Once upon a bloody time, I received the e-mail us writers dream of in our restless sleep. A theatre company here in New York City was offering me a commission to write them a play around a topic of their choice. The topic, as I soon learned, was the mysterious case of Jack the Ripper. I soon began work on one of the most rewarding writing experiences of my professional career.
The play, East in Red, received wonderful feedback, enthusiastic audiences, and cemented me in a special place with an up-and-coming theatre company. That company was none other than DreamCatcher Entertainment. And thus, the annual event of commissioning a new playwright began. It would be called the Ghost Light Series. This year's playwright was the fresh and poetic Penny Middleton.
This is the 1 of 4 interviews that will be conducted between Penny and I. A sort of ‘passing the torch’ scenario. I will keep you all up to date with the progress of her work . Bare in mind, at this time, I know nothing of the subject of her play, keeping me completely on an objective side of interviewing her not about the play itself, but focusing more on the process than the content. I will then be invited to attend a reading of Penny's, and then we will get to the juicy topics of the play!
Ryan Sprague (RS)
Penny Middleton (PM)
RS: Hey Penny. Thanks for taking the time to do this interview with me. So, to start, where are you originally from? Did you attend college?
PM: Of course! I’m originally from Lansdale, PA. I graduated Cum Laude from the University of Central Florida (UCF) with a BA in Classical Humanities.
RS: What got you in to the crazy world of being a playwright? Have you had any plays produced and/or developed before this?
PM: I’m an actor and a "logophile" (lover of words) so I think it was bound to happen. As an actor, you are more often than not, at the mercy of others. ie: casting directors, producers, playwrights, etc. Realizing that I could have some control over that, is what inspired me to write. I figured, if I am not working as an actor, whose fault is that? Mine! I want to be a working actor, so that means I have to get work or make work. Also, I have some incredibly talented friends so I thought how great it would be to create work that we could all participate in. This is my first play that will be fully developed. Also this is the first full length play I’ve written. There are a lot of “firsts” with this!
RS: How did you hear about DreamCatcher Entertainment, and what first got you involved with them? Had you seen any of their previous work?
PM: I worked with Kelly Feustel, the Artistic Director for DreamCatcher Entertainment, on my first production in NYC. She was the stage manager for the show. I’m sure I was talking her ear off at a rehearsal and she mentioned the company. I thought the concept was great, but at the time I wasn’t thinking of writing. I had just moved to NYC (this was a little over a year ago) so I was busy navigating.
RS: Had you already written your Terror Tales piece before the competition, or was it a brand new piece specifically written for it?
PM: It was a new piece. It was the second short play I had ever written so I felt a little (a lot) out my element.
RS: When you learned of the timetable you were being faced with (Topic in December, first draft in February, what went through your head about a plan of attack?
PM: I remember thinking, “Oh, this is a thing now!” My initial fear was that the words wouldn’t come. I would be struck with writer’s block. So I just began to write. Anything that came out, found its way on to paper. After many long phone calls with my friend Angie, I realized that it was an unfounded fear. The words were there. This, of course, led me to another obstacle… I had all this “stuff” written and no fully developed structure or story. I know I’m new to writing, but I think having a story is pretty important!
RS: Is your approach to writing different when given a specific topic to write about? What would you consider your process of researching the topic, creating a world around it, and writing a first draft about it?
PM: My writing style and technique is based on what I know; Academia. My major in college was Classical Humanities, so I am no stranger to writing and research. I like structure in the beginning. The more I write, the less rigid it becomes. I think it’s too early to say if I’ve developed patterns, but I do find myself spending hours in the library researching… which I love!
RS: Were you at all familiar with the topic they gave you before-hand? Or did you go in to it completely blind?
PM: As you are quite familiar with, Ryan, the DreamCatcher team loves the “reveal moment.” I had no idea what my topic was about. During my first meeting with Kelly, she waited until the very end. Surprisingly, without knowing, they picked a topic that I in fact had some previous connection with. I think that’s what makes this company so great. They listen and they get your voice. What more could a new playwright ask for?
RS: What would you say was the biggest challenge with this first draft?
PM: How do I honor the world in which I was commissioned to write for, make it entertaining, and use it as a platform for something palpable? That’s been the challenge. Something tells me that in itself, may always be the challenge.
RS: What influences you to write? Did it change with this certain type of project?
PM: People inspire me, or more specifically the connectivity that we share. For this particular project, I’ve been trying to do just that. Finding moments of continuity while still creating something new and fresh. It’s this innate need to show the similarities that we share in hopes that the differences don’t seem as grave.
RS: Who would you consider playwrights that inspire you? Screenwriters? Authors?
PM: The list is long and varied ranges. Let’s start with Tina Fey, Spike Lee, Lynn Nottage, Kay Cannon, and my personal friends, such as Amina Henry, Joshua Conkel, and Jack McGrath. I’ve always respected and admired anyone that puts pen to paper. It’s an extremely scary thing to do.
RS: What do you hope to accomplish with this project?
PM: I hope that by the end of this project, I will be able to recognize myself in it. That’s all I can ask for. I try to stay in the moment. And in this very moment, all I can focus on is the rough draft I have due in February!
Well Penny, from a former Ghost Light Series playwright to another… I wish you all the best in getting that first draft done. It takes an ambitious writer to be doing what you are doing. So from both myself, and the entire DreamCatcher team, we wish you the best of luck in the beginning stages of this wonderful journey!