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6 Questions with Playwright Mark Dunn

Mark Dunn’s new play Happily Ever After: A Wedding Comedy is a family-friendly farce with a Texas twang and plot twists aplenty in the tradition of classic Kaufman and Hart. We spoke with the playwright about the inspiration behind the play, his advocacy for new work, and the literary charm of the South.

Happily Ever After: A Wedding ComedyWhat was the inspiration behind Happily Ever After: A Wedding Comedy?

I’ve been writing for the amateur theater market for over thirty years and tend to tailor my work toward the needs and interests of community theaters, colleges, and high schools.  This coincides nicely with my own interest in telling stories with southern settings and especially stories populated by southern women.  I’ve always enjoyed comedies written in the quirky idiom of the American Southland.  Most of my own work for the stage, though, has been comedy/dramas, which tell serious stories, but without sacrificing the intrinsic humor of the characters and the often odd and humorous situations they find themselves in among all the “Sturm und Drang.”  On occasion, though, I like to write flat-out comedies, in which the stakes of the play, while high for the characters, are comfortably low for the audience, which allows folks to relax and enjoy all the shenanigans without getting too worked up over it.  Happily Ever After: A Wedding Comedy is definitely in that vein.

Everything I write, whether it be my full-length plays or my novels, offer challenges that make each new project fun for me.  With Happily Ever After the challenge was writing a large ensemble comedy in which every character is an equally important cog in the machinery of the story (my personal adage: no “spear carriers” in a Mark Dunn play!)—a play in which there are several conflicts that needed to be resolved (in addition to the primary issue of getting that darned wedding back on the rails) and the additional need to escalate the hijinks as the play goes along so that audiences would have as much fun with the increasingly difficult situations the characters are finding themselves in as I had writing them.

The play is very traditional in story and structure, but when I write for community theaters I want first and foremost to give audiences a good time.  I also want to give talented amateur actors a chance to show their comic chops.  The play was informed by many of the classic comedies/farces of the 20th century and especially by the work of Kaufman and Hart (but with a definite Texas twang!)

Happily Ever After is set in Texas, and the setting is almost a character unto itself. What do you think it is it about Texas / the South that captures the imagination of so many playwrights?

This fact informs so much of my own work and so I’ve given it much thought.  Growing up in Tennessee and Mississippi (as well as spending a lot of time in Texas and among a lot of Texas relatives and in-laws) I find that Southerners are a lot more vocal and expansive with how they deal with the world.  There’s none of that Midwestern reserve to their natures.  They just let loose, tell you how it is, tell you what they want (with a tissue-thin overlay of polite civility when required) and tend to embrace the oddities of human nature in a kind of matter-of-fact way that makes for lots of entertaining possibilities on the stage.  I find Texans, especially, to not only be quite forthcoming in their interaction with others and quite opinionated, but also very proud of their Texas heritage, which gives Texas characters the kind of sure-footedness that makes them easy to write.  In Playwriting 101 we learn to make sure that we playwrights know exactly what it is that each of our characters wants.  Texan characters, because of their willingness to tell you exactly what they want, make this job so much easier!

You’ve done a lot of advocacy for new work and lesser-known playwrights, specifically in the community theater world. Why do you feel this is an important cause?

This one’s a little personal for me, since my own playwriting career has followed a different path from those generally trod by more well-known professional playwrights.  I recognize that not all playwrights can have their work produced on Broadway, Off-Broadway, or in high profile regional theaters, and yet their work is often just as good and just as valid as that of our household-name dramatists.  I’ve encouraged playwrights to pursue opportunities in the community theater world.  Even though there are lots of closed doors even in that world, given many community theaters’ reluctance to produce new work that they fear their audiences won’t come and see, there are still a lot of theaters (God bless ’em!) that do open their doors to new plays, if the plays are good, and most importantly: entertaining.  Following my own lifelong pursuit of productions in the amateur theater community, I have developed long relationships with several theaters, those relationships resulting in no small number of world premieres.  You do, though, have to knock on a lot of doors, and you have to be patient, and you have to find niches that work for you (I do well in large part because I write a lot of plays about Southern women, solely populated by female characters, or which offer generous casting possibilities for the ladies, who, as we all know, can represent as much as three-fourths of a local community’s eager acting pool.)

You’re a novelist as well as a playwright, having penned the bestseller Ella Minnow Pea. How is your approach different when writing novels vs. plays? What is appealing to you about each form?

Each has aspects that appeal to me in their own way.  While I like the creative control of writing a novel and creating a world as big and as imaginative as I want it to be, I’ve always liked to tell stories through dialogue, which is exactly what writing for the stage is all about.  Playwrights must learn to be collaborative with all the other talented folk who will take the blueprint that is the play script and shape it into something much bigger and much more exciting than simple words on a page.  Which is why a playwright, unlike a novelist, can’t be selfish and proprietary about her work.  The exciting, collaborative nature of play creation draws me to the theater, whereas novels give me a chance to, in a much more personal (even selfish) way, to broaden my horizons in terms of more literary storytelling, without the natural constraints of writing for the stage.

So, it’s all good!

How did you first get involved in theater?

I’ve been writing and foisting my plays on folks since middle school.  In the seventh grade in a school which had no theater program, I was writing plays for classroom production and even had a fellow playwright-classmate rival who was also mounting his own work with whom I competed and pushed the limits of teacher indulgence!  I continued writing plays through high school, studied playwriting in college and finally got my big break when my first play, Belles, won Texas Woman’s University’s playwriting competition.  I moved to New York, started getting my work produced off-off-Broadway, and here I am.

Any advice for aspiring playwrights?

The main thing I like to tell the writers who attend my playwriting seminars is that there isn’t just one road to getting your work seen and produced.  There are (by my rough count) over 2,000 community theaters around the U.S. and Canada.  The internet is an incredible resource; use it.  Enter contests.  Don’t write derivative work.  Be true to your own voice.  Remember that a play isn’t a movie.  Don’t write movies for the stage with 200 different scenes.  Respect the medium.  Respect the possibility of holding the attention of an audience through well-drawn characters speaking from their hearts and souls.  Everyone wants to hear a good story.  Give your characters a good story that comes from your own unique take on the world, everything that is wrong with it and everything that is right.  If you write for community theater, be respectful of the sensibilities of your audience—engage them, even shock them (a little!) —but don’t forget that you’re telling a story that an audience is eager to hear; don’t trod on their open receptivity by being too daring and offensively iconoclastic.  Save those plays for more adventurous venues.  And respect your actors too.  Give them roles and moments they can sink their teeth into.  One of the paths to getting your play produced is putting your script into the hands of a well-connected actor just dying to play that wonderful role you didn’t even realize you’d written just for her!

And have fun, damn it!  My characters all write my plays for me, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next!

dunnMark Dunn is the author of over thirty full-length plays, fourteen of which have been published as acting editions. Among his most popular, the award-winning Belles, Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain, and A Delightful Quarantine have together received over 250 different productions throughout the world. Mark is also the author of a number of books, including the novel Ella Minnow Pea, which was winner of both the Borders Original Voices competition and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick. Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, Mark is most at home writing about his native Southland, and especially plays about Southern women, which are popular with community theaters throughout North America. Mark makes his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his wife Mary.

 

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