Everyone dies; it is a fact of life. Fortune’s Child, a new work by Baltimore area playwright Mark Scharf has made its debut at the Baltimore Theatre Project this winter season of 2015. In a TheatreBloom exclusive interview, I’ve sat down with the playwright to discuss the work and what it is meant to tell the audiences who see it about living life.
Thank you for taking the time to sit down with the readers of TheatreBloom for this interview, can you tell us a little about yourself? I know we recently interviewed you, about four months ago when you were working in a very different capacity at another theatre in Baltimore.
Mark Scharf: That’s right, I was acting in Art at the Vagabond Players. That interview with Steve and Eric (Steven Shriner and Eric C. Stein) was a lot of fun. This is one on one so this might be a little different – I need Eric and Steve to keep me sane and on track. But I’m still Mark Scharf, still a Baltimore playwright, and this is my newest work that’s being produced as a part of the Actors Equity Association Members Project Code at Baltimore Theatre Project. They are the “Fortune’s Child” company, if you will, and that’s running now and it goes until the 18th. It’s only ten performances, but any number of performances for a new work is an incredible thing. For me the play doesn’t really feel complete until I get to see it with actors in action and an audience.
Before Fortune’s Child, as you mentioned, I was acting, which I hadn’t done for quite some time. I think when we did that interview I hadn’t done anything on the stage that you would have seen because it had been so long. But in-between then and now I had another work of mine produced, I had written an adaptation of Sleepy Hollow for the stage and it was produced with a cast of about 26 people down at the Twin Beach Players. It’s always exciting when you find out your work is being produced and that was a really great experience. I’m their Playwright-in-Residence and they’ve produced four of my plays over the past few years including two adaptations they asked for – Sleepy Hollow and Frankenstein. They’re good people — very supportive and they produce a great show that really involves the community.
Tell us a little bit about Fortune’s Child.
Mark: Well the best way for someone to really get what it’s about I guess would be to come and see it – how’s that for a blatant plug? But it’s a work that is loosely inspired by a friend of mine, who actually is a psychologist whose sister did die of cancer. It’s not a documentary – people, events strike me and percolate and I start, as they say, making up a story.
There goes my next question of where the inspiration was coming from.
Mark: What happened with my friend and his family really stuck with me and it all just sort of flowed from there. You know one of the things she did once she was diagnosed ends up in the play, she did go horseback riding on the coast in Ireland, just like Susan and Sarah do in the play. I can’t say I’ve really done much horseback riding, I mean I never took lessons or anything but I used to like to pretend I was Errol Flynn and I would come back and people would just ask “what have you been doing with the horse?” And I would say “Jumping things!” We were really lucky to have Sarah Olmsted Thomas from Happenstance Theatre come and choreograph that scene; I think her work landed the authenticity of the movement and really carried the intention of what I was going for through that scene.
That to me was one of the truly honest moments that defines the feeling of life, she says it in there about feeling alive with the horse galloping beneath her, and I really wanted to make sure that that was a part of the show.
You had mentioned to me on opening night that you felt like it was real life, and that’s what I’m going for. I’m exploring life as it happens. There are emotions, of course, but it’s not about writing something for the sake of having this big emotional bog that pulls you into the drama and sorrow of the situation. It’s about having a moment to capture the ephemeral and feel it and move on with it. I wanted to avoid sentimentality at all costs and show things clear-eyed, coldly — which for me makes the stakes and loss more powerful. A rawness under the surface. For example, I believe that if a character on stage is in a situation where you expect them to cry and they don’t — that the audience will do it for them.
In your play Susan and Sarah do go on this whirlwind trip once Susan decides that’s how she wants to spend her end of days, and you mentioned that your real life inspiration did go to Ireland but how did you decide the other locations that she goes and sees on her end-of-life tour?
Mark: I don’t know that I can actually articulate that to you other than I really felt the season. It’s summertime. What can you do in the summer that’s completely different? Go skiing. But where can you go skiing in this world in summer time? So I was looking around and New Zealand’s open.
You just said that like New Zealand is a theme park.
Mark: Well you know…after all the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings stuff it’s on everyone’s radar. So the question was where can we go skiing? We go skiing in New Zealand. And after New Zealand I thought “well, we just froze our ass off so let’s go someplace warm.” And I picked Hawaii. I had an external thought that it would look funny, snorkel faced masks, and then Travis (Travis Hudson, Brian/Patrick/Snorkel Dude) really inhabited that character and all the fun nuances that came with it.
And before you ask, I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint you by saying that I’ve never been to Ireland, New Zealand, or Hawaii. I’m afraid I’m pretty provincial. I’ve been to London and that’s about it. I didn’t want to come home when I was working in London. I had a play in Highgate. That’s one of my fantasies, I have a show running in London and I’m staying in a flat, going to parties, talking to people, and writing. I really did have a good time when I was there — I got to meet Simon Russell Beale and I was ignorant of who he was at the time. Because everything is there; their LA and New York it’s all in one place. So my cast was doing television and movies, and stage, and Shakespeare. It was an incredible experience.
