even dream of. You want seven or less.
LINDSAY: Oh, five or less.
LINDSAY: It’s crazy, no. And just to see a stage full of people.
STEPHEN: Is inherently theatrical.
So, it was a long way of saying that I do have one adult play that I chip away at. Adult play? There’s got to be a better term.
LINDSAY: I know, I know! That’s what I call them but I’m like, “There are connotations to this. This is not my intention.” The other plays! The others!
STEPHEN: Yeah. So, it’s two characters which is the sweet spot, theatrically, for an adult play. It’s got some moderately serious tech – you know, a theatre can do that without having to pay actors with just the real expense. It’s about really, really old people because I’ve determined that that’s the prime subject for writing an adult play. You want to write Driving Miss Daisy and on and on and on. But, yeah, older people like to see themselves onstage.
LINDSAY: Well, don’t we all? We all do! But there’s lots of ways. We don’t have to be murderers to connect. But, no, I totally know what you mean.
So, as we wrap up here, let’s end up with the importance of educational theatre. On your journey in terms of coming from “This is a Test” and your years of working with and talking to Drama teachers, why do you think Theatre in education is important?
STEPHEN: Well, it’s a hard one to know where to start but I recently wrote about an experience that I had seen watching a play of my own which was that it was a play that had this enormous amount of exposition up top and you had to have the exposition to understand anything else that happened in the play.
It was a terrible play but it was full-length and I was watching it with the Theatre teacher and I knew something was off and she said, “Oh, Portia had missed her entrance,” and Portia was the character who had all of this information that she had to convey. It was fascinating to watch the seven kids onstage have to handle that problem. “How do we, as a team, solve a problem in front of 250 people who don’t even know that there is a problem?”
I thought it was kind of a great way to see what theatre can bring to you. They had ensemble and they had a lightness on their feet and a calmness in the face of a minor crisis that was really sort of a wonderful example of how this should work. Finally, after passing it around character to character, one of them said, “Look, there’s Portia!”
So, I do think you get a lot of hard to measure skills and we hope a lot of empathy for the people that you play.
LINDSAY: I think that’s the frustrating thing – for Drama teachers to know how many skills they are teaching and watching their students apply with being in a play and it’s so you can’t just put that on a test and hand it off.
LINDSAY: I had a discussion with a teacher once over one of my absolute just frivolous thing, right? It’s about hair. It’s frivolous. And how a tea her just went on and on about how she had a student who was distant, who was not participating, who was these things, and this stupid little play was the thing that made them come to life. That’s when I realized how important our job is – that it doesn’t matter what the play is. It just doesn’t matter. It’s the experience of being in it and the community and that notion of ensemble that you’re talking about and the problem-solving and all of that is what we help. We have the tiny part! We have just “here’s the play” but I wouldn’t trade my tiny part in that experience, I think, for the world. I wouldn’t trade it for Broadway, I don’t think, just because I say. But I think that’s where our world is pretty wonderful.
STEPHEN: I agree, and I think you’re adding the idea of encouragement which is what theatre teachers give all the time and which isn’t really something that you can get in the same way in any other discipline because the test still says 65, you know?
LINDSAY: Yeah, it does.
Ah, but you are wonderful for chatting with me for this brief time and I know that, among our listeners, you had a lot of fans and I am thrilled to be able just to open up a little window and have this conversation with you.
So, one last thing, you mentioned that finishing is a really good thing for young student playwrights to do. What would you say to them when they say, “I don’t know what to write about; I don’t know where to look for ideas.”
STEPHEN: Well, I’d say a couple of things.
First of all, get yourself some deadlines. Take classes. I still take playwriting classes. Join workshops. There’s nothing like having a deadline to give you an idea because what you’ll realize is you’re no longer searching for the perfect idea. You’re just searching for the idea that you can write before tomorrow and that’s very useful. I think it was Louis Armstrong who said, “I don’t need time. I need deadlines.”
I guess the other way that I do find really useful to work is that I’ll take scripts that I like and I’ll make an outline of them so that I really learn the structure of the script. If you do that over and over, you’ll get to a point where you kind of say, “Well, what if we took a right fork where that play takes a left fork?” And then, you think. “Well, what if we made the main character a guy instead of a girl? And what if we started it earlier?” I honestly do think you can learn to write sort of the way the old masters learned to paint. You can copy beat by beat by beat and, eventually, their discipline becomes your discipline.
LINDSAY: I think that’s awesome! And a great thing to end on.
Okay! Thank you very much, Stephen!
STEPHEN: Thank you so much! It was nice being with you!
LINDSAY: Thank you so much, Stephen!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
Do you want some resources for student playwrights? I know you do so I’m going to mention a couple!
First of all, we have Scene Spurs: Writing Prompts for Dramatic Depth.
This is an e-book and it is a collection of photo-based prompts which gives students a jumping off point for writing. Not only do you get the pictures but there are instructions, questions, and scene monologue suggestions to get students writing now. I love picture prompts! They work really, really well.
We also have Playwriting Kickstart – an online course that will help your students come up with an idea, choose the most theatrical, and write the first scene of their play.
Lastly, I want to mention one of our courses in our Drama Teacher Academy – The Top Ten Playwriting Exercises! Not only do you get ten great exercises to ease your students into the playwriting waters, it’s also going to give you the confidence to teach playwriting to your students. Many of the modules include assignments and rubrics so you will be fully prepared to comprehend, apply, and teach every one of these exercises.
So, all those resources, you can find links to them in the show notes. Where can you find the show notes? Theatrefolk.com/episode159.
Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and on the Stitcher app. You can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word: “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.