When did you first start writing plays?
The first time I wrote a complete play was my freshman year of college, after trying and failing to get into several BFA Acting programs. But I’ve always been telling stories. I used to write “novels” on printer paper and hand them out during elementary school recess. In high school I wrote notebooks upon notebooks of rap lyrics, which, in its own way, was storytelling. I’ve always been preoccupied with language, as well as with the way people treat each other. Drama came naturally from that.
Was there one play that really inspired you to become a playwright?
I can’t pinpoint one play, but Caryl Churchill, Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard, and Paula Vogel were my playwriting obsessions in college.
Did you study playwriting in school? If so, where did you attend?
I took an essential playwriting course at Ithaca College, where I was a Drama major and had a Scriptwriting minor in the Communications school. I then went to the MFA Playwriting program at the New School for Drama.
What do you think is the most important thing you learned from a professor or mentor about writing a play? If not one, several?
Oh, man. It’s really hard to pick just one thing! But a common theme from all of my teachers and mentors has been about pages only resulting from hard work. There is no shortcut; there is no magic trick that pulls a scene out of your mind. You open the notebook or the document and you work.
Beyond that, most of them have stressed the importance of being honest with your self: you have to tell the truth as best you know it at this moment. Virginia Woolf’s urging that “If you do not tell the truth about yourself then you cannot tell it about others” seems to have been passed down, and often.
In terms of craft, the things I often repeat back to my own students are “if the characters don’t care about each other, it will be difficult for an audience to care about them,” “we’re more likely to anticipate an event that a character is personally anticipating,” and “information is often most effective when received through action.”
Do you have a certain process when writing your plays or does it vary and change from piece to piece?
It certainly varies. My play, Sunrise Highway came about over several rewrites - scenes changing order, backstories transformed - over the course of two years. My play, The Blameless was written almost entirely in two weeks at Ojai Playwrights Conference - after a year of thinking about the subject. Every play so far has required its own process. (But I can’t stress enough that sleeping well, eating well, and maintaining my relationships has always led to greater artistic output.)
Some playwrights swear by plot while others swear by character. What do you find most interesting or which drives you most when writing a play?
When I was younger, I would have said character is vastly more important, but now, I’d have a difficult time describing what the difference between character and plot is. Characters’ actions and decisions create the plot; the decisions and actions you show through plot create the character. Situation is usually where I start though - a dilemma, an event, an upheaval - and characters spring out from that.
What inspires you to write your plays? Do you draw from personal experiences? Or do you attempt to step outside of yourself and create something completely alien? Again, does it vary from piece to piece?
The pattern seems to be that I get deeply disturbed by something going on in the world, then I set up a wide net and wait for a story to get stuck in a way that speaks to that disturbance. From there, I usually infuse the story with personal details that make it more vivid and help me invest in it.
In an age of television and movies, what do you find most integral about live theater?
I’ve always felt that theater is an exercise in empathy. It’s an actual workout of our capacity to feel for other human beings. This happens by feeling for the performers who are right there with us, but also by reacting off of the people around us. I love film, but I often feel pretty isolated from the rest of the crowd while watching, and I have my TV obsessions, but that’s even more insular. The live nature of the performance in theater - when it’s working well - makes an organism out of the performers and the audience members.
What has been your most interesting (good or bad or both) experience in workshopping, having a reading, or a production of one of your plays?
I was doing a talkback after a reading, and a woman raised her hand and proceeded to let me know how vulgar she thought aspects of the play were, and how unrelatable she found some of the characters. What can ya do, ya know? That was her experience. So I was just gritting my teeth and bearing it, but then this one guy raised his hand to offer a different perspective. He said that he works with teenagers like the one in my play, and that he found the characters to be really authentic, and what it helped him realize is that these kids are experts at taking care of the people around them but have no clue how to let someone care of them. He thought it was beautiful. The reason that stuck with me is not because the second response redeemed me or is better than the first. It’s because it seems to be a microcosm of the whole experience of putting stories out there - some companies reject them immediately, others can’t wait to work on them; some critics think you have no clue how to write a play and others think the play couldn’t be more moving. And you have to take all of that in and just keep being as honest as you can be. If you please everyone, you will thrill no one.