One of the fondest things I remember was being at a pub one night with one of my actors from York and I had ordered a beer, I don’t remember what now, but he said to me straight up “You don’t want that mate, that’s a girl’s drink.” I didn’t know that beers had genders. I had him get me what he called a “proper pint.”
We’re confronted with the image of this willow tree at the beginning of the show and it appears both visually and textually throughout the performance, can you talk about that?
Mark: Well, its practical purpose is to help identify location – just as the projections for Ireland and New Zealand and Hawaii do. But that image is important to me. That came somewhere out of my subconscious. The very first thing you see, the curtain rises— well the curtain doesn’t rise because we don’t have a curtain— but the lights come up and there it is, the willow tree. I also love umbrellas on stage. Sarah Ruhl has written much more eloquently about umbrellas on stage, so I’ll leave that alone, but it’s worth mentioning because they do appear in the willow tree scenes.
The willow tree was the image. When I was asking myself questions that was the question, where does this willow tree come from and what is its significance? But you have to do that without trying to beat the audience to death with symbolism. I was trying to work it into the story because as Susan says they don’t belong in your front yard. You know, they will crush your water pipes and they do belong down by the river’s edge, but they are gorgeous. They are a pain in the ass. They’re like people; gorgeous but a pain in the ass. Something keeps going, even if it’s not us and I think that is is there represented in the willow tree.
That statement is sort of awful for me to say, that something about us keeps going even if it’s not us because I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave the planet.
You will go eventually, Mark, your play even reminds you that people can’t outlive death and that it’s coming for us all.
Mark: I don’t know. I’ve decided not to die. I mean, what are the consolations? That your work lives on? Or that your memory lives on with certain people? It would be nice to create something that outlives you. You just said death is coming for everybody but we all just pretend like it isn’t.
That was the other thing that was interesting for me about writing this play is that it is everywhere. I was worried at first that it might be overkill. But so many people do the dance all around it; they avoid it, they don’t talk about it, even now in our modern age death is still sort of a taboo subject. You can’t talk about it. And you can’t talk about the big “C.” And I look at all the ways people try to avoid it.
You look at your own mortality the older you get. It’s occurring more and more in my life right now, with friends and family, people start falling off. When I used to go home to the Louisville –Southern Indiana area as a kid it always seemed to me like all these people had died just before we had got there because the first thing that came out of people’s mouths when we arrived was the litany of people who had died. Now that had taken place over the course of a year because we’d go once a year for vacation, but as a kid you don’t process the way time lapses. So I always thought every time we would go “wow, 20 people have just died.” It was interesting to me.
When you start thinking about it— death— and you start hedging your bets and you start seeking comfort, it poses all of these questions that people just don’t want to answer or are too scared to answer. What if it’s in your DNA? Like cancer. Or what if it’s in your family history? And that factors into where the play is set.
Where exactly is the play set? I thought it was local from the references you dropped, but I don’t remember reading or hearing anything about specifics.
Mark: Well, Yvonne (Yvonne Erickson, Director) wanted to make the location more universal –- so for her it’s a small town in America. For me, writing it, it’s very specific. And I think it’s that specificity that makes it universal. So, for me, it is a small town on the eastern shore that has its own way of behaving, talking, and way of interacting. And in that particular town there is a really high rate of cancer. For a very long time, the world’s largest nylon plant was there and now I’m wondering did they dump stuff in the ground water? What is it? I think it’s a little hotspot for cancer. And that is just a feeling from what’s happened with friends who live there, I can’t prove anything but that informs the drive of the location and all of those things.
Somewhere in there you mentioned a bucket list. That Susan’s trip was inspired from a bucket list. Do you have a bucket list of your own? What’s on it?
Mark: If I found myself in Susan’s situation I think I’d do it. Keep one, I mean. I don’t really keep a bucket list, I mean I sort of keep one in my head. I haven’t achieved much on it but since I’m living forever, I have plenty of time. I haven’t had a major life-changing event where I’ve been forced to look at my own mortality seriously. Fortunately I haven’t had a heart attack or anything like that which has made me re-evaluate and try to knock off a few more things that I keep on that mental list of “do before I die.” I haven’t had the slap upside the head yet. Then again I was born having a mid-life crisis.
Where is your bucket list destination? Let’s say a doctor has just walked into this interview and that you are in fact not going to live forever. Where do you go?
Mark: Oh God! There are so many places I want to see. Why are you making this so difficult? Okay, so I have what, six months to live? Ok. I’d like to see the theatre at Epidaurus in Greece. I’d like to stand on the stage and whisper and see if you can really hear me all the way at the back of this open air theatre. There are so many places in England and Ireland and Australia and New Zealand. And so many places in this country too.
You get one last-act like Susan has her riding horseback across the coasts of Ireland, what do you do?
