A Conversation with Don Cummings
By Jeff Wood, Film/Play Editor
Don Cummings’ critically acclaimed plays have been produced on both coasts: The Fat of the Land, American Air, What Do Men Live By?, Stark Raving Mad, The Winner, Piss Play is About Minorities So It's Really Important, and A Good Smoke. The Fat of the Land was a semifinalist for the Kaufman & Hart Award for new American comedy and received a Los Angeles Ovation Award for best featured actor (Dan Alemshah). A Good Smoke was a semifinalist for the Eugene O'Neill 2008 theater conference. It had a reading in June, 2009 at The Public Theater in New York starring Meryl Streep, Henry Wolfe Gummer, Grace Gummer and Debra Monk and has been optioned for Broadway. Piss Play was produced in the summer of 2009 as part of the New York Cringe Festival where it received the Golden Pineapple Award for best play of the festival. His new play, Live Work Space, opens in Los Angeles in July, 2010. His movie, Who Killed Michelle Levesque? is in development with the producers who made the movies Elf and Meet Dave. His collection of creative nonfiction essays are loosely held together in his yet-to-be-published memoir, Open Trench, named after his blog. Mr. Cummings is a graduate of Tufts University, The Neighborhood Playhouse and a member of West Coast Ensemble and The Dramatists Guild. He lives in New York and Los Angeles with his Recognized-by-the-State-of-California-Domestic-Partner of seventeen years. He is neat. Find him online at www.doncummings.net.
What is your background and how did you become involved in playwriting?
I had natural music ability. I spent most of my early years, and I mean ages three to six, basically sitting in front of a stereo listening to records. I eventually started guitar lessons and I was this guitar-singer-performer kid. This led to being in musicals, which led to being in plays, which led to taking acting “very seriously.” I was also a math and science kid. I was a strange mix of creativity and hardcore academics. I was well behaved and majored in biology, was wait-listed at two medical schools, did not attend, went to The Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater where I was basically abused for two years and went on to act in over forty plays. Most of the time that I was acting, I was also writing – at least little monologues to perform or poetry about loss and death, in the most light hearted way.
I was not a natural writer as a kid. My brain was more set up for collecting measurable facts. Writing to me was always about talking, my mother is a big talker. I hated writing research papers. But I was always making things up, puppet shows, sketches.
I did one of those semesters abroad, “Tufts in Paris” and it was there that I went full-on with creative things. I was writing songs, busking with my guitar in front of the Pompidou, acting, seeing plays and I thought, “Okay, I like this a lot. I want to do this.” I was terrified because I come from a class of terrified people, but I figured, “Well, I’ll probably live if I don’t become a doctor and I’m not afraid to wait tables,” even though I should have been because it was awful to have to wait tables.
When I returned from Paris for senior year, there was a slot at Tufts for an original play. There is this group called Pen, Paint and Pretzels which was some holdover from some drama group from back in the day and part of their charter was to encourage new work. No one was interested in taking the slot. There was not much of a climate at Tufts for new work. And even though I had never written a play before I thought, “Hell, I can write a play.” So I did. And that’s how it began. The play was called Be Daring Now Miss Prism. It was a dark comedy about killing off one’s parents. Doesn’t take a genius to figure out why I wrote it. But in Act II, the main characters were not so much empowered as lost. The head of the drama department hated the play. My regular drama professor hated it, too. But everyone else who saw it loved it and over the next few days, I would be in the cafeteria eating some of Medford’s finest slop and I would overhear people saying my lines and laughing and I thought, “Okay, what I do is memorable and I like that people think I’m funny. I can keep doing this.”
In the meantime, I was waiting on acceptance and rejection letters from medical schools and acting schools. I landed, as I mentioned, at The Neighborhood Playhouse. Got through the two year program and started the whole acting adventure in New York.
Sitting in dirty mop bucket stench-infested hallways waiting to audition for bad material got me into the practical questioning phase of my twenties: “Why on earth do I have to smell this mop for over an hour waiting to be called in to do some middling role in some awful play? I can write better than this. What a waste of time.” I acted for many more years, on sitcoms, in indy films, etc., The big transition was my one man show American Air. The big notices were for my writing. My acting, sure. But what people really noticed was my writing.
I let my acting career roll out until my last gig – one line as a waiter on a sitcom – and that was that. Afterward, and that was about six years ago, I focused on writing almost exclusively. I still sometimes perform doing my original thing – music.
I know you write fiction and screenplays. How did you become a multi-genre writer? And what are the fundamental differences between the genres as they relate to your writing and self-expression? In particular, what are the differences between playwriting and screenwriting for you?
