Interview with John Patrick Shanley

This is the extended version of the interview I did with John Patrick Shanley for STAGE DIRECTIONS. For a shorter version, you can view the actual story from the March issue at:

And further thoughts at:


John Patrick Shanley:  Discipline, Anger & Urgency

You can say that the darkly funny John Patrick Shanley is a born writer, whipping up prose since he was just ten years old. His early work was of a more poetic nature, covering ghosts, gangsters and other things of interest to a boy that age. It wasn’t until the Marine Corps that he began to pursue prose of a different variety, tackling short stories and even a novel. It’s when he wrote a play, however, that Shanley realized what he was truly born to do. He’s been writing them ever since.

Although he doesn’t write poetry specifically anymore, there is a definite poetic side to Shanely’s work, in its essence. Perhaps it is somehow rooted in high school experience in New Hampshire where there was a particularly strong emphasis on the interpretation of poetry. “It was just really hard work,” he recalls, “you didn’t feel that soaring sense that you feel sometimes when you recognize something in a lyric, but you did get a lot of skills about taking certain things apart later on – It’s good discipline for the mind.”

If there is one thing in particular that Shanley has to thank the Marine Corps for, it would be the extraordinary focus and discipline that it bestowed upon him. Shanley would wake up at five in the morning and write for three hours each day before heading to work. “I don’t think I would have had my act THAT together at 21-22 if it hadn’t been for the Marines.”  Shanley worked many jobs before finally being allowed to get away with doing only one: writing. He was a florist, moving-man, handyman, locksmith, elevator operator, bartender, deli worker, and he even painted people’s apartments. Although these places might make good spots for observing things, manual labor was not Shanley’s plan. “I was happy enough to leave it behind,” he says.

Education played a vital role for Shanley. In high school, special literary courses were being taught just to him. He even managed to graduate from NYU as valedictorian, despite having originally left during his first semester due to his poor grades to enroll in the Marine Corp. He also made it halfway through a Masters program there. “I’m a fairly educated guy, but in this sort of weird liberal arts hit-or-miss kind of way,” he says. Shanley doesn’t think that a specific degree is important, but that being well-educated is – whatever route one takes to get there.

Although Shanley has won an Academy Award early on in his career for “Moonstruck,” which was only his second script, his interest and loyalty has always been towards the theatre first and foremost. Shanley wasn’t even particularly interested in outings to the movies. It was only when he was up against a wall financially that he wrote a movie: “Then I discovered that it was a very interesting art form and that I also liked it quite well.”

According to Shanley, however, it is the plays that keep one honest and make it possible to write well. “If you just keep writing movies and they don’t get made, eventually you don’t write well, it’s debilitating,” he says. “When you do plays, you have that tarot of the immediate feedback.

“If you go to a line and it doesn’t work, every night that line fails. And you’re there and you experience that. It’s a real geode to fixing it.”

When he writes, Shanley considers himself to be more of an autodidact, although he certainly does engage in some intellectual pursuits as well. Still, in his writing, he prefers to make connections that are not linear. “I have a metaphorical mind,” he admits, “I’m always looking for governing metaphors or rich metaphors.” He can gleam those metaphors from a conversation, or looking out of a window — even from television. “Those things will illuminate things for me. Rather than just a straight ahead kind of scholarship.”

Shanley has had many great successes in his career as a scribe, having won the who’s who of awards, including an Academy Award, a Pulitzer Prize, Drama Desk Award and Tony Award, amongst others.  But does he know if he has written something great before the awards and honors come rolling in? Sometimes, he explains:

“It’s just a feeling of you’re in the zone. You fall into some subterranean room like Aladdin and you suddenly feel like you’re surrounded by treasure. And you sort of can’t make a mistake. And then, you’re not in that room and you don’t know how to get there ever again.” He laughs.