Mark: That sounds good to me. That sounds good for right now. I’ll think about it later. I think I’m shying away from the death topic here, the idea of my own dying doesn’t thrill me. Intellectually, understanding these things doesn’t do a damn thing to provide any sort of comfort. I get that it’s coming, I’ve written a play about it, and about how it’s inevitable and we just talked about how everyone still avoids it and here I am avoiding it. That’s a condition. It’s being human. There are some people who I know that are extremely religious and I envy them because of the comfort and peace that they have, which I do not have. I doubt all of these things, I think about all of these things, I question all of these things. I wish I could just blindly go with the flow and give it up and take solace in that. That would make things a lot easier.
I’m not attacking people who have that spiritual certainty, but that also falls into the category of “ignorance is bliss” to me. I often wonder do people who have that religious and spiritual certainty, I wonder do they have the “dark night of the soul” so to speak? The 4:00am moment where doubt seeps in and keeps them up all night like it does for me? And a part of me really wishes I could let go, but I can’t. I’m not pulling a Woody Allen here, that’s mining it.
What do you think happens to you when you die, since we’re on that subject.
Mark: I don’t know. Well, my next play is a ghost story for the stage because I love ghost stories. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one for the stage so I decided to write one for the stage. I promise this will answer your question. And I don’t mean ghost story like A Christmas Carol, not that kind of ghost story. It’s called The Quickening. There’s an old Catholic Saint Thomas Aquinas dogma, which has been discarded, that when a woman is pregnant with a child there is no soul in it until a certain point in time where the soul enters the child. That’s called “ensoulment” or “the quickening.” Meanwhile, until that point, from wherever that soul comes from that body is an empty vessel. Under the normal circumstances that soul comes from wherever— God or what have you— but what if there’s another soul that’s been prematurely cut off and wants another chance and sees that as an opportunity?
This is really going to sound terrible and pretentious, but in quantum mechanics there’s an experiment where you can prove that the simple act of observing something changes it. You have a photographic plate with a couple of slits in it and you shine a light through it. And when you don’t observe it, it registers two slits, but when you do observe it, it only registers one. That tells me that what we see and touch is affected by our consciousness, Maybe even generated by it. It leads to the idea of what if souls aren’t created when the body is created? What if it’s not just a function of your brain? What if souls are downloaded like a computer program? That means to me, that when this body ends, the soul or energy or whatever you want to call it, doesn’t necessarily end. Where does that go? All of that fits into my new play, and I know that doesn’t really answer your question but it’s something I think about.
I honestly don’t know. How do you get any certainty about it? Can you get any certainty about it? I’m not certain that you can. I know all the clichés about leaps of faith, but for me, I’m not capable of making a leap of faith at this point in my life. But I’m open to discussion.
What is it like being the playwright and being an active part of the rehearsal process?
Mark: It’s been a great process. It’s given birth to a lot of things. For example, it’s very unusual for me to have such an extended scene that has no dialogue. I don’t want to say a long scene, but a scene like Susan’s first appearance that has no dialogue. She’s playing at the table, looking at the trash, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a scene quite like that where there were no words. All of that happened very, very close to opening, it was a recent adjustment that came out of rehearsal. And it’s made me look at things differently. I’m chewing on that, and thinking about it and other places where I now realize I want to trim and tighten things in the play.
It’s a double-edged sword being involved in the process, because you can’t see that a moment like the one I just mentioned is too long or isn’t working the way you thought it would until you see it on its feet. It’s one thing to read it by yourself and even having a staged reading is a little like radio theatre, you still can’t see anything. But to see the damn thing on its feet with the lights and the sound and the actors and the blocking, that’s the only place it exists for real. Up until that point I’m just writing a text— really just a blueprint for them to create with.
I had a director say to me one time that he preferred to work with playwrights who are out of state or who are dead because having the playwright alive and especially in the area or a part of the rehearsal process can be unsettling or unnerving. It is difficult for both parties involved, I think. I always say the Director is the author of the production and the playwright is the author of the script and the text. You don’t want the actors playing the two of you. You certainly don’t want the Director telling the actors one thing and then having the actors go to the playwright and have him say something contradictory or tell them something else entirely.
I told the cast up front at the first read through if they had questions to talk to the Director and if I had questions or something I wanted to bring to the attention of the production I would bring it up to the Director. You have to keep that balance in order for it to be a success and get off its feet. I’ve been very lucky to be in the situation where I can be at rehearsals. Of course there were rehearsals where Yvonne (Director Yvonne Erickson) said “could you stay home.” And you do change the dynamic in being there. Even if you’re sitting all the way in the back it’s just the fact that you’re in there watching and you become an audience and that changes the process for them.
The actors and the creative team need a safe place to experiment and explore. They need to be able to try things and fail and keep going when it doesn’t work and it’s very difficult to do that with the author of the text in the room. Selfishly, I love being in rehearsal. I love watching the process. I love watching what they do and all the trials they bring to the table because then it sets off all kinds of thoughts in my mind.