For playwriting, I use Word. For screenwriting, I use Final Draft. Though this seems like a very silly difference, it makes all the difference in the world to me. I respond fully to different environments. Let me just say this: I prefer writing in Word. I feel like Final Draft has a death grip on my throat. But I appreciate how screenwriting forces you to make things zippy and active. In a play, I could write a ten page scene of two people talking about very little. So screenwriting is the great antidote to such overindulgence. The commonality is I am basically a comedic writer. I carry this into all genres. I became a multi-genre writer completely by necessity and then chance. The first essential expression was through playwriting. After the success of my one man show and then The Fat of the Land and A Good Smoke (one act version), I decided to write another one man show. I sat down and it started to come out like a book. Instead of fighting it, I went with it. I had been blogging for a while (my way of staying connected to the world while basically sitting at home, alone, with my laptop, forgetting to shower) and I felt like I could do it. So I wrote the book. Writing for television and film simply happened because “The Industry” came to see my plays and then asked me to write for television and movies. That was the chance part. This happens with greater frequency now. This is good. But I do feel sad that more theaters don’t come see my work and then ask me for more plays. Seems like every play needs to be lifted out of the dust and then has to be forced into existence (Production), by me. But, we’ll see. Life is longish. Many things could change.
Do you feel that writing across genres strengthens your skill as a writer? How?
Look, I think all writing helps all writing. The language portion of the brain is one little spot in your head (music uses more areas throughout the skull) and so keeping that language area on fire at all times is, simply, great practice. Once you get the rhythm of your play, movie or book, you just stay in it. I do think writing for television and film has informed my playwriting quite a bit. My plays used to be more rambling. Now, they are more pointed. For better or for worse. I think writing a book has helped enormously with keeping very large images alive in my mind – then having to turn them into words – but mostly, I think writing a book has more than anything just helped with keeping my writing skills very much alive.
When I get a new idea, I can tell pretty quickly whether it would work best as a play, a movie or an essay. I write down the basic idea on the computer and then put it in either the Play, Book (and essays) or Movie folder. Then, when someone asks me to pitch something, I have all this stuff. It also helps to write in different genres because I do get bored easily. I like the variety.
What was the impetus to write Fat of the Land? How long did it take you to write?
The Fat of the Land, like most things I write, was written in stages with other projects leap-frogging around it. So, officially, with readings, productions, rewrites, all of that, it took five years. But really, it took about a year. I was driven to write the play based on life experience (which is how I write all my plays). At the time, I was going to a big high school reunion and I became reacquainted with an old friend who was being completely oppressed by her husband. I was fascinated that this woman, who had so much to offer, had allowed herself to be controlled so completely, especially during the current era. At the same time, a good friend asked me if I would donate some sperm for her baby cause. It was quite a question and led to enormous things, of which only some were handled in the play. Additionally, I was looking to buy some land in upstate New York with my life partner right next door to my best artist friend. We got very close to the sale, but the place turned out to be terrible, there were back taxes due on the property, my friend and her boyfriend split up so that was all falling apart and we backed out of the whole thing. So, unrealized potential of one friend, sperm donation asked by another, and a potential idyll destroyed with another friend, these collided in my life. What they all had in common was big life transitions in early middle age. So the unifying idea of the play was, “Can you move on? How do you move on? Will you move on?”
How collaborative are you as a playwright? How much can your work change through the reading/rehearsal process?
My work changes enormously. I listen to all notes. I always have to cut because everything I write is always too long by at least fifteen percent. (And please edit down this interview if you must.) If a lot of people point at the same place in a script then I know that area has to be fixed. And as I always say to people in writing groups, classes, etc., “You don’t ever have to take a note from anyone, but you have to take note of where they are pointing.” I usually have at least three readings of my plays before I attempt to get them into production. One, in a living room away from all beasts on earth. Then a big rewrite and a reading in some public space with writers and actors and other theater people in the audience. I open it right up to discussion and I get mountains of notes. I make sure ALL of these people are smart, sensitive, supportive types. Then, a big rewrite and a major trim and a full public reading where I invite everyone in town and notice where the audience is paying attention, when they are coughing, when they are laughing and when they are groaning. After that, I usually hope a production comes. When it does, it goes into production, gets cast and after the first read through with the cast and any notes from either the director, the artistic director, or both, I do another rewrite during the first week of rehearsals and then hand off the new script. I usually don’t change anything after that. If an actor or the director asks to change a word or small sentence here or there I may or may not say yes. The show runs. After the first production, I do a rewrite to reflect any changes that were made during the production and I also put in all the stage directions that were discovered during the rehearsal process. I am fluid about it. Luckily, I am usually not asked to change the main concerns of a script. Ever. If someone does, I actually walk away and chalk it up to – It’s simply not for them. I am being glib. The truth is, it is a bit devastating when people do not understand what I am doing since I am, pretty much, all about making things clear.
