Ellen: Is there a play that made you want to become a playwright? Or any crystallized moment- a production you saw, or perhaps an experience you had - that led you to a life in the theater?
Danny: The first moment I knew this is something I could spend my life doing – well, it’s not really profound. And I suppose there were many smaller moments beforehand. But the one that stands out:
I had just started high school. And in my school, despite being just any ordinary public high school, there was a very old and cranky and almost collegiate method of casting people in musicals. Basically, no matter how good you were, seniority meant more than anything else. Maybe not so different than the real world …
Anyway, in my first year, the school did a production of Into The Woods. I knew nothing of the play except I didn’t get the Prince. Assholes. But then again, I was also quite fat then, and shorter, and very gay (but I wasn’t gay). So it could have been more than my first year status. It doesn’t matter. I didn’t get the Prince and I was pissed cause a blonde pretty all-American upperclassman did. Assholes.
I went to opening night and was even more upset cause everyone sucked. Typical. And the play felt typical – fucking fairy tales. High school. Where was the drama? The Golden Girls had better stories (but I wasn’t gay). Fuck’em, I thought. I was glad to not be in it, I thought. And at intermission I was proud and sad but proud, yep! – I remember eating cheese nachos from the cafeteria, sitting on the curb outside thinking I was better, ha, better … but then I felt fat cause of the nachos … but I still felt better. Better than the start, anyway.
And with a smile of “their loss,” I came back in and sat down for act two.
In five minutes the whole world melted. For those that know the show, this is intentional, of course. But it kept melting. And I was … excited.
And then …
The Baker’s Wife and the Prince went offstage to … screw?? I couldn’t believe it. They let this happen in New Jersey?? THESE parents?
And suddenly the Prince’s clothes came flying onstage from off, and he entered with this beautiful woman who wasn’t so beautiful before the shagging but was really beautiful then with no top - strapped to his post-coital waist with his varsity pecks popping forth more than his B flat ever did (but who cared now!?). And I thought.
Everything: I was aroused; I was confused; I was excited and intrigued and I probably wanted to screw him (I did, but I’m not gay). I wanted to be him.
I wanted to do that. To make a world and then twist it. To be inside a world with rules you make and twist them. Just a little bit. See, the genius of that musical is that Sondheim twisted it – just a little bit. Just a little to make me fall over. And when I stood up again I felt like I was standing … I never felt like standing was something to feel before, like it mattered at all. Suddenly standing felt like flying. Even just for that second. Even just for a fraction of it, I flew from standing.
Cause of that horrible actor and his horribly flat B Flat.
I wanted to screw the Prince in that moment. Which is the first time I felt anything that felt right in my body. Right then and there in front of everyone on the PTA.
And so that pulse became an impulse and now 10 years later I write plays.
Ellen: When did you first start writing?
Danny: I first started writing poetry as young as elementary school. And horror stories. When I was in high school, I was too focused on getting out of New Jersey and getting into Columbia to care about art. But then I got rejected from Columbia and went to NYU.
In my first year at NYU I wanted to make films like Martin Scorsese. I also was heavily into drugs at the time. So I thought everything I wrote was good because I was high. Which it wasn’t at all.
When I finally came out of that funk, in my sophomore year, I started directing Shakespeare, and went with some students to study at the RSC in Stratford. When I returned, I started studying literature and acting full time as a conservatory student at the Atlantic Theater. And somewhere in the duality of being a full-time NYU student and a full-time acting student, I began writing lyrics to musicals in a class at NYU. It was in that class that I was told I had a gift and it was the first time I felt like I could coherently write – like I had something to say.
When I graduated I began writing plays more and more. But it wasn’t until I followed another impulse and began studying with Catherine Fitzmaurice to be a voice teacher that I realized the difference between poetry and playwriting. I realized how to make people feel what I felt when the Prince shagged the Baker’s Wife all those years ago – with sounds. There’s a difference between words and sounds. Just saying the two words – words; sounds - you feel something in your pelvis, don’t you? Sounds make you vibrate. Words tickle your head.
So it all came together not too long ago, actually; my playwriting. And finding the sounds to make stories vibrate keeps getting harder with every story. Which is the fun.
Ellen: And can you tell us a bit about your most recently produced work?
Danny: Recently I’ve been focusing on one-act plays. I love one act plays because I like discovering story at the same rate of speed as the actors and audience, and in a one act, I can do that in a condensed amount of time. I think there is a big problem (for me at least) in thinking of plays as events you plot out beforehand. That is the way you write a screenplay, but not a play. I think this is the main reason our New York audiences are bored and overcharged now. Audiences know what to expect because playwrights write stories instead of impulses; in response, the audience buys tickets to see famous people in stories they know too well, all written as events they’ve seen; not as emotions they want to feel.
This doesn’t mean story is irrelevant. Quite the opposite. But if you know the ending to a story before your write it, the audience will know it in the first five minutes; or care less until they see the Prince’s pecks.
I’ve been focusing on one-act plays because they allow for this simultaneity; that journey and discovery of impulse. They also naturally allow me to explore the power of sound, and how sound informs structure and story, not the other way around. All of my recent plays have a pretty traditional structure or situation that twists. I wonder where this impulse came from …
My recent productions have mostly been of my one-act plays, and also, most recently, of my journey toward trying to transfer those discoveries to larger, full-length canvasses.