In the recent past, you took part in the Drama Book Shop's “Write Out Front” series. Could you tell us a little about what this is, and how your experience was participating?
Write Out Front is an awesome project produced by Theaterspeak. Playwrights are set up with a desk in the window of Drama Book Shop, and a live feed shows passersby on the street what they’re working on. It’s designed to call attention to the time and space that writers need to get work done, and I had a blast doing it. I was self-conscious, for sure, but I think there was also a gentle pressure built in to just get words on the page, which actually led to me pushing through a trouble spot in my play Black Fly Spring.
Moving on to your personal projects, could you tell us a little about your new play, The Glow Overhead and what's next for that play?
The Glow Overhead is inspired by true events, in which a deep freshwater diver went in search of the missing body of another diver who had disappeared. But it wasn’t ever intended as a documentary or biography, and I immediately departed into an imaginary telling. It’s about the depths in which we can get lost - the depths of grief and the depths of what we can’t know about others - but it’s also about that light above the surface that reminds us that there is love despite the darkness. My friend Sherri Barber will be directing a workshop of the play at Chautauqua Theater Company the first week of August! They have a great team there and we’re really excited.
You also teach playwriting from time to time. Could you tell us a little about what programs you work with, and what it means to you?
I’ve taught for Naked Angels’ 3 Thursdays for three summer sessions, twice for the New School for Drama’s BFA New Works Festival, and this summer will be my first times working with Merrimack Repertory and Ojai Playwrights Conference as a Teaching Artist. I love to teach playwriting because I get to flip a common expectation that the students come in with. The point of the workshop is for them to tell us what we need to know, not the other way around. My job is to offer them some tools and some elements of craft, and to encourage them, but at the end of it all, they should feel validated in saying what they need to say.
Guns are an extremely hot button issue right now in America, amongst many other societal and political issues. You are currently developing a new play centering around the boundaries between intention and accident in violence. Could you tell us a little more about this play and what you hope to achieve with it?
I don’t want to say too much about plot, because I’m in the middle of the first draft! But it’s not really about guns so much as it is about this trend I see in which, in some acts of violence, there is an insistence that the perpetrator was a lone wolf detached from society, and in others, it was a person influenced by and representative of a larger culture. I’m interested in questioning that line between “this is an isolated incident” and “this is a reflection of culture.”
You will also be having a world premiere of your play, The Blameless, in 2017. Could you tell us a little about this play and how to the opportunity to work with The Old Globe came about?
The staff at Old Globe had read the play after I finished it at the Ojai Playwrights Conference. They invited me out to the theater to do a reading of it, which went great, and we took it from there. The play is about a grieving family who has suffered a violent loss as they break bread with a man who has a unique connection to that violence. It’s a tribute to people who love each other and get through the day amid profound loss, and it’s my own way of asking about the possibilities and the limits of forgiveness.
Who are your favorite playwrights and/or plays that you always return to?
Plays that I return to about once a year: A Number by Caryl Churchill, Top Girls by Caryl Churchill, True West by Sam Shepard, Dying City by Christopher Shinn, How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel, Shining City by Conor McPherson, Punk Rock by Simon Stephens.
Where do you suggest aspiring and veteran playwrights go in terms of resources for playwrights and opportunities to get their work out there?
Aspiring playwrights in NYC: I’m certainly going to leave some out here and kick myself later, but Ars Nova, Page 73, EST, the Lark, Pipeline Theatre Company, Crashbox Theatre Company, Wide Eyed Productions, Playwrights Realm, The Amoralists, SoHo Rep are all great companies with programs for early career playwrights. Check out their opportunities and go see the work they’re doing. The Samuel French OOB Festival and the NYC 15 Minute Play Festival are great venues to present shorter works. Join the Dramatists Guild and check out the Resource Directory.
Veteran playwrights: you tell me!
Where can we find out more about your work?
My website is: www.nickgandiello.com.