Interview with Playwright David E. Tolchinsky

David E. Tolchinsky

We talked to David E. Tolchinsky about his new play “Clear,” his advice for young writers, and how teaching informs his writing. 

What was your inspiration for this play?
I was thinking about ambivalence. What is it exactly? To like something and not to like something at the same time. And I was thinking about clarity, that I’d like to be clear in my own life and writing. And I was wanting to write something contained and therefore cheap to produce, with no special effects, no flying demons or giant stadium crowd scenes or implications of child abuse, elements that have led some of my earlier screenplays to attract interest from all kinds of studios, producers, and directors, but at the same time have made them difficult to get produced.

Also, my dad was a psychiatrist and a professor of psychiatry (see my essay and play “Where’s the Rest of Me?” for more about him) so we’d have a lot of psychiatrists hanging around at the house when I was a kid. So while not an inspiration for this particular play, in general psychiatrists tend to show up in my work.

What do you want the audience to come away with?
To quote Maximus (as written by David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson) after he slaughters a bunch of guys in Gladiator: “Are you not entertained?” And after they’ve been entertained, I want audience members to talk about the play, to think about it, to dream about it, for it to burrow into their brains like some kind of hideous parasite. But if they’re just engaged and not bored for 90 minutes, then great, I’m happy.

Much of your play is shrouded in mystery and ambiguity. What was your goal in leaving aspects of this play open-ended? 
We just had a preview screening of The Coming of Age, the screenplay I was commissioned to write for Fork the Man Productions, and someone in the audience asked me the same question. Am I detecting a pattern in my writing?

I intended to write something contained, but I didn’t intend to write something open-ended. I just tried to amuse myself, to write something that would be cool to see, to create interesting twists and turns. Along the way, maybe I left out the boring parts (too little conflict, what I’ve seen before, something stupid and on the nose or what I couldn’t stand to write for whatever reason). And maybe I’m a little more interested in questions than I am in answers. The first half of horror movies is always the part I like best because the first half contains suffering people who think they’re going crazy or dying from a strange medical ailment. The second half contains what is usually a dumb, disappointing answer that we’ve seen before – demonic possession or angry ghost or pissed off the house or alien or whatever. (Although a few horror movies do have awesome and unexpected answers.)

Thinking more about your question: Ironically (or maybe not), what I teach mostly at NU is story structure – four-act structure, mythic structure, sequence structure, scene structure, beginning, midpoint, dark moment, and ending. But, the movies that affect me the most are the ones where the structures do not easily reveal themselves and are similarly open-ended. Mulholland Drive comes to mind and so does Ju OnJu On didn’t really affect me while I was watching it, but it gave me nightmares because on the surface it didn’t make any sense. My brain had to keep rolling it around.

So maybe in some cases it’s better to imply than to state. Leave the audience to fill in/discuss/dream. And Clear is about scraping past the conscious mind and defenses to the unconscious, so it makes sense that the play is open-ended because the unconscious is open-ended. Similarly, in The Coming of Age, a woman is slowly suffering from dementia: does it make sense to have such a movie make too much sense? Shouldn’t the form reflect the content? That is, as the character loses her mind, shouldn’t the movie? So linear becomes non-linear, pieces start to be missing.

As a side note, my colleague Rebecca Gilman read my play and asked: do you know Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman? I didn’t, but luckily Redtwist Theatre – everything I’ve seen at that theatre is great by the way – was running it. I felt like I was . . . home. Interrogations, mysterious characters, memories, dreams, and you’re not quite sure what it all means. But you feel the feeling. And you’re into it until the very last moment. And you’re thinking and talking about it afterward. And even if you can’t articulate it, you know there’s some kind of logic at work. So The Pillowman didn’t influence me since I saw it after I wrote Clear, but it definitely told me it’s okay to leave things open for interpretation.

Anyway, to me, Clear is clear – I understand why everything happens and what it all means, but I understand that to audience members, it may not be completely clear and the play may feel open-ended. And by the way, I should say I think I understand what it all means, but it’s usually someone else – my wise spouse and sometime collaborator Debra Tolchinsky, for example – who tells me what a particular screenplay (and now play) is really about – and usually, it’s hard to take because there’s some ugly truth in there I wasn’t aware of.

