I was born in Yonkers, New York in the late 1970s. The best part about growing up in Yonkers is that Manhattan is only 25 minutes away, which provided many opportunities to experience New York City's arts, culture and diversity from an early age.
I wrote my first short story during a school trip to the Museum of Natural History. It was about Godzilla breaking into the museum and trying to steal a rare dinosaur egg. Hulk Hogan would make a sudden appearance, as would a ninja, a unicorn and the Smurfs. I received rave reviews from Mrs. Warnock's third-grade class, and that ignited a passion for storytelling.
As I got older, my writing morphed into poetry and essays about peer pressure, body-image issues, unrequited love, and other teenager stuff swirling around in my head. At 16, I had angst down to a science: I'd wear all black, act reclusive and depressed, and could deliver the perfect sigh. I hated school--my classes bored me and I was bullied a lot--so I'd often ditch it and spend the day in New York. The city was a lot sketchier back in the early 90s, by the way. Times Square was still home to hookers and porn shops; you could easily be mugged or murdered in The Bowery and Alphabet City. I always had to be aware of my surroundings, a constant observer. I loved that feeling, but it wasn't until I went home and wrote about my experiences that they felt complete, or like they'd even existed at all.
My love for New York, and growing interest in pursuing a writing career, prompted me to apply to NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, which offered a program for dramatic writing. I didn't know that dramatic writing meant playwriting or that Tisch was a renowned (and incredibly selective) institution, I just wanted to keep writing. The application called for creative samples, so I sent my best sad-boy poetry (some pages even had peanut butter stains) and hoped for the best. Most people, including my high school guidance counselor and some of my best friends, told me I wouldn't get in. Rude.
college, here i come...
I proved these people wrong and got accepted, but my parents weren't sold on spending money a lot of money that we didn't have on a "useless" degree. I whined until they agreed to at least tour NYU's campus. The first thing we noticed was construction in the main library. "They're putting up glass barriers on the higher floors," a custodian told us. "Too many kids trying to jump to their death."
Mom gasped. Dad shook his head with disapproval. I was more interested in this school than ever. Then, an admissions guy told me that, since I'd be working toward an arts degree, I wouldn't have to take math and science classes. "Dad, please hand this man a deposit check right now." My father saw the look on my face, the intensity in my eyes. He could tell I wanted this, bad. He said I'd have to take out loans to help cover costs, and I agreed. We shook, like adults, and suddenly I was a college student.
During my first week at Tisch, however, I wanted to go running back to Mom and Dad. While I may have perfected high school angst, I was out of my league here. My classmates had lip rings and dyed black hair. They wore ironic T-shirts, did hard drugs and were fixated on the works of Bertolt Brecht. Who? They'd all written plays already; some even had their work performed in theaters. And just about everyone told me that coming to Tisch was a "lifelong dream." We were 18. When did they start planning this, at birth?
becoming a playwright
During my first playwriting class, we were told to write a ten minute play. And here's what I can tell you about the experience: I rewrote the opening scene thirteen times (even though it was only six lines.) It took me two weeks to finish the script, but 99% was written the night before it was due. I thought I'd created extraordinary theater, but my professor and classmates disagreed. One person called the play "didactic." Another said it was "pedestrian." Ouch. It was weird: I thought I'd be at home in an arts school with my fellow freaks and weirdos, but they made me feel like an outcast.
Thankfully, I'd soon meet professor Venable Herndon. A celebrated playwright and screenwriter, best known forAlice's Restaurant, Venable was among the dramatic writing department's most respected. And, as luck would have it, he'd become my new academic advisor. We met on his first day back from an extended leave. I went to his office because I had a question about dropping a course, but he didn't care about. "Tell me about what you're writing," he said.
There was something about Venable that I trusted right away. Maybe it was the old-fashioned typewriter on his desk, or the way his thick, horn-rimmed glasses rested atop his head as his eyes scanned my face with intense curiosity. I let loose, explaining that I wanted to write a play that focused on people with leukemia who were facing life and death issues, while finding a connection with another. Venable was silent. "Shit," I thought. "He doesn't like my approach to playwriting, either." But Venable nodded his head in approval and said he loved the idea. He also told me that he was being treated for leukemia. I paused, my heart sinking in my chest, then told Venable how I'd battle the disease as a kid. What a thing to have in common, we agreed.
"But, getting back to your play," he continued. "I think it's an incredible idea."
"Really?" I wondered. "You're the only one so far, because my classmates..."
Venable stopped me there.
"Great theater doesn't have to be popular," he told me. "But, it does have to be honest, and great theater happens when an audience makes an emotional connection to you work. I'm sitting here, ready to be your audience and make that connection, now go write the fucker..."
I listened to him. You couldn't not listen to a man of his class and stature. I wrote furiously for days, the characters and their story pouring out of me, typing until my eyes were strained and fingers went numb. I wrote like this for the entire semester and was so focused on creating this play, which I now called Recovery, that my skin grew thicker and I could now take my classmates' criticism with a grain of salt. With Venable's encouragement and feedback, I finished the first draft of my first full-length play. I was so happy and proud the day and I dropped it off to him, and Venable hugged me, and promised to read the draft before the summer's end.
True to his word, Venable called me at my parents' house a few months later. He was tired, and could hardly speak, but he really liked the script and wanted to give me notes for future re-writes. I listened with great intent, and was incredibly careful not to miss a single word he said.
Most importantly, he told me, the emotional connection between play and audience had been established, and encouraged me to keep writing. I continued working on Recovery through the summer, skipping out on pool parties, bbqs and beach trips, and that was hard at times, especially on the days when I'd stare at a blank screen and wonder what the fuck I was doing with my time, with my play, with my life...(a feeling, that never quite goes away.) I was determined to finish this new draft by the fall semester so I could share it with Venable. But I wouldn't get that chance. Venable died from leukemia at the age of 72. His loss devastated me. His memory inspires me to keep writing...