Writer in Residence · 05/27/2011

Interview with Meghan Deans

Meghan Deans is a playwright writer lyricist who hails from the beautiful state of New York State. Her plays include The Hooks, Internet Famous, The Last Invention, Our Windmills, and also many many short plays. She’s the co-founder of Action Theater Project and a member of the Youngblood Playwrights Group at Ensemble Studio Theatre. She writes fiction at Daytime Prize Winner, and sometimes she Tumbls.

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You’re part of New York City’s Youngblood Playwrights Group. What’s that all about?

Youngblood is a writers’ group for playwrights under 30. It’s based out of the mighty Ensemble Studio Theatre, an Off-Broadway developmental theater with a huge (huge!) artistic membership. I’ve been in Youngblood for almost two years and it’s changed—everything? I want to say everything. We have weekly meetings where folks can bring in pages, a bi-annual retreat, dance parties, plus also opportunities for productions and workshops and readings. My very favorite Youngblood events are our monthly brunches, where we present five or six new short plays written on a particular theme, and also serve the audience a brunch buffet (with open bar!). They’re excellent. Everyone should come to one.

Being a part of Youngblood means I have both a home and a foothold in the theatrical community. Pre-Youngblood, I felt pretty isolated, and you can’t make theater when you’re isolated. I’m a lousy self-promoter, which doesn’t help, but Youngblood and EST are teaching me to be better at it. Now I’m constantly surrounded by smart artists who are good influences, people who work hard and get their stuff done. I’m building relationships, I’m writing a lot, and I’m starting to learn what I want from my theater. Also how to get it. It’s been super, super fun.

Do you have a day job? Something you do to pay your bills other than writing?

I work in the marketing department of Vintage and Anchor Books. I’ve been there for about four years. I’m not cut out for the half-hearted survival-job situation, though I tried—I worked for a nonprofit, I worked part time, I worked for a company that was peripherally related to theater—but I didn’t really write while I worked at those places. I definitely didn’t write while I was working part time. Working for a paperback publisher is a great fit for me. I take a lot of pride in what we put out, and I take a lot of pride in my work. Also my coworkers are pretty fantastic, and those who know about my playwriting are immensely supportive of it. The first time I invited any of them to one of my plays, about twelve of them showed up. Twelve! So it’s a good place to be.

Working in the marketing department for a major publishing company, are you learning anything that will be useful if you ever have a book of your own in need of marketing?

I am learning a whole lot about audiences and how to find them. Good, engaged, enthusiastic audiences, the people who not only buy your book but talk about your book, give your book, recommend your book. They are crucial, particularly in paperback where you’re looking to build a long life for a title. The trick is first finding them, and second, approaching them in a smart way. When authors are urged to be active bloggers and social networkers, to a degree what is really being asked of them is audience-building. The old laws of the Internet apply here, you know, don’t just stumble onto the listserv and ask a bunch of things that are covered in the FAQ. There are existing communities in the various -ospheres, there are booksellers and writers and publishing gurus and publishing gophers who will support you, but only if you are genuinely interested in participating. And you don’t have to! What these tools give you is a chance to pick your level of engagement, and lots of levels work, if you stick with it, if you think of this as finding your people.

Because really, find them. If not online, then elsewhere, did you write a book about a guy who works at a masking tape factory, then get in touch with a masking tape factory. That kind of thing. It might seem worlds away from a 20 city book tour and having your book in every grocery store in the country, but I promise. A little can go a long way, particularly if the little talks to its friends and buys copies for its family members over the holidays.

And don’t worry too much about the industry. It’s changing a lot right now. I hear about a new thing at every meeting, you know, new technology, new initiatives, new changes in the market. Beware of anyone that tells you she knows the future of publishing, or who proclaims anything dead. Be open to changes and trust in the fact that there will be readers, still, when the dust settles. Hopefully brand new ones on top of the loyalists. So just write a good book. And then raise an army.

When people ask you what you do, what do you tell them?

Depends on who’s asking. I tell publishing people I’m in publishing and I tell theater people I’m a playwright. Everyone else, I lead with publishing, and then about 3/4ths of the way through my job title I panic a little bit, wait a beat too long, and say, “ALSOIMAPLAYWRIGHT!!” and then they walk away and I drink the entire drink.

Honestly no matter how I explain it, the whole thing feels awkward, like I’m giving some part of myself short shrift. Every introduction is an opportunity for a mild identity crisis, especially now that I have a job that I like a whole lot. So I am both in publishing and in theater. I am both a marketer and a writer. A DAUGHTER AND A SISTER AND A WOMAN. I don’t really know what my problem is here, but I suspect it has something to do with a lifetime of undervaluing my writerly ambitions and then assuming that everyone else is going to do the same.

What kind of journey did you take from thinking you wanted to be a writer to actually being a writer?

I did a lot of dithering, I was like, captain of the dithering squad for a million years. I have never held any illusions about being able to support myself with writing, but I sort of wish I’d‘ve got some. Instead of thinking big I started from a place of, “yes this is a fun thing I like to do, but it’s not the bill-payer, so let’s focus on that and then maybe later with the writing.” I let practicality sit on my enthusiasm for a long time. I let it be an excuse to not know what kind of writer I wanted to be, to not get to know my voice. I wasted a lot of time thinking I was protecting myself when in fact I think I was just afraid I’d screw it up. Also, I wasn’t really willing to put in the hours. And it turns out nothing gets done if you don’t do anything. So weird.

