The Rewrite’s The Thing – A Conversation with Chuck O’Connor

Second in a series of four profiles of the playwrights of the 2013 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays.

Playwright Chuck O'Connor

Playwright Chuck O’Connor

Hey kid! How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, says the old jokester. It may sound like vaudeville, but it stings like truth.

A musician practices and practices and then plays for the public. Writing is the same – only instead of musical scales, the writer practices on story, dialog, character, and plot. The piece changes over time: characters appear, characters vanish, conversations start long and then become short, plot points are reordered, the story is moved from New York to New Prussia – like a doing complex puzzle until the picture is clear.

Is it every really done, though? Ray Bradbury once famously said he can’t read any of his classic books because he wants to start changing things. It’s part of any writer’s process.

In many forms, the process is kept within the writer – held privately over varying amounts of time. Occasionally, a novelist or poet will emerge early and share the work with a few confidants. Playwriting, however, takes iteration to a high extreme.

Writing is rewriting

Writing is rewriting

Actors, directors, dramaturges, and the playwright’s natural instincts shape a work, sometimes over years or decades until the locked production script is on stage. There are examples of plays premiering, having a successful run, then being rewritten before a remount. (Big Fish, for example, having its own dry run in Chicago in spring 2013, will, hopefully, be nothing like the show Broadway audiences will endure… I mean enjoy.)

So when playwright Chuck O’Connor is asked what draft his new play Miracles in the Fall is numbered, he answers, “Somewhere in the hundreds.”

Take note! Anyone who thinks they can just have an idea for a play, knock it out, stick it in an envelope, send it off to a theatre, have it produced, and have it be a hit will either be considered a genius savant or incredibly naïve.

“I started the play in February 2009 and began to share scenes in my writer’s group right away,” tells O’Connor. “I wrote it when I was a member of Will Dunne’s scene-shop class at Chicago Dramatists, so the first version of the play was developed one scene at a time over the course of six months.” The first feedback O’Connor received on a completed draft was in the autumn of 2009, when Dunne gave O’Connor page-by-page feedback. Simultaneously, Margaret Lewis, another playwright in residence at Chicago Dramatists, gave a thorough critique of the play. “I then did rewrites, making changes through my next scene-shop class and another analysis by Margaret Lewis. That took another eighteen months.” After a table reading in May 2012, yet another round of revisions commenced until, at last, O’Connor had the confidence to submit to the Dionysos Cup.

2013 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays

2013 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays

Miracles in the Fall was selected as one of four finalists from a bevy of Chicago plays submitted to Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s annual festival of new works, The Dionysos Cup. This respected fest, now in its seventh year, is a unique opportunity for playwrights to develop their scripts to the highest potential, working alongside directors and casts specifically chosen to represent their world. The fest culminates in two exclusive performances of each of the four plays, where the playwright gets an audience reaction without the pressures of opening night.

“When I was part of another festival last summer that was similar to Polarity’s, I met a great set of writers and actors who recommended the Dionysos Cup. I started following Polarity on Facebook and, when they announced they were accepting scripts, I felt Miracles in the Fall was ready to send.”

Ready was an understatement; the play zoomed through the rounds of judging to earn a well-deserved place as one of four plays to be featured in the event.

Assumption Grotto Parish, 1968

Assumption Grotto Parish, 1968

The story in Miracles in the Fall concerns Clare Connelly, a Dominican Sister in 1968 Detroit. As the caretaker of her alcoholic father and the keeper of her dead mother’s virtue, she is challenged by the indignity of her infirmed father, the confidence of a maverick priest’s intimacy, and the self-crippling family secret revealed upon the return of her prodigal brother. It’s not an easy story and not a typical one, either.

“I’m very surprised I am in the final four,” O’Connor admits. “The writing talent in Chicago is strong. There are a lot of smart people here and the Dionysos Cup is a respected institution. Richard Engling, Polarity’s Artistic Director, has done a great job of making Polarity an attractive place for writers to develop meaningful work. The other writers in the finals have a dedication to their writing that goes back a lot longer than me. I feel honored to be in their company.”

The peer networking is a part of the festival and is invaluable for playwrights. Bringing four directors, four dramaturges, four playwrights, and approximately 40 actors into each other’s world, even for a short time, makes for a creative and social stew that can be very satisfying. The chance of industry people seeing and responding to new work has risk, but also offers a great opportunity to be seen and to learn.

The Detroit Tigers 1968 championship work as a metaphor for survival against improbable odds

Detroit Tigers 1968 championship is a metaphor for survival against the odds.

O’Connor enters this fray with some well-deserved confidence in his play. “Miracles in the Fall has had a lot of support from a variety of talented people. It received a staged reading with The Williamston Theater in Michigan this past October and was selected as part of The Performance Network’s Fireside Festival in Ann Arbor, where it received another reading. I worked with a talented director, John Manfreddi of Etico Productions, in polishing the script further before and after those readings. People I admire for their sensitivity and intelligence have been complimentary of the script. That continues with my partners for the Polarity event: director Josh Sobel and dramaturg Michael Manocchio.”

Working and re-working Miracles in the Fall for nearly three years and facing the potential for more rewrites after the festival, one might suspect that O’Connor is weary of his story. “I didn’t intend for it to be all this work,” he laughs, “but I’ve learned I like rewriting.”

After making Miracles in the Fall all it can be, O’Connor does have plans for other works and fully expects this same cycle to continue. “I’ve been writing another full-length play following the same process. The working title is Madness in a Fine-Tuned Universe. It investigates mental illness as a way of questioning how purpose is created out of incomplete or untrustworthy information. The script has been accepted as a participant in The Fine Print Theater’s 2013 Citizen’s Playwright’s Festival and will get development with selected scenes getting workshop readings in June here in Chicago.”

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Chuck O’Connor is a Network Playwright with Chicago Dramatists Theater. Recent credits include: High Hard Ones (Playwright) – Official Selection Festival of One-Act Plays – Chicago Dramatists, Route 66, 2012 Heideman Award Finalist – National Ten-Minute Play Festival – Actor’s Theater of Louisville; Date of Admission (Playwright) Official Selection Fireside Festival of New Plays – Performance Network Theater, Ann Arbor, Michigan; Miracles in the Fall (Playwright) Official Selection Sceneshop Showcase – Chicago Dramatists Theater; Miscarriage is Murder (Playwright) Official Selection The Fine Print Theater 2012 Citizen’s Playwright’s Festival; The Vanishing Point (Screenwriter) – Official Festival Selection “Dances with Films” Mann’s Chinese Theatre Hollywood, California; HowlRound Theater Commons at Emerson College/Arena Stage (Essayist). He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Arts from Michigan State University and a Master’s Degree from Loyola University-Chicago.

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The Dionysos Cup performances are at 1500 N. Bell Street in Wicker Park. Full festival passes are $10. Individual performance tickets are $5. Showtimes are Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Seating is general admission. Click here to purchase tickets online or call the box office at 800-838-3006.

The Schedule:
Thursday, May 16th @ 7:30pm: Once Upon a Time in Detroit
Friday, May 17th @ 7:30pm: Miracles in the Fall
Saturday, May 18th @ 7:30pm: Witness to an Accident
Sunday, May 19th @ 2:00pm: White America

Thursday, May 23rd @ 7:30pm: Witness to an Accident
Friday, May 24th @ 7:30pm: White America
Saturday, May 25th @ 7:30pm: Once Upon a Time in Detroit
Sunday, May 26th @ 2:00pm: Miracles in the Fall

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