2014 Best New Work: Argos Production's "The Haberdasher! A Tale of Derring-Do" by Walt McGough

Although we have announced our 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award Winners, we continue our Nominee Interview Series. 

NOTE: If you or your production was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in a Nominee Interview, please email us here.

Walt McGough is a playwright to see.  Not only does he fill his plays with the enjoyable tropes of your favorite movies, TV shows, and stories, but he includes clever subtle and overt commentary and reflections on our modern society in each of his plays.  His The Haberdasher! A Tale of Derring-Do was a feast for the mind and eyes.  In his Interview, Walt explains The Haberdasher! and the new play collaborative structure, the best praise that he ever received for his work, and some of his upcoming projects.

Photo by Jonathan L. Green

Photo by Jonathan L. Green

Walt, thank you so much for joining us.  Let’s hear more about who you are, and what brings you to Boston stages.

I’m a playwright, originally from Pittsburgh, PA. I lived in Chicago for a few years, working and starting a company, and then came to Boston to get my MFA at BU. Shortly after that, I started working on staff at SpeakEasy Stage Company, which I’m still doing, and I just kind of fell in love with the city and the theatre here, so the rest is history.

Talk to us about the inspiration for The Haberdasher!  When did you start writing the play?  How did you get the idea?  What other stories inspired you?

The Haberdasher! started off with me wanting to write a big, fun, high-romance adventure, akin to Princess Bride, Three Musketeers and other stuff in that vein. At the same time, I wanted to write a small, scrappy-feeling piece where a small group of actors played a huge cast of characters, which would really let a production team and cast have a lot of fun (the audience, as well).

How would you describe the play?  Give me a sales pitch like you’re marketing for a spot on a prime-time TV network.

It’s a swashbuckling farce about a young French girl who gets embroiled in a ridiculous plot involving a Duke, a burglar, and stolen locket. It wouldn’t make good TV because part of the fun is its theatrical structure: it’s four actors playing about 14 different characters, and features moments like the final battle, in which the characters all start to intersect and actors are having swordfights with themselves.

What kinds of stories are you drawn to writing?  To seeing?  What kinds of stories have no interest for you?

I’m drawn to stories that have familiar structures and styles, but a central viewpoint/dynamic that’s new and surprising. Often, I get there by telling genre stories with female or minority protagonists, and cast a new light on their tropes. I’m very interested in creating narratives that haven’t been told on stage before, and the sad truth is that often the simplest way to accomplish that is to put a woman at the center of the story and honor her perspective.

As an audience member, I love seeing anything that has had a lot of attention and care put into it, has something to say, and takes its audience into account as a part of the experience.

If you could follow around anyone in the world for a day, who would it be?  What would you want them to do?

Do they know that I’m following them? That seems creepy. I guess an astronaut would be pretty fun, but only if there was an extra spacesuit.

What is the best thing that anyone has ever said about your writing?  What is the worst?

Last year, I did a play called Pattern of Life with New Rep about drone warfare. This past fall, we had the chance to perform a section of it at a Boston College conference on drone warfare, and a number of the audience members were current and former drone pilots. A group of them came up to the actors and I after the performance and told us that we had honestly reflected their experiences. That felt pretty great.

I’ve also been pretty lucky in that I’ve very rarely had someone be overly negative about something I wrote, so nothing really bad or juicy springs to mind.

How did The Haberdasher! change during production?  Why?

Before rehearsals, the director, Brett Marks and I, had a lot of meetings just talking about the structure of the play and different opportunities within it. It’s a farce, so a significant amount of it just comes down to the mathematics of building the machine and letting it run. Those conversations yielded some new or rejiggered scenes, as did a pre-rehearsals workshop that we did before auditions. Once we had a cast locked in and rehearsals started, there were lots of little changes throughout, mostly focused on clarifying intentions or helping the logistics of having four actors playing so many characters at one time (costume changes, fight choreography, etc.). Fortunately, all of the actors, the designers and Brett were ridiculously game to try whatever crazy stuff that I’d written into the play. Especial shout-out to Fight Director Angie Jepson, who took a bunch of vague, absurd stage directions and crafted them into whole symphonies of physical comedy.

With what kinds of theatre companies do you choose to collaborate?  What advice would you give to companies looking to engage talented playwrights?  What advice would you give to the playwrights?

I love working with any group of artists that tries to do their best work on each new project. I’m drawn to anyone that collaborates well and brings their own ideas to the table since I’m a big talker and relish the chance to dig into things around the table.

I’d say that any company working with a playwright on a new script should be sure to be as open, honest and collaborative as possible about their intentions. Don’t commit to producing a script on the assumption that it’ll change, and make sure that you love it for the same reasons that the writer does.

For a playwright, I’d say the same thing in reverse: make sure to only work with collaborators who are genuinely excited about the script, and want to help you make it more of what it is and what you want it to be. Also, join the Dramatists Guild and know your rights as a writer.

What do you eat for breakfast?  What is your morning routine?

I’m a big proponent of cereal.  I know that’s going to be a bit controversial, but deal with it, America. My morning routine is generally focused on trying to find the perfect balance between time required to get to work and time spent sleeping in.

What is one thing that you would like to change about the Greater Boston theatre scene in the next year?  What is one thing that you would like to stay the same?

More space, more space, more space. Rehearsal rooms, black boxes, the basements of bars. We need space in order to keep developing as a community, so that young companies can establish home bases in which to grow their audiences and themselves. The thing that I never want to change is how excited, passionate and supportive this whole community is, at every level.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

My play Chalk, which was produced by Fresh Ink last January, goes up into previews in Chicago at the end of this week. It’s been amazing getting to see the same script as part of two completely different processes. After that, I’m working on a Theatre for Young Audiences play called Advice for Astronauts with the Milken School in LA, and writing a few new projects that are still looking for homes.

Do you have anything else to share with our readers?

Only an acknowledgment that nothing about The Haberdasher! would have happened without the amazing cast, crew, and staff at Argos Productions. Brendan Mulhern, Hannah Husband, Kaitee Tredway, Mark Estano and Erin Eva Butcher all poured their hearts, souls and bodies into this completely ridiculous project, and Brett marshaled a true all-star team of designers to make it happen. It was a distinct honor and privilege to have so much love put into something so wacky, and I’m super indebted to all of them.