INTERVIEW WITH MARY STEELSMITH
Mary Steelsmith is the 2006 winner of the prestigious Helford Prize and its 10K purse.
While still in high school, Mary wrote THIS ISN'T EXACTLY HOW I EXPECTED IT, winning First Place in the DRAMATICS MAGAZINE Playwriting Contest and published by Pioneer Publishing.
Her short work, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEED, won First Prize in the Hewlett Packard 10 Minute Play Contest and was produced at the Action Theatre in Singapore, fall 2002. First prize included a trip to Singapore where she saw her play produced.
“THE MIRACULOUS DAY QUARTET” her short play about the after effects of 9/11, has received successful productions in Southern California, Chicago and New York. It recently finished a run in the Second Annual Chester Horn Short Play Festival in New York City and will soon be published by Players Press.
"Isaac, I am,” Mary’s full length play about life, death and AOL, was selected as the winner from more than 300 original plays submitted to the Helford Prize national playwriting contest officiated by Jacksonville University in Jacksonville, Florida. It was chosen by Bruce Helford, the creative force behind “George Lopez,” “The Drew Carey Show,” “Roseanne” and other successful sitcoms. Helford said, "I chose Isaac, I am because it is sharp, relevant and disturbing."
Mary can be seen on film in such “B” classics as RABBIT TEST, H.O.T.S., WEIRD SCIENCE and DEATH VALLEY. Mary appeared as a ‘Merciful Sister’ and sang about putting “the Devil in a Bulgarian headlock” on an episode of the original WKRP IN CINCINNATI.
Mary recently completed “The Sunday Man,” a short film directed by Dany Shamash and produced by Rebecca Rankin, as part of American Film Institute’s directing workshop for women.
Paddy: Nice and impressive, Mary.
edd: Mary, tell us about winning an award and getting published while still in high school.
marys: Thanks Paddy -- sure thing Edd.
marys: I was always writing as a kid, sending off poems to GOOD HOUSEKEEPING, trying to make my mom proud of me - and getting a very nice printed rejection card - what I wrote didn't suit their needs at that time, etc.... But through smaller magazines, I started to see my short stores and poetry get published. What a beautiful sight, seeing one's name in PRINT.
Then in high school I wrote a play for directing class, angst-filled and totally in verse (show off)... and something clicked inside when the audience responded to it. I knew I was on to something really wonderful... and terribly scary.
A contest came up through DRAMATICS MAGAZINE for student written one act plays. Sitting down in front of the typewriter and watching conversations pour out on the page was such an amazing feeling. The play was called THIS ISN'T EXACTLY HOW I EXPECTED IT, about a man sitting in a reception room with people he didn't help in life... his discovery at the end, yep, he's dead and doomed to repeat the reception room experience over and over... very Twilight Zone...
Paddy: Nice concept.
marys: Thanks, Paddy
marys: I don't know how many of you were influenced by television. There wasn't a great deal of theater being done in Boise Idaho at the time, except for the community theatre's 3 shows a year. TV was my contact to drama and thank goodness for Rod Serling and repeats. The ending surprised me. I had no idea how it would go until I got there.
I'm such an admirer of those who write with full outlines, plotting each moment on the stage. Me, I'm just the first audience member to see the play, it seems. The ones I've outlined never quite go anywhere... and oh, do I have a lot of those sitting in the desk drawer.
thain: What was "disturbing" about Isaac, I am? The title suggests AI (Artificial Intelligence) to me and a possible allusion to Ray Bradbury ...
marys: Ohhhh Mister Bradbury! He's a playwright too, you know... has his shows done regularly at Theatre West in Los Angeles. I saw him at a couple of his shows.... okay, disturbing . . . Isaac, I am is the tale of a woman who finds herself having to choose between a real life relationship vs. one with a family online that seems to need her desperately. What works better, real life, and risking being touched or hurt, or staying online where it's all safe and distant and in the end, who is she talking to online?
I'd love to know what Bruce Helford specifically found disturbing about it. It's kinda exciting to hear that from him. I hope to meet him someday.
edd: Mary, after winning competitions that have taken you to China and lots of money, have you an agent?
marys: No, I don't have an agent yet. My little play, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEED won me a trip to Singapore a couple years back. Considering it was a very short one act, it took me a long way. The contest was held by the Action Theatre supported by Hewlett Packard. I entered thinking maybe I'd win some toner for my printer. Instead, I found myself alone in a city with people hungry for theatre. It was an amazing experience -- especially being there one year after 9/11.
About agents -- I'd love to have one, but here in Los Angeles, the business is about writing for TV and film. Playwriting is often seen as the stepping stone to one of those careers. Sure I have screenplays at the ready, but keep being a playwright. Strange, I know...
edd: At this point in your career how do you measure success?
marys: Considering the pay scale for playwrights? I measure success in the little sounds an audience member makes when realizing something going on in the play, the lack of shifting around in seats --- and if no one checks his/her blackberry or cell phone during the performance, it's a triumph.
