Q & A with John Patrick Shanley

Author of Moonstruck and Doubt appearing at this month’s Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival

Katja Heinemann Photographs

John Patrick Shanley’s world is imbued with passion – the passion of love, passion of beliefs, passion of morality, passion of mortality, passion of ideas. It is our dysfunctional, and sometimes functional, relationship to these passions that appear to spark Shanley’s work as a playwright, screenwriter and director.
Shanley has written 24 plays, worked on 10 movies for which he was either director or screenwriter and recently collaborated on an opera based on his play, Doubt, A Parable, which made its debut in January at the Minnesota Opera.

He has been showered with awards (and this is just a short selection): For the film Moonstruck he won the Academy Award, Golden Globe, Writer’s Guild of America and British Academy Film Award for Best Original Screenplay; Doubt, A Parable, was bestowed with a Tony Award for Best Play and Pulitzer Prize for Drama as a play; when it was made into a film, which he directed and adapted for the screen, it was nominated for multiple awards. In 2009, he received the Lifetime Achievement in Writing from the Writer’s Guild of America.

One constant that appears in Shanley’s creative output are the various configurations of passion and how it drives people. So it’s no wonder there’s a link between him and Tennessee Williams, another playwright whose work is redolent of passion. Like Shanley’s works, Williams’ pieces have a distinct sense of place and time, though underlying themes that are timeless. Call it Shanley’s Bronx Gothic to Williams’ Southern Gothic.

Shanley first appeared at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival in 2010. He returns this year, when he will be leading a Master Class, “Scenes from a Screenwriter’s Notebook: John Patrick Shanley: Big Screen

Stories,” Fri., March 22, 1:30-2:45 p.m.; participate in the all-star tribute, “Tennessee Williams in Others’ Words,” Sat., March 23, 8-9:30 p.m.; and the panel, “Influences, Mentors & Proteges: Three Contemporary American Playwrights,” Sun., March 24, 11:30 a.m.-12:45 p.m.
 

When did you first come to New Orleans?

I’ve been to the city quite a few times. The first time I was driving across the U.S.: I drove from New York City to Florida, then took a turn at Interstate 10 to New Orleans. I arrived on a Saturday, stayed at the Soniat House Hotel and had an amazing time.
 

How did you end up coming to the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival?

St. John the Divine Cathedral [in New York City] did an induction [into its American Poet’s Corner] of Tennessee Williams about three years ago. It was a ceremonial night – Eli Wallach and Olympia Dukakis, among others, were there. The organizers asked me to speak and recite something of his work. I said no, but I said I would write something about Williams. The people at the festival liked it so much, they asked me to participate.
 

You once said of Tennessee Williams that he was a “gorgeous unstoppable beast.”

He is one of the greats of the American theater. There is no other playwright that created the same kind of excitement that he did in theater – which also translated into film. It is unprecedented. Such plays as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth and A Streetcar Named  Desire have had, over time, all kinds of influence on American playwriting, acting and film. Who would have thought a play could be a film or think of a film as a play?

Williams used heightened language that transcended all. He wrote about the South that never was, but was of his own inner landscape. He called it into existence for all of us.
 

As a writer and a director, is it hard to see someone else direct your work?

Actually the question is why should the writer direct? I’m a person who has mixed feelings. Why? Sometimes it’s good. Or look at it like this: How many plays or films have not been directed by the writer, and how did they turn out?
 

Doubt, A Parable has been produced as a play, movie and opera. How do these tell that story differently?

It’s like being a visual artist: clay, paint on canvas, charcoal – very different materials are used to express the same story, but each creates a different rendering.

A straight play is a spare thing: you tend to not have many actors on the stage, you want to keep the action economical as possible … today, to keep the attention of the audience. For film, you need to repopulate the story – expand it to its natural size. In Doubt we added the congregation and the students. Opera is very sophisticated music. It doesn’t rely on repetitive phrases, but has a full lexicon of music. You hear what’s in somebody’s soul, hear what they’re thinking.
 

What words of wisdom would you give to the budding playwright/writer?

Let’s talk about the poet. They have superpowers – they can do anything. Poets influenced and include Tennessee Williams … poets influence the other arts – films and plays – and manage to connect it all. They alter perception to life itself.

It’s a wild and beautiful thing.
 

What are you working on now?

Writing a film for Robert Zemeckis.
 

True Confession:

I once cast an ex-girlfriend to play an ex-girlfriend. I then had to apologize for her behavior.

For more information about the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival: Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival March 20-24: TennesseeWilliams.net.

 

At a Glance

Age: 62

Profession: Playwright, director, screenwriter

Resides: Williamsburg, Brooklyn (N.Y.)

Born: Westchester Square Medical Center, The Bronx, N.Y.

Family: Two sons: Nick and Frank. Both are 20 years old. They were adopted four-and-a-half months apart.

Education: High School: Thomas Moore School in New Hampshire; graduated New York University with a degree in theater and was halfway through my Master’s. I ultimately received a honorary doctorate (Doctor of Letters) from NYU.

Favorite book: It varies, but I will say, Crime and Punishment.

Favorite movie: Children of Paradise Favorite TV show: Now, “Homeland”; “Sgt. Bilko” is my favorite in life.

Favorite music: Classical music

Favorite vacation spot: Avignon, France

Hobby: I don’t have any hobbies.

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