On Historical Dramas and the Writing Life: A Chat with Patrick Gabridge by Laura Axelrod
This article originally appeared in the May 2004 edition of Quietpoly Magazine. Do not reuse without express permission of the author.
Patrick Gabridge is an award-winning dramatist who has had numerous productions in various venues across the United States. Blinders and Reading the Mind of God were both nominated for Best New Play by the Denver Drama Critics Circle. He has recently completed two new plays, God's Voice and Pieces of Whitey.
When Patrick is not writing, he can be found mentoring other playwrights. He is co-founder of the Chameleon Stage Theater Company in Denver, and served as President of Colorado Dramatists, where he was involved in the development of more than 100 new plays. From 1993 to 1999, Pat published Market InSight... For Playwrights, a monthly newsletter dedicated to helping playwrights market their work.
Several times a year, Patrick puts the call out to other playwrights to take part in what has become known as the Submission Binge. Participating playwrights pledge to submit material each day for a thirty-day period. It was through the springtime Submission Binge last year that I first met Patrick. Having always been afraid of rejection, I found his persistence to be quite inspiring. Indeed, since 1990, Patrick has received 562 rejections, of which 304 were queries. Despite that daunting number, his acceptance percentage on scripts ranges from 10 to 20 percent.
For more information about Patrick's upcoming projects and productions, please visit www.gabridge.com.
Laura Axelrod: I chose you because I was always very curious about you and your work. You have had an incredible amount of productions. How would you describe your work?
Patrick Gabridge: If you think in terms of style, I'm not someone who writes strictly realistic plays, I think there often tends to be a surrealistic twist of some sort in nearly all of my work. I've written a mix of things--a few historical plays and a few political satires. The historical plays take an incredible amount of time, but I'd definitely describe those as impressionistic, especially my most recent piece. I'm not afraid to take a point of view in them. I think one thing I can say is that I'm not an angry playwright. You read/see some plays, and it's clear that the writer is pissed as hell and needs to let off steam on stage. That's not where I'm coming from. I'm especially interested in decent, seemingly normal people in extremely difficult or unusual circumstances. I've also written a lot of short plays, and those either let me explore different stylistic things, or just have fun.
Laura: Let's talk about your historical plays. How exactly did you go about researching your latest one?
Patrick: My most recent historical play, God's Voice, is about William Tyndale and his cohorts, who struggle to translate and publish the Bible in English. This all happened in the 1520s and 1530s, and the Church definitely did not approve. So Tyndale and company had to escape to exile in Europe and smuggle Bibles back into England. First the Church burned thousands of the English Bibles on the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral, and then they started hunting down and burning the reformers themselves. I heard about all this from a story on NPR, around 1997. I just happened to be on my way to NYC, where there was an exhibit at the New York Public Library on Tyndale and his Bibles. When I saw that, I said, "Wow, there's definitely a play in this." Professor David Daniell, from England, had just published the modern spelling editions of Tynadale's New and Old Testaments, plus the definitive modern biography of Tyndale. I bought all those and started reading... And reading and reading and reading. It took me a couple years of reading and researching. I joined the William Tyndale Society, and actually went to one of their conferences in San Diego, which was really cool. This was definitely the most difficult and longest process I've ever had on a play. I had a workshop in Denver with the Lida Project and director Brian Freeland, with whom I've been friends for a long time. That was in 2002. I went back and worked on it some more. I had another workshop with the Rough and Tumble Theatre in Boston in 2003. Now I'm trying to land an all out production of it.
Laura: Some playwrights are curious about using research materials. Did you feel like you had to footnote it, or ask permission? How did you go about incorporating your research into the play?
Patrick: You have to be pretty careful about that. I keep notes on note cards and make sure I annotate the source of each thing. For my previous play on Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, I did obtain permission to use a few translated quotes. It seems intimidating at first, but it's not as big of a pain as it seems. With a historical play, I take lots of notes, on 3x5 cards, with specific facts or quotes (with the source and page number clearly marked). Then when I'm done with my research, I'll have a big stack of cards. For an historical piece, I'll come up with a rough outline, and the sort those cards into piles that are associated with each particular scene. That way when I'm working on a scene, I know have all the information I need all in one place. If I need to back to the source, I already have the page number and source reference handy. The tricky part with historical material though, is that on your first draft, you usually try to cram too much stuff into the script, as if to show to the world how hard you've worked and that you're really smart about all this now. What you discover is that no one cares--the audience wants an interesting story, and I generally end up pruning out nearly all of the "research" that I did. The reading and research is really to imprint all of this stuff into your brain and onto your soul, so you can write something meaningful and interesting, beyond what someone can read in a book.
Laura: For elements of your drama though, you had to depend on other material I imagine. Right?
Patrick: How do you mean?
Laura: Well, say for instance, if you said that Tyndale walked into the room and shouted 'help me' and you ended up using that in your play. Would you note that or how would you handle that? I think most playwrights are intimidated of all this stuff, so I'm asking for that reason.
Patrick: Sorry to seem dim, but I'm not sure I'm following your question. Most of the stuff in the play comes out of my head, what they say, where they move on stage. Research gives me ideas for what scene might have happened, or specific types of events that were happening in a character's life. It's my job to flesh that all out.
Patrick: In the Tyndale play, however, there are quite a few places where there are two characters who speak only in Biblical verse. Those are direct quotes, but they come from a source that's almost 500 years old. With the types of material that I work on, it's rare to have much direct knowledge of what these guys ever did or said, so I just get to make it up.
