Prolific Seattle Playwright John Ruoff: Mastering the Craft

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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 John Ruoff in September to gather his hard-earned tips for new playwrights. A prolific writer, since 1985 John Ruoff has written 135 radio plays, fourteen one-acts (mostly comedies), and nine full-length scripts, and had productions of them all.

MOD: When did you start writing for theatre, and why?

JR: High school- 1975. As a youth, I had a keen sense of satire as my Catholic school upbringing prompted and inspired me to pursue writing short plays and sketches for the school drama department played on stage for the student body. Attending Shoreline Community College, I worked in the TV studio with access to the drama department for which I wrote comedic sketches, which were televised.

My first professional work was writing for stand-up comedians and as the head writer for a talk show (The Tricano DeSales show (1980-1983)). I wrote radio shows for the studio from 1985-1995, learning to write dialogue. I wrote for the Midnight Mystery Theater live radio comedy two shows a month for two years-as "on the job training" to learn the craft of economic storytelling and comedic dialogue. The theater was my classroom. The shows were performed and recorded live at the Belltown Theater for the air on KSER FM in Lynnwood.

In 1995-1996, I wrote three plays--as a learning process with readings only. In 2006 I began writing producible one-acts as training for the full lengths. In 2008 I had my first full length play fully produced and I continue going strong.

MOD: You’ve been very successful in getting your plays produced around town for years. Do producers come to you, do you submit widely, do you self-produce, or all of the above?

JR: I workshop every play I have ever written with other playwrights and hold staged readings as I did with The Playwrights Salon to the point where I can present the play to a director I feel is right for the project. I work with the director on editing the play into a working script. I believe it is essential to the process to have an objective editor and a director is more qualified than a playwright on overall tempo and detail as the work is closer to production. I hold a staged reading for the public and invite a potential producer or artistic director. Having a director in place is always a plus because directors often have crew they work with and the play is more enticing to a prospective producer when all the ducks are in a row.

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MOD: Advice for other playwrights seeking productions?

JR: Workshop a play as much as possible. If you are not in a group, find one or start one. Support is key in theater. And an experienced director told me when I was 21: ALWAYS GET THE BEST ACTORS YOU CAN FIND! Look at it as writing music—you want good musicians to play your music. Same with theater. And don't trust your eyes, have actors read your work!!! Plays are to be experienced! You will have a much better barometer on your work and it makes rewrites more like looking at a road map than just wandering.

MOD: Do you write every day? Do you have a day job? If so, how does that impact your writing?

JR: Since I have a monthly radio show and I am working on two full length plays, I write every day, but Saturday and Sunday. I perform at night. Writing is my day job. I write early in the morning—fresh. My head is too crowded at night for creativity. I never write under the influence of anything but great writers.

MOD: What are the themes that interest you? Has that changed over the years you’ve been writing?

JR: I am fascinated by family dynamics and have written two tragedies based on my own family history. It is true—write what you know. I am working on a third. I find true life stories to have what all engaging stories have—a universal appeal. Radio plays are my comedy outlet. If I write a full length comedy, it requires a solid story with well-defined characters to hold an audience for two hours. Not an easy task. My most successful play at the box office was a comedy, “Private Cocktails”.

MOD: How do you describe your growth as a writer?

JR: I have learned to pay much more attention to character development and story structure with a working outline before a word of dialogue is written. Saves so much time! I used to rely on first draft energy to take me where I wanted to go—like being in a boat with no oars, waiting for the current. My growth is directly linked to discipline. I do not believe in inspiration.

MOD: Any comments/critique you’ve received that you remember as particularly helpful to you as you developed your craft?

JR: Don't hold on to anything. Writing for the theater is a community art form, a collaboration. Be flexible! I had a director say "Go home and cut 16 pages and you might have a show." I did and he was right.

MOD: What do you like best about working with theatre artists on your scripts? Describe your collaboration with directors, and your advice to new playwrights on working with directors.

JR: The relationship with a director is a delicate balance—egos are involved. A good working relationship is a marriage based on trust and respect. Ultimately the director is the captain of your ship and you will have to turn your work over completely. Scary? Hell, yes. No two directors are alike with individual styles, faults, and attributes. I have been lucky to choose many of my directors but I have learned to work with assigned directors. Directors who are also actors have a tendency to be more adept at articulating processes with actors but non-acting directors can excel in visual staging, but all in all it’s a mixed bag.

Either way, it is crucial to hold an interview and learn what the director understands your play to be about. Then go on to explore layers with he or she as an artist. The big picture, if you will, gets you off to a good start. I find actors to be useful editors in workshop readings because they are focusing on the one character. He or she can detect repetitive or unnatural dialogue. I listen to what they have to say, in earnest. A rule I adhere to: if more than one actor or writer doesn't understand anything in my play in workshop phase then it should never get to the stage.

MOD: What playwrights inspire you? Influence you?

JR: Sam Shepard, Eugene O'Neill, Clifford Odets, T. Williams, Albee (I know all the lines to Virginia Wolf), Neil Simon, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller (I will be acting in Death of a Salesman in Feb, 2019), Kaufman and Hart, and what's his noodle...Shakespeare.

MOD: What are you working on now?

JR: Dictionary: The story of the Oxford Dictionary's leading contributor in 1880's who also happened to be confined to a criminal asylum as a murderer. A doctor who went mad after branding deserters in the Civil War is given book material from outside sources from the wife of the man the doctor murdered. The relationship is quite unique as the widow wrestles with the notions of forgiveness and revenge for her husband’s senseless death.

Dinners: A series of dinners present a family in the turbulent 1960s of change coming to a head as the son of an ex-marine declares himself a conscientious objector in 1967, as told by the teenage sister of the young man. And The Case of the Missing Wizard- a cross between Harry Potter and Peyton Place.

MOD: Final words of advice for new playwrights?

JR: To make your play marketable and attractive to producers, keep your cast under 8 (2-6 range a preference) and limited sets (one or two ideal). Producers have to pay actors and provide set pieces. Keep your monologues under two minutes because actors have to memorize and make it real. To test this suggestion, try and memorize your own speeches and you'll see my point.

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