What projects are you working on now?
Currently, I’m co-creating a film-based installation/performance/lecture series about historical and new radical therapies entitled: Wilhelm Reich: An Attempt to Heal in the Modern World. Dan Silverstein, artist and Associate Director of Collections and Exhibition Management at Northwestern University’s Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art, is responsible for the sculptural aspects, including fabricating an interpretation of an orgone accumulator. Melika Bass is creating a film for the project. Debra Tolchinsky is curating. I’m writing something to perform in the space of the installation – a play? A monologue? Who knows, but it will involve a protagonist suffering from some kind of illness; even though his medical tests are normal, he just doesn’t feel right, he knows that something is terribly, terribly wrong. He finds little help from talking cures or other conventional therapies. Desperate, he encounters psychologist Wilhelm Reich in a dream — there is something compelling about Reich’s claims that all health and illness stem from “orgone energy,” that he is suffering from armoring caused by blocked orgone. But then he encounters Reich’s detractors – Sigmund Freud, a former female patient, and an FDA agent, all who question Reich’s theories, ethics, and sanity. Indeed, according to Reich, orgone is not just in the body but is responsible for movement in Petri dishes formerly thought to be bacteria, the blue in the daytime sky, and all matter in the universe! Our protagonist is forced to probe his own beliefs about Reich and his subjective sense of his mental and physical health.

Anyway, I’m excited to see how it turns out and how the space of the installation adds meaning to what I write and vice versa. And I’m excited to see how it stands on its own, produced at a more traditional venue at a later date. And I’m excited about the questions the overall project is meant to raise for our audience members:  How do I think about my own relative health and illness and what constitutes health and illness in the modern world? Ultimately, how do we examine radical new theories with a critical yet open perspective?

Along the same lines, in the spring, Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre is hosting a night of plays around the idea of health and illness in the modern world as part of their incubator series. I’m cocurating the three-week run with awesome playwright/NU RTF lecturer Brett Neveu. We’re including my play Where’s the Rest of Me?, as well as new plays by Brett, Lisa Dillman, Shannon Pritchard, Grant Varjas, and Marisa Wegrzyn with regards to visions of healing in unexpected ways; strange modern illnesses (mysterious or ignored or illnesses where doctors say there’s nothing wrong); explorations of alternative, unexpected healing/therapies; unexpected healers; unexpected patients; psychiatrists; suicide; phobias; and movies.

Finally, I’m doing tweaks on my latest horror/thriller feature screenplay, Cassandra (what – the same name as the character in Clear?). I’m going to direct a 10-minute short based on the screenplay and then the feature itself. I’m working step by step as I gather resources. This script is giving me nightmares while I’m working on it. Scary, scary stuff coming out of my brain!

And of course, I’m chairing Northwestern University’s Department of Radio-TV-Film and running our MFA in Writing for Screen+Stage. Both fun and challenging.

What playwrights inspire you?
Martin McDonagh. The Pillowman as mentioned above, but before that, I saw The Cripple of Inishmaan performed by the Atlantic and Druid Theater Companies in 2008. It was like I finally understood what all those people who loved theatre were talking about–ironic and hateful and then emotional and sweet, turn after unexpected turn. Up until that point, I was mostly a dedicated movie guy, although in college as a composer, I was also deep into experimental music, avant-garde, and performance art. And in grad school, I was making films that seemed like documented installations, but I never was into or knew much about what most people think of as theatre.

Colleague Thomas Bradshaw, for being disgustingly playful and making us laugh even when we don’t want to. His play Mary is brilliant. Carlyle was even better.

Colleague Zayd Dohrn, for taking us into dark and disturbing worlds, for forcing us to think. His plays Sick and Reborning in particular are profound.

Rebecca Gilman –  Luna Gale should have gotten the Pulitzer. The way Rebecca rotates through scenes, in a theatrical yet hyper-real way. The way she tackles social issues head-on, with humor and a heart.

Doug Wright – I Am My Own Wife (which did get a Pulitzer – the world worked as it should) blew me away in the same way that The Pillowman did – what? This is what theatre can be? The author can be a character in his own play? What?

Sarah Kane – Blasted.

Henrik Ibsen.

Kenneth Lonergan.

And somewhere between writing and performance:
Key & Peele – I appreciate the smart way they use comedy to probe race and relationships.
Spalding Gray. A great loss. . .
Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Tina Fey.

And I just re-watched the film Dirty Dancing written by Eleanor Bergstein.  I don’t know Bergstein’s playwriting, but her screenwriting in this film is fascinating, with a lot going on in terms of sexuality, class, Judaism, race (in the background, but there) and of course adolescence. Insightful and tricky. And oh yeah, there’s some great dancing too.