In working through this process and watching them and being there with them, how has this impacted the way that you look at your work?
Mark: I want the damn thing to work. I want people to enjoy the event and to come out of there thinking that it’s not two hours that they’re never going to get back. I want them to feel like they’ve invested their time well and that they can have discussions and arguments and talk about it afterwards. I’m sorry, I think I went off-track there, can you repeat the question? Does it make me look at my work differently? Always.
We had two different actors for the stage reading in Baltimore, for the Dramatist Guild Reading that they held at Spotlighters Theatre. Michael Stebbins was reading the role of Mike, I can’t remember the actress’s name, but it was a very different experience, and even that gives you a chance to really evaluate what you’ve done as a writer. Your brain is always examining it differently once someone else has your words.
I think we had a difference of opinion on the Mike character, played by Lance Lewman, about how he was created and what he ended up being.
Mark: I love what Lance (Lance Lewman, Mike) does. I think that Lance has the warmth and the bemusement and the rye sense of humor that I wrote for Mike. Now you said that you thought his portrayal was lacking a conviction, and confusion, and what was it— anger? I hope all of that comes through in the character, because I don’t want to give him speeches that say “I am feeling this” or “I feel this.” You know – making statements instead of behaving. Making statements is summing things up and that’s for the audience. The closest I think he gets to that notion is at the top of the second act when he says “I don’t know how to feel about that.” It’s a balancing act. As the playwright I hope I’ve given the actor enough information within the context of the situation and the lines to construct all of those emotions that you mention.
You had said Mike is a “bare-frame” character. I never really thought to look at him that way, I feel like he has a great deal to work with given what I’ve written into the script for him, but like I said I never want a character to come right out and say what he’s feeling in that fashion. All of that can be achieved with the words I’ve written, I think, and I think that Lance does a damn solid job of getting that across. The character does have a great deal of depth and I find Lance’s performance to be what I’m looking for in that character. He’s the foundation and the rock holding the rest of them together in the play. He’s holding them all together while everyone else out there is spinning around.
I find that really interesting, because the impression I got from seeing the show is that the story is spinning around Susan. She has the gravitational pull and everyone else sort of revolves around her.
Mark: Some folks think— actually, hearing all this is really wonderful for me because I’m hearing more and more perspectives that people are getting from viewing it. In my mind, this work was intended as an ensemble piece. When people ask who is the protagonist or who is the antagonist, it’s sort of that they all are. I find it interesting that for the performance you saw you said you felt it was Susan’s story and she drew in Sarah and Brian comes attached to Sarah and that Mike is the extraneous character. People seem to be taking away a whole bunch of different sides of this one story. That’s the magic and beauty of theatre everybody gets something different out of it.
I see Mike as this very complex character. You know despite being a psychologist with all of his training he can’t distance himself far enough away from his own situation with his daughter and his sister. I have to say I really love what Lance is doing with the character, I was tickled when he took the role. He has a very grounded attachment to the character, he’s very accessible. Every performance is different but I really enjoy watching the connections that Lance has with the Sarah character and with the Susan character, and especially with the Brian character.
We seem to go back and forth on this point here, but you have to push me a little bit here to really break down its components and its pieces because a lot of the times when I’m writing I’m not thinking about it schematically or emotionally as I’m doing it.
And that’s part of your general process or that’s specific to the writing of this piece?
Mark: That’s part of my general process. You follow them. Faulkner said it, “you follow your characters around and you write down what they do and say.” If you think about it too much sometimes you freeze. Don’t try to apply theory and craft. All of that is already in your head and that’s going to inform what and how you write. After you have a draft, especially after you get to hear it and see it, then you can get clinical, surgical, and cold with it. You reach a point where you try to pretend that it’s somebody else’s work so that you can look at it and do what needs to be done to edit it and get it on its feet.
There are your favorite bits or those certain little parts, like if you know there’s a wonderful piece of poetic flowery writing, you should probably cut that bit because it’s not organic. The old trick, take your favorite bit, have them do the scene without using words and if you can still understand what’s going on, then ok. They’re all steps. And getting to see the work with actors up on its feet is just another step of information that I’m getting and I’ll use it to adjust the work accordingly.
What was the biggest challenge for you writing a piece like this, because I know you said you weren’t trying to write a melodrama, that you just wanted to capture life?
Mark: That was the challenge. Not to write the melodrama and just hoping to strike the right balance, the right note, the right tone. Trying to keep it honest and clear-eyed and not dripping— wait, not dripping, dipping— well, both, not dripping or dipping into easy sentimentality. That was one of the directions that Yvonne was giving often, to avoid sentimentality. Something happens, the characters feel a pain and that’s fine but I don’t want them to milk it. They shouldn’t be milking it. People go through these emotions, they feel them, it’s a process and it continues on. Also this one is constructed of moments that need to bump into each other. Leo (Leo Erickson, Dialect Coach) expressed it to me in way I really like — that these moments bump against one another tying everything together and in doing so, accumulate a charge that they don’t have separately — and the audience then gets an emotional connection all along the way — catharsis, a release, a charge that lets go at the end and that I hope is satisfying.
