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.

Playwright Interview: Elizabeth Coplan and The Grief Dialogues


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 Seattle playwright Elizabeth Coplan about her production The Grief Dialogues, which took off from Seattle, and is currently being staged throughout the country. The next show, Grief Dialogues: The Play is being produced in Las Vegas on September 26.

MOD: You founded, wrote for, and toured The Grief Dialogues, and captured the imaginations of audiences throughout the country. What are The Grief Dialogues?

EC: The Grief Dialogues is an artistic movement. We use theatre, visual art, music, poetry, and narrative to start a new conversation about dying, death, and grief. Our motto is out of Grief Comes Art.

MOD: Why did you begin this project?

EC: Three years ago, I experienced several deaths, people close to me or close to people I love. Neither of us was allowed to express our grief in public. So called friends barraged us with meaningless phrases like: He’s in a better place. At least he died doing what he loved. She lived a long life. I know exactly how you feel. Time heals all wounds. You will be okay. It’s better this way. Your wife would not like to see you suffering like this. Or the always popular, never fails to sting: You have to move on! To which I always reply: Why?

MOD: Where were you a playwright before coming up with this idea?

EC: Since I was 13, the theatre influenced my life. I acted, directed, produced, attended, reviewed, and donated money to theatre all over the world. When I was diagnosed with a chronic illness forcing me into early retirement, I turned to the one thing I knew I could do anywhere, in bed, on the sofa, at my desk, regardless of day or time. If I grew weary, I could set it aside. I started writing 10 minute plays thinking they would be “easy” only to find they were quite difficult to write. They include all the components of a full-length play but in 10 pages! Even so, I found them quite rewarding and my hard work paid off in awards and productions.

MOD: Did this project take shape completely right out of the box? Or did it change over time? Did you envision a touring company?

EC: It definitely changed over time, but only in some improvements. It is still, and always be, entertaining. I hope it continues to be educational. I recently wrote a chapter for Dr. Robert Neimeyer's book Grief Therapy Volume 3" titled, "Using Theatre to Start the Conversation." And yes, I always envisioned a touring company. I love to travel so why not. We are now in the process of sustainability and are changing our mission to include medical ethics but serving the greater medical community (doctors, nurses, social workers etc.).

MOD: Who was your first collaborator? How did that change the dynamic of being the founding visionary?

EC: My first collaborators were the playwrights featured in the original script: Jeffrey Fischer-Smith, Daniel Guyton, Donna Hoke, Barbara Blumenthal, all, coincidentally, fellow Dramatist Guild members.

MOD: You’ve found a dynamic director and four exceptional actors for the touring company. How do they continue to be motivated and inspired?

EC: You will have to ask them that question. However, I will say that when we finally had our cast party last Sunday night in Seattle, they were all still talking about the show and asking when we can do it again! I think the show itself is what continues to motivate and inspire them. With six different plays, it’s not uncommon to have a different play resonate with a different actor every performance. They tell me they absolutely love the diversity of all the plays and their characters.

MOD: What satisfactions and what challenges have come with working with others who are as passionate about The Grief Dialogues as you are?

EC: Satisfactions: my Inbox flooded after a performance with such wonderful feedback and the sender’s own personal grief story; the opportunity to work with so many talented people on the subjects of theatre and therapy, drama and death; traveling to other cities in the U.S.; and meeting even more people in these circles. On a recent trip to NYC, I met the incomparable Amy Cunningham. Amy is well-known on the East Coast. My husband and I had just been in Pittsburgh for the Association of Death Education and Counseling national conference, where I produced The Grief Dialogues for the second year in a row, and we decided to take a week “off” to go to our favorite U.S. city – New York. While I was there, I did manage a few Grief Dialogues related meetings (what’s a little vacation without a little work on a project I am passionate about). For some reason, I decided to Google what was happening in NYC around the topic of death. And lo and behold, I found “The Inspired Funeral,” a half-day workshop at the New York Open Center, taught by Amy, on the upcoming Saturday. So I signed up! And that workshop brought me new information about death and an opportunity to introduce myself to Amy and others in attendance, which led me to ReimagineNYC, a week long event in NYC on End of Life issues. Grief Dialogues is now one of the featured events!

