A Conversation with Playwright C.S. Whitcomb

C.S. Whitcomb discusses her play, “Stoker.”

C. S. Whitcomb has had thirty full-length scripts produced for primetime national television. She has been nominated for the Emmy, W.G.A., Humanitas, Oregon Book Award, Drammy, and Edgar Allan Poe Awards. Her works include Buffalo Girls (miniseries, starring Anjelica Huston, nominated for 11 Emmys.)  I Know My First Name is Stephen (for which she was Emmy nominated.) Mark Twain and Me starring Jason Robards (Emmy, Best Children’s Program.) Whitcomb has created roles for Martin Sheen, Ellen Burstyn, Kevin Spacey, Liev Schreiber,  Linda Lavin, Sam Elliott, Brendan Fraser, and Gena Rowlands. Her 16 plays include Lear’s FolliesThe Seven Wonders of Ballyknock, and Holidazed (the latter with Marc Acito.)  Her website is cynthiawhitcomb.com

I was born theatre crazy.  I loved plays before I’d ever seen one.  I was making plays with my cousins summers and Sundays and doing plays at school from third grade on.

I had seen Henry Irving’s statue in London and had heard about Ellen Terry for decades, but I didn’t realize that Bram Stoker was Irving’s assistant theatre manager until my friend, actor Don Stewart Burns told me about a year ago.  My instant reaction was, “There’s a play there.”  I write plays full time for the last ten years, so I know a good idea for a play doesn’t come along all that often.  I am always grateful and excited when it happens.

In April I emailed Michael Mendelson, the co-founder of Portland Shakespeare Project, some pictures of Irving, Terry and Stoker and told him I was planning to write a play about them.  He said he was intrigued and would like to read the play when it was written.

Every April I take a group of 20 or so writers on a Trans-Atlantic cruise where I teach in the mornings, we write all afternoon, and then after dinner, we read aloud in the evenings.  This past spring those 22 writers got to hear the play “Stoker” on the installment plan over those 3 weeks as I wrote it.  The draft I brought home at the end of the trip was 82 pages.  I expanded it to 100 pages over the next weeks and of course, sent it off to Michael Mendelson.  In collaboration with Steve Rathje and Karen Rathje, they invited me to have the play read at the 2016 Proscenium Live New Play Festival in August.

Since I know local actors, I had written all the roles with specific actors in mind.  I heard their voices.  Saw their performances in my imagination.  Of the five roles, I got four of the actors I had hoped for. And four out of five of the actors were Equity.  And all five were fantastic.  Perfect.

I have had quite a few of my plays read for audiences, but this one was the strongest positive reaction I’ve had for a first read.  People were engaged by the true story.  I hope that many of them went home and Googled these people.  It was an exhilarating night.  I have made a few small changes, but this is almost entirely the same play that was read at Artists’ Repertory Theatre on August 18, 2016.

I had a play produced Off-Broadway when I was young.  It closed in one night and I was devastated by that.  I went back to California and spent the next years writing television and raising children.  In 2007 I switched back to writing plays full time.

Some of the skills from screenwriting translate to the stage.  How to write a scene actors can dig into.  How to write dialogue.  Develop character and story, structure and subplots for example.  But some things are completely different.  A film shows a story unfolding.  In a play, the challenge is keeping the secrets as long as possible before the underlying truths are revealed to the audience.

I taught myself how to write plays primarily by going to plays and reading plays.  I started with one a day in 2007.  I am not quite keeping up that pace now, but I am nearly to 1,500 plays.  I recommend this method.   It’s possible to learn to write good plays without fully understanding how that’s done.  You can do it intuitively.  I do.  I hope you enjoy “Stoker.” I loved creating it.