If you look at one of my earlier drafts there is a scene that Yvonne didn’t want to use, I know logistically it posed a problem, but I felt like it really ties in that moment of life interrupting life in an unspoken fashion. My initial concept is that everything is on the stage; all the scenes and the shifts are done with lighting. In that initial draft before Susan and Sarah get the phone call that cuts short their time in Hawaii, and before Mike’s character has that line “my mom has died” I had him crossing the stage, going to the chair with the blanket that represents the mom, and folding up the blanket. And then without a word he would carry the chair off. You would know before he ever has to say that line what’s happened. I’ve realized now that I really want the audience to know that the mom has died before the other characters are informed in the next scene.
Getting back to what you said earlier about being a part of the process, this is one of those moments where being a part of the process was a roll of the dice for me. The director wanted to do it the way it ended up being done and I said say “okay, we’ll do it this way.” Let’s see what happens. But seeing it and chewing on it, I think I’m going to keep it the way I have it written. It’s staying in the script. That was something else that seeing this production brought to my attention. I wrote the mother character in as silence. Susan has that scene where she comes to tell the mom things and they are having a conversation but in the script the mother’s answers are silence. And Yvonne wanted to add a sound in for the mother and Ann (Sound Designer Ann Warren) composed it. My initial thought is that I think it would pick up speed in that scene if it were just silence. I think it may be more poignant. It’s been interesting to me that audience members who are musicians love it. So, I’m chewing on that. What about, say a cello instead of a voice? What about silence? But that’s the process. You get to experience all these things that they are trying and see how they work and fit with your work and it’s a brilliant opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t.
How has working with this cast been for you?
Mark: I don’t have any complaints to tell you the truth. They’re all really wonderful. This doesn’t happen a lot. There’s always something. But I really could not be more happy with these people. They have a nice rapport with each other and it reads well on stage. They’re extremely professional; they are very focused. This has really worked out, I really lucked out. You do all these productions and every now and again— well, hopefully you do all these productions— but they don’t all reach the same level of expectation. Every now and then everything will come together. You can’t make that happen, it’s just serendipity. And that’s what’s happening here with this production and this cast.
How does this compare to other shows that you’ve written?
Mark: There have been both extremes of the scale for me. I think you asked me earlier if I had a “style” of playwriting and the honest answer is I don’t know. I leave that up to the audience. I don’t want to be an asshole, I hope I’m approachable when talking about my work, and I really appreciate that you think I’m not pretentious. God I hope that didn’t sound pretentious. Playwriting is an extension of acting. To me, you need to act to understand it. If you don’t like actors then what the hell are you doing writing plays for actors? I hope I fall into the eclectic category when I try to define my writing, a little bit of everything. And I really try to leave that up to other people to label what sort of writer they think I am. Hopefully the main word is “active.”
You were saying something about theatre being a dying art form but it’s been dying for centuries. You can’t replace the experience of live theatre, I don’t care how they try to do it. Live people in front of you; it changes every night. There are new discoveries and it’s not static. And that’s why I write. That’s why I like this art form. Certainly writing screenplays pays a hell of a lot better but that’s a director’s medium. They create the work in the editing and they create the performances with God knows how many takes. But this? This is one of the last places where the writer is still front and center, even the dead ones.
That’s why it burns my ass sometimes where you see a director has taken extreme liberties with the script. It’s a touchy subject. If you get a Dramatist Guild contract they aren’t supposed to change a line without you being consulted. But you hope that you don’t have to go through all that. Hopefully there’s a line of respect for what you do and create and they want to do and create something from it, but there’s always going to be somebody who wants to go off the rails. People combine characters or mix lines, and playwrights can see that. We write characters and dialogue a certain way to deliver certain things. There’s all kinds of theatre and there’s room for it all. I personally come from the idiosyncratic view of a particular author. If other people want to create en mass as an ensemble go for it. But that’s not the play I’m writing.
That’s fascinating that you say you don’t write ensemble pieces yet you said this is meant to be an ensemble piece.
Mark: You’ll have to clarify that a little bit for me. Do you mean when I said I felt that the characters were ensemble and not so much “leading character verses supporting character?” I think in this case all of the characters have equal wants that drive the play. Hopefully they are faced with something that does change them during the time span of this play. Marsha Norman is very dogmatic about this process, she has the ten hard and fast rules of playwriting— one of which I completely broke with this script. I broke the rule of never having two characters whose names start with the same letter.
Why is that a rule?
Mark: Sometimes actors will mix up the names, call out the wrong character. It’s a part of Marsha Norman’s guide to playwrighting. As artists we break the rules all the time. I broke that one with this script. I guess in Marsha Norman’s experience the confusion happens much more often? It’s not like I’m playing who’s on first.