A few years ago I started Daytime Prize Winner in an attempt to write more fiction more often. At first I was trying to write a story a month—I didn’t make it, but I still turned out more than I’d written in years. DPW stories tend to be either hugely personal or intensely weird, and that’s because I work hard to write them on impulse and gut. Building an ability to just listen to my own damn self was huge. After I’d been writing for DPW for a little while, I took a took a playwriting workshop and got some well-placed encouragement from a writer I really respect. She told me first that I was not a terrible writer, and second that I needed to get my act together. I needed to hear both these things. And I got my act together! I started putting in the hours, I started making myself accountable, and I started all of a sudden writing things that I liked.

You’ve had a number of different websites & blogs, and have posted a lot of fiction online, but now you’re working in playwriting, which is a medium that seems somewhat resistant to the internet, even compared to screenplays.

It’s true, you can’t put theater on the Internet. I should probably qualify that with a maybe someday, but eh not really. You can stream a performance or watch it on YouTube but it’s not theater unless you show up. It’s stubborn, it’s inconvenient, and it’s not easily distributed. It wants your time and your space. I like that.

I don’t currently have any scripts online, and though I’m not against it from a portfolio standpoint, I’m not sure how fun they’d be for the Internet at large. You don’t see a lot of people clamoring to download carefully formatted PDFs around here, and while I love reading plays, reading plays is not seeing theater. You could totally put together (and I would totally read) (also maybe someone has already done this) an online journal of plays, and it would probably be great, but those playwrights who participate, ultimately they’re going to want to see those plays in production. Getting someone to read your script is a step, not a goal.

Also I should say that there is a robust online community of theater artists. They’re not exchanging scripts so much as they’re town-halling it up, discussing the state of the industry, sharing ideas and grievances. It’s a wonderfully wide range of people: writers, directors, actors, critics, designers, producers. People who care a whole lot about theater. I like having them nearby.

How has the internet influenced your writing?

It’s so hard to tell sometimes. I was barely a teenager when the consumer Internet started its relentless march, and so much of my identity was influenced by being on the online in those early days. Hanging out with adults on USENET, carefully crafting my online journal (NOT DIARY), occasionally writing fanfic. Having an audience! I mean that’s a big one, I know intellectually that not everything I do is going to be met with reblogs and lifts in my pageviews or whatever but the Internet has a culture of feedback (both passive and active) that has branded me deeply, see above re: having to learn to put in the hours. And I guess it’s possible to argue that being online held me back, somehow, like maybe if I wasn’t obsessing over my Alex Krycek fansite I might have started writing plays sooner. But I learned so much, being impressionable on the Internet, and I wouldn’t do it over differently.

Also I think it’s safe to say that a good chunk of my writing style was forged in the halls of Internet communiques. Probably one of the first things I ever heard about the World Wide Web was that did you know that people there often misunderstand each other and so therefore use emoticons to convey tone? I remember thinking that was so dumb. I was 13 and already over smiley faces. But the idea that I might not be understood online, that got in me. To compensate, I started writing chattily, not realistically necessarily, but in a way that was going to convey all my exceptionally nuanced feelings. Used punctuation like a talking person talks, used fragments, extra words for extra beats. On a good day I think that’s how you can pick my writing out of a lineup. It’s garbled and half-grammatical but it wants to tell you something. Writing for actors, now, it’s different, I don’t have to strain to be understood because actors, I’ll tell you, they’ll put more in your (Beat.) than you could ever imagine. But the nut of it remains, that urge to be heard and understood, that’s in a lot of my characters.

Name your dream celebrity cast for your favorite thing you’ve written.

I wrote a play last year called Internet Famous, it’s about fanfic communities and fandom and women and loving something like crazy even if it’s just a television show. Celebrity cast, I think, for Casey, the young writer at her first convention, Emma Stone. For Bonnie, the older, nosy, bossy leader of the pack, Connie Britton. For Pam, the young mother itching to break out, Lauren Ambrose. For Mariah Kay, the big name fan with a secret, Kristen Bell. And for Joe Chandler, the object of their affections and the lead of their favorite show, Nathan Fillion OBVIOUSLY.

Your dream celebrity cast works—the play takes off, offers pour in, etc. What would change—in your habits, in the way you define yourself—if you no longer needed a day job?

My time would change. That would be the biggest thing. If my writing weren’t limited to weekends and evening sessions, I think I’d feel a little freer to try unwieldy projects, follow the stranger ideas without worrying if I’m using my time wisely. I would travel, work with people outside of New York City, go around the country with a show. I would work in different mediums. I would not be the person around whom is most annoying to schedule a rehearsal. I would be a teaching artist. I would get to know what I’m like when I’m focusing on a project and nothing else. I would get a new apartment, go to the farmer’s market, and go to the movies during the day.

I’m going to do these things no matter what, I think. A lot of them are hard to pull off but oh well, it’s my time, I’ll figure it out. Every day I get closer to thinking of myself as a writer, no caveats. Success might make it easier to get there but it’s on me to feel it.

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posted by Kevin Fanning