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Towards Professional Playwriting: An Interview with Dan O'Neil

A Carnegie Mellon graduate discusses the value of his education, and what he's doing now. logo

Dan O'Neil: the man himself (© Katie Rose McLaughlin)

Dan O'Neil received his MFA in Dramatic Writing from CMU last May; I asked about his experience transitioning into the professional world.

THOMAS CONSTANTINE MOORE: What made you decide to enter a graduate dramatic writing program, and what sort of career mindset did the program instill in you?

DAN O'NEIL: I was at a sort of crossroads - I had left a job of five years at a theater due to budget cuts (which happened to a lot of people that year), I was about to get married, I was in my late 20's, and I decided that I needed to invest in a future that would make me happy and utilize my strongest skills. The program, basically, allows you to spend two years behaving as though you are a professional artist among a company of artists. You are supported, you have resources, you have extraordinary output in terms of plays, readings -- something practically every week, which doesn't really happen in the real world. You have rehearsal space, people come see your work, it's sort of a utopia that you pay for. And it builds up your artistic muscles and gives you a taste of what the life could be like, if you can keep your momentum going once you return to the "real world."

TCM: What are you currently doing in New York?

DO: Last night, it took me two-and-a-half hours to get from Williamsburg to Harlem because the L was suspended for an hour due to an investigation. I stuck with it, the subway stop was filled with drunk hipsters, like out of a movie. This girl who had been dancing right at the edge of the platform saw me watching her and came up to me, right up close in my face, took off her headphones, placed them over my ears, and proceeded to sing along to an entire song from memory - and she synced up pretty well, too. The music was Mos Def, I think. She had "Brooklyn" tattooed on the inside of her lower lip. So I'm experiencing things like that, and I have a full-time job that I managed to secure after about three months of looking - which is not playwright-oriented unfortunately, but it pays the bills. I have a couple of smaller shows coming up in March and April, and I'm serving as a dramaturg for David Neumann (Advanced Beginners Group) on his upcoming piece. It's a slow-down from grad school for sure, but I'm slowly building back up to speed.

TCM: What has your overall post-CMU experience with playwriting been like?

DO: Well, it's hard to say, because I'm sort of just beginning it. I had a great summer after graduating. I went to Abingdon, Virginia for a reading there, went to South Carolina for a reading, spent some time in Minneapolis working on a new play. At Barter (in Abingdon) they liked the play enough to put it in their upcoming season, so I'll have this regional production next fall, which is really exciting. I'm feeling grateful for the opportunities that I have upcoming, but also a little bit like, I want more to be going on in New York City. That's been the tougher nut to crack; how to get readings, how to find ways to introduce the natives to your voice and work (outside of getting them to read your stuff, which they will inevitably do with one hand on their Kindle in the subway, which is not the best way to get read.)

TCM: What advice would you give to amateur or student playwrights?

DO: Learn how to execute your ideas. I'm reading plays for a new-play company in town, and in 90% of them, there's this huge gap between the idea (which is generally interesting) and the play itself. Think about plays as though you're an architect. First, you have to envision the building. What does it look like? How is it different than other buildings? Most people can do this part (but that doesn't make you an architect). You also have to build the thing. And it has to stand when you're finished. If it falls down, you have to realize that. You must acknowledge the collapse of your building and build it again or else no one will ever consider paying you to do what you do. That's the difference between an amateur playwright and a professional one, as I see it. Become a builder as well as an inventor.


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