Unlike many writers who often grey prematurely or shake their fist at the heavens due to the frustrating, clichéd yet always-looming, ‘writers block’, Shanley doesn’t seem plagued by it. “I have more times when I don’t write,” he states plainly, “I have nothing to write about.” So instead of staring at the blank page, Shanley focuses on other things, be it production, or periods of self-examination.

When he does write, he writes on any subject that would interest him at the moment, no matter how esoteric.  “I write plays often to address something that I can’t get past. So I write the play to find a way through.” That has worked well for Shanley.

There is no denying that Shanley’s plays are particularly personal and it is a place where he is surprisingly comfortable. He recalls having written quite a few very personal plays without giving it much notice. Then, he was set to do a reading of a play about his first divorce with about 30 people in the room. “And right in the middle of the play I suddenly thought – this is kind of personal,” he recalls with a thundering laugh. “And then I thought that it was really funny that this thought had come to me so late,” he muses. “I’m like – this is personal? You’ve been writing about things that are very personal for a while.”

When Shanley wrote “Savage In Limbo”, he was essentially writing about himself. Like Shanley, Savage finds herself in a jam because as time and life keep passing her by, she is only presented with only so many choices. She longs to connect, but is instead crushed from loneliness.  “She is this savage creature alone – isolated from other people – and can’t find a way to directly connect with them,” he explains. At the start of the play, “she has come out on the warpath – she is going to change her life this day, and that’s always really frightening for everybody,” says Shanley with a laugh.  In fact, that play was written at the last few weeks of his first marriage. “I got into this place where I couldn’t go on anymore, I couldn’t live anymore,” he says. He had to leave that house, just like Savage has to leave hers. “So I was sort of driving myself to that point with the play,” he recalls.

Shanley has always had a particularly distinct voice in his writing, but it wasn’t until he was about 31 that he began to write in this new way. Around the time that his first marriage had fallen apart, he was falling apart too. In fact, his whole life was a disaster. Poverty stricken, a career that seemed to be going anywhere – no consoling factor in sight. “It was hard, it was just hard,” he recalls, “And the stress of that made me write more candidly.” Shanley began to write in a way that was more dangerous – more personal. He had also found a “different kind of humility,” moving away from the need to showoff in his writing. “I think that was a big step for me,” he says.

With that newly found approach, Shanley’s worlds of prose exploded, stretching the medium of expression even further. Many of the situations and characters occupying those worlds can be a little twisted, to say the least. Is there a point when one might have gone too far? “Well, I think it is interesting to try and figure out where that point is,” he responds. “I don’t know, I feel like I AM normal, but that most people are not,” he jokes coyly. “So, I’m willing to say things that other people aren’t willing to say about how I feel, and even what I do.” This might get Shanley in trouble on occasion in real life, but has won him accolades in the world of theatre.

Despite drawing extensively from his personal life for many of his plays, as he turned 40, Shanley decided that he would turn his gaze outward toward the outside world and write plays that were more involved with his society and less involved with what his latest girlfriend might have done to him. Taking it from a personal level to a larger social level. “And that’s kind of what I’ve done,” he says.

Although Shanley is a prolific writer, ‘Doubt’ was the only show of his to go to Broadway. This suits Shanley’s preference for working in very small theatres. A 50-seat house is his ideal number. With a show that size, you know from the start that no money is to be made. “No matter how long you run the show, it will always lose money and that’s what is so great about it,” confides Shanley. Losing money is great? Most people would disagree. Violently.

“Well, it’s one of the reasons that I do theatre. Because it is where the money isn’t. Where the money is – there go too many people that I don’t want to hang out with.”

It’s clear, Shanley isn’t terribly attracted to money. “Certainly if I didn’t need to make money, I probably would not,” he laughs. “When money becomes an objective in and of itself for an artist – they’re sort of dead in the water.”

When it’s not about money, it becomes about something different. That something is: Art.

“It’s about art. It’s about doing something that interests you. It doesn’t have to appeal to 10 million people. It can speak in a quiet voice and penetrate deeply into corners that aren’t ordinarily explored.”