Why did you start writing plays?
Because Rebecca Gilman told me to.  I tend to do what people tell me to do. And maybe I started to write plays because cool playwright Wendy MacLeod, who we had come as a visiting artist to NU many years ago, made me a list of plays to see.  And then Rebecca, Zayd, Thomas, and my other colleagues gave me more great plays to read or see and soon I realized theatre, rather than being unbearable torture, could be as fun, disturbing, and profound as movies. Anyway, other than the Ibsen plays I had seen in college which were pretty great, most of the theatre I had seen was bad.  I will say though I still hate that I can’t make snarky asides during live theatre, which is hard for a moviegoer like me who likes to offer up annoying commentary along the way. I also hate when actors look at me, talk to me (hey, Bald Guy! Yeah you!) or sit on my lap.  The fourth wall is a pretty good thing.

What kind of theatre excites you?
Theatre-making is all new to me, so recently, directing my own short play Where’s the Rest of Me? excited me. It was like magic – four actors up there on a stage with a movie screen behind; suddenly we were in a different world/different space/some of the audience was laughing and/or crying, and honestly and unexpectedly so was I. It was like a dance and a dream and a personal catharsis. P.S. You should cast my lead Greg Peace in your next play – you won’t be sorry.
What advice do you have for playwrights starting out?
Be fearless. Be persistent. Be a nice person in real life, but be a total monster in your writing. Write monsters. Write monstrously. Write the scene you can’t see in real life but it would be great to see. Write a dark wish. Write something that will change the world. Write something that you get up in the middle of the night to reread. And reread and reread. And don’t let the bastards get you down. And I like what Thomas Bradshaw said to me (paraphrasing): “Dave, you just got to get these plays up.  Don’t wait. Just do it yourself if you have to. You’ll learn as you go regardless of the result.” I also like what Rebecca Gilman said: “Dave, be careful; you only have one premiere. Make sure it’s something you’re proud of.” Both are paradoxically right. Writing is built on such dichotomies that you — and your characters — have to negotiate. Conflict always conflicts.

And I’d give young playwrights starting out the same advice I give our MFAs: find a creative community to support you and think about art. Why are you writing what you’re writing? Why is your writing important? Think about craft and think about business (not a dirty word) including how to talk about you and your work. Learn transportable writing skills like character and conflict and, yes, structure — whatever that means to you — so you can ask interesting questions: am I a playwright? Maybe I’m a TV writer.  Maybe I’m both. The story I’m writing – is it a play? Maybe it’s a pilot? Maybe it’s a screenplay or a radio play or a monologue or videogame or an installation with performance elements. Maybe it starts out as one but depending on creative and business opportunities becomes something else. Be open and be ready.

And I’d tell a playwright who’s starting out, if it feels right: apply to my MFA program. I’m very proud of the faculty we’ve gathered together – the playwrights mentioned above (all of them also TV writers and/or screenwriters; clearly, we practice what we teach) as well as our other cool writers (Bill Bleich, Erik Gernand, Kat Falls, Mia McCullough, Laura Schellhardt, and Zina Camblin), and our cool filmmakers and our cool screen cultures/performance studies/theatre scholars.

And regardless of the outcome (the program is competitive): keep writing, keep pitching, keep applying to as many opportunities as you can (each time you do, you learn to talk about your writing and yourself in a new way), keep knocking at the door, and if one door doesn’t open, find another one that may or ignore the door altogether and just do it yourself, whatever that “it” may be, however you can. This is what I teach. This is what I practice.

You founded Northwestern’s MFA program for Writing for Stage and Screen and are Professor and Chair of the Department of Radio/Television/Film. How has your time as a professor influenced your own writing? 

Because I teach writing, I think a lot about my process and craft and my students tell me things about the craft I never would have thought of, so I keep learning more and more. But the more I know and teach the more I don’t want to know, the more I want to forget. I used to plan out my writing with detailed outlines. Now if I just know four structural points or even just the ending, I’m ready to go and write. This thing I’m writing now about psychologist Wilhelm Reich – as I said above, I don’t know if it’s going to be an essay, a monologue, a play, or maybe a hybrid movie/play, and that’s OK. Letting it go where it wants to go. Not planning too much, letting my characters and the voice of the piece tell me. The latest draft of my feature, Cassandra, is the best I’ve written because I threw away the outline and just let it go, waited for the scenes to come while I walked, while I dreamed, etc. That’s another piece of advice – writing happens in odd places and times while walking, taking showers, staring at the wall, or watching a bad movie; the computer is usually not where you get your best ideas.  And while often we work on deadlines (especially when doing writing for hire or when in school), sometimes our best writing happens when we have the time to put drafts away or let the writing come slowly. So I try to balance having some work that needs to be done with a particular deadline in mind, some work I let just percolate.

