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9 Questions: Randy Wyatt

May 29, 2014

Randy Wyatt is a director, playwright and improv coach--and the author of YouthPLAYS titles Alice in Wonderland, Alice in Wonderland (and back again), The Fantasists, The Mystic Tale of Aladdin and Robin Hood and the Heroes of Sherwood Forest.  Other plays include Said and Meant, Synonymy, Sonata Blue, 9x9x9, Tiny Catastrophes and Rising Sun, Rising Moon.  In addition to his plays with YouthPLAYS, his work has been published by Heinemann, Applause Publishing, Smith & Kraus, and Playscripts, Inc. and has been produced throughout the United States and around the world. He earned his MFA in Directing from Minnesota State University in Mankato.  He is a member of The Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis.  He currently is the Theatre Program Chair and Associate Professor of Theatre at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

1. A group of friends is having a potluck – what do you bring?

You can always count on me for dessert.  Peanut butter brownies, most likely.

2. What have you sacrificed for your career?

Over the years, I've couch-surfed, lived out of my car, poured every cent and then some into my graduate education, and accepted that I'm never going to be a millionaire.  My job as a professor has me tied geographically for the time being.  Writing and keeping "theatre hours" can take a toll on a social life too.  All that said, it's amazing how these sacrifices don't feel as dire as they might sound.  Fighting to do what you love is soul-nourishing in and of itself.  It sure beats waking up one day and wishing I had done what I love.  The process is inherently worth it.

3. What is most helpful to you as you sit down to write a first draft?

First, I need a place where I feel I can write.  Sometimes that's my office, sometimes I need a change of scenery.  I haunt coffee shops a lot.  Second, I need to work up into a state of "buzzing"--crackling creative energy.  This is usually a mix of having a head full of research and a playful attitude of what possibilities could arise as I dive in.  I have learned over the years that this is a mental state I don't have to wait for "inspiration" to achieve--the discipline of writing every day eventually taught me how to get to that mental-playground state.  Good music in the earphones, a relaxed yet focused state of mind, and this gleeful energy in my chest that makes me feel like it’s time to play--all of this is good first draft stuff.

Iced coffee nearby also helps immeasurably.

4. If for some reason you were suddenly forbidden to write, what would you end up doing?

Counseling.  Writing is an act of empathy for me, and so I'd probably gravitate to the next embodiment of that.

5. Is there a book you read, play or movie you saw, or story you heard as a child that had a significant impact on you?

I read a lot as a kid/teen (Tolkien, Piers Anthony, George Orwell, Russian and Irish literature), so I have always dreamed of being a writer.  And I would write plays for family and friends to see when I was very young, as well as radio plays on the big black tape recorder.

There is this one story I read, though, that had quite an impact on me.  For years, I’ve tried to find this story, but I don’t remember the title, so it’s been hard to do.  The story was part of my 4th grade “reader”, a textbook full of stories and poems and chapters from novels.  In this story, a young boy lived in a city apartment with his mother.  He asked his mom for a place of his own, so she cleaned out a corner of the apartment by the window looking out into the world.  The boy placed his favorite things there--a plant, a stuffed toy, his favorite book and chair and desk.  He positioned the chair so he could look out into the world while he drew, surrounded by his favorite things.  I know this story doesn't sound very action-packed, but I remember this striking a deep chord with me.  The boy had everything he needed in his own corner of the world.  The story succeeded in making me feel the boy’s joy and contentment right along with him.  And as time went on, I realized that was exactly the kind of affect I would love to achieve as a writer.  Someday I’ll find that story, and I wonder if it will be anything like what I remember it.

6. What is the biggest obstacle or setback you've ever faced in creating a play, and how did you move past it?

Certainly, my greatest obstacle is myself.  Sometimes I will hold onto plays too long, think about them too much without just banging out another draft.  I have to be really disciplined about not overthinking it.  Because let’s face it, writing is hard, and sometimes you just want to write it in your mind, because the play in your mind is always fantastic.

To get past this, I get back to basics.  I read more plays.  I take a refresher class.  I read books on writing, though not too many.  I play games with myself to get words on the page--write one page plays, or automatic writing, or commercials for products I wish existed, etc.  Whatever gets me putting words on the page, and then “working with the clay.”

Did I actually answer the question?  I guess, if I’m going to be specific, I could talk about the time when a small theatre produced my work and changed the ending without telling me, and then told me in the talkback that I hadn't realized what my play actually meant.  I think I’m pretty amiable, but the way I got past that setback was to never work with that theatre again.

7. How has your writing changed over time?

I’d like to think it has gotten more compact, more elegant.  I don’t feel the need to explain everything.  I’m much more interested in pointing towards complex feelings and relationships that are difficult to describe.  I like leading my audience to places to inhabit, not simply hear about.

I also think my writing has embraced the possibilities of the stage, rather than wishing it was a film.  I feel triumphant whenever I feel I’ve done this effectively.

Specifically with TYA, I have really enjoyed working on adaptations and spinning them for a new generation, to point towards issues I think are vital for young people to wrestle with.  The all-female version of Aladdin I wrote wound up transforming a traditionally male-dominated story and illuminating the need to empower girls to speak their wishes and minds.  That’s been really fun and rewarding.

8. If you could ask another playwright, living or dead, to read your work and give you notes on your latest play, who would that playwright be and why would you ask him/her?

I respect so many playwrights.  Right now, if I could be in a room with British playwright Duncan McMillan, I’d love to get inside his brain and process.  Everything I’ve read of his (and I’ve read a lot) feels electric, alive, intensely theatrical.  His plays fire up my imagination and he seems to do it effortlessly (which I know can’t be true).   Everyone should go and read Monster, Lungs, and Don Juan Comes Back from the War right now.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

It’s like he knows the secret to razor sharp tension, no matter what he’s writing about.  I’d love to probe his mind and steal what I could get away with.

If he wasn’t available, I’d ask Euripides to give my script the once-over.  He knows a thing or two about tension, too.  And the secret to script longevity.

9. Tina Howe has been quoted as saying that her characters are splinters of herself. Is this true for you and your characters? Where do your characters come from?

This quote (which I might have paraphrased, sorry Tina) has always resonated.  Certainly when I’m writing about faeries or wizards, there’s pure invention involved, since I’m not either of those things.  But often, when I truly look at a character I’m developing, I can step back and see a sliver of me “in the now”--how I’m currently struggling with something, or I’m asking a question of myself, or remembering how I was when I was eleven, for instance.  I then merge that insight or character color with something else, outside of myself, something observed that I find fascinating from real life, or the specific language or turn of phrase I’ve heard from someone else.  The way people build their own lexicons and favorite phrases, even laughter, is fascinating.  Sometimes my noblest characters come from who I aspire to be.  I think it’s important to write myths you can live, in a sense.  I’m not interested in airing my dirty laundry through my work--that’s therapy--but I don’t shy away from leaving traces of myself in my characters.  I actually think it’s inevitable, at least for me.

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