I’ve been writing so long, because it’s a rush, plain and simple . . .
I first met Vincent Delaney, when he submitted his play T or C to the Virtual Theatre Project’s The Pen is a Mighty Sword, new play competition and won. The play examines the tragedy of school shootings from a different perspective and does so with great compassion and humanity. The play resonated within me and still does. I would still like to produce T or C; it is perhaps more pertinent today than when Vincent wrote it.
Kim Terrell: Why did you originally write T or C?
Vincent Delaney: We were expecting twins that summer, and I was dealing with the terror of parenthood—finding all kinds of ways to experience fear. I remember becoming obsessed with the idea of loss. I started to think that maybe the greatest terror wasn’t losing a child, but realizing you’d never really known him. That led me to some rather manic research into the event at Columbine; I read the extant diaries of the shooters and interviews with their parents, which were both heartrending and maddening. I ended up with a play that focused on this kind of tragedy from the parents’ point of view. A crazy place to go when you’re about to have children.
Kim Terrell: If I remember correctly, you started out as an actor. How did you happen to switch to writing?
Vincent Delaney: I was in a conservatory acting program at the age of 19, but even then I felt tugged in different directions. When I was acting, I often felt like I was missing something, and when I was writing plays, I had the same sense of absence. It drove me crazy for quite a few years. Trying to straddle both definitely didn’t work for me, so in some ways, there was no solution. But in my mid-thirties, I finally realized that what kept me up all night, frantic and obsessive, was the writing—not the acting. It was a great relief to finally have that clarity. I was able to keep acting quite a bit, but not as a primary focus, and this probably improved the acting.
Kim Terrell: James Baldwin once said, “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers. That’s why I write.” Why do you write?
Vincent Delaney: I love complex characters. I love tension; I love surprise. I want each play to exist in its own stylistic universe, and I don’t really know the shape of it until I get there. I’d say the things that guide me most are place and voice. There are a lot of reasons to feel despair in this business: competition, frustration, self-doubt. But I’ve been doing it so long, because it’s a rush, plain and simple. I feel really, really good when I write, physically too, not just emotionally.
Kim Terrell: What gives you the most joy with respect to writing?
Vincent Delaney: The joy comes from the rush of creation, the unexpected surprise of a new scene, a new voice taking over and pushing the play in a new direction. I wish I could feel that way all day long. Also, coming back to a piece later on and finding even better moments. And working with great actors who take over and fight their corners and know the role better than I do. That’s as good as it gets for me.
Kim Terrell: Do your characters ever surprise you with answers on how to get what they want?
Vincent Delaney: I tend to be more surprised at how often they act against their own interests. It’s not something I completely understand, but it does seem to be a common thread in my work.
Kim Terrell: What is your biggest challenge?
Vincent Delaney: The biggest challenge these days is time, which is beyond precious with three young kids at home. But even that has led to some electric 90-minute sessions, when I know that’s all I’m going to get that day.
Kim Terrell: What do you think about hour by hour, day by day? How does your thinking impact your writing? How does your writing impact your thinking?
Vincent Delaney: I spend a lot of time thinking about my kids, watching them grow, learn, make decisions, become such strong personalities. I think a lot about how personality must be innate, given how distinct and powerful it becomes. But I also think about how we live, where we live, how we relate to our children, the choices we make. I suppose all of that is part of the playwriting ferment, even though I’m not really setting out to write generational plays. I do think that becoming a parent has extended my creativity by several orders of magnitude.
Kim Terrell: What have you learned from your children?
Vincent Delaney: That personality is a fierce, insistent, utterly unique force, which seems to spring wholly formed from some unknown space. I don’t understand the whole Nature vs. Nurture debate at all anymore. It seems much more likely that there really are souls floating wholly formed in limbo, just waiting for bodies. I think every parent ends up a bit shocked by the force and power and uniqueness of their kids’ personas—having three young kids with such distinct, indelible souls has really made us see that.
Kim Terrell: Who are some of the people who have influenced you and your writing over the years?