Laura: Gotcha. I think most playwrights are intimidated at the thought of using research and whatnot. I attended a Dramatist Guild seminar on it and there were many questions and not nearly enough time.
Patrick: I love historical stuff. Sometimes I think that's all I'd ever like to write. But it's so time consuming, and the market for it is small... Especially if you write about obscure stuff, like I've done... Though I will also say that my latest play, a comedy about race, about well-meaning white people, has been an absolute hoot to work on. I think theatres are afraid to take risks on historical material, especially stuff that isn't clearly topica. I've had a tough time getting more productions of Reading the Mind of God, my Kepler and Tycho play, even though it had great reviews and won national awards, When we did it in Denver, we thought it would have a small audience, but we sold out an entire four-week run, and even brought it back for Denver Theatre in the Park the following summer. At Denver Theatre in the Park, where it was the first time they'd ever done a new play, we had 2,000 people there on one night.
Laura: Here's a question for you... How many drafts on average do you usually go through?
Patrick: Hmmm. That's a toughie, because how much of a rewrite is required to consider something a draft?
Laura: Eh... Even a polish is a draft I guess.
Patrick: On my current play, Pieces of Whitey, I think I'm on the fifth draft officially, though it would be more if you count small tweaks. So, I guess I'd say 5-7 drafts of a play before it gets to a production. But then once it's in production, with a full-length play, I might end up making more changes. With Reading the Mind of God, I rewrote the entire second act about 2-3 weeks before we opened. And it was a BIG improvement.
Laura: Do you find that not being in New York harder as a playwright? I know you are quite an inspiration to other playwrights with regards to submissions and marketing.
Patrick: I guess it's hard for me to say because I haven't been a playwright in New York since 1990. There are some things that might be harder about trying to make it into the commercial realm, I suppose. But in terms of improving as a writer, I think as long as you live in a place where you have access to talented actors and producers and directors interested in new plays, you'll be fine. I certainly send out a lot of play submissions, and I have a pretty good track record.
Laura: Can I ask, do you have an agent? What is your opinion of them?
Patrick: I don't have an agent. I go through periods of wanting one, and have sent out a few queries in my life to them. I have to admit that I don't know any theatre agents, so I don't know if I'd have an opinion. However, not having an agent certainly hasn't slowed me down too much, I guess.
Laura: No, it certainly hasn't.
Patrick: I also think that it depends on the type of material that you're writing. Agents exist to help negotiate deals for material with strong commercial potential.
Laura: Good point.
Patrick: I think a lot of us kid ourselves about whether our material is truly commercial or not. To be honest, I don't think an agent would have been a big help to me up until this point in my career. I just wasn't writing the kind of material that was going to make folks a ton of money. I think my new play might be a departure from that.
Laura: How long have you been writing plays now? And what made you become a playwright anyway?
Patrick: I started out in theatre as a kid, acting in community theatre productions in junior high and high school, plus class plays and all that. I wrote a one-act play, on a lark, one summer when I was home from college. I sent it to the theatre that I worked with in my small upstage NY hometown, and they decided to produce it. I think I was 19. It was me, Elaine May, and Tennessee Williams.
Patrick: Yeah, it was really cool. In college I get really into making movies and writing screenplays. But I had a lot of good response to my theatre stuff, what little I was doing. And Hollywood was not at all interested in a wet behind the ears, 21-year-old screenwriter living in New Jersey. And, to make things worse, I felt like I wasn't getting any better as a writer. I'd write these screenplays, and no one would read them or produce them. But I happened to join a playwrights group that met at St. Mark's in the Bowery, the same space where supposedly Sam Shepard got his start.
Patrick: And I just loved the feedback and working with the actors. So, not knowing any better, I decided to self-produce a showcase of my first full-length play, off-off Broadway, in Soho. It was a trying, fantastic, exhausting, and formative experience. It helps to do these things when you're too stupid to know that you shouldn't.
Laura: How do you balance out your life and your writing? I think at times I get frustrated with not getting paid a living wage as a playwright and I think other playwrights feel the same way.
Patrick: Yeah. That's pretty tough. I've certainly spent my share of time bitching and moaning about not getting paid. My life is pretty full. I'm married with two kids. I'm lucky to have an understanding and supportive spouse. My main advice to young writers is to marry well. The thing with writing plays is that you're not going to get rich, and probably not going to get famous. So you'd better like doing it. That's why I do it, because there aren't many things that I enjoy more. Getting paid, even a little bit is a bonus. Getting paid a lot wouldn't hurt, don't get me wrong. But the thing is, theatre is cheap. You can call up a few actors, find a space, and read a play.
Laura: Any other advice to playwrights?
Patrick: It's easy to start a playwrights group. I've done it a couple times. You have to make your own tools, and theatre allows you to do so easily. What do you need? Do you need support and feedback? Start a writers group. Set up a staged reading. Do you need more information on where to submit plays? Start a newsletter? Do not enough new plays get done in your town? Start a theatre company.
Laura: Through starting the newsletter and the submissions group, you've certainly helped other playwrights as well.
Patrick: It's just not that complicated. That's the nice thing about theatre, it's hands on. Helping other writers is rewarding, no doubt about it. For me, helping improve the climate for playwrights anywhere helps me, too.
Laura: Well, I could talk to you all night long because I find that you are a wealth of information. I don't want you to get writer's cramp though.
Patrick: I think of all writers, playwrights are especially generous. As you can see, I would go on all night long, if allowed, because I love this stuff. Thanks.
Laura: No, thank you.