MOD: Now that you have this project to grow and nurture, how has it affected your own time to write? Influenced how and what you write?

EC: Excellent question. I suppose if you are asking me if I have time to write new work, then I’d say “no.” Existing work, “yes.” I have a play “Hospice: The Unmusical” that I workshopped last year in Seattle with great success and now I am working on the re-writes. I have a proposal for a new book (on the topic of death – of course) that has great potential but I have yet to write the Sample Chapter requested by the potential publisher. But just yesterday I took an assignment to write the end-of-life story of a friend’s husband (most likely a play). Now that will be all new work. How does the project influence my writing? I guess the answer would be that the project is so consuming (an obsession really) that it completely influences my writing and vice versa.

MOD: What’s next for The Grief Dialogues? How do you want it to grow, to change?

EC: Right now, I am restructuring the financial model to become more sustainable. While we will continue to look for theatres and organizations to sponsor the show, we are also be looking at developing an educational program for a fee.

MOD: How are The Grief Dialogues funded?

EC: Originally it was self-funded with a little bit of income from ticket sales and my speaking engagements. Last year, I did some additional fundraising with friends and an Angel Donor appeared at the end of the year. She then agreed to do a matching fund drive with me through the Seattle Foundation’s Give Big program in May. With that money, I was able to produce five shows in June in Seattle and on Bainbridge Island, as well as take my director and actors to NYC for a performance. Now, I’m back into fundraising mode. With this new sustainability model, I’m hoping that we will obtain grants and other significant funds from foundations and private donors.

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MOD: Have you changed your ideas about the project? If so, how? Is it what you originally wanted?

EC: My original vision and the one I come back to time and time again is to create a compassionate world.

MOD: Do you have other projects in mind?

EC: My current problem is that I continually think of new projects within this project. I’m trying to launch a Podcast program. I’ve already started production on a new book of stories about love and loss (publishing date Fall 2018). We have a theme song “Go On,” and we include visual art in our stories. Forty years of a career in marketing and public relations leads me into what I call “Marketing Shiny Object Syndrome” (MSOS) which, in turn, leads me into more “to-dos” than is humanly possible. I should mention right now that ticket sales and recent donations allow me to hire three part-time people: a theatrical manager, a book editor, a marketing specialist, and a social media intern in Las Vegas where we are holding the next performance of The Grief Dialogues. Rather humorously I just told someone that I feel not like I am drinking from a fire hose, but rather five fire hoses are pointed right at me with full force!

MOD: What was the most important lift-off for The Grief Dialogues? What shifted it from a project you dreamed of to the reality of a touring company in demand, with good scripts coming in continually?

EC: I feel I am the luckiest person alive when it comes to a project that fulfills me! I have always believed that life is nothing if you are not obsessed. I spent my entire working career helping others bring their dreams and goals to fruition and now it’s my turn. As far as the “lift off” I will say that it was the first performance (a staged reading) of Grief Dialogues: The Play at the Seattle Death Salon that I helped organize with the UW School of Social Work, People’s Memorial (I’m the board prez) and the Order of the Good Death (out of LA) that gave me the biggest lift off.

Seattle Playwright Benjamin Benne’s Tight New Tragedy Alma Shines at Theatre Battery in Kent

Courtesy of Theatre Battery

Courtesy of Theatre Battery

Alma works three low-paid jobs and sleeps on the couch to keep herself and her 17-year old daughter Angel fed, clothed, and housed in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in December 2016, somewhere in California.  She’s laser-focused on getting Angel to college and into a well-paid profession. Tomorrow is the SAT exam, and Alma is at fever-pitch to make sure Angel is prepared. She’s been drilling her daughter with flash cards since she was age four and, against the grain, she’s taken off work early to help Angel study. But Angel comes home late smelling of alcohol. She insists she won’t take the exam, and didn’t register for it.