Vincent Delaney: My original mentor in grad school, Ted Shank, is a tireless advocate for plays and playwrights. He’s always made me feel just how special the work is, and how much we can and should give to it. It’s the same with Polly Carl of Howl Round, who lives for new plays—to such an extent that she’s created an entirely new language and way of thinking about creativity in theater. And the New York director Roger Danforth of the Drama League, whom I’ve known for 24 years, has been nurturing and demanding in ways that have made me a better artist. Also, I also admit to an 18-year debt to my wife, who is the most intuitive and articulate dramaturg I’ve even known. She’s the first reader of everything I do, because she sees so well and has no fear of being honest.
Kim Terrell: Recently you wrote a screenplay. How is writing for the screen different than writing for the stage?
Vincent Delaney: I think it’s vastly more difficult. Before last fall, I would have said there’s no art involved in screenwriting, and I would have been an idiot. You’ve got a million more choices you can make on every page, and that amount of choice is in itself an essential threat to the story you want to tell.
Kim Terrell: What do you like most about theater, and what about film?
Vincent Delaney: With theater it’s about the community and shared risk—taking the plunge together. If you do it right, no one’s the same at the end of the evening. With film (in my very limited career so far), it’s about skill and technique and using all the tools without getting sidetracked by them.
Kim Terrell: Someone once told me that writing for theater is about creating imagery with words, whereas writing for film is about using words to subtitle imagery. What are your thoughts on that?
Vincent Delaney: I have profound respect for the economy and narrative power of film, especially after having been put through an intense round of rewrites on my own film. I think the great ones never lose their powerful actions, even in moments that seem deceptively simple and imagistic. It’s either active and pushing the narrative forward, or it’s not likely to make the final cut. Things don’t have to be quite as ruthlessly economical in theater.
Kim Terrell: Isaac Newton said, “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” I like the above quote as Newton ponders who he is. Who are you when you write?
Vincent Delaney: I’m running the show… but mainly the show is running me. I do a lot of muttering, whispering the dialogue out loud, slapping the keyboard, that kind of stuff. I’m not thinking about the larger issues—that’s for sure. I’m letting the voices go at each other for as long as I can stay out of their way. Then later, I get to step outside and edit like crazy. That’s an entirely different set of muscles and a different kind of pleasure.
Kim Terrell: As an artist, do you think that you have a role to play in society?
Vincent Delaney: I imagine it could be detrimental to one’s work to start thinking about fulfilling your role instead of telling your story. If we’re embracing the very real doubts in the world all around us, if our characters are true in the sense of wanting but not knowing how, then I think the strength of the journey takes over. So I guess I’d say we have a responsibility to tell the truth—which is different for each artist.
Kim Terrell: How does the world of technology impact your work?
Vincent Delaney: I’m generally mistrustful of technology in theater. We’re already unconsciously emulating other media, right down to the way we structure our scenes. I’m much happier in a room with an audience and a story and strong actors—nothing more.
Kim Terrell: What interests you most these days?
Vincent Delaney: I keep coming back to the nature of humanity—both social as well as evolutionary. Watching the social fabric in our country tear apart in the past 14 years has been terrifying. I think most of the time we don’t realize how bad thing have gotten, and how much it affects each of us every day. There are food banks all around my city, and for most of us, they’re invisible.
In the post Edward Snowden world, we all know personal freedom and privacy are essentially illusions, yet we go through our routines as if we still had them. We’ve come to understand that not only is the NSA privy to every cell call, every email, and every text we send, they’re snooping on us with the complete cooperation of American corporations like Google and Facebook. The fact that we’re not as completely outraged by this as the rest of the world is says something about our priorities. I think this is a world-view that’s aching to be explored artistically.
I write about how we survive with each other, when on some level, we all know there’s no security for any of us. It’s led me to write plays about the housing crisis, but also into dystopias about breeding new kinds of people—about what it essentially means to have our humanity threatened.
Kim Terrell: What takes your breath away?
Vincent Delaney: Just being a member of this incredible family, with three young kids starting their journey, is an amazing thing. Getting to relive the simplest excitements through their eyes changes everything. It’s probably made me a better artist, and it’s definitely taking my breath away on a daily basis.