After a rousing start to our Rough Reading Series in 2012 with Claire Chafee’s powerful Full/Self in January, we look ahead to the next play and playwright in our series. Michael Mitnick’s Spacebar: a Broadway Play by Kyle Sugarman.
Michael’s play, reading February 27th at Stanford and 28th in SF, is a wildly unpredictable, no-holds-barred play-within-a-play about a precocious teenager out to make his Broadway debut as a playwright against all odds. We recently sat down with Michael to ask him about his play, his road to playwriting, and the scores he has to settle with the American Theatre scene.
To start off, Michael, what brought you to playwriting?
Like so many… I started by acting in school plays. I began to compose too (based on forced piano lessons) which resulted in some truly awful musicals I put on with my friends. It was fun, though, and from those experiences I started writing dialogue, notating music, and experimenting with plot and character.
I did my undergrad at Harvard and throughout college I wrote comic sketches and musicals, which were put on by the Hasty Pudding and The Lampoon – a place designed to turn nice students into angry alcoholics.
My lowest grade at Harvard was in Advanced Playwriting, and that really encouraged me to keep going.
After graduation I toyed with the idea of writing TV and did the BMI musical workshop. I saw the Yale Drama deadline was approaching, so I applied, submitting a play with very large margins that will never see the light of day – it took place in a barbershop and audience members were to be brought up onstage and given haircuts while the story played out.
What was the initial inspiration for your new play Spacebar: a Broadway Play by Kyle Sugarman?
The play began as a prompt from the head of Yale playwriting program, Paula Vogel. I was assigned to respond to Love’s Labour’s Lost. I couldn’t think of anything, so I looked in a folder I keep on my computer labeled “Ideas” and found a one-liner I wrote lord knows when – “Spacebar – a play not about the space key on the computer keyboard but about a bar in outer space.” Obviously I was incredibly desperate so I used that joke for the play-within-the-play.
The first draft’s structure was one big cover letter to the entity of Broadway and we got to see almost the entire play-within-the-play, with Kyle’s commentary throughout of why it was the best play ever written. Quickly I found I was much more interested in Kyle’s life – in that very teenage desire to be taken seriously, to be heard, and to settle scores. So, the scenes from his real life were written and then expanded while Kyle’s play scenes were drastically reduced. Then, the second act took shape as a kind of melding of his inner and outer worlds.
The character of Kyle in Spacebar has a lot of pointed things to say about the state of American theatre. What do you think of the current landscape?
I read amazing plays by friends and go to lots of readings and yet these plays will never be produced. It’s maddening. I wish theatres would take more chances with brave new plays. Too many plays feel like mouthpieces for regurgitating New York Times above-the-fold articles. This isn’t to say that timely plays are a bad thing, but I find that a good story is always timely. Through the specificity of the writing, the universal is achieved. Six Degrees of Separation is a masterpiece that feels immediate and relevant every time I read it yet John Guare didn’t sit down to write about race or class or art. He sat down and wrote a story. Or maybe he wrote it standing up.
Next, theatre tickets must cost the same as a movie ticket. Some theatres have good initiatives going and I wish more would join. A few years back I heard Gregory Mosher speak about this issue and it was eye opening. If you’re going to a play and bringing a date, it isn’t a turn on to say, “Hey, let’s go stand in the TKTS line for 40 minutes, buy 65 dollar ‘discounted’ tickets and then sit quietly facing the same direction for 2 hours.” The price of the ticket has to be two digits to the left of the decimal and the first digit needs to be a 1 or a 2. Theatres need to start at the ticket price and figure everything else out from there.
Would you suggest aspiring playwrights attend a graduate program?
I think Playwriting MFAs are only valuable if the particular program offers full or nearly full financial support. There is no reason to go into debt in playwriting grad programs. Tuition money is better spent supporting the practical beginning of a writing career. Move to a theatre town, work in a lit office, join a writer’s group, and write a ton.
Yale itself was good because they had generous scholarships. I had wonderful teachers who gave me feedback that made me a better writer. I could also put on my plays within the school. The place was a combination of an extended fellowship and a mini-theatre company. Most importantly, I graduated with a short stack of scripts which I could show people when I reentered humanity.
You can’t be taught to write a play, but you can be guided and made aware of things you’re doing unconsciously. We can’t control luck or talent, but we can control ambition. The most important thing for a playwright is simply to write a lot and read a lot. Long term, your writing will get better while other aspiring people will give up, creating more opportunities for you.
And lastly, Michael, is there a scene or moment from Spacebar you are really excited to get before a live audience?
I can’t say there’s a single moment, but I’m thrilled that The Playwrights Foundation is supporting my play and the fact that audiences will show up and see something I wrote absolutely floors me. I never get over that feeling. Hopefully I’ve written something that’s worth their time.
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