‘Doubt’, however, surprised Shanley. It worked better in a bigger theatre. An exception to the rule.

“I was very surprised when I took Doubt to Broadway. Usually the wisdom is that shows get diluted when they go into a bigger house. They’re not as effective. They’re not as good. And when we took Doubt from a 300-seat house to a 900-seat house – it actually was better. And that surprised me.”

Nonetheless, Shanley isn’t about to reconsider his position on 50-seat theatres. “Most of the time that is the best idea,” he says, “Once in a while, something else is a good idea.”

‘Doubt’, no doubt (pun intended) was responsible for the upward turn in Shanley’s film career. The stage success of ‘Doubt’, according to Shanley, “reminded everyone that I was around and that I wrote well – It put me back in the director’s seat in film after 17 years.”

Not that adapting ‘Doubt’ was a walk in the park. According to Shanley, turning a four-character play into a film that has a commercial life is quite a difficult task. “It was hard doing Doubt as a film because there are four characters and you had to open up and yet not lose its dramatic compression – that’s the trick.” Yet he succeeded both commercially and critically. The film grossed over 33 million dollars and had received five Oscar nominations.

Shanley is arguably one of those playwrights most open to feedback from audiences, as well as dialogue. Notably, he published his email address in the Playbill for ‘Doubt’, inviting responses to the play. He had received many of them, including letters from clergy. “I’m always interested in what I’m doing and what other people are getting,” he says. “Sometimes that’s painful and sometimes that’s exhilarating.

“Most of the time it’s just information that you can gradually absorb. And the more you get from people – from many, many different people – the less anyone thing that one person says could ruin your day.”

When Shanley develops a new play he does a series of readings and re-writes, repeating the process at least three times. Then he will follow it up with a polish and rehearsal before diving into the full production. The response to the material helps him shape it – a combination of audience feedback and the actual readings by the actors.

Although in his work Shanley displays extraordinary freedom, when it comes to his writing habits, there is a great deal of self-imposed structure. “I have a lot of rules, because I have no rules,” he says. One such rule is, whenever possible, to only write at home. “Otherwise, what happens is you’d never stop writing,” he says, “You become a wearied person that is just worn away by something that they can never let go of.”

In terms of “breaking in” as a playwright into a crowded landscape, Shanley’s only real advice is: Write well. “I think that if you write something that’s really good, it gets noticed,” he explains, “Because most things aren’t.” Sometimes it’s as ‘easy’ as that.

Shanley also advises playwrights to write a lot: “You have a lot of bad writing to do and you might as well get started. Don’t try to prove that you’re smart, try to tell the truth.”

Some of the best advice that Shanley himself had received came from his father. As a child, he had to help with chore one day and his father presented the tasks ahead to him: wash the car, cut the grass, and help him on the roof. He asked the young Shanley which of those he would like to tackle first. Shanley loved to wash the car and chose to do so. His father responded, “Well, you can do that, but you know sometimes it’s good to do the hardest thing first because later you’ll be tired.” Again, this might sound simplistic, but the moral of the story is to do the hard thing first. “That really landed with me and when I’m writing I always try to do the hardest thing first.”

Discipline is the writer’s guardian angel in a way. There’s no denying that many writers lack its presence by their side.

“Discipline, I think, is just schedule. I think that you have to schedule a certain number of hours a day and then just sit there whether you’re writing or not and think about what you’re doing. If you do that long enough, you’ll get bored with not writing and then you’ll write.”  And that’s how it’s done.

Shanley is keeping his own discipline rather busy these days. He is currently working on a pilot for HBO, a play with Mike Nichols, and a New Orleans related movie for Sony with John Cusack. Cause there ain’t no rest for the…playwright.

Katherine Brodsky is a freelance arts, film & culture writer whose work has appeared in MovieMaker Magazine, USA WEEKEND Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Variety, The Independent, and Stage Directions, amongst others.

(c) 2011 Katherine Brodsky

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