Fishing with John Patrick Shanley
I have exactly one story about me and a famous person. He’s not that famous, and I’m not really part of the story. But it’s what I’ve got.
Years ago, I was having a play produced at the Powerhouse Theatre in Poughkeepsie. The theatre also ran a conservatory, and they brought in John Patrick Shanley to speak. Shanley is the author of Doubt, which won the Pulitzer Prize and Moonstruck, which won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
A student asked Shanley how he created characters, and he said that he started by finding something about the character that he liked. “For example,” he said, “I fly fish, and I’m not good at it. But if you saw me doing it you’d like me.”
Later that night I was sitting in a pizza place with the stage manager and some actors. The door opened.
“Oh,” said the stage manager. “That’s John Patrick Shanley. I love him. I was watching him fly fish this afternoon. “
Yes. That is the whole story.
The stage manager wasn’t able to articulate what it was about Shanley’s fishing that was so loveable. The closest she could come was that he wasn’t aggressive about it.
But putting aside the playwright’s ability to simultaneously attract fish and people, it’s an excellent lesson.
If you’ve written a play, you’ve probably had the experience of feeling like you understood a character completely. He or she was easy to write; everything they said made sense. When they said something in a scene, your mouth moved.
But you’ve probably also had the reverse experience, that of having a character in your play who’s tough to write, whose lines keep changing because what they really are are things you need them to say to advance your plot.
That’s when it’s time to follow Shanley’s advice. If you like something about a character, you’re a good way towards understanding them.
There are two lessons here.
1) Find what you love about each of your characters.
2) If John Patrick Shanley passes by holding bait and tackle, follow him.