WRITERS ONLINE MAGAZINE
Volume 15, Number 2
An Interview with John Patrick Shanley
By Jack Rightmyer
John Patrick Shanley believes he was born with the ability to write strong dialogue. “You can’t teach that,” he said in a recent phone interview from his home in Manhattan. “You can learn some techniques to focus on hearing dialogue, but you either have the ability to write it or you don’t.”
Writing good dialogue has served Shanley well as he is regarded as one of our country’s major playwrights with over forty plays and screenplays to his credit. He received the Pulitzer Prize for his 2004 play “Doubt” and an Academy Award for the screenplay of the 1987 film “Moonstruck.”
“My father came over from Ireland when he was twenty-four years old,” said Shanley. “I was the youngest of five children. My father’s brothers also came over from Ireland. Talk was good in our family. It was musical and funny, and it’s no wonder I picked up a good ear for dialogue.”
On Wednesday Shanley will conduct the Burian Lecture at 8 p.m. in the Recital Hall located in the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany’s uptown campus. Earlier in the day at 4:15 p.m. he will conduct a seminar in the Standish Room of the Science Library.
“When I first began writing I worked as a poet,”said Shanley. “After getting out of the Marine Corps I took a playwriting class at NYU, and when I began writing dialogue I knew I had found my form.”
As a student at NYU he received a lot of affirmation about his drama writing. “After college I began working in the professional theater in New York and eventually I began writing my own plays. It was the 1970’s, and it was an exciting time for theater in New York City.”
Shanley learned early on to branch out and write for both film and for theater. “If you only write for film, production companies can stop you,” he said.
He knows an excellent writer who has been working on a screenplay for twenty years, and it’s never been produced. “If you write for theater they can’t stop you,” said Shanley. “There are numerous professional and amateur theater companies all around the country, and they’re always looking for good plays.”
He is currently working on a new play and a pilot for an HBO film. “I keep my hand in both worlds because I’ve got two kids and I need to get them through college.”
Shanley feels people will always want theater. “If the Mideast explodes and there’s no more oil then there will be no more movies,” he said, “but people will still put plays on. They might put them on in their living rooms, but story is basic to what it means to be a human being.”
He not only wrote the 2004 play “Doubt,” but he also wrote and directed the 2008 film, which was nominated for an Academy Award and starred Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
“I began directing plays back in the 1980’s when I saw someone directing one of my plays so badly I thought I could do better,” said Shanley.
Today he enjoys directing almost as much as writing. “When you direct for film you have a lot of support and an enormous crew,” he said. “There are many people around to help you make sure your vision is realized. There’s also a lot of money riding on a film and producers want to make sure they’re not throwing their money away.”
Shanley also enjoys directing his plays. “They’re much more intimate. For the first three weeks it’s just you and the actors. It’s sort of like an intense therapy session.”
He’s very proud of “Doubt,” the story of a nun who accuses a priest of molesting a child. “I could not have written that play till I became an adult,” said Shanley. “I needed a certain amount of maturity to create that work.”
He has used many incidents of his own life in his plays. “I did attend some Catholic schools as a kid,” said Shanley, “and there were some religious brothers and priests we thought seemed a bit odd, but I was never abused in any way.”
New York City also plays an important setting in much of his work. “I’m so New York that I can’t see myself separate from it. I grew up in the Bronx, lived for some time in Brooklyn and now I’m back in Manhattan.”
He’s lived a few months in the Caribbean when he was in the marines and in Los Angeles while working on films. “But New York is my metaphor for the world.”
Shanley also works hard at putting some humor into his stories. “I think my work would be very bleak without the humor,” he said. “Life would be bleak without humor.”
His advice for someone who wants to write for theater is to sit down and write. “When you have a play, put it on, produce it, get some actors. There are great theaters in the Albany area. I’ve been to Capital Rep before, and I liked it very much.”
WHAT : Burian Lecture
WHEN: Wednesday, April 6th
WHERE: 8 p.m. Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center; University at Albany’s Uptown Campus; seminar at 4:15 in the Standish Room of the Science Library
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: contact the New York State Writers Institute 442-5620