Less directly answering your question:  I’ve been running this MFA since 2005; at the same time, it’s like I’ve been enrolled in an MFA, being educated in a whole new art form.  So besides being infected with the impulse to write plays, I’m sure my screenwriting has been influenced as well but I really don’t know-how. Similarly, I don’t know if my writing is influenced by my students, but I’m definitely inspired by my students (undergrads and grads) and by what they’re achieving now as alums. To name just a few —  Dave Holstein (staff writer, The Brink), Jen Spyra (former writer for The Onion and now staff writer, Late Night with Stephen Colbert), Eoghan O’Donnell  (creator of The CW’s The Messengers), Marisha Mukerjee (staff writer,  Heroes Reborn), Sarah Gubbins (playwright, The Kid Thing), Erik Gernand (playwright, The Beautiful Dark), Andy Miara (former head writer, The Onion News Network; writer, several Comedy Central pilots) and J. Ryan Stradal (author of the New York Times best-selling novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest). Two of my students were recently picked by Variety as “film students to watch.” Several of my students have formed a cool theatre company here in Chicago.  Anyway, on and on – too many to talk about here. But inspired by them all.

Finally, I’m so busy with my NU commitments, I’ve had to learn to write whenever, however, wherever. So how I write probably influences what I write.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I’d like to thank Debra Tolchinsky, Raisa Tolchinsky and Zane Tolchinsky, who inspire me with their own artistic creations, who put up with me and my evil little stories, who realize you can write evil stories without being evil, who give me invaluably honest, sometimes painful feedback, who put up with my intense ghostliness when I’m lost in some story and especially when it’s not going well. I also want to thank writers Charles Harmon, Taras Otus, Ron Ward, and David Bradburn (who directed The Coming of Age) for making time to read my screenplays and now plays and for giving me great feedback. And I want to thank Brett Neveu for arranging a reading of the play at A Red Orchid Theatre; I’ve definitely incorporated the feedback that came out of that experience.

David E. Tolchinsky is the Chairman of Northwestern University’s Department of Radio-TV-Film and Founder/Director of Northwestern University School of Communication’s MFA in Writing for Screen+Stage. Some of his work centers on teen subcultures, particularly in relation to social decay. He is also interested in horror, mental illness, and psychiatrists. He has been commissioned by such studios as Touchstone/Disney, MGM, and Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Pictures to write screenplays, and his feature film Girl (screenwriter, associate producer) is distributed by Sony. He has designed the sound for interactive computer environments and video installations seen internationally and was nominated in 2003 for a Motion Picture Sound Editors Guild Golden Reel Award for his sound design for Dolly. He has co-curated gallery exhibits including The Horror Show in 2009 at Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs in New York City which explored horror in film, video, installation, photography, sculpture, and painting and which was featured as a “Voice Choice for Art” in The Village Voice and on their blog, and which was accompanied by a 32-page catalog. He co-produced Debra Tolchinsky’s 2011 feature documentary, Fast Talk which investigated the accelerated speed of argumentation in college debate and which is available on iTunes. More recently, he published “Where’s the Rest of Me?” a reflective essay about Spalding Gray and monologue writing in Paraphilia Magazine and cocurated The Presence of Absence sponsored by the Contemporary Arts Council at Hairpin Arts Center, Chicago. Most recently, he was ranked #14 on New City’s Film 50: Chicago’s Screen Gems 2013, was the recipient of a 2014 Illinois Arts Council Artist Fellowship in Literature (Poetry, Prose, Scriptworks) and made his premiere as a playwright and theatrical director at the 2015 Strawberry One-Act Play Festival, Hudson Guild Theatre, New York City, with Where’s the Rest of Me?, an adaptation of his essay. His play was nominated for Best Play and he was named Best Director. He is a graduate of Yale (BA, magna cum laude) and USC School of Cinematic Arts (MFA). Read more at