Playwright Interview: Kate Danley on Writing as a Day Job

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This month we are featuring a series of interviews with local playwrights to gather their insights on the creative process and getting scripts to the stage.

The Salon’s Artistic Director, Margaret O’Donnell interviewed award-winning Seattle playwright Kate Danley in September. Kate took her first playwriting class and wrote her first scenes in summer 2014. Since then her plays have been produced throughout the US and in Canada, and won staged readings in the U.K. This year, she was elected Seattle regional representative for the national Dramatists’ Guild. She co-founded the Seattle Playwrights Salon in 2016.

MOD: You’re a short story writer, an award-winning and best-selling fantasy novelist, and an actor. Why did you decide to start writing for the stage?

KD: I had the privilege of going to a magnet performing arts high school and I majored in theatre in college. Both programs involved creating original shows, and I feel very fortunate that playwriting and self-producing was established as a very normal, everyday thing that artists needed to do. When I moved to Los Angeles, I began writing sketch and stand-up in the hopes of launching my career from "starving artist" to "relatively financially okay" artist. Casting directors were using the comedy clubs to find new talent and, at the time, it was the easiest way to open the door. Unfortunately, the acting superstardom thing never materialized. What did happen, though, was I was working a lousy day job to support my failing acting habit and to stave off the boredom, I started writing a book, and that book took off. I soon found myself as a full-time author, but there was something missing. I love theatre. I love it more than anything. And writing books wasn't enough. So, I was sitting in my office one day in 2014 wondering to myself, "If only there was some way to combine plays with writing..." and quite literally had the epiphany it was called "play writing." And the rest, as they say, is history.

MOD: I remember being in class with you at the Seattle Rep in 2014 when you wrote and read the beginnings of your now widely-produced play Building Madness. The entire class loved Trixie, your ditsy heroine. Where did she come from?

KD: I am a tall, awkward woman with brown hair and a funny face, and since high school, I have been cast as either the old lady or the serious lead. I looked at all of my cute, tiny friends who got to play all the fun roles I was always typed out of. And so, when I sat down to write Building Madness, I asked myself what sort of role had I always wanted to play that no one had ever let me. I am a huge fan of Gracie Allen and think her unsung genius is disappearing from the zeitgeist. So, I decided to use her as my inspiration and write a part that I would love to play. And, I gotta say, I had the privilege of taking on the role at a theatre in Los Angeles. One of the greatest joys was having friends who had known me for years come up and say, "I didn't know you could do that. And it was really, really good."

MOD: How did you get your first production? What is Building Madness’s production history? What have been your favorite productions so far of the play?

KD: I had three productions all happen concurrently, which is just bonkers. I had entered Building Madness in the Panowski Playwriting Competition, which it ended up winning. Out of that, I received a workshop and a world premiere production at Northern Michigan University. At the same time, a reader of my books named Patty Ram reached out to me when she saw I had a script and became a champion of this play. She pitched it to a theatre in Grande Prairie, Canada, and they picked it up for their season and gave it its Canadian World Premiere. At the same time, I am very good friends with two men named Kevin Cochran and Charles Johanson. They own a great little theater in Los Angeles called the GTC Burbank. Kevin and I awkwardly asked each other if we might both be interested in possibly working on it together (it was like two seventh graders asking each other out to the school dance) and the show had a great workshop production in LA. Each of these experiences holds such a huge place in my heart and helped the play to grow in wonderful ways I never would have discovered on my own.

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MOD: What else have you written, and where have you been produced?

KD: Oh gosh... I've seriously lost count. Thirty books? Twenty plays? Something like that. If anyone's interested, head on over to my website or the New Play Exchange! I also write cozy mysteries under the name Agatha Ball.

MOD: Do you still write novels and short stories? What is your writing schedule?

KD: I do! It is still ye olde day job. Because I am an indie author, I have to release about four books a year in order to keep the roof over my head. In case anyone is gasping in horror, keep in mind we now work on computers instead of typewriters and research can happen instantaneously instead of having to slog to the library. There is certainly space needed for the creative process, but not having to retype a 250-page manuscript word-by-word with every edit has cut back on a lot of the time consuming work.

MOD: What are your best short tips about developing new scripts? Submitting your work?

KD: Once you think your script is finished, gather up your friends in your living room and have them read it aloud. You'll discover all sorts of things you never would have discovered on your own. And look for ways to advance your plot in the spirit of "Yes, AND!" instead of "No, but..."

As far as submissions, create a file of your play with your contact info, your play without your contact info (blind copy), a single sheet with your synopsis, a single sheet with your character list, and a single sheet with your scene summaries (usually the readers are looking for time shifts and locations so they know if it is a single room play or if you are going to need a turntable and huge set changes. It helps with budget expectations.) Pretty much every opportunity will need some combination of these, and once you've created them, submissions become less daunting. There are various submission sites like the Dramatists Guild website, Kat's Play Submission Central, Aurin Squire's Get What You Want, and Play Submission Helper.

MOD: What are you working on now?

KD: I just completed a full-length retelling of the 13th century Robin Hood ballads called Olde Robin Hood. Now that the book is out the door, I can refocus on playwriting. I'm actually working on an adaptation of my gothic penny dreadful novel A Spirited Manor for the stage. It should be a lot of fun for theatres needing some new Halloween fare—shameless plug!

MOD: Why did you co-found the Salon?

KD: I think you and I were both at a point in our playwriting that we needed a way to bring our words to life. It seemed like there were limited opportunities for new local playwrights, and especially new, local, women playwrights, to get anything onstage. And as the old saying goes, "Be the change you want to see in the world." I am so grateful to the Salon and Carlos at The Conservatory for providing an artistic home for Seattle's artists to shine. I know I would not have achieved any of my success without this very special proving ground.

MOD: What are your plans as the Dramatists Guild regional representative?

KD: We have an absolutely incredible, vibrant theatre scene here in Seattle. And after spending many years in both Los Angeles and NYC, I am even more impressed. It is political, subversive, wickedly funny, smart, fearless, heartbreaking, and truly special. That said, I sometimes feel that theaters may not know how to connect with local playwrights outside of their sphere. My hope in the remaining two-years of my tenure is to bridge that gap. I want producers to know how to find the playwright that lives a few blocks from their theatre, someone who has been coming to every show for the past five years. I want playwrights to feel empowered to create their own opportunities and not feel like they have to be anointed by an agent or literary director in order to bring their play to life. I want people to be aware of the work the Dramatists Guild does - from providing paid commissions to playwrights in Puerto Rico who were devastated by Hurricane Maria to studying the ratio of men vs. women being produced and providing hard data so theatres can make informed choices via The Count to honoring the students of Stoneman Douglas High School to championing diversity, equality, and inclusion to making space available in Times Square for any playwright who needs it to providing pro bono legal advice on any question on contracts and copyright... The list goes on and on and on. My goal is to help any playwright in our area feel like they are a part of something wonderful.