Even in a quick phone conversation with John Patrick Shanley, his disposition towards writing is clear. His decades of work as a playwright and a screenwriter have earned him a Pulitzer Prize, an Oscar, a Tony and a Drama Desk Award. The list of accolades and the diversity of his work (writing credits include Moonstruck, Doubt, Sailor’s Song, Joe Versus the Volcano, and Where’s My Money?) paint a picture of a hyper-focused artist but, in interviewing Shanley, it becomes apparent that writing has not been so much of a career objective to him, as it has been an inherent companion to living. In this interview, we discuss his early work, ideas on writing, and upcoming productions.
Brendan Bourque-Sheil: Were you writing as a kid?
John Patrick Shanley: I started writing, probably when I was about ten, nine, and, in a sort of meaningful way, certainly by the time I was eleven, twelve. I won my first writing award when I was twelve, a statewide competition. The topic was how Catholic teenagers can win the world for Christ. (chuckles)
BB: …So where does the transition come, from writing independently, writing amateur plays, to getting them staged?
JPS: Well, I did a lot of different kinds of writing. I started writing little, sort of Edgar Allen Poe style poems when I was a kid, to a lot of descriptive stuff, to a lot of poetry, years of poetry during my teenage years and sometimes even still. Then when I got out of the Marine Corps–and I wrote all through the Marine Corps, short stories and things like that–I set about writing a novel, did that for a year and then burned the novel because it didn’t have a plot. Then I went back to NYU-I’d gone there for a year when I was seventeen–I went back after four or five years of the Marine Corps and a bunch of odd jobs, and I took all the writing courses they had. And the last one I took, the only one I had left was playwrighting. When I took the playwrighting course, the assignment was to write a one-act play. By the end of the course, I wrote a full length play. And it was produced by the student producing organization in a three-hundred seat house. It went into rehearsal a few weeks later…the second play I did at the university was moved off-broadway, by a professional theater, and that’s when I started to work in the professional theater.
BB: So what is it about theater specifically, that makes that the medium you’ve chosen?
JPS: I think that I was born a playwright. And I had no idea that that was the case because I had never made contact with a playwright. In the place where I grew up, I never met anyone who was in the arts-any form of the arts…it wasn’t until when I went to Cardinal Spellman High School when I was twelve, thirteen…and I was exposed to Cyrano de Bergerac, which had a huge effect on me…I guess it started there…I still had no interest, desire, understanding that I could write a play until much later. But whenever I watched a movie that had been based on a play–and I wouldn’t know that it was based on a play most of the time–I would say ‘this movie’s different from the others and I like this better.’ So I had some kind of inherent recognition of the form.
BB: What do you think is your responsibility as a playwright?
JPS: I think…to honestly attempt to figure things out. To ask questions that I don’t know the answer to, but that are very important questions to me and perhaps to the people around me. I had a New Years resolution…years ago, that I would spend the first half of my writing life up until I was forty writing about mostly sort of personal issues, you know…’Why doesn’t my girlfriend get along with me,’ that kind of thing. And in the second half of my writing life, that I would turn my gaze more outward to the society that I lived in-that I’d be a grownup…maybe with the occasional look back at why my girlfriend didn’t like me, but for the most part, just sort of move forward into the parthenon to discuss our society, governance, issues of the day, in a way that was entertaining…That’s what I’ve attempted to do.
BB: Yeah, that’s been my observation. Initially it was a lot of inward reflection and it’s sort of become outward with Dirty Story and Doubt…
JPS: Yeah. You’ve got to be honest, you know. If you’re not honest about your own personal issues, you’re going to project your unresolved stuff onto society. For instance, a lot of people rail against government and hidden conspiracies…because they never resolved their issues with their parents, so they have paranoia about power. But there are obviously also real issues there that sometimes need to be investigated. You want to resolve as much of your own stuff as possible before you start to attempt to see what’s going on in the outer world.
BB: Has parenting effected your writing?
JPS: Yes, and I don’t know how. Certainly I have always been aware in these last nineteen years that I have been a parent, my children were going to be exposed to some of my work, whether I wanted them to or not. I’ve only banned them from one of my plays, you know “You cannot come to see this play.” (chuckles)
BB: Do you care to mention which one it was?
JPS: Oh it was Where’s My Money? It was just…too dark and too raw and it was not the right thing for them to see at the time…But I knew that I had a responsibility–even more of a responsibility because I had children–to be fair and to be self critical, which I’ve always tried to do, but, you know, it’s the hardest thing…Most playwrights, when they write a play about their family, the character that represents them is the most boring character in the play and often seems surrounded by very, very crazy, larger-than-life, colorful people, and they’re this bland little figure saying something like “Why can’t we all get along?”
BB: Yeah, he’s like the straight-man to everybody else’s absurdity.
JPS: Yeah, but it’s not true. In other words, those people are just as crazy as everybody else in their family and they just can’t see it yet. And by extension, you can understand that the human experience which you happen to get to witness in a playwright’s work, is that we don’t see ourselves as vividly as we see others. It’s very difficult to see yourself and we often absolve ourselves of responsibility and blame for our part in things. It’s a natural human function. And it’s a real job…that can take a long, long time, to sort of turn that critical gaze on yourself, and also that appreciative gaze.
BB: You’ve mentioned that Doubt and Defiance are two parts in a projected three-part play cycle.
BB: You have any ideas towards the third?
JPS: Oh yes, I’ve written the third play and I’m going to do it this spring. It’s called Storefront Church…It takes place in The Bronx. And it involves the Bronx Borough President–who is a minor political official–and a guy who’s opened a storefront church. Do you know what that is?
BB: Not really.
JPS: Like a place where there might be a dry-cleaner or a candy store. It’s zoned for commercial use, and you know, it’s a storefront. There’s a little more glass in the window than the other places. And you can open up a little shop in there. And people rent these places and open up churches, often Pentecostal, but not always…they put up some folding chairs and piano and they have a service…pretty much anybody can do this. That idea fascinated me, that anybody can start a church. And then, the clash between this politician whose life went one way, and this minister whose life has gone another way. Church and state, see. (chuckles)
BB: You talk about writing being acting, being directing, being living…Do you ever see a time in your life when you’ll just retire and you won’t be writing?
JPS: I don’t know. I tend to write when I have something to write about…for instance now I have three projects that are in process at various stages. I have a film, I have a play, and I have an opera that I’m working on right now…I also have a restlessness to write something new, but I have no idea what it should be. And this period is always sort of exciting and uncomfortable at the same time. If I ever get to a place where I no longer have that state of restlessness, who knows? I never thought that writing was the most interesting thing. I’ve always thought that life was the most interesting thing. Life is what I’ve been trying to capture, describe, and also make fun, by doing playwrighting.
Storefront Church will be produced this spring by The Atlantic Theater Company. Shanley is set to direct the production.