But one of the other rules she has is that you must have a single protagonist who wants something and by the end of the play they either get it or they don’t. And it follows that schematics of obstacles of what’s stopping them, what are the changing tactics they use to get to the end. I don’t think this play is that and that’s why I call it an ensemble piece. It’s not one actor and a supporting crew of characters. They’re all weighted equally, or at least I’d like to believe they are. I hope the actors feel that each character feels weighted equally to the others.
I was attempting to have their stories cross in a way that admits that we’re in a theatre. The amount of artifice is actually a benefit; a virtue. It’s a means to an end of moving from place to place and collapsing time. We’re not back to the French Academy where what happens on stage can only happen in the amount of time that can happen in real life. I hope I’m capturing the essence of moving time but at the same time you can’t just pull an Andy Warhol and run a camera for sixteen hours and play back what happens. This is all the good bits. The dialogue should be real, but just the good bits.
What is the biggest challenge for you as a playwright, with this piece knowing that you don’t have it bogged down in the emotional mire as a melodrama or as a politically charged piece of “current events” theatre and putting it out there into the world?
Mark: That is the challenge. The marketing challenge; I spend as much time marketing as I do writing. It’s just the nature of the beast. I have an agent but I still do a lot of my own marketing work. The plays that are published, the publishers handle that but getting them there takes a lot of work. It’s great to be both produced and published, but not everything that is produced is published.
I think 13 of my works so far are published. Sleepy Hollow is going to be published later this year. I get published, I get produced, and I get produced in a lot of places that I’ve never even heard of, which is great. It’s exciting to go online and look up where I’m being produced. They just did one of my works in Nebraska. I’m in Nebraska! And I hope that doesn’t sound too full of myself, but it’s very rewarding that the work is continuing and getting known out there in the world.
With Fortune’s Child, I’ll do another draft based on what I’ve learned and processed from this experience, and then I’ll send it out again. I’ll try to raise the interest in it, whether it’s another theatre to produce it or a publisher— now I have had one publisher contact me. She’s published three of my other plays, so that might be a good thing. I don’t know that Fortune’s Child is in her market, though.
Who is the target audience for Fortune’s Child?
Mark: People. No, I mean, teenagers on up. There’s very little bad language in it. The subject matter is approachable and accessible to everyone, or at least I hope so. I would love for it to have a life in regional theatres. I would love for it to have a life— New York is always the dream. I’ve been done a lot “off-off” but never off-Broadway. I think it speaks to everyone, or at least I hope it speaks to everyone. I want it to speak to everyone. I’d like to think that this play would look great on say the Olney Theatre Center main stage or even out in their theatre lab, or at any space over at Centerstage. I can dream and try anyway. So I keep trying and push it to other places.
The other side of that is that there are a lot of smaller groups in Baltimore who will give you a shot with new works. Some of these smaller companies may come and go but they’re willing to try new works. They pop up to produce the artistic director’s play and then they might disappear but they get the work out there. And it gives playwrights like me with a play like Fortune’s Child a chance to get going and on its feet. I don’t see the pretention that some other major theatrical markets have; Baltimore doesn’t have an attitude I’ve seen elsewhere. In some cities, because they’re pulling up the drawbridge and not letting anyone else in they’re killing their own art.
I know you’ve mentioned you do your own work as well as being commissioned for adaptations. Which do you prefer?
Mark: Oh, my own work. You really get to be creative with your own work. But doing adaptations can be really fun too. I’m doing another one for Twin Beach Players for their upcoming Halloween slot. It’s an adaptation based on The Island of Dr. Moreau. He’s the one on the remote island who makes the human-animal hybrids, the Vivisectionist. And there are some movies and a TV movies around it I think, but I’m adapting it for the stage. I try to stick as closely to the resource material as I can when it comes to doing adaptations. You find that other adaptations out there go away from the original book because they think it’s just not enough. But to me, I ask the question “why did this novel survive the 100 or 200 years to get where it is?” and why shouldn’t that be enough?
A lot of people believe that new works for the stage either have to work an informative agenda, like so many of the social and political driven works that keep popping up, particularly in Washington DC, or that theatrical new works are solely for entertainment purposes. Where do you think Fortune’s Child fits into that scale?
Mark: I don’t because I think that’s not at all the restrictions of new works. I think there are many other reasons to write for the stage other than for entertainment or with an agenda. I don’t see them as hard categories. You have to engage people and tell them a story. I’m just raising questions. I don’t have an agenda and I’m not out for spectacle entertainment. Those conclusions belong in the audience. I’m going to try and present people dealing with whatever that they’re dealing with as clearly and as cleanly as I can so that you can relate them to yourself.
I didn’t leave room for a lot of guesswork at the end of this particular play. You know she’s going to die. There is certitude. Everyone is going to die, except for me. But you know the old saying it’s death, taxes, and shaving, and not even shaving for some people anymore. I realize that there are works purely to entertain. I’m not going to come away from Spiderman: The Musical— I couldn’t afford it even if I wanted to see it, which I didn’t— but I’m not going to come away from a show like that with the same sort of feeling that I am walking away from a play like Fortune’s Child, I hope.