Benjamin Benne’s Alma (@nowall) reveals, with the tense pacing of a thriller, why Angel rebels against her mother’s command. Outside the walls of their apartment, imagined as menacing darkness in Lex Marcos’s and Amber Parker’s brilliant set and lighting design, the weight of immigration policy is palpable and inescapable. Alma and Angel’s fight becomes tragic in its original dramatic sense: there is no solution or escape that is just. The tragic dilemma between the duty of love against law, cultural norms, and economic imperatives uncovers the question that our society must urgently answer:  how do we, in the words of philosopher Martha Nussbaum, “construct a world in which such conflicts do not confront our citizens, or confront them as rarely as possible.”

The fearless Anabel Hovig as Alma and the incandescent Klarissa Marie Robles as Angel are perfectly cast as striving immigrant mother and slacker US-born daughter. They are mesmerizing as they reveal the layer after layer those stereotypes cover up. Alma (@nowall) is directed with insight and daring by Brandon J. Simmons, and runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays through September 1 at Theatre Battery, 444 Ramsay Way, Suite 107, Kent, Washington. Theatre Battery practices “radical hospitality” and admission is free.


Reflections from the Dramatist’s Guild National Conference in NYC, July 2018

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It was as refreshing as forest bathing. Three hundred people who love to do exactly what we do, enough to pay for a Manhattan hotel, a flight, and a conference fee.  In one place.  To be with people who “get” you!  This doesn’t happen much for playwrights, especially if we’re new-ish to the theatre and under-produced. We are often more solitary than we’d like, more solitary than is good for our art. For each of the three days of the conference, we connected with each other, heard about others’ good ideas, learned about new resources, and had the uniquely satisfying experience of just being in the same room with passionate, creative, generous playwrights who know that by helping other playwrights, they are deepening their own creative wells. 

If you haven’t already joined, check out the Dramatist’s Guild and attend the next conference! Here's a link to the conference schedule.  Reach out to the playwrights on the panels that interest you and ask them for materials, resources, and tips.  Here are just three of the conference highlights for me:  

·       Paula Vogel’s Boot Camp.  What an inspiring, loving teacher this accomplished playwright is!  We focused on the six elements we chose to drive our play:  spectacle, character, conflict (plot), language, rhythm/music, and thought, and then honed in on six plot forms.  Paula’s advice:  play with each of these forms, and keep yourself fresh with each new play by not being stuck in one.  Above all, “drop and give me 20!”  Pages that is. When you’re stuck, whether at the beginning or anywhere else in a play, start writing with a prompt, without your internal editor, and stop when you have twenty pages.  And get a group of other playwrights together, virtually or in person, and have a bake-off! See the bake-off instructions at Paula's website. If you’d like to participate in a play bake-off at the Playwrights Salon this fall, email us and we’ll get you in.

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·       Radio/Audio Plays. A big market for plays 10-45 minutes long.  First, determine what each company wants, and then write your pitch, including a one-sentence premise, a one-paragraph synopsis, and one-sentence character descriptions.  Check Playing on Air, a producer, and Audio-Drama, a clearinghouse for audio drama.  And for those in Washington State, my tip is to connect with Jack Straw Cultural Center, if you are interested in producing your own audio drama. You can pay to rent their studios and engage the services of their audio engineers.

·       Protest Plays. One quick tip for those of us who write political plays and are at the development stage:  find a community partnership with a group that’s interested in themes that interest you, and invite an audience to read your play on the theme. This from Tiffany Antone, the founder of Protest Plays Project, a lively and inspiring playwright and theatre professor with the mission of, among other initiatives,  “identifying and sharing protest-inspired short plays.”  Share what you have!