Writer putting it all together

The production of Scott Elmegreen's Straight in Mexico City. Photos: Supplied
The production of Scott Elmegreen's Straight in Mexico City. Photos: Supplied
Scott Elmegreen has been telling stories all his life, so it’s no wonder he has made a career out of it. The American writer tells Rebecca Fox about the importance of keeping his work diverse.

If Scott Elmegreen knew then what he knows now, staging his first play, a musical, in New York might never have happened.

"I just thought this is what I'll do. I cobbled together all my savings, invested in myself and invited everyone in theatre, producers, agents, anyone I could get a hold of."

Now he knows just how lucky he was that the 29-hour staged reading led to a commission for a new work and an agent.

"I was a young writer with no credits to my name. It's very valuable to put yourself out there as there are people who are eager to help."

Back then he was so green, he did not realise how stressful it should be. He was just giving it a go.

Now he is known for his musical productions for young people (Ivy + Bean, Magic School Bus, Ladybug girl and Bumblebee boy) and his plays, including Straight which was a New York Times Critics' Pick for its "smart, bracing writing brimming with clever wisecracks and thought-provoking observations". It premiered Off-Broadway and has been translated into four languages for productions around the world.

Scott Elmegreen
Scott Elmegreen
It is this play which has brought him to New Zealand and to Dunedin for the Fringe Festival.

Through a Kiwi PhD student he met in the United States, who was now back in New Zealand, it had been planned for Elmegreen to come out to see Dunedin theatre director Jordan Dickson stage Straight and do workshops.

Unfortunately, the staging of Straight has been postponed but Elmegreen decided to come out anyway to do the workshops.

"I thought it would be a great opportunity to get to know Dunedin's theatre scene."

Elmegreen - who lives in Brooklyn, also writes science fiction novels under a pseudonym and composes film and theatre scores - really enjoys collaborating.

"The theatre community is highly-collaboratively orientated. It's creatively satisfying."

He often collaborates with fellow United States writer Drew Fornarola, and Straight came out of the pair being antisocial at a Halloween party.

"We were standing in a corner brainstorming ideas for our next project and within five minutes we'd come up with title, three characters and the end. We stayed up all night. We were so inspired talking characters and full outlines by 5 or 6am we had mapped out the show."

Holding workshops are part of his collaborative approach and he has held them in high schools along the East Coast of the United States.

In the workshops he gives advice on how to develop stories, their characters and how to structure them.

"Often all it takes is a few keys to unlock inspiration."

New writers often looked at a blank page and did not know where to start, Elmegreen says. He suggests writing down 100 ideas they would like to talk about, questions they might like to have answered.

"Then work your way through the list."

Then writers can identify key moments in their story.

"You'll find yourself a starting place, then find the ending, a climatic moment. All it takes is a few simple tricks."

Writer's block can often be the result of needing to look at something a different way, than an excuse to shy away, he says.

Elmegreen often finds a pitfall new writers find themselves in is knowing the answer and wanting to share that with the world.

"Going in with an answer detracts from the creative process. Pitch a question you don't know the answer to, create a character on a different side of the issue and the dialogue will come up."

Elmegreen also writes musical theatre for young people, such as Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy.
Elmegreen also writes musical theatre for young people, such as Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy.
It can be a really effective way to explore a topic or theme, he says.

He often follows this approach at his workshops by getting participants to write a single page of dialogue and share it.

"It's a very fun collaborative process that shakes people out of their shell and gets people talking."

While people often want to know how to get "a break" he does not believe there is any easy set path.

"It's hard to know. My own story was not a straight line."

His mentor, author Joyce Carol Oates gave him a great piece of advice, he said.

"The most important thing is to live life with your eyes open and write from there."

At the time he took that to mean that people were looking for new talent and voices.

However, as he got older he saw it to mean the trick is to get into a room with people of influence.

"The best advice is to not wait for an opportunity to come to you. Put yourself out there and invite people to come into that room."

He says there is no such thing as "wow, I've made it".

"I've found there is no threshold past which you go. You can be on your 12th show and it requires just as much hustling as the first show.

"It's not easy starting from ground zero each time but you do know who you need to work with and can cobble together a team but you are constantly having to prove yourself."

While that might sound harsh, new writers needed to remember that also meant everyone was on the same playing field.

"If you have great story and great characters you've got an equal chance.

"The life is unpredictable but it is also quite an adventure and I'm frequently surprised."

The lifestyle suited people who are willing to be flexible and patient as it often required a number of different projects to be on the go at any one time.

"Most projects find a home. It can take years to get a piece to the theatre, to find the money, the actors ..."

As Elmegreen works across multiple genres he finds much of his days are filled with the practical day-to-day emails and communications of organising shows.

As the saying goes "it is easy to make a killing, hard to make a living", Elmegreen says.

He has done it by cobbling together lots of different projects such as writing novels, plays and musical theatre.

"You have to be a thrifty person - life is not all about money and driving ambition."

Elmegreen also advises young writers not to automatically head to New York.

"People look at New York with stars in their eyes as if it is the be all and end all but I encourage people to be creative wherever home is.

"You can make a difference in the community where you are. The most satisfying projects are ones that make a splash in the community you call your own."

The show 

Developing New Plays, Scott Elmegreen, Dunedin City Library, March 24, 1-4pm. 

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