I’d like people to come away having enjoyed the show; having enjoyed the way things were said and the way words were chosen. Stoppard said “writers are not sacred but the words are.” The arrangement of words can have a meaning and can have an effect. I’ve written plays where I just want people to laugh, but this is not that.
There is a handle, or a ladle, whichever culinary term you’d like, of levity in this production.
Mark: Good. That’s just how it came out when it came to me, but it’s also what I want. You’ve got to have something to laugh at. If you can’t laugh at some point in life, you’re lost. Sometimes you have to step over the line, I know you disagree with that line Susan says, “Dead serious…” and if it ends up not working I’ll amend it or even cut it, but sometimes you have to go there.
The humor comes out of the situation for me. It comes out of the context, it comes out of the characters. I intended and hoped that people would have a good time with it. One of your brethren, or fraternity, no sorority? Another critic called the play a dark comedy. Yes, I read reviews. I know a lot of actors and playwrights don’t. I will fully and readily admit that I read reviews, and I take them to heart because my heart is on my sleeve and that’s just the way I am. I read them and I know you’re not supposed to take the good ones with any more validity than you take the bad ones, but I do take them all to heart. Somebody took the time to write it, I should read it.
And I’m curious. I would, obviously, like people to have enjoyed the evening, or at least have thought that they didn’t waste their money, that they didn’t waste their time. I want to think that people have wanted to have a discussion about the play on the way home in the car. You know one of the early blurbs out in print made the play sound like it was about cancer. Yes, cancer is an important part of it, but I cannot stress enough that it is not about cancer. Who wants to go see a play about cancer?
Just humor us, do you type everything nowadays or do you still actually write?
Mark: Mostly type but when I’m really fussing with something, I will sit with a legal pad and graphite technology. And if I don’t have something with me, because I don’t travel with an iPad or anything, I’ll jot it down somewhere. But I like having the benefit of not having to retype everything, so a lot of times it’s just easier to type it from the start. I grew up learning on a manual which is why I beat keys to death now. You had to hit the keys with a certain impact in order to get the impression onto the page. So I type like a bad journalist. It’s ugly to watch but I’m fast. I don’t have to look, and unfortunately, my handwriting has gone to hell.
Anything else I haven’t covered that you want to cover?
Mark: Hell if I know. Did we talk about voices of characters? I think everyone should have their own voice. You should be able to tell which actor is speaking without seeing them, you should be able to read that on the page without having the character’s name on it. One thing that I try to get across, again if you go back to your apartment or wherever and just record and transcribe what happens that’s not a play. You have to transform it, you have to mold it and shape it. I know I said this before, but it’s all the good bits. It’s all the stuff you wish you said. You know when you have a fight and you say “Oh, God Damnit, I should have said this and this” those are the things you want to get into the dialogue! Those are the moments you want to capture.
It has to work. It’s not a short story. And I read a lot of scripts from other people, occasionally I even judge playwrighting contests, but I get a lot of novels. And you have to tell people that we’re not writing literature. Novels are not plays. There are similarities because we’re both telling a story but in very different ways. You don’t tell the audience what someone thinks or how they look, that’s for the imagination of someone who is reading the pages. All of that comes out in the creative process on stage in a play so you don’t need to write it out. I hope my play is a story that moves and feels like real life, you know, don’t come on and tell me how you’re feeling, do something, show me something.
One of your fellow critics gave me a nice ribbing about spying on teenage girls, which made me sound a little suspicious, but I’ll take it as a compliment, since the point of that comment was that I’ve captured the essence and tone of Sarah so thoroughly. For the record I haven’t been spying on anyone. As a playwright, you play all the parts. I think starting as an actor helps you keep all those parts fresh in your head.
You started as an actor? What switched you to playwright?
Mark: I think it was the fact that I was always writing something. It was one of those obvious small epiphanies for me, why am I not writing things that I’m enjoying doing? I did dinner theatre, and summer stock, and some acting up here— I did have that 16 year hiatus, I did have kids. When the great domestic destruction occurred, also known as my divorce, I was cast in a play up here in Baltimore as Satan at Spotlighters. I know, fitting, right? I was working with Michael Tan and Fuzz Roark. It was my first play in forever. It used to be that I couldn’t wait to hit the stage, but that show was the first time ever that I had truly experienced stage fright. I was actually afraid that I would lose my lines but it all comes back after a while. I really enjoyed doing Art back in September with those guys, and it was great. That was a show that I really did enjoy, I think I told you then that I loved the play and I wish I’d written it.
I see a play in my head and I just want it to flow and I want it to work. It is different from most things I’ve written, Fortune’s Child.