Ellen: What do you find most challenging about playwriting, and what do you find most rewarding?
Danny: Like acting, the hardest part about playwriting is letting go. When I start writing I can’t stop. But it’s the letting go that scares me. Of course, that is always the most rewarding part too. Like when the rollercoaster goes over that first big hill … it becomes fun then, and not scary.
I would also say the hardest part (from a practical point of view) is sticking up for myself as a playwright. I naturally want people to feel excited and inspired, and it’s often my downfall, for I’d rather keep my mouth shut about what is right than say to someone, “You’re wrong.” But I don’t think I’m alone here. Playwrights are told that the “buck stops with them” in the theater but it’s not true. We’re living in a director’s world. And that’s not their fault, or a bad thing at all. I love directors. I was one, first, after all. But I was a director first because playwrights aren’t writing with enough control, or passion, or enough to say; playwriting didn’t feel like the best way to say what I wanted to, when I started in the theater. But when I found the sounds, everything changed.
The most important lesson I’ve learned so far in my career is that having something to say means sticking up for what you say. It goes beyond just saying it.
My New Year’s resolution is to let what I have to say bleed into every part of my life. And not apologize for speaking up.
Ellen: What are you currently working on? And what is that process like?
Danny: I am currently developing a massive two-part play called Orchestra. It charts the rise and fall, the birth and after-birth of an orchestra of musicians. In part one, we watch this ensemble of artists in their final performance go through the complete and complex trajectory of a society in confusion, all the while struggling to find words to describe their society’s future. In part two, we experience the final sounds of the failed conductor reflecting on it all - years and years after the orchestra’s final performance in part one.
The play moves from full-on opera with a cast of almost 60 actors in one 90 minute scene, to two characters – the conductor and an interviewer – alone; speaking into microphones for recording; quietly searching.
I aim to do with this play everything I’ve ever wanted to do in theater. I also aim to create a play that expands the role of the young artist/playwright into the role of a citizen. It’s not enough to write about politics, and I’m bored of listening to those that do. Remember, people make politics, and so a pulse is the most political thing there is. For me, it’s not enough to write small anymore. Life’s too big and beautiful to see with a microscope. This next chapter of life is about the world. I want to write about the world.
I’m essentially doing the opposite of everything I’ve ever done. For one, I’m directing my own work (well, directing part one of Orchestra, anyway). I’m also writing part one in the same format as a score – the way a composer would write his music – and letting that disintegrate into a traditional format in part two.
Most important of all though, I’m trying to find the difference between music and playwriting. My hunch is that there is none. And I reckon that’s an important thing to prove.
I guess, in writing this answer for you Ellen – I guess I’m starting to see for the first time the trajectory of it all – why I do what I do and why this new project is what it is. I see that it all comes back to sound and what that means to me, and the relationship sound has to beauty and meaning and feeling. What sound means for living.
When I tell people about this play and my ambition they look at me like I’m young and crazy. As if I’ll fail. That used to make me sad, cause I like people and want them to like me, too.
But now; I smile back. I smile because I don’t know what the word failing means. It sounds like falling. Failing. Falling. And falling sounds like a form of flying. Even for a second. And so at least I can say I flew.
Someone important in my life once told me in an acting scene, when I was having trouble with the part … it was one of the very heterosexual men in David Hare’s Plenty … she said “be what you wish to seem.” In other words, if you want to “seem” like a British general but instead you’re a small gay boy from New Jersey who got aroused by Into The Woods … “be” him. It’s not that hard, she said.
I never understood what she meant. And now suddenly, now that I’m working with those I love for the first time on a piece that is everything I’ve ever wanted to write … I get it; now. It’s not that hard after all; no matter what the obstacles.
Life’s just a word.
Sound it out.
Ellen: Merci mille fois to Danny for his rich, thoughtful answers. I will keep you all posted about his upcoming work, because you have to see it!!! Check out his bio. below; he’s a big deal.
Danny Mitarotondo is the co- founder and former artistic director of The Common Tongue, Inc. (TCT). As artistic director, he directed a series of staged readings of Edward Albee's All Over, culminating at the Linda Gross Theatre starring Marian Seldes and Kathleen Butler, produced world-premiere plays by Lucy Thurber and Wendy Macleod at the Ars Nova Building, a play by award-winning writer Tom Cudworth at the Elephant in Los Angeles, as well as his own play What The Sparrow Said in the New York International Fringe Festival (dir. Jenna Worsham). Sparrow was also produced this summer in Hanoi and will be produced again in Romania this spring (dir. Shannon Fillion). Danny’s plays have been produced across Manhattan, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Ars Nova Building, Theater for the New City, and Teatro Circulo. An interdisciplinary artist interested in bridging the gap between playwright and producer, Danny is also an Associate Teacher of Fitzmaurice Voicework, an Edward F. Albee Writing Fellow, a graduate of the Atlantic Acting School and New York University, and is currently a Master of Fine Arts grant recipient at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.