Are the themes in Fat of the Land – such as creativity, suburbia, prejudice, sexuality – indicative of your other work? Do you find yourself writing variations on the same themes, or are the kind of writer who likes to attempt something new every time?
I write something new every time. Operationally, I try to get at the truth of whatever my theme is. My life changes. Everything changes around us. I respond to those things.
What is it about comedy that appeals to you? Do you feel that you can make a point about serious topics more effectively with comedy than drama?
I kind of have very little choice. I try to write serious and it comes out of funny. I was a super duper underdog, socially, as a kid---and I wanted to rise out of that and comedy was the way to do it. Plus, I am Irish and Italian which is just a funny mix, being pulled between a lyrical/bullshitting culture and a ribald/bulldog one. I do not really believe in serious drama. I feel like life is often serious, but it is always funny. Even at funerals, everyone I know just dies to make a joke. Everyone wants to release tension. Everyone wants to lighten things up. Look, the human condition is horrendous. You lose everything and then you die. You gain, true, but really the absolute trajectory is loss and death. This is simply too serious for me. It makes me very upset. I still cry over the death of my grandmother (1989) and the death of my dog (2008). I still can’t believe I am losing hair and energy. I am horrified that my parents and friends are going to die. Additionally, I hate Time Warner, a company that makes me lose hours of my life at any given moment. As far as serious topics go, I do not believe anything is any more serious than anything else. I have no reverence. I am ready to make jokes about terrorism, sexuality, downtrodden minorities, incest, rape, you name it, at any time. I am so upset about so many things that to deal with it head on in a serious manner would be unbearable to me. I cannot believe this is what is on earth. The only way I can handle it is to attack it with humor.
I had a playwriting instructor who said actors make the best playwrights. He cited William Shakespeare as an example. Do you agree? If yes, how much actor--even if metaphorically--does a playwright have to have in him (or her)?
One does not have to, of course. But for me, I am glad I was an actor for many years. It is very informative because you know what works. You just get used to the form and so you get to the dialogue and character stuff very easily. Story, well, that’s something else. I was not so good at story at first. I really did not see things as all that changeable. Now, I realize you need a very clear story, with a big, medium or small trajectory, but SOMETHING in order for people to feel excited, with a clock ticking, with some stakes. I do think people who do not act can often have a hard time with dialogue. I am often asked, “How do you figure out what people are going to say?” And the truth is, I do not figure it out. I just get fully immersed in the situation and then I let the people talk. I say people because I never think of who I am writing about as characters. I only see them as real. They just say it in my head and I write it. I am taking dictation, really. It’s improv-of-the-mind and my job is to be a quick typist.
The first plays I wrote, I simply used actor analysis in reverse. What does this character want? What is the conflict? What time is it? What day is it? Where was he before the scene started? What does he believe in? And, WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA?
So I think being an actor helps. I think it is not necessary if you are someone who really pays attention to life, the people in it, what they do, how they talk. If you write plays that are more visual, conceptual, filled with puppets, video and string art, well, then, that is something else, entirely.
My pet peeve is seeing a play that sort-of-has-people-in-it but what the playwrights are really doing is they are writing a thesis and just use the characters to prove their point. It’s a mild form of Shaw. These plays bore me to death. You see the point coming at you like a two hour freight train. And you have to sit there and take it. And if the playwright is clever, they tart it up with twists and turns, bright colors and mysterious secrets which are later revealed. It is all trickery that leaves me cold. I want the truth. And I want it hard and I want it brave and I want it irreverent and I want it fully expressed. But that’s just me and I have a feeling that I am in the minority.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received? Why?
The best writing advice, hm….hard to pick one thing. I like the spirit of Anne LaMott in Bird by Bird. I always suggest to writers to read that one. You just sit down every day and you write and you do not worry about anything but doing your work, bit by bit. Also, Julia Cameron’s saying, and I am paraphrasing, “God, I’ll take care of the time, you take care of the quality,” meaning, I just have to get myself in the chair and do my time and if I stay open, committed, the good stuff will show up. Lastly---and this is from a very good white witch friend of mine in Los Angeles, “The thing you are most uncomfortable doing, that’s what you have to do.
What is the one thing you hope people most take away from your work?
I call it FPA. It’s vulgar, but here it goes. Fucking Pay Attention. And I don’t mean to my play, but to your life, yourself, what is around you. I think people are terrified of the truth of their circumstances. I hope to jar them into that (in the funniest, nicest, most forgiving way) and I hope I am loving enough to let them know that it is going to all be okay, and even better, if you stop lying.
But what people usually take away from my work is a good time, a desire to be on stage with the characters and a few good lines they can repeat in a cafeteria. Fine with me.