Mark: It feels different. It has that sense of whimsy— well maybe not whimsy, but I don’t know what word to use— but because the scenes flow into each other and it changes location, we go to Ireland, we go to New Zealand, we go to Hawaii, it’s not nailed down kitchen-sink realism. It’s—
Mark: Fantastical Ephemeralism. Thank you! That’s the phrase I’m looking for. It’s a beautiful, lovely phrase, thank you for that. As far as structure, most Western theatre— and I’m sorry because it does work— but most things you see in theatre, on television and in the movies follows Aristotelian structure. It works. So you can do something else, great, you can follow Ovid or whatever there are all kinds of different structures, but this is what I was brought up on and this is what I know works. So to label a variation of this structure as passé or unworthy, I don’t understand that. I think if it serves the story then that is fine.
Can you label an MDQ for Fortune’s Child, since you’re on about following structure and I know we spoke a bit about playwrighting rules?
Mark: I want it noted in parenthesis that the playwright is pensively hanging his head and pinching the bridge of his nose as he closes his eyes. I’m glad that no one died on stage, actually died on stage. None of the characters, so that it doesn’t end with some maudlin death scene. The mother is different, I’m talking about the main four characters. We don’t see Susan die. The major dramatic question…what is that? The question that the play answers? There are so many answers that immediately spring to mind…I don’t know where to start.
Analyzing always comes after the fact for me. When I was writing it I didn’t know where or how it was going to end and that all came about because of the process. Sometimes when I write a play I see the end and I know the end so I write toward the end. But sometimes when the lights rise and the curtain opens— if you can still find a theatre with a curtain these days— people come on and off we go. I think this is one of those. This is what came out and has been since refined in drafts, revisions, and readings. The central question I guess is will folks finally accept what they don’t want to accept and in this case it’s death.
That’s a really tough question and it makes me nervous to try and pigeonhole that down to that level. I leave that job to critics, and reviewers, academics. You make those determinations from seeing the play. Of course Shaw the critic always pissed me off because he said you could have the “theatre of the mind” where you sit home in your living room and read the play and that’s it. But I don’t think that’s true. You don’t have the play until you see it with actors, and lights, and all of the elements that come with the show, otherwise it’s just the blueprint. How can you make a determination from just a blueprint? I wouldn’t talk about how lovely your house is just by looking at the blueprint, I’d want to go and see it and explore the rooms before I made that determination.
It’s never the same. This is why I love doing this because you get to pull all these other people into it and they’re able to develop it and see so much more than just all the stuff that I had in my head. When things work out great then I’ll take credit for it and when they don’t then I’ll tell them that’s not what I intended. Playwrighting it the best of all the writing art forms for me. You get solitude because you have to be alone to write, but you get all of this community too. I’m a very social creature and I love getting to be around all the people. And there are ups and downs to it, everybody has an opinion. Everybody has an agenda whether it’s altruistic or self-serving, but you realize this and know this going in. There is a satisfaction in giving and this is a giving process.
What is it that you’re hoping people will take away from seeing Fortune’s Child?
Mark: Some cold comfort, if you will. It is comfort but it is realistic and clear-eyed in that there is no way out. We’re all going to be facing this but we can face it with grace, we can face it with understanding and we can make the best of it. We can face it instead of walking away from it or pretending that it isn’t happening. Even those of us that don’t have really strong religious convictions, those of us with doubts who don’t know — I hope this is going to help them find something.
Another dose of pretention here, Our Town which all these high schools do like it’s some sugared-candy play, it’s this harsh dose of living reality. That play has umbrellas in it too! When those black umbrellas come out at the end and they just part like the Red Sea and there’s the character all dressed in white and she’s dead and her husband prostrates himself at her feet and she doesn’t know what to say because she can’t do anything to comfort him, that play is misunderstood as some sort of saccharine all-American utopia. To me it is a clear-eyed, cold, surgical view of life that we have to deal with. This is what we have to deal with.
There’s the dichotomy— not a dichotomy— balance? Different sides of the scale? Juxtaposition. There’s the juxtaposition of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill; O’Neill who would go to great lengths to say we need to rip everyone’s illusions away. We need to be honest no matter how much it hurts because it’s the truth and at least we’re being real, whereas Williams like illusion. He takes comfort in putting the Japanese Lanterns with the colors over the light bulbs to make life a little nicer.
I think— pretentious number two— the goal is to find a balance between the two of them. Theatre can be there for entertainment. I would like to think that people are entertained with Fortune’s Child, that they’re not bored.
I think I write because I can’t not write. I love the whole process. I love when you get other people involved and I hope I’m good at it. I hope Fortune’s Child is a creation that people will take away something from. If they take away something, regardless of what it is, then I think I’ve served my purpose. I’m a persistent SOB if nothing else, and you have to be in this industry. There are so many people who talk about it and don’t write. That’s a doubly bad thing for me because you can talk it away into the ether and then never write it. I’ve written this; this won’t evaporate and all the words won’t be talked away. Hopefully people will come and see it.
Click here to read the TheatreBloom review of Fortune’s Child.
Want a different opinion? See what The Bad Oracle has to say.
For more information on playwright Mark Scharf and his upcoming works, please visit his website.