Paddy: Mary, like you, I tend to write more organically, and although it's lovely to respect other people's ways of getting there, have you considered, aside from the fact that it is simply your style of writing, that perhaps, you allow yourself a little more freedom and creativity with less guidelines?
marys: Good question, Paddy. I love the freedom and creativity --- Isaac, I am is a challenge to those who like tons of stage directions and scenery -- most of the play is done in a chat room or IM'ing -- yes it can be staged and successfully so, if the director knows the online territory. My double edge on the freedom sword, is having so many possibilities, it's easy to lose focus in the work. The best I can do in situations like that is to list all the many ideas that come out and choose what best fits the characters in the play. But I keep the notes for future plays.
Paddy: Thanks...interesting answer.
edd: Mary, Paul touched upon titles which reminded me that when I first learned of Isaac I am I thought it a religious play by it's title. How do you find titles? Do you start with one or do you find the title in the body of the work?
marys: The title usually comes along toward the end of the writing. Sometimes there are several titles as the play develops itself. In this care, there are little jokes I play in the title (which several people have BEGGED me to change) -- Isaac was the child nearly sacrificed to God in the old testament, and was later deceived by one of his own children when it came to naming an heir. Also, if you say "Isaac, I am" over and over very fast, it comes out "How sick I am" -referring to the title character, not necessarily the playwright. LOL
It's fun when a cast or audience member figures this out and gets a giggle of insight. But yes, I tend to work off themes from the Bible... maybe it was being brought up in a denomination that frowned on theatre as the devil's playroom. Yeah, I'm sure that's part of it.
thain: How did you make the chat room "theatrical" - was there any/much physical action?
marys: There sure was --- my stage directions had people moving around the stage, jumping into little groups and popping out with certain phrases or physically pushing one another around and fighting (just like the flaring you see in certain chat rooms-- NOT this one). Also, I encouraged the cast to come up with phrases of their own, which the students at Jacksonville University did with delight.
DWolfman: Thanks for the insights first. Without outline, how often do you find yourself rewriting, polishing, having to get back to your original focus?
marys: Ah yes, sometimes I don't get back there. That can be troublesome or lead to a major revelation. One thing that helps me is the staged reading process. It's really useful to sit without a script in hand and listening to the work being read by others. I listen for stumbles over certain words or phrases. If I hear that, I know I need to look at certain sections and rework them.
scenedreamer: edd Please explain what you regard as 'organic' writing? I hear the term, but don't really understand what it means.
marys: Hi scene -- I think there are lots of ways to interpret Organic Writing. It may have something to do with sprouts.
scenedreamer: Mary. Hmm. Sprouts huh? I knew it was complex. I can't grow sprouts either.....
marys: Actually, it has a lot to do with growing something and seeing where the piece goes. When the writing process is very good (which means I've turned the TV off), I get into a 'zone' where I feel I'm there with the characters, feeling their feelings... it becomes a pleasure just taking transcription from them. The story more often than not comes from the characters and I feel I'm along for the ride - sprout growing is strange - Ask my cats and my attempts to grow kitty grass for them. And me, coming from a farm in Idaho. Shame.
edd: Mary, I understand about being along for the ride. What question that wasn't asked would you like to answer?
marys: Wow, I feel like I'm competing for Miss America all of a sudden... of course, I want world peace... with a little drama thrown in now and again.
scenedreamer: Hey, I can do this organic thing then. Sounds like growing weeds. (not weed) Weeds you perverts you.
marys: This is such a great forum -- Edd and Paddy (and the originator - sorry can't remember the name) have made a pretty unique and safe place for us to play.
edd: Paul Thain.
marys: oops -- sorry, thanks Paul.
thain: No problem.
Paddy: Paul is the writer of this place. Edd and I are just organic characters.
marys: The best part is finding common ground with other playwrights, which I do so often here.
marys: Oh so you and Edd Sprouted ... wow.
Paddy: Yes...add enough manure...and voila!
thain: Figments of my imagination ...
marys: LOL by the way is one of the funniest lines in "Isaac, I am."
edd: What are you working on now?
Paddy: Oh, Paul...I was wondering why my breasts were large. ~smile~
marys: I've been trying to better my craft at the 10 minute play genre. It's a tough one for me, since I seem to stuff my work like a Thanksgiving Turkey. There are so many competitions I enter that I don't get into, but keep trying because ...well… they're there. Also I'm always doing notes of one type or another, trying to catch a wave.
My little play TRUE BLUE will be done in Baltimore in a couple of weeks... just got the final details and will post them. How about you folks?
edd: Mary, we seem to have run out of time. Will you stick around and chat with our members?
marys: I'll be honored. Thanks for having me here today and putting up with my slow typing skills.
Paddy: Thanks so much, Mary. Very gracious and informative.
edd: Thank you, Mary! And thank you for a fabulous interview.
Last edited on Tue Jan 9th, 2007